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About Literature / Professional Steen Engel BelhageMale/Denmark Recent Activity
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All this walking forced him to realize that he may have spent a little too much time in his office. Sweat rolled down his beautiful smooth skin, leaving it glistening in the light of the noon sun. The wind ripped and howled up here, up the mountain slope, where patches of snow speckled the hard and rocky ground. He had tied up his long, golden mane into a ponytail to keep it under control, and he would have dressed himself in warmer clothing, had it not been tradition to wear these ceremonial garbs, at times like these. That being said, he was rather fond of them. Elegantly knitted velvet with silver buttons ran up the side of his chest-—purely ornamental, of course. Creamy white dominated the outfit, but slashes of gold ran across the shirt and all the way down to the tip of his shoes. It was an outfit that was only worn once every age, yet somehow it always seemed to fit those who wore it—-some called it magic, others called it divine will. There was no doubt there was some divinity about this whole thing; he was littered in their marks, after all.
On his right hand glove, was the mark of Lyrras, the god of life—-and on his left, the mark of Morrin, death. He figured there was some kind of symbolism here, that he was meant to use his hands to give life as well as death. On his left shoe was the mark of Jullix, goddess of beauty—-and on his right, the mark of Hrumalz, god of war. This, he figured, was meant to show that he would bring beauty wherever he tread, but that he would not hesitate to stomp on those who would dare to oppose him. He rather liked that symbolism, in fact. And then there was the particularly large mark of Keyen, right in the middle of his chest. This was spoke for itself, Keyen being the goddess of good luck and fortune. He was meant to bring fortune and wealth and good times to the people, after all. And if everything went as planned, he would.

He had lost count of the steps, by now. Legend said that there was more than a thousand of them, but he couldn't recall anyone ever counting them. His legs were sore and his heart pounded furiously in his chest, but he did his utmost best not to show it. It was undignified—-embarrassing, even. Of all the times he could show weakness, this was undoubtedly the worst of them all. And the audience certainly wasn't helping.

He tried not to look them too much in the eyes. Tradition, again. He just kept walking up the stairs that slithered up the mountainside like a petrified snake, and while doing so, he began to realize why pilgrims often were in such good shape. All the people of Godshill had gathered here this day, on the mountain slope upon which the city was built, all just to see him climb these thousand steps. They stood in two long, snaking lines around the staircase, heads bowed and eyes in the ground, seeming so horribly dismayed. Butchers, hunters, bakers, the whole ordeal. The death of Magnus had shook the city hard, and the look on their faces made all that very clear. If only they knew. If only they knew who they were about to make king.

The sky above was clear, clouds blown far away by the hard mountain winds, and the sun was at a high. Even though the air was cold with the touch of northern frost, the height of the sun seemed to do a perfectly good job at making this trip a painfully tiring one. With fists clenched and eyes always kept on the steps he was about take, he struggled to keep breathing through his nose, rather than panting for the life of him, as he so much desired. However, mere minutes afterward, he found himself whispering a silent prayer of thanks, as the end came into sight.

Seen from his office window, the Angel's Ascent was a gorgeous thing, but it was even prettier this close. Sheer white marble glimmered like a piece of heaven fallen to earth, carved into the shape of a chapel. It stood there on the edge of the massive cliff that hung over Godshill like an arm reaching out from the mountainside, with nothing but a short steel fence standing there to prevent pilgrims from meeting their gods too soon. The drop was dizzying, and the hard winds up here did nothing to quell the vertigo. Long veins of deep blue and red slithered through the stone, and legend was that there was a color for every spirit in the heavens; and every time a new spirit was born, a new vein appeared in the marble, somewhere. The great doors stood perpetually open, always, never closing; a symbol of hospitality, he figured. What with pilgrims climbing these steps every day to pay their respects to gods, spirits, and ancestors, closing the door for merely an hour would surely cause quite the riot. With doors like these, so heavy that it would need several men to close just one of them, he had decided that it just wasn't worth the effort anyway.

In the doorway, stood a rather familiar face. Somewhat, at least. Wrinkled and old, dressed in porcelain white robes and a tall, proud hat, Bishop Quintus was a man of renown indeed. His title was one thing, very impressive of course, but Quintus had made quite a name of himself after he had torn out his own eye, claiming that seeing eye saw man and mortals, while the blind eye saw gods and heavens. With one eye gone, he claimed that he now saw both. This was several years ago, and at that point, Lucius hadn't thought that you could ever win a promotion by tearing out your own eye. Quintus was a proof of the opposite.

“Come closer, child.” Quintus held out both arms to Lucius, his hands gaunt and bony and his wrinkled face wrought in ceremonial grief “Come closer, to the floors of marble heaven, and the winds of gods' breath. Come closer and step into the shade of the sanctuary where no evil can reach; where the fountain of respite wells true for every man; where our bygone king now does sleep.”

Lucius knew the ceremony quite well. Quintus was supposed to say all this, and Lucius was supposed to say nothing-—so that's exactly what he did. He approached Quintus, who was a rather short man by himself, but his hat served to compensate. The two stared into one another's eyes in silence for a few seconds-—it was in times like these that Lucius was thankful for what Quintus had done, so that those he spoke with wouldn't need to go through the awkwardness of trying to focus on two eyes at the same time. Quintus wore a patch over his absent eye, and on that patch, all five symbols of the gods were etched into the leather. More symbolism, probably. This day sure was full of that stuff, Lucius saw.

“Under the light of heaven, an age has passed. Under the light of heaven, a great soul has transcended from this world, and joined the gods above-—and under the light of heaven, another great man shall take his place!” Quintus raised his arms high as if speaking to the gods themselves, and the audience that had gathered around the entrance of the Angel's Ascent turned their gazes heavenwards, several of them with hands interlocked in prayer.

“Kneel now, Lucius Pius Deum, and let the gods judge you. Kneel now, and let the word of this day resound throughout the ages, so the world may know whether you be worthy... or not.” Quintus said the last word with a theatrical sense of dire, and some dread seemed to drift across the faces of the audience, at the mere mention of the chance that their coming king might not be fit for the throne. Lucius glanced upwards, to the cloudless sky. Who was really up there, he wondered, and did they really care this much about who called themselves king in this realm of mortals. He took in a long breath. He knelt.

Quintus' hands on his shoulders felt like the emaciated touch of a malnourished beggar—hardly even more than a skeleton. Quintus was such a fragile man, and sometimes Lucius wondered if the winds up here wouldn't one day just sweep him away, and put an end to the man. He stood in the shelter of a nearby marble pillar, but his porcelain white robes swayed and danced in the strong mountain gusts. Lucius wasn't much for kneeling... but tradition was tradition, and he knew he wasn't going to be popular if he made any changes to that.

Quintus' eye shut slowly. Perhaps this was so that he could see the gods with both eyes, instead of just one. The audience quieted down, and for a moment, it seemed almost as if the wind did as well. Quintus' bony fingers tapped slightly on Lucius' shoulders, and incoherent muttering spilled from his mouth. His lips twitched a little, before they spoke.

“Lucius Pius Deum. The gods have seen you. The gods have felt you. The gods have weighed you upon the scale of heavens, and have judged you through and through. With eyes that see more than flesh, with fingers that caress your very soul, the five divines have come to an agreement. Spoken by their voice, I hereby declare you...” Lucius could feel the dagger-sharp stares of the audience behind him, so eager, so tense. Lucius had to confess to a little tension himself, with a heart pounding just as hard as when he ascended those steps. He closed his eyes, and considered praying. But what help would that be, in a situation like this?

“...Worthy.”

Lucius' heart twisted for but a second, but relaxed as he realized the judgment. Relief swept throughout the audience like a wave of warm water, soothing and washing away any doubt they may have held for him. Some of them looked to the skies and gave thanks to those above, while others began to applaud. But whatever they did, there was not a single one who didn't smile.

“The gods have spoken!” Quintus raised both voice and arms to the crowd “Upon this day, the gods accept you, Lucius Pius Deum, as their highest servant of all! Rejoice, for the heavens have deemed you fit for the crown! Rejoice, for within mere days, Godshill—and the entire world-—shall see the beginning of a new age!”

Lucius rose, smiling as the crowd roared in celebration. The mountainside came alive with the applause of the people, their shouting and clapping and whistle-blowing echoing on distant cliffs. They shouted his name, 'Deum, Deum, Deum', as if they had already forgotten all about Magnus. But while the people may have, the ceremony certainly had not.

“Well and good, well and good.” Quintus said calmly, his hands raised to quiet down the crowd-—which they did “Never did we doubt your fortitude and virtue, Lucius, but before we greet our new king, we must first say farewell to our former.” a silence fell over the crowd now, as they were reminded why they were here-—Lucius' coronation wasn't quite yet, he knew. He straightened up and smoothed out his ceremonial outfit, as Quintus stepped aside, revealing the inside of the marble chapel.

The floors had been swept so clean that the sunlight shimmered on them, amplifying all the little colors that ran through the stone like rivers. The benches had been removed, the altar temporarily set aside, and a doorway in the very back of it the chapel opened up. A wind swept through the chapel; in from the front, out from the back. Lucius' eyes focused on what the hind doors revealed. Sitting on a marble pedestal, an urn with a legend painted on its side stood gleaming, as clean as the floors he was soon to walk on. The pedestal stood upon the very tip of the cliff, the absolute edge where one misstep could mean a quick and unpleasant descent into the streets of Godshill so far below. The cheer of the crowd had been killed, as the second phase of the ceremony began.

“Approach now your predecessor, Lucius. Approach what remains of the once-great Magnus, for who better to say farewell to the king, than thee who would sit the throne upon which he once did? Let fly his ashes over his city, so that the gods may carry him where they deem him fit.”

And that was exactly what Lucius did. With the whole city staring at him, he stepped in through the marble doors, through the sacred chapel halls, until he stood before what once was King Magnus. His hair swayed in the moaning winds and his fingers seemed to tingle, as he laid them on the late king's urn. It was odd, Lucius thought, to see him so... reduced. He stood there in silence, forgetting the audience that stared so expectantly at him from behind the marble doors. He stood there and thought to himself, was this really all that remained of man as great as Magnus? It seemed that no matter who you were, in the end, you would still only be this. Ashes. Kings, soldiers, beggars... it didn't matter. When the time came, death would unify them all, regardless of what titles they bore, and what lives they had lived.

I suppose... there's some beauty to be found, in that.

He took in a deep breath, and wasted no more time. These were just ashes, after all, and he had an audience to entertain. He took the urn from its pedestal, approached the edge, and removed the lid. And just like that, out it came. That which once was a king. Black ashes spilled from the marble and was swept away in the winds, bit by bit. Lucius watched attentively as Magnus' remains were emptied completely from the urn-—and only when the last speck of ash poured from the marble rims, did he put it back where it belonged. That was the end of that. The deed was done, and the last word of Magnus' chapter had been written. Now... it was time to write a new one.

He turned on his heel, carrying no remorse and no weight on his heart, as he left the last thing that remained of the great king Magnus, and embraced the people that once was his. And as he stepped outside, they too did embrace him with cheer and applause. He stood there in the marble doorway, and did nothing but smile. Such was the way of tradition. Throughout this entire ceremony, Lucius was not allowed to say a single word-—and thus, he hadn't. He looked to Quintus, who stood there on his right, smiling just as much. There was satisfaction in his eye. He wouldn't even need to say anything himself, for Lucius to hear the words 'well done'.

The crowd seemed to dissipate, after that. Portion by portion, when they had finished their cheering, they began the descent down the stairs to resume their daily lives. Lucius, however, remained. He stood there in the shade of the marble chapel, hands folded behind his back, chin raised and a smile donned for whatever stragglers remained. Only when the last one had left, did Quintus come walking out from the chapel, dragging a pair of wooden chairs with him.

“You did well, my child.” he said, finally with a voice relaxed and without that ceremonial, theatrical glory “The people are pleased with you.”

Lucius sat into the chair, and let out a breath of relief. He could still feel his legs aching from the trip up here-—never had he appreciated a chair as much as now. He sat facing Quintus, whose one-eyed gaze had already drifted away to the frozen peaks, at the very top of the mountain range upon which Godshill was built. Lucius sunk into his chair, and kept his smile.

“I'm glad they are.” he said “I was afraid they'd just see me as a warmonger. That's how they've known me thus far, after all. Magnus has been very effective of making a name of himself, while I sit in my office and do all the paperwork...” he chuckled slightly “I wonder what poor fool will have to take my former place. Whoever it is, though, I'll make certain that he gets a slice of the cake as well. I'm not going to put him through the same misery that I have endured.”

“Misery?” Quintus chuckled hoarsely “You should know, Lucius, there are people down there who would lash themselves for an entire month, just to have your seat for a week.” his smile lingered “Either way, that will be for you to decide, once you take your place on that throne, Lucius. A king can do much, and I'm sure a man like you can do even more, but a wise leader knows when to share his power.” Quintus said calmly, sounding quite confident in Lucius, in fact “And that is probably the smallest decision you will have to make. With that crown on your head, you will have not only responsibility for the safety and prosperity of Godshill, but for the entire empire as well.” he gave Lucius a sincere look with that one eye of his “I should hope that you are prepared for the task ahead, my child. It will not be easy.”

Lucius smiled “If I thought it would be a breeze, I would have quit while I had the chance. Worry not, Quintus. I am confident that I am fit for the task... as do the gods, don't they?”

“Indeed.” Quintus gave a nod. He leaned back in his chair and turned his eye on the mountain peaks again, keeping quiet as the seconds went by, the howl of the wind filling up the silence. He seemed oddly contemplative for a rather long while, before he spoke.

“Or whomever reigns in the skies, these days.”

Lucius had followed Quintus' stare into the mountains, but now he looked back at him, puzzled “And what's that supposed to mean?”

“Oh come now, Lucius.” Quintus said, meeting Lucius' stare “You know plain well what it is I speak of. This... 'Omnos' character. It concerns me.”

Lucius snorted “You're a wise man, Quintus—-you should know better than to fall for such rumors. Indeed, two people had a dream about the same thing, and that is curious-—but curious is all it is, and all it will ever be. If there truly is something worth investigating, it may be that someone has learned some mind tricks, and is playing a game with us.”

Quintus' gaunt shoulders gave a shrug “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps we are both wrong. Truth or not, it is making the people nervous. Ever since the birth of time, Lucius, never once has the structure of the heavens been questioned by man.” Lucius could see the genuine worry in the old priest's eyes “Why now?”

“These are troubled times, Quintus.” Lucius' fingers tapped on his armrest, uneasy for a moment or two “There have been riders and travelers coming in from the south, carrying stories of a demon army, hailing from deep within the Wastelands, laying waste to all in its path. I suppose the word of Aegon's fall would inevitably reach the people, but I try, Quintus-—I try to keep them calm.” he pursed his lips “But they are like dogs, Quintus. A large, confused pack of dogs. They can feel it in the air and in the ground at their feet, that something is wrong. When doubt and unease begin creeping up the back of their minds, they'll believe anything. They already know that something is coming... and when they are told that some god-king is as well, they'll eat it raw.”

Quintus sighed. There was nothing he could say against that, for it was the ugly truth. His eye fell to the twiddling fingers in his lap, and Lucius could see on his face that he had something in mind. He waited patiently, until he had the courage to say it.

“You should know, Lucius,” he said, looking back at him “The people think it no coincidence, that Magnus died soon after the word of this god-king, Omnos, began to spread. They believe that he will inherit the throne of the heavens, just like you now are inheriting the throne of the world.”

Lucius' eyebrows rose, and his heart seemed to stand still, for but a second. He stared at Quintus in disbelief “You cannot mean—-“

“But I do.” Quintus interrupted, and not without a dire sense of foreboding in his voice “Fortunately, the idea hasn't spread to everyone... but it is there, and it is growing. They think that Omnos... is you, Lucius.”

Lucius sat in staggered silence, as he tried to comprehend what he was being told. Indeed, the people could be easily frightened and easily convinced of even the wildest nonsense... but this? This was too much. Lucius didn't quite know what to say. So, just to say anything, he laughed.

“Hah! Oh Godshill, how gullible you've become.” he chuckled, his smile wide, but his heart full of unease “I know what I said about the people, but I hadn't thought it to be of such... magnitude. They really will believe anything.” his smile dwindled a little, as he exhaled through his nose “But I can't let it get out of hand. I'm not going to risk the wrath of the heavens, by putting on the guise of some fantasy god. I'll have to make an announcement about all this, at my coronation. Best kill the rumor, before it turns into false hope.”

Quintus smiled, and nodded “That is the wisest thing you've said all day, my child.”

Lucius looked back, and mirrored his smile “Well, the ceremony forbid me from saying anything at all, so that's no feat.”

He and Quintus shared a laugh. For a priest so old and so zealous, Quintus was one of the few who knew how to relax and smile once in a while. Most other priests, specifically those dedicated to Morrin, always seemed so glum and boring. Quintus may have torn out his own eye, but at least he could still see the mirth in life, even if his was at its eve.

Lucius slowly rose to his feet, and buttoned up his outfit “Speaking of which, now that the ceremony is finished, I had best get back to work. When one is about to become king, one cannot laze, after all.” he smirked “I wouldn't want to follow Magnus' example.”

Quintus inclined his head “Now now, don't speak ill of the dead. Magnus was a good man, and accomplished much in his time. Were it not for him, we would likely still be isolated completely from the Luminites. It was only when he grew of age, that his body began to slouch and laze set in.”

Lucius gave a few apologetic nods “I suppose that's true. In which case, I'll have something to live up to—-or surpass.” he turned on his heel to face Quintus, and gave a polite nod of his head “Gods be at your side, Quintus.”

Quintus followed Lucius' gesture “As to you... your majesty.”

The way back was possibly the first sign of change that Lucius noticed, now that the crown was figuratively hovering over his head. The descent from the cliff was a peaceful one, and going down was significantly easier than going up, but it was when he stepped in through the mountainside gate of Godshill, that he saw how times had changed. Mere days ago, when Magnus still was king, the people would only have a vague idea of who he was; they'd know he was someone important, being dressed all beautifully and expensively, but rarely could they put a name, or even a title on him. But after today, such things had changed. The guards gave him a polite nod, as per usual, but as he strolled through the sloped streets of Godshill, even the people smiled at him and called him 'my king'. Elders sat in the shade of their humble homes in their narrow cobbled streets, smiling and even saluting at times, as he passed by. It was odd, almost alien, how they saw him now. But the more he wandered the well-kept streets, the more people came to greet him and bless him, and the more he wondered to himself... to whom of these am I a king, and to whom of these, am I a god?

There was something a little haunting in all of it, the more he thought about it. The look in their eye; was it happiness, or was it reverence? Fear, even? Were they afraid of him? The people were easy to scare, as he himself had told Quintus, and if they truly believed that he and Omnos were one and the same, they'd be watching a god-king walk by their front porches. Even he couldn't quite comprehend how the average mind would react to that. To see what they truly believed to be some kind of omniscient and omnipotent being walk by, hands in his pockets and wind in his hair, like was he just another citizen amongst them. Their smiles seemed so comforting, so flattering at first-—but the more he thought about why they may have been smiling, the more uneasy he felt. Becoming a king was big enough... but a god?

He picked up his pace, and took some rather unconventional ways through the city. He looked over his shoulder, and several times he could swear that he saw someone following him. Beady, obsessive eyes seemed to stare through the windows at him, and from the shadows cast by the midday sun. It was with great relief that he took a turn, and stepped in through a rather familiar shop, in one of the less visited districts of the city.

The scent of herbs was strong in here, even deafening at times, if the alchemist of the house had been particularly busy that day. There was a little bell that heralded his entrance, and it rang another time as he closed door. The air in here was thick and musty, and full of a thousand smells that seemed to coil together in a dreadfully confusing cocktail. He was quite used to it, though, unlike many other unfortunate customers who somehow stumble into this place. The owner of this place was a very careful and scheduled man, and thus, everything looked exactly the same, every time Lucius stepped in through that door. Mushrooms, herbs, blood vials, and other ingredients littered the right side shelves; one could glance once over it, and be set on a journey through the entire Mortal Realm as seen through an alchemist's eyes. Everything was in alphabetical order, of course, and by now, Lucius could name the majority of all these little plants and materials. Bladevine from the Jemero keys; Emperor's Grace from the Yantsu Island; Dustbloom from the Dragonlands-—it was all here, and in as good quality as it had always been.

On the left side, though, were all the completed potions. Alphabetically ordered as well, naturally. Hundreds of little vials full of swirling, unearthly liquids was displayed freely for the eager customer to see. The trick was that they all looked quite pretty and healthy, but Lucius had been here enough times to know better. Just one glance over the left side shelf, and he could name at least three poisons that would result in a slow and agonizing demise. Fortunately, that was not common knowledge. In fact, this entire shop wasn't common knowledge.

“Ahh... those footsteps. That gait. The extra weight on the left leg—-but Lucius, what are these? New shoes?”

The voice came from a room behind the desk that filled up the back of the shop, croaking and slithering, like some twisted mix between a snake and a toad. Lucius smiled.

“Were you not at the ceremony, Mr. Grey?”

“Oh Lucius, time and again have I told you to just call me Orlan! By now, some would even call us friends, as much as you come to visit.” the owner of the voice came strutting around the corner, wearing a wide and excited smile “Why sometimes I think you visit just because you want to see me again. I know some people who would pay well for such delicious gossip.”

The dark elf who called himself Orlan was a rather curious creation. Not nearly as tall as the rest of his dark-skinned brethren, merely at eye-height with Lucius, and with a head shaven clean. His elongated ears were riddled with gold and silver rings, as was traditional for most elves, but his swampy brown clothes were surprisingly humble and even ragged, what with all the rips and holes in them. His teeth were all intact, though, for when you were to smile at customers, you'd rather not give them an ugly smile to look at-—Orlan seemed to have understood this message. And thus he smiled, while giving Lucius a deeply amused look through the monocle that had been strapped by leather to his left eye.

“In fact, should I so desire, I could provide the world with more gossip than any other man on the face of this earth. Why, you share so many stories with me, I'm beginning to think that we're married, Lucius!”

Lucius sat down on a stool on the other side of Orlan's desk, and gave him a knowing smirk “Don't flatter yourself, Orlan. I gave up marriage ever since I became a sworn of the church—-something even more desirable than a place in paradise will need to appear, for me to undo that.”

Orlan made a theatrically insulted mime “Why I never! I'm insulted, Lucius! And here I thought we were destined for one another!”

Lucius kept his smirk, but raised a finger to wag at Orlan “You should know perfectly well that nothing good can come of love between man and elf. It always just ends with the elf outliving the human-—and that's a tragedy I'm sure you'd rather avoid. I don't share my stories with you, because I'm head over heels for you; I share my stories with you, as a business investment. Trust goes a long way. Besides... I'm sure you'd find it horribly hazardous for your health, if you said anything.”

“Ah yes... you made that wonderfully clear in your letter, didn't you?” Orlan's nimble hand glided in under his desk, and fetched out a small piece of parchment. He sat down in a stool opposite of Lucius, unfolded the parchment, reading aloud “Do not betray me, Mr. Grey. I will personally see to it that your tongue is removed, if it wags the wrong way. And your head too, if it becomes necessary. Do not make it so.”

Orlan folded the parchment together, and put it back where he found it. He gave Lucius a rather disappointed look, lips puckered slightly “That's not very romantic, Lucius.”

“Nor was it supposed to be.” he retorted “I was simply making sure that our mutual understanding remained exactly that: mutual. The last thing I want in a matter as delicate as this one, is a stupid misunderstanding that creates unwanted disturbance.”

“And it didn't come to that, did it?” Orlan asked, folding his dark-skinned fingers in his lap “You got your poison, the king is dead, and you're soon to have his throne. Everyone thinks the old fool's heart simply just betrayed him one day, and that was that. 'Will of the gods', they call it...” his smile grew to become a demon's grin “...and judging by the current rumors about you, Lucius, I'm beginning to think they might be right.”

Lucius' smile was washed away by a disgruntled sneer “Don't, Orlan. This whole Omnos charade is bad enough as it is. I don't want you to become part of it as well.”

Orlan gave a large shrug “Truth be told, I couldn't care less about who sits on the heavenly throne, spewing orders down at us mortal men. Maybe it's my Dus'Fen blood speaking, but I just never had a thing for the divine, you know. Odd that I should end up in a place like Godshill, but hey... I just go where the money flows, like a fish in a river. But if you really are some kind of god-king... well then I might just begin thinking you're out of my league.”

“Which I'm not.” Lucius added “Omnos, that is. I am most definitely out of your league, though. I may not be a god-king, but that doesn't mean I'm all yours. Sorry to disappoint.”

“Disappointed indeed.” Orlan frowned with great exaggeration, but he couldn't keep it for long. He seemed to know very well that his smile was the prettiest thing about him, and thus kept showing it.

“But I'm sure you didn't come here to flirt. Of course, I'd be flattered if you were, but as you said: you're probably out of my league. So if not to flirt... what did you come here for, hm?” he asked, leaning in over the desk, resting his head in his hands.

Lucius gave the odd Dus'Fen a silent look for a moment, eyes wandering. He would clearly have preferred just to point at what he came here for, but he couldn't seem to find it anywhere on Orlan's shelves. He let out a long breath, and looked back into his monocle-adorned gaze.

“I've run out of balm, Orlan. I plan on going to see her today, and tell her about what's happened this past week. While doing so, I figured I'd freshen up her balm a little too.”

Orlan's eyebrows raised “Ahh... of course. Poor girl, that one. You're sweet to take care of her like that.” he scooted off his stool and strolled around behind the desk, glances thrown here and there in lazy search for one particular thing “The usual?”

“The usual.” Lucius echoed “And you know that it's the least I can do. She's in pain, and I find that it's my duty to quell them as much as I can.”

“There are others who aren't nearly as benevolent as you, you know.” Orlan spoke rather nonchalantly as he scooped up a small vial hidden at the end of the table, and gave it a few flicks of his sleek index finger. He looked back at Lucius “What is it again that ails her?”

“Burns.” Lucius said, not without some weight in that word “Demonfire. You know how it is with that. Not a thing in the world can restore to her what she once was, not holy water, not incense, not anything. The best we can do, is soothe her agony.” he wore a distant look, blankly staring into the table where his nail peeled off small strings of wood “So that's exactly what I aim to do.”

“And with this balm, you shall.” Orlan said as he returned to put the vial before Lucius, in which the curious balm swirled. It was a creamy white substance, with strings of magic darting through like tiny insects within. Lucius curled his fingers around it, and felt it tingle. That mere sensation verified its quality; no tingle, no effect. Too many times had he learned that lesson, when trying to purchase similar balms from other alchemists. But none did it as well as Orlan.

“You know, Lucius...” Orlan's smile seemed to disappear for a moment, as he leaned in close, eyes unwavering in their stare “...Most other people would simply put her out of her misery. As you said, demonfire cannot be cured by anything in this world... but death isn't exactly from this world, now is it?”

Lucius' face scrunched up in a disgusted sneer “Back off, Orlan. That's close enough.” he snatched the vial, and trickled some coins unto the desk “You can flirt all you want, but don't push your luck. Even I have my limits.”

“Ah... my bad.” Orlan raised his hands apologetically “I see now that the cat has teeth. I suppose you know best, anyway.”

“Given the circumstances, I think you're right.” Lucius spoke through gritted teeth, as he slipped the vial into his pockets “Now, I think we're just about done. Best stop before things get ugly.”
Orlan gave Lucius an inclined look, the smallest of grins peeking forth at the edge of his lips “Given the circumstances, Lucius, what with the events that have transpired across these recent days... I think things are as ugly as they get.” Lucius saw now that Orlan couldn't stop smiling, that it was like wrestling with a pig in the mud. At the end of the day, the pig enjoyed it. He huffed slightly and shook his head. He had no more words for this alchemist, as he turned around on his heel, and left the shop.

There was peace, finally, as those great palace doors shut behind him. Their resounding clamor echoed throughout the throne halls, again and again upon the great white pillars that held the ceiling aloft. Lucius took in a deep breath of the air that smelled so softly of red royal carpets and solitude. He could hear his leather shoes click against the marble floors, just the way he preferred it. He could hear the sound of his breath whisper from the walls on either side of him, so tall and church-like, with gentle noon light breaking in from the left. And at the very back of it all, so tall and proud in its majestic gold and silver, was the throne. Lucius looked upon it, and couldn't help but smile. Even now he could still imagine Magnus sitting there, looking so old, so weak, so tired of life. But the truth of it was, he was only tired of the throne. The hard gold and silver was not nearly as comfortable as his trusty chair on the balcony, and people came to him with complaints, rather than amphorae full of wine. No wonder that the old man loathed the throne so much. Fortunate, then, that a much more willing heir had risen to relieve him of it.
But instead of heading straight for the throne, Lucius strode by it, though not without gliding his hand over its smooth armrest once. He felt almost as if it tickled in his fingers; like he could feel the importance and power brimming within this sacred seat. But rather than sitting down and claiming it as his own—-for that was much too early, even now—-he turned to his office door instead, and stepped inside.

There was an aura of peace, in here, in the office in which he had spent so many years. By now, it had grown to become more of an office; it had become his home. With a bed, wardrobe, and bookshelves with as much literature as a man could ever want, this place contained more than wealth than an entire district of Godshill did. But even more so were the royal chambers, where Magnus had wasted away, succumbed to gluttony and sloth, so very unlike a king. Lucius had considered ordering it remade and re-purposed as soon as that crown fell on his head... but then again, the room was only as filthy as its king. It would be a fine upgrade from this place, he figured. He sat down by the desk, upon which those stacks of paper stood, tenacious like a hydra; take one paper away, and three more would appear. But despite how tedious these things could be, he felt that he might come to miss the endless stacks of paper one day, after some other poor fool took his place as High Commander. One day, perhaps.

He reached for the feather pen and dipped it a few times in the nearby inkwell. Pulling a blank paper close, he quickly began to write, in that delicate and curling handwriting of his.

Ferdinand,

I trust that once I am king, you will treat my replacement with as much kindness and loyalty, as you had with me. Although I will not disappear from the world entirely, your days of servitude to me are soon to meet their end. The years in which you have served me have been long and tedious at times, but I would take this moment to thank you for all the hard work you have done, and how you have never failed to carry out my orders. It is with a heavy heart that I write these words, and with a heavy heart, that I issue one last request.

Now that Magnus has left our world, I will free this empire from its political sloth, and restore it to the greatness it is supposed to be. To the south, as you know, both demon and man are threatening our the safety of our nation, and our people. The demons are as demons are, but I see now that I may perhaps need to take this rising rebellion a little more seriously. Demon, rebel, and nobleman alike are as of this moment declared enemies of the empire; and thus, must be stomped out with all due haste. Fortunately for us, all three are bound to collide within the walls of Moonby Sanctuary within mere days. It is a chance that we cannot afford to let slip between our fingers.

Copy this order, and see it delivered to all of my centurions. With Magnus, the age of lethargy has died. Tell them to prepare the angels.

~Lucius Pius Deum, Regent of the Sacred Empire.


He folded the parchment together, stuffed it into an envelope, and sealed it with wax. The seal of a swan with rising wings was saved for urgent letters of great importance, and Lucius had no hesitation as he squeezed it unto the wax. He stood from his desk and dropped the letter down into a small box in the wall, that sent it sliding down a tube to the servants' cellar, where Ferdinand was sure to find it. He watched as the letter disappeared into the chute, and let out a long, relieved sigh. It was done. There was no going back now... not that there was any reason to, of course. In fact, he had wanted this for far too long now, only held back by Magnus' cowardice. But now, all cowardice had been purged from these halls. The crown was not fit for a head full of fear and hesitation. Only an undeniable lust for justice remained.

He quickly turned around, when the deed was done. It was no longer in his hands, but the armored gauntlets of his centurions instead. He turned his eyes on the farthest bookshelf in the corner of the office, and approached it with swift steps. He looked over the titles, most of them being knightly tales written by holy hands, though there were a few amusing ones here and there; one that he held particularly dear, was the one titled 'The Godshill Complex'. A banned book by all means, but who was to question what the High Commander had in his bookshelf? He found that reading about the people's suspicions and conspiracies were almost... flattering. Some of them flew high and wild, proclaiming that the king and the High Commander were returned dragons taking upon a human guise, pulling the strings of the world to regain their seat of power – while others were far more accurate in their claims. Fortunately, the people of Godshill—-and the rest of the world—-were, and would always be, sheep. They'd believe everything stuffed down their throats, and if they believed everything, they could never truly believe anything. That fact was no different, in the case of this book. They believed all of it to be true, and thus, none of it was true. Just as he preferred it.

He reached forward, to the book. However, instead of taking it from the shelf, his hand slipped in behind it, to flip at a tiny switch hidden behind its pages. The entire bookshelf gave a sudden jerk, and a few seconds afterward, it began to slide sideways. Musty cellar air spilled out of the staircase that was revealed, hidden behind the bookshelf. The light of noon illuminated a few steps, but no more than a few meters down, darkness took over. Shadows as thick as ink, untouched by anyone but himself, having tasted no light but the somber glow of a lantern's fickle flame. Even now, Lucius had already fetched the steel lantern, in which a small candle sat. He struck a match, and led the tiny flame in to kiss the candle's wick. He whipped the match, slew the flame, and put the smoking remains aside once the lantern had been lit. Only then did he turn his eyes into the shadows that lurked below, roiling about in cobwebs and dust. He looked over his shoulder to the door, feeling slightly paranoid that someone might be staring in through the keyhole. But paranoia was all that it was. He shook his head, and took the first steps into the forlorn cellar, his way illuminated by the soft shine of the lantern in his hand.

It was a drastic change, going from the splendor of silk cushions and vivid colors of his office, to the bleak darkness that filled up this dust-smothered staircase. Musty old granite made up the walls, cobwebs hanging like satin threads, lit up by nothing but the humble glow of the lantern. But Lucius knew this place well. He knew it all too well, and held it even more dear. For it contained something that belonged to him, and him alone.

The sound of his shoes clicking on the granite steps echoed ever so faintly in a room at the bottom of the staircase, one which his bubble of light soon merged with. The darkness lurked around him wherever his lanter's glow could not reach, shadows coiling and twisting with every flick and twist of the lantern's flame. He held it out before him, as he descended the last step of the staircase. The shadows squeezed together in dusty corners of this cramped room, fit for nothing, fit for no one. And yet, though there were no chairs, no bed, no tables, there was more life down here than simply spiders and rats.

A second shadow, aside from Lucius'. In the back of the room, a small table-shrine to Hrumalz and one to Lyrras stood side by side, flanked by half a dozen candles, some fresh and tall, others flat and with wax pooling at their feet. The shapes of the shrines were cast unto the walls as sacred shadow-play, the greatsword of Hrumalz and the long robe of Lyrras dancing and swaying in tact with the candle-flames that surrounded them. And before all this, between the glow of the candles and that of Lucius' lantern, a woman lay on her knees, head and back bowed deeply, eyes in the dust. Her hair had been cut short where it hadn't been burned off, but it was growing lengthy again, its deep brown color turning to black in the embrace of shadows. She was little but a silhouette amongst the darkness, her body gentle and smooth, but Lucius knew that she was no longer the beauty she once was, all those years ago. She sat still as he entered, but Lucius knew that she wasn't dead, for he could hear her wheezing, struggling breath as she sat there, her arms raised in chains bound to the walls around her. Six chains there were, three for each hand, and a whole arm's length of an iron clasp, for nothing else would keep her bound. Nothing else could, but iron chains and his own will. Sometimes, it was difficult to tell which one of these it was that truly bound her here.

“You're still alive.” Lucius' voice was somber and quiet, for he knew that he did not need to raise it “You fight well and hard. As you should.”

He bowed down under the three chains that held her left arm, and stepped up before her, so that he could look her in the eyes. It was the least he could do, for a woman so lonely, so broken. At least there was still someone who saw the beauty within her, where others would cry 'monster!'. Her eyes were silent and dead, drowned in the darkness and robbed of any trace of life. He recalled a time where there once was such vigor in that deep blue gaze, but that was a bygone age, and a bygone reality. Now, she sat there, an artificial vestige of someone else; a corpse held alive, where it by all means should be dead. And in many ways, she was. The only life left in her, seemed to be her slow and burdened breath, and even that was hidden behind a mask. A steel mask, covering her face from her nose and down, depicting a horrid demon's mouth where her own hid behind. Jagged, morbid teeth of the hundreds filled up half of her face, engraved upon the steel to never waste away, and to always remind Lucius of what had taken her, and what she had become. From her nose and up, an angel; from her nose and down, a demon. But this mask was much easier on the eyes, than that which it obscured.

“I feel... so cold.” her voice was a whisper, every word spoken through gritted teeth, as if she had slowly begun to forget her own language “The fire never ceases to burn, and yet, I shiver. I shiver, Lucius. I shiver in the hand of a death that hovers over me, but never takes me.” the chains rattled and the shadows seemed to twist as she slowly raised her stare unto Lucius, to look him in the eye “I shiver, Lucius... in fear that I will never feel father Morrin's sweet relief. That I will never find rest when I lay down to die. That I will ascend to the gates of paradise, to stand before their sacred judgment, to hammer wildly on the doors... only to find them locked.”

Lucius lay the lantern at his feet as he crouched down before the woman in chains, his eyes never breaking contact with hers. His lips were a soft smile, gentle and loving, no matter how cold and dead a stare he was given. He reached forward, his smooth hand caressing her cheek, where brutal burn marks had blackened her skin and scorched most of the left side of her face. She flinched slightly at the pain of being touched, but Lucius knew that she was used to it. By now, she had no choice anyway.

“Worry not, precious sister mine.” he said, voice lowered to a whisper, spoken upon a honeyed tongue “No demons can keep you from heaven, no matter how hurt you are. You're a shredded doll; a shattered figurine... but I'll mend you. I'll mend every last bit of you, until not even the gods can tell the difference. Keep praying, and I promise you, you will find your rest.” he let his hand slip from her cheek “Just a few more years. You've come this far. If we cease your training now, all this time will have been for naught. Would you want that?”

The woman's mouth was silent behind that demon-wrought mask of steel, her broken stare sinking again, heavy under the burden of Lucius' words. She said nothing for a while as she sat there with her arms outstretched like angel wings, limp and feeble in their iron confinement. Only after a few seconds' passing, did she shake her head.

“No.” she whispered “No. I... I must be strong. I'm sorry, brother mine. I didn't mean to worry you.”

“Oh, I'm not worried.” he said with a smile, voice lightened slightly “I have faith in you, sister. I always had, and always will. When the messengers brought me the letter that spoke of your fate, I feared that you were dead and gone already. I thought to myself: 'Is this truly the last I've seen of my beloved sister Xandra?'. But you were stronger than that. Where other men would have crumbled... you endured.” he stood to his feet, and brushed back some of her hair, undoing a few knots thick with sweat and blood “Mother would be proud of you.”

He walked around her, carrying the lantern with him, shedding its humble glow all over her lithe body. When one did not look at her face, she truly was a work of beauty. Carved by the gods from the finest flesh, given a wood-brown crown of hair that sadly had been succumbed halfway to the demonfire's burn. The traditional white toga slashed with gold that he had given her so long ago, had slowly crumbled to the feast of moths—-but it didn't matter. She was beautiful, no matter what clothes she wore.

“I've come with more balm. I thought you'd be happy to hear that.” he sat down on his knees before her, as he drew the balm from his pocket and pulled the cork. Lucius smiled as he saw how her eyes widened, like a dog seeing its owner present a juicy treat for it. Faint mutterings escaped her hidden lips, a prayer of thanks from what Lucius could tell. She even began to sniff at it, ecstatic of the sweet relief she knew it would bring.

“Now, you know what I've told you.” Lucius continued as he emptied the vial out into his right hand palm “It may ease the pain, but never forget the burns are there. You're supposed to control its power, not forget about it. Understood?”

Xandra nodded, but it was clear she was just eager to be given the balm, no matter what Lucius may have said about it. He reached forward to rub some unto her brutalized cheek, her eyes closing, savoring the gradual disappearance of the agony that had otherwise seemed so endless. He undid the top part of her toga once her cheek, her ear, and the left side of her scalp had been thoroughly covered in balm. Beneath her toga, just scraping her left breast, the burns were even worse. Everything from her shoulder to the bottom of her ribcage was a scorched ruin of wrinkled, blackened skin and flesh, clotted blood speckled over it. She let out a long, euphoric sigh as Lucius rubbed more of the balm unto her, covering every inch of her ravaged skin. Orlan had been very careful with the dosage, it seemed, as the last droplet of balm covered the last inch of skin as well. How typical of him.

“Give thanks now, sister mine.” Lucius whispered into her ear as she fastened her toga again, and true enough, another thankful prayer spilled from her hidden lips. He sat back and watched her finish, listening to her repeat the prayer over and over again, the names of all gods seeming to slur together, so fast she was. Only when she opened her eyes again, did he give her a smile.

“Though demons may have burned you, the gods still do not shy from you. Because they, like myself, have faith in you.” he sat with his hands folded in his lap, and the empty vial cradled in them “As you should have faith in yourself. Like a sword, you've been tempered in fire, and where others would burn and turn to ash, you've only grown harder, stronger, better. Perhaps there is something about that old saying, about what doesn't kill you.” his smile grew a few inches, and he could see by the relaxed and flattered look in Xandra's eyes, that she did too.

“Now, we mustn't forget your training.” Lucius reminded her, voice suddenly turning sincere “Have you been practicing while I've been away?”

Xandra swiftly nodded at this “Of course, brother, of course. Never have I yielded to the burn of these tenacious flames... instead, they have yielded to me.” her breath grew heavy, her fists clenching slowly “Day by day, brother, I conquer more of this curse. Day by day, more of it succumbs to my strength. My body is a battlefield, and by the gods, I am winning this war!” she snarled, all of a sudden vehement in her words, as if spoken through the demon's maw that covered her mouth. The shadows around her began to twist and writhe as if coming alive, and the soft glow of the candles was chased back by the growing darkness. Reality felt oddly distant, as if the membrane between worlds had grown thin and weak, hell naught but a hand's width away. Lucius sat there before her, feeling the power that she had learned to harness through all these years locked in darkness, locked in a body that never ceased to burn. Xandra's shape seemed to blur, and but for a moment, Lucius saw no longer his sister in those chains, but a creature with bloodshot eyes and a bony carapace forged in the fires of hell. While her body remained the same, something ungodly seemed to warp and twist around her, a second shadow, a second soul. But did he flinch? Never. For he knew, no matter what kind of twisted figment she had donned upon herself in that moment, that it was his sister nonetheless.

Only when she calmed down, did the shadows cease to coil, and the wall between worlds grew strong once more. She panted and growled with demons' breath as she hung there, arms outstretched, unblinking eyes staring into the dust. Lucius smiled and reached forth and lifted her chin so that she might look him in the eye.

“The gods have granted you a mighty gift, sister mine. Dark of nature, true, but judge not the crusader upon the sword he wields, but the heart he carries. Keep praying, sister. You will find your respite.”

He leaned forward, and on her forehead, he placed a gentle kiss. Without a word, without as much as a farewell, he picked his lantern from the ground and stood to his feet. He left her there, as he had done so many times before, to share company with no one but the gods and the demon within her. In shadows she was drowned, as Lucius ascended the stairs and closed the secret door behind him.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 7
And now, with focus on the 'good' Lucius Deum. Usually we've just seen small bits and pieces of what goes on within the walls of Godshill, but this time, we get an entire chapter of it. And is Lucius up to any good? Yes. No. Maybe both. Though one of them is probably just what he wants you to think, along with the rest of the world.
Befittingly, this chapter is named 'In The Light, A Shadow Cast', as even though the sun may shine bright indeed, a shadow will always be cast in its light.

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
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The door slammed shut.

“You've got some nerve bringing that... that thing into my house, Mjaln!” Vyacheslav's eyes were alight with fury, the keen pupils narrowed so sharp they seemed like needles locked in swimming gold “Move aside—-she lost her tongue as soon as she began wagging it like that.”

Ramund couldn't for the life of him figure out where Vyacheslav drew that blade from-—all he knew was that it was nowhere to be seen when he had hurled Rose out the door, but one glance back at the Krov lord, and there it was. Vyacheslav's fangs stood bared like the maw of demons, his furry tail raised and his claw-like nails poised to tear out the throat and tongue of a certain young woman, who had just spat him in the face and threatened him by his life.

“Please, Vyacheslav, reconsider!” Ramund intervened, rushing to place his massive body in the doorway of the office, his hands raised defensively “Her mind is not her own-—her words even less!”

“And soon, her entire head won't be either!” Vyacheslav's voice was a ferocious snarl as his fingers clutched around the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword, that jagged blade of sleek Krov craftsmanship gleaming in the hearth's light, like the ocean would gleam in sunshine “Now move!”

“I cannot do that.” Ramund declared shortly, sternly, not moving a single inch “Rose is very dear to me. Lord or not, I won't let you have this life.”

This time, Vyacheslav snapped his vile stare up at Ramund, who was a fair few heads taller than him. His chiseled face was a wrinkled mess of blood lust, all too fitting for a creature like him “Or what?!” he barked “Don't forget where you are, old man! You accepted my rules the second you set your foot in my house! I have all the right I need to butcher her like the pig she is!”

Ramund knew perfectly well this was a horrible idea, but he also knew that he had no choice. There was no way in hell he was going to let Vyacheslav through—-not to kill Rose, regardless of how foolish she had been. He felt the adrenaline bubble up inside him, throwing him years back to when his strength was his own, and old age was a distant reality. He stared down the Krov lord, eyes narrowed “And I have all the right to defend her. Sit down, Vyacheslav. You are not coming through this door.”

Vyacheslav's fingers clenched so tight around his hilt that Ramund could hear the sound of leather grinding “I didn't want to kill you, Ramund Bjornsson. I hope for your sake that death by my hand qualifies as dying in battle.”

The whistle of steel slicing through air heralded that all diplomacy had been washed away by a flood of rage, lusting for nothing but the punishment of Rose. The blade sang as Vyacheslav slashed forward, Ramund staring it down, time seeming to slow as strife seemed more and more inevitable. The song of the blade was brought to an abrupt halt, however, as Ramund raised to deflect it by the steel of his vambrace.

“This is a fool's errand, Vyacheslav!” Ramund barked as the Krov lord leaped backwards, regaining balance after the deflection of his opening strike “You're a noble man—-handle this in a noble manner!”

“Butchering you won't be noble, I admit.” Vyacheslav growled back, slowly strafing from side to side like a wolf engaged in combat, eyes locked on Ramund “But you're in my way, for a much more just cause. You're obstructing justice, old man.”

“I'm protecting a friend!”

“And dying, while doing so!”

Again, Vyacheslav pounced at Ramund, but he was prepared this time. Or so he thought. Vyacheslav's blade hurled in from the side, just like before, and Ramund brought up his arm to block it again—-but that was not what happened. In a split second, reality seemed to warp, everything going blurry for but half a moment, and when that moment had passed, a burst of pain ran through his right leg. One glance cast downwards, and he saw the brutal gash that had been put in his thigh, where his armor didn't protect. Blood swam and dripped, reddening his clothes.

“That was a warning strike.” Vyacheslav was already back at his safe distance, blade poised and dripping “You cannot defeat me, Ramund Bjornsson. Step aside, and I won't have to put the next one in your neck.”

But did Ramund move? Never. No matter the pain that bit in his thigh, he did not move at all “You should know better than to expect me to move, Vyacheslav. I am Mjaln. If a fight it is, then a fight it shall be.”

Vyacheslav spat, clearly having expected Ramund to look defeat in the eye by now “You're as stupid as you are large, Mjaln. Then at least have the dignity to draw your weapons, and give me a real fight. Even I won't feel good about cutting down an unarmed man.”

“And you won't have to.” Ramund replied, with fists clenched, but axe remaining in his belt “Simply sit down, and we can discuss this like civilized men. That is the least I had expected from a man of high stature like yourself.”

Vyacheslav snorted “And I had expected you not to bring a wild beast into my quarters. It is a pity I'll have to put you down with it.”

What astonished Ramund the most, was the sheer speed of Vyacheslav. Like a viper lashing at its prey, he threw himself at Ramund, blade poised for the kill. Ramund saw in his crazed eyes that he had no intention of letting anyone live this day, not Ramund, not Rose, not any fool who dared stand in his way. But as Vyacheslav's blade came crashing down on Ramund's chest, that will was denied in the course of a split second.

There was no blood. No fractured ribs, no heart split in half by the barbed kiss of Vyacheslav's sword. For a moment, there was only silence, as realization crept into the skull of the Krov lord, who now stared at nothing but a hilt in his hand, and a cloud of steam coiling around the fully intact body of Ramund. His snarling was brought to an end as he looked down at the hilt in his hand, seeing how the blade had disappeared completely-—nearly. For if he just looked around at the cloud of steam, he would see what had become of his elegant sword.

“You've been declawed, Vyacheslav. Sit. Down.” Ramund's hand roiled with shamanistic magic, his eyes aflame with its deep blue color. The fingers on his outstretched hand dripped with otherworldly energies, and was bathed in what remained of Vyacheslav's sword. Never had Ramund chanted so fast. The word had rushed so swiftly from his mouth, he had feared to stumble over the letters and end up with no spell in his hand, but plenty of steel in his chest. Yet here he stood.
The hilt clanged as it hit the floor, Vyacheslav dropping it in a mix of shock and contempt. He stared down at the pitiful remains of what had once been such a beautiful sword, now reduced to a useless stump, and a great puff of steam. Ramund moved forward, his clenched fist bustling with even more magic as he stepped out of the cloud, staring down at Vyacheslav with eyes wrought in blue flame. Ramund had never expected to see fear in the eyes of this man. But judging by the way he staggered backwards and stumbled into his chair, he could not deny what he saw.

“You... demon!” Vyacheslav stuttered as he stared up at Ramund, into those eyes that burned like the gates of hell themselves “What are you?!”

Ramund stood before Vyacheslav, letting the silence sink into him, letting him realize that he had lost this fight. It was only when Ramund saw that realization in his eyes, that he put on a smile “Not all that good at shamanism, truth be told.” the fires in his eyes went out like candles by an open window, as he slouched into the chair opposite of Vyacheslav, trying to catch his breath.
“The eye thing?” Ramund said, gesturing vaguely at his own eyes “Intimidation tactics, nothing more. If you were to touch them, you would find that they do not even burn.”

Vyacheslav blinked, eyes wide “But... but you turned my sword into steam, just like that.”

Ramund looked over his shoulder at the cloud that had gathered in the ceiling, and gave a little nod “That... I cannot deny. I would be pleased to compensate for it, if need be. It was a very nice blade, indeed.”

“I'll be damned it was!” Ramund could tell how infuriated Vyacheslav was that he had lost control of his emotions, even for a second-—for a man who put so much emphasis on dominance and intimidation, showing fear was nothing short of hierarchical suicide “You... you...”

“...Will apologize?” Ramund gave a nod as he sunk back in the chair “That I will. You have my deepest apologies. Now... do you wish to continue our little tussle, or can we agree to discuss this like grown men?”

Vyacheslav's pale face jittered and twitched in sheer dishonored fury. Words eluded him, Ramund could tell, all he managed to say being a deeply insulted huff.

Ramund smiled, half of politeness, half of victory “You can be calm. I will speak no word about what happened here, this day. I know the intricate ways of this game you noblemen play, your... masquerade, for say. If the other houses knew that an old stranger Mjaln had vaporized your sword and made you look dread in the eyes, you would be-—“

“—-Dead.” Vyacheslav finished, the word spat out like venom “Politically. Maybe even literally, if some of those piglets found the ambition to go that far. They've already taken my son... I fail to see why they'd shy at taking my life as well.”

Ramund's gaze fell to the ground for a second, at the mention of that “Ah yes... about that.”

Vyacheslav's pupils narrowed, his nose wrinkling further “More... secrets?”

Ramund shook his head “Not secrets. Suspicions, rather. I'm no wind-reader, but my senses tell me that there's more to this plot than what the world knows. Such is, after all, the way of the game, is it not?”

Vyacheslav, although still anxious and upset about what had just happened, clearly tried his best to relax. He leaned back in his own cushioned chair, tail resting on his lap and fingers steepled “You come here, a sergeant of a suicide rebellion and a child of isolated mountains, and you speak as if you know the game of nobility better than the rest of us.” his serpentine tongue slithered out through bared teeth “Not to mention that you dishonor the lord of the house in which you are guested, and claim that he cannot even protect his own son. Ramund Bjornsson, you are by far the most arrogant Mjaln I've yet to meet.”

He rose to his feet, and for a second, Ramund thought that he was going to lunge at him like he had before. But he didn't. Though it was clear Vyacheslav boiled with spite inside, the time for fighting had come and gone. Instead, he turned to his desk, on which his violin lay. He opened one of the drawers, and brought out what seemed like a small stone-—partially round, partially flat. And on the flat side, a pale white rune pulsed with sealed magic.

“We don't go accusing people of such heinous crimes without reason, Bjornsson.” Vyacheslav chucked the stone to Ramund, who caught it mid-air with a single hand “If this is not enough proof that Anton Cercy is the culprit, then you are as thickheaded as you are arrogant.”

Ramund turned his eyes on the stone in his hand, and the intricate rune of magic that was engraved upon it. The curling lines, the sweeping strokes; this was an art of magic that was exactly that: art. Ramund had always admired it for its near-endless capabilities, and even more those who practiced this school of magic. He turned his attention back on Vyacheslav “I heard about this. This is the rune that observed and recorded what happened in Matvey's room, the day he was kidnapped. Is it not?”

“It is.” Vyacheslav sat back down in his chair “Anton Cercy never was a man of magic, and thus hadn't the faintest clue of its presence. It is that mistake that will have him justly executed soon enough.” at the end of that sentence, Vyacheslav snapped his fingers, and the rune in Ramund's hands suddenly came to life.

The elegant strokes and the smooth lines suddenly swarmed, switching places like frantic little worms. The light embedded in the rune flared brightly, and within seconds, all the lines had arranged in a neatly circular position. And then, from the middle of it, a cone of light erupted to create a hologram before Ramund's eyes.

He recognized Matvey with ease. The young Krov boy sat in what had to be his room, a small place with half of a bed visible in the corner of the rune's peripheral vision-—or whatever an observer-rune like this now had instead. He was sitting in the middle of it all, playing with a puzzle, only half-finished. He seemed quite stumped, the young boy's head cupped in his hands, carrying a bothered and dumbfounded frown. However, his attention was quickly torn away, his gaze thrown at the door in the back of the room. The rune carried no sound, but Ramund figured he must have heard something. And heard something he did.

The sound of knocking, perhaps? Matvey looked at the door as it slowly creaked open. The one who stepped inside was clearly not the one who Matvey expected, but nor was it the first time he had seen this man. Tall, gaunt, hardly with any hair left on his head-—this was indeed the face of Anton Cercy, from what Ramund could recall. He was oddly well-dressed, with a rippling silken shirt underneath a silver-woven vest emblazoned with the proud stag of House Cercy. He looked down at Matvey, and said something. The spell's reenactment of the happenings was slightly slurred, and Ramund couldn't read his lips, but he could tell that he was saying something—-and trying to put on his best child-friendly face while doing so.

Matvey looked back up at him, and said something back. Matvey clearly had no suspicions, young and naive as he was, but it was a dread for Ramund to know that this wasn't going to end well. The door had been closed, even locked, which he found rather odd. But it all made sense, when he saw Anton pick out a small handkerchief from his back pocket, as he approached the young boy, keeping him calm with sweet-talk. Ramund hoped so dearly that Matvey would stand up and run, but he knew that was not going to happen. Anton's talk was the honey that lured this little bear into a trap—-and there it sprung! In one swift lunge, Anton snatched Matvey by his shoulder and turned him around, one arm slung around his neck, and the other one stuffing the handkerchief into Matvey's face. Ramund cringed as he saw the young Krov struggle, legs flailing and hands trying to pry Anton's grip off his face. But it was no use. With every passing second, Matvey's struggle grew weaker and weaker, until there was no fight left in him at all. He slouched together, sedated by something Anton must have drenched the handkerchief with. Anton didn't seem to enjoy this particularly much either, but there was no hesitation in his step, as he stuffed the handkerchief into his pocket and hauled the unconscious boy over his shoulder. Then, much to Ramund's curiosity, he disappeared out the other end of the rune's vision-—and not the door. And then, with one click of his fingers, Vyacheslav brought the rune back to its dormant state, the hologram swept away by the re-arranging lines and curls.

A silence followed, as Ramund looked down at the pulsing rune. He sighed deeply, disappointment leaving a bad taste on his tongue. He looked back at Vyacheslav “The window, I assume?”

Vyacheslav nodded “That is what we've concluded. The door was still locked, the morning we realized what had happened to my son. Once we got it open, the window was still wide and yawning, and Matvey was nowhere to be seen.”

Ramund's fingers tapped on the coarse stone, upon which the rune had been written “This is... unsettling.” he muttered, as he chucked the stone back to Vyacheslav “I had in all honesty hoped for a better truth than this. How noble men have fallen from grace, it seems.”

Vyacheslav caught the stone mid-air “I like to think that their so-called 'grace' is an invention of their own; propaganda, and nothing more. It's the bleached smiles, the combed hair, the pretty clothes... but underneath, they're monsters like all the rest of us.” he stood from his chair, and put the stone back in his drawer “We Zakadievs just don't believe in hiding it.”

Although the sight of Matvey being kidnapped still made his stomach writhe, Ramund managed a little smile at Vyachslav's direction “I dare say, you're beginning to remind me more and more of the woman you nearly killed.”

Vyacheslav didn't have a response to this, but Ramund could see the disdain on his face. Clearly, he didn't like to be compared to a woman as nihilistic as Rose, but behind that sour frown, Ramund saw that he knew it was true.

“When you step outside, Ramund Bjornsson, know that everything you do, everything you say, will have repercussions.” Vyacheslav's voice was dreary and slow, thick with frustration after seeing that reenactment of his son's kidnapping, despite the fact that he had probably seen it a thousand times before “You, your friends, your little rebellion...” he sat down in his chair, fingers curled to claws at the edge of his armrests “...you're not welcome here. I hope you realize this. You were never welcome here. You bring trouble to an otherwise somewhat stable society, and you cry out prophecies of an impending doom, in the form of an army from hell itself. Have you ever stopped to realize what effect this may have, on the people?” he asked, his hand raised to gesture out the window, where the rain clattered against the glass, and morning shed its humble glow on the grey, gloomy houses. But in the dark overhang that never seemed to leave this lands, the light of the sun was but a fickle hint, a faint glimmer trying to squeeze its way into the world of the living. There were times, when Ramund wondered why it rained.

“Odd of you to sympathize with the people, Vyacheslav.” Ramund retorted, a curious eye set on the Krov “Maybe I've underestimated you. Maybe you're a genuinely pleasant and considerate man, underneath that facade of dreadfulness and domination.” he let a tiny smile grow “Or maybe you just want me to stay my tongue a little more, arrogant and pompous as I am.” there was a hint of mockery in his voice, and by the look on Vyacheslav's face, it did not go unnoticed.

“Well... it wouldn't be the first time a stranger disappeared overnight, all because he didn't know the subtleties and intricacies of higher society.” Vyacheslav mirrored Ramund's smile, but his was adorned with the tip of a fang as well “Listen closely, Ramund Bjornsson. I know what you want. I know you want all the houses of Moonby to join your little entourage of rebels to march north and kick Deum off the throne-—and truth be told, there are few things that would amuse me more, than seeing Deum thrown into the dirt. But going to war against a force as large as The Crusade requires resources, soldiers, war machines—-but most importantly of all: unity.” he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, bells on his horns jingling “And as of now, there could be no greater division between the houses. We know the threat of the incoming demon army, and we shall stand against it to defend our homes-—but when the dust has settled and the demons have been put in the ground, the houses will go back to their bickering, to their plots, to their petty little game of lies and intrigue. The aristocracy of Moonby Sanctuary has always been against the world-nation that Deum is so desperately trying to create... but you'll find that we are far too caught up in our own little charade to care about Deum's stupid ambitions.”

Ramund's nostrils flared, suddenly looking quite insulted “You cannot be serious. Indeed, you might not care about Deum, but know that Deum cares very much about you. You are a thorn in his side, and mark my words, he will do everything in his power to remove you completely, if that is what it takes!”

At this, Vyacheslav curled a smirk on his pale lips “You know he cannot just wake up one morning and feel like opening up another war front. He's going to need the king's approval for that... and from what I recall, King Magnus is a pleasantly reasonable man... and a tenacious one. He may be old, but I predict he'll sit that throne for many more years, to keep Deum in his place.”

Ramund pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed in bitter frustration “Vyacheslav, I... did I really come all this way, throw myself into combat against you, just to have you look me in the eye and decline me?”

“I'm not declining you.” Vyacheslav said, sounding oddly truthful “I'm simply saying that you'll need all five houses united, for any of us to even consider it... and as it stands, that is a fairy tale you tell your children to make them laugh. It's a joke, Bjornsson, a drunk man's song. We shall stand up and fight the demons when they come, but when that is all said and done, the best I can do for you in squeeze your hand and wish you the best of luck. For, when you're up against something as powerful as The Crusade, armed only with farmers and fox-men... you're going to need it.”

Ramund could scarcely believe what he was hearing. It was a joke! A jape of fate! His head hurt with all the frustration boiling up inside of him. He couldn't have gone through all of this, just to be fed such stupidity. Such arrogance. Such... truth. The more Ramund thought of it, the less he could deny it. The strength of one house, even one such as Zakadiev, would only prolong a battle that was already doomed to fail. And taking one house away from Moonby, could mean that neither rebels nor nobles would survive the coming storm.

Ramund sighed. The two of them sat in uncomfortable silence, Ramund facing bitter realization, and Vyacheslav clearly knowing he was right. Ramund fiddled with the steel braces of his beard nervously, seeking words but finding only bitter defeat.

“I... I fear you might be right, Vyacheslav.” Ramund confessed, heavily, the words like lead in his throat “Forgive my anger; I see now that it was unfairly spoken.”

“Forgiven.” Vyacheslav declared calmly “As much as I'd like to help, as much as I'd like to see Deum thrown in the dirt, I'm afraid that giving you my forces would mean little but death to them... and death to the rest of us too, most likely. The city would lose a phenomenal piece of its own army, after all!” He said, not without a few shreds of pride here and there.

“I realize.” Ramund admitted, as he slowly stood to his feet again “The Dawn rebellion will be obliterated without the added strength... but I see now that I will not find that strength here.”

Vyacheslav gave a shrug “If you stay to help defend the walls against the demons, some of the houses might be willing to give you a few auxiliaries. But you've arrived in a den of greed and selfishness, Bjornsson. You'll find that thanks is rather scarce in this place.”

Ramund's face was calm, cool, but behind the mask he felt a dreadful hopelessness. Where was he going to find help now? The nobles was the best chance they had. If he couldn't find an equally strong force to help them, they would be crushed. Wiped clean by the hand of holy justice, that they had brought upon themselves. Ramund did not fear death, nor defeat... but he did fear never getting to see Freyja again.

“Your concern is... appreciated.” Ramund gave a slow nod to Vyachesslav “Sadly, concern will not win wars. I pray that we find something that will.”

“As do I.” Vyacheslav stood to his feet, and looked Ramund in the eye “You are a fool, Ramund Bjornson. But you are a goodhearted fool. That's probably not a good thing.” he reached forth and took Ramund's hand, giving him a soft smile and a firm squeeze “Best of luck.”

Ramund looked down at Vyacheslav's hand, and saw exactly what he was doing. Regardless, he accepted the handshake, and the concern that Vyacheslav was trying to show. But looking into his eyes, he knew that was all he was doing: trying. Ramund said nothing, as he turned on his heel, and walked out the door.

It was odd seeing the blushing light of dawn bleed through the black clouds, and hear no birdsong to come with it. He sat there under the shelter of a jutting rock that stood forth from the ground like a massive sword that had impaled the earth from below. He watched the gentle downfall creating ripples in the nearest puddles of these drenched lands, and whispered a prayer of thanks that the rain wasn't worse than it was. In lands like these, it may easily have stood down in oceans at a time, so thick that you could stick your hand out and it would disappear into the curtain of it all. But that was not this rain. This rain let him sit here, where it was somewhat dry, and gaze out over the wet and wavy hillocks, and the endless plains in between. There was some beauty, in all of this, despite the gloom of it all. The way the sunlight seemed like a street of gold in the puddles' reflections, and how the mists in the distance rolled over the wetlands like giant, ghostly sheep. But he missed the birdsong. Perhaps he had just become too used to the lushness of The Fairlands, but he couldn't help but feel that there was something missing. There were very few trees in these lands, and those that were, were old and decrepit things that the locals had aptly named 'witchwoods'. Like many other places, legend and myth engulfed these kinds of things. Word was that these trees were lost souls, ghosts, that had been found by cruel witches, and turned into these ugly things for the witch's sheer amusement. But if anyone believed these myths, he couldn't tell. For myths was likely all they would ever be.

He tried his best to distract himself, with wonders like these. He did the very best he could to live into the world he was in, to breathe in deep and absorb the atmosphere. It wasn't too hard to do, in a place like this, so different and alien from what he was used to. It was all rather strange, actually. Ever since he woke up, he felt that he could find beauty in the smallest things. In everything. Where some may have passed the world by, maybe offered the beautiful plains a glance and a comment once in a while, he felt almost as if his days of unconsciousness had rattled out some hidden sense of appreciation within him. Maybe it was because of that odd dream he had. Maybe it was because of the face he saw in his hands, when he scooped up that piece of the night sky. Or maybe... it was because he knew it was all going to burn.

He sighed, and closed his eyes for a moment. He spent a few seconds listening to the whisper of the wind and the endless rustle of the rain. He emptied his head, silencing it all, cutting out the tongue of those evil thoughts that whispered him in the ear like imps. He held his breath, and listened. He listened and forgot everything else, as long as he could. These were the moments he had learned to treasure, where he pushed aside all his pains and worries, and lived in the second. But he knew those thoughts would return; that those imps would grow their tongues back soon enough. One little slip... and into the depths he would go. There were times where he wished that there would just be a noose waiting for him, at the bottom.

He opened his eyes. Had he fallen asleep? He couldn't tell. He still sat here, under the shelter of the rock, with the rain's song in the background. He felt the pencil in his right hand, and the notebook in his left. It was heavier, than what he could remember. Maybe it was the weight of his past, that made it so. He had been staring down into the paper for a while now, hoping to write something, but all he had managed to do, was doodle. It was a demon's head. He knew all the intricacies of this demonic beast, how many fangs they had, how wide their mouth could open, how far apart those bloodshot eyes were. He remembered so clearly, for they would never let him forget. His drawing was perfect. How couldn't it be?

He snapped, and tore the paper right out of his notebook. Crumbling it together and ripping it apart, he wouldn't let them get back into his head. It was time something got out, rather than in. He brought the pencil to the paper, and began writing.

Duncan's journal, day something-or-rather.

I've lost count. The days have slurred together, and I've got no idea where I am any longer, in this soup that is my life. I sit here and wonder what day of the week it is, but all that the world can tell me, is that it's morning.

But then again. It's a beautiful morning. Pretty landscape, pretty sunrise, and the rain isn't too bad. Perhaps it's a bit silly that I'm sitting here, camping, while precious time is being lost. Wolfe wanted to scout ahead, though, so I stayed back. I remember thinking that he was surely paranoid, convinced that the Crusade would be lurking around every corner, ready to silence him. It seemed strange and wasteful for Deum to use such valuable resources on something as trivial as veterans like us. But then I recalled what I saw in Aegon, before it all went to shit. There wasn't a hint of mercy or sympathy in that hunter's eyes, when he looked into those of that old man, and put a bullet between them. I don't suspect I'll see any either, should I face a similar fate.
All of this has given me some time to think, though. This whole rebellion thing. While I support Ramund in his decision, bringing all these farmers and bakers and milkmen into it just doesn't seem right. None of them are fighters. They just don't want to die, is all, and now we've antagonized them all in face of Deum. He'll slaughter them. He'll slaughter every last one of them. They've got elders and children, and everyone in between can't swing a sword for the life of them. The soldiers out there, out there in The Wastelands, we had it tough. But these people? They're the true victims here. Good for nothing but food for demons, if Deum doesn't systematically execute them first. Where will they run? Where will they hide? They've got hungry demons coming up from the south, and in the north, sits a man who would take all their heads and call it justice.

And that's what bugs me so painfully, about all this. For so long, I've hated how The Crusade puts a sword in whoever has hands, and sends them right out there to die. But what I hate even more than that... is when we start doing the same. I did not sign up for this. I did not sign up for becoming the exact thing I've been trying to stop.

But damn it. What choice do we have?


He closed the book. He sat there and looked at the blank, black leather that bound it, with his name written on the front. There were times like these, where he wondered who would ever get to read these things. Not even Ramund had seen what things had been written on these pages—and that was probably for the best as well. If Ramund saw, if he knew, Duncan feared what his old friend would think of him. He sat there and looked at the blank, black leather. It was heavier than before.

He snapped his stare forwards, as the sound of footsteps sloshing in the mud broke the calm song of rain. He looked to the horses bound close by, and his hand slowly drifted to the handle of his blade. Silently, he drew it from his belt, fingers curled around the leather binds, his heart racing. But as the approaching footsteps brought with them a familiar face, he let his shoulders sink in a relieved sigh.

“Feeling jumpy, are we?” Wolfe's voice was a hard and growling as always, and yet Duncan was glad that it was none other's. His short, greying hair was drenched and flattened by the rain, and the steel that swept down his right arm shimmered like the puddles around them. He sat down into the shelter, and began chewing on a piece of jerky he had saved for later.

“I like to think 'cautious' is a better term.” Duncan muttered quietly, sheathing his sword “You should know all about that kind of thing.”

“I never said it was a bad thing.” Wolfe commented dryly, while chewing “The cautious man survives where a naive one would not. That being said... the road seems clear. No patrols, from what I could tell. Not even a wandering traveler, or a tavern. We really are in one of the forgotten shitholes of this world, aren't we?” his wrinkled lips pulled back to a spiteful, yet oddly jesting smile “If we were killed here... no one would ever know who did it. They'll just think the mist claimed us. That's how these stories usually go, anyway.”

Duncan pulled his sack close, and stuffed his notebook into it “I don't know about 'shithole'. It can be rather pretty, if you take a moment to appreciate it.”

Wolfe swallowed “It's a swamp, Duncan. Just one hour's jog north, and I stumbled on two skeletons and a man who I don't think was entirely dead, just yet. It's a shithole alright.” Wolfe wiped his lips and moved to his horse. He undid the reins that kept it tied to the shelter, and swiftly mounted up “But you're welcome to stay, if you want. Good luck finding food, though. Out here, you're sure to find that man isn't on top of the food chain any longer.”

Duncan scowled a little. He wasn't going to dignify Wolfe with an answer. He stood up and felt how his legs were still rather clumsy after all those days of unconsciousness, but at least he could walk without any help by now. He struggled unto his horse, and clutched the reins.

“Wolves, snakes... chimeras. This place has it all.” Wolfe turned his horse around, and set it strolling down the muddy, uneven road that slithered through the drowned landscape “And in the heart of it, you've got the worst predators of them all.” his lips scowled, and his nose wrinkled in disgust.

“Nobles.”
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 6
A little chapter to wrap up a few loose ends, and set up the scene for some more exciting stuff. Not much to say about this, except that I am really enjoying writing about Vyacheslav. This chapter is named 'Hope, Like Dewdrops in Morn'. As always, thanks for reading!

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
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Outside, she sat with a heart full of adrenaline and a tongue given an appetizer of what Vyacheslav perhaps looked like, behind his arrogant veneer. She wanted more. Much, much more. She sat there, staring at the door that Ramund slammed shut, and couldn't stop smiling. There was something so strangely exhilarating about seeing people at their truest, where all those stupid convictions of morals and ethics meant nothing, stripped of everything that made them so frustratingly... human. She wanted to trade stares with the animal within, and here, she had.

She stood to her feet. In wake of the adrenaline, she had forgotten how hard Ramund could grip, when he really wanted to. Her shoulder was badly bruised already, and hurt at even the softest touch. She could hear them talk behind the door, and even though she couldn't make out the words, she could tell that she had sown quite some havoc. Good.

“Oh dear, oh my... she did quite pull the lion's tail now, did she not?” Rose had almost forgotten about those bloody portraits, but unfortunately, it seemed they had not forgotten about her. Not only that, they had grown tongues as well. Looking over her shoulder, she saw one particular Krov lord with horns like Vyacheslav's, but adorned with a colorful tie, slowly nodding to a portrait of a lady across the hallway.

“I dare say, she did indeed. Dare I think what he might do in retaliation?” the lady answered, her painted fingers moving to poise at her lips, a look of theatrical dread on her face.

“Nothing well, no nothing well at all!” A third lord answered, the voices piling up, becoming more and more “Vyacheslav is no man for forgiveness, oh no, oh no.”

“Will he settle with her fingers, I wonder?” another said.

“Oh never! She spat him in the face, that audacious girl!”

“Audacious? Outrageous!”

“Travesty! Travesty!”

Before long, the voices of the portrait accumulated to an indistinct blare, and all Rose could make out were the endless slurs they threw at her, one after another, each and every portrait adorned with a look of disdain on their painted faces. Her attention leaped from one to the other, but within seconds, she couldn't tell who was speaking any longer. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to keep it all out, but it was too much. She staggered, her head feeling like it was going to collapse under all the voices. She struggled to keep her calm as she walked away, knowing far better than to stay here where the walls themselves bled madness, but the hallway seemed to go on forever. She picked up her pace, but it just never stopped. It seemed as if the floor grew longer with every step she took, and the portraits just never stopped coming. In the dimly candle-lit hallway, she marched forward, chanting all the nursery rhymes and using all the techniques she had taught herself to keep away from that dizzying plunge into utter insanity. But over the cursing and scolding of the portraits all around her, she couldn't make out a single word from her own mouth. And then, she snapped.

“ENOUGH! STOP IT, STOP IT, STOP IT!” she screamed, and tore one of the portraits clean from its frame. Giving into madness, she tore it to pieces, shredding it, all while it scolded her for being so violent. It was only when the portrait of some old and forgotten lord had been completely decimated that she turned on her heels and ran, ran as fast as she could, no matter how long this hallway seemed to be. There was not a shred of thought, except for precious gratitude, as she finally found the door at the end of the hallway, ripped it open, and slammed it shut behind her.

There was silence. At the end of the infuriating scolding and blabbering portraits, there was silence. She could feel her chest convulsing under the force of her heartbeat, her skin already sticky and wet with sweat. She panted and leaned on the shut door, horrified of the thought of the portraits growing legs and running after her, now that they had already grown tongues. But to her great relief, all that came for her was the silence. Sweet, tranquil silence.

It was only then, that she noticed that there was as little light as there was sound. A narrow sliver slipped through the keyhole, but aside from that, there was only darkness. She slowly turned around to face the shadows that embraced her like a loving mother as soon as she had closed that door. It was an embrace that she welcomed, but not one she had expected. Seeing nothing was nice from time to time, and hearing nothing only made it better. She stared into the shadows and strained to spy some vague outlines, but she couldn't make out what they were. Curiosity began to bubble within her, and she knew that she wasn't going back out that door anyway.

Stepping forward, she felt and heard the floor creak underneath her. They groaned, and in their noise, she found the room to be slightly larger than the rest. Having spent most of her life in a forest where the sun never shone, learning to estimate these kinds of things through sound was a given. But no matter how used to darkness she was, no matter how comfortable she was with it, she still wanted to see what this room contained. That was when, rather suddenly, she felt something. At the tip of her fingers, she felt the soft touch of wool, like that of a carpet. She stopped abruptly, staring out into nothing as if wearing a blindfold while stroking the strange piece of carpet wool before her. It yielded at her touch, as if it was hanging from the ceiling, and she could feel odd shapes and symbols woven into the wool. She felt letters, figures of men, and several objects she couldn't quite make out. But then, suddenly, her hand fell on something far more familiar: steel.

She was taken aback as a soft glow pushed the shadows away near her, and only then did she realize that it was a lantern she had found. But she had only touched the handle, and there was no sign of a matchbox anywhere. And yet, behind the glass there was a humble flame, dancing and swaying as flames now do. Magic, it had to be.

It was in that light, that she saw what she had touched. Just as she felt, it hung from the ceiling, a slender carpet-like fabric, no wider than her own torso, but long enough to touch the floor and ceiling alike. In the soft glow of the curious flame, she looked upon it, and wondered. At first, she couldn't quite make out the point of this curious thing, but then it struck her. It wasn't just a piece of hanging carpet; it was a story. Written in strings of wool, red and yellow and black coiling together to speak of days long past. The light of the lantern was meek and fickle, only illuminating a small piece of the carpet, but even in what little she saw, she could find context. There were faces adorning the sides, letters alien to her splattered all over, and tales of great happenings seemed to meld together in the slur of history. From what she could see in the lantern's glow, there was a ship, great and proud, full of Krov dancing and singing and being merry.

Yet mere inches underneath, the same ship was thrown into a wild storm, waves roaring and crashing, men and women and children falling to their watery graves. She touched it again, felt the weave, felt how old it was. Her hand descended together with her vision, her fingers tracing the progression of time, and the progression of the story. In the threads, she read how it seemed there were survivors of the great disaster at sea. Her fingers and her eyes fell on a depiction of dozens of Krov clinging to stray pieces of flotsam, seeming horribly distraught. She blinked as she noticed, in the middle of it all, there was one particular Krov that she recognized. Those horns, long and winding, and that outfit... it was Vyacheslav. Her curiosity grew even stronger, eager to know where this ended—but then she found, that the end was much closer than she had anticipated. Her fingers suddenly touched little but thin air, as she came to the end of the carpet's weave. The story was left in painful ambivalence, and she found herself fiddling with the unwoven string at the end of the carpet, as if trying to squeeze the last of the tale out of them.

“Hmm... I really should pull myself together to weave that last bit, shouldn't I?”

Rose bounded to her feet and whipped around to the unfamiliar voice in the shadows, one hand clenched on the lantern's steel and the other one balled in a fist. She thrust out the lantern at where she had heard the voice, and found... nothing. Only more darkness. Her eyes darted everywhere, her breath stuck in her throat and her heart thrown into anxiety again, pounding wildly. But no matter where she turned the lantern, there was no one. Could it just have been her mind playing tricks on her again?

“Ahem... down here.” the voice spoke again, and only then did Rose realize that she had been looking the wrong way all this time. She had turned left and right, but never did she stop to consider looking downwards. For as she did, she found that the source of the voice was nothing of what she had anticipated. Not even close.

Standing upon stumpy legs no larger than her own outstretched hand, what she saw seemed like something pulled straight from a young child's dream. The light from her lantern reflected in the eyes of a cat, but unlike the feline eyes of Vyacheslav, there was a matching head to follow this time. Whiskers, perked ears, tan fur slashed with black, yet no matter how much this little thing looked like a cat, she knew perfectly well that it was not. For unlike cats, this one stood upright on its hind paws; for unlike cats, this one sported a pair of trousers and a velvet shirt in the traditional colors of house Zakadiev; for unlike cats... this one spoke.

“Oh... I see how it is. You're new here, aren't you?” the creature before her reached no taller than her knees, yet it had a voice oddly deep, oddly masculine and refined. Its eyes rolled, and its hands were folded behind its back-—for it was hands it had, not paws. This confused Rose perhaps a bit more than necessary, since it stood on paws, yet on its furry little wrists, there were hands. Not to mention it didn't have a tail either. It was some strange amalgamation between a cat and... something. Rose slowly nodded, still not wholly convinced that this thing wasn't just another hallucination.

“I suppose I should have deduced that, judging by how you tore apart that portrait, in the hallway.” the creature looked up at her, big eyes squinted slightly and whiskers twitching “That was a really nice portrait. Lord Anatoly was a very loved man, and now he's in pieces. How does that make you feel?”

Rose was, needless to say, rather stifled. She stared down at the curious cat-creature, and saw how it seemed so disappointed in her. She didn't even know that cats could make that kind of expression, yet there it was. But then again: this wasn't really a cat, was it?

“I... I didn't mean to.” was all Rose could stutter out.

“Didn't mean to? It was surprisingly well done for an accident, my dear.” the cat-creature huffed, tiny arms folded “Well, I suppose I'll just have to clean that mess up myself, don't I?”

Rose didn't say anything. Or rather, she couldn't say anything. She hadn't the faintest clue of how to keep a conversation with this little thing, and she couldn't decide whether to kneel down or not, in fear of seeming condescending. She stared at the creature, and tried as hard as she could to put a name on what it was, but nothing came up. For several painful seconds, she stood there with a half-open mouth, waiting for words to spill out. But they never did.

The cat-creature closed its eyes briefly, and let out a long sigh through its nose “Right... I'm sorry, am I being rude? I'm sure you didn't know that tearing portraits up was considered... uhm... inappropriate. Would you like a seat?”

Rose wasn't given a chance to answer that, before the sound of wood grinding on wood came from somewhere within the darkness-—she nearly jumped as she saw a chair come sliding into her bubble of light, and positioned itself behind her. She watched as another chair, though far smaller, glided in from another end of the room and gave the cat-creature the same treatment. Only then did she notice the faint glimmer of magic lingering on the creature's fingers, as it took a seat.

“You must be horribly confused. Do you know where you are, dare I ask?”

Rose sat on the chair, nervously twiddling her thumbs as she looked around the darkness, that very same question running through her mind. Where was she, exactly? She wanted to say House Zakadiev, but she knew perfectly well that wasn't the answer her host was looking for. She chewed at her lower lip, and all she could do, was shake her head again.

“Well, I can't say I'm surprised.” the creature said, leaning back in the little chair, tiny hands folded behind its feline head. What confused her most about this little thing, was that this little thing had the head of a cat, yet she couldn't put a finger on what the rest of it was. It certainly wasn't human, what with paws and fur everywhere, not to mention its size-—or lack thereof. There were many of these odd amalgamations in The Mortal Realm, but it was always possible to tell what they were; the Myaani being a mix between man and fox; the Krov a mish-mash of several animals; there were even these half-human, half-lizard creatures from the north, that she had never had the dread of meeting. She couldn't quite remember their name.

“You're in the Zakadiev history hall, where everything the house experiences is woven into these tapestries, forever to be treasured, forever to be recalled in times of dire, to see if we've experienced something alike it before—-and thus, how to handle it. But... I don't recall ever having heard of a case like this. It may just be the first time the house has experienced a weak-blood enter its halls only to obliterate a very treasured family portrait. Do you think I should weave that into the tapestry as well?”

Rose felt like snapping at the cat-creature's vicious sarcasm, but she stayed her tongue. Instead, she narrowed her eyes a little at the curious thing it had called her “Weak-blood?”

For a moment, it seemed amused. A little smile took shape beneath its whiskers, its teeth bared to gleam ever so briefly in the glow of her lantern “That's an interesting story, actually. Go back nine hundred years, and you won't find my kind being able to call you that. In fact, go back a bit more, you won't find my kind at all!”

Rose watched with curiosity, as the little creature scooted off its chair, and turned toward the tapestry that was only visible as a faint silhouette, if she didn't stand close with her lantern. But all that quickly proved unnecessary, once the creature raised its tiny right hand, and clicked its fingers.

A pale white spark flew from the tips, and in that spark, dozens of candles were lit. The shadows were driven back and eradicated, Rose's eyes stinging as light suddenly washed over the room, candle after candle after candle bursting aflame at the mere click of the cat-creature's fingers. And in that light, Rose saw that the tapestry she had studied was nowhere near alone; it was simply the front most one, the most recent one. Behind it, countless tapestries stretched far into the back of the room, standing densely packed like a forest of wool and weave. Her gaze lengthened, and she had stood to her feet before she knew it, now staring at a thousand years woven into wool, telling all the tales this house had to give-—perhaps even more than that.

“Stay close now—-and try not to touch anything. These tapestries are the one thing I would rather not have you destroy.”

Rose didn't answer that, but she knew better than to defy it too. As the little creature waddled forth on its stumpy legs, Rose kept close, all while studying the forest of history that she moved through. It was like taking a journey through time; the further back into the room they went, the further back in time they did too. Stories of great men and women spilled out over the woolen tapestries left and right, thousands of proud faces unknown to her, each and every one claiming an immortal place in the history of this strange people. Upon closer inspection, she noticed a few points where the tapestries told of her host's kind as well, standing upon the shoulders of Krov, seeming no less proud despite their lack of size and strength. But as she came to the very back of the room, there was one tapestry where they seemed to be the focus of the entire thing.

“There's one thing you need to know, dear.” her host said, as it came to a stop before the tapestry, looking up at it with a proud smile on its little lips “When someone calls you 'weak-blood', don't take it as an insult. It is mere fact. It is like calling a cow a cow; the cow won't mind, because it is, in fact, a cow. The same goes for you.” it looked up at her, and kept its smile “We mean no offense, when we say it. Your blood is just inherently weaker, hence the name. As you may or may not know, Krov society revolves around blood-—especially their own blood. Their blood is their identity, their very selves, while their bodies are simply vessels to carry it around. It is, to them, what a soul is to you. That is why they take so much pride in it.”

Rose was rather confused by now. She looked down at the creature, lips stiff “But... you're not a Krov. Are you?”

To this, the creature only seemed to smile even more “I'm glad you asked.” it said, and turned its gaze on the tapestry that towered before it. Rose too looked upon it, sharing a moment of silent study. She let her own stare roll down the tapestry like a raindrop trickling down the surface. There were many things here she didn't understand, having no sense of context or symbolic understanding of what it all might mean. To her, most of it was cryptic and senseless. All she saw, when looking at the top of the tapestry, was what seemed like an arid wasteland with a strange red river running in a perfect circle around itself.

“To answer your question: no, I'm not Krov. I am part of a nine-hundred year old race known as the Eiei, and what you are looking upon, is the story of our creation. Look there.” its tiny hand pointed up at the red river “That is the Bloodstream. You humans believe in a place of comfort and happiness where good men go when they die-—or, if they have lived a wicked life, are doomed to either walk the earth as ghosts, or have their souls stolen and molded into demons by the king of the Netherworld, Locux. Krov and Eiei beliefs don't quite work like that. No matter how we lived in life, we always return to our own realm of the dead: the Bloodstream. It leaves little wonder as to why our understandings of morality are so... different.”

Rose looked back at the weave, and found this only to be even more puzzling. She looked back at her host “But... it's all barren. Who would want to go there when they die?”

“Ah. Correction: it was barren. Look further down, dear.” her host said, and gestured to the tapestry again. And true enough, mere inches below, there was a depiction of the very same red river-—but this one was surrounded by lush greenery, and the river circled around a huge white flower. Furthermore, Rose noticed how the blood red stream was surrounded by dozens upon dozens of similar flowers, but these were far smaller than the one in the middle.

“Most people think these barren ages as years where the Krov were incomplete; where a lot of earth had gone untended, and left to wither in time. The Krov believe that once they die, their blood returns to the Bloodstream, to become one with the river from whence they came, mixed in with it, soon to be transferred into a new body when the time is right. But we Eiei don't return to the river; we return to the earth. Every time an Eiei dies, a flower will whither-—but in its wake, it will leave a seed to give life to a new one. The flowers draw strength from the river, and in return, they fulfill the emptiness that the Krov have lived with, for so many years.”

Rose's eyes moved between the tapestry, and her host, still curious “And the big one?”

“The big flower?” Her host asked, a brief glance cast up at her, smiling “That's Ooo, the first of the Eiei.”

Rose gave her host a puzzled look “Ooo?” she asked, wondering what that curious sound was. Was that a name?

Her host nodded once “Yes, Ooo. You'll find that everything Eiei, has no consonants. I, myself, am named Aei.” it flashed a little smile, a hand at its chest, followed by a tiny bow “If you wish, you could speak our entire language without ever closing your mouth. Truth be told, I had a hard time getting used to these hard clicks and snaps that your kind put in your words. Quite... brash, if you ask me. Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, Ooo!” Aei turned its eyes back on the tapestry, and the great big flower in the middle of it all.

“When he died, many centuries ago, his flower never withered. It only continued to grow, and eventually became the closest equivalent to what you know as a god. Ooo oversees and protects sapling flowers, while making sure that the Bloodstream remains clean of any unwanted filth. He wasn't always a 'god', though. Once, he was just like me. Look.” it looked back at the tapestry, its pointed finger now falling a few more inches downwards.

Rose's attention followed, and in its trail, she found a new part of the story. This one was of a young boy, Krov of course, with both hands clasped in those of a grown man before him. She couldn't recognize either of them like she had recognized Vyacheslav, but she saw how there was something rather curious woven in behind them; a door, of sorts. Bright white light washed out from the door, as if opening up to a world beyond mortal reach.

“The story of our creation, is a rather... unearthly one, most would think.” Aei pointed up at the woven picture “The boy there, is Matvey. A very common name within Krov society-—one of the Zakadiev sons is named Matvey, in fact—-though this Matvey was a boy who changed... everything. His father was a very ambitious man, determined to step over the boundaries of mortal right and wrong. Some find his actions just, and true-—others find them to be despicable, but with a fascinating outcome. You see, he wanted to go somewhere no other Krov had before.” its eyes rose a few inches “To the Bloodstream. He used his son as a bridge of sorts, putting him somewhere between life and death, so that the membrane between worlds could be weakened. Most thought him mad, at the time, but mad or not, his success cannot be refuted. For he succeeded in the utmost spectacular way.”

Rose followed Aei's stare to the open door, from where the light shone “He was the first Krov to ever set foot inside the world of the dead. And he made certain not to waste his time there. In his pocket, he carried with him the seed that would bloom to become a whole new form of life: my kind. It was a simple flower seed, but when planted near the life-giving blood of the stream, it became so much more. In the short time he had, he planted the seed on the small island around which the stream flows... and I think you can figure out where the story goes from there.”

Rose could, but in truth, she didn't even have to. For as she let her attention trickle even lower, down to the bottom of the tapestry, she saw a depiction of the same young boy named Matvey—-but this time, he was accompanied by the one that had to be Ooo. Sitting on his lap, seeming quite dumbfounded, Rose found that the god of the Eiei struck her as rather... fat. Chubby little thing he was, sitting there on the young boy's lap, dumb as a newborn child.

“And that's all you'll get today, I'm afraid. History lesson over.” Aei said, turning on its heel to look up at Rose “In all honesty, that became a little longer than I had expected. Did I bore you?”

Rose looked down at Aei, the little creature who didn't reach higher than her knees, and gave a humble shrug “Not particularly. Could be worse. I could be listening to Vyacheslav and a friend of mine bicker 'till the sun went down and the demons started breaking down the gates.”

Aei's lips scrunched slightly, a brief glimpse of dismay in those large eyes “Hrm, yes, I've heard about that.” its ears waggled slightly, to illustrate the point “Who hasn't, these days? The rumors are going wild, and no one seems to agree on what's going on. The only things people are certain of, seems to be that whatever scouts they send out, never return. This Dawn rebellion is the first thing we've seen coming from the south, since the fires began.” Rose followed after Aei, as it sauntered out of the forest of wool and days long past, waddling on those stumpy little legs “Though I can deduce you're no fan of politics, so I'll spare you the bother. Would you like me to show you the way out?”

Rose had already put her hand on the doorknob, before she recalled the reason why she was here in the first place. Even now, the hairs on her neck seemed to rise, and anger set itself in her stomach like a gnawing parasite. She let go of the doorknob, and turned to face Aei.

“Is there... another way out?”

This time, it was Aei's turn to look puzzled “From this room? I'm afraid not. Why? Is there someone out there you'd rather avoid.”

Rose knew perfectly well that the portraits were all just in her head, and they couldn't harm her... but still, she dreaded having to face them again. Just like a child knew just as well that there wasn't anything in the darkness, didn't necessarily make them any less afraid of them. She gave a reluctant nod.

“Hm. Very well. I would ask, but I'm sure you have your reasons.” Aei said, a glance cast at the door “Fortunately, while there might be no current ways out, aside from that door... we could make one. How sturdy is your gut, dear?”

Rose seemed quite perplexed “Excuse me?”

Aei reformulated “Imagine you're on a boat, and a storm hits. The boat rocks wildly, everything is thrown hither and dither, passengers included. Would you throw up?”

Rose had a hard time seeing where this was going “I... I don't think so. Why?”

Aei smiled “Because you might need that sturdiness now, dear. Apologies, in advance, if you do end up vomiting.”

Adrenaline shot through Rose's body “Wait, stop, I-—“

She wasn't given a chance to speak, before Aei's little hands clapped together, a shock of blue magic sending her senses into complete disarray. Everything felt cold, disjointed and distant—-but a second later, it felt as if she was back in the Wastelands, blasted by that merciless scorch. Everything seemed to blur, blue magic encroaching on her vision to eat away everything around her. The Zakadiev history hall was washed away by Aei's magic, and she felt herself be thrown through reality, and what lay beyond. Only seconds before she popped out the other end, she swore that she could detect a faint smell of roast chicken.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 5
In which we received a better look at the Krov, and the society around which they revolve. I've been quite excited to write this chapter, as the Krov are undoubtedly one of my favorite races within The Mortal Realm, simply because of the way they challenge mortal understanding of right and wrong, of morals, of ethics. In the eyes of Krov, it is survival of the fittest. And the Krov are, without a doubt, the fittest of them all.
This chapter is named 'Blood Red Velvet', and for it, I've been listening a lot to the darker stuff of Adrian Von Ziegler (if you don't know him, check him out - he's a genius!). This one in particular: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XZVeA…

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
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Sometimes, Rose wondered why it rained. No one had ever told her the reason; not that she could remember, at least. Looking upwards, seeing the skyline of grey stone buildings and feeling the clouds weep unto her cheeks and in her eyes, Rose kept wondering what made the heavens so sad. She had been looking more upwards than forwards as she followed Ramund around the city of Moonby, caring more for the wonder of nature, than the wonder of man. What bothered her the most, was that she had seen rain so many times before, yet never had she understood why it was there. She remembered asking some of the doctors in the asylum why, but each and every one had a different explanation. Some said that it was simply the sun evaporating water from the ocean, creating clouds that condensed in cooler areas. Others said that it was because an angel had been unjustly killed, and all gods and spirits and fellow angels wept in mourning. Rose thought that the gods must have grown quite tired of crying by now, knowing that the angels were at war with the demons. And in war, death was no stranger.

However, she distinctly remembered the explanation that one Cleanser had given her. It was Ahearn, the one good soul to come and comfort her in darker times, to bring her books and food and smiles. She remembered that day quite clearly. Or maybe it was a night. In Nightweald, it was hard to tell the difference. But she remembered that it was raining, for she could hear it clattering on the granite walls of her cell, and the musty dampness in the air. She remembered asking Ahearn why it rained, and to that, he said that it rained because it had to. If there was no rain, there would be no water for the plants, and without the plants, there would be no animals; it was all part of a greater cycle that made one day of rain worth it in the long run. She remembered him saying that this went for people too. He said that one day of grief meant for greater appreciation of happiness later on. A life of happiness alone would grow dull quite quickly, and that grief was there to give contrast to the good things in life. Rose had wondered what he meant by that. But more importantly, she had wondered when she would have these good things in life. For as long as she could remember—-and that wasn't particularly long at all, at that point-—she could not recall a single day where it did not rain.

It was different here, though. Rose had a hard time understanding it at first, but the more she wandered through the city of Moonby, the more she noticed that rain was as much a part of this city's life, as it was hers. But differently. In the silence she and Ramund kept, she noticed how all the grey houses, big and small, brick and wood, all were made to dance with the rain somehow. Aqueducts wound in between the taller houses, the manors of smooth stone and pretty gardens, and there was not a single road where the sides were not designed to guide the rainwater into the rivers that flowed through the city like veins through a body. Even the smaller houses, the ones of decrepit wood and mossy brick, were built so that the creeks could slip right under the floorboards without even breaking their stride. Most of those with gardens to their houses had even created their own personal creeks and ponds from redirecting the water's flow. Rose found this rather curious. The very architecture of Moonby was one with the rain; if the rain would suddenly just disappear one day, it would leave the entire city looking odd and pointless. But while the heavens still cried, man and nature worked in fascinating unison.

This was especially true, she noticed, as she followed Ramund into what he mentioned was the 'noble district'. Though he really didn't have to say that, for the architecture spoke the very same, and much louder than he ever could. Where before the homes of grey stone and moss and mud stood clenched together like soldiers steeped in a tight formation, the homes here were given a wide berth to reach out and spread their audacious grandeur. For grandeur, there was enough of. Manors tall and proud stood reaching for the crying heavens one after another, each one of them larger than the one before, or with a more vivid garden, or a prettier banner; all Rose could see, was peacocks. Great big stone peacocks spreading their colors in an attempt to outdo their neighbor. The aqueducts were even more frequent here, long bridges leading streams of water up and down and sideways to interconnect the entire place in a web of stone and rain. Some flowed into small ponds in the gardens of the manors all around her, while others flowed directly in through a window, supplying the place with fresh water for the maids to clean the clothes of the lords and ladies.

These, she saw a few of too. Very few, though, since most of them stayed indoors to be free of the rain. But those she saw stood outside in their front gardens, old women in gaudy, vibrant dresses that made them look almost exactly like the flower petals they were surrounded by. There was a lonesome lord as well, sitting on a bench outside, reading a book while his servant held an umbrella over his smoothly combed head. As Rose walked by, she met eyes with the servant; she was a young Myaani, her ragged clothing a stark contrast to the impeccably dressed lord by her side, and Rose saw the strange forlorn look in her eyes. Her ears hung low as if the rain had burdened them, but she knew it was not rain that tore this poor girl down. Rose couldn't quite put her finger on it, but there was something disturbing in seeing how sad that Myaani was, while her lord sat there and twirled his mustache, chuckling over the comedy in the book he read. But Rose could clearly see that while he was enjoying his comedy, his servant was a tragedy written with the ink of oppression on pages of racial prejudice and segregation.

“You mustn't look too long, Rose.” Ramund's voice came rather suddenly, Rose having almost forgotten completely about the old Mjaln for a moment there, her attention torn from the servant girl as they walked around a corner “This is simply their society; this is how it is, in the Moonby Sanctuary. You may spite it all you wish, but if I were you, I would save my efforts. This is one thing that will not change.”

Rose looked over her shoulder, but the servant girl was gone. She walked up beside Ramund, hands in her pockets and eyes in the trickling waters by her feet “I don't mind. I've never claimed that life is fair, that all are equal, that fate treats every man and woman to as much grief as pleasure. Things like these get easier to deal with, when you shed that childish... delusion. It's simply a matter of drawing pleasure from the smaller things, when you don't have everything. Those who live in a world of darkness, will find solace in even the smallest candle.” she said, and the more she spoke, the more this place seemed to remind her of the days she spent in her own darkness, locked away in a cell, never to see sunlight, never to know what freedom felt like. But thinking back on that girl she just passed, she saw that her fate really wasn't all that different. She had wondered why it rained so much, in this place. But now, no longer.

Only a few minutes of walking through this audacious district made her hate it already. She cast glances in through the windows and saw hard-working men rubbing clean the glass while the lords behind it sat back and enjoyed their birthright and a glass of wine that they had teenage maids to fill up. Sometimes she wondered where humanity had gone so wrong. Tear each and every one of these up by the stomach and she knew she would find the same guts, the same heart, the same bones-—there was nothing that truly made these velvet-clad rats any different from the slaves that they surrounded themselves with. But somewhere along the line, humanity had deemed that this was how things were going to be. And Rose knew perfectly well that it wasn't going to change, just as Ramund said. She only hoped that once hell stood banging at their gates, they would look to each other and realize that the demons would tell no difference between men in silks and men in rags.

But before long, Ramund came to a stop before one manor in particular. There was a look in his eye that he did not doubt where he was, and as Rose looked upon the manor herself, she quickly understood why. She did not know much about the Krov, and even less about these 'Zakadievs', but she could tell that this manor stood out like a wolf amongst a flock of the aforementioned peacocks. Where the other buildings seemed to embrace color in their gardens and bright, glorious banners, the Zakadievs had other thoughts in mind. Several jagged spires stood like blackened spearheads from the ground, dark granite slashed with blood red banners hanging from the walls. The rain clattered upon tall, gothic windows with curtains drawn, but Rose could see curious eyes peeking through the cracks, all the way up there. Gargoyles sat perched upon the garden pillars that bound the dark steel fence together, encasing this bleak building from where snake-emblazoned banners cried out the name 'Zakadiev'. She looked to Ramund, and Ramund looked back at her with eyes that, in all honesty, were not quite certain what they were heading into.

“This seems... stupid.” Rose commented as she turned her gaze back at the towering manor, the crude spires, the garden of plain grass and strange marble statues. She noticed that most of these had some kind of depiction of snakes in them; one was a Krov woman with snakes coiling around her outspread arms, and another was a giant serpent with water spilling from its yawning maw.

Ramund sighed and approached the fence gates, shaking his head, his thoroughly soaked beard swaying as he did “Stupid does not matter, when it is the right thing to do. I can scarcely imagine what pain one must endure, to lose their child... these people deserve to know that their son is safe and sound.”

Rose kept close to Ramund as he pushed open the gates, the hinges screaming for oil “I heard something about that.” Rose commented, hands in her pockets, eyes meeting the empty stare of a serpent statue “This... kidnapping. Or whatever it is. I suppose I should've asked earlier, but I didn't think you'd travel all this way just for me anyway. You've got more important things to care for, I understand.” she didn't even try to avoid the puddles on the ground any longer, the rain having drenched her through and through already “Makes you wonder how far you'll go for what's right, doesn't it?” she asked, a curious looked turned on the big man as they wandered down the stony path that slithered through the Zakadiev gardens, ended only by the front door of the manor.

Ramund turned an almost equally curious look on Rose “And what is that meant to say, dare I ask?”

To this, Rose smiled “Exactly what it sounds like, Ramund. I just hope-—should it get to that-—that you will treasure your sense of right and wrong, when they brand us kidnappers and slice open our throats.”

Ramund's nose wrinkled slightly, his eyes turned back on the door before them “Should it get to that.” he echoed, so stalwart in his belief that these people would never do such a thing. But Rose could taste his doubt. She could taste it like she could taste the rain slipping through her lips.

The door that stood at the front of the daunting Zakadiev manor seemed mostly like a thick, black wall of wood that just happened to be cut in two and adorned with handles and a hatch. Rose wondered why these Krov were so obsessed with all things serpentine, as she saw how the door too was littered in intricate carvings of snakes entwined in love on one side, and wrought in fierce strife on the other. Even the knocker of the door was a gilded snake's head-—one which Ramund only hesitated slightly to grab, before giving the door three hard knocks.

Rose twiddled her fingers idly as she stood there in the rain, an odd contrast of size to Ramund's enormity, he the kin of mountains and a child of blizzards, and she but a petite human—-looking at the door and Ramund, she knew that he was going to have some troubles squeezing his way through it. Assuming that they would be allowed inside, of course.

Suddenly, the hatch flew open. A pair of eyes, deep hazel and pretty, stared out at them. They were human, from what Rose could tell-—she hadn't seen it for herself, but she had heard that the Krov were supposed to have the eyes of cat, their pupils vertical and keen.

“And you are...?” the owner of the eyes asked, a woman by the sound of it, her stare moving curiously between Rose and Ramund. Rose kept quiet, and let Ramund do the talking.

“Allies.” Ramund answered shortly, a head bowed slightly in greeting and a large hand turned to present himself and Rose “We would request an audience with the lord of the house. It is an utmost private matter.”

The woman huffed slightly “I'm afraid not. His lordship Vyacheslav is not entertaining visitors these days.”

The polite smile that Ramund had donned seemed to diminish “No? Pardon me, madam, but no matter how busy his lordship may be, this is something that he would very much like to hear.”

“Then I am certain he will contact you in due time. Good day.” the hatch quickly slammed shut, and Rose could hear footsteps leaving from behind the door. In a rush of swift thought, she raised her voice.

“It's about his son!” she called out, hoping that her words could penetrate the thickness of the door. She heard how the footsteps came to a halt, leaving them in a painful silence of anticipation. For uncomfortably long, there was nothing, and Rose began to think that the woman behind hadn't heard her—-or simply chosen to ignore her. But that was when the hatch flew open again.

“I hope for your own sake that it is important.” the woman said as her eyes peered out the hatch once more, full of impatience and disdain “The entire house is in no mood for wasting time. Bear in mind, once you step in this door, you will be leaving behind the laws of the city, and accepting the laws that his lordship Vyacheslav has decreed. Is that understood?”

Rose turned a look up at Ramund, and saw the slight concern in the old Mjaln's eyes. It was clear to see that while he might have been wiser than most, even he was uncertain about what these Krov laws dictated. Still, these were uncertain times, and uncertain times often resulted in uncertain decisions. This was one of them.

“It is.” Ramund said, and gave a nod.

“Good.” the hatch slammed shut again. A series of metallic clicks and clamor was heard, as locks innumerable were being undone. As the last key was turned, the door creaked and groaned like an ancient oak bending in a hurricane, and Rose straightened up as the way inside opened up.

“I have been strictly forbidden any opening of this door, so if you've only come to share your condolences for Matvey, you had best turn around now.” the woman on the other side of the door was a tall one, dressed in a servant's gown of loose cotton and an apron wrought in red and black, the colors of the house in which she served. Her hair was bundled up and tied together with leather, and Rose noticed how her fingers were tough of skin, and her arms rather strong. It was clear that she was no stranger to physical labor.

“Young Matvey will not need any condolences.” Ramund put on his grandfatherly smile again as he stepped inside, closely followed by Rose. Rose had to resist the urge of shaking like a dog to get all the rain off of her, and simply stood there in the entrance room, dripping like a strung-up wet towel. Which was a pity, since these floors deserved much better than that, she noticed. Even though this was but the small entrance room, Rose could smell the wealth more than she could see it; even with beautiful coats and exotic fur littering the walls and filling up closets, the smell of varnished mahogany instantly told anyone who entered, that they had stepped inside a house of riches and plenty. Ramund and Rose had no coats to hang, but even if they did, Rose wouldn't feel particularly comfortable hanging hers by the side of coats so long they scraped the ankles of those wearing them, and with fur collars from foxes, wolves, and several creatures that she couldn't even identify.

“There are those who would disagree with you, Mjaln.” the servant woman droned as she moved about the small entrance room, taking her place by the farthest door, her hand already on the knob “I don't like to hope for anything, but I am sure his lordship would be pleased if you could convince him that condolences aren't necessary.”

“For a father wrought in grief and worry, that may be no easy task.” Rose followed in Ramund's shadow as he stepped forward, his voice turned to a pleasant low almost as soon as he squeezed his way through that door “But that should not keep us from trying. Shall it now, Rose?”

“Hm? Oh, right, uhm... no, of course not.” Rose quickly shook her head, though the words she spoke were little but half-thought noises, clearly not having been listening all that much-—and judging by the look on Ramund's face, he knew that perfectly well. She also noticed some odd sense of discretion in his eyes, some secrecy written on the little smile he gave her. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that he hadn't mentioned to the servant where poor little Matvey was... maybe this Mjaln was craftier than she had thought.

“If you've got no coats to hang, then let's waste no more time. I'll endure a little sluggishness from guests like you, but when you speak with Vyacheslav, speak plainly, clearly, and then get out. His lordship is known for many things, but patience is not one of them. Do I have to repeat that? No? Good. Then let's go.” despite her words, the servant woman didn't seem a particularly patient individual either, Rose noticed. Ramund only got to nod, before she opened up the door.

The light of three great chandeliers tumbled in through the open door, revealing the great hall of Zakadiev beyond. With a ceiling as tall as a church and with candles innumerable to light it all up, it was more than just a bit of a daunting sight, Rose thought. As if the strong whiff of mahogany wasn't enough, now most of her other senses were being yelled at, told oh so clearly that these halls belonged to men who were greater than you, richer than you, smarter than you. Ramund led the way, and she followed, her hands in her pockets and her eyes upon the utter cornucopia of books. There were so many books. In this massive hall, every wall was a bookshelf so tall that ladders had to be set up for readers to even make out the titles of books placed so high. Shadows danced like devils amongst all the light, all three chandeliers adorned with small serpentine figurines, so that the shadows they cast unto the walls seemed like great, mythical wyrms. Huge carpets of red and black washed over the mahogany floors and made them comfortably soft to walk on; Rose noticed how these carpets flew the emblem of Zakadiev as well, as if the rest of this manor did not scream that name loud enough already.

There was furniture scattered here and there, some collected around small tea tables, others before either of the two hearths that cast their fiery glow and spiced the air with a scent of charcoal. Stepping into this hall of obscene wealth, Rose noticed a few more servant women refilling tea-cups and maids brushing mahogany corners with little more than a single feather in their hands—-but amidst the servants, maids, and the occasional butler, she could spot only a single nobleman. He was a rather young fellow, perhaps somewhere in his late teens, sitting before one of the hearths with the firelight on his pale cheeks and a book in his lap. His horns weren't particularly sizable, only curving around his ears half-way, as ram-like horns now did, and the half-naked tail that stuck out from underneath his legs was lanky and small. She was tempted to approach him and look him straight in the eye, just to see if the tales were true.

However, her attention was caught by something else, as she followed Ramund in a line down the carpeted floors, headed straight for a large staircase that split in two like a serpent's tongue. There were several doors where the bookshelves allowed it, and from them she could hear shouting, like a cook barking orders to his apprentices-—yet over that shouting, she could hear the distinct sound of an instrument. A violin. She couldn't locate the music, yet there was something about it that put her in an unearthly muse, as if the sweet tunes swept her away on a river of symphonic harmony. Her legs felt strangely empty and light, the thoughts in her head washed away to make space for the haunting, captivating serenade. She had never heard anything like it, and she couldn't stop focusing on it, as if it somehow quieted everything else, just so the world could shut up and listen to its song.

“He's good, isn't he?” Rose snapped her attention toward the servant woman who followed her and Ramund up the splitting staircase—-she hadn't even noticed her until now. Only now did she know what a smile looked like on her face “Newcomers always have that very same look on their faces, the first time they hear Vyacheslav's violin. No one quite knows how he does it, whether it is some Krov craftsmanship of the instrument, or magic. But whatever the reason, it never fails to enthrall. You were pretty enthralled just there, weren't you?”

Rose's cheeks flared slightly, uncertain about what had just happened “I... uhh...”

“I will not hesitate to admit that I was.” Ramund said, followed by an amused chuckle “Curious. Very curious, indeed. Is the lord magically adept at all, dare I ask?”

As they reached the top of the staircase, now given an excellent view over the proud hall below, the Zakadiev emblem on the floors now clear in its serpentine glory, the servant woman couldn't help but smirk “You can ask all you want, but I'm afraid I can't give you a satisfying answer. No one really can. If he knows magic, then he hides it quite well. If he doesn't... well, then I suppose he's just really good at playing the violin, isn't he?” she snickered slightly, some odd jest in her eyes “You can go ask him yourself, if you want. Just follow the music.” she said, and gestured down a long hallway on her left.

“Perhaps we shall.” Ramund cast a look down the hallway, seeing it delve deep into the mahogany walls of the manor, and as Rose did the same, she got the distinct feeling that this place was much larger than it seemed on the outside. The violin kept playing and her attention never ceased to return to it, the gentle tunes like whispers luring her, seducing her. She hardly even noticed as Ramund sauntered for the hallway, and with a curious look from the servant woman, she quickly caught up to the old Mjaln, and acted as if she had never lost focus anyway.

There was something strangely haunting about this place, and she really couldn't tell if Ramund noticed. Wasn't he the magically inclined one? Wasn't he supposed to have a finer sense for these kinds of things, or had age dulled that too? The hallway that they walked down turned and swayed now and then, and there were portraits of other Krov nobles on either side of this red-carpeted corridor, setting her and Ramund on a journey through the life and times of this strange, enigmatic house. There was the occasional door on her left or on her right, but her attention fell on the portraits... because the portraits' attention always fell on her. Walking past them, she could feel eerie stares upon her, much like the times where the elf in the top hat showed up to taunt her, torture her. It was deeply unsettling, and every time she turned to stare back at the portraits, she could swear on seeing them quickly look away. And looking to Ramund, it was as if she was the only one noticing this. Paranoia and fear began to creep up the back of her neck and dig into her head, the hairs on her arms rising and unearthly chills coursing through her veins. She saw now those feline, yellow glares of the Krov, but she would so dearly have wished to see it another way than this. And they never stopped looking. Like hungry vultures they stared, and all she could do to keep herself from screaming out and tearing the portraits straight from their frames was clench her teeth, keep walking, and focus on the snaking corridor that lead them... somewhere. She wasn't particularly religious, but she had to whisper a quiet prayer of thanks when Ramund finally came to a stop before one of the doors, and muttered quietly: “We're here.”

And true enough, she could hear it too. The violin was clearest here, its coaxing song coming from right behind this beautiful door engulfed in the black and red colors of the house and emblazoned in the very same emblem that she had seen so many times now. Rose could still feel the eyes upon her, and she was practically dancing on her toes in anxious impatience. The violin had played all this time, and her attention was ripped in half between it and the haunting, staring eyes of long-dead Zakadiev nobles, lords and ladies alike. It was as if the violin was driving her insane, and the eyes were a result of it. Or... was the insanity there already, regardless of the violin, and was she tasting its bitter fruit now? She dreaded the thought, and quickly shook it out of her head, horrified that a certain top-hatted elf might step out of the shadows and laugh at her. It was only when Ramund knocked three hard times on the door, that the violin stifled its song.

An unnerving silence followed. Ramund and her stood side by side, their folded hands hanging by their laps in almost the exact same way as they waited. And they continued to wait for uncomfortably long, but Ramund had no idea of what pain she was going through right now, still feeling the haunting eyes glare through her flesh and right into her most intimate self. It was as if she could feel their cold breaths on her neck already, and soon the fangs would come and plunge themselves through her soft skin. She was no stranger to vampires, many of her fellow inmates in the asylum having fangs like those, but there was something about these Krov that put ungodly frost in her heart. It was with that thought in mind, that the door opened up.

“Hm. I don't recall hiring a new pair of servants... and certainly not a Mjaln.” the man that opened up, was far taller than Rose had anticipated. Although not as tall as Ramund, he was much taller than her, and the proud horns on his head gave him a few extra inches too. Curling twice around his ears and adorned with golden rings and a pair of tiny silver bells dangling from their tips, this pair of horns was certainly the most audacious one she had seen in her entire life—probably because that most other horns like these she had seen, belonged to sheep and goats.

“Nor had I expected you to, your lordship.” Ramund answered, smiling, offering a gracious bow of his head to the Krov lord “We know of the dire times your house is undergoing, but we believe to have the most effective remedies of all, when it comes to anguish like yours. May we come in?”

A skeptical look conquered the expression of the Krov lord. His face was as if carved from stone by the chisel of the finest artist, not a single wrinkle to be found, despite that he was no young Krov at all. His lips were stiff and stern, a perpetual sneer curled on them and the points of his vicious pair of fangs stuck out to remind those before him that he was the predator, and they were prey. But most curious of all, Rose found, was his beard. The two great men that now stood before one another seemed interlocked in a battle of beards; Ramund with his glorious avalanche of a beard hanging from his face and studded with rune-littered steel to keep it all in place, and Vyacheslav with not one, but three beards. From his chin and from where his jaw met his neck, three ponytails hung, wrapped and bound in blood-red silk and decorated with small bone charms, perhaps something cultural within the Krov society.

“Others have come to claim the very same; alchemists and clairvoyants and priests... none have succeeded, and none have left with their fingers left on their hands. What makes the two of you so... special?” he turned his stare on Rose briefly, and in it, she saw a piercing dominance that made her heart stand still for a second or two. In those vertical pupils, she felt a strength that went far beyond mind or muscle, and gripped around her very being, all in just one stare. For a moment, she forgot all about the glares of the portraits behind her, each and every one of them quieted by these oppressing eyes. She had heard how the Krov were known for claiming themselves superior to all, and when she met stares with Vyacheslav, she was beginning to see why.

“Because alchemists will feed you potions and declare your worries gone; because clairvoyants will whisper sweet lies in your ears and tell you that all will be well; because to find solace in the words of a priest, you must too believe in our gods.” Ramund said, sounding no less confident than before “And from what I recall, your kind do not share our faith in gods and heavens. You might not even share our laws and convictions, but no matter how different we may be, what news I bring you, is good news, and will give you no reason to worry.”

To this, Vyacheslav smirked. His left fang stuck out a little further as he looked up at the great man before him. He leaned on the door frame, arms folded and his oddly claw-like fingers running through the front ponytail of his curious facial hair. Rose noticed that despite the eccentric beard of his, his hair was strangely regular; short, well-combed and deep brown, it carried no odd adornments or style, his horns and his beard seeming to have enough of that already. His outfit, however, boasted as much glory as the rest of him; a long coat of black and red velvet spun with silver thread hung far down his tall figure, scraping at his knees and swaying at his every move. It coiled and writhed as Vyacheslav switched on his feet, but Rose caught some odd glances of what seemed like a story woven into the cloth, like looking upon an ancient temple wall and seeing what transpired in days long past. And in under it, was his tail. While the Krov son that Rose saw just a few minutes ago had but a little tuft on the end of it, Vyacheslav's tail was engulfed in fur that was dyed black and red as well.

“What a delightfully unrealistic claim, stranger.” Vyacheslav's words were poison, and Rose felt nauseous already. He stepped back and pushed open the door, gracefully motioning for her and Ramund to follow him “But I do love a bit of fiction now and then, so please, amuse me. If your fiction is as good as it sounds, maybe I shall even let you keep your tongue. I can appreciate a talented storyteller... but I have no patience for liars.”

“You will find that we are neither.” Ramund declared shortly and frankly, clearly not too amused by Vyacheslav's word games, but he knew better than to say it outright. As Vyacheslav turned on his heel, his vividly dyed tail swaying in his wake, Ramund leaned down to Rose and lowered his voice.

“Be on your guard, Rose. Krov do not have the same understanding of right and wrong as us... if this lord finds it in his heart to flay us and set our heads on pikes because it amuses him, I have no doubt that he will do exactly that. And as long as it takes place within these walls, there will come no guards to tell him wrong.”

Rose looked back up at Ramund, and gave him but a mirthful smile “I like him already. Shall we?” for a moment, Rose saw disgust in the eyes of Ramund... and she enjoyed it. Confident in her step, she followed after Vyacheslav, never mind the danger that walking into the lion's den seemed to pose.

As Ramund closed the door behind her, she shut her eyes for a moment and took a breath of relief from the eyes of the portraits being cut off so instantly. Much to her pleasant surprise, Vyacheslav didn't have any of them in this room of his. Carpets and tapestries on the walls and floors flew the emblem of his house, but it seemed that he had no love for his ancestors, as the only portrait in here was a small framed family picture on the stone hearth in the back of the room. Glimmering in the flickering firelight, it showed the entirety of the Zakadiev house, and Rose saw that it was as Theodor said: not that grand at all. One wife, one daughter, and two sons were the only ones that accompanied Vyacheslav in this small framed portrait, and Rose assumed that one of those sons had to be the kidnapped child that she had heard of; the other son she had seen in the hall, after all.

“My time is short and my patience shorter, so spare me the formalities, dear guests.” Vyacheslav droned as he slouched into the cushioned chair by his desk, on which his violin lay. He turned around on the chair and entwined his fingers, the bells on his horns jingling ever so slightly as he cocked his head.

“If you've come to speak to me about my son, then know that it is a subject very dear to me, and I will endure no... trivialities.” he spoke that word with odd spite, his serpentine tongue peeking out from his crude lips briefly “Do I have to show you the lock box in which I keep the tongues of those who have wasted my time, hm?” his fangs peeked forth in a brief flash of vice and violence.

The room was wrought in darkness, the corners full of shadow so dense that Rose felt as if she could see eyes lurking within, peering at these curious new guests-—and considering the owner of the room, she would hardly be surprised. The hearth cast a warm glow over the room, complimented by a single candle on Vyacheslav's desk, but where the light could not reach, darkness coiled.

“That... will not be necessary, your lordship.” Rose could hear that Ramund was trying his best to remain polite in spite of Vyacheslav's threats, but his frustration was bleeding through like rain through a . He and Rose found themselves seats too, pulling up a few nearby chairs to face the Zakadiev lord, looking him straight in those assertive eyes of feline grace and sleight. As Ramund spoke, the crack of burning logs in the hearth and the clatter of rain on a nearby window followed his words

“I apologize for the vagueness, your lordship, but I had to be certain no unwelcome ears heard this.” Ramund continued, his fingers entwined, caution clear in his eyes and in his voice “My name is Ramund Bjornsson, and this is Rosalyn. We represent the Dawn rebellion, of which I am certain you have heard. And... we have your son.”

Rose wasn't quite certain what happened as he said that—-it all happened so fast. A flash of wrath in Vyacheslav's eyes, his chair suddenly flung half-way across the room, a blade that she hadn't even seen, appearing out of nowhere as Vyacheslav bounded to his feet. Ramund was just as surprised at the sheer haste of the Zakadiev lord, and before he even realized what he had said, the edge of a jagged sword was poised at his neck. Vyacheslav's fangs were fully bared now, his lips pulled back in a snarl that belonged to monsters, not men.

“You convince my servants to let you inside, you play me with your politeness, and now you have the nerve to speak such filth?!” Vyacheslav spat the words and Rose instinctively rushed to her feet as well, leaving Ramund stuck there on the chair, locked by a sword wrought in firelight, practically kissing Ramund's throat already “Do you work for him? Anton Cercy-—do you work for him?!”

“Stay your blade, Vyacheslav!” Ramund shouted right back at the Krov lord, baring his own teeth, despite that he couldn't display such a vicious maw as Vyacheslav “I am not here to ask for ransom—-were I, I would know better than to wander in where you could slash me to scattered limbs and go unpunished.”

“It's true.” Rose wasn't quite sure why she intervened, but in a rush of quick thought, she stepped in between Vyacheslav and Ramund, staring him dead in the eyes. Vyacheslav didn't seem to have noticed her all that much at all while she was sitting there, and only now seemed to acknowledge her presence; and he did so by slipping the blade to her neck instead. She took in a sharp breath as she felt the barbed steel on her skin, a rush of cold chilling her veins, but amidst the dread, there was an odd excitement in it too. And that was what kept her from crumbling under the oppressive stare of the Krov lord.

“So you say.” Vyacheslav spoke the words through gritted teeth, his serpentine tongue running up and down his fangs, wetting them, preparing them “I could strike your head from your shoulders and intoxicate myself in whatever blood doesn't land on the floor, little girl. I only need one of you to tell me where my son is. Please. Convince me... not to.”

Rose saw how Vyacheslav was drowned in shadow all of a sudden, as Ramund stood to his feet as well “Stop this madness! There is no need for this. Rose, your help is appreciated, but,” she felt his heavy hand on her shoulder “This is nothing more than a misunderstanding. Your lordship, listen... we have your son, because we found him in a cave, many hours from the Sanctuary. We are here to help.”

Rose suddenly regretted standing between these two giants, one physical and one political, and though she did not dare to turn her head in fear of having her throat opened up, she could feel the tension of the stares between Ramund and Vyacheslav. Silence followed as Vyacheslav stood there with his sword still lingering on her neck, his tail raised threateningly and his eyes full of wrath. It was many painful seconds that had to pass, before Vyacheslav lowered his sword, and Rose could breathe freely.

“I suppose my actions speak louder than my words, when I say that I am... on edge.” he turned his back on his guests as he wandered back to his candlelit desk, dumping tiredly into the chair, fingers tapping impatiently on the armrests. The tension hung in the air like a bad smell, but at least there was some sense of calm, now that blades had been sheathed and seats had been taken. Rose rubbed her neck where the blade had kissed, and counted it as a blessing that it was still intact.

Vyacheslav turned on his chair, his chiseled face and vicious glare again set on his guests, words spilling through half-bared teeth “You'll have to excuse my rashness, but I am certain you could understand why I would want to tear the heads off those who claim to hold my son—-and when you step into my very home and claim that very thing, such consequences are to be... expected.” there was not a shred of apology in his words, every vowel sharpened to a deadly keen upon the whetstone of hatred “Now then, Ramund Bjornsson. Rosalyn. You tell me that you have my son-—safe and sound, I should hope-—and that you are here to help, yet still my house weeps in his absence. Why?” his long nails clicked like claws upon the wood of his armrests, and Rose could tell that he was exactly as patient as word said that he was.

Ramund took in a long breath as he sat back in his chair as much as his weight would allow, hands folded on his half-armored stomach “A mere precaution, your lordship.” he began “Word travels swiftly, and if we simply brought him to you immediately, chances are that his kidnappers would simply take him right back... or worse. It is for your sake—-and for your son's-—that we keep him where he is safe, for the time being.”

“In the hands of rebel fools and stranger men?” Vyacheslav sneered, a feral growl from the depths of his throat pushing through his barbed teeth “You try my patience, Mjaln. Know that you will find it... lacking.” the vertical slits of his piercing eyes seemed to narrow. Rose met stares with him again as he looked between them with venomous disdain, his nose wrinkled and half of his face drenched in shadow under the glow of the hearth.

“You seem new to this realm. So please, allow me to educate you a little about us Krov. There are many things in life that we hate, and there are many things that we appreciate, but in all of life, there is nothing that matches our love for family. Many years ago, in distant lands far beyond the Western Waters, the Krov were many. Live was rich. We flourished.” he stood to his feet, and for a moment, sounded oddly reminiscent. His chin was raised slightly, bells of his horns jingling as he moved to stand before he hearth. His long shadow splattered unto the wall, and his face was turned to a silhouette as he looked back at his guests.

“But then the Bloodbile struck.” he turned to face them in his entirety, his elegant coat swaying as he spun on his heels “As you may or may not know, our strength lies in our blood, the sacred fluid that courses through our veins, and that which  all Krov society revolves around. But the Bloodbile turned that strength against us. We were decimated, reduced to a fraction of what we once were, and faced with near-certain extinction. And were it not for Alexei Advonovich, the greatest scientist mage to ever draw breath, we may quite possibly never have made it this far, to have this conversation. With extinction being a very real threat, Advonovich tried one last attempt at salvation: fusing our blood with the essence of a wraith, the spawn of the dark god of madness, Belin. I take it you are both well aware of what that means?” he asked, an inquisitive stare moving between Rose and Ramund.

Neither of them answered, but it was clear that there was no question about it. Rose knew them all too well, these wraiths. The specters born from endless night, apparitions that somehow bled into this world, haunting the woods of her home and possessing the unwary traveler. Oh how she remembered it all so clearly. It was never the possession itself that was the horrid thing—-that usually didn't include more than seizures and unconsciousness—-but what came afterwards, was. Even with such a shattered memory, she could easily recall seeing more than a few of her friends grow fur, claws, and howl at the moon—-or grow fangs and suddenly desire nothing else in this world than the warm taste of blood. And insanity never failed to follow. She could not remember how many times she had checked her own teeth, all because things would make so much more sense, if only she was a vampire. She looked at Vyacheslav's fangs, and felt strange envy. If she had a pair of her own, at least she would know why they called her that. Why they had labeled her that. 'Insane'.

“It was on that fateful day that all Krov faced either salvation or destruction—-and whether we were destroyed by the dark god's spawn or by the Bloodbile, it did not seem to matter. But as fortune would have it, the ritual succeeded. There were those who did not make it, but those who did, were given the strength to annihilate the Bloodbile forever.” he pulled back his lips in a beastly snarl, baring his fangs and giving one of them a tap of his claw-like nail “But this is the price we paid for survival. Every time we feel the urge, we are reminded of the day that all of our kind were nearly wiped clean from the world of the living. It is in this urge, that we learn to appreciate our fellow kind while they yet draw breath. Now... now do you see why our offspring and our family means so much to us? In Krov society, every life is sacred; every child is a gift upon us, born with the sole purpose of extending the existence of our race for another lifetime. Have you any common sense at all, you'll see now that it is more than a father's love that feeds me this hatred for those who took my son... and the reason that I nearly took your heads as well. So please, pardon me if I am not too pleased with a fraction of my kind's future being held in the claws of a rebel circus like your own.”

There was a silence, as Vyacheslav took his seat again. The chair creaked under his weight as he sat into the soft satin cushions, his stiff lips closed and his keen eyes once again wrought in spite, rather than reminiscence. Ramund sat quiet in his chair as well, his tongue moving across his lips once in a while, words stuck in his throat. Rose looked between the two as she sat there, comfortably out of the conversation zone, a mere spectator in this battle of wills. And it seemed like Vyacheslav was winning, much to her surprise.

“I...” Ramund swallowed, and nodded once “I understand. Believe or do not, I truly do understand. I am a father myself, if that should aid the legitimacy of my words. A young daughter of mine, sweet little girl whom I have not heard the voice of in so long, naught but a memory ever since I left the mountains. Yet still, in my heart and in my dreams, I can still hear her sing.” Rose looked upon Ramund as he spoke, and noticed something. While speaking, his large hand moved to his pocket, as if checking for something. Curiosity grew within her, as questions began to appear. What was in that pocket?

“And to know that she had been taken, would too induce wrath unlike any other in me.” he continued, eyes still on Vyacheslav, who seemed as sombre and solemn as always “I do not blame you, your lordship. I could never. I simply fear that bringing your son here would put him in thrice-fold the danger he is in now. He is being cared for, kept warm and dry... but if you insist, then I am no man to deny you your son.”

“That... would be appreciated.” Vyacheslav continued, chin raised and horns gleaming in the light of the candles and hearth “If you are the father you claim to be, then I am certain you too would be uncomfortable with the thought of your daughter being stuck in the hands of strangers and troublemakers. Because, when you think about it, that is exactly what you are, rebel. Your little entourage are strangers to this land, and with you, you bring nothing but strife. I am not about to let my son be a part of that.”

“I'm afraid he already is.” Rose intervened, rather suddenly, rather spontaneously, but she couldn't help a little smile “As are you. As are the rest of us. As are all the little wormy peasants on the streets searching your trash for scraps of food, just to survive another day while you gorge yourself on fresh-slaughtered piglets and exotic fruit that famished hands put on your table.”

“Rose!” Ramund interrupted her, just as she had expected “That's about enough!”

“No, Ramund.” Rose turned her stare on him, looking him dead in the eye “I don't think it is. I don't think it will ever be.” this time, she felt no reluctance, as she bounded to her feet and looked straight down at Vyacheslav “Do you know what is coming for you, little lord? Hm? Do you know what lurks on the other side of the mist, impatiently waiting for their chance to bring down these walls and massacre every man, every woman, every child and every dog in these streets?” She approached Vyacheslav, who was staring right back at her, seeming more and more infuriated at her audacity. But she felt no fear, no hesitation, and her madness was shining brightly in the disgusted stare she set on Vyacheslav.

“When they come,” she continued, her voice shivering and spoken through gritted teeth “When they come for you, there will be no distinction. There will be no prisoners. They will not be so merciful as to simply kidnap your son, your wife, your daughter; every last one of you will be worth as much as the lowliest beggar on the streets. When they come.” she leaned in close, close enough to bite, even though Vyacheslav was the one with the fangs “When they come, it won't matter who kept your boy safe. Ever since they set their bloodshot eyes on Moonby, this city turned from a sanctuary, to a hunting ground. And in mere days, it will open season for peasant and noble alike.” her eyelid twitched, and on her lips, a crazed smile took shape “Your time is short, so I'd suggest you cut the bullshit, and make a decision. Ramund can sweet-talk you all he wants, but I'll be the one to spill the beans: we've got your son, and we want your help as ransom.”

“Your lordship, I must apologize!” Ramund stood to his feet as well, his hand heavy on Rose's shoulder “She doesn't know what she is saying; we mean no such thing.”

“Fuck off, Ramund!” Rose howled, prying his hand from her shoulder and leaning in inch-close to Vyacheslav, cackling in between her words, her voice lowered to a haunting whisper “Once these walls fall—-and they will—-your pretty clothes and your titles will matter nothing; you'll be prey like the rest of us. The only thing that matters, little lord, is whose side you're on... when they come.”

When that was said, what happened afterward didn't really matter. She felt herself be torn away from Vyacheslav, and she saw him rise to his feet and snarl something through that fanged maw of his, but she couldn't hear it. The only thing she could hear, was her own frenzied guffaw. She laughed and laughed and laughed, treasuring every single moment of seeing that frantic look on the Krov lord's face. His stupid facade of superiority had made her sick for too long, and seeing it challenged like this, gave her such an intoxicating rush of ecstasy. How she loathed masks like these. He was mortal, just like the rest of them. And in the split second before she was hurled out the door, she saw that delicious look of dishonor in his eyes. Did he realize now that he was going to die like the rest of them, she wondered.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 4.5
In which we received a better look at the Krov, and the society around which they revolve. I've been quite excited to write this chapter, as the Krov are undoubtedly one of my favorite races within The Mortal Realm, simply because of the way they challenge mortal understanding of right and wrong, of morals, of ethics. In the eyes of Krov, it is survival of the fittest. And the Krov are, without a doubt, the fittest of them all.
This chapter is named 'Blood Red Velvet', and for it, I've been listening a lot to the darker stuff of Adrian Von Ziegler (if you don't know him, check him out - he's a genius!). This one in particular: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XZVeA…

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
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But in lands far to the north, a quiet had settled over the world. There was something strange in the air; something that clogged the throats of the afternoon birds and quelled the winds to a curious silence. The city of Godshill that leaned upon the mountain side like a golden necklace of these ancient giants seemed so still this day. Lucius had been used to the constant background chatter of the people as they wandered by, lovers holding hands and merchants trying to advertize their goods louder than the man before—-but today, there was silence. He looked out the window and saw the mountains, the great rocky plains of the Eastern Valley, the sun. Again, there it was, that glorious thing on the sky. So majestic it was, loved by all, the entire world praising its return like a dog seeing its owner come home. It was strange how that the sun seemed to be the only thing in the world that everyone could agree on loving. Of course, Lucius couldn't help but love it as well... but he couldn't help but cringe at its audacity.

He looked down at his desk, his velvet--draped legs slung up on it, his black leather shoes gleaming in the light that pierced his window. There were crumbs lingering on a plate that once carried a lovely apple pie he had enjoyed for lunch, and there was all the paperwork that kept reminding him that his work was never done. However, in stark contrast, there was something else on the desk that told him that it would be—-and soon.

It was such a small thing, yet in comparison to most things in here, it was the greatest of them all. Although so small that it could fit in his palm like an egg, it was easily the most important thing he had laid eyes upon all day. This curious little vial, so full of inky black liquid, was what would give this city its salvation from political lethargy and sloth. Not an invading demon army; not a group of rising rebels; not even the sun! No, it was but a few droplets of this, and Godshill could once again exert the strength that made it was it was today. He held it pinched between his thumb and index finger, holding it forth to let the sun shine upon it, yet not a single ray could penetrate its blackness. He couldn't help but smile. What was that audacious sun now, in comparison to this?

There was a knock on the door. Lucius was torn from his admiration of the vial, quickly slipping it down his chest pocket as he turned his gaze to the door. He raised his voice.

“Enter.”

And enter he did, Lucius' favorite servant. The door creaked slightly as Ferdinand the hunchback stepped inside, the old man draped in dark brown robes like a monk, his gaunt fingers holding a letter. His face was partially hidden underneath his hood, but his wrinkly lips stuck out, flapping as he spoke.

“My lord.” he said, those two words seeming to have become more routine than respect “I do hope I am not disturbing anything.”

“You are not.” Lucius replied calmly as he leaned back in his chair and put his golden hair into a ponytail “Nothing more than the usual paperwork, dear Ferdinand-—and as you know, that never ends. So this is as good a time as any. Now... what news do you have for me?” he asked, a glance tossed at the letter in Ferdinand's hands.

Some hushed muttering spilled from Ferdinand's lips as a bony finger trailed down the letter, looking for certain words in particular “Some quite concerning news I fear, my lord.” he said as he looked back at Lucius, yet his eyes never came to light, drowned away in the shadow cast by his hood “Your scouts in Moonby Sanctuary have reported to have seen two of the three whom you issued a manhunt for: Sergeant Ramund Bjornsson, and Rosalyn of Section 9.”

“Ah yes, the imposter cultists.” he grumbled, frowning slightly. He could see that Ferdinand did not quite buy that lie, but it didn't matter. Even if these three were indeed surviving veterans, Ferdinand was never going to question his authority. Ferdinand was too well-trained a dog for that.
“And what about the third?” he asked “Any reports on him?”

Ferdinand shook his head “I am afraid not, my lord. The scouts suspect that he may be part of the ongoing rebellion, and have begun to encroach on their camp. On your order, they will infiltrate to their best ability.”

“See it done.” Lucius ordered, a wave gesturing loosely “But tell them to be careful about it. I would rather not lose a pair of scouts simply to find out whether or not a cultist piglet is hiding away in a rebel nest.” he huffed. He noticed that all this about these three survivors seemed to bother him less and less every day. And as he slipped a hand to feel the vial in his pockets, he knew for certain why.

“If that was all, you may take your leave.” Lucius said, as his gaze drifted out the window.
“There is... one more thing, my lord.” Ferdinand continued, surprisingly. Lucius looked back at the hunchback, and saw how his lips seemed to squeeze together, clearly uncertain about what he was about to say. Lucius smiled softly, yet his eyes dictated a stalwart authority.

“Well then... go on. What's on your mind, old friend?”

Ferdinand took in a long breath “I would not want to bother my lord with such petty things, but it has caused some disarray within the people, and I felt it necessary to let you know.”

“Exactly as you should.” Lucius continued, his eyes unwavering from Ferdinand's shadow-drowned eyes “And now that you've voiced your concerns, let me hear what the actual word is.”

Ferdinand bobbed his head up and down a few times, a nod of sorts, though Lucius had never truly understood why Ferdinand did that “Of course, my lord, of course. It is a most peculiar rumor that has sown doubt in the people, I fear. It started as little but a whisper and a jape within taverns, but it has been growing swiftly. I know how laughable this sounds, but the people speak of the coming of a new god.”

Lucius' attention suddenly piqued “A new god? But that's ridiculous. The heavens don't work that way.”

“I am well aware, my lord.” he did a few more bobs of his head “But regardless, the people are terribly unnerved and concerned about this strange rumor. Word is that a young nun woke up in the middle of the night, claiming that this new god had spoken to her, and told her to spread the word of his arrival. By then, most saw it as little but a dream and brushed it away as such, but when one of the high priests dreamed of the very same, no one could be quite certain of anything.” he shook his head “It is all very concerning, my lord.”

Lucius sighed through his nose, and stroked his chin “Yes indeed... quite concerning. And what do they call this new so-called 'god', hm?”

Ferdinand swallowed, as the word spilled reluctantly from his lips “Omnos.” he spoke the name with grave hesitation “They call him Omnos, my lord.”

Much to Ferdinand's surprise, Lucius only laughed at this “Omnos, you say? How curious. Well, at least they named him something that rolls well on the tongue. I may have to speak with the high priest about this nonsense, and make certain it does not get out of hand. Even so, I'm certain that the people will see that it is all wind and rumors soon enough.”

“I should hope so, my lord.” Ferdinand seemed quite relieved at how Lucius took it, a twitchy smile beginning to take shape “That would be all, then. By your leave, my lord.”

“Yes yes, you may leave.” Lucius said, giving him a dismissive wave, his attention already fallen back on his paperwork. He did not look to see Ferdinand leave, the sound of his slippers shuffling and the closing of the door being enough for him to know that he didn't linger.

He looked out the window again, into the sunny world outside, and saw how things were beginning to liven up. His window gave him a wonderful view over the great city of Godshill, the royal estate having been placed so high on the mountain slopes that there was not a corner of the city that could not be seen from his office. The king had a balcony with a view over the rocky plains, the shaggy landscape where the earth seemed to churn in itself, but Lucius had a view of the city. Strange, he figured; for a king, perhaps it was better to keep an eye on the city in which he ruled, rather than the lands that surrounded it. If anything, that should have been the High Commander's window: a view out to the lands beyond, to where his soldiers fought valiantly, to lands over the horizon where he would plant his banner... or perhaps he was simply overthinking this. He had always been a proponent of metaphors and symbolism like this, but it seemed like the architects of the royal estate were not. A pity.

He turned his hazel stare on a pair of citizens, close by the gardens of the royal estate. They sat outside the steel fencing, on the porch of a white-walled house, enjoying a cigarette each. Even from up here, he recognized them. One was Mr. Lewin, the owner of the house, and the other was Mr. Hart, a friend of Lewin's. He liked to think that he knew most of the citizens of Godshill, but Godshill was a large place, and they were having children constantly. No one could expect him to know each and everyone by name. But these two, he knew. What were they talking about, he wondered. Were they talking about this new god as well? This 'Omnos'? Neither of them seemed particularly concerned about anything; they were laughing from time to time, enjoying a break from work, he assumed. But perhaps that was simply because they knew that this 'Omnos' was but a rumor, and nothing to be concerned about. Or so he hoped.

There was another knock on the door. Lucius turned towards it, curious “Did you forget something, Ferdinand?”

But it was not Ferdinand that answered the door. It creaked as it opened up ever so slightly, for a young girl to lean in and smile “My lord. The king bids you join him for tea.” she was carrying a tray full of pots and cups of porcelain, small bowls full of sugar, figs, and the finest herbs.

“Ah! Delightful!” Lucius mirrored the maid's smile, and stood to his feet. He straightened up his velvet outfit, and brushed a hand over the vial in his pocket while doing so. He felt his heart pound in his chest, but his expression revealed no nervousness. Adrenaline shot through his veins, but even so, his stroll was as calm and confident as ever.

“You can let me have the tray, dear. I'll take it to the king myself, thank you.” he gently took the tray, but to his surprise, the maid didn't let go.

“But... the king-—“

“—-Would like some privacy with me. Alone.” Lucius' voice was sweet and soft, but there was a steely force underneath that made it absolutely clear that there would be no declining him. The maid knew this for certain, her tongue stifled, words clogging in her throat under the rigid domination that was Lucius' stare. She knew better than to argue, and let go of the tray. Lucius smiled.

“Thank you, dear. You may leave.” and she did. Without a word, she turned around and scurried away, her leather shoes clacking on the floors and echoing in the halls outside of Lucius' office. And so did Lucius', as he took his leave for the king's quarters, alone.

The way to the king's office was a burden for Lucius. The time it took seemed much longer than it used to. His veins were alight with adrenaline, painful anticipation lodged deep into his chest like a barbed dagger. By the time he arrived at the staircase that would ascend him to Magnus' quarters, he felt an ever so slightly tingle of reluctance inside. Was this truly the right thing to do? Doubt made an attempt to put him on other thoughts, but he crushed it like the worm it was. This was definitely the right thing to do. He let out a long breath, and in it, he exhaled all his fears and doubts. Cool, collected determination took over, and put that steely expression back on his face. He cast a swift look behind him to see if he was followed, and he was glad to see that he wasn't. He put the tray down on the steps before him, and pulled out the small vial nestled in his chest pocket. He looked at it for strangely long. He had never felt respect for such a small thing before, but here, he had no choice. Carefully, he pulled the cork, and slipped but a few droplets into one of the porcelain cups. The inky black liquid coiled within the tea, squirming as if it was alive, but dissipated into nothing shortly after. But Lucius, while putting the vial back into his pocket, knew perfectly well that it was a lot more than nothing. In fact, right now, it was everything.

As he climbed the stairs, he found the door standing wide open, just like last time. The king was as gullible as he was drunk, Lucius found. Assassins could wander in unabated with a door that yawned open like this, no locks, no guards, no anything. Magnus was getting careless, the old fool.

“The balcony, Lucius.” Magnus' voice was raised over the soft moan of the mountain winds that flew by outside and animated the curtains. Lucius could hear that there was still some distaste lingering from last time they met, but seeing how Magnus was willing to invite him up here in the first place, perhaps he was in a better mood-—or so Lucius hoped.

He trod through the sleeping room, the cornucopia of fresh fruit and wine, more than even the king could hope to consume before a maid came and filled it right back up. On every desk, every table, every flat surface, there was either a bowl of grapes or wine drowned in ice cubes for the king's leisurely desires. The wall tapestries kept reminding everyone who passed through just how glorious the king and his ancestors were. Woven into the cloth were the stories of what every king had done, a new part added to it every time a new king was crowned. Lucius knew them all quite well... and frankly, by now, he had grown rather sick of them.

Lucius found the king seeming rather distant, as he stepped outside on the balcony to meet him. He sat there, slouched in his chair, his old and wrinkly fingers curled on his growing belly—but the way he looked out over the horizon made it seem as if he wasn't even there. The winds out here were gentle this noon, but cold as always, cooled down as they passed over the icy peaks of the adjacent mountains—fortunately, the king had been smart enough to dress in warmer clothes of colorful wool. Lucius said nothing as he sat down next to the king, putting the tray on the small table between them. Several seconds passed where neither of them said anything, Lucius simply sitting there and looking between the mountains in the distance and Magnus' white strands of hair that wafted in wake of the soft winds. He knew better than to speak first. The king would not have invited him up here if he had nothing to say—-it was all just a question of when he intended to say it. But the tea was only getting colder.

“I've had some time to think, Lucius.” Magnus said, spoken in High Speech, though he didn't turn to look at Lucius “Maybe I overreacted, last we met.”

Lucius took his own cup of tea and cradled it in his hands, feeling its warmth radiate into his fingers. He cast a sideways look at the king, and raised his eyebrows “Oh? And what makes you think so, my king?”

Magnus shoulders raised in a slight shrug “Time, I suppose. Time made me think so. You were right, Lucius... I'm not the strong, gracious king I used to be. Hell, I don't even hunt any longer—I just sit in my carriage and watch as my scouts disappear into the woods, only to return a few hours later with a deer slung over their shoulders. I used to be strong, you know?” he turned his weak eyes on Lucius “Like you.”

Lucius smiled, mostly out of politeness “I'm flattered. But sadly, age comes for us all—beggar and king alike. Morrin claims who he wishes, and age is his herald.” he sipped at his tea, and joined Magnus in gazing off into the frozen peaks that cut the heavens. He let the winds speak, wordless silence taking over for but a few seconds.

“Have you considered writing a legacy, then?”

At this, Magnus smiled “Better yet. It's already written.” he gestured over his shoulder to one of the desks in his room behind “It's on the desk, right over there. Truth be told, I was too angry to write it after you left, but as my frustration simmered down, I saw the sense in doing it. So, there it is. I've written all those pretty things that the people would expect of someone like me. I've not showed it to anyone yet. But... maybe I'll let you be the first.” he turned his eyes on the tea that Lucius had brought with him, and reached out to pick one of them from the tray. Lucius felt as if his stomach turned to lead as Magnus took that cup of tea, his eyes darting between the two cups before one—-one on the table, one in Magnus' hand. Dire realization struck, as he found that he couldn't remember which one he had put the inky concoction in. His heart began to pound furiously, his mind churning and writhing as he looked at the two identical cups, trying to remember, cursing that he hadn't marked one of them somehow. What if the king drank from the clean cup, and didn't want any more?

“Are you alright, Lucius?” Magnus' words made him realize that he might have forgotten to hide his sudden anxiety, but as he looked up, he washed all trace of it away in one fell swoop. He smiled.

“Oh, apologies, my king... I'm sorry if it seemed as if I was not listening. I've been rather stressed as of late, what with the ongoing rebellion and all.”

Magnus smiled too, and chuckled as well “Oh? And here I thought you said that there was no cause for concern. Has something happened?”

Lucius shook his head “Nothing that you should concern yourself about, my king. I received some reports just a few minutes ago, that some of the rebel officers have been sighted in Moonby Sanctuary... if push comes to shove, and they somehow manage to recruit the noblemen to their cause, I fear that we may have to open up a new warfront—-and one that is far closer to home than what is comfortable.”

Magnus, despite what Lucius urged him to, seemed concerned for a moment. He looked into the tea in his lap, watching the ripples bounce off the porcelain rims “That would indeed be tragic... while the nobles have never joined us-—and probably never will-—we have always been kind and professional to one another. I would hate to wage war on a people so civilized.” Lucius let the silence take over from there. He sat back in his chair, watching as Magnus stared off into the distance, seeming as thoughtful as ever. Though he may have been a fool and a drunk, he did care for his people. But that did not stop Lucius from watching with breathless tension, as Magnus took a long sip of the tea in his hands.

“Hm.” Magnus commented, as he looked back into the tea with his smile returned “This is some curious tea you've gotten me, Lucius. I've been eating and drinking a lot of things in my time, but I don't believe I can put my finger on what fruit this is.” he looked to Lucius with great curiosity.

“That is because it is no fruit at all, my king.” Lucius said, clearing his throat, donning his cool and relaxed expression once more “It is an herb, from the far western keys of Jemero. Said to promote longevity and good fortune... though I suppose most of that is just superstition.”

Magnus smirked a little “So you went all this way to find an herb that I've never heard of and put it in my tea... for what reason? Is this a special day that I've forgotten about in my senility?”

Lucius uttered a quick laugh at this. For a second, he felt almost as if he would tell Magnus about just how important this day was... but with any luck, he would find out soon enough “Not that I know of, my king. I simply felt that upon our little debate yesterday, I would find something to... compensate, for say. Is it to your liking?”

Magnus nodded twice “It is, it is. Quite... exotic. Unlike anything I've tasted before, but good.” he looked back at Lucius, and smiled “As for compensation... I suppose I've done a bit of my own too.”

Lucius gave Magnus a curious look “Oh? Dare I ask in what form?”

Again, he motioned for the desk behind him “In my will... I've mentioned you more than once, Lucius. When I had finally come to my senses after our argument, I recalled just how much of an asset you've been, old friend. You've done more for this nation than many kings before me have... maybe you're even on par with myself.” he took another long sip of his tea. He looked into it, watching the waters swirl, a proud smile taking shape on his face, even though Lucius found that such heartfelt softness did not suit him “You'll make a fine king, Lucius.”

To this, Lucius could only smile as well. His beautifully white teeth shone in the light of the high sun as he looked over the balcony, feeling the cool breezes on his cheeks. He reached out and plucked a grape from the bundle at his side, flicking one into his mouth, feeling it burst between his teeth. As he swallowed, he looked back at Magnus, still smiling.

“Then why wait?”

At this, the king's own smile vanished “Excuse m—“ he was interrupted, and not by Lucius. His eyes suddenly widened, his breath cut off almost instantly, every muscle in his body tensing up as if paralyzed. The cup of tea shattered at his feet as his fingers cramped up, his entire body jerking violently, trying desperately to expel the poison that had begun to ravage him from inside. Lucius watched calmly as Magnus' eyes flickered wildly, saliva spilling from his mouth. He stood from his chair and folded his hands behind his back, simply watching with calm eyes at the suffocating, dying king before him. He looked down at him, and saw how petty he had become, from one second to the next. Glorious king the first; drooling, stammering fool the next.

“L-Lucius!” the king sputtered, his words slurred together and drowned in a flood of spittle filling up his mouth “What...” his teeth clattered and his pupils narrowed down to mere specks in his bloodshot eyes “What are you doing?!”

But Lucius just stood there, making no effort to save his king, not even as much as calling for help. He watched as the king fought all he could against the bitter grip of death, but he knew perfectly well that there was no escaping this fate. With his smile lingering, he approached, and put a hand on his shoulder. And right before Magnus stopped struggling, right before he drew his last half-drowned breath, Lucius whispered these words into his ear.

“Watching a beautiful sunrise.”
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 4
Oh how the plot thickens! There are several things in here that you, the reader, might want to think a little closer about - though I find that the most important one, is the face that Duncan sees in his star-sprinkled dream world. Who was that, I wonder.
And as always, thanks for reading! In case you're curious, this chapter is called 'Sunrise'.

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
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SteenBelhage
Steen Engel Belhage
Artist | Professional | Literature
Denmark
My name is Steen, and I am a writer. I believe that title will stick with me for many years to come, as it is one of the few productive passions I have ever had. I've picked up many hobbies and free-time activities, but many of them have somehow faded into the vast depths of boredom. However, my writing has never suffered that fate. I am determined and passionate in my work and I do my very best to train myself to be disciplined about it as well. If I wish to make a living of it, I'll need to be able to write even when I don't want to. But let me tell you... it isn't easy.
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:iconthat1personyouforgot:
That1PersonYouForgot Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday! :cake: I hope you have a wonderful day! :boogie:
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Professional Writer
Why thank you! I should hope so too! :D
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:iconrollingtomorrow:
RollingTomorrow Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014   General Artist

Hello! :iconexcitedhiplz:

 

La la la la Welcome to :iconwriters--club:! La la la la

 

We're glad to have you as a member and look forward to seeing your contributions! OMG MOAR POEMS!

 

We also hold a lot of contests with great prizes, so keep your eye out for them! We are currently holding our Fourth Annual Writing Tournament, with subscriptions, points, art, features, and many other prizes to win. The full details are in our group blog!

 

Additionally, we also hold monthly features for published authors. If you have published any of your writing in a manner in which it can be purchased online, please send a note to the group so we can arrange to feature you!

 

We also have a Critique Program for our members to submit to and receive detailed feedback on their work from our admin team. :D (Big Grin)

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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Professional Writer
Thank you! I'm quite glad to be part of the pack, and am very much looking forward to reading and writing for/to this group! :D
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:iconfatalicunav:
FatalicUnav Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Mange tak for Watchen, Stenn ^^ Jeg håber at du må få det sjovt i mit gallery ^w^ Forhåbentligt er der noget der behager dig ^^
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2013  Professional Writer
Jeg er faktisk dybt overrasket og imponeret over dine tegninger der. De er da utroligt flotte, og jeg må indrømme, at jeg ikke havde forventet det. Colour me surprised and amazed!
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:iconfatalicunav:
FatalicUnav Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Mange tak! ^^ Det sætter jeg stor pris på ^w^ Min inspirration fejler for det meste, men når jeg bliver fanget, kan jeg blive færdig inden for, ca. 4-5 timer lol ^^ Men mange tak for komplementerne! ^^
Hvis du på et tidspunkt får tid, vil jeg rigtig gerne have dig til måske at læse mine historier, hvis det kan lade sig gøre
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:iconbman2095:
bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
A gamer and a writer?
:)
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2013  Professional Writer
I am. And judging from your profile info, I see that you are too.
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:iconbman2095:
bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
:thumbsup:
I really like Innocence so far by the way, keep up the great work.
So out of Guild wars 2, Kingdoms of Amalur, and Dishonored, which ones your favorite?
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