Sweet was the sun that shone that day. Sweet was the entire world, it seemed. But then again, for a young boy like him, the world wasn't that big. It only encircled the most important things: the corn fields to which he had never seen an end; his room, where he would dream himself away to great destinies beyond the horizon, to the days where he would make a man of himself; but most important had to be the face of that darling girl down the street. It was such a pretty day, today, and more than just the gentle rays of the sun served to warm him up. He had dressed nicely—-or so he thought. In all truth, he had simply donned himself the denim trousers he liked the best, and those which his mother kept tell him not to sully with mud and dirt. But did he listen? He never quite thought it was that important-—a few mud stains here and there were charming! Girls liked a little mud, didn't they?
He looked up at the house before him, unable to stop smiling, his little heart jumping like an anxious rabbit in his chest. The house seemed so large, for a boy so small. There had to be sixteen stories, at least! He hadn't quite caught the concept of counting just yet, but sixteen sounded like a reasonable number, surely. Now, it was just a matter of knocking on that door.
He ran a hand through his hair, taking in a deep breath. His eyes switched here and there, looking down the streets nervously, quite firmly convinced that he couldn't do this if anyone was looking. Unfortunately, the street was fairly busy this hour—-at noon, Mr. Lloyd always came riding by with his cart and his oxen, carrying a pile of hay that he and the other boys firmly enjoyed playing in. But this time, he let the cart pass him by, watching it go, doing nothing. He had more important things to take care of. And he had brought flowers.
He liked to call them roses, but truth be told, he suspected them of being dandelions. His mother was quite knowledgeable on these kinds of things, but he was too embarrassed to ask his mother about what kind of flowers to bring a girl. So he had simply ventured out into the hills, picked the best and prettiest he could find, and declared himself satisfied. He just hoped that Lucy would feel the same way.
Finally, he came to terms with the fact that this street was not going to quiet down anytime soon. Casserton was always a dreadfully busy place, full of traders from all corners of the world... that is, that which he knew as 'the entire world'. He had heard stories of these people with long ears or dark skin, but the only people who came by these days were humans and those dreadfully sly Myaani. Especially the young boys were real artists when it came to playing tag; they were always so agile, it had been collectively deemed unfair by most human boys. However, he knew they were soft and squishy, and not nearly as strong as he and the other boys—-if he wanted to give one of them a beating, he could! He was convinced of it, as so many other things, for a boy of his age.
His fingers trembled, as they neared the daunting facade of the door. He held the half-squished dandelions in an anxious hand, the one hidden behind his back-—he wanted these pretty 'roses' to be a surprise, after all-—as he reached forward and knocked a few times on the door.
As he knocked, he was split between two fears; either he had not knocked hard enough and he had to go through the awkwardness of knocking again, or he had knocked hard enough, and had to run before Lucy came and opened the door. Yet here he stood, caught in painful dilemma, suddenly frozen. His jaw began to shake, sweat trickling already. What was he supposed to say? She had such a sweet smile, but he feared his was going to be a shivering abomination, and just scare her off immediately. He imagined her laughing at him and slamming the door... oh how the thought made him regret ever coming here... and yet he didn't run. He simply stood there, dandelions in his hand, watching as the door opened up.
The door creaked, the sharp noise making him freeze up even more than he did already. Though the sun was kind and gentle, though his beating heart pushed such amorous warmth through his entire body, at this very moment, he felt so paralyzingly cold. He felt his tongue grow thick in his mouth, and he feared he wasn't going to be able to speak either, to the girl whom he otherwise enjoyed speaking so much with. His fingers clenched around the dandelions, ready to thrust them at Lucy, shout 'For you!' and promptly run away. However, none of that happened, as he saw that it was not Lucy who opened the door. It was her father.
“Oh. Hello Duncan.” he said. Duncan's wide eyes traveled up the great big man's towering figure, several seconds passing before he met his eyes. Lucy's father was a strong man, powerful in spirit as much as body—-which was one of the reasons Duncan admired him like this. He calmed down, harboring no fear for Lucy's father; while he looked slightly intimidating in that soot-smothered apron—-for he was a blacksmith-—and his shaven head, he was one of the kindest men Duncan had ever met. He looked up at him, and smiled.
“Hello Mr. Armswright!” he said, trying not to show his unease “Is Lucy home?”
Lucy's father smiled right back, the big bushy mustache on his lip wiggling a little as he did “She is, actually. She is in her room, reading some books the priests gave her, but I'm sure she would be happy to see you. Come on in.” he said, moving away from the doorway, allowing Duncan to enter. And that was exactly what he did.
The floor creaked underneath him, and he liked to think that it was his own footsteps that did it—but of course, it was Mr. Armswright's huge feet behind him that made the floor bend and moan. Duncan had been here plenty of times; he knew where the kitchen was, the living room, the attic, and Lucy's door as well. Usually he would sneak a peek at what Ms. Armswright was cooking—-for she always cooked such delicious things, and more often than not, she let him have a spoonful of it—-but this time, he homed straight for Lucy's room. He looked over his shoulder at Mr. Armswright a few times, watching the giant man follow him with a smile on his chiseled face, hands folded behind his back. Duncan knew that one day, he was going to be like Mr. Armswright: kind, respected, smart... and big. With emphasis on the latter. He was fairly convinced that the size of one's heart grew proportionally with the size of one's body-—for in all his life, Duncan had never met a man as large as Mr. Armswright, who did not harbor the same benign kindness.
However, once Duncan came to a stop before Lucy's door, the focus shifted. He suddenly remembered why he was here. He took in a long breath, and cast a short glance up at Mr. Armswright. The big man looked down at Duncan, and smiled yet.
“She's very busy, but I'm certain she wouldn't mind being interrupted by you. Go ahead, Duncan. She's right in there. If you'd like a tray or cookies or some milk, simply hollar.” he said, and left Duncan at the door—but not without giving him a little wink at first. Duncan heavily suspected Mr. Armswright of having figured out what was going on here. Could it be because of the way he clutched the dandelions so hard that juice was running down his fingers?
But now that Duncan was here, standing before Lucy's door, he knew there could be no return. If he turned around now, he would lose some of Mr. Armswright's respect for certain. Not only that, but he would let a precious chance slip through his fingers. He looked at the door, and glared at it with challenge in his eyes. There were a lot of things he had been defeated by-—harsh winds, the inability to be mad at his mother for more than a few minutes, and particularly sly Myaani tag-players-—but he was not about to be defeated by a door. In a stalwart march, he approached the door, gripped the handle, and opened it right up.
But what awaited on the other side, was nothing of what he had expected. The strong, determined look he had otherwise built up suddenly crumbled, conquered by a strange look of confusion. For on the other side of the door, there was no Lucy-—only two men, one tall and strong with skin blasted by the sun, and an elf in a lab coat. He stood there, staring at them, hearing them bicker in a language he couldn't understand. And that was when everything changed.
A brutal wind swept in from the left, and carried everything away. Lucy's door, the gentle scent of Ms. Armswright's cooking-—the entire house. All of it was ripped from the ground and hurled out of existence as a hot, dry wind brought upon him a new world entirely. The green hills of The Fairlands were ground and filed away, turned to sand, turned to endless dunes that continued into a horizon that only offered more of this barren wasteland. Reality seemed to warp and change, and all he could do was stand there and watch it happen. However, even that changed, as he realized he wasn't standing any longer; he was sitting on a wooden chair, surrounded by white tents that had appeared out of thin air. And above him, there was a sun so hot that he could swear there was two. Already he could feel the sweat running down his arms, his neck, though he could not tell if it was heat or fear that spawned it. He sat on this chair, feeling sand rise and stab like needles against his cheek in wake of these brutal winds, all while these two strangers were shouting at one another, speaking a tongue that was completely foreign to him. He was so confused. So scared. So alone.
Then, suddenly, the human turned to face him. He was a powerful man, perhaps not as strong as Mr. Armswright, but he seemed like he had been through far more hardships than him. Over his nose there was a violent scar, and in his eyes, there was fear. He met his gaze, and saw a weakness within him that gave birth to a crippling hesitation, a reluctance and a dread that made him so oddly... familiar. Who was this man? And more importantly: why was he carrying a gun?
The elf kept talking to him in that strange language, but soon enough, he shut up. He met stares with the elf as well, and saw a sadness in them, and surrender too. He backed away from him, but the human only came closer. Duncan sat there, on the chair, feeling the sun on his skin, seeing the scorching heat rise from the sand to contort the air in strange blurs, warping the world around him, making him see things. But his attention was fully on the human who stood before him, as he raised the gun, its barrel mere inches from his forehead. He froze up, all muscles tensed, petrified. And that was when the man before him said something that he could understand clear as day.
“When you meet them... please don't tell the gods of this.”
He saw the trigger being pulled, he saw the man look away in terror, he saw the bullet fly in a split second, but never did he hear the gunshot.
In wake of the bullet digging through his skull, everything changed. Everything became white, pale white like the blast of the gun had blinded him, but then the whiteness darkened, turning a black deeper than the night sky itself. Everything seemed to swirl, reality forgotten, neglected. He stared into endless darkness, and he felt as if his body had turned to mist. He could feel nothing but a strange sense of floating, drifting upon the waves of an unseen ocean, carried upon a raft that would take him far, far away—farther than he already was. He wanted to scream, but he had no mouth. He wanted to cry, but he had no eyes, no tears. He had become part of the abyss, stretched out to feel everything, yet everything that was here, was nothing. And yet... there was something. In the distance, feeling as if it bled through another form of reality into this one, there was a voice. It was faint and far away, but he could recognize the word, for the word was his name. 'Duncan!' it called, though he could not possibly tell if it was shouting or whispering. And then, suddenly, he fell.
He could feel his body again, but he wished so dearly that he couldn't. Thousands of stars appeared like sprinkled diamonds upon an abyssal canvas, so infinitely black. He could feel no wind around him, but he knew that he was falling; he could feel it in his chest, in his arms, in his legs-—only then did he realize that he was not a child any longer. From one second to another, he had become a grown man—-he had become the man who shot him mere seconds ago. And then, he landed.
This time, the raft was literal. He grunted as he crashed unto a wooden platform, bending and yielding under his weight, dancing with the waves underneath. His body twitched, his fingers numb from an ungodly cold, eyes refusing to close. He stared up at the tranquil night sky, but as he sat up and looked down, he saw only more stars. He also saw that this raft that carried him was no raft at all, but a door, drifting over the night-shrouded heavens. Waves of black matter dotted with countless stares made this door sway up and down in a gentle rocking, far away from anything. He stared forward, and saw stars. He stared upwards, and saw stars. It did not matter any longer where he looked; there would always be stars. Most of him felt numb, but for some reason, he could feel his heart pound so hard, it felt as if it was made of steel.
“...Am I dead...?” he asked, eyes wide and unblinking, wondering if Morrin was going to answer him. But the god of death remained silent. He was not surprised; this did indeed seem like a realm far away from gods and men alike. He scampered on his knees to the edge of the door, and stuck his hand into the waters. They were strangely warm, and served to relieve some of the icy cold that had grasped his fingers. He stuck both hands in there, and saw how the stars swayed and contorted in the ripples he left in the gentle waves. He felt himself be absorbed, entranced in the infinity of it all—and yet, though the stars seemed so far away, he could touch them. He scooped up a handful of the warm celestial water, and true enough, in his hand he held a beautiful pink nebula. It roiled and churned in his unsteady hands, like a small luminescent slug of the deep, enigmatic seas.
He considered drinking it, but at his touch, it began to change. The nebula warped as if coming alive, and all Duncan could do was sit there on his knees, watching as it changed into something strangely... familiar. He almost dropped it, as he saw the face that it turned into. He felt a stab in his chest, as he stared into eyes of collected stars, seeing an enthralling smile shaped from heavenly pink mist. The bright colors of the nebula in his hand stung his eyes, but the bright smile of the face he knew so well stung his heart instead. This was a fascinating world of dreams, a playground of gods, but seeing her face in his hand made him long so dearly for reality. His tongue paralyzed, unable to speak her name, however much he wanted. He had never realized how beautiful she was, when she smiled like this... if only she would do it more often.
But in that second, everything was ripped away again. The door below him flung open, and that pretty face was ruined as he plunged into the warm waters. He gasped for breath, arms flailing wildly, but all he got was a pair of lungs full of the night sky itself. He felt all the stars, all the distant moons and nebulae filling him up—-and drowning him.
And that was when he woke up.
Everything was so bright, all of a sudden. Even with his eyes closed, he felt the light of noon pierce through his eyelids, countless needles thrust into his irises. His senses were confused and wrought in disorder, hot and cold seeming indiscernible, his entire body sweating and freezing at the same time. It felt almost as if he had been so long gone from reality that he had forgotten what it all felt like. Being alive. He could feel his chest rise with every breath, he could taste his own saliva, and he could hear blood rushing past his ears. His mouth stood ajar slightly, his tongue feeling so strangely swollen, as if it filled his entire mouth. Shivers kept putting the hairs on his arm on end, every nerve in his body seeming confused about what they were supposed to feel. However, in all this chaos, there were a few specks of clarity as well.
“Careful now, Duncan. Take it easy.” he heard a voice. He couldn't tell which voice, nor even the gender of it—it was as if he had forgotten how to tell these subtle differences. He could figure out the words and that the tone was calm, collected, but he couldn't for the life of him put a face on it. Determined to find out, he slowly opened up his eyes.
He wasn't surprised to find that what he saw was a fuzz, a blur of seething colors and features blending into one another like loose paint. But he could make out shapes decently, and much to his surprise, he saw not one face staring at him, but four. His eyes narrowed, his mouth opened up to speak, but all that came out of it was a slow and tired breath. A distant, wheezing sigh. Had he forgotten how to speak? He truly could not tell.
“Don't you have something to speed up the process, doc? We wouldn't want him slipping into unconsciousness again.” another voice asked, and he saw some of the faces move. One of them quickly shook, a finger raised to waggle.
“No no no, this has to be natural. If I try to intervene now, we may get him back, but we might also brain damage him... or worse. Patience, lieutenant.”
Lieutenant? Duncan tried to focus on the face that spoke, but it was hopeless. He noticed his vision clearing, but it was slow, sluggish, as if recovering from a grenade blast. He had been victim of those several times, and thought himself fortunate never to have lost a limb-—he prayed silently that this would be no different. His ears didn't ring, but all sounds seemed to slur together, forcing him to peel apart the words as they were spoken, or they would simply be an indistinct mutter of melted vowels.
“I...” he swallowed, his throat burning as he did “...I...”
“Be at ease now, friend.” he felt a hand on his chest, as gentle as an autumn leaf landing on him “Your grasp on the waking world is yet feeble and limp-—strain it, and you may fall.”
“I hate to say it, chieftain, but I don't think our friend here and hear us.”
“The one who does not try, accomplishes nothing, my dear mayor.”
He tried to move. He tried and he tried, but all of his limbs felt as if they had turned to lead. He strained as much as he could, but his efforts were in vain. His bones ached and his muscles contracted randomly, as if his body was still trying to figure out if all his limbs were still there. In truth, he too wasn't so sure at all. He tried wiggling his toes, and much to his relief, he could feel them doing so—this meant he had to have both of his legs with him still. He tried doing the same to his fingers, clenching and relaxing, and that worked too. Unless he had lost part of his stomach, it seemed to him that he was still intact... somewhat.
“Ah, look! He's moving!” another voice said, though he couldn't quite tell which one it was—however, one of the faces, a pale one with frizzy hair, leaned over to look him right in the eyes “Duncan, if you can hear me, you're doing great. Keep wiggling those fingers!” he could vaguely make out an upturned thumb and a smile on the face before him. Who was this even? He tried to focus, but everything was still a slur—but then realization struck. Could it be?
“Le...” his tongue struggled to articulate the name “...Lex...?”
His vision cleared up ever so slowly, and he saw how the smile grew even larger “That's me, Duncan! Great, so you're not that brain-damaged. Okay, I'm going to fold your table and put you into a sitting position, so hold on tight... and sorry if anything hurts.”
Fortunately for Duncan, he was too numb to feel pain at the moment. Lex's table whirred and buzzed as he flipped a switch, the whole thing automatically folding into a somewhat comfortable sitting position; but while the position may have been comfortable, Duncan was far from comfortable. He saw the slurry figures scoot a little closer, and he noticed how the shapes began to grow sharper, how all the colors parted and solidified ever so slowly. He saw the white-draped shape whom he assumed had to be Lex present a brownish figure, tall and strong, with a right arm completely covered in the metallic gleam of armor.
“Proceeding to test 2. I believe you've already met Lieutenant Wolfe, haven't you?”
Duncan's eyes narrowed, and only then did the pieces of the puzzle fall together, as he realized who this was. However, in the very same second, he felt a blade of anguish run him through. Memories associated with this face came flooding back, and for a second, he was stunned. Images of the Casserton graveyard filled his head, a scenery playing on repeat, showing him over and over again the gruesome sin that he had committed. The smell of blood, the taste of it, and the fractured mess that he had made of that poor woman's face. He saw how Lex stood there, expecting Duncan to say something, but he never did. He couldn't, even if he wanted to. The filth that welled up inside of his stomach lodged tight his throat, as he recalled what he had done.
“He recognizes me just fine.” the hard, growling voice of Edan Wolfe was unmistakable, even through this slur of his senses. His vision grew sharper with by each second, and it did not take long before he there were but a few strips of distorted vision hovering over his eyes, like translucent curtains torn to shreds and scattered everywhere. He saw now that he was inside a tent, white and wide, much like the ones that he remembered from his time in the Wastelands. But very much unlike the Wastelands, he could smell something strange. Rain.
“I see.” Lex said, and Duncan could see the concerned in those smooth features of his. He ran a hand through his frizzy hair, his eyes averting; he wasn't wearing his mask. Duncan continued to open and close his hands, and he could feel some sensation returning to his limbs again. His head still pounded, and he knew that standing up was going to be a problem.
“How... how long...?” he forced the words from his burning throat, but it was another tongue that finished for him.
“How long have you been away?” Duncan slowly turned his head to see a Myaani by his side, tall and aged, with a blindfold over his eyes. Bone-adorned jewelry and leather clothing littered in the smooth curls and curious glyphs made him look like someone of importance indeed. Yet the strangest thing about him, was the way that Duncan could feel his stare upon him, despite the blindfold. Simply looking at him made Duncan's stomach twist and his nerves tingle, as if this Myaani wielded a stare invisible to the naked eye; like a distant reality granting him sight beyond what mortal law allowed.
“How much do you recall, before you lost your grip on the waking world, soldier?” he asked. While it was clear that age had taken its toll on him, his voice held an authority and strength unlike most he had ever heard. Duncan stared into that empty blindfold for surprisingly long, lost in the otherworldly sense that seemed to engulf the chieftain like an aura distorting the barrier between dreams and reality. He quickly noticed he lost track of time, and couldn't quite figure out how long time he had been staring.
“Uhh... I...” he stared down at his feet for a moment while lying here on Lex's table, trying to recall “I remember... I remember a battle. I remember screams, and the sound of arrows flying.” a brutal image flashed before his eyes “And I recall Ramund being hit.” his eyes snapped to Lex, wide, anxious “Is he really dead?”
Lex quickly shook his head, smiling “I'm glad to report that he isn't. That old man is tough, that's for certain, but what kept him alive... well, tough as he may be, it wasn't his strength that breathed life into him. By all logic, he should've been dead. Three arrows, two of them striking straight through vital organs, and yet I had the pleasure of seeing him rise again. I would say that it was beyond science... but I couldn't call myself a scientist, if I said such a thing.” he smirked knowingly, and even with his head spinning, Duncan could tell that Lex was very well aware that something had happened that he could not explain.
“You've been out cold for days now, captain.” a fifth voice joined in, this one old and haggard, and the same could be said about the man who carried it. He stood at the end of the table, near Duncan's feet, his bony fingers curled around a cane. Bags hung under his eyes, his face wrinkled and liver-spotted, his head only boasting a few pale strands of hair. Although he carried no intimidating aura like the Myaani chieftain, Duncan could tell by the dark blue suit with a furry collar that this man was no less important.
“You're lucky we found you when we did. Or, well, when Lex here found you. You and your companions were hit badly when a warg charged you, breaking bones and shaking heads. The only one who managed to get out without falling unconscious was lieutenant Wolfe here.” he said, his gaunt hand gesturing at Wolfe, who stood as stark and stalwart as always with his arms folded over his leather-bound chest “But don't worry... none of yours died. Your mother suffered a few damages, fragile woman as she is, but she is well and good by now.” Duncan sighed in relief, a silent prayer of gratitude sent to the heavens in wake of this news.
“Needless to say, you've missed out on a lot, Duncan.” Wolfe continued, eyes unwavering, full of something between pity and disdain “In the time you've been out, things have... culminated. You've made a lot of friends, but probably a lot of enemies as well. With any luck, Deum will have heard of how the people of Casserton, Westport, and the Tu'Myaa have banded together to create the first official rebel force against his rule. And if we're really fortunate, he pissed his pantaloons a little when he read the report.” Wolfe's lips curled shrewdly into a smirk, his stern eyes gleaming with a strangely mocking glee.
Duncan blinked, perhaps it was the concussion playing a trick with his thoughts, or perhaps this news truly just was that hard to comprehend “E-excuse me?” he sputtered “A rebel force?”
Wolfe turned a look at the chieftain and the Westport mayor “I'm sure we could tell him all about it, but perhaps a demonstration would be in order.” he looked to Lex next “Can he walk?”
In response, Lex shrugged “Hard to tell without trying. Shall we?” he asked, gaze turned on Duncan. And to that, Duncan slowly nodded.
“If I've really been lying down for days on end, maybe it's time I get back on my feet.” He forced out a slow chuckle, as he leaned forward to push his legs over the edge of the table. His joints ached and stabbed with pain, feeling as if they were riddled in rust, but he gritted his teeth and endured. Lex and Wolfe came in from both sides to help him get on his feet; he could feel the mud underneath his shoes, and the water seep into his half-numb toes. His balance was a mess, and he knew perfectly well that standing on his own was not a possibility at the moment. But with the help of Lex and Wolfe, he made his way outside, the greet the new world that waited for him out there.
The sun stood at its prime, tall on the sky and celestial white, scattering its light all over this strange, wet realm that he stepped into. He couldn't feel much in his toes, but he could feel them sink into the mud; the mud that seemed to have conquered all, save for the rickety stone road that sliced through the camp like a scar. Duncan stood silent for a while as he looked over all the tents that stood, all the white little encampments looking exactly as if they were picked from the darker parts of his memory, and placed into reality. It looked exactly like the camp he had spent so many years in, far south from here-—the only difference seemed to be the climate. And yet, there was something else. He saw it in the eyes of the soldiers that marched by, either in strict patrols or on afternoon jogs, in the smiles of those fully clad in armor or resorting to a more casual attire. He wasn't sure what it was at first, but it was there, and it was clear on the face of everyone. Myaani and man alike, soldier and citizen. Simply by stepping outside that tent, he saw mothers and fathers play tag with their children; he saw soldiers sharing jests and barking in laughter-—quite literally, if they were Myaani; and he saw commanders joining in too. First then, did he realize what he saw. He had such a hard time recognizing it, for it had been so few times he had had the pleasure of seeing it. It was hope.
“Welcome to Camp Dawn, Duncan.” Wolfe's smile was strangely grinning as he looked out over the marching soldiers, the endless mud, the mists slithering like giant white slugs over the land “First camp of the Dawn rebellion. While personally I'm a little on the fence about the name, it wasn't me who decided it; it was something the mayor and the chieftain thought up.” he shrugged slightly “And, when you think about it, it makes a fair amount of sense. If Deum's rule is the night, the deprivation of truth that is the light, then we are the dawn-—the first rays come to scare away the darkness, and with many more to come.” he snorted “Good gods, I'm beginning to sound poetic.”
“It suits you.” Lex followed up with a chuckle “Better than that stern, buff demeanor you engulf yourself in.”
“Oh please, shut up.”
“Though, by that logic,” Duncan chimed in, looking up at Wolfe, who was a few inches taller than him “King Magnus should be the first rays of light, shouldn't he?”
Wolfe gave a shrug, not caring to look Duncan in the eyes as he spoke “The king is a good man, but he is old. His heart might be on the right place, but I'm not sure I can say the same about his head-—or his gut, for that matter. He spends most of his time drinking the years away, and going on so-called 'hunts'-—which, in truth, are just expeditions of him sitting in his royal carriage with archers to fetch him fresh deer while he savors the fresh air of the Southern Valley woods.” Wolfe clearly couldn't keep back a smirk, amused by the thought, amused by the laze of royalty. He still gazed out over the sea of tents, a nod given to the occasional soldier that passed by, man or Myaani, it did not matter.
“But you're right. To a point.” Lex added from the sideline “For Deum to execute any larger orders, they'll need the stamp of approval from the king. And the king, who seems to care more for the people than Deum does, has been known to put a shackle on Deum's schemes from time to time. Still, he's not as much a ray of dawn-light as he is a simple lantern.” he continued, staying within the realm of metaphors.
“But this is not the time to discuss politics, I'm sure.” Wolfe spoke up, this time turning a look on Duncan-—he even smiled at him “There's someone who deserves to see that you're awake.”
Duncan found it easier to walk, the more he moved his legs. Walking down the shabby, muddy road that cut through Camp Dawn, Duncan did the best he could to walk on his own—but in the end, he always had to rely on the shoulders of Lex and Wolfe. His bones still felt as if they had corroded, every muscle aching as if they had never been used. Even so, the more he tried, the more sensation returned to them. It was like a warmth slowly spreading from his feet and upwards, a warmth that soothed his pain and washed away the imperfections within. But when Lex and Wolfe came to a stop in front of a tent closer to the center of the camp, he was still far from independence, and had to cling on to whatever help he could get, if he didn't want to collapse.
“Lex, hold him for a minute, will you?” Wolfe asked, though he didn't wait for an answer before he let go of Duncan and let him rest on Lex entirely. Duncan clung to his rather flimsy shoulders, afraid for a moment that the scrawny doctor would collapse with him. However, as Wolfe approached the tent and stuck a head in through the entrance, he endured. Wolfe spoke some hushed words that Duncan couldn't quite make out, but before long, he gestured them to follow. And follow they did.
“I figured if anyone needed to know that he'd gotten back on his feet, it would be you.” Duncan heard Wolfe say from behind, as Lex led him in through the linen entrance. It was a cozy little place with space only for the essentials; a bed, a wardrobe, a nightstand, and a desk. Several papers lay neatly stacked upon the desk, ink blots scattered over the wood; someone had been busy writing, it seemed. But Duncan wasn't allowed much time to spy the place inside, before he was assaulted by a pair of arms wrapping around his torso.
“The gods have not forgotten us!” she declared ecstatically, and even for such an old woman, she truly could hug quite tightly. Duncan grunted slightly, a dagger of pain jolting through his bones as his mother lovingly assaulted him.
“Whoa now, go easy on him—he's still rather fragile, Miss Ross.”
“No no, I...” Duncan let out a long breath as he forced himself to stand on his own two legs, so that he could give his mother the embrace she deserved “...I'll be alright.”
“Oh Duncan... I had thought you dead for certain.” Agatha continued as she let go of her son, taking a step back to look him in the eyes, tears of joy in her own. Her gaunt fingers trembled and her face was a battleground between disbelief and joy “So little I've slept, and so much I've prayed. How good it is to see that my prayers have not been for naught.”
Lex huffed a little, perhaps thinking that he was the one to be thanked rather than the gods. Wolfe followed up shortly “At this point, nobody could have known which way it would go. Lyrras and Morrin were playing a very long game of dice over his soul... but it seems that Lyrras won this one, didn't he?” he said with a smirk, while scooping an arm in under Duncan's shoulders to keep him on his feet.
Duncan smiled, uttering a chuckle “I'm glad that Lyrras found it in his heart to grant me my life, but it seems Keyen didn't grant me the fortune of a pair of functioning legs...” he quickly looked to Agatha, suddenly realizing his words “...yet. Don't worry, mother, I'm not paralyzed.” he looked to Lex “Right?”
Lex quickly shook his head “No no no, have no fear; you'll be going on hikes and doing flip-flops soon enough. I'd love to speed up the process, but as said before, this is something that needs to happen naturally, or I might permanently re-arrange or damage your nerves. Yes, I confess: even I make mistakes.” he said, not without a mirthful snicker following.
“I really should let you two re-unite, but...” Wolfe cleared his throat, occasionally throwing a look at the bed in the back of the tent “...I believe we didn't catch you alone, did we?” he asked, eyes on Agatha.
Duncan seemed a little confused at first, uncertain of what Wolfe was talking about, but then he noticed. In the bed, there was a lump in the blankets. A rather large lump at that, vaguely shaped like a child sitting with its arms wrapped around its knees.
“No... you did not.” Agatha muttered under her breath, looking back at the bed as well. Curiosity sprouted within Duncan, but he said nothing, simply watching as Agatha pulled up a chair to take a seat by the bed. A silence stifled the room, an uneasy tension rising, Duncan having the distinct sensation that he missed something important here. Lex grabbed another chair and scooted it in under Duncan, giving him something else to rest on than his and Wolfe's shoulders.
“Matvey...” Agatha began, her voice softened and kind. It reminded Duncan of the way she would speak to him, when he was but a young boy hiding under the bed or the wardrobe, trying to escape the rigors of daily chores.
“...Would you like to come out? These are very kind men, meaning you no harm. Mr. Wolfe is with them. Do you remember Mr. Wolfe?” she asked, smiling even now, despite that this 'Matvey' probably couldn't see it. Duncan had never heard a name like this before, but it had the tone of a people he only knew of through word of mouth and newspapers. And when Matvey reluctantly pulled down the blanket that tucked him away, his suspicions were confirmed.
“Oh... oh wow.” The first thing Duncan noticed, was the unnerving stare that the young boy possessed. The hairs on his neck rose as he felt those vertical pupils gaze right into him, seeming almost as if someone had torn out the eyes of a cat and put them right into the sockets of the boy before him. And the small, stumpy horns on his head only made it worse, but when the tail came into sight, Duncan knew there could be no doubt: this was a child of these strange people who called themselves 'Krov'. He was a bizarre amalgamation, a joke played upon the world—-but a joke that got out of hand, and became... this. For a while, Duncan could only stare at the chimeric wonder that sat curled up in the bed before him, his stare switching between those haunting eyes and the red-dyed tail that was almost as large as the boy himself. But not Lex, not Wolfe, and not Agatha seemed particularly fazed by the boy's appearance. Indeed, Duncan had missed a lot.
“Glad to see you're doing well, kiddo.” Wolfe broke the eerie silence, easing the tension with a soft smile at Matvey “I'm sure you've been told this before, but you're one tenacious little man. Most children your age would've succumbed to the cold long before I found you.”
To this, Matvey smiled. That was when Duncan noticed. Staying true to the stories he had heard, Matvey was equipped with a pair of jagged fangs, diabolizing the boy in just one little smile. Duncan felt a bitter chill in his veins, one he could only remember feeling when he saw a demon for the first time, so many years ago. But maybe he was staring at one right now.
“Papa tells me I must thank my blood for that.” Matvey said, a thick accent in his voice. It was the first time Duncan had heard the voice of these odd creatures, and he found it rather difficult to understand even such a simple sentence. Matvey seemed to have relaxed a bit now in the presence of Wolfe, though Duncan couldn't fathom why. Wolfe seemed such a stern, brazen man, and yet Matvey found refuge and solace within him.
“And with good reason, actually.” Lex chimed in, now leaning on Agatha's desk, hands deep in the pockets of his lab coat “Even science can't quite explain it yet, but your blood—-the blood of all Krov, in fact-—possesses an innate physical superiority unlike anything we've ever put under the microscope. Enhanced healing, an impeccable immune system, near-inexhaustible endurance... the list goes on, really. I'm not surprised in the least that you survived however long time you've been out there in the cold without food or drink. In fact, I'm quite sure you could've handled a few days more.”
Matvey stared at Lex as he spoke, his feline eyes full of a dumbfounded confusion. Only then did it seem that Lex realized he was speaking to a child, and that most of what he said fell on deaf ears. Lex shook his head, a slow 'never mind' spilling out before the Krov child.
“Wolfe.” Duncan's voice was lowered as he looked up at him, pulling him a little closer with a tuck on his sleeve. He spoke through gritted teeth “I'm feeling a severe lack of information here. Why do we have a Krov child in our camp?”
“Because he would have died otherwise.” Wolfe responded, looking down at Duncan through the corner of his eyes, condescension in his stare.
“Yeah, but... who is he?” Duncan continued, unsatisfied.
“He's Matvey. Weren't you listening?” A crude smirk grew on Wolfe, and Duncan sighed once he realized he wasn't going to get a proper answer out of him.
“Matvey Zakadiev, to be exact.” Agatha spoke up from the bedside “You were still deployed when the Krov arrived at our shores, only five years ago. I don't blame you if you haven't heard of them, Duncan. Not while knowing how the Crusade treats its soldiers, when it comes to information.” though her words carried a distinct reek of spite, it was quickly slain as she drew a smile for Matvey “Would you like some sweets, dear?”
Matvey's face visibly lit up at this, eyebrows raised and a smile to mirror Agatha's—though with added fangs. He nodded swiftly, his lengthy hair swaying as he did. In many ways, his hair looked a lot like Duncan's, but neatly combed and pale like the mists of the outside world, rather than the shaggy black mane that hung from Duncan's head.
“I've heard the name.” Duncan spoke as he looked upon the black and red of Matvey's clothes, the rich velvet, the intricate design that spun tales of a distant, alien culture “Rarely with anything positive attached.”
Lex contributed with a ridiculing snort “If you think that the world would openly welcome an entire race of tailed goat-cat-vampires with the tongues of serpents, then you're too naive for your own good, Duncan.”
Duncan sent Lex a cold, sideways glare “If I were that naive, I wouldn't be here, rebelling against a superpower that has nearly coerced the entire world to fall under its wing. But then again... I was naive enough to serve it, just weeks ago. So maybe I am, Lex. Maybe I am.” he ran a hand through his hair, and looked back at Matvey “But yes, I've heard of your family, Krov boy. Nobility, right?”
Matvey's vertical pupils narrowed slightly as he looked at Duncan, his mouth full of some pieces of candy that Agatha had fetched for him. Again, he nodded.
“Which is one of the reasons why this is such a big problem.” Wolfe added, gesturing at Matvey “If he were just a boy, we'd return him right away. Sadly, being noble, even hinting that we might have him could lead to some... unnecessary accusations. And the last thing we need now from those whom we are trying to ally with, is a bad reputation.”
Duncan looked up at Wolfe, and saw that he was holding specific words back-—probably because of Matvey sitting right there. But Duncan knew what he was talking about. Even now, it reeked far off of kidnapping. He looked back at Matvey... and saw only trouble.
“And as it happens, we might be at a risk of doing exactly that.” Lex sat on the desk now, his slender fingers twiddling in his lap “Telling the Zakadievs, that is. Look, Duncan... we've come across a little issue. It's about Rose.”
Duncan's heart clenched at the mention of that name, his attention piqued and his stomach tight “Rose? What has happened?” he asked, perhaps a little too quickly.
“That's the thing.” Lex shrugged “We don't quite know. But something happened, that's for certain. She must have been sitting at your bed while you were out, and in that room, something went down-—gods know what. She left a note by your bedside, and by the first ray of dawn, she was nowhere to be found. Ramund set out for Moonby Sanctuary to find her... and that's the last we've heard from both of them.”
“Well then what are we waiting for?!” Duncan declared, quickly getting to his feet and forgetting that walking was not an option right now. Thankfully, Wolfe was swift enough to catch him before he collapsed in the mud.
“We were waiting for you, actually.” Wolfe said, as he held up Duncan by his shoulders “Whatever the case, we need to go to Moonby and speak with the nobles... we just also need to make sure that our snow-born friend keeps certain information at bay, or things might go south really quickly.”
“Then get me a horse, and stop wasting time!” Duncan spat, suddenly and perhaps a bit irrationally frustrated. However, as he looked at Agatha, he softened. He looked at her and sighed from his nose, seeming solemn.
“I'm really sorry, mother. I know you've been so anxious to see me awake again, but—-“
“Don't worry about it.” Agatha interrupted, giving Duncan a soft smile as she stood to approach her son “You've come this far, I can't expect you to let go of your duties, just because your old mother feels lonely. I've been alone all these years... I'm sure I can manage a few days more.” she laid her gaunt hand on Duncan's cheek, feeling the rough stubble of a beard that was beginning to grow “Kendrew would be proud of his son, I'm sure of it.”
Duncan returned the smile, and reached out with one arm to embrace his mother once more “I'm proud of you too, mom, and of dad. Proud that you've endured, in all this time. Don't worry about me. I'll be back before the week's end.”
“In which case, you'll need to get some pep in your step.” Lex commented, a gun-finger pointed as Duncan and Wolfe “You might not be able to ride, Duncan, but I'm sure there's space for two on one horse. Moonby Sanctuary is no more than a few hours from here anyway.”
“Let us pray that Ramund won't do anything stupid in that time-space, then.” Wolfe wrinkled his nose, though he smiled as he looked at Matvey “Stay safe, kid, and be nice to Agatha. For the time being, consider her your own mom.”
As he and Wolfe made their way out the linen entrance again, followed shortly by Lex and Agatha's longing gaze, he couldn't help but cringe a bit at Wolfe's comment. Did that mean that Matvey was his brother? He shuddered slightly and gave it no more thought, once they set off for Moonby Sanctuary.