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About Literature / Professional Member Steen Engel BelhageMale/Denmark Recent Activity
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Map of The Mortal Realm (draft) by SteenBelhage
Map of The Mortal Realm (draft)
So, while I've long had a map of The Mortal Realm lying around, it just irked me because it was so... bad. It was like looking at a symmetrical puzzle; if you cut it down the middle, it would be the same on either side. So that's why I made a new (and better) one! To you, dear reader of my books, this should give you a better idea of what the world looks like. From north to south:
 - Great big mountain range: The Mjaln Mountains.
 - Foresty thing on the west side of the mountains: Elfwood
 - Spot with the lake: The Eastern Valley
 - Sharp west of that: The Western Valley
 - The little spot in between: The Southern Valley
 - The forest right beneath that: Nightweald.
 - The swampy area between Nightweald and the bunch of trees: Swamp of Nox
 - Aforementioned bunch of trees: Lumion
 - South-west of Lumion, with the city in the middle: Rimnoll Wetlands
 - The area with the canyons and craggy things: The Dragonlands
 - The little spot of jungle between the two: The Wilderness
 - The desert south of that: Targus/Sands of Aloria (the city beneath The Wilderness is Aegon)
 - The cluster of islands west of Aegon: The Jemero Keys
 - Just south of the keys: Z'Chara Savannah
 - Desert landscape east of Aegon: Cercia
 - Area south of Cercia: The Wastelands.

And that's the lot! There are a few things off the map that aren't listed, but I'll make a map for those soon enough too. Thank you for your interest!
He felt strangely comfortable here, in the darkness. It was as if being wrapped in the softest blanket, warm and pleasant by the fire in a cold winters night. He couldn't see anything, hear anything, taste anything, but he could feel the softness underneath him, cradling him like a child. The roar of battle and the taste of blood had disappeared as soon as he felt that great branch smash against his temple, hurling him away from that world... and into this one. Whatever this one was. He tried swallowing, and felt saliva pour down his throat-—so he still had his body, which was good. He tried wiggling his toes, and that too went alright. He tried breathing, and when he did, he could no longer feel the steel arrowhead that had dug in through his chest. And then finally, he tried opening his eyes.

He had expected many things, but this was not one of them. In his last moments, the word 'Fennerheim' had rung in his mind a few times, and he had thought of all the mead fountains, the endless banquets, the fighting for those feeling the fervor, and jarl Fenner himself. But that was not what he saw, when he opened his eyes. No mead, no food, no jarl... only stars. Endless, sprinkled upon a deep, dark sky of night, with the silver moon as a crown upon the heavens. He gazed up at them for quite some time, counting them, watching clouds drift by and be tinted silver in the glow of the moon. That was when another sensation overcame him: cold. A cold breeze swept in over him, sending shivers throughout his entire body. He was gazing straight upwards at the sky, feeling absorbed by it all, and in the corner of his eyes, he could see mountain peaks. Only then did he realize that he was lying down.

He slowly sat up, and felt wet earth underneath his fingers. Cold, but far from dead. He looked around wherever he was, and concluded that he was not in The Fairlands any longer. The Fairlands had hills, yes, but not mountains like these—-these reached so high into the sky that it was impossible to tell when they ended and the heavens began. They surrounded him like great big walls, but with pine forests covering their sides. Each one of them were topped with a little cap of snow, just as he remembered them. These were no unfamiliar mountains, after all. In fact, he remembered this place all too well.

Next, was the smell of flowers that he felt. Sweet and tickling, he quickly realized that it was not a bed of wool or silk that he had been lying in, but a bed of flowers. A meadow, in fact, wide and untouched by the makings of man or Mjaln, pristine in its silver-touched beauty. It thrived in a little valley at the feet of the mountains, where the cold was nowhere as strong, and flowers could grow with ease. He remembered this place like had he been here just yesterday. He remembered the river that flowed down from the mountains and cut through the meadow, splitting it in half, and he remembered how the valley would continue in between the mountains, with a little village at its end. But most of all, he remembered the time he had spent with his daughter here. Playing, picking flowers, chasing foxes. He could still hear her laughter.

“Papa...” a sweet voice asked from behind, gentle like birdsong “...Are you alright?”

Ramund was afraid to look around at first, scared that it might just be a play of his mind. He stopped breathing, and he felt his blood surge to his head, filling it with images of his daughter's face. But as he slowly looked over his shoulder, he did not have to imagine it any longer. There she stood, fair-haired and beautiful, draped in the dress that had been immortalized in the little porcelain figure of his music box. But the little porcelain version of his daughter was nothing in comparison to this. Her hair, loose and long, silver and smooth, swayed gently in the mountained-chilled breezes that moaned across the meadows. Her blue dresses did as well, and her face seemed to glimmer in the moonlight-—especially her eyes. Ramund had never for a moment forgotten those eyes, ever since the last time he saw her. Deep blue like the ocean depths, and soft like silk, they carried a harmony that made him forget all the evils in the world. He felt young again. He felt thrown back to days of tranquil family life, the simple days of hunting for the evening meal and telling bedtime stories for his daughter. If this was the afterlife, he really did not mind missing out on Fennerheim. This is all he wanted.

“I'm... I'm quite alright.” Ramund stammered, and slowly turned to face his daughter. Down on a knee, he gazed into her eyes, feeling her smile radiate a warmth into him that he had not felt for so many years. His lips jittered, his fingers trembling on his knee as he saw how happy she looked. His throat seemed to clog, his blood aflame, and tears beginning to trickle down his wrinkly cheeks. He quickly wiped them away.

“Are you sure?” she asked, slowly tilting her head, seeming a little concerned “Please don't cry, papa.”

He squeezed his eyes shut for a few seconds, trying to hold back the tears. He chewed at his lip, and couldn't hold himself back any longer-—he reached out and embraced the little girl, his daughter, holding her close while weeping on her shoulder. There was no need for words; even she knew that. He felt her little arms wrap around his torso, and her silver hair on his cheek. It was so soft.

“My sweet Freyja... it has been so long.” he said with a shaking, shivering voice, but a smiling one too “I feared I was never going to see you again.”

Ramund felt her little arms squeeze a little tighter around him “Don't be afraid, papa.” she said, resting her head on her father's great shoulder “Everything is going to be alright.”

Ramund swallowed, trying to release that thick clog that had set itself in his throat. It was only after several minutes that he let go of his daughter, Freyja, and looked her into those ocean blue eyes again. She was so beautiful. More beautiful than he remembered.

“Freyja, sweetheart...” he said, wiping the last tear off his cheek “ I dead?”

Freyja, much to Ramund's surprise, suddenly let out an amused giggle. Her nimble fingertips held to her mouth, she continued to giggle for a little while, before giving a quick shake of her head “No no no, papa, you're not! Don't be silly. Come. I want to show you something.” she said, quickly turning about on her little heel, lightly skipping through the meadow.

“Wait!” Ramund called out as he rose to his feet, even though he still felt weak after what happened to him “Freyja, wait. If I am not dead... then where am I?” he asked, that question having hung in his mind ever since he opened his eyes and saw the stars.

Freyja came to a stop a stonethrow from him, and smiled over her shoulder, her sweet voice raised to call back “In your head, of course!”, before setting into a hopping jog again, her hands spread out to try and touch all the flowers at once, her blue dress flapping.

Ramund blinked, a little confused at first. But as he thought about it, it all made sense. If he wasn't dead, this could not be the afterlife. And if he wasn't conscious... this had to all be in his head. He looked around the place, at all the flowers and stars and verdant mountains, wondering how this could all have felt so real. Did this mean that the Tu'Myaa commander had not killed him, but only knocked him unconscious? Did this mean he would wake up, or would he bleed out and transcend from the dream world to the actual afterlife? As he hurried after his daughter, trying to keep up, it all began to make more and more sense in his head. The god of slumber was the god of death as well, after all. Perhaps the legends were true, the ones that said that dreams were a look into the afterlife. And if that was true, maybe he wouldn't even notice when this dream became his eternal rest. Deep inside, he hoped that maybe he would get to see the halls of Fenner anyway... but he knew that he had unfinished business in the living world, and he was not ready to fail his captain. He had not done so before. He was not about to start now.

Even though his body felt limp and feeble, he still managed to catch up with his daughter, keeping a steady pace at her side. She looked towards him and smiled, her hair bouncing and waving with each little skip she took through the meadows. He couldn't help but smile back. Still, there was one question that bugged him horribly.

“I have to ask...” he said, having gathered some of his senses again “...if this is just a dream, does that mean you are just a figment of my imagination?”

The little girl looked up at him again, still smiling “Mm hm.” she uttered, giving a single nod “I am what you need to see right now. You're dying, after all. If you die, your daughter is what you would like to die beside, right?”

Ramund's smile faded a little, as the illusion was shattered. But of course it was so. This little girl that he jogged beside, the one that skipped beside him and led him deeper into the meadow... who was she? Was she really just something meant to soothe him, as he drew his last breath? Maybe it was the work of spirits. Maybe she was a gift. He decided not to think about it so much, and just enjoy her company for a little while longer. If he was really to pass on, this is how he would like to do it.

And then, rather suddenly, something curious happened. The flowers that he had felt batting against his shins in his struggled stride came to an end, as Freyja led him into what seemed like a little clearing of sorts. It was a little circular space, no more than a few meters wide, but with no flowers or ferns at all. Just bare earth... nearly. The earth felt soggy and muddy underneath his sabatons, and in the middle of the little clearing, was a flower.

“There, papa!” Freyja exclaimed with a smile as she skipped over to the flower, and crouched down beside it. It was a beautiful little thing; shaped like a rose, but with petals of many different colors, and without any thorns at all. He slowed down, and looked between the flower and Freyja, wondering. He approached slowly, and crouched down beside it as well, smiling.

“It's beautiful.” he said, not daring to touch. He looked back at Freyja “I don't remember this flower.”

“Oh that's just because it isn't real.” Freyja said almost nonchalantly, as she reached out to pick it. It slipped effortlessly from the muddy ground, almost as if it was meant to be picked and had set no roots. Its colors flared at her touch, roiling and shifting like oily colors mixing together. She held it for a little while, before looking up at her father, handing it to him.

“Here, papa.” she said, smiling “Smell it. I found it just for you.”

Ramund looked down at the rose, trying to remember if he had found something like this in his past, but nothing came up. Maybe it was as she had said: not real. He took the flower and smiled back as he whiffed a little at it. His eyebrows rose at the sweet smell, softer and kinder than any rose he had smelled before. It tickled in his nostrils, making him want to sneeze, and went straight up to his head. He felt dizzy—very dizzy. He blinked a few times and saw how the rose turned to sparkling dust in his hands, seeping through his fingers. He couldn't hold his balance any longer, and fell unto his rump, sloshing in the mud. The world was a blur of dazzling colours all of a sudden, the mountains around him turned yellow, the sky turned pink. He could only vaguely make out the shape of his daughter approaching him, still smiling.

“You need to wake up, papa. They need you.” she said with a voice slightly distorted by the flower's almost intoxicating effects “I'm sorry I tricked you... I was afraid you wouldn't want to leave. Forgive me. I'll see you soon.”

Ramund was in a haze of confusion, his tongue feeling so thick in his mouth that he couldn't muster out a single word. But when Freyja leaned forward and placed a kiss on his forehead, it was the punch that knocked out the bull. His strength collapsed, his balance confused and drunk, and he hardly even realized he was falling before the back of his head had already sloshed into the mud. He stared upwards at the pink night sky, as darkness overcame him-—again.

“Injecting serum in 3... 2... 1....”

Ramund felt a burning adrenaline surge through his body, his limbs aflame, his eyes flinging open. With a roaring shout, he rushed to sit up, but was immediately felled as he felt an immense pain in his chest where the arrow had pierced him. He slumped down again, and as he felt that it was not mud underneath him any longer, but the soft cushions of a bed, he realized that he had woken up. He stared upwards, heaving and gasping, and saw not the night sky any longer. No more stars, no more silver-tinted, drifting clouds under the serene moon. Only a moldy ceiling of bolted planks. The smell of flowers had given way to that of sweat, burning candles, and ale. The cold breezes had given way to the warm, sticky air of a tavern. And the sound of his daughter's voice had given way to the hasty chatter of a distressed crowd.

He gripped at his chest, and felt that he had been stripped of his armor, his upper body now bare and wrapped in bandage. He blinked, his mind in a disoriented discord, his eyes blurry with fatigue. He struggled to breathe, and it felt as if the bandage around his chest was keeping his lungs from expanding. With weary eyes, he looked around where he was, and found himself in the main hall of an inn, of sorts. It was hard to tell. There were so many people running in and out of the door in the very back of the hall, some carrying tools, others carrying people. There were painful cries here and there that broke through the monotonous blare of the crowd, and he saw that he was not the only one here who was hurt. But there were some here who were not fortunate enough to wake up again.

“Ramund? Hey! Hey! Look at me, big guy!” a voice called to him, and he saw fingers clicking in front of him. He twitched a little, his eyes slowly following the fingers, running up the arm and eventually resting upon a face that struck him as surprisingly familiar. The smooth, white skin; the sharp, intelligent eyes; the elven ears... he was almost certain his mind was playing tricks on him, but he had to ask.


“Hahaa!” the man before him broke out in success, arms raised high-—this was when Ramund saw the white lab coat, stained with blood and other questionable substances of orange and green “I am a genius! Welcome back to the waking world, Ramund. How well can you understand me?” Lex asked, moving a little closer to peel open Ramund's left eye with his fingers, careless for if he felt it or not.

Ramund didn't resist, too weary to care at this point “I... I can. I understand you well.” he slowly sat up, peeling Lex's fingers out of his eyes, grunting at the pain in his chest.
“Whoa there, don't rush it.” Lex hurried to his side, a hand on his shoulder to have him lie down again, but Ramund brushed it away.

“Lex, I... Duncan. Where is Duncan?” he grumbled, having an even harder time speaking than breathing “Is he well?”

Lex ran a hand through his frizzy, spiky hair, looking about the place. He was wearing his bird mask, but it was pulled up unto his head to reveal his smooth, elven face. His lips squeezed together, eyes too, as he stared out over the crowd that filled up this surprisingly large inn—-it was almost as large as the mead halls Ramund remembered from his homeland.

“I can't see him right now.” Lex replied, looking back at Ramund and offering a little shrug “But I know he's well. The same goes for Rose, Duncan's mother, and... some other guy. He claims he knows you, but I don't recognize him.”

“That would be lieutenant Wolfe.” Ramund muttered tiredly. He looked down at his chest, and saw the bandage that wrapped him up like a gift—-a bloodstained one. Most of the bandage was deeply red, focused around two spots: one on his chest, and one on his stomach. It hurt badly, but the pain was a bargain, considering that he could have been dead. With his mouth ever so slightly agape, tired and panting, he looked back at Lex, and asked: “Lex... how am I alive?”

Lex seemed amused. It was strange to see him amused right now, Ramund usually far more acquainted with his serious, professional demeanor-—especially when people seemed to be dying around him. Still, his lips curled upwards in a little smile, and created a single wrinkle on his otherwise plain cheek.

“I could actually ask you the same, old friend.” Lex said, as he slumped down into the bed beside Ramund. His sharp eyes fixated upon Ramund's bloodied bandage, a tongue running across his lips, as if trying to smoothen the way for difficult words to come out “I actually don't know how you survived.” he said with a chuckle, looking into Ramund's eyes “I'll be blatantly honest there. I haven't the faintest clue of how you're not dead. That arrow went deadly close to your heart, and would easily have killed stronger men than you. Not to mention that you got one in the gut as well... yet here you are, alive and well. I'm not saying it is beyond science, but... it's damn well close.” he smiled, seeming almost ridiculing in face of his own words.

Ramund opened his mouth. He was about to say something, but he wasn't sure it would make any sense. Could it have something to do with what he dreamed about? This was something he could not explain. Instead, he looked to Lex once more, and spoke with a submissive voice “Lex, I have so many questions.” he decided to be outright “I thought you dead for certain.”

Lex looked over all the dying people around him, and at this point, didn't seem to mind his duties all that much-—there were other people tending to the wounded, for the time being. He did a little shrug “When that lurker got me, so did I, Ramund. I thought I was done for, but it seems Keyen had it in for me that day. I'm usually not a religious guy, but this time, I had to turn my head heavenwards and say thanks.” he smiled a little, amused “I think we both know how lurkers usually kill their prey by impaling them from behind, but I think this lurker wanted me for dinner, and wanted it as fresh as possible. So it dragged me away, probably thinking I was just some scrawny, defenseless piece of meat. Scrawny? Perhaps so. But defenseless?” he snorted, nose wrinkling “Not so much. I managed to concentrate long enough to make all the vines around me whip around the creature's neck and strangle it on the spot. Wizardry is funny like that-—while we might not have the same array of energies to pick from, like you shamans do, wizards like me do posses much greater control of our environments. It was a piece of cake to kill the lurker then and there.” his smile dwindled a little “What was not so much a piece of cake, was finding my way out. You obviously got quite the head start, since by the time I arrived in Westport, the town was practically turning itself inside out and preparing for a mass migration to Rimnoll. Hell, the mayor and I have made quite the pals, after I told him that I know you personally. He's here right now, as a matter of fact.”

Ramund's eyes widened, amazed “The Westport mayor? Truly?”

Lex gave a little nod “Very much so. He told me about how you came to him and rather forcefully convinced him that staying put would mean certain death. Something about hurling a dead demon unto his desk, if I recall correctly. Not really how I would have done it, but... hey. I can't argue with the results.” he said with a smile, a hand fanning out before him to present the hall full of people.

Ramund stared at the great crowd filling the drinking hall, tending to the wounded, reuniting children with their mothers-—if they were still alive. Looking at all these people, he saw only benevolence and care. Could these truly be the Westport people? Had he misjudged them, for the filth they lay in? He felt a guilt overcome him, but that guilt was washed away by a sense of joy revitalizing him. He thought all hope had been crushed when the Tu'Myaa began to plow down the Casserton people... and yet, there was still a fickle flame of it inside of him, warming him.
“Is he here? The mayor?” Ramund asked, turning to Lex.

“Of course.” Lex responded, raising a hand to point over the crowd “Somewhere over there. I'm certain you will easily recognize him.”

Ramund quickly scooted off the bed, ignoring the pain in his chest. With heavy breath, he left Lex to attend to his duties again, while slowly pushing through the crowd around him. He gripped his chest, feeling the stained blood on the bandage, feeling the sweat that coated him and gleamed in the light of lanterns. He shot a glance out the window, and saw that the sun was going down. Over green hills, the sun cast orange and red over the skies, and darkness was at bay. The last time he had his eyes open, it was only noon.

Before long, as he pushed through the crowd, he came to a stop at a little round table in the very back of the room. It was like breaking through the thick of a jungle and stumbling into a clearing, this one nought but a few meters wide. And in the middle of it, sitting by the table with a cup of tea in his hand, was the mayor indeed. With wrinkles littering his face and liver spots all over his frail hands, he was easy to recognize indeed. His thick eyebrows seemed to have fallen lower and lower with each number added to his age, and his hair could boast nothing more but a few pale and thin strands on his head. But what truly caught Ramund's attention, was who sat on the other side of the table, sharing a cup of tea with him. It was the Tu'Myaa chieftain, still puffing at his pipe.

“Ah, you live!” the chieftain said through the side of his muzzle, as he looked up to see Ramund in his rather haggard, bloodied figure-—it was still horribly unnerving to feel the gaze of a man who had a blindfold over his eyes “The spirits mean you well, I see.” his grey, fluffy tail slumped over the side of the chair, and was speckled with blood; he must have been up close and personal with the battle himself.

Ramund was stifled for a few seconds, and it seemed the Westport mayor was as well, as the two met gazes. The mayor swallowed, his wrinkly pale lips silent for tediously, uncomfortably long, before he gave a little nod in greeting “...Good evening.” was all he had to say. Ramund took the liberty to sit down with the two leaders, feeling quite entitled to an explanation. He looked between the two, his eyes bouncing from one pair of eyes to another, not quite certain what to say. But soon enough, he spat out.

“The spirits seem to be in a mirthful mood.” he said, trying a smile “To bring me back from the brink of death... but I am assuming they were not alone in doing so. Were they?”

“That they were not.” the Westport mayor said, as he put down his cup of tea and ran a sleeve across his lips “But I suppose it could be said that it was they who lead us to you. That, or this is one heck of a... yes, 'mirthful' coincidence.” he looked up into Ramund's eyes; he was significantly shorter, and had to bend his neck slightly backwards to get a good look at the big man before him “My people and I were on our way north to Rimnoll, when we saw the fires. Big, billowing capes of smoke caught our attention, and we decided to intervene. We came to see the massacre that had unfolded on the hillside... so many dead. So much blood.” he shook his head, looking back into the ripples of his tea “The death count was innumerable. I've never seen The Fairlands like this; and I who thought Westport was a horror to look upon. Man and Myaani alike have suffered great losses, but we as the third party, decided to help them both. I had met your friend, Lex, some time ago, and he was fortunate enough to be with us when we stumbled across the aftermath of the battle. If it wasn't for him, the death count would have been even greater... your death included.”

“And now we, the Tu'Myaa, are banished to nomad's life.” the chieftain spoke with a dire tone, his blind eyes staring forward from behind the fold, the cup of tea resting in his lap “There have been no winners today. This was all a horrible accident that should never have taken place. I have been so blind not to see what a bloodlusting fool my commander is. His order to rain death upon the Casserton people was an ungodly one, a disgraceful sin for which hundreds have had to let their lives. And for his crimes, he has been stripped of his rank, his honor, and his acceptance in the Tu'Myaa pack. While he may have suffered a great punishment, it can never compare to what horrors he has wrought. Our home, now nought but ashes. The hills run red with blood, and the ravens gorge themselves upon hundreds of bodies that should never have paid this price.” he let out a long breath “But in the ashes of our own home, we shall rise like a phoenix, and set aside our differences. With the help of our good friend here, we shall see to it that peace does reign over man and Myaani, and that we all shall find safe harborage behind the walls of Moonby Sanctuary. It is the least we can do, to undo the sins that have befallen us this day.”

Ramund gave a slow nod, leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees “The Casserton people may not be so accepting about this new-found alliance, though. They came to your gates because they found the slain body of a woman, and blamed it upon you, the Tu'Myaa. But I know the truth of it.” he swallowed, trying to quench his hesitation “It was my captain, see. He has always been a great man and a strong leader, but as dark spirits would have it, I fear that the war has finally begun to take its toll upon him, despite that we are no longer deployed. But it seems that war is not so easily left behind. My captain mistakenly took a woman for a demon, and slew her on the spot.” his head lowered slightly “I know nothing more.”

“Dark spirits indeed...” the chieftain breathed out, darkness in his voice “Your captain is ill, my friend. Ill with the touch of darker things; ill with the confusion of friend and foe. If he were a soldier of mine, he would not be allowed near a weapon, for the safety of all-—himself alike. Tell me, friend... how attached are you to your captain?”

Ramund knew what the chieftain was about to suggest, but it was not an option-—not while he still drew breath. He gave a nod again “Very much so, chieftain. My captain has fought by my side for years, and I consider him as much a brother, as I would one by blood.”

“Then he is of your responsibility.” the chieftain declared, doing a little twirl of his tail.

“Now now, let us not be hasty.” the mayor said, putting his tea cup down and raising his chin “I realize that this man may be a danger, even to himself, but as you said yourself, chieftain: he is ill. And illnesses can be treated. In the right hands, I'm sure he'll realize that he is safe, and has no demons to fear.”

Ramund hoped that the mayor was right. It seemed almost impossible to fathom that Duncan had killed a fellow human-—an innocent woman, at that-—but there was no denying it. Duncan had fallen much deeper than he had imagined, and he feared that there could be little chance of pulling him from the dark, cold hole that he was in.

“Is there any chance I can see to him?” Ramund asked, his eyes moving between the two leaders.

“You can, but he shall not answer you.” The chieftain responded, as he took a sip of his tea “In truth, only one of your companions shall: the man that calls himself 'Wolfe'. My warg riders were bound by the orders of my former commander, and saw only bloodshed before them; they wounded your friends badly, but slew none. Even the woman of age will live, with the aid of Westport's barber surgeons and my healers.”

Ramund was glad to hear this; Duncan was ruined enough as it was, and if his mother didn't survive, surely it would drive him into insanity. He let out a long breath, and smiled slightly.

“This is good. We may just yet recover from this travesty. These have been some dark hours, but in the fires of war, perhaps a true alliance can be forged... a rebellion, as you mentioned.” he said, turning his gaze to the chieftain. He looked out a nearby window briefly, and saw how the sun was already half-way down the horizon, over green hills and greener groves. A question came to mind.
“I've been meaning to ask...” he began, looking between the two before him “...where are we?”

The mayor chuckled a little “I almost forgot that you've been out for so long. Hours on end, in fact. While you were not an easy man to carry, my people and I have actually brought you several leagues north of the battlefield... we are but an hour or two's walk from Rimnoll, by now. Some say they can already smell the rain.”

Ramund noticed how the chieftain's foxy nose whiffed at the air as if to test that theory, but didn't seem to come to any conclusion. Ramund looked back at the mayor, and smiled “You've been quite effective, mayor. I am impressed. I must admit: I had feared that you would not heed my warnings, and simply stay put to meet your end at the coming storm.”

“Yeah, well...” the mayor leaned back in his chair, peering into the murky color of his tea “...when you burst in my door, you did give me a pretty convincing argument. When I was cleaning up all that demon blood, the smell made me realize that maybe you weren't just another pet of Lucius Deum. I thought it over, and... well. Here we are.” he looked over all the people in the great hall, watching them sit beside the wounded, lay piece of cloth over the faces of the dead, or try to give back children hope, despite that they had just seen the bodies of their parents be taken away.

“My people aren't really so sure about it all, though. Most of them are frightened and confused, but telling them about what is really happening would only frighten them even further. Some think that I've finally succumb to the pressure of Deum's crusade, while others are just happy to be away from the stink of Westport. I must confess... I hadn't thought that the Fairlandish highlands could be this beautiful. I was born and raised in Westport, and the beauty of it all was mostly just something I read about in books, and heard about in taverns.” he sipped at his tea, and gave a sigh. He shook his head “But I digress. My people are well aware that going back to Westport is not an option-—the guards have been telling them so over and over again. Even so... they could do with a little motivation.”

“What I think your people truly need, is someone to comfort them.” Ramund mused, peering over the great crowd of humans and Myaani “Someone to reassure them, that what they are doing is the right thing.”

The chieftain perked his large, greying ears towards Ramund, and cocked his head “Perhaps you are suggesting something, friend?” he asked, but Ramund knew he didn't need to answer. He only smiled.

“Perhaps I am.” he rose from his chair and gave a little nod to each of the two before him “Gentlemen. If you do not mind...”

First then, the mayor realized. His wrinkly eyebrows rose “Oh! Oh, no, not at all—go ahead. I could never, but... yeah. Maybe you could.”

Ramund did not hesitate. With a chin raised and a smile growing on him, the already tall and strong man made himself even taller as he stood upon one of the bench-chairs, in the back of the room. He gazed out over the masses before him, at all the broken souls, all the weeping faces and children bereaved over their mothers and fathers. He saw slain spirits and feeble hearts; dwindled courage and thriving fear. It was with a voice of authority, that he called out to the crowd.

“All of you, stop what you are doing!” he said, and with lungs like his, his booming voice was easily heard by every and all. He saw as all the men and women and Myaani turned their gazes to him, wondering. A silence fell over the crowd, washing over it like a stifling wave. And in that silence, he spoke again.

“I do not think you heard me. I said 'stop what you are doing!'.” he repeated, and now he saw confusion make its way over their faces-—exactly as he had predicted. They had all stopped in their tracks the first time he said it. His face grew stern “And yet you continue doing it. I see that you are doing it right now... trembling. Fearing. Dreading. I see it clear upon your faces, your every action speaks words louder than words, and they scream 'we are afraid!'.” his eyes rolled over each of their faces, looking them in the eyes, looking through them.

“Do you know what you are afraid of? Do you know why your eyes cry out in dread, why your arms feel heavy, why your skin goes sweaty, and why every beat of your heart feels like a nail is being pushed into your chest? Because that is what evil wants. That is what darker spirits smile upon--every time you think to yourself that fear is the only way, darkness laughs at you. It laughs at you, and its grip around you only grows stronger.” he raised his chin slightly “In my homeland, we have a very clear understanding of what fear is. In this world, there are two opposing forces that determine the outcome of nearly everything: courage, and fear. Courage is the light that guides our way to brighter days, and the light that illuminates the path forward. But fear... fear is the darkness that will shroud the truth, and leave you confused, disoriented, and doubtful. It will hamper all attempts to move forward, and in worst cases, you will begin moving backwards.” the room had gone fully silent now, as his powerful voice rose to ring off the walls.

“Take a moment to look at yourself right now. You are on your knees, grieving for those slain today, convinced that the world is nothing but blood and darkness. And I will not lie to you: blood and darkness makes up a great part of it. But is that a reason to sit down on your backsides, wrap your arms around your knees, and begin feeling sorry for yourselves? No!” he said, and stomped his sabaton unto the table so hard he heard a crack in it. He rose a pointing hand, and let it soar over the crowd “You are all better than that. I have witnessed it myself. You are not cowards. You are heroes, each and every one of you! If you were cowards, you would not have come to the aid of those fallen at the battlefield. If you were cowards, you would not be here, caring for lost children and mending the wounded. If you were cowards... I would not have been alive to speak with you this moment.” he glanced to his left, and saw Wolfe amongst the crowd, smiling.

“Cowards are slaves of fear. They are slaves of the darker forces, bound by the manacles of reluctance. But you carry no manacles. You are not slaves! There is not a single man or Myaani in this room that cannot call themselves a hero, for I have seen the courage in your eyes! I have felt the warmth chase away the cold, and I have seen the light ward the darkness! The darkness will continue to lurk, and the fear will continue to bite at your hearts, but who are you, the heroes of today, to succumb to it?” he showed his teeth in a glorious smile, as he saw the spirits return to eyes here and there, like candles being lit one by one.

“Let me tell you something about courage. My dearest daughter, Freyja, once came to me one dark night. She had experienced a nightmare, and she had told me that she was afraid. So she asked me: 'Father. How can I find the candle of courage, if it is too dark to see?', and I told her: 'That candle has never left you, my dear. It is only a matter of lighting it.', and I shall say the same to you. You all carry the candles of courage, and while a candle may only give a fickle glow, a thousand candles will become the sun that gives sight to the blind, warmth to the cold, and hope to the hopeless! For let me tell you, and let it never be doubted upon, that the night is only as dark as you let it. Light those candles, and let me see your fire! Prove to me, to us, and to yourselves, that no matter how much blood has been spilled, we will never succumb to fear! And by five gods almighty, I swear to you now, this is one flame that shall never die!” he shouted, and in the wake of his voice, hundreds came to follow it with mighty cries of vigor, fists raised and eyes ablaze with hope, courage, and strength. He let out his arms like wings, raised high in glory.

“Onward to a brighter age, my friends! Beyond this border, a new land lies, and new hope to be found at the end of the road! Though the days are dark, though you have been forced from your homes, we will find light and safe harbor in a new world! And by all spirits, we will bring about the dawn!” his voice was aflame with vigor, one he had not had the chance to show in so long. The hall was ringing with a hundred roaring voices, each and every person inside singing their praises to honor this new dawn. Ramund smiled widely and bowed deeply, as the people, this newly forged rebellion, hooted and cried out in excitement. Ramund stepped down from from the table, and found Wolfe standing before him, arms folded, lips smiling. With a voice that he could only barely hear over the vigorous shouting of the people, he said “Nice speech, Mjaln... I'm beginning to think that the historians need to get their pencils out, and begin writing a new chapter.”

Ramund smiled, and put a hand on Wolfe's shoulder “Do not worry, my friend...” he said, his heart alight with the hope he had spoken so proudly about “...We will not need historians, for the world to remember this day.”
Vanguard, Final Chapter of Book 1 (2/2)
Ahh, here it is: the final chapter of book 1. It is officially called 'Unto A New Dawn', but it was too long to fit in the deviation title. Anyway, it has been one hell (pun unintended) of a journey, and one I am glad that you, dear readers, have followed me upon. We have explored the disillusion of soldiers, the darkness of war, the rigors of insanity, and what great power can do to a man. And we are only half-way! I have great plans for book 2, and ones I hope you will explore together with me. See you then!
While Ramund found the town of Casserton to be a sweet relief from the gloom and sinful streets of Westport, it could not hold a candle to the rolling hills that surrounded it. He stood here, atop one of the hills, far away from the hustle and bustle of civilization, feeling the brisk winds sweep down upon him and tuck in his beard, his cape swaying like an ebony flag. It was a much-needed moment of quiet and escape from a world wrought in chaos. Or at least that was how the world felt to him, these days. He looked over his shoulder, and saw in the distance, a few faint pillars of smoke from the chimneys and blacksmiths of Casserton. Life continued over there, unhindered, untold of what was happening nought but a day's travel from them. Ramund wasn't the strongest of shamans, but even so, he felt a disturbance in the air; the wind blew cold and carried with it the cries of a hundred innocents, butchered by an unforgiving hand. He had heard the spirits whisper to him, that evil was coming their way. He had no proof, no way of being sure, but deep down he knew: Retby was surely gone by now. The smile he had otherwise donned upon himself while standing here, gazing over the world like a raven perched upon a tree, had fallen to a solemn frown at the thought. He knew that he carried a heavy burden, not only with the quest of bringing a world of innocents to safety, but also the burden of always knowing. If only, just for a little while, he could take a moment and forget the world's impending demise, forget the death of a thousand soldiers and merchants alike, and forget the taste of blood that never seemed to leave his mouth... he would have found such serenity. Such bliss, in a world so unglamorously woeful. Truly, at some level, he envied the ignorant. They would live their lives in calm and quiet, until a day came where the demons would swarm over their villages and put an abrupt end to them. Just like that, it would all be over for them. But he, Rose, and Duncan, were all forced to know what was coming to kill them, if Lucius Deum did not do it first. He had forgotten a lot of things, through his years. But he just never could forget what it was like to carry the world on his shoulders.

He shook his head, his beard swaying as he did. There was no use in over-contemplating these kinds of things. He knew that his time was short, and the consequences of hesitation were dire. With his hands on the pommels of his axes, he made his way down the hillside, towards a grove he saw peeping forth in the distance.

As he moved closer, the smell of bark and food seemed to grow more and more apparent. There was a distinct whiff of roast boar and deer floating around in the air, occasionally sweeping down past his nose, tickling his hunger. While Agatha's breakfast had been quite fine, a great man like himself required more food than she could offer. He didn't dare tell her, in fear of seeming rude, but he thought that maybe now he would get himself a chance to sate himself-—provided the Tu'Myaa were friendly enough to let him in.

From a distance, the grove seemed like nothing but a regular grove-—a woodland area, stretching out over the hills, with proud oaks spreading their leaves out in a loving embrace to the sun's rays. The oaks were tall and great, greater than any he had seen in the Fairlands so far, and probably all thanks to the naturalistic lifestile of the Myaani. However, as he came closer, he saw that civilization had set its mark upon the place even so. Walls of wood and rope encased the forest, tall and vigilant, heavily adorned with the flying banners of the Tu'Myaa-—their emblem depicted a set of armor, meant for the canine features of the Myaani, a helmet shaped with a muzzle and gauntlets with claws. The Myaani were usually peaceful folk, seeing more reason in equality and the appreciation of nature, but while the Tu'Myaa revered nature as well, they were ready for war, should the need arise. Ramund had to crane his head backwards slightly to gaze up at the great wooden walls, transforming the grove into a fortress. He stood now nought but a stone-throw from the proud gates, gazing up at the archer-towers, and the archers that stood in them. A Myaani in each, he felt their scrutinizing stares upon him, peering through the glistening metal helmets that they carried. He let them stare, respecting their caution—-that caution would most likely give them an upper hand against the demons, and that was exactly what this world needed right now. He could hear voices from behind the wall, men and women and children, speaking the strange Myaani tongue. However, when his gaze fell to the bottom of the gates, it was not a Myaani he saw waiting for him. It was a human. And a human that he recognized quite well.

Drenched in the shade from the great crowns of the oaks above her, Rose stood there, leaning against the wall, draped in her leather armor and the linen underneath. The linen that used to be white was slowly getting more and more brown, not having been near any kind of washing since they set on this journey. She stared at him, arms crossed, her lips fallen to a flat frown. He could see that she had been expecting him.

“Rose?” he asked, as he moved closer, all the way up to the gates and the walls here Rose stood “You surprise me-—again. Is all well?”

“All is quite well, thank you.” she said as she pushed herself off the wall and stepped a little closer to Ramund, having to look upwards to meet his eyes. She stuffed her hands down her pockets, rocking back and forth on her shoes “I was hoping I could tag along for your little... adventure. I want to see the Tu'Myaa for myself.”

Ramund smiled; this was rather surprising, actually, but the fact that she showed interest was a great step forward. He feared that she would just idle by, brooding in shadows and solitude, but here she stood. He uttered a little chuckle “A wise choice, my friend! Legends engulf this people, and I, as a Mjaln, am an avid hunter of legend and lore. Perhaps you are too?”

“Mjaln?” Rose inclined her head, and let a sarcastic snicker escape her lips “No. Legend and lore? Maybe. In my time in the asylum, storytime was one of the few things I enjoyed. The Tu'Myaa were often a subject. I never thought I would see them for myself.”

“Then do consider yourself blessed this day!” Ramund exclaimed, his smile growing “Come then; shall we see what wonders lie beyond these gates?”

Rose slowly quirked an eyebrow “Do you think we can just knock, and they'll let us in?”

Ramund rolled his left shoulder, glancing up at the Myaani archers, far above him “We can ask ourselves that question a thousand times, but there will always only be one way to answer it. Come then. Let us not hesitate.” he turned his gaze to the gates, and approached them. With his heavy hands, he pounded on the gate, three times, just to make sure he got the message through. He stepped back and let silence fall for a few seconds, Rose's eyes full of anticipation. They stood there for a few seconds, before a voice called out from above.

“State your business!”

Ramund looked upwards, and saw that it was one of the archers speaking. He was wielding a crossbow, loaded and pointed down at the strangers below. Ramund raised his thundering voice, and answered back “We are Ramund Bjornsson and Rose, veterans of The Crusade! We come in peace, and we carry a message that could mean the life of thousands—-yours included! We wish to speak with your chieftain!”

There was a silence after that, and he and Rose exchanged a few glances. He smiled, silently seeming to ask 'did I do well?', and to that Rose gave a little thumbs-up gesture. For a few seconds, Ramund thought that they would just silently brush them away, as others had done before them. But this time, that was not the case. The silence was broken as the gates began to grind, wooden and dry, slowly yawning open. Ramund took in a deep breath, and gave Rose a pat on the back. With a smile on his face and hope in his heart, he made his way inside, closely followed by his dark companion.

Stepping inside, the whiff of roast boar and deer that Ramund caught seemed to reach its crescendo, hanging like a curtain under the green crowns of the oaks that held aloft the ceiling of this place-—the ceiling being the leaves themselves, of course. He breathed in deeply, and drank from the sight that opened up to him and Rose, and swept itself around them as they stepped through those gates. It was a vivid city of Myaani, so full of life, with wooden houses in a harmonic tango with nature, never cutting down that which does not need cutting. Several houses were built into the wood itself, and the streets were adorned with the blossoming flowers of spring. The sunlight fell as a thousand slivers and pillars down through the ceiling of leaves, golden through the smoke from merchants' cooking fires and the steam from their bubbling pots. Old as well as young Myaani littered the streets, sitting on branches, in rocking chairs, playing tag with fawns or a game of chess—-or at least some Myaani variation that seemed like it. Peace reigned in here, and Ramund would have let him loose to inhale it all, but while this place housed children and the elderly, it was, undeniably, still the Tu'Myaa. It was made very clear that he and Rose were under strict supervision, when a pair of guards approached from either side of them.

Usually, this would not have been a particularly intimidating matter, but this time it was different-—this time, the guards that escorted them were riding upon wolves the size of horses, and three times as strong. Ramund took in a sharp breath, and Rose's eyes widened at the monstrous creatures. Wargs, he recalled. With fur so coarse they felt like thorns, and with teeth that could effortlessly plunge through a soldier's armor, Ramund was amazed to see that the legends were true. The Tu'Myaa truly had managed to tame these incredible creatures, and would rival even the legendary bear riders from the mountains. It was safe to say that even he, Ramund, who had otherwise felt little fear in his heart, found himself at slight unease in the presence of the wargs, whose footsteps were so heavy he could feel the ground tremor in wake of their slow, steady pace. He caught eye-contact with one of them, and was given a sharp snarl at his insolence. Taking a deep breath, he gripped Rose by her arm, just to make certain she didn't do anything particularly... bold.

And atop the wargs, were the guards. Ramund had never seen a Myaani look so strong before; so ready for war. Though their fox-like features gave them some sense of sleekness and guile, their muscles could easily rival that of trained Crusade soldiers, and their armor just as well. They were donned in steel and leather, engraved with the strange totemic carvings of Myaani tradition, and their helmets were thickly adorned with spiritualistic charms, either meant for good luck and divine favor, or as some sort of trophies. If there was anything the Myaani were known for, it was their shamanistic way of life, and their unmatched hunting skills. That, and the occasional tribe-less Myaani whose fingers were a little too long for their own good. Sadly, these were the ones that had given the Myaani an image of petty thieves and smugglers and drug distributors, even though they could be such magnificent people, like the ones that lived in and breathed life into this place. It was a misconception that Ramund hoped would be undone, one day.

He felt all the strange gazes the people here gave them, as they were escorted through the spring-greened streets, accompanied by a pair of these shaggy beasts. He knew that it was not a common sight, seeing non-Myaani in their streets, and it was clear to see that they did not take it as a good sign. Despite all this, he tried to keep his chin high, and his mood equally so. He would not get a chance like this again, after all.

“A beautiful place, would you not say?” Ramund asked, still keeping his grip tight on Rose as he spoke to her “Take a moment to inhale it all, Rose. The harmony. The dance with nature; the tranquility of it all.”

“The only thing I'm inhaling right now, is the smell of these... mongrels.” Rose spat glumly, casting a sour glance towards the wargs on either side of her.

Ramund shot a sideways glance down at Rose, and shook his head “Rose, sometimes you confound me. You came to find me willingly; I never dragged you through those gates.” a thought arose in his mind, and he looked over his shoulder, at the gates that closed behind him “On that thought: were you not supposed to stay in Casserton and listen to what rumors the folk might have to tell?”

Rose was quiet for a few seconds, her hands in her pockets, her eyes upon the verdant road ahead. When she spoke, she didn't look up at Ramund “Yes. But I ran into someone at the tavern who caught my attention. A man, aged, a veteran too.” now she looked up at Ramund, and he felt the sincerity in her eyes “A real one. Not one of Deum's... actors. His name was Edan Wolfe-—probably still is-—and he should be speaking with Duncan right now, if he's managed to find him.”

Ramund squeezed his lips together, sighing through his nose “I am pleased to hear that there is another veteran amidst, but veteran or no, we must be careful. Can we trust him?”

Rose shrugged slightly, her eyes falling back at the world around her; escorted by the warg-riders, they were led down streets that winded through the proud oaks, and up a slope where older Myaani seemed to reside. Sitting in rocking chairs on the porches of their wooden houses, it was strange to see how their fur seemed to grey, and their eyes seemed to droop. Ramund noticed that while they were all old like himself, most of them seemed feeble and withered, as if life had sapped them of all their strength. None of them seemed like warriors... and Ramund wondered if this was because the warriors just never managed to grow this old. Strange, how he was seeing more and more similarities between the Tu'Myaa, and his own people, the Mjaln.

“I think he's alright.” Rose said after a little period of silence “He's paranoid, though. Constantly worried about Deum's hunters coming to put lead between his eyes. Still, what with the world coming to an end and all, maybe paranoia is not a bad choice after all.”

Ramund couldn't help but smile “Do not confuse paranoia with survival instinct, Rose. These are dark days, as you said yourself. Survival is all we have to hope for, at this point.” he looked down at her “I am looking forward to meeting this 'Edan Wolfe'. Maybe he has some wisdom to share, and stories to tell.”

Before long, the warg-rides came to a halt, as they reached the top of the hill. There weren't as many citizens here, and far more armored soldiers than anywhere else. Some standing guard, valiant and vigilant in their exotic armor, others patrolling, and in the near distance Ramund saw a group of recruits doing jumping-jacks under the shouting command of what he assumed had to be some kind of officer. It reminded him of the front lines, but without all the sand, heat, and demons. But in the middle of it all, was an odd contrast to the otherwise fortress-like appearance of this grove. It was a tent, and one of traditional Myaani make—-strung to overhanging branches, it swayed in the gentle breezes, its cloth adorned with the shamanistic symbols for 'peace' and 'calm', together with the illustrious banners of the Tu'Myaa. Ramund looked up at the warg-riders on either side of him, as if to ask 'is this the place?', but the answer he got was only a cold stare from the guards and wargs alike. Taking in a deep breath, he took Rose by the arm again, and slowly made his way inside.

The first thing Ramund—-and probably Rose too-—noticed when they stepped inside, was the smell. The sharp, staggering smell of incense that filled the tent up like a Rimnoll fog. It had been tightly sealed within the tent behind the linen walls, and had accumulated to such a density it brought tears to Ramund's eyes. He had to narrow them to keep himself from too much stinging, but seeing anything at this point was utterly out of the question. He held unto Rose, both to keep her from doing anything rash, but also to keep her from getting lost—for this did seem like the kind of place you could get lost in, despite that the tent wasn't covering more than a few square meters. He felt pillows underneath his feet, laid upon the grass, no floor. He closed the linen flaps that made up the doors of this tent, even though he feared he might never find the door again in this dense mist of herbal incense. He stopped in his tracks as soon as the flaps closed behind him, eyes still narrowed, face full of confusion. It was only when he heard a voice from inside the fog, that he dared go further.

“I do not recognize your scent.” a voice spoke, old and withering “Come closer. I would sense you for myself.”

Ramund looked down at Rose, even though she was hard to see, what with the incense so thick that he wouldn't be able to see his hand with an outstretched arm. Still, he did not question the voice from inside, and moved a little closer.

“Stop there.” the voice spoke again “Sit.”

Ramund swallowed. This was beginning to seem a little strange, and he feared that of all the books he had read about, he maybe should have indulged himself in more books of Myaani customs. He sat, as ordered, hands in his lap, Rose sitting right beside him and seeming equally confounded. However, soon after, he felt a strange breeze inside the tent; a breeze that seemed like it came from nowhere. He felt it tuck in his face, his iron-braced beard, his clothes... and within a few seconds, the incense seemed to lessen. It lessened like a morning dew giving way to noon, and more and more was revealed as it did. The pillows underneath him, yellow and purple and tan, all neatly sown and riddled in the intricate Myaani drawings and inscriptions. Above him, hanging like vines in a jungle, were a myriad of charms and dolls and totems, tied to strings and adorned with feathers and paint. He was surprised he hadn't bumped into any of them, the tall man he was.

However, what truly drew his attention was what the incense gave way to, sitting on a throne merely two meters in front of him. A Myaani, aged to the point where his fur was slowly turning grey, and his muscles seeming to wither away, well on their way to the afterlife already. Ramund felt a slight jump as he saw the incense give way, and feared a judging look from the Myaani, but quickly realized that was not going to happen-—and with good reason. The Myaani before him wore a leather blindfold over his eyes, wrapped around his standing ears, one of them chipped on the top and the other littered with piercings. And in between them, glorifying the Myaani on the wooden throne, was the traditional feather-crown of chieftains, with feathers of all colors and sizes, far more boastful than the proudest peacock he had ever seen. However, it rested upon a head that seemed to have seen better days-—scarred, aged, and blind, this old Myaani seemed like he was bidding life goodbye already.

His muzzle was turned slightly heavenwards as if he was looking Morrin in the eyes, and his breathing was slightly struggled. However, perhaps that could also be thanks to the pipe he had in his mouth, so long it reached from his mouth to his hip, and clearly the source of where all this smoke came from. Its end lay in the frail, bony fingers of his left hand, and his right was slightly outstretched and with remnants of pale magic dancing like fireflies in between. Ramund wasn't surprised—-this Myaani was a mage as well, and probably a shaman too. The magic he had used was certainly what had lifted the fog of smoke, and revealed the inside of the tent to him and Rose. He looked down at Rose a final time, and saw clear in her eyes that she knew she wasn't the one meant to speak her. He realized it was all on him, he being the eldest and all. He swallowed his unease, and looked back at the chieftain again. But he was interrupted.

“I take it... you have not come without purpose.” the chieftain spoke out the side of his mouth, the other side occupied by the mouthpiece of his pipe. While his voice was frail and feeble, it carried some strange sense of authority in it that made even Ramund shiver a little. Even though he was blind, it was as if he stared right through him, and into the parts of his soul where only he was allowed. It was a strange sensation, and a horribly intimidating one. He felt as if telling any kind of untruth would be futile in face of this chieftain, and that lies would be seen through before they were even spoken. Was it magic? Some kind of submission aura? Even Ramund couldn't tell... but then it was fortunate that he had no reason for telling lies anyway.

“We have not.” he answered respectfully, and head bowed slightly; he wondered if there was any point in gestures, though, in face of the blind chieftain “We have come with quite a dire message, in fact. We have told this to leaders before you, and twice now have we been brushed away, disregarded. But the truth is not one to disregard, chieftain.” Ramund wasn't certain what to call him—-'your highness', 'your greatness'... he decided just to call him what he was, as that could surely not go wrong “Over the hills, a danger far greater than this world has ever seen comes swarming like locusts, destroying everything and all in their path. I am certain you have heard of the fate of Aegon, chieftain—the rumors of arson or accidents-—but I am here to tell that it was no accident. What broke down those walls and razed Aegon to the ground was nothing short of—“

“—an army of demons.” the chieftain interrupted him, much to his surprise. Stifled, his mouth was still open to keep talking, but he found himself suddenly wordless. His eyes fell briefly to Rose, who seemed just as surprised. When he looked back at the chieftain, he was given the answer to the question he hadn't asked yet.

“I have heard it whispered upon dire winds.” the chieftain said, leaning back in his wooden throne, putting his pipe aside for a few moments “I have read it in the ripples of uneasy lakes, and I have felt it in the sting of icy nights. The signs were aplenty, but the certainty... absent. I am a leader as much as I am a sage, dear guest. I would speak to my people and have them venture north to safer lands, but I cannot ensue worry and fear before I know for a certainty, that these signs are true. For a long time, it has been unclear...” he slowly leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and even though he was wearing a leather blindfold, Ramund felt as if he was looking him right in the eyes “...until now.”

Ramund wasn't certain what to say, at first. He had expected the same kind of dismissal from before, and feared that he would have to fight a battle of words against the chieftain, surely to lose it in the end. But here the chieftain sat... listening. It was almost alien. Absurd. Unrealistic. But when he realized that this was very real, he cleared his throat and spoke.

“Chieftain, you... you surprise me.” he decided to be honest, throwing in a disbelieving chuckle as well “I had thought we would argue first, then part later with nothing resolved, only more reason to spite one another. Should I assume that you then already know what I am about to tell you?”

“Not... entirely.” the chieftain continued, resting his frail hands on his knees as he leaned back in his throne again “I have seen the signs, but signs never tell a story full. I am aware of many a thing, but it is rare that I should know every single detail of one given thing... this apocalyptic army included. Tell me, dear guest: from whence do you come, that you are one to tell me this?”

He looked down at Rose again, as if asking if she wanted to say anything-—she gave a brief shake of her head. He looked back at the chieftain, and took a deep breath “We are soldiers, chieftain; of the Crusade... and I am sure that you, in your wisdom, can tell the true from the false. Some may tell you that all is good and glorious beyond the waters—-I will not fill your ears with such lies. I am here to warn you that the safety of all living things is in perilous danger, and not even the strength of the Tu'Myaa can withstand the coming storm.” he looked away for a brief second “This is no insult. This is simply... a fact. I know that you are ready for war, as the only Myaani people to be, but so was Aegon. And Aegon had walls that disappeared beyond clouds, and were said to reach all the way up to gods and angels. But those walls did not matter when a hurricane of fangs and fire swept over the city, and left it razed, barren, broken.” his face turned viciously dire, his voice darkening “The same will happen to you, if you do not bring your people to safety. The Myaani are a noble folk, and I would hate to seem them wiped out... the choice is yours, chieftain.”

The chieftain remained silent for a little while. He put the pipe back into his mouth, and let smoke seep out of his canine nose. Ramund knew the chieftain was thinking, but Rose seemed almost to lose her patience, before he began speaking.

“Yes.” he stated briefly “Yes it is. Normally I would listen to your kind and politely dismiss you... but I sense truth in your words. Truth... and fear.” his eyebrow did a little twitch “You are scared, my friend... are you not? But not of death. Not of suffering. Not yours... but of someone else's.” this was the exact thing that Ramund felt; the gaze that pierced through his facade, and stared right into who and what he truly was. All the things he kept secret, all the things that he thought was only for him to know. His face went slightly pale at the chieftain's words, and his hand fell to the music box in a leather satchel in his belt. How could he have known? He was a man with many strengths and few weaknesses—-but his family was one of those few.

“And a liar would not be afraid of his own lie...” the chieftain fingered his pipe slowly, his nose twitching slightly, sniffing at Ramund as if trying to smell his words “...But a truthful man can easily be afraid of his own truth. I do not believe that you are feeding me lies, my friend. You are the last sign I needed, to make certainty of these whispers I have heard.”

Ramund felt something inside of him that he had not expected to feel for a long time: hope. It swelled up inside of him like an overflowing well, spilling out over his entire being. He felt strangely young again, the rigors of age swept away on the winds of spirit. He smiled, an amazed chuckle escaping him, and even Rose seemed pleased-—although, judging by the little smirk on her face, maybe 'entertained', or 'amused' was a better word. Ramund looked back at the chieftain to speak, but was interrupted.

“And if you are no liar... then perhaps you are one of the few who have escaped the manacles of duty, and returned from the war. I have heard Deum's ilk and tasted their lies; their mouths overflow with untruth, as they speak great words of glory and victory from the lands to the south. You are the first to tell me otherwise. I think... perhaps we share a mutual interest, my friend.”

Ramund's smile was replaced by a puzzled look, Rose mirroring it. He remained quiet for a little while, wondering if the chieftain was going to continue speaking. But as a few seconds went by, he asked what was on his and Rose's mind alike.

“And... might I ask what that would be?”

This time, it was the chieftain's turn to remain quiet. He 'stared' out into thin air for a little while, his muzzle cocked slightly upwards, smoke seeping through his jagged, canine teeth. He breathed in the incense, a deep breath to get the best of it, before speaking.

“Lucius... Deum.” he said, the word spilling out of his mouth together with the smoke “We Tu'Myaa have been in many a conflict with him and his ilk. No swords have been drawn as of yet, but I fear the day where blades will conquer diplomacy. Of all liars I have met, Lord Deum smells the worst. A stench of lies follows him like a wicked fog, his bright facade simply a mask upon his dark and filthy mind. He lusts for dominance and fame and power, and in his eyes, the Tu'Myaa should be under his command as well. As I am certain you know, two of our three Fairlandish villages have fallen to his sway, and become part of his... 'world nation'. Like an infection, it spreads, consuming more and more cities and people. Most of the western world has already succumbed to his influence, but there are a few who resist. Westport, for one, and we Tu'Myaa as well-—but the greatest resistance he has faced must surely be Moonby Sanctuary. While the nobles may be greedy and selfish, they are our best hope to create a strong resistance against Deum's corrupt rule. Even the great city of Aegon fell to him, and if he is not stopped, the world shall go blind behind his curtain of lies, and numb to what is truly happening. I may be blind, but I have never seen anything clearer than this... to stop this man, we cannot idle by. We must act. We must band together. We must seek out the strong and the weak and see that no man shall drown away in the shadow of Deum's empire. We...” he slowly let the pipe fall to his lap, his face full of dark sincerity “...must rebel.”

Ramund took in a sharp breath, his face wrought in surprise “Rebel? To rebel against The Crusade is suicide, chieftain. You said yourself that diplomacy between you and Deum may soon give way to war-—rebelling is certain to result in exactly that!”

“Then perhaps it is the only way.” The chieftain continued, his voice harboring no hesitation, no doubt “It cannot be denied that we, the Tu'Myaa, are as ready for war as can be. We have been ready for war since I founded it, forty years ago.” Ramund recalled that the Myaani race were created no more than fifty-four years ago, which meant that the chieftain founded it when he was merely the age of ten. Looking upon him, seeing how aged and withering he was, he also recalled just how short the lifespan of the Myaani was “It pains me to wage war against those who would defend us from the coming army of demons, but it would pain me even more to see the eastern world flee into Deum's arms, when the army comes to their doorstep. This army is Deum's greatest opportunity to scare the other nations to give in and fight under his banner... and if Deum is victor of the war, he will be victor of the world.” he let out a long sigh, smoke pouring from his nostrils.

“We are squeezed between two evils, but one evil is one we can fight. The demons will come, and they will burn the green hills of our home, but to the north, there will be blades. There will be soldiers in the thousands, and there will be walls to keep the demons at bay. With the aid of the Moonby nobles, perhaps we can end this reign of untruth, lift the night that has laid itself over the world, and bring about the dawn of enlightenment. But with Deum on the throne, there will be darkness...” his muzzle slowly turned down towards Ramund and Rose, giving them that eyeless stare behind leather blindfolds “...a darkness that you, my friends, can see beyond. You are living proof of Deum's lies, and some of the select few that have made it out alive. With you at our side, no man can turn a blind eye. You, and only you, can bring an end to the lies.”

Ramund wasn't certain what to say. A rebellion. He had never dared to think that this could be an option at all. The odds just seemed so horribly insurmountable. Deum's holy empire expanded far beyond the horizon, and countless men and women would surely follow him to their deaths if it meant squashing a measly rebellion like theirs. He looked at the chieftain, feeling almost frightened. But even without eyes, there was still some strange confidence in his grey-furred face. There was belief in the decision he had taken, and an authority that Ramund had not seen in far too long. Had it been too long since he had looked upon another man who did not fear death?

“But even with help from the nobles, The Crusade can and will still crush us! Effortlessly!” Rose butted in, seeming like she had had more than her fill of this, Ramund seeming quite shocked to see her suddenly spit out those words “Come on, I mean, you must have heard of The Kighthood of Morn. Those people are legendary—-some even say that they're not people at all, but a knighthood of angels bestowed on Godshill to ward off evil... and in Deum's eyes, we will easily qualify as evil.”

“And so, the quill and the blade does battle.” the chieftain responded swiftly, his muzzled turned towards Rose, his expression unaffected by her pessimism “Deum may have the strength to wipe us from existence-—but we carry truth. And as long as there is a king on the Godshill throne, all Deum's decisions must go through him-—including our death sentence. I have seen the king myself through the eyes of passing birds, and I have felt his purity in the wind that passes through his throne room. It is through him that we will show the world truth, and through him Deum will be defeated. And once that is done, we can all look to our common enemy, and unite under a single banner to make certain that this world lives to see another daybreak.”

Rose quieted down. She looked at the chieftain for a rather long time, her teeth gritted, her expression pained. Ramund could see that she wanted to retort, but could not find the words. Maybe even she could see now, that bringing Deum down was the only way.

“Very well then.” Ramund continued, letting out a long breath “This is not what I had expected... but perhaps we have no other options. If it is a rebellion this world needs to clear the fog that Deum has laid, then it is a rebellion it will have.” he smiled a little, even though he knew that the chieftain couldn't see it—-or could he?

“It is one it needs, but not one it wants.” the chieftain continued. He slowly rose from his throne, his frail legs shivering underneath him, and began to pick out feathers from his crown. One pristine blue, and one fiery red. One in each hand, he held them out to Rose and Ramund, and spoke in a deeply ceremonial voice “It is on this day that I pledge allegiance to you, and it is in the smoke of my home that I promise undying loyalty, unwavering resilience, and unblemished truth. It is on this day, this hour, that the Tu'Myaa embark upon that which they have been made for. War.”

Ramund looked down at the feather, and gracefully accepted it. Rose did too, holding it with a puzzled look on her face-—she clearly didn't realize the symbolism in being given a feather from a chieftain's crown. Ramund, however, saw that it was a sign of trust-—trust that those given the feathers would be careful not to ruffle it, lest they should face the wrath of the chieftain himself. Ramund gave a respectful nod, and put his pristine blue feather into his pale ponytail.
“We will not disappoint you, chieftain. Spirits guide your way.”

The chieftain's lips turned back in a pleasant smile, as he sat back down in his throne. Ramund looked down at Rose, who was still holding the fiery red feather, seeming rather uncertain of what to do with it. He gestured silently to the feather he had put in his ponytail, but she just gave him a lazy-eyed, sarcastic look—-she had too short hair for that. With a little spin on his heel, Ramund walked outside again, Rose close at his heels. He could see how the incense began to gather around the chieftain, and eventually swallow him whole.

Ramund left the chieftain's tent with a renewed sense of spirit, and one he had not felt in far too long. His wrinkled face wrinkled even further by the wide smile that he carried, and he knew that Rose was giving him weird, entertained looks, but he didn't mind. Walking down the streets again, this time without an escort, he felt as if he was looking upon the world in an entirely new way. It was as if he hadn't truly appreciated the beauty of it all, before now. All the birds that joyfully sung the praises of the noon sun, and the way the light fell in a thousand splinters through the leaves-—he felt like the darkness that had overcome him when that demon slew the harlot in Westport had finally been broken by a new dawn. He walked with long, almost theatrical steps to express his pleasure, his bearded face raised to bathe in the sunlight. He let out a long, relieved sigh, and spoke with a gentle tone.

“The world might be ill, sister.” he said, speaking to Rose but too absorbed by the beauty of it all to look down at her “But I do believe we just found the cure.”

Rose kept quiet for a little while. While she seemed as drab as always, Ramund could feel some hope blossom in her as well. The way she took in all the great oak trees, all the scents of life, the smell of spring leaves and joy, rather than looking for solace in the dirt, all gave it away. After a few moments, she responded, a hint of amusement in her voice, her eyebrows arched slightly and an ever so subtle smile on her lips.

“...You just called me sister, Ramund.” she said.

“That I did.” Ramund replied with a mirthful chuckle, this time turning to look down at her “We have walked alongside one another for quite some time now, Rose. I see no reason why you should not be deemed my equal. You have proven yourself more than enough for you to have earned my respect. And now with a new dawn rising, we must band closer together to see it done.”

Ramund had not hoped to hear her laugh, but this time, she did. It was a sweet sound to hear, so strangely merry and lighthearted, as if Rose had finally shed the masque of misery. He looked down at her, and saw how her eyes glimmered with a belief in herself that he never thought he would see. But there it was, clear as a beacon at sea.

“I don't say this often, Ramund, but... I'm flattered.” she said, tossing him a gleeful look, smiling “I've heard stories about your kind, and what it means to be considered a brother or a sister. The doctors at the asylum made quite the emphasis out of it. So many stories about strong brotherhoods that forged their legends through blood and snow and... well, you know what I'm trying to say, I'm sure.” she stuffed her hands down her pockets, and looked up at the sun as well “To think that maybe we will forge a legend too, one day.”

“We already are, sister.” Ramund said, taking in a deep breath, feeling the sweet spring air fill his lungs. His eyes moved about the verdant streets they walked upon, catching eye-contact with a few Myaani boys on their wooden rocking horses, or girls with their knitting kits, all seeming to enjoy the life they had. He even caught sight of one little Myaani boy dashing past him from the thin crowd before him, probably playing a swift game of tag with someone. True enough, there a grown woman Myaani came running right past him, pushing people aside to get through. A little rough perhaps, but fun nonetheless. Things began to seem a little strange when a man Myaani came following too, carrying an oddly stressed look on his face. And there, another one-—and another. They all looked... frightened. He noticed how the other Myaani around him were giving the bypassers strange looks as well, and there just kept coming more of them; a little girl was first, but before long, there were almost as many running Myaani in the streets as there were walking. It seemed a game of tag at first, but Ramund feared that the truth was not so merry. These people weren't running after something. They were running from something.

“Ramund...” Rose's voice dropped to a cautious darkness, one he shared inside himself “...What is happening?”

And that was when he felt it. An uneasy wind came their way, strong and dire, washing away the sweet scent of spring and flowers, and giving way to the unmistakable reek... of fire. Something was horribly amiss; Ramund did not need to be a keen shaman like the chieftain to feel the fear that howled through the air like winds of its own. He felt the hairs on his neck rise and the hope in his chest plummet and rot. And before he knew it, he felt his right hand move unto the handle of one of his axes, and the left on Rose's shoulder.

“This is not right.” Ramund's heart beat a fearful rhythm in his chest, pumping fire into his blood like the fire he could smell “Rose, stay close. Something could go horribly wrong this day.” he did not hesitate to break into a steady jog, Rose close behind him. Whatever the distance offered, he feared that the day he had just praised might turn out not to be as praiseworthy as he had hoped.

The smell of fire only grew stronger the closer to the gates they went, and the crowd grew thinner. Hundreds had fled past them by now, and he saw platoons of Tu'Myaa warriors marching out, weapons in their hands, armor on their bodies, and war in their eyes. Several wargs had passed them by, by now, each and every one donned up with heavy plate that covered every since of their massive bodies, and leaving their vicious eyes staring out of a gigantic steel visor. It was certain now; the air reeked with the bloody stench of battle, the air tense with fervor, the ground trembling under the heavy steps of wargs and warriors. Ramund had drawn his axe now, but he hoped dearly he did not have to use it. But deep inside, he knew he might have to.

As they came to the gates, they saw how archers were lined up, shoulder to shoulder on the walls, bows drawn and arrows cocked. He heard voices shouting, and not just the bellowing commands of Tu'Myaa officers, but the angry cries of men. Ramund could not see past the great wooden gates, but he saw how it seemed to bend inwards. It sounded like there was a crowd behind those gates.

“Rose, follow.” Ramund ordered, quickly glancing backwards to see that she was still close. She was, but while his heart carried a crippling fear, he could see in her eyes that the same did not go for her. There was excitement in them, lustful, aroused. He tried not to look too long, to avoid feeling sick.

He quickly ascended the walls from behind, up a staircase of wood that creaked underneath his weight, up to the Myaani archers. And as he did, when he gazed over the hills that had otherwise reigned peace and tranquility, he saw nothing but war. His heart seemed to cease its beating, a cold rush pouring through his body like ice as he saw all the torches, all the pitchforks, all the butchers' knives and the angry looks on their faces. The green of the hills gave way to the flickering orange of torchlight, as Ramund stood there, staring upon what must have been all of Casserton come to burn the world down. Hundreds upon hundreds of villagers swarmed before the gates, roaring, shouting, crying out for blood. He felt like he couldn't move, thrown back to the front lines for a few seconds, all the villagers here for but a split moment seeming like they had massive claws, ungodly maws full of saliva, and bloodshot eyes.

“You will pay this day, pigs!” he heard them shouting, throwing stones after the archers “You have killed your last innocent, vermin! Vermin! Vermin!” they cried out, chanting their own fury. Ramund could scarcely believe what was happening, and even Rose seemed shocked. These were not the peaceful villagers he had seen trading wool and hay, enjoying life in their rocking chairs with nothing on their minds but this year's harvest. These were demons, hungry for bloodshed. What in the world had happened, to infuriate them like this?

“Ramund!” he suddenly heard his name called from the roaring crowd, a single voice amongst the many. He thought at first it was but a figment of his imagination, but when he saw Duncan down there, jumping up and down and waving his arms, he thought otherwise. His eyes grew wide as he saw his captain amongst the angry villagers, seeing a look of horror and distress upon his face. Ramund quickly took Rose by the arm, and looked her in the eyes.

“Trust me now.” he said, and did not wait for her response before he clenched his free hand into a fist, and closed his eyes. For a few seconds, the world seemed to fade away. The smell of fire, the shouting of villagers, the bloodlust. A moment or two went by of absolute peace, where there was nothing but himself, and the spirits. He saw blue fill his vision, and he felt his skin tingle as if something divine had taken his hand. And that very same hand now bustled and shone with deep blue energies, which he clenched and crushed like a glass ball. As his eyes flung open, he saw the energies spill out over him and Rose, covering them like dust. Rose seemed a little confused at first, but before she could ask, she was ripped off the edge of the wall as Ramund performed a leap of faith. He gritted his teeth as he leaped, and if his spell had failed, he would surely fall and break both his legs. Fortunately, that was not the case. Instead, he and Rose drifted like autumn leaves to the ground, knocking over a pair of villagers in the process. He heard them shout their complaints, but Ramund did not care. He took no hesitation, before powering his way through the crowd, easily done for a man of his own size.

He felt all the body heat down here amongst the filth, and all the shouting grew louder than ever. He felt the heat of the torches, the stink of sweat, the stink of war. With Rose trying to keep up, he held her with an iron grip to keep her from getting lost in the crowd while he plowed through, his eyes fixated upon the waving arms of his captain. And when he finally pushed the last angry villager aside, he got a good look into Duncan's eyes. Never had he seen a fear like this.

“It was me!” Duncan cried, gripping Ramund's mighty arms with frail, shivering hands “It was all me, but they won't listen!!”

“Calm down, now.” Ramund replied, trying to seem like he had things under control—-despite that it was as far from the truth as it could be “You need to speak clearly.” Rose, while trying to stay away from the jabbing pitchforks and butchers' knives, stared upon the man with eyes that seemed like they could never close.

In that moment, Ramund caught sight of Agatha too. She was right behind her son, shivering too, afraid of all that was happening around her. She must never have seen the people act like this, so furious, so... animal. And by her side, holding her close and fending off those who would get too close, was a grizzled man, aged but with a face that seemed carved out of granite. He was wearing armor too, a hybrid mix of leather and steel, woven together in a way Ramund had not seen before. His right arm was covered entirely in scaly layers of steel laid upon one another and strapped together, but his chest was but plain brown leather, hardened. This must have been the man Rose spoke of, though he hadn't imagined him like this. With his right hand, he held around Agatha, but in his left, he carried an armor and blade that Ramund easily could recognize: it was Duncan's.

“Ramund, please...” Duncan whimpered, staggering backwards, his voice snapped and his eyes shimmering with tears “...They won't listen.”

“Your captain is broken, Mjaln.” the grizzled man, Edan Wolfe, spat out like was it poison, his eyes full of it too “He killed a woman, thinking she was a demon. And now these sheep have chosen to blame the Tu'Myaa instead.”

Even though Wolfe's voice was hard to hear with all the shouting around them, these words cut through the noise like a knife through butter-—and a knife that made its way right into Ramund's throat, jamming his words and making it feel like he couldn't breathe. Rose too was stifled, standing there and looking upon Duncan who had fallen to his knees, his face buried in his hands, wet with tears. Agatha squeezed her eyes shut, making it seem like she was denying any of this happening, that none of it was true. But this was a nightmare from which she would not awaken.

“Oh Duncan...” was all Ramund could say, his shoulders sagging in a deep, pitiful sigh. But as he breathed in to speak again, a voice above all others interrupted him.

“Enough of this!” a Myaani atop of the walls, donned in great armor and with a far more intricate and elegant helmet on his head snarled through his visor. Ramund looked over his shoulder, and seemed to catch eye-contact with the Myaani, just as he spoke the words he had hoped that he would not.

“These swine are on Myaani land, and they are posing a threat to hundreds of innocents. You know protocol.” He shouted to his archers, raising a hand-—for a moment, Ramund swore that he could see a smile behind that shining steel visor “Wipe them out.”

As he threw his hand down and signaled the archers to let the arrows fly, only then was the last specks of hope in Ramund's heart stomped out like a fickle flame under a merciless boot. Everything seemed to slow down in those seconds, as the archers let go of their strings. It was as if he could see it all happening down to the smallest detail-—the bowstring giving in, the feathers of the arrow bending under pressure, the steel head gleaming in the light of the sun and a hundred torches. It was in that second, that he threw himself to shelter his comrades, grabbing them all by their collars and holding them tight. He closed his eyes, and all the shouting of the angry villagers seemed to become little but background noise as he felt Agatha, Rose, Duncan, and Wolfe all hold unto him, want or not. But their bodyheat all seemed to give way to the sense of a biting, breaking pain, and all he could hear was the sound of steel snapping. He wasn't sure what had happened. He felt strangely warm all of a sudden, and only when he looked down at his chest and saw that the white cloth shirt he wore had gone red, did he realize. He breathed heavily, and felt the arrowhead inside his chest. He swallowed, and laughed a little.

“It... it seems I've been...” he was interrupted as another surge of pain ripped through his body, and he saw an arrowhead stick out of his stomach. This one had gone all the way through, and blood spattered unto Rose who stood there, watching, stifled. He looked into Duncan's eyes that were littered with horror, and he heard him shout something, but his mind was in too much of a haze to understand the words. He slumped to his knees, feeling his strength giving way under him; the first arrow must have struck something vital. Was it finally time?

He felt the earth sink under the weight of his knees. It was soft. Warm even, and pleasantly so. He saw how the wargs had been unleashed, and were charging through the horde, sending the helpless villages flying and swallowing others whole. He gazed into Duncan's eyes, now swelling with tears, his cheeks flaring red and his mouth shouting his name-—he could see it on his lips, but he couldn't hear it. Rose had backed away, almost as if this was too much, even for her, and Wolfe was trying to rip Duncan away from him. Duncan was afraid, but it was alright. This was a good way to go.

In the soundless scenario that took place around him, although slightly blurry, he saw how hell had truly been unleashed by now. Blood mist seemed to rise like a carpet over the horde, and he could feel the heat from trees that had been set ablaze behind him. Wargs rampaged around the place, arrows were hailing, and hundreds of men were slain in but a few seconds. This was definitely war. This was war in its prime, though not the war that Ramund had expected he would die in. He sat there, his body limp and helpless, watching in silence as another warg came plowing in from the left, tearing Duncan, Agatha, Rose, and Wolfe away. They were ripped out of his vision by the monstrous beast, and while he did not want them to die as well, there was nothing he could do by now. The first arrow seemed like it had broken something inside of him, and now all he could do was watch.

He watched as the warg shoved his friends away, but the rider hopped off right before him, looking down at him. It was the commander of the Tu'Myaa, the one who had ordered the extinction of the Casserton people. He had red eyes. Red like the color of Ramund's shirt. He stared at him through his shining steel visor, and stepped up close to him, close enough to touch. Ramund looked wordlessly into his eyes and saw him say something, but he couldn't hear it. He could only hear his own pulse, which seemed to become slower with each passing second. He could only hear the fires of the grove, crackling and burning as they devoured all. And as the Tu'Myaa commander picked up a great thick branch from the ground, he could only hear the voice of his own daughter, calling to him. The commander smiled as he raised the stick over his shoulder, but so did Ramund. With his daughter calling to him in his head, how could he not? As he felt the commander ram the stick across his temple, and as he saw the world disappear into darkness, he smiled. The sound of his daughter's voice was such a sweet thing to die to.
Vanguard, Final Chapter of Book 1 (1/2)
Ahh, here it is: the final chapter of book 1. It is officially called 'Unto A New Dawn', but it was too long to fit in the deviation title. Anyway, it has been one hell (pun unintended) of a journey, and one I am glad that you, dear readers, have followed me upon. We have explored the disillusion of soldiers, the darkness of war, the rigors of insanity, and what great power can do to a man. And we are only half-way! I have great plans for book 2, and ones I hope you will explore together with me. See you then!
Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: violence/gore)
There was an eerie silence, in the town of Retby. No one quite knew why, but everyone could feel it. The sheep hadn't been eating at all, the cattle had been uneasy and nervous, and the birds... the birds were nowhere to be seen. She had stared out the window for a long time now, trying to figure out what was going on. She, of all people, could feel it in particular. Or was it just the silence of not hearing her son's footsteps in the house anymore? She sat with her fluffy tail in her lap, and stared out into the streets, at all the mud. She had been wanting to ask the guardswoman Moira about how her son was faring... but she was nowhere to be found. It was strange enough that the animals were acting odd, but the guards too? You didn't have to be a practiced spirit dancer to feel the unease and disturbance in the atmosphere. The bitter winds, and the clouds that drifted in chaotic ways. The merchants and farmers and stable boys noticed too.

“Mother...?” she quickly looked over her shoulder, and saw her daughter stand there, a tattered teddy bear in her hands and a concerned look in her eyes. Merchants, farmers, stable boys... and children, it seemed. She looked down at her, tried to smile. She turned around on the little wooden stool by the window where she had sat so many times ever since her son was taken away, and reached out to take her daughter's hand, inviting her unto her lap.

The little girl took her mother's hand, and scooted up unto her lap. She was wearing a little dress of ragged, cheap linen adorned with the totemic charms of her pack, just like the ones she had tied into her own mane. The little girl sat there on her lap, on her warm skirt of the same linen, clutching her teddy bear-—she hadn't let go of it for so long, and she was beginning to tear holes in it. Her eyes were full of sad longing, and she couldn't even look into her mother's eyes. That's what bothered her most... she wouldn't even look into her eyes anymore.

“Is brother ever coming home?” she asked in a meek voice. She sat there, chewing at her lip, and all her mother could do was sigh. She knew the answer perfectly well, but she just couldn't accept it. In time, she would... in time, they both would.

“Only the spirits know.” she answered her and ran a hand through the neatly combed tan hair that slipped in between her foxy ears and rolled down her back “And if the spirits see it fit that he returns, he will. He is serving a greater cause now. You really mustn't be selfish, dear.” she had been saying that so many times, but the words felt like poison upon her tongue. In truth, she wanted to cry with her, but no daughter should see her mother weep. The day they came for him, and took him away... the poor girl was never going to forget that. Was this really the fate she deserved? What kind of cruel divine game would harm a young girl like this? She was never going to be the same... she could barely even recognize her, the way she acted. But somewhere, deep inside, she recognized her now better than ever. Not as her daughter, though. Not as the sweet little girl she had raised, taught table manners, taught how to speak, to walk, to sow. That girl was long gone. Now she was simply a hollow, hurt little reflection of herself... and she feared she was never going to become the sweet child she once was. And here she thought she was safe from the rigors of war, in a place like Retby. But the day that they dragged her son out of that door, she realized that this war wasn't only happening in The Wastelands. It was happening everywhere, for everyone.

Her gaze fell out of the window once more, to the muddy marketplace down the slope. Puddles danced a grimy tango with the mud, both glistening in the light of dawn. The smell of cow and pig had bothered her in the past, she remembered, but now she just felt so dull. It was as if life had lost its edge to her. What more was there to be had in this world, than the ghost of the son she once had?

Her eyes fell upon something strange, in the middle of the muddy marketplace. There was a stranger, standing there. He was tall, wearing grey stitched robes with a hood over his head, seeming almost like a pilgrim of sorts. But there were no gods to be found in Retby. He was standing there with his hands holding his robes together, his head lowered with the hood covering his face entirely. This wouldn't have been an unusual sight, as Retby was often a stopping place for travelers, but this man just stood there, doing nothing. But then, someone approached him. Someone she had not expected to even walk out of his door these days. It was the mayor.

He was quite a characteristic one, this mayor, since he was the only man in town with a tummy to boast for. While he wasn't obese, he still had a stomach that proudly bulged outwards, and with arms to match. He seemed like he was in a hurry too, his face covered in a thin layer of sweat that glimmered in the red glow of dawn. He walked up to the man in grey robes, and began speaking with him. While Myaani ears were sharp, there was no way she could hear him from here, especially not through a closed window. She looked upon them with curious eyes as they began to speak. The mayor seemed oddly frightened, for some reason, and it looked as if he was begging something of the traveler. She had never seen the mayor beg before, and it wasn't a pleasant sight. What was going on here?

And then, like a flash of lightning from a clear sky, the pilgrim whipped forth a flintlock and put it to the mayor's forehead. Her eyebrows rose and she wanted to call out for him to run, but it was already too late. The clamor of the gunshot echoed off the hills, and she felt her veins run cold for a moment. She sat there, frozen, before she saw the man's figure ripple and twist, almost like looking through the refraction of water. His robes dissipated into thin air, and what was left behind was an oddly colorful thing to behold, in this world of mud. Green, red, purple, pink, and blue all mashed together in a thousand ribbons and silken threads that made up his strange attire, all crowned with a ridiculously large top hat on his head. Even from here, she could see the serpentine smile that made its was across his face, while his emerald green eyes looked down upon the executed mayor that lay there, all undignified in the mud with blood on his face and lead in his brain. She turned to her daughter, her heart pounding like a drum as she hurried to grab her by the armpits and hoist her over her shoulder.

“Mother!” the little girl cried, but she quickly hushed her with a snap of her tongue.

“Not now! Please, don't ask, just be silent!” she snapped at her, and while she hated herself for snapping like this at her own daughter, there was not even time for an apology. She burst out her front door, feeling the brisk wind tug at her fur and the mud squeeze through her toes. She looked towards the marketplace again, and saw the colorful elf rise his arms high in glory, and his voice suddenly boomed like thunder over the hills.

“Wake up! Wake up, Retby, for the Carnival of Hell has arrived!” his voice echoed off the hills like his gunshot had did, but there was something else as well; something coming over the horizon. She could feel it in the ground, like an earthquake picking up to wreack destruction upon the world. She looked down at her feet and saw all the little pebbles jumping and dancing, and the mud wriggled like jelly. She saw all the other people of Retby hurrying outside to see just what the hell was going on... until they realized, that this was exactly what was going on. Hell.

As she whipped around to run away, run until her legs collapsed under her, all she found was the first taste of what the Netherworld had in store for her. Her heart felt as if it refused to beat any longer, and her muscles stiffened as if struck by rigor mortis. And, in truth, when she looked upon what was coming over that hill, each step a thunderclap that reverberated in the ground, she felt dead already. Great, bloodshot eyes as large as plates stared upon her as she stood there, all lonely in the streets. The demon that rose up before her was surely nothing short of three meters tall, and with fists the size of entire full-grown pigs. She slumped down into the mud, her head rising as she stared up at the juggernaut monstrosity that loomed before her, staring at her with eyes that cried nothing but bloodlust and hellish insanity. She could hear her daughter cry, but it all felt so distant all of a sudden. The screams of the Retby people reached a chaotic crescendo, but in her ears, it was all just background noise. She could feel heat rise around her as the village was set aflame, and all she could do was sit there on her knees, her daughter in her arms.

And when the juggernaut raised its fist up high, she instinctively covered her daughter's eyes as she squeezed shut her own. She prayed for this to be over quickly, to spare her daughter the pain. In this moment, all she cared about was her daughter. She didn't care about the village, the war, the world. It was all going to end now anyway, as she saw the shadow of the juggernaut's fist overshadow her and her daughter. She held the little girl tight, and wished she wouldn't cry in her final moments. There was a slight ringing in the head. The taste of mud. Darkness. Deathly silence.

The village of Retby burned, but its flames couldn't be seen over the hills. The only burning color that washed over this part of The Fairlands, was that of dawn. Casserton was wide awake at this point, with merchants and farmers filling up the wide streets. The smell of hay filled the air as ox carts drove by, and roosters cried out the praises of the rising sun. It was all quite peaceful here, in the ignorance of what was looming over the horizon. No one could smell the smoke.

“And stay out!”

Duncan was thrown out the door, and scraped his palms against the gravel, swearing at the pain. On the ground, he quickly turned around and faced the guardsmen in the door—-a pair of burly grunts, clad in uniforms. They stood in the doorway of the mayor's office building, a mighty brick-roofed house, on the very top of the slope that Casserton snaked up upon. The streets were quieter here, where the merchants had no business, and only the wealthier folk went about. Duncan heard a pair of wives giggle at him, as they saw him lying there in the gravel. He gave the guardsmen a glare of death, but it was cut short as they slammed the door before him.

“You can't do this!” he snarled and bounded to his feet, ramming his fist against the closed door “Listen to me, damn it! You're the mayor-—you have to listen to me! Please! Lives are at stake here, for gods' sakes!” he didn't care about the pain in his knuckles, his mind clouded in fury, his teeth gritted together so hard they might crack. Blood spotted the door as he continued to strike it, but despite his anger, no one was listening... or so he thought.

“...And you must be Duncan.”

He abruptly stopped up, and snapped his gaze to his left, where the voice came from. It was tattered and hoarse, and the same could be said for the owner of it. He was a grizzled man, old and greying, with a chiseled face that seemed no less stern despite the wrinkles it was getting. Duncan stepped away from the door, giving the rag-draped man a strange look. He was leaning up against the wall of a nearby straw-roofed house, here in the quieter, finer district. The roads here were narrower, not meant for the herds of cattle and sheep to pass through, and with indents for the wheels of horse chariots.

“That I am.” Duncan replied hesitantly, wiping some blood of his knuckles unto his denim trousers “Do I even want to ask how you know my name?”

“How about I just tell you, so you won't have to?” the man pushed himself off the wall, and approached Duncan. They stood a few meters from one another, almost equal height—-despite the man's coming age, he hadn't slouched the least. He extended a coarse, almost leathery hand “I met a friend of yours. Rose. She told me about what you and a certain 'Ramund' were doing here... I want in.”

“You want in?” Duncan wrinkled his nose and snorted through it, taking a step back “I don't even know you.”

“Why do you think I'm extending my hand to you, boy?” The man moved closer, his voice rough like sandpaper “C'mon. Shake it. Show some courtesy.”

Duncan looked at the grizzled old man with suspicion, but saw only insistence in his eyes. He looked about himself, and saw how there were regularly wealthier farm-owners and guardsmen walking about. If this man was up to something funny, a helping hand would surely not be far away. Although reluctantly, he moved forward to shake his hand.

“Duncan.” he said “My name's Duncan. Duncan Ross.”

“And I'll be Edan Wolfe, an ally.” the man, Edan, said as he gave Duncan's hand a firm shake, then let it slip from his grasp “Now, Duncan. I take it you don't have your Mjaln friend nearby?”

Duncan folded his arms, and rolled his shoulders “Maybe. What's it to you?”

Edan smirked, and let out a hoarse chuckle “Suspicious, are we? Good. That's how you survive. What if I introduced myself as Lieutenant Edan Wolfe?” his head inclined, baring more of his short greying hair.

Duncan was stifled for a few seconds, unsure of what to say. He opened his mouth several times to speak, but in the end, his eyes only narrowed further, even more suspicious than before “Lieutenant, huh? Name the three largest camps in The Wastelands, in descending order.”

Edan's smirk grew to a smile “Vanguard, Storm's Rest, and Swan.”

Duncan shook his head, his shaggy hair swaying “Alright, bad question. Anyone could know that. Hrm...” he scratched a little stubby beard that was beginning to grow on him “What camp do you claim to be from, 'lieutenant'?”

“Vanguard.” Edan was quick to answer, bobbing his head at Duncan “Just like you.”

Duncan sneered “How do you know I'm from Vanguard?”

“Don't be silly – your friend, Rose, told me. Can we stop these stupid games now?”

“Not quite.” Duncan wagged his finger “Final question. What is the name of the dark elf general who oversaw Camp Vanguard for the last sixteen years?”

Edan let out a single 'hah', and gave Duncan a casual point of his finger “That can only be Yrvan Direblood, the greatest ass to ever receive a title.”

Duncan stood quiet for a little while, staring at the man who called himself a lieutenant. His thoughts were split between paranoia and the sweet relief of seeing another true veteran, but in the end, he could only smile “Good gods, I never thought I'd see another veteran.” Duncan moved closer and proudly performed a salute, straight-backed and noble, as he had once done so many times on the battlefield. And his smile grew larger, his hopes swelling as Edan performed one right back.

“A real one, that is.” Duncan said as he dropped into a more casual stance, his hands in his pockets “I take it you've stuck around here longer than I to hear about, or even experience all the liars that Deum sent down here to spread his propaganda.”

“Every day, boy.” Edan sighed, his shoulders sagging as he did “But you numb yourself to the sound of their voices pretty quickly. If you're here to 'enlighten' the people, you can stop trying already. They're beyond healing. Gods know I've tried.”

Duncan quirked an eyebrow, giving Edan an odd look “Really? Tell me, lieutenant, just how long have you been here?”

“Long enough to settle down with a home, hoping never to hear anything about the war again.” he uttered a self-ridiculing chuckle “The fool I was. Come, let me show you where an old fart like me resides. You can brief me on the details-—and I can brief you on mine—as we walk.”
Duncan watched as Edan turned around on his heel, and strolled down the narrow street, down the slope. He watched the aging man with a little smile on his face. He had never thought to meet another veteran... maybe there were others. With confidence in his heart, he followed after Edan, down the slope to wherever he may lead.

On the way down the slope, through the streets that grew wider and more busy the further down they went, Duncan told Edan about everything. Nothing was left out. He told him about the way Camp Vanguard was overrun, and what theories they had made about it all. Intelligence behind the vast hordes of demons, the fall of Aegon, the mass recruitment in Retby and even Lex... a name he had not spared any thought for quite a while. And with good reason. He told Edan about what happened in The Wilderness, how the lurkers had gotten him and carried him away. He said it all with some hesitation, but it was the undeniable truth... and in comparison to what immeasurable havoc and death the demons had created already, it was nothing.

In the meantime, the dawn had slowly turned to noon. The sun stood bright and proud, speckled by the clouds that looked like a great, flying sheep in the sky. The cold of night was long since pushed away, and the fact that The Fairlands was such a southern realm became clearer and clearer, as the heat grew thicker and muggier. Beads of sweat rolled down Duncan's temples, and he saw that the cattle and dogs were having an equally hard time, their tongues lolling out of their mouths while they stuck to whatever shade there was.

It was only when they came to a quieter district of Casserton, where the crowd wasn't so thick and the merchants had no business, that Edan told about himself. Like with Rose, he told about what he had learned about what he liked to call 'the holy conspiracy', referring to the propaganda and manipulation that The Crusade was executing... 'executing' being a very fit word for this subject. He mentioned what he saw, when he came back from the field. He told Duncan about the way the veterans were put down like dogs, and how those too broken to be sensible were just let out into the world to preach their mad ramblings-—no one was going to listen to them anyway, so who cared? Duncan listened at what Edan told, and felt a sickness inside of him. To think that these were the ranks he once fought under.

However, after a little while, Duncan found himself led down one of the few alleyways of Casserton—-there weren't many, and far most of them were used as pigsties instead of housing quarters. This particular alley seemed to be a bit of both. A pair of fat pigs were gorging themselves on a newly filled trough of things that the people wouldn't eat, and Duncan could hear their munching and squealing before they even turned around the corner to the alley. The road here was soggy and muddy, being rather close to one of the rivers. Edan, however, didn't seem to mind. With hands in his pockets, he trudged through the mud and manure, up to a little door that seemed as if it was simply built into a big wooden wall-—there was no way of knowing where one house ended and another began without going inside. It reminded him dreadfully much of Westport, and he couldn't remember this from before his time on the field. Maybe Casserton was falling a little apart... judging from the rumor of murders, it was seeming increasingly clear that it was.

A keyring jingled as Edan pulled it from his belt. He stood before the door, grumbling as he sifted through the keys, speaking meanwhile “I'm sorry about the mud and pig shit, by the way, but when I bought this place, I just wanted to be in a place as quiet as possible—-and I've sort of gotten used to the snorting of pigs by now. It's more the voices of people that bother me.” he said, uttering a single, abrupt 'HAH!'.

Duncan smiled a little “Don't worry-—I've seen worse. Westport, for example.”

The door creaked as Edan twisted the key and pushed it open. Duncan followed quickly afterward, giving a short glance to the world around them. Were they followed? No. Good. With that, he stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.

Edan's house was a humble one. Unlike Agatha's house with three floors and several rooms for children, Edan's only had two: what seemed like a kitchen, and... this place. Duncan couldn't quite make out what it was from the mess that filled it up. Stacks of papers on desks, maps spread out and pinned to the walls, trash and discarded books scattered unto the moldy floors. Duncan stopped up for a second, wide-eyed at the utter disarray, at all the overturned furniture, the burnt-out candles with nothing left but wide splotches of wax, and cabinets with their drawers pulled out and left littering the desks. It looked almost as if someone had broken in and ransacked the place. But seeing how Edan maneuvered through it effortlessly, it was clear to see that this was indeed how it was supposed to look.

Duncan moved further inside, stepping over the piles of papers and books on the floors, all while still entranced by the sheer chaos of it all. However, in the midst of the turmoil, there was something that seemed quite neatly organized. On one of the walls, newspapers were hung up by pins with dozens of circles drawn around certain articles. Newspapers weren't exactly uncommon these days, what with Wellington Machines in The Dragonlands having invented some device to print hundreds of these things a day, but The Mortal Realm was a big place, and having this many newspapers seemed bordering on obsession.

“Want something to drink?” Duncan's attention was torn away from the newspapers as Edan called out from the kitchen.

“A cup of water would do fine.” he responded nonchalantly, his eyes falling back on the newspapers. He approached, and noticed there were, in between the papers, portraits of people too. Hung on the walls by pins, and upon those pins, were dog tags. Dog tags? Duncan felt his curiosity well up inside of him as he looked over all the faces-—men and women alike, all dressed in military uniforms. There were six of them, some young, some old; some humans, some not; some seeming hard and practiced, others seeming like it was their mothers' choice to send them into war. And each one of the portraits had a dog tag accompanying them. But in the middle of it all, there was a picture of a woman, not only with a dog tag by it, but a silver ring as well. Her name was Dorothy. She seemed like a sweet woman, auburn hair and pretty blue eyes. He reached forward and picked the ring from the wall, feeling its coarse silver in his palm. He stared at it for a little while, turning it around in his fingers, seeing it gleam in the sunlight that rolled in through a nearby window. In that light, he saw a little inscription carved into the silver.

'Not even war can kill our love'.

Suddenly, Edan's rough hand snatched it out of Duncan's grasp-—he jumped, not having heard him approach. He looked over to him, and saw that the jesting smile on his stern lips was gone. All he saw was a stare so cold it gave him shivers.

“We don't touch that.” his voice was full of darkness as he put the ring back where it belonged. Duncan realized what he had done, and chewed on his lip, his head dipping in apology.

“I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—-“

“Drink up your water.” Duncan felt the cup of water be shoved into his hands, and quickly gave a few nods. While he sipped at his water, he saw Edan's hazel eyes gaze upon all the newspapers, all the faces, all the dog tags, reminiscence clear in them. They stood there in silence for a little while, Duncan not daring to break it. He didn't have to ask to know that something had put more than physical scars on this man, and judging by the dog tags, he already knew the sinner. The war had broken many spirits, and at first, he had thought Edan was one of the lucky few to come out unscathed. He was beginning to think that he was horribly, terribly wrong.

“Duncan.” Edan finally broke the silence, turning to look into Duncan's eyes, grave silence in his own “You mentioned you were a captain, right?”

Duncan, having drunk his water, put down the cup by one of Edan's overflowing desks, and looked back at him “'Were', 'am'... I'm not really sure anymore. But I did lead a squad once, that I know.”

“As did I.” Edan commented dryly, and put down his glass as well. He approached the wall with all the newspapers and portraits, and gestured to it all in an almost theatrical manner “And here you see them. Each and every one. Iselda, the high elf who wanted to impress her mother. Bart, the lad from the Rimnoll Wetlands who just wanted to be free of the orphanage he grew up in. Fervaren, the dark elf who sought a challenge tougher than street fighting. Cicily, the girl from Lumion who wanted to protect the dreamlike forest she grew up in. Roy, the man from Godshill who believed that joining the war was a greater divine will. And Dorothy. My second in command... who later became my wife.” he sighed through his nose and looked upon the sweet auburn-haired woman, his eyes lost in memories that only served to punish him. Duncan had guessed what came next.

“They're all dead, Duncan.” Edan spat the words out, cringing in disgust at the taste of them. His nose wrinkled, his voice so dark and bitter it seemed to dim the light that fell in through the window “All of them are faces I will never truly see again. Voices that I will never hear. Company that I will never share.” he chewed at his lip, but Duncan couldn't see if that was anger or tears in his eyes. Maybe it was something in between.

“I'm sorry for your loss, Edan.” Duncan said, laying a hand on Edan's shoulder “I really am. The war takes a lot of lives. We've all felt your pain.”

To Duncan's surprise, Edan uttered a snort at this. The look he gave him, the somehow hateful and ridiculing smirk on his face making him feel almost sick “The war does, yes. But not these people. The war didn't kill my squad. Deum did.” he brushed Duncan's hand off his shoulder, and looked him in the eye “You probably know by now, that when they send people home, it's not uncommon they send an entire squad-—sometimes a few more. In this case, my squad was sent home together with a few poor sods who had completely lost it to all the gore and death.”

“Wait...” Duncan interrupted him, eyes wide “Are... are you saying that the people that were executed the day... was your squad?” Duncan prayed that it wasn't true, but the look on Edan's face killed that prayer as soon as it was born.

“Damn right.” he scowled, his teeth gritted—-this time, there was only anger in his eyes, gleaming and flickering like a flame that refused to go out “It was a slaughter, Duncan. We were pigs for their slaughter. We stood in line in some building just outside Aegon's walls—-they told us this was where we were going to be 'dismissed'. That's one fucked up way of putting it. My squad was in the front part of the line, and the war-broken husks of people were behind us. I was right in between. I saw my squad be sent into a sealed-off room, one by one, and I never saw them leave.” he sat down in a nearby chair, elbows on his knees, eyes far away, reliving his story as he told it.

“I was in front of some poor bastard who was convinced he was still on the battlefield, and I was behind my own wife. We were married at this point; she was pregnant, even. Early stage—-no tummy yet. We were going to have children, you know. I was gonna be a daddy.” for a moment, a tiny smile made its way over his lips, but it was conquered by a spiteful, loathing sneer “But that never happened. After all my squadmates except for my wife had gone into that room and never came out, I got suspicious. I kissed my wife and told her to run, if it was necessary. I couldn't tell if she ever understood what I told her, but when she was stuffed into that room, I quickly switched places with the broken lout behind me. He stood there, twitching and shivering like a maniac, and I did my damn best to imitate him. I knew for sure that my fate all came down to how well I could act like the war had torn my mind apart. And when they took him too, stuffed him into that room, it worked. They must have thought the poor sod was me.” he tossed the cup over his shoulder-—it landed softly in a pile of paper.

“I'll never forget the face of the man who walked out of that room—-or his name. Sigfried Müller, brigadier general. Pale as a dead man, as is so common for anyone born and raised in Nightweald. He was bald, and his left eye was cloudy and blind. He was wearing some kind of leather coat reaching from his shoulders to his ankles... when I saw blood on his gloves, I knew what the bastard had done.”

Duncan stared at Edan, fear and disgust bubbling in his chest as he sat down into a chair opposite of him “Good gods. How didn't you kill him? I... I wouldn't even know what I would do in your shoes. I would have lost myself entirely.”

“I was damn well close to.” Edan sighed and leaned back in his chair, slinging one leg over the other “He had murdered my squad. My friends. My wife... my unborn child. Butchered them, and all that came out was him, the blood on his gloves, and a devil's smile on his face. He had enjoyed it; the glee was written all over his pale, grinning face. All I could think of was my hands wrapped around his throat and snapping his neck... but I guess I've been too well trained for that. I knew that if I lost myself there, I would have blown it. I would have been put down as well, and that was no way of honoring the deaths of those I loved. I let my anger look like just another symptom of excessive trauma, and I like to think it was what saved my life. When he began asking questions, I memorized his voice, so that I could tell him apart from the rest, should I ever meet him again-—not that he's difficult to recognize, not with that face. When he was done asking his questions, he just... dismissed us. Threw us out into the world, to do whatever.” he sighed “Most of the other broken bastards didn't have a clue of how to function in a civil world, away from the war, but I... I felt like I had never functioned better in my entire life. I finally knew what I was doing. I finally had a purpose in life... a quest to complete.” Duncan felt Edan's gaze clash with his, so full of bitter loathing, a grudge and a lust for vengeance beyond anything he had ever seen.

“I am going to find Sigfried Müller, and I am going to kill him. I'm going to make him regret in his final moments what he had done, no matter if he was ordered to or not... he enjoyed it, that sick fuck. And I'm going to enjoy plunging my sword into his throat.”

There was an eerie silence after that. Duncan and Edan stared at one another, Duncan with stifled, anguished sympathy, and Edan with the eyes of a monster lusting for revenge. Duncan had to swallow, swallow his fears and take a deep breath before he could speak.

“Edan... I usually don't support revenge... but this-—this I can understand. Maybe we can help one another. Maybe, when we find Müller, you'll stay your vengeance long enough for us to question him. We're going to need to know what is going on here. After that...” Duncan pursed his lips slightly, and shook his head “I don't care what you'll do to him. But I trust you'll make him see justice in the eyes.”

“Oh I will.” Edan scowled “He'll stare me right in the eyes and see justice. But don't worry. I can stay my hatred long enough for you to squeeze some words out of that snake.”

Duncan tried a little smile “I'm glad to hear that. But... I have to ask, Edan. How do you mean to find him? The Mortal Realm is a big place, after all. He could be anywhere.”

To that, Edan was quiet. He didn't say anything for a few seconds, his eyes brooding and his mouth shut. But as he rose from his chair and opened the door to the muddy outside, he spoke “Follow me. I'll show you.”

Duncan watched Edan with some curiosity. Was it really so that he couldn't just tell him? Duncan knew better to question him, though. Not after hearing what kind of man he was. Silently, he rose from his chair as well, and followed after him.

Edan led him further away from the slope of the hill, into the flatter districts of Casserton, towards the rivers that surrounded the town. It was quieter here, away from the marketplace's hustle and bustle. The houses were smaller, the streets narrower, the mud thicker. Duncan knew this place well. He remembered playing a lot here as a child, when he wasn't in the tulip fields. He had some friends living around these parts, where they would chase hens and play with the neighbors' dogs. Now, it was just a quiet little place, where the elderly slept the days away and gaunt dogs at the eve of their lives sat on porches, watching with somber eyes as strangers walked by. Duncan swore he could recognize one of them. But then again, after being away for so long, the faces of dogs had probably begun to slur into one another.

Going through Casserton was almost like taking a tour through life itself. At the top was all the wealthy ones, and those with children. The young boys and girls would sit and wave at bypassers, and leap unto carts to take a ride through the town. Further down the slope were all the working folk—all the farmers and butchers and bakers and blacksmiths, toiling away the years for a bit of coin. It was a hard life, but one the Casserton people were used to. Here they spent most of their years until they came of age, where they would then settle down in the quiet district to watch the years slip through their fingers, their age going up number after number after number. And then, at one point, that number would stop going any higher. And that's when, at the final stop of their journey through life, they would end up here.

The cemetery was a peaceful place at day. The way the birds fluttered around the gnarly old trees that grew between the gravestones, and how the light seemed to gild all the bushes and glimmer in the plaques that immortalized the names of those gone from this world. Duncan felt a soothe, as he walked through it, following Edan. He remembered the conversation he had here with Rose, and his soothed sensation turned to slight worry. What could Rose be doing right now? She was unwatched, unguarded... she could be in trouble, for all Duncan knew.

He sighed. He figured that Rose could probably handle herself, and Casserton was far too peaceful a place to be concerned about danger anyway. What Duncan did find him concerned about, though, was why Edan had led him here. The grizzled, aging man had been silent all the way here, and still was. Not a word had escaped his lips, and his eyes had been full of a brooding hatred for something—or someone. Duncan hadn't dared ask. He figured it was just best to come along and see what Edan had to show.

While he had expected that Edan would prove some kind of point by showing him a grave of someone, he had not expected this. Edan had stopped up before the mausoleum in the very middle of the cemetery, standing before it in ominous silence for a little while. There was no one else in the cemetery at the moment-—Edan had checked quite thoroughly. And he did so again, casting a glance to either side, before he approached the door of the mausoleum.

“Uh, Edan.” Duncan broke the silence they had otherwise kept for so long “This... this is the mausoleum. Only mayors are meant to be buried there. And the mayor who ordered this thing built hasn't even died yet.”

“I know that, Duncan.” Edan spoke gruffly, his voice full of a strange darkness that Duncan had not expected “Just bear with me here. And don't say anything. There might be people watching-—and listening.”

Duncan looked about the place, a sudden worry sprouting in his stomach. This suddenly seemed like more than a simple pay of respect to someone dead. This seemed... illegal. Not that Duncan hadn't had a brush with that before. All he could do was watch as Edan pried open the granite door to the mausoleum, grinding and rumbling as he did. The door yawned, and Duncan stared inside, seeing the darkness inside the place only broken by a single pillar of light that shone down from a domed window in the ceiling. It was a fairly well-sized place, with space for many dead mayors to come... yet, what Edan wanted with this place, was question Duncan kept asking himself. Whatever it was, he was about to find out, as Edan stepped inside and beckoned him to follow.

It was oddly cold inside the mausoleum—-even in the rays of noon, the chill of night seemed to linger inside this place of eternal rest. He could hear his own footsteps as he followed after Edan, keeping as close to him as possible. He could feel his own unrest gnawing at his heart, sending it beating hard and nervously, his fingers jittering slightly. But Edan—he was calm as Yantsu philosopher's koi pond. And that only served to unnerve Duncan even further. He breathed in the chilled air, and smelled the death. But it wasn't supposed to smell like death in here—no one was buried in here yet... right?

“Close the door.” Edan droned quietly, his hoarse voice ringing off the walls. There were already coffins lying prepared inside little chambers in the walls, surrounding a stone slab in the middle of the room that looked almost like some sort of altar. The fickle pillar of light that fell from the window in the ceiling illuminated this stone structure, and Duncan saw how it was made of the finest marble. As he closed the door, he began to realize how much the mayor must have spent on this mausoleum. He seemed quite eager to be surrounded by wealth and splendor, even in death.
The door closed with a rocky grind, eventually blocking out all sound from outside. The tweeting of birds, the calm whistling of warm breezes, the rushing of distant rivers—-they were all but faint background noises now, giving way to the silence of this hallowed place. Duncan stood in the shadows, and Edan stood in the light of the window. He spoke with a hesitant tone.

“Edan, don't you think you'd like to tell me what's going on now?” he asked, stepping out of the darkness, and into the glow that reflected off the marble altar “I am beginning to like this less and less.”

“I didn't ask for you to like it.” Edan spoke over his shoulder, almost snarling “And I don't have to tell you. I'll show you instead.” he turned away from the light, and ventured into the shadows that clung to the walls like ink. Though he may have been an aged man, Duncan saw that his strength had not withered the slightest, as he effortlessly carried one of the coffins upon his shoulder, and laid it unto the altar. By the slam that echoed, and the dust that flew, Duncan could tell it was full.

“I need you to shut up now, and let me speak.” Edan said again, beckoning Duncan closer “Come on. You'll need to see this for yourself.”

Hesitantly, Duncan approached. He wasn't too fond of taking orders from Edan, a man he had met this very day, but deep down, he had some irrefutable respect for the man. Was it because of what he had gone through? Was it because he, technically, outranked him? He couldn't quite tell.
Edan began prying open the wooden coffin with a metal crowbar that had laid atop of it. The wood creaked and bent, until it flung off with a loud crack. Duncan's eyebrows rose as he beheld what lay inside-—or rather: who lay inside. It was a man, pale after being gripped by death, and with eyes closed. He was young, hardly even past his twentieth birthday. He was wearing a suit of leather armor, and around his neck hung a dog tag. In the light, Duncan read this man to be 'Neil Garth', a Fairlander like himself. Duncan looked between the dead man and Edan, his eyes full of question. And Edan answered before he could even ask.

“Neil Garth, the second in command of Sigfried Müller.” his face was stone as he spoke, his stern eyes staring down upon the dead man “He is the entire reason I'm here, in Casserton. I didn't come here to settle down and live life as just another farmer. I came here to find this fool, and question him. I did so, right here, in this mausoleum. I fractured his kneecaps and broke three of his fingers; only then would he begin speaking. He told me where Sigfried had gone to. Nightweald. Lonelight, from what I could tell from his senseless whimpering.” his eyes narrowed, and his nose wrinkled “I snapped his neck when I was done with him.”

Duncan stared wordlessly at Edan for a few moments, eyes wide, mouth ajar. He wanted to speak, but every time he did, he gave only silence. He stared at Edan, and saw himself. He saw himself in Aegon, the day those witch hunters came knocking on their door. The day that he pulled that trigger, and took the life of another man. He felt as if the recoil rushed through his arm again and again and again, the gunshot endlessly echoing inside him. He remembered feeling only furious at the time, but now when he saw it all from another perspective, he saw the atrocity of it all. He felt sick, and wanted to vomit. And in a way, he did.

“You... you just killed him? Just like that?” thoughts of his family came rushing through; the life he could have lived, the sons and daughters he could have had, now all but a faded hope, an unreality, all because of one man's lust for revenge.

“People usually die when they have their necks snapped, yes.” Edan continued, sounding so sickeningly indifferent. He looked towards Duncan, and for a moment, Duncan feared that he was going to snap his neck too “Is there a problem with this, Duncan? You said you wanted to help me get my revenge. This was a necessary step in the process of doing exactly that. Don't you see?”

“But what had he done?” Duncan gestured wildly to the dead man “This man—-what had he done to you, that you had to kill him? Edan, this isn't justice! This is murder!” an epiphany came crashing down upon him “Wait... the rumors. The murderer that everyone is talking about-—it's you, isn't it?”

Edan sighed through his nose “Neil here did have some friends and family in the area, who were worried when he disappeared. So they blamed it on the Myaani, of course.” he snorted “Racist fuckers.”

Now Duncan realized why this place smelled so much of death—-a man had been murdered here, and the murderer stood only a few feet from him. He shook his head, quickly turning away “Edan, this is wrong. I... I can't be a part of this.”

“Really? Are you backing out already?” Edan turned his piercing stare towards him, a vicious sneer upon his face “And you call yourself a soldier.”

“Shut up!” Duncan snapped towards Edan, his blood on fire “If soldiers kill their fellow man, then I was never a soldier in the first place, and will never be! I fight for my homeland, for my family, for justice-—but this? Look at him, for gods' sakes! He was hardly even a man, and you killed him! Killed him, Edan!!”

“And what of it?!” Edan snapped right back, shoving Duncan against the stone wall “I don't give a shit about how young he was—-he helped the man who killed my friends, my wife; my unborn child! I would have had a family, Duncan! I simply took from him what he and Sigfried took from me!”

Duncan lashed out and grabbed the crowbar on the altar, gripping it with hands that glistened in a thin layer of sweat “You stay back, you monster.” Duncan's breath was heavy, laden with adrenaline that surged through his body “You stay back, or I swear I will cave your face in if I have to.”

Edan laughed, his voice full of putrid entertainment “Oh look-—who's the murderer now? I thought valiant soldiers like yourself only killed demons. Am I a demon, Duncan? Am I?”

Duncan didn't answer that. He backed away, and pushed open the door behind him, his stare never leaving Edan's eyes. He saw the smile that adorned his face, and wanted to break it with the crowbar in his hands. However, that smile quickly faded as he seemed to have seen something behind Duncan.

“...Duncan...” Edan said, but didn't get to finish before Duncan snapped around to see what he was staring at. For a second, he didn't believe what he saw. Staring into bloodshot eyes, he felt his veins go icy cold, and he couldn't feel his heart beat any longer. Time seemed to slow down as he stood there, disbelieving, but he couldn't deny that filthy smell of a demon's breath. His mind flashed back to the rampage that had taken place in the tavern in Westport, and the demon he had seen there—this one was just alike. The one that stood before him, a trooper, with dark saliva engulfing its jagged maw, eyes full of ungodly hunger. It was only when he heard a throaty growl escape it that he realized what danger he was in—-quick as a viper, he raised the crowbar and hammered it against the demon's skull, feeling the exo-skeleton collapse under the steel.

It let out a shriek so loud Duncan felt as if his eardrums popped, but he continued smashing the crowbar against the demon nonetheless, again and again and again, sending black blood flying everywhere, splattering against his clothes, reddening his hair. The demon staggered backwards, tumbling unto its back and into a patch of grass—-but not even here did Duncan stop. His rage was an inferno that felt as if it would never die, never ceasing to fuel the strength he put behind the swings. Every time he felt a piece of bone crack, he felt like bursting out in sadistic laughter, and the black blood that splashed unto his face gave him an unreal sense of satisfaction. It was only when he felt Edan's hands around him, ripping him away from the onslaught, that he stopped fighting. He was sent tumbling across the grass, stopped only by a tombstone on his way.

“ARE YOU MAD?!” Edan's voice was almost a slur, his head buzzing with a murderous intoxication, his ears feeling as if they were still popped. Duncan looked up at Edan, and saw his wide eyes well with ferocious anger. He didn't resist as he grasped him by his collar, forcing him to his feet.

“Look me in the eyes and tell me you're not insane!” Edan demanded, but Duncan really couldn't see why he was so angry. He had just slain another demon, another scout, the same kind that had butchered those nine people in Westport. But when he looked towards his kill, his anger died out, slain by a sudden gust of anguish that seemed to twist his stomach, and clench the life out of his heart.

What he saw lying in the grass, was no demon. It was a woman. A woman, draped in a cheap linen dress, now smothered in her own blood. It was no longer the black blood of hell, but the red blood of a fellow human being. She lay there, deathly still, her face a ruined mess of torn flesh and broken bone. Duncan couldn't move. He felt as if he had died as well, and his muscles had begun to rot. But no matter how much he wished he was dead, here he was, alive, unlike the woman that lay in the grass before him. He refused to believe it. He clenched his eyes shut and prayed to wake up from this nightmare, but he never did. He felt tears squeeze out and roll down his cheeks that flared red like the fire that once goaded him into this dreadful sin. The word 'insanity' rolled around in his mind, taunting him, mocking him.

“I don't understand.” he whimpered, gasping between each weep, his knees feeling weak—if Edan didn't hold him by his collar, he would surely have slumped together by now “I don't understand. It was a demon. It was a demon, damnit!”

“No, it wasn't.” Edan growled through his teeth and shoved at Duncan, letting him fall unto his backside. He stared down at him with new-found spite in his eyes, his face full of disgust mixed with pity “But you thought it was. Good gods, Duncan. You're more broken than I thought.”

Duncan tumbled over, falling unto his side, into the soft grass that tickled his cheeks and got in his eyes. He shook, nearly falling into seizure, wrought in confusion and fear and alienation of who he was. He couldn't even recognize himself any longer. He felt his tears rolling down his cheeks and getting in his mouth. Was this what insanity tasted like?

As Edan picked him up and slung him over his shoulder, he didn't even resist. His body felt numb, and his mind even more so. In a slur of tears, he stared at the woman he had pummeled to death in his insanity. She may have had kids-—a husband too. And now that husband no longer had a wife, and the kids no longer a mother.

All because of you, Duncan. All because of you.
Vanguard, Chapter 25: Food For The War Beast
If there was ever a point of no return for Duncan, this must be it. In case you're reading this description without having read the chapter itself, then I won't spoil anything. This is a chapter I've really been looking forward to writing, so I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I have. And as always: thank you for reading!
The dawn was pretty, some might say. The way it glistened in the dew of the green hills; the way it came down in slanted beams trough the leaves of nearby groves; the way it shimmered off the roiling surface of the rivers. Rose hadn't slept a second, so she had the pleasure of witnessing every single moment of this process. Even after all these years of being away from Nightweald, it was still an oddly alien thing, and seemed utterly unnatural... but beautiful nonetheless. Seeing the moon in Nightweald was a great enough thing in itself, but when you've spent most of your life in a land where the sun never rose, seeing it do so was truly indescribable. Sitting by the riverbank, right outside Agatha's house, she didn't want to blink, in fear of missing something important. She watched, staring upwards like a mouse looking out for hawks, the twinkling stars, and how they were slowly, gently pushed away by the dawning sun. The way the dark blue of the sky seamlessly turned into a pleasant red, then orange—just the way it was right now. Only half the sun had ascended the horizon, and Rose could look right at it without being blinded too badly. It was like a great ball of undying flame, creeping up from behind the green hills, shedding its glow all over the world. Rose sat there, her back against the wooden wall of Agatha's house, her feet dipping in the cool waters of the running river, witnessing the dawn. The rest of the world didn't know how spoiled it was, being born into the luxury of seeing a dawn at every morning, and a moon at every night. There were others who were not so lucky.

The river's water was cold, but she didn't mind. Her shoes were soaked thoroughly through, but somewhere, she enjoyed it. The cold was a pleasant change, and she considered going in with her entire body. Would she be swept away by the current to another place, far from here, far from everything? Would she knock her head on a rock on the way there and wake up as a drowned, lifeless body? Maybe she would. Maybe she wanted to find out.

But she was interrupted as the sound of footsteps came from around the corner. She quickly looked up, fearing that it might have been Duncan, and that she would have to face speaking with him again—-she wasn't ready for that. She wasn't even ready to enter the same house as him yet. But relief came washing through her body as she saw who it really was.

“My dear, aren't you getting cold out here?” Agatha's voice was soothing, and the smile on her face even more so. Rose looked up at the old woman from her seat in the grass, felling the cold water on her feet. She looked down at them, and slowly shook her head.

“No. Well, yes, but I don't mind. After spending years in The Wastelands, I've grown a liking to all things cold, really.” she looked up at Agatha, and tried to smile as she spoke. She had no quarrels with this woman... especially not since she reminded her so much of her own mother.
Agatha, with help of a walking stick, came to take a seat beside Rose. Her skinny figure was covered in a poncho of sorts, and a long, thick dress for cold nights. She looked out over the running river, her hands folded together on her lap “So the wastelands are really that bad?” she asked, turning a slow glance towards Rose.

Rose met it for a moment, then looked back over the river “Many would say so. Your son would say so. Ramund would say so too. It's bad, that's for sure, but it has its merits... the silence, for example.” she smiled slightly at the memory of the silent wastes, the endless crisp earth with no one to disturb her “It is always nicely silent out there. No one to talk to you, no one to bother you... some say the silence is maddening. I say it's soothing.”

Agatha took her time to answer. Rose could tell that she was still trying to get over the fact that the war wasn't what she had thought it to be. But in the end, all she could say was a little “Hm.”

“But yes...” Rose found herself a little rock, and chucked it out into the water; it went in with a soft splash “...Your son is right. The Wastelands are a horrible place, for most. There are a few people who don't mind it that much, but... we are scarce.” she shook her head “It's always the same out there. Rookies come flying in by airship, thinking they're going to save the world and come home to praise and parades, but quickly come to realize that they are probably not coming home at all-—not outside a coffin, at least. Most just get burned when they die, but there are a few who get sent home in coffins as well. You write it on your contract, once you sign up, whether you want to be sent home or burned.”

Agatha seemed rather untouched by the subject, and Rose wondered why. Either that, or she was quite good at hiding it. She slowly looked towards Rose, trying a little smile “And which one did you choose then?”

Rose chuckled. She hadn't chuckled in a long time, but now she did “Me? There wouldn't be anyone to accept my coffin. Of all places I wouldn't want to be buried, it would be Nightweald; my home. I have no good memories of that place. I would much rather be burned where out there, with all the demons and sand and broken souls, than in Nightweald.” She looked away, and chewed at her lips. She knew she couldn't tell Agatha why she had been sent to The Wastelands; surely it would change the way she looked at her forever. First impressions and all. She sighed a little and looked back at her, mirroring her smile “But I don't mean to ruin your morning. Are Duncan and Ramund up yet?”

“Oh they've been up since the first light of dawn.” Agatha did a chuckle of her own, far more lighthearted and merry than Rose's “That Ramund-—he may be old like me, but he has a spirit that cannot be broken. Up by the first light, and even did a few exercises to wake properly up. Good graces what I wouldn't do for that kind of vigor.”

“Yes... that's Ramund alright.” Rose slowly stood up, and shook some water off her feet “I think it's time I go join them, then.” she extended a hand to Agatha, to help her on her feet.

“I am certain they would love your company, my dear.” Agatha said as she accepted Rose's hand, and got back on her feet. She stretched out a few joints in her back, snapping them back in place, before slowly making her way around the house, to get to the front door. Rose trailed a little behind, watching the river a bit more. She wasn't quite done with solitude, but she knew that Duncan would come asking for her, if she didn't make herself present. Stuffing her hands down her pockets, she followed Agatha around the house, and stepped inside.

Rose couldn't deny; it was actually pleasantly warm inside. Not the stuffy warmth of The Fairlands at high noon, nor the scorching heat of The Wastelands at any time of day; it was a soft, pleasant warmth from candles here and there, and a hearth in the back of the room. Rose followed Agatha into what seemed like a dining room of sorts, mixed together with the kitchen. There were a few cooking tools here and there, fit for cooking a meal for an entire family. Rose didn't think of it much before, but almost everything in this house was meant for more than one person. Several bedrooms, several floors, extensive cooking tools, and far more chairs than fit for only one person. And it surely wasn't meant for the dog that lay at the floor, giving Rose a curious look with those old and withered eyes. Agatha may have been a pleasant, kind lady... but she was living in the past.

“Oh, a fine morning to you, Rose.” Ramund's voice tore her out of her thoughts, and made her look him in the eyes for a moment. With Duncan at his side, they were both seated at a round table in the middle of the room, sipping at some kind of soup, it seemed; simple vegetables, by the look and smell of it. Rose cast some glances towards Duncan, and their gazes met for a moment too-—but only a moment. Rose felt a jerk in her chest as she looked him in the eyes, and hurried to look away. She felt strangely ill every time she looked at him, and the mere thought of him gave her a strange burning sensation inside of her. Gritting her teeth and lowering her gaze, she slowly pulled out a chair and sat down by the table, offering Ramund a reluctant smile in response to his greeting.

“Want some soup, dear?” Agatha asked, standing before a bubbling cauldron of soup much larger than even this gathering could ever hope to eat... but then again, with a Mjaln at their side, perhaps it wasn't so unrealistic. However, Rose would have none of it. She shook her head.

“No thanks. I'm not hungry.” She could feel the worried look of Duncan upon her, and she could already hear him say 'but you haven't had anything for days', even if he didn't. And she had to agree with that. Inside of her, there was not only the mix of fear and reluctance given to her by Duncan, but also the distinct sensation of hunger. A quiet rumble from her gut betrayed her, and she had to close her eyes for a few moments, silently cursing it. Thankfully, there were no jesting comments; only a bowl of soup. She looked down at the murky substance before her, laid there by Agatha, and at the spoon at her side. She had to admit: she was terribly hungry. With her body leaning over the soup like a prison inmate guarding their meal, she slowly sipped at the warm food, while listening to Ramund speak.

“Rose.” he said. She looked up at him, saw how some soup had spilled unto his great white beard, but tried not to stare “Duncan and I have been considering our next move, and I believe it only apt that you know as well-—it may include you, after all. I don't take it you know of the Tu'Myaa, do you?”

Rose seemed a little puzzled at the name, but there was something recognizable about it. It was only after a few moments that she recalled: the nurses had been telling the inmates at the asylum about these people, like they had told about so many other. She couldn't quite recall the details, but it was something about an alliance between all three Myaani tribes—-'packs' as they called them—-as a means to prepare for war. She remembered the thought of fox-men dressed up in armor to be ridiculous. It was no less ridiculous now.

“I do.” She answered briefly, and took a sip of her soup.

Ramund seemed genuinely surprised for a moment-—clearly, he had prepared himself for explaining all of it to her “Oh! Well that certainly makes this easier. As you might then also know, their largest settlement—-some might even call it their capital—is located nought but an hour's walk from here. While Westport may or may not be a lost cause, we hope that the chieftain of the Tu'Myaa is a bit more reasonable, and will listen to our plea.”

“'Hope' being the right word here...” Duncan butted in. Rose looked briefly towards him, and saw concerned painted all over his expression. His nose was wrinkled, the scar across it seeming that much more brutal, all of a sudden.

“We might not even be allowed inside. The Tu'Myaa, while stoic and noble, are rather overcautious as well, and will rarely let anything non-Myaani in through the gates.” he continued, sighing “According to mother, it hasn't changed at all, since I was last here. The Tu'Myaa and Casserton have a rather troublesome history, where the mayor before our current one once denied all Myaani voting rights, allowance inside of boutiques, and ordered them all confined inside a ghetto in the southernmost area of the town.” he shook his head “Needless to say, the Myaani weren't all that happy about this, and most of them migrated to the Tu'Myaa settlement, where they spread word about how vile and cruel the Casserton mayor was. This was before I was even born, and most have forgotten why Casserton and the Tu'Myaa are at a feud with one another, but still the grudge lingers. It's some stupid political nonsense that our current mayor has been trying to undo, but the Casserton people will remain racist, and the Tu'Myaa will remain stubborn. It will then be up to us, despite the odds, to have them make friends so both can be evacuated north to Moonby Sanctuary.”

How surprising. So it was not all smooth streets and sunshine in Casserton anyway. It made sense, when Rose thought about it. A little village society, full of tradition and blinding dogma that made no space for these furry outsiders. Who would have known that the sweet, serene town of Casserton harbored such a crude racism? Rose smiled a little. There was always something under the pretty facade.

“And as if that was not enough...” Agatha came to sit down by the table, taking a seat beside Rose “...there has been some ghastly rumors going around that have only served to stoke the fires between the Tu'Myaa and the Casserton. Would you believe it if I told you that a man has been murdered? Here? In the streets of Casserton?”

Rose's eyebrows rose, interesting painted clear across her features as she sat there with a spoonful of soup in her mouth. She looked towards Agatha, and saw that she almost didn't believe it herself. The same could be said about Duncan.

“Murdered?” Duncan seemed quite disbelieving, ridiculing even “Mother, I don't think you should worry about rumors like those. The Casserton people may be xenophobic... but murder? Whoever told you this needs to get some cleaner sources.” he said, snorting through his nose and taking another bite of a chunk of bread.

“True or not, the people think the Tu'Myaa did it.” Agatha's shoulders sagged in a sigh as she leaned in over the table, grabbing some bread for herself “And now the racism is at its peak. All Myaani who dare enter Casserton are given suspicious looks, and sometimes even bullied on the streets... or worse. Duncan, you'll find that a lot has changed in your hometown since you left...”
“I can damn well hear that.” Duncan grumbled, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. Rose looked between the two, and seemed quite entertained. Ramund, however, seemed more foreboding and disgruntled about where this was going. Rose could tell that he had greater expectations for this town—expectations left unfulfilled, no doubt.

“Rumors or no, the task at hand remains the same.” he said, pushing his empty bowl of soup into the center of the table, indicating he had had enough—-enough soup or rumors, though, Rose couldn't quite tell “I am firmly convinced that when the Casserton people are introduced to thrice count of war veterans with a different view on what is going on out there, and the promise of impending destruction, they will think twice about lingering.”

Duncan rubbed his forehead with his index finger and thumb, sighing “I hope you're right, Ramund. But throughout all this, perhaps it could have been a good idea to bring... well, proof? As it stands, it's only our word against theirs... the other so-called 'veterans', that is.”

“Even a seed of doubt amongst an ocean of lies can make a difference.” Ramund inclined his head, before rising from his chair “Now, I believe our task lies clear before us. I suggest we make off immediately, while there is still time. Spirits will it, these people will see truth in the eyes before the demons come rolling over those hills.”

Duncan pushed his bowl away too, and stood up “Then so be it. I hate to say it, but my hopes aren't high. Casserton is ruled by tradition; everyone has set roots somehow, so tearing them won't be easy.” his eyes fell upon Agatha, and Rose could see a little smile appearing “At least you're more reasonable, mother. While we're gone, perhaps you should start packing the necessities.”

“Necessities... yes yes, alright.” she pushed herself to her feet, supported by her cane, and looked about the place. All the pots and pans and ornaments was something she clearly wanted to keep, but knew she couldn't. With a little frown, she walked off, and began the tiresome process of trying to figure out what was absolutely essential to her. Rose hadn't known this woman for long, but she knew such a thing could take a while. Taking a few more quick spoonfuls of soup to quench the last of her hunger, she rose from her chair and followed Ramund and Duncan out the door.

Outside, in the dawn, Rose felt a silence fall over the three. She liked it. It gave her time to enjoy the world around her, instead of having to deal with facial expressions, choice of words, tone of voice, and looking into eyes of people she would rather be free of. She glanced towards the two now and then, and saw how they were watching the world around them as well. It was a pretty sight, she couldn't deny that. All the green hills with trees atop them, some of them dominated by a single ancient oak, with roots that spread all over the hilltop like a thousand gnarly fingers holding the tree in place. She watched as the red light of dawn came showering down through these trees, shattered into hundreds of little beams that spilled unto the straw roofs of Casserton.

The streets of this serene town were beginning to wake up, now with several farmers moving by, some accompanied by loyal collies at their sides, others by equally loyal cattle or even sheep. It was quite strange how different the place was, as soon as some light fell upon it. At night, it was quiet and calm, the streets empty and the windows dark. But at dawn, the streets were bustling with hay carts making their way over the smooth brick, drivers shouting for people to get out of the way, even if they were bringing an entire herd of cattle with them through the town. And everyone seemed to own a dog, Rose noticed. Which she liked. There was something more honest and pleasant about animals, than people. People were double-sided, always at a risk for stabbing you in the back. But animals were honest. They were open. They were trustworthy. They were so wonderfully... simple.

She crouched down before some of the collies and went to pet them, and most of them just came right up to her, wanting to be scratched. And, of course, she did. She gave them a good scratch behind the ears, and saw their tongues loll out of their mouths in pleasure. That was another thing—animals never asked questions. No man would approach her without asking why she wanted them closer, and would definitely never do so if they knew how long time she had spent in an asylum for the insane. But this dog? This dog just came right up to her, knowing exactly what she wanted to do: scratch it. And it was right. Why couldn't people be a little more like this? Not that she ever wanted to scratch a man behind the ears, of course. With a little pat on its head, she shooed the dog onwards to its master somewhere in the building crowd, and quickly hurried back to Ramund and Duncan.

Duncan and Ramund were standing outside a tavern, she saw from a distance. The stench of booze mixed with the perpetual smell of hay confused her, but she knew that as soon as anyone walked through that door, the sweet smell of hay would be outdone threefold. She slowly approached the two, hands in her pockets, and gave them both a questioning look.

Ramund was the first to speak, as always, and gave her a little smile as he did “Rose, I'm glad you followed. Duncan and I have a vague idea of how we can approach this matter, but your voice would be appreciated... if you would give it to us, of course.”

“What he means is we'd like your opinion on the plan.” Duncan continued, shrugging his left shoulder. Rose noticed how there were a few men who came and left the tavern, those entering usually sober, and those who left: not so much. Duncan leaned up against the wooden wall of the little place, which she deduced to be named 'The Spilled Mug', and adorned with a carving of a mug that had been tipped over, with booze flowing over a table. Rose had long since given up on trying to make sense of these tavern names. This one even seemed to give the place a bad image. Were the customers to expect that their booze was going to be spilled? She shook her head and tried not to think further of it.

“Alright, if you wish.” Rose said, and looked between Ramund and Duncan “Though wouldn't it have been best if you mentioned this while we were safe and sound by the morning table, instead of here, with so many prying ears and eyes?”

Ramund chuckled, his voice like distant thunder “Rose my dear, we are planning the salvation for this town—not plotting an assassination. But time is not on our side, and we may be forced to split, if we wish for this to be done right.” his hazel eyes fell to Duncan “Duncan has volunteered to speak with the mayor, as he is already familiar with the man. And I, I can speak with the Tu'Myaa. The Myaani are tradition-bound folk, and may be more inclined to listen to an old man such as myself.”

Rose seemed a little puzzled, giving each of them a curious look “And where does that leave me?”

Duncan coughed, and thumbed over his shoulder towards the door behind him “We'll need someone to figure out if these murder rumors are true... and as we all know, if rumors were flies, a tavern would be a freshly laid cattle turd. If you're lucky, maybe the barkeep has something to say.”

Rose cringed, and raised her hands defensively “You want me to mingle with drunks and belligerents? Perhaps something in between? You're an idiot. I'm not going in there.” though the thought of investigating a murder did intrigue her, she had to admit. She licked her lips and looked in through the open door of the tavern, wrinkling her nose at the smell.

“...but alright.” she gave in, knowing that there might be little other choice at that point. She looked back at Duncan and Ramund, her lips pursed together and her arms folded across her chest “I'll do it, then. I won't like it, but I'll do it. Rumors and drunk people are my bane, but... for the salvation of the world and the greater good, oh I shall be a martyr, I shall.” her voice was dripping with sarcasm, but deep inside, the prospect of getting a better look at a murder like this one put a silver lining to it all.

“We shall see you soon, in that case.” Ramund said, right as Rose passed “Best of luck.”
Wordless, Rose pushed the door open, and gave a gesture of farewell over her shoulder. She paused in the doorway for a little while, watching Ramund and Duncan drift away, into the river of people, cows, and carts that rolled through the streets. Her eyes lingered on Duncan right up until he was gone completely. With a little sigh, she turned about, and made her way inside.

And as she had expected, the pleasant whiff of hay was drowned away almost immediately, as she stepped through the door. The reek of booze was thick as honey in the air, but nowhere near as sweet. She had to admit, though; it wasn't nearly as bad as anything Westport had to give. Furthermore, it was actually quite neatly arranged and cleaned, in this place. The main hall of the tavern, there were men came in to drink themselves to oblivion, was shaped as a great circle, rather than the classic rectangular form-—an odd change she had not expected, as the place had seemed perfectly square from outside. A few steps brought her down unto the wooden floor, lowered a little from the level of the smooth roads and grass outside, and with the bar itself raised above the bustling patrons. It was full—-of that, there was no doubt, even at this time of day. There was a smell of meat in the air as well, and judging by that and the sight of men and women sitting at tables enjoying platefuls of solid, healthy food, she figured that they served more than just booze in here. Another pleasant surprise. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad after all. She even saw a few children running about here and there.

She walked across the wide circular floor, through the rows of tables, past the patrons that laughed and ate and clamored their mugs together in celebration of something; probably the dawning of another day. As if that was something to celebrate. But maybe... with the coming army of hell, maybe it was. They had best enjoy it while they could, and she was glad to see they did.
Most of them were humans. Far most of them, though she spotted an elf here and there—-the dark as well as the light kind—and even a single Mjaln, towering over the rest like a single adult amongst a crowd of children. She eyed them all, and caught some of their glances back at her... and when they did, they always smiled. Pleasant, welcoming smiles-—not the perverted ones she was used to, from the guards of Section 9. It was almost suspiciously pleasant in here. Even with the smell of booze. It was just the right temperature, the laughter of children filled the air, the patrons were not too drunk... had she not been here on business matters, she may have stayed a while and filled that little gap in her stomach called hunger. Agatha's soup was nice, but it hadn't quite sated her. But it didn't matter. She had gone without food for days before.

She moved to approach the bar, her arms slumping unto the wood, her eyes glancing at those around her; there was a man and a woman chattering with one another, exchanging kisses now and then, and laughing at one another's jests. One the other side of her, there was a man. He seemed like the only one here who wasn't smiling. His lips were hard and stern, and seemed like they were made of stone; the same went for his face. His face was grizzled and bearded, his hair was short and greying, and it was clear that age was getting on him; not anything like Ramund, though, and she figured he must have been somewhere around his late forties, maybe just over his fiftieth birthday. His hazel eyes were drowned into the lingering droplets of booze in the bottom of a wooden mug that he was quietly fingering, his mind obviously not here, not even close. She stared at the man for little while, wondering what someone like him, the only one not laughing, smiling, or clashing mugs was doing here. Her lips pursed, and she turned her attention back to the barkeep who had just found time to speak with her.

“G'morning, miss.” the barkeep was a little woman with auburn hair, dressed in an apron. Her eyes were fixed unto Rose's, but her hands were working on cleaning out a mug with a little piece of wet cloth. Rose looked up into her eyes, and forced out a little smile.

“Good morning.” she responded, trying to put on her kindest voice, even though she was at a sore lack of one “Are you the barkeep?”

“Sure am.” the little woman said. She had a thick Fairlandish accent, speaking all the way from the bottom of her throat “Been so for six years now. You must be new in town. Got a name, honey?”

Rose seemed a little puzzled at being called 'honey', and thoughts of the elf in the top hat came swimming back. It was not said with the same serpentine demeanor, though, and more as if it was something she called anyone and anything-—probably the dogs too. Rose cleared her throat, and spat our a fake name “Beatrice.” she said, just saying whatever first came to mind “I'm not here for a drink, though, so I'll make it quick. I'm with The Crusade, and just recently came home from the front lines.” she lied again, though it was only half a lie—she was nowhere near home “I've been hearing something about a murder in the streets. Can you confirm this?”

The barkeep was silent for a few moments, turning her gaze away, into the bottom of the mug she was cleaning. With a little frown, she turned her eyes back up to Rose “Heard about that, did ya? Sad thing to return to. No one really has any proof of who did it, but we're all pretty damn sure who the culprits are.” her sweet voice carried a slight hint of spite, but no matter how slight, Rose could smell it-—taste it, even “Bloody fox-folk have been getting into our streets more and more where they don't belong. You can tell it was them just by the look on their smug faces, y'know?” her kind smile was long gone by now, replaced by a look of disdain “I never go outside at night without a shank these days. Those furries are some sneaky sons of bitches, and will pounce on you when you ain't looking. Generally, I don't advise going alone at any point.” so the rumors were true, Rose deduced. How interesting. She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the barkeep, who shook her head and put on another plastic smile “But don't let that discourage you, honey. You said you just came home from the front lines, did ya? We get a few of your folk, and they're always a blast to listen to. You're the kinda folk who keep us safe and sound, so please, I'll get you a mug—-on the house, of course.”

Rose tried to smile “I don't drink, but thanks.” she cleared her throat “It's true, yeah, I'm from the front lines... it's good to be home.” she cast a few glances to her right, and noticed that their conversation had caught the attention of the grizzled, greying man at her side. He was looking between both of them with shimmering eyes that didn't lie about how many drinks he had had. She tried to ignore him, and looked back at the barkeep “What did the other veterans say? Good things, I suppose?”

The barkeep chuckled, her laughter sweet like honey “Why of course! They all bring such riveting stories of their time on the field, saving lives and slaying demons, almost like a fairy tale come true. Man, if my paps didn't force me to stand around here all day serving up drinks, I'd be off slaying demons in a moment's notice! They tell me that women can't go as easily, but hell, look at you!” she smiled brightly, and gave Rose a friendly, gently punch over the shoulder; she really did not like that, but tried not to show “You must have some stories to tell as well, don't ya?”

Rose felt herself shrink a little inside as she saw how she was gathering a lot of unnecessary attention; there were eyes upon her everywhere, clearly wanting more of these stories they had been fed. She grit her teeth and slowly shook her head “I'm really sorry, but I'm dreadfully tired after my trip here. I'm all the way from Camp Vanguard—-that's the outermost camp, for your information—-and I nearly haven't shut an eye on the trip here.”

“You look pretty haggard too, madam.” the grizzled man suddenly spoke up, and Rose almost jumped at his voice; it was a hoarse and growling thing, almost like listening to the snarl of a wolf—-but he was smiling. Rose looked towards the man and saw a strange look in his eye; was it just the intoxication, or was it something more? He quickly turned to the barkeep and slid over a few coins “Dorothy, get this sweet lady and me a couple of those... what do you call them-—troll ales? Those at the very bottom of your layer, that is.”

“But... I don't dri—“

“Nonsense!” the man interrupted Rose and hurried the barkeep onwards; she quickly grabbed the coins and rolled her eyes, seemingly bothered by having to go look for such an obscure beverage “When you're under this roof, everyone drinks!” his eyes quickly snapped towards Rose, and while she wanted to snarl at him and tell him to piss off, she noticed something strange in his gaze. There was a feral sincerity in them allowing no debate, stalwart like steel and sharp as it too “She's going to be gone for a while. Follow me.” Rose didn't even have time to react before she felt his iron grip around her arm, and she was pulled away from the desk.

“Hey!” she hissed and pulled her arm away, giving him a spiteful, suspicious look “Back off, pig! Look at yourself; you're drunk!”

“And I'll be sober in the morning, darling, but if you keep up that attitude you won't live to see what I'm like when I'm sober.” the man snarled and gripped her arm again. He leaned in close, his voice lowered to a hiss through his teeth “Now I suggest you shut up and follow. Do you see all these eyes looking at you? Not all of them are merry tavern patrons looking for a drink. Some of them are looking for people like you... and people like me. I'll give you all the details out back. Trust me.”

Rose's eyes darted around the place, and only then did she notice there were far more eyes on her than she had thought at first. What did he mean about 'looking for people like her'? As she let herself drag away, she caught glimpses of eyes that did not smile-—eyes of predators, lurking amongst the crowd. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.

She was dragged through a few doors going through the kitchen, through the ale layers, and eventually one that led out to a little pig pen. It was a little area tucked in between houses, muddy and reeking of pig shit, and dominated by a single fat pig, half asleep in his eating trough. The sound of laughter and clamoring mugs was a distant background noise by now, and only the sound of boots through mud and the dawn wind could be heard. She cringed at the smell, and rubbed her arm when the man finally let go of her. She stood there for a while, watching him trudge around in the mud and shit, his hand running nervously through his greying hair over and over again. He stopped up abruptly, and turned to her.

“Do you know what you were doing in there, huh? Tell me honestly; do you actually realize what you were doing?” a sneer contorted his lips, wrinkling his face and encasing his piercing hazel eyes. Rose looked into his feral stare for a little while, and saw the general; the general whom she had accompanied until Aegon got the better of him.

“I was asking around, obviously.” she spoke back, a sneer of her own growing on her face “Or maybe you were too drunk to realize that.”

The man snorted “There you go again with that loose tongue of yours. See, that's what's going to get you killed. Not the war, not the demons—your tongue.” he gestured his hand slightly “Indirectly speaking, of course. The hunters are going to kill you, is what I mean to say.”

Rose sneer was replaced by a look of curiosity “The hunters? I'm not prey, you know.”

This time, he laughed “Oh, oh is that what you think? Honey, I admire your gullibility, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to burst that pleasant little bubble of yours—you are very much prey, and you bloody well know it.” he went to lean up against the muddy fence of the pig pen, calloused fingers tapping on his elbows; he was wearing a roughspun tunic of white linen, and trousers to match “Frankly, I'm surprised you're not landfill yet. You are a veteran, right? A real one, that is.”

Rose's heart leaped; was that what this man was? Another veteran? She slowly nodded, saying nothing.

“Then you're already dead.” he picked some meat from his teeth and flicked it to the pig “At least in the mind of Lucius Deum. I knew you were a real one, as you were the only one of them to actually mention the name of a camp—Vanguard, in this case. See, you know what it's like out there, on the field. What it's really like. You've seen all the blood and murder, brought home memories of the filth and endless wastes with no victory, no songs of glory, no anything... that's not what Deum wants his people to think. He wants the whole world to think that The Crusade is all about brotherhood and victory, but you know as well as I how big a pile of bullshit that all is. And that, honey, is the reason he's tracking down folk like us to put a bullet in our skulls in silence in our mouths.”

Rose cringed, and shook her head “You're paranoid.”

“Am I?” the man pushed himself off the fence and walked up to her, intimidatingly close-—close enough to smell the booze in his breath “Look me in the eye and tell me I'm not right. You're smarter than that; I can tell. Maybe you've already seen it? I sure have. I've seen what they do to people like me. I was deployed at Camp Vanguard too once, you know. A bloody lieutenant I was, respected and all—but when the airship came and got me together with seven others, ranks and uniforms meant nothing. As soon as those bastards drop us off in the port of Aegon, we all get these questions, see. Some of those that came with me were utterly ruined by the war; destroyed in the head by all the blood and butchery, but those of us that weren't-—oh, we're the real victims here. We can talk, after all! We can be sensible! We can put up arguments and spread the word of how nasty it is out there! Deum doesn't want that, so if we answer correctly on too many questions: BANG! Right in the fucking head!” his face was a mess, a gun-shaped pair of fingers at his temple and a look of intoxicated madness in his eyes.

“Where were our titles and medals when they put lead in our skulls, huh? I smelled their bullshit from a mile away, and did my bloody best to answer wrong on all their questions; hell, I acted for my life, and made damn sure they would label me as just another looney ruined by the war, so they wouldn't turn me into pig-food. I got lucky. But if you can't watch your mouth, I'm not sure I can say the same for you.”

“And you expect me to trust you, just like that?” Rose stepped backwards, her hands balled together in fists, a defensive and suspicious look on her face “Look at yourself; you're drunk, haggard, and I don't even know your name. For all I know, you could be a crazy old fool with too much booze in your belly and too much dementia in your head.”

“You're partially right, honey.” he spat, a thick splotch in the mud “I'm an old fool, I have too much booze in my belly, you don't know my name, but I can tell you right here and now: I'm one of the few in this entire city-—no, this entire world who's right in the head. Ask Lucius Deum. He'll tell you that-—where after he'll put us down like the dogs we are.” Rose stood stifled for a moment, as he heard him use that analogy. It was the same she had told Duncan in that tavern, on the way to Westport. Dogs of war. That's all they were.

The man sighed, and shook his head “But I can't tell you to trust me... Hell, I wouldn't trust me. If you'll let me, I can dismiss one of your worries, though.” he slowly approached again, this time calmer. He extended his hand, and looked her in the eyes “The name's Edan. Edan Wolfe. I would say that it's a pleasure making your acquaintance, but frankly, seeing you here has scared me shitless.”

Rose looked at the man, Edan, with suspicion, but saw only a man fighting for his life in that hazel stare of his. A survivor, living life with a war that refused to leave him alone. She chewed her lip for a few moments, and sighed, her shoulders sagging. Only then did she accept his hand, and gave it a firm squeeze; his palm was calloused and hard, almost like leather “Rose. No surname.”

Edan let his hand slip from hers, and he snorted through his nose “So not Beatrice anyway, huh? Smart girl. I told most people here my name is 'John' anyway, so good thinking. Switch the two around a few times, and you'll find the hunters here will be fucking confused when some people refer to you as Beatrice, others as Rose.” he ran his arm across his nose, wiping it “Anyway, Rose, you need to watch yourself out there. Did you come alone?”

She shook her head “No. I'm with two others: Duncan and Ramund.”

“'Ramund'?” Edan arched a bushy eyebrow “A mjaln? Shit. He'll be too easily recognizable. What the hell is a Mjaln doing down south anyway? I thought they had ice trolls to conquer, and whatnot.”
She shrugged “I couldn't tell you. He's an over-zealous and gullible idiot, too trusting and kind for his own good. When we were in Westport, he made a friend—-some random woman on the streets, from what I could tell. He shouldn't have. The woman, along with eight other innocents, were butchered by a wild demon in the streets. It was a mess.” the thought of all the blood made her heart beat a bit faster, but she couldn't let it show. She couldn't let Edan know about how the demon got there in the first place... and the look of inquisition in his hazel gaze immediately made her regret ever bringing the subject up.

“Hold up.” he said, disbelief in his voice “You're telling me there's a demon in Westport?”

She had to spin up a lie, and quick “Yes.” her gaze averted “It was a scout for a greater army... look, Edan, we didn't come here for no reason. You've seen the smoke from Aegon, or at least heard the rumors, I'm sure. Would you believe me if I told you that the demons have somehow amassed an unconquerable horde, and are headed right this way?”

For a moment, Edan looked at her to see if she was joking. A little smile perked on his lips, and he was getting ready to laugh. But the look on Rose's face told of no jokes. No laughter. His smile died quickly afterward, and he gritted his teeth “Shit. You're serious, aren't you?”

She nodded somberly.

He turned around on his heel, and ran both hands through his greying hair, taking a moment to comprehend what she just said. However, in the end, all he did was chuckle slightly “Heh. And here I thought our worst enemy was The Crusade itself. Good gods. Squeezed between heaven and hell, it seems. How poetically ironic.” he turned his gaze back at Rose “Unconquerable, you say?”

Rose folded her slender fingers behind her back, and frowned “They said Aegon's walls could keep hell itself at bay. This army proved them wrong.”

Edan sat up unto the fence of the pen, casting glances down at the fat pig at his side, his stern lips squeezed together, paling “Then there must be some kind of intelligent force behind it. Demons don't work like that. They're a bunch of barbaric sons of bitches, and if they could bring down Aegon itself, then barbarism and bloodlust wouldn't be enough. They'd need tactics. Extensive, thorough-thought tactics, in fact. Shit.” he wrinkled his nose as he cursed, then looked back at Rose “If Aegon couldn't hold them back, then The Fairlands will be effortlessly trampled—you do realize this, right?”

“Of course.” Rose leaned up against the wall near the door that lead back into the tavern “That's why we're here to evacuate this miserable little speck of a village, and stuff them into safety behind the walls of Moonby Sanctuary.” she didn't really know why she used the word 'we', as she couldn't care less for the lives of these farmers and cattle—-she just wanted to go home.

Edan chuckled “Well that's a bold move. Need help with that?”

Rose snorted, unsure if he was serious. But this time, it was her turn to realize that he wasn't joking. He looked him up and down, as if measuring and weighing him-—judging him “You really want to help? Why?”

He shrugged, and held out his arms as if to present the world to her “Look around you, honey. If I stay here, I'll be demon-food if the hunters don't get me first. I hate it here anyway... and besides: I'm drunk. This is obviously the best time to make life-changing decisions.” this time, he smiled, and uttered a little chuckle. And Rose, she could only sigh.

“I'm not going to stop you, then. But I'm not in charge of this. Duncan is.”

“And where can I find this 'Duncan', then?” Edan scooted off the fence, and moved closer.
“He's trying to convince the mayor to join us.” she reached out to open up the door to the tavern-—the sound of laughter and clamoring mugs could be heard from inside “If you hurry, maybe you can reach him.”

“I might just do that.” he spoke under his breath, and moved into the doorway. There, he stood for a few seconds, eyes in the dirt. He seemed caught in thought for a little while, before he turned to Rose. His smile was gone, and his face was that of a man who had seen too much in a world too bloody “Watch yourself out there, Rose. It ain't all flowers and sunshine. Keep your head low, and don't attract attention to yourself. I'd hate to see lead between a pair of pretty eyes like yours.” wordless, he closed the door behind him, leaving Rose alone in the stink and mud.

She lingered out here for a while, Edan's voice echoing in her mind. For some reason, he reminded her of Duncan. Was it the Fairlandish accent? Was it the grizzled look of man who had seen what was behind the white picket fences? Or was it because Edan seemed exactly like what Duncan could become, if he didn't let go of the war? She closed her eyes for a moment, and sighed. With fingers entwined and a mind hazed, she slid down the wall and sat into the mud. She didn't mind the filth. She never had.
Vanguard, Chapter 24: Wolfe
Introducing a new character: Edan Wolfe! While Duncan is descending into an even more tattered and war-torn man, I wanted to make an example of what he could become--Edan filling this role. I think he is a character with a lot of potential, and in the next coming chapters, we'll be taking a closer look at what kind of man he is. And, as always, thanks for reading! :)


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Steen Engel Belhage
Artist | Professional | Literature
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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That1PersonYouForgot Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday! :cake: I hope you have a wonderful day! :boogie:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Professional Writer
Why thank you! I should hope so too! :D
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)

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
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 ^^
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!
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
bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
A gamer and a writer?
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2013  Professional Writer
I am. And judging from your profile info, I see that you are too.
bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
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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