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Another hour seemed to pass. Time crept as slow as the mist crept over these muddy lands, like slugs they both left a trail of monotony in their wake, the things here never seeming to change. The bleak whiteness looked terribly much like what he saw an hour ago, and the hour before that. The warg had not set up the pace or slowed it down at all, entranced in a trot that seemed as if it would never end-—much like the stony road that they were traveling on. However, Ramund had noticed something odd about that road. It was as if it was growing wider. Before, the warg could scarcely fit on it, but now there could surely be two wargs moving shoulder by shoulder, and still keep out of the mud that that surrounded it. He had also noticed a some trails in the roadwork that certainly were not horseshoes; they were cartwheel tracks, by the looks of it. Somewhat recent too. Ramund had wondered for a while why these things showed up just now... but then he was given his answer.

The monotony of the travel was shattered in an instant, like fragile glass thrown against a rock. Ramund had always looked up to see more mist, more spectral white with a vague sun glaring through the drifting droplets, but what he looked up to see now, was something quite else. A hand of dread gripped his heart for a moment as he looked up at what he thought was some kind of immense giant, but the dread quickly faded as he saw that it was made of stone—-and it had a twin. He craned his neck backwards to peer up at the massive statues of knights in proud armor, greatswords in their hands, the tip kissing the stone at their feet. And in between them, a great big gate towered high over the mud and mist, stalwart and imposing, with five great emblems painted upon its wooden facade.

Ramund's mind strained a little, but he could recognize them all. There was the proud rearing lion upon a clifftop, red with the colors of House Rex. There was the tall stag in a meadow, gilded with a rising sun behind it, that of House Cercy. There was the soaring eagle painted across a map of The Mortal Realm, heralding the great House Hedwen. There was the shadowy owl, tinted silver under the light of the full moon, black as House Umbral preferred. And finally, in the bottom, the black and red colors wove together to shape the emblem of House Zakadiev: a slithering snake with bared fangs, dripping red, eyes keen. Ramund had long wondered why the Zakadievs would portray themselves with such a vile creature... but perhaps snakes had another reputation in their homeland.

“You there!” Ramund's attention quickly rose to the walls, as a voice called out for him “Identify yourself!”

Ramund could barely see who was calling, but with squinted eyes, he could make out a vague shape standing atop the great stone walls. A massive shadow cast from the walls, visible all through the mist, the silhouette of a guardsman adding but a tiny bit more to it. His voice echoed off the walls he stood on, and Ramund's voice echoed right back.

“I am Ramund Bjornsson, sergeant of the Dawn rebellion!” he shouted, hoping that the word of their rebellion had reached this far “Are these the gates of Moonby Sanctuary?”

Some muttering was heard from the top of the gates, followed by some brief laughter; the guardsman was not alone, by the sound of it. The warg glared upwards as well, lips peeled back in a growing sneer.

“You must be quite new to the Wetlands, my friend. There are no walls like these within the entire region; we are second only to Godshill, and if you think you're standing before the gates of Godshill, then you're far more lost than I thought.” the guardsman shouted back, and even from here, Ramund felt as if he could see a mocking smile curl on his face “We've heard of your rebellion, Sergeant, and would like to wish you good luck. You may need it. Now, what exactly is it you're riding? That's one hell of a horse, from what I can see.”

“It is no horse, guardsman.” Ramund called back, a smile of his own now upon him “It is a warg. And there are hundreds more from whence they came. With creatures like these, we will not need your luck—-but I thank you for it, nonetheless.”

“A warg?” the guardsman sounded genuinely impressed “And I who thought those things were the work of fairy tales. I can't allow you to bring it in through the gates, though. Horses, sure, but I'm not about to let a monster like that one into our city. You'll have to tie it up by one of the poles to your left, or you're not coming in.”

Ramund turned a sideways gaze, and saw a few wooden poles standing from the roadwork. These things were meant for horses, though; a warg would snap it effortlessly. Still, if it was the only way to get inside, he knew he didn't have much choice. He slid from his saddle, and lead the warg to one of the poles, tying her reins to it. The warg didn't seem particularly pleased, but slouched to her stomach nonetheless, clearly knowing she may have to be here for a while. Ramund gave her a few comforting pats on her head, smiling. He could still see his turquoise magic dancing around inside her eyes—-perhaps, once that magic had faded, the warg would simply stand up and leave. With the warg's eyes following him, he moved back to the front of the gates, and raised his voice for the guardsman to hear.

“There. The warg is tightly secured. Would there be anything else?”

Again, there was some muttering from up there in the fringes of the mist. Ramund waited patiently, arms folded, gaze turned skyward to the guardsmen.

“That would be all. Welcome to Moonby.”

In that very moment, the gates began to rumble, rust screaming and mechanisms churning like thunder. Like great sideways jaws, the wooden gates slowly yawned open, and revealed the city beyond. Ramund smiled, satisfied, and made his way inside.

As he trod through the towering mouth of Moonby Sanctuary, he couldn't help but think that the sound of the gates opening was the only sound this city had heard all day. The gates closed behind him, and his eyes climbed up the grey bricks of tall houses, several stories tall, all covered in a thin layer of glistening water—-it seemed almost as if they were sweating. They stood like tall, mute giants of grey stone and mist, oddly lonesome despite that there were thousands like them, all around. Ramund's gaze could only reach as far as the white curtains would allow him, but even so, he could see the silhouettes of countless more houses of sleepy grey bricks peek forth in the distance. The light of early noon was splintered into a myriad of slender pillars, their paths abruptly ended by the tall buildings blocking their ways. Ramund turned a gaze here, one there, but there was not a soul to be seen. He had never been to Moonby Sanctuary before, but the stories of great theaters and noble society had given this place such a lively reputation. Yet of all things he saw when he stepped in through those gates, 'lively' was not one of them. All that greeted him, were the tired houses with raindrops dripping from their roofs, and creeks running in the gutters beside him.

He found himself on a single road, wide and smooth, far cleaner and prettier than the jagged bricks he had been traveling on for a few hours now. There was hardly any mud in here either; it was quite odd to see how it all had come to a stop as soon as he stepped through those gates. But when he thought about it, it made quite a lot of sense; if this truly was the city of nobility, the finer ladies would not want mud on their dresses, and the lords not on their newly-polished leather shoes. If only, perhaps, he could see one of these lords or ladies. For as of now, he could see no one. The only company he had, was a stray cat in the corner of his eyes, clawing at a nearby door and yowling for the warmth of a hearth. Ramund hadn't noticed it much, being a child of snow and mountains, but the cold was quite present, especially with the mist hanging. Tiny icy teeth nibbled at his skin, but while the cat seemed to hate it, it only made him feel strangely nostalgic.

“You know, we don't see many visitors like you these days, Sergeant Ramund Bjornsson.” Ramund looked to his left and saw a guardsman come walking down a long grey staircase, reaching all the way to the tops of the walls. He had the same voice as the guardsman he spoke with before, so he figured it was the same one. He wore a rather easy uniform of boiled leather and a surcoat emblazoned with all five coats of arms, even the bloodied snake of Zakadiev. Ramund recognized this to be the uniform of the city guard, those who did not belong to any of the houses, yet belonged to all of them. In a city of aristocracy, most things belonged to the houses, after all.

“And with good reason.” Ramund said, looking down at the guardsman, arms folded “I take it you've seen the fires?”

“And heard the rumors?” the guardsman snorted brashly “You can be damn sure we have, though no one can agree on what the cause is, nor how to proceed. You've come in a time of turmoil, sergeant. Moonby Sanctuary isn't really the sanctuary it used to be.”

Ramuned turned a curious look at the guardsman, who had now seated himself on one of the grey brick steps, his leather boots playing idly in the gentle creek that flowed in the side of the road “It is a time of turmoil for all of The Mortal Realm, my friend. It is simply a matter of realizing it before it is too late.”

The guardsman snorted “Do you think so? Well, go ahead, tell the nobles that. They sit in their council halls all day, entering with great ideas in their heads, and leaving with nothing accomplished. None of the five houses can seem to agree on what must be done; others claim that there should be done nothing at all, and that this is all but an intimidation game from The Crusade, trying to scare us all in under their wing... and it's working. There are more than a few who have voiced that idea; while Moonby Sanctuary is usually a quiet place, we've faced some riots from time to time.” he looked back up at Ramund “You're right when you say that it is a time of turmoil for us all, but I get the feeling that Moonby Sanctuary will tear itself to shreds before we even get to see what it is that is burning the forests and pillaging the southern villages.”

Ramund slowly shook his head “The Crusade is responsible for many things, but this is not one of them. The threat is very real. Those fires are not for show; the smoke is not some magic trick meant to scare those lesser of mind.” his voice turned dire and dark “Those who flee will see themselves under the smothering wing of The Crusade soon enough; those who stand idly by will see themselves destroyed... those who stand up and fight, however.” he smiled a little, but left it at that. He stared down the misty road once more, seeing how it too was drowned away into the thick of white, enigma shrouding everything. Finding that rider was going to be difficult, in a city where even the city itself was difficult to find. He quickly turned to look back at the guardsman.

“Pardon me changing the subject, but... you said you didn't see many visitors like me, these days. Perchance you've seen a rider come by recently, perhaps even with... how to say... 'luggage'?”
The guardsman was sitting with a cigarette in his mouth now, trying to strike a match, but it seemed horribly difficult in this thick mist. His matchbox had been dampened, his cigarette too, and eventually he just gave up. He looked back up at Ramund.

“If by 'luggage' you mean a woman in leather armor and white linen, then yeah.” he said, while stuffing his cigarette back in his chest pocket “Whoever the rider was, he was reported to have left the city just a few hours before that-—and without the company of said woman. I remember it being a little hard to see him, all dressed in black with a hood thrown over his head—-he almost seemed to meld together with his equally black steed. Rather unnerving if you ask me, but the woman didn't seem to mind. As a matter of fact, she seemed oddly pleased with the rider's company.”
Ramund tried not to show his cringe, but it was not easy. The thought made him sigh quietly; enjoying the company or not, Rose did not know what was good for her. Strange of her to simply ride along with the stranger; and here Ramund thought that she was paranoid. Was there something about the rider that had enticed her? He had the feeling that Rose was the kind of woman to be enticed by enigma and mystery-—and that it would be her undoing one day. He prayed that it would not be this day.

“Thank you.” Ramund said swiftly, head bowed slightly in gratitude “You have been a great help, my friend. Spirits guide you.” he did not wait for a farewell from the guard, before he turned around on his heel, and marched down the misty road.

The mist grew no less thick, as he delved deeper into the sleepy greyness of the sanctuary. In fact, Ramund could have sworn that it was growing thicker. The way it crept through stony alleys like spectral serpents; the way it clung to the brick walls of the looming houses; the way it coiled around his feet like a thousand grasping hands from a world underneath. He had grown more aware of the smooth cold that had laid over his skin, like bony fingers of ice caressing him. The sound of droplets of yesterday's rain was omnipresent-—no matter where he went, there was always that perpetual sound of water dripping like tears from the weeping homes, gathering in growing pools at their feet. More than once had he seen something in the corner of his eyes, something lurking in the alleys, a figure bleak and creeping, but every time he turned to look, it was gone. However, as he came deeper into the sanctuary, there were a few living faces too. He passed by a merchant slowly opening up his boutique; a shoe salesman, from what he could tell. Near one of the many rivers that ran through the sanctuary like veins through a hand, he saw a woman with her child, her feet dangling over the running waters while she read children's stories for the young boy. It was quite the relief to see that they didn't shoot him any odd glances... perhaps Mjaln were not that uncommon here in the sanctuary.

He had taken the chance, whenever he noticed someone who wasn't simply a trickster demon playing japes on him in the mist, to ask about the mysterious rider. Most had said they saw nothing; some had even told him not to ask around like this, and keep to himself. However, once in a while, there was the odd one that told him he or she had seen a rider like this, and pointed him in the direction they saw him ride. Strangest of all was none of them could see his face. They claimed a strange swirling shadow had engulfed his features under a ragged black hood, and it seemed to whisper and play with their thoughts. He had feared that there were perhaps more riders like these, but all those who told about the rider could confirm they had seen a woman with black hair, leather armor, and white linen clothing too. And from what Ramund could tell, there was only one Rose in the whole wide world.

The Sanctuary, he noticed, was perhaps not a dead and gravely city, but simply a tired one. There was no such thing as early risers in this place, as it was nearly noon at this point, yet the shopkeepers were only just now about to open up their shops and booths. There were not many, nothing compared to the bustling and vivid metropolis of trade that Aegon once was, but there was enough to call this city 'living'. It was far from dead. It was just... slow.

However, that did not seem to reach into what Ramund deduced to be the slums of the sanctuary. He had thought for a moment that he was going to be rid of the mud for a while yet, but those assumptions were crushed like glass when he saw how the fine brick roads slowly seemed to succumb to the suffocation of mud and grime. It was astonishing to witness this strange transformation. From one district to another, from albeit sleepy but living grey stone, to the squalor of homes that leaned limply forward, decaying wood blackened and bleak, harboring no life at all. The mud sucked and pulled at Ramund's boots with every step, the roads having fallen apart, become little but stray tiles scattered here and there. He could no longer tell the difference between road and alley and avenue, many of them abruptly stopping in dead ends, others seeming like they would have continued a while onwards, had someone not decided to build their wooden home in the very middle of them. Filthy memories of Westport came flooding back to him: the demons that played in the fringes of his vision had suddenly taken on the ugly face of the man he butchered like a pig. He could still hear the sickening crunch of his skull collapsing inwards. Before he noticed that he had even drawn it, he now walked with his hand clenched tightly around the leather-bound hilt of his axe, the blade gleaming wetly in the fickle light of noon that tried to push its way through the mist. Although there was some life in the districts before, the slums seemed as if they had ceased to breathe eons ago, now reduced to houses that slouched like standing corpses, slowly eaten away by flies and moss. But then, Ramund heard something. It was the snorting of a horse.

His nerves must have been getting the better of him, for at the sound of the snorting horse, he snapped his gaze towards it as if ready to strike something down. That, however, quickly proved unnecessary. Although the mist hampered much of his vision, he could make out the inky black silhouette of a steed, down one of the muddy alleys. His heart began to thump in his chest. It seemed he had finally come across the vulture's nest. His grip on his axe grew tighter, so tight he could hear the leather squeak, even though he tried to be as silent as possible, as he stalked his way forward. Coming closer, he saw that the black steed was tied to a small wooden post, outside one of the leaning, drowsy homes, this one with an upper story that had collapsed unto itself. The horse looked at him with wide, glimmering eyes, while idly munching on a mouthful of hay. He approached the house with wary steps, but he feared that not only his weight, but the mud as well would ruin any attempts of stealth. His jaw clenched, and he couldn't tell the difference between sweat and mist droplets on his skin any longer. The curtains of the windows were drawn, allowing no one to peer inside, but when he leaned forward and put an ear to the door, he could hear footsteps. And only one pair of it. Whose was it, he wondered? The rider's? And if so, why was Rose not standing too? Cruel images flashed through his mind, taunting him, angering him. It was with little thought that he gripped the doorknob, and hurled the door open.

“Rose!” was the first thing that spewed from his mouth, but he couldn't even hear it himself over the clamor of the door slamming against the wall on the other side. He barged through the human-sized door, much to big for it and nearly tearing off some of the doorway in his wake. Had the door been locked, he would surely have torn the hinges right off too. However, all of his anger, all of his battle fervor suddenly fell dead, as he saw what awaited him on the other side.

“...Ramund?” Rose's voice was soft but curious, her eyes just as so. Ramund blinked a little, suddenly realizing that he may have been jumping to quite a few conclusions here. What awaited him on the other side was little but two people, one of them his dear friend Rose, sitting around a small table, sharing a cup of tea. The room here was quite small and humble, seemingly consisting of little but a kitchen for the kettle and a table for the cups. A painful silence ensued, as he looked upon the stranger.

“An acquaintance of yours?” the stranger asked, gilded yellow eyes moving between Rose and Ramund. His voice was sweet as summer, every word spoken with a strange sense of sophistication, even in that short sentence. He was a rather tall man, well of age too, with a strikingly expensive attire of black velvet and silver thread. A sharp goatee stood like a dagger from his chin, and his hair seemed as if it was combed a thousand times every morning, glistening with gel as well. His skin was like porcelain, so white Ramund wondered if this man had ever seen sunlight before.

“You could say that.” Rose continued with a tired sigh, her eyes moving back to Ramund. Ramund stood there in silence as he felt Rose's bitter glare dig into him “Why did you come looking for me? Did you not see my note?”

“I did, and that's the exact reason why I did come looking for you!” Ramund swiftly retorted, his axe still in his hand, confusion welling in his eyes as they moved between Rose and the stranger “You don't know what's good for you, Rose. Especially not deciding to ride off with darkly clad strangers!” his voice was raised as he stabbed a finger in the stranger's direction. But to that, the stranger only gave a chuckle.

“Oh, I see how this is. Pardon me, I should have introduced myself the moment you tore my door off its hinges.” Ramund looked over his shoulder, and true enough, there the door lay, ripped from its frame. He quickly looked back to the stranger, and saw a friendly smile shape on his porcelain face, a velvet-draped hand extended “Please. I am Theodor, lord of House Umbral. And you?”

Ramund's tongue had been paralyzed. In fact, it felt as if most of him had been paralyzed. He had to turn that name over a few times in his head, going through inner archives, trying to make sense of it all. He stared for uncomfortably long at Theodor's pale features, seeing the coming of age and the wisdom that it bore. He looked down at the extended hand, calm and steady in its velvet drapes, seemingly not startled at all despite the huge man that had just torn down his door. In embarrassed silence, Ramund sheathed his axe, and gently shook Theodor's hand.

“That's better.” Theodor said with a smile, his own hand completely engulfed by Ramund's “I would offer you a seat, but I fear the chairs aren't made for someone of your... caliber.”

“It is alright. I am comfortable on my own two feet.” Ramund said, humbly so. He looked between Rose and Theodor, seeing the hospitality in Theodor's eyes, but the hostility in Rose's. He knew that she really did not want him coming for her. But she meant too much for that, by now.

“I have so many questions.” Ramund said, looking back at Theodor.

“And I think I may know a few of them already.” Theodor's honeyed voice spilled through his smiling lips, carved to sweet perfection, a strange kindness yet steely authority in every word “You had imagined that I, Theodor Umbral, lord of House Umbral, would own a home a bit more... grand, than this little shack, hm?” He asked, his soft hazel stare looking back at Ramund “In which case, you were correct. This is not my home. This is not even my district.” He poured up another cup of tea for Rose, despite her not having asked for one “My manor—and the rest of my family—-is located safely up in the noble district, where my kind belong. This?” he gestured loosely around the rotting shack, the moldy walls speckled with lichen “This is where I go, when I have guests I would not want the public to know of.” he smiled at Rose “Not that I don't enjoy your company, Rose dear, all I am saying is that if it was known that I picked up fainted women from the roads every time I went for a ride, my reputation would diminish significantly. It is all part of the game, you must remember. And we nobles do love playing the game.”

“From what I hear, it is more of an obligation, no?” Ramund asked, trying to seem a bit more comfortable in this newly-revealed company, but keeping a wary eye on Theodor nonetheless “This so-called 'game' is not something one simply joins, after all. It is something one is born into, be one of finer blood.”

“All too true.” Theodor curled his fingers around his cup of tea, pale lips sipping at it—he didn't seem to mind the burn “Some despise it, some try to distance themselves from it... but people like myself—-we learn to enjoy it. It is a delicate matter of seeming as presentable in face of every situation, as calm and collected as possible, while trying to rob the other side of the very same. It is because of this that I cannot reveal my little... encounter with your friend here.” he said, gesturing kindly to Rose, offering her a sweet smile while doing so.

Ramund turned his eye on Rose, who seemed quite content about it all. She sat back in her chair around the table, a half-full cup of tea before her and a satisfied look on her face. She said nothing, though. She looked at Theodor with a viper's stare; something Ramund had not seen in a long time, and something he had hoped not to see again. Perhaps Theodor did not know her well enough to see, but Ramund stared right into her and saw some deeper agenda, the dubious glimmer of ulterior motives. There was something on her mind, though he could not for the life of him tell what. Their gazes met for a brief second, and in it he saw poison.

“My lord...” Ramund looked back at Theodor, and figured it was best to address him formally, if only to seem polite “...I spoke to a guardsman, by the gates. A concerned man for certain, his mind poisoned with paranoia-—he spoke of how the sanctuary is in a time of turmoil. I hate to disrupt your tea-party with such things, but I deem you the best qualified person I've yet to meet, who might know more about these kinds of things.”

Theodor seemed to go quiet for a moment. His smile slowly dwindled, a darkness overcoming him, making Ramund slightly regret having asked that question. He put his teacup down, and sighed a little “Indeed... that is what we Umbrals do: know things. It is what we have always done, in all these years. We are the keepers of secrets, knowledge our trade-—our religion, even! So you're right, dear Mjaln. I am the best qualified person to answer that question.” His yellow gaze rolled back up to Ramund “I take it you are familiar with the Zakadievs?”

Ramund hesitated for a moment, but shook his head “Not enough to boast, no. I know what they are, how they have come here, but I could not recite every member of the family, if that is what you wish of me.”

Theodor snorted “I don't, worry not. Not that the task would be all that daunting, though. The Zakadievs are great in power, but few in numbers. And as of recently, they are one less than usual.” he looked down into his tea again, great contemplation and concern in his porcelain expression “Their youngest son, Matvey Zakadiev, was recently abducted. It is a great scandal and controversy that has sent all five houses into discord, constantly arguing about what must be done, who must be punished. However, in all this mess, there is some sense of clarity... you see, the Zakadievs are very careful with their children, well aware of the discrimination and hatred they might face in this foreign world that they have washed ashore on. So they have placed magical runes in the sleeping rooms of their children, designed to record any unwanted guests. And merely a few nights ago, the night that little Matvey disappeared... they did.” he reached out for a sugar cube, dropping it in his tea.

“Anton, lord of House Cercy, was the face the runes captured. He pleads innocent, of course, but the runes do not lie. House Cercy has been quite sharp-tongued and sometimes even racist against the Zakadievs, ever since they washed ashore and introduced themselves to this wide new world. It is a great controversy, of course, but if you ask me... I'm honestly not that surprised at all. All I hope for is that he not killed the poor boy too.”

Ramund, in fact, wasn't surprised either. He had seen the vice of abduction in the distance far before this; this was simply confirmation of his suspicions and fears. However, was did surprise him, was who the culprit was. He was no expert on the lore of the five houses, but he knew that House Cercy was a mercenary conglomerate, trading in manpower from all four corners of the world. If this truly was work of the Cercy house, Moonby Sanctuary was in a far bleaker darkness than he had first anticipated. He had seen these things happen before... and they never ended well.

“Let us pray for his safety.” Ramund responded softly, a curled finger poised at his lips, a gesture of divine petition “These are indeed dark days for the noble world, when men in power resort to such wickedness. Thank you for your time, my lord... and thank you for bringing my friend to safety. We were all quite concerned.” he looked to Rose, a look of anticipation, words silent where words were unnecessary “Rose?”

Rose put her tea-cup down, and smiled at Theodor. She rose from her chair and gave him a nod of appreciation “I'm not sure what I would have done without you, my lord. Death by the cold and wet is an undesirable one, to say the least.”

“That it is.” Theodor sipped at his tea again, but put it aside and stood as Rose did—-in finer society, men always rose when women did, after all “I have seen it all too many times, but I am glad this did not add to the pile. Safe travels, my friends.” his black velvet swayed as he bowed, and both Ramund and Rose bowed right back. Ramund turned around to open up the door, but he had forgotten what a mess he had left mere minutes ago. In silence, he and Rose took their leave, Theodor beginning to clean up the table behind them.

The house had been no good at shelter, the same icy fingers of mist in there was there was out there. Rose and Ramund trudged down the muddy road of the slum with quiet tongues for a while, the only noise being that of the mud sucking and sloshing in wake of their steps. But finally, when the end of the slums could be seen in the farthest fringes of the shrouding mist, Ramund broke the silence.

“You have something on your mind, Rose.” he said, hands resting on the pommels of his axes, eyes straight forward “I saw it in your eyes. You were no maiden in distress, were you?”

Even in the corner of his eyes, Ramund could see the crude smirk that grew on Rose's face “To begin with, I might have been. But I would gladly have remained a maiden in distress, if he was just a stranger. But I could smell he wasn't. I could smell the perfume, the rich velvet, the greed. All the scents were there. There were a few nobles in Nightweald too, and they smelled no different. You could tell how coin was their language, and they spoke it fluently. But I don't blame Lord Umbral for it... greed is in his blood. He can't help it, nor can any of the other velvet-draped rats sitting on thrones, playing their game of lies and intrigue.”

This time, Ramund looked down at her as they walked “So you played along, took on the role of the helpless maiden, to gain his favor. You are more devious than I thought, Rose.” Ramund said, smiling too.

“Don't flatter me.” Rose said, her smirk suddenly dwindling “I'll be honest and say that it wasn't all my game... I had my reasons to leave that note, to flee the camp, to fall asleep in the rain and mud. It was not before I was already on Theodor's horse that I realized my chance.”

Ramund kept a gaze lingering on Rose, watching her expression suddenly change like a mime abruptly switching masks. A silence followed briefly, lingering in the moment where they left the slum district and trod unto steadier roads. He looked at her, and saw that perhaps he was not welcome on this subject—-and he left it at that. The silence grew between the two, as they continued inwards, deeper into the city. Slowly, the city woke up, more faces showing themselves on the streets, more shops turning their 'closed' signs to 'open'. And soon enough, the city of Moonby Sanctuary stood proud before them, as the mist began to fade.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 3
And again, DeviantArt felt that the chapter was too large, so I've decided to cut it up in two, as per usual. Hope you enjoyed! And thanks for reading, as always! :)
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The rain had finally come to a stop. The dawn broke in silence, the clatter of raindrops now a thing of the past. His eyes peeled open languidly to look upon the white ceiling of his tent, which he stared at for quite a while, slowly gathering the strength to rise from his bed. More than once he felt age whispering into his ears 'go back to sleep', but he was not about to let heavy bones and sluggish muscles defeat him. He sat up slowly and put on his shirt, thankfully large enough for a man of his size. He tied up his long, pale hair into the upturned ponytail he was so fond of. Age had reduced him in many ways, but still he could boast a mane that could put jealousy in the hearts of the strongest warriors. He sat for a long while in his bed, his tired legs slung over the edge, his eyes in the muddy floor. It was only as he donned himself in his steel pauldrons, greaves, and sabatons, that he remembered he was not alone in his tent.

The boy was still fast asleep. He lay nicely tucked into several fur blankets, one underneath him to keep him off the mud. His eyes were closed, his mouth slightly ajar, his fangs peeking out from behind his lips. His tail was buried under the layer of fur blankets, but his horns glimmered in the morning light that poured in through the open entrance. He fell asleep in his silk and velvet drapes of black and red, and the way his horns were littered from root to point in rings of silver and gold, reminded Ramund of the importance of this boy. He stared tiredly at the boy for a long time, slowly consuming the fact that getting rid of him wasn't going to as easy as he had hoped—-not with a title looming over the boy's head. If he had simply been a servant, or a civilian, then it would have been so easy to simply bring him back to his parents. But when the child was part of one of the greatest, wealthiest, and most influential noble houses in all of The Mortal Realm, being blamed for kidnapping was a very real risk. If only the boy could remember how he had gotten to that cave... it reeked far and wide of kidnapping and foul play, and Ramund wasn't ready to be blamed for it. His great shoulders slouched in a long, tired sigh. This wasn't going to be solved here on the bedside, he figured. Tightening the last straps of his pauldrons and greaves, he walked out the door, and tied it shut behind him.

As he stepped outside, a red dawn woke to greet him. In the distance, the first rays of light came peeking forth over the groves, glimmering like fire upon the thousands of puddles all around him. His heavy boots sloshed in the mud as he soldiered through the uneasy terrain, every step a struggle for a man of his weight. The morning was soft and gentle, the remnants of yesterday's rain still lingering in his nostrils, the smell of water a thing of inevitability in lands like these. He reached the road soon enough, the one that cut through the camp like a knife wound, and shook off the mud from his sabatons. He met several soldiers on his way there, Myaani and men alike, some casually strolling by and others part of a routine morning patrol. He had to admit, every time he looked into the eyes of one of those Myaani squad captains, he saw one of two things: Duncan, when he was still slaying demons in The Wastelands and still had a squad to commandeer; or the same look in their eyes as the one he saw in the commander that ordered the extinction of the Casserton people. The one who nearly put an end to him for good. The one now banished and dishonored. The thought made him feel sick to his stomach, but even so, he tried to smile as they came marching by.
Before long, he came to another little tent, at the other end of the camp. It was a meager little thing, humble even for soldier standards. He stood before the closed linen entrance, and cleared his throat with a little 'ahem'.

“Agatha... are you awake?”

“Oh! Ramund!” an elderly voice called from inside, clearly surprised to see him—-or rather, hear him “Of course, of course. Come on in, have a seat.”

Ramund smiled a little as he undid the knot on the entrance of the tent, and stepped inside. It was a cozy little place that Agatha was given, much smaller than his own—-but then again, the woman in question was much smaller too. She sat by her desk, a smile on her face that age had tolled badly. Her eyes were weak and withering, her arms frail, her hands bony as they held around a book in her lap. Ramund spied the title: 'The Godshill Complex'. Ramund arched an eyebrow as he sat down in a chair opposite of her, gesturing to the book.

“That is quite the controversial book you are reading, madam. Was the author not jailed for implying conspiracy and corruption in the Godshill court?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

“So the story goes.” Agatha said, turning the book over to glance at the author's name imprinted on the back. She was wearing a woolen robe that the Myaani had been kind enough to give her, emblazoned with the Tu'Myaa herald; a set of tribal armor, beautifully intricate with signs and glyphs far beyond his own comprehension. Agatha set the book aside.

“It's... a rather disturbing read, to be fair. I had always been strong in my faith for Deum, convinced that he only wanted good for the world, and to keep the demons at bay. And so it does seem, doesn't it? But I guess I am as disillusioned as the poor soldiers being sent out there, thinking that there is victory to be found; thinking there might be an end to it all.” she looked up at Ramund, her smile dwindled, concern in her eyes “Did you know that the High Commander cannot be put off his post by a democratic demand, as long as there is a war being waged? According to the book, only the king can do that-—and doing so is unheard of, to say the least.”

Ramund nodded solemnly “It has reached me. It reeks of conspiracy, does it not? Like this, Deum will continue to wage his war, the people will continue to think that there is victory on the horizon, and the soldiers will continue to be butchered... for what? So that Deum may continue eating grapes in his gilded sleeping hall, while young men throw them into the jaws of demons, just beyond the horizon? And when the fires of war were truly stoked, when the demon army was amassed, what good were all the farmer boys, all the sons and daughters that had suffered in the name of gods and fatherland? What good was all the pain that Deum had wrought, all the families he had tricked into giving away their children? Death came for us, either way.” he thought back to Angus, the way he dangled there from a rope around his neck, and felt sick to his stomach. He sighed, and shook his head “I'm sorry... I did not mean to sully the mood like this. This aside, I hope you are doing well, Agatha. Are you?”

Agatha folded her hands in her lab, her fingers thin and bony, the skin dry as a barren wasteland. Her expression faltered, curtains of uncertainty and longing falling over her withered, feeble eyes. Her tongue ran across her lips, smoothing the way for bitter words, though it seemed as if they would never escape her throat. She sighed.

“I won't lie to you, Ramund. I feel so... divided. Little of this makes any sense to me, and it seems as if we are running from the foe, and charging the friend. I use the word 'friend' lightly, of course, knowing that Deum is... well... he is what he is, the word eludes me. Is it really best to fight on two fronts, while the entire world is already threatened by one?” She asked, turning a confounded look up at Ramund, her eyes weak like that of a child seeking comfort in their father, confused and wrought in dilemma. Ramund ran a hand through his pale mane, and said nothing. He felt uncertainty set its roots in his own heart for but a moment, but devotion tore that weed away, and ate it whole. He shook his head.

“It is risky, but it is what must be done. Allying with Deum may help against the demon threat, but I fear what he would do, what strings he would pull when that wind has blown. Silencing his political enemies with steel and lead is not unfamiliar to him-—this we know. And allying with him would not only strengthen him even further to achieving his own wants and desires, but we would open our arms in welcome for a dagger in our chests. We are many in this rebellion, and we cannot afford to sow doubt in our own ranks-—the soldiers must always be certain of who the enemy is. Deum has persuaded most of the known world into thinking him nothing short of a half-god... but I fear that he will not settle with only half. There are few tongues more deceitful than Deum's.”

“So the story goes.” Agatha repeated, casting a bleak glance toward the book she laid aside. Her frail fingers entwined, fiddling with one another, her hands seeming like a pair of mantises crossing claws “I know this to be true, don't worry... it just pains me so bad, knowing that I was the one who urged my own son to fight in his name, under his banner, in wake of the lie he had fed us all. I thought my son would come home one day to tell great stories about how The Crusade snaps the forces of darkness like moldy twigs... but what came knocking on that door, was not my son. I tried to believe it was, but I could sense it from the beginning. It was not him. It was a hollow husk, wearing his face. It was a pitiful remnant of the boy who used to play in tulip fields and blush at the neighbor girl. That boy died the moment he donned that armor.” her voice seemed as brittle as the rest of her, and Ramund could hear her tears, but he couldn't see them. Her eyes were so full of bittersweet reminiscence, and they seemed like they would weep, if she had any tears left to shed. Ramund let the silence rule for a few seconds, knowing that words alone said less than a quiet held in respect for a mother whose son never came home. She broke the silence, as she looked back up at Ramund, and asked the question he had hoped she wouldn't.

“Is he alright? Duncan? After what happened, I... I was lucky to get away with little but a broken ankle, but your medic refuses to tell me what has happened to my son. It has been days, Ramund! Why must I be tormented like this?” she asked, and she was clearly not talking about her broken ankle. Ramund ran a hand across his face, as if trying to hide away his expression, but his doubt was so clear that Agatha could surely smell it from here. He swallowed, and bit his lower lip.

“I cannot say, Agatha. He... he hasn't woken up yet. He still breathes, but we don't know if that is all he can do until Morrin comes to take even that away. I've not had the chance to see for myself what has happened to him, and even Lex seems doubtful. I've seen men with their legs lost, their rib cages snapped inwards, their innards turned on their heads, but I have never seen a single soldier lie upon Lex's table, and remain there for more than a day. Either they rise to fight again, or...” the words stuck in his throat like a sickly ball of rot. He couldn't push it out, as much as he wanted to, but the look on Agatha's face showed that it wasn't necessary. He let it sink back into his stomach, where it would remain, making him slowly decay from the inside. The thought was like an infection in his mind, the more he thought of it, the more it spread to all the things he held dear. It was as if nothing was sacred any longer. All seemed tied to whether or not Duncan was ever going to stand up from that bed again. They said that you never truly knew what you had, before you had lost it... Ramund had not lost Duncan yet, but he had never felt more needing of that man than now. All he needed, was an answer. But here he was, lingering in bitter ambivalence.

A second later, the linen flaps of Agatha's tent flung open, as a new face stepped inside “Ramund! Sweet Keyen, I've been looking everywhere for you!” the elf that burst in through the doorway was a rather spindly one, tall and slender, with white hair carrying a stark resemblance to a porcupine. His white lab coat flew and swayed as he came to an abrupt stop, heavily adorned with pencils innumerable and pockets filled up with notebooks. Ramund saw the distress on his face, the plague-mask that he usually wore now hanging from his neck, down his gaunt chest. His face was smooth and white like porcelain, but a slight red hue had begun creeping forth under his skin. His wide eyes, their usual softness given way to worry and concern, snapped to Agatha.

“Agatha, I hate to intrude like this, but it really cannot wait. May I?” he asked, though didn't clarify what. Even so, Agatha gave a silent nod, some curiosity in her expression.

“Lex, what is the meaning of this?” Ramund asked him, slowly rising to his feet, now towering several heads over the elf.

Lex quickly dug into his pocket, and fetched out a little piece of paper “I went to check on Duncan, and I found this on the table beside him. You'll want to read it.” he handed over the paper, his slender fingers shivering. Ramund carefully took the paper, and read it.

This rose has too many thorns, and its petals have wilted. Don't come looking for me.

He looked back at Lex, realization striking his heart like frostbite “Is this—-“

“—-From Rose?” Lex interrupted, uneasily pacing from side to side, fingers interlocked and twiddling nervously “I think it is. I can't imagine what has struck the poor girl like this, but when I went to check on her own tent, she wasn't there. All her things were, so if she really has stepped up and left, she did so in a hurry. I even asked around camp, and no one's seen her since last night.”

“Then there is no time for hesitation.” Ramund declared as he stuffed the note down his pocket. He turned back to Agatha “Agatha... I hate for this to leave so suddenly, but I fear what trouble Rose has brought upon herself. She may be unsteady, she may be unpredictable, but she would not just leave like this. There is a reason behind it, and I intend to find out what.”

Agatha sighed through her nose, but didn't object “I understand. Heavens guide you, Ramund.”

“I pray they will.” he muttered under his breath, and he stomped out the door.

Lex followed in his heels, he in a steady jog, but Ramund simply in a hurried walk-—his steps counted two of those of elven legs, tall as he was. The sun had climbed a little further up unto the sky, but while the heavens were free of clouds, a pale mist had begun to gather. White specters seemed to dance in the corners of his eyes, but every time he looked, they were gone. The mist was known to play tricks like these, so he paid it no heed.

“Rose is a strong woman, but the Rimnoll Wetlands aren't exactly known for their welcoming wildlife. I heard about Lieutenant Wolfe's encounter with a wendigo, and... ever heard of chimeras, Ramund?” Lex asked as he tried to keep up with Ramund's hurried pace, his voice cracking slightly.

“I have.” Ramund replied in a dire tone, knowing those creatures all too well. He had been fortunate enough never to encounter one himself, but they were spoken of in legend and stories to scare children more often than not. A wicked amalgamation between animals, most usually a wolf and a scorpion—-but they were always said to boast three meters in height, and the strength of a bear tenfold. He wasn't certain about the last part, but he knew that they weren't simply the spawn of fantasy and fairy tales. These creatures were undeniably real.

“If she comes across one of those, we will not see her again. I guarantee it.” Ramund spoke, leaving no vagueness in his words, every syllable thick with a dire solemnness “I pray the spirits will make sure we find her before the chimeras do.”

Some soldiers cast them curious glances as they marched by, but Ramund kept his gaze locked on the road ahead. He followed the road, but strangely enough, he was heading south, rather than north.

“Uhh... one little glitch in your plan, though.” Lex commented, gesturing over his shoulder “You want to go north, you know. If she went south, she would be going toward the Fairlands—and we all know what's going that way. If she goes to meet the demon army, you can be damn sure we've lost her by now.”

“I know, Lex.” Ramund replied sharply “But I am not going to catch up with her on my own two feet. I will need a mount.”

Lex seemed utterly perplexed for a moment “Ehh, I hate to say it, but we've got no horses that can carry a gentleman like you, big man. That's why your kind ride war-bred bears, remember? The only thing you'll find this way are the Myaani and their... oh. Oh.” realization shut him up immediately, as it became clear that Ramund had no intentions of riding a horse today.

The more he marched down the lonesome road of stone and mud that cut through the camp, the more Ramund noticed the growing presence of the Myaani. Unsurprisingly, they had separated themselves a lot from the humans, tending to their own military ways and culture. While the humans patrolled in squads of five or six, prancing about in their armors, the Myaani spent more time in meditation groups, drowned away in incense and with minds far, far away. He noticed one particular group of Myaani practicing the eastern art of spirit dancing; a style of magic rarely seen in this part of the world. Ramund only glanced briefly, but it was yet a beautiful thing to behold. Myaani young and old stood in a square formation, imitating the smooth, sailing movements of a single tutor before them. Their hands soared around them like blades, and in their wake, strings of magic seemed to well from their fingers. Blue, green, yellow and red all came clashing together in a wondrous spectrum that Ramund had not beheld in far too long. The tutor was an elder Myaani, dressed in flowing tan robes and with all kinds of jewelry littered over his tail, his foxy ears, his muzzle, piercings of bone and steel. But before long, as the smell of rain was washed away by a rancid reek of fur and manure, he recalled what he was here for.

“Ugh... that smell!” Lex complained, the smooth features of his face now wrinkled and scrunched together in revulsion. Ramund had to agree on this point, even though age had taken off some of the edge of his sense of smell-—and it was at times like these that he was thankful for that. Tucked away in the middle of the Myaani section of the war camp, were the warg stables. Wooden scaffolding, makeshift and held together by rope, made up the great big boxes that would house these beasts of war. There was made great space for them, a big clearing far away from the tents, so that those trying to sleep didn't have to live with the smell. A huge fence of planks rose to encircle the stables, but only a fool would think that this could hold the wargs back—-but perhaps it was not to keep the wargs in, but to keep reckless strangers out.

The earth here was ravaged and torn and filled up with warg piss, impossible to clean up, try as they may. Ramund stood by the road and felt his knees grow slightly weary—though he was Mjaln, though he was strong and a fierce adversary in battle, he felt horribly defeated by this pungent mix of droppings and wet dog. He saw the great big beasts stand there in their stables, their hulking figures seeming like the spawn of a god's nightmare-—and probably that of many other people too. They snarled and growled like demons at one another from across their stables, some of them thrown into bloody fighting over a leftover meal, their barks sounding like the roar of cannons. He looked down at Lex and saw him cringe, saw the reluctance in his eyes and the assurance that he was not going one step closer.

Although being a stable-boy for most humans seemed like a meager task, something given to the lowest of low, this was something entirely different. Ramund saw a rather young Myaani man, hardly even having reached his twenties, walking amongst the great big beasts with hunks of flesh in his arms. There was not a trace of fear in his eyes, not a speck of hesitation in his gait, and though the wargs brawled and tumbled around him, he did not flinch and did not stagger. Ramund felt the urge to jump in and save the boy from being squashed under the weight of two feisty wargs clashing against one another over and over, claws flying and monstrous fangs bared in fury-—but every time, the wargs moved right past him, as if something greater was keeping a protective hand around the boy. Ramund could scarcely understand how the boy was so calm. Maybe showing fear in the presence of wargs was a swift way of becoming a meal for the beasts.

“Please tell me you're jesting.” Lex said with a trembling voice as he looked back up at Ramund, but saw no jest in those eyes of his. Ramund squeezed his lips tightly together, nose wrinkled and breath heavy as he summoned forth the strength and courage he needed. He shook his head.

“In this, I do not jest.” his voice emphasized that, not a single letter brought forth with mirth on his tongue. Lex stiffened like a board in the moment Ramund stepped forward, fists clenched and heart full of audacity. Deep in him, Ramund could feel the fear bubbling, his bones telling him that this was suicide, but he knew that showing fear in face of creatures like these was a path to a bloody end. He pushed open the gate in the fence, eyes locked on the pair of wargs furiously clawing at one another, and marched straight at them.

“Hey! Hey you, stop! Do you have a death-wish, old man?!” Ramund heard the young stable boy call for him, voice raised over the vehement growling of the wargs, but Ramund simply raised a hand to him, his own voice calm and collected.

“Fret not, young Myaani. I bear strength in mind and authority in soul; these wargs shall see that I am not to be trifled with.” in truth, Ramund could feel his legs growing weaker with every step, nearly all of him telling him to turn around—-and yet, he soldiered on, walking straight for the monstrous wargs locked in combat. He could hear the stable boy shout something else, but at this point, he wasn't listening. With eyes that did not waver from the wargs, he blocked out the fear, the reluctance, the blood and mud flying as a thousand droplets from the battling wargs, and dropped into celestial focus. Everything seemed to become silent. Everything seemed to slow down, all senses blocked out and ignored as he dropped into a trance. He was moving closer to the rampaging wargs with every step, but it was as if his legs were simply moving on their own by now.

In this trance, he felt a connection and an a new level of awareness of things that the naked eye could not perceive. He felt the omens that rode the wind, what way the hundreds of creeks flowed in the mud by his feet, the exact time for when this day would become dusk, pinpointed down to the very second. He felt the touch of higher things pour in through his flesh, into his veins, becoming one with him. His fingers tingled, his flesh bustling with energies known to none but those who could speak the tongue of the spirits. Hundreds of words spilled from his mouth, instinctively and almost by reflex, as his mind and soul grasped out to harness these celestial forces that welled inside of him. Before long, he stood stock still before the roaring, snarling wargs, and felt nothing but power in him. No fear, no reluctance, no urge to turn around and flee. This was what shamanism felt like.

He saw the wargs turn to stare at him with monstrous eyes, so full of rage, and he saw them bark. But seeing it was all he did; he could not hear it, loud as it might have been, and he could not feel the terror that most people would harbor in face of monsters like these. His right fist clenched, and as he did, he felt all the power he had accumulated surge into that fist alone; before long, even naked eyes could see the magic seeping through his skin. Deep turquoise steam rose from within his fist, silken waves of energy coiling in and around his fingers. A mere second passed before his fist began to tremble, overloading with more power than he could contain; and that was when he unleashed it all. Like throwing a handful of sand, all the magic he had summoned washed across the two wargs as a wide, turquoise wave. All his senses came flowing back to him in that very second, as his trance left him—the sense of feeble legs, the smell of piss, the morning mist nipping at his skin. But he also felt an exhaustion overcoming him, forcing him to a knee. He prayed silently that his magic had worked, for if it had not, he feared what the wargs might do to him now. But as Keyen would have it, nothing happened. He slowly looked up to see the wargs sitting on their bellies, looking at him with wide, concerned eyes. He could see the turquoise magic in their stares, rolling about like tiny marble orbs... and he smiled. It had worked.

“Ramund!” Lex's voice came following shortly after, as the white-draped medic came trudging in through the mud, fear painted all over his face-—yet, he too was smiling “Ohhh my goodness Ramund, you're insane!” he cried out, yet couldn't help a chuckle “What would you do if that spell hadn't worked?”

“Nothing.” Ramund replied shortly as he struggled to his feet, eyes still on the two suddenly quite submissive wargs sitting before him “Because then I would be dead. That, however, is not the case. Behold.” he gestured loosely at the two silenced wargs.

“Yes, I see.” Lex moved up beside Ramund, clearly still a little worried about these monstrous beasts, spell-bound or not “Do you think they'll let you ride them?”

“I only need to ride one of them, Lex.” Ramund reminded him, as if that wasn't obvious enough “The other one may stay.” he looked toward the stable boy, who was now sitting on a stool, his large canine head in his hands and a look of surrender in his eyes. He smiled at him “Young Myaani! Would it be too foul if I asked to borrow one of these beasts? I require a mount, and a horse would snap beneath my weight.”

The stable boy gave a languid shrug “If I said no, you'd probably spell-bind me too. Go ahead. You've earned one. Besides, no one's using the one on the right at the moment; she's more of a spare, if we lose one... however unlikely that may be.”

“Excellent. Then it is she that I shall ride.” Ramund approached the warg on the right, and let a hand glide over her side, feeling the coarse hairs and the leathery skin. He fetched a harness from the stable and carefully put it on her; not to his surprise, the now docile warg did nothing to resist. Despite the nature of these beasts, it was easier than most mounts he had ever ridden-—and he had never ridden a warg before. Once finished, he threw himself unto her back, and gripped her by the harness. He looked down at Lex, and gave him a slanted nod, suddenly quite serious.

“I will return with Rose. That I swear.” He gave the warg a few squeezes with his feet, and she rose to her feet, Ramund now towering almost twice the height of what he already did, as a Mjaln.

Lex gave a smile, and an overly casual salute, two fingers lightly strafing by the side of his head “Best of luck to you, warg-whisperer.” he said, mirth in his voice. Ramund smiled a little too, before he whipped the reins of his mount. The great warg set into a steady jog, and carried Ramund away from here, into the misty lands beyond.

And misty they were. Ramund hadn't kept track, but it felt as if an hour had passed by now; maybe two. The camp had long since disappeared behind a thick curtain of white, the spectral mist having consumed most of the world by now. It had only grown thicker with each passing minute, the only thing keeping him on track being the stony, jagged road below. It reached little but a stone-throw into the mist, before being eaten up, draped and shrouded in wispy white silk. The warg seemed no less vigorous than it did when he had set off from camp, its tenacity quite admirable. The great furry beast soldiered on tirelessly, the heavy stomp of its massive feet now a background noise for Ramund, and its constant bumping up and down slowly becoming more and more comfortable. His hands gripped tightly around the reins, though it felt as if he didn't need them; the warg continued down the road regardless, knowing not to wander into the mud.

Ramund's eyes slid off the road, into the misty beyond, where the earth danced a filthy tango with the water, bejeweled in the light that pierced through the mist. The sun had risen further up the sky by now, but it was hard to tell where it was, now deep in the bowels of the mist. The sunlight that slipped through seemed almost prismatic, reflected in the thousands of droplets of water that swayed in the cool breezes. It was pretty, but he knew that these were the things that would deceive you, make you think that there was something within the pale shroud. People, creatures, buildings... whatever that the watcher wanted to see, they often saw. The prismatic glimmer left the world in such an ambiguous state, somewhere between something and nothing; caught between reality and dreams. For those not careful enough, the minds of gullible men could simply interpret the glimmers as something else. Ramund had heard the legends all too well—stories of widows seeing their husbands in the mist, running to meet them, and never returning. The stories were endless; some said too that it was the works of these chimeras, that these wicked creatures possessed the ability to shape and weave the mist as they wanted. But those were just stories... or so Ramund hoped.

By now, he had long since given up on trying to figure out how long from the camp was. The only way he could have a faint idea was the sense of how long he had ridden, but in this thick white blindfold, there were no woods to direct from, no hills to recognize, and even the sun was but a slurry bright spot somewhere above him. He had simply set the warg into a trot, and it had continued trotting, on and on and on, without as much as stopping for a mere slurp of the rainwater. He wondered how long his spell was going to bind the creature, but he hoped that even after the spell had waned, she would see him as her master-—or at least someone who could be trusted enough to let him ride on her. He had feared that he would stumble across someone on his journey down this road and scare their lives out, but in all this time the warg had been going, he had not met a single soul. There were all the fickle, translucent demons dancing in the corner of his eyes, but not only were they bad company—-they weren't real either. The trickery of the mist was not going to fool him today, nor any other day. He was more concerned about what it would do to the warg.

However, while in that thought, the warg suddenly seemed to notice something. It stopped up rather abruptly, its nose swiftly falling to the ground, sniffing at something. Ramund leaned forward, and tried to spy what the warg had found.

“Happened upon something, miss?” he asked, even if he didn't expect a response. However, that quickly proved unnecessary too, as he saw what the warg's great nose was whiffing at. It was a horseshoe, lying half buried in the mud; there was not a trace of rust on it, and the warg had picked up the scent almost instantly—-it was freshly lost, still strong with the smell of horse. Ramund felt a turn of emotions inside of him, good and bad, conflicted. If Rose had come this way, a rider would certainly have found her; there was only this road, and going out into the mist was a fool's errand. Rose may have been rather troubled, damaged even, but she was no fool. This rider... it could mean a lot of things. Was it a rider of good heart, come to take her somewhere safe, or was it a bandit, come to take her head? Ramund's jaws clenched at the latter thought, and he tried not to think too much of it. He slid off the warg and walked to the horseshoe, picking it from the mud. It seemed like no cheap work to him; quite the exquisite craftsmanship, in fact. Whoever rode this horse either had the money to purchase fine shoes, or the nerve to steal an expensive horse. He deduced nothing from this. It made Rose's odds no better. He stuffed the shoe into his pocket, and slung himself unto the warg's back again. He squeezed her sides with her legs, setting her into a steady jog. The journey continued.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 2.5
And again, DeviantArt felt that the chapter was too large, so I've decided to cut it up in two, as per usual. Hope you enjoyed! And thanks for reading, as always! :)
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Far to the north, away from the mud and rain of Rimnoll, through the dark woods of Nightweald and over the mountain range that split the valleys into three, a man was having his lunch. Fruit, neatly arranged in little towers on his plate, held together by tiny wooden sticks. He had already finished the apples and oranges, and was indulging himself in a finer fruit from the east. He couldn't quite remember the name, but it was delicious. A man like himself deserved no less, after all.

Shoes of elegant brown leather were slung unto his desk, his toes waggling inside, the plate of fruit on his lap. He was careful not to spill any juice on his coat of celestial white silk, and the pale green shirt underneath-—that would be horribly unrefined. While chewing a piece of this sweet eastern fruit, he gazed out his window, seeing the blazing sun in the sky shine down upon the snowcapped mountains in the distance, and the rocky valley at its feet. He saw it rise high over the clouds and the highest peaks to glory. He had watched it since dawn, following its journey and its ascension from the red and orange colors, to its godlike throne in the sky. The sun was a beautiful thing, when you thought about it. Revered by all as the symbol of goodness, and a savior that would chase away the darkness. Truly commendable, that the sun had made such a great name for itself. Even in the most ancient literature was the sun praised every morning, the people raising their arms in happiness to see the dawn come again after the bitter cold of night. It was so beautiful that those who stared too long would begin to weep. Truly, there was no one who could boast of a glory to match that of the sun... so far.

He chewed a little more, and found this eastern fruit to have a rather strange aftertaste. It made his tongue feel oddly uncomfortable, and while its initial taste was sweet and fine, he cared not for what came after. He put the plate unto his desk, where all his paperwork lay. Stacks of orders to fill out, things to stamp, letters to write... his work really was never done. It seemed that no matter how much he sat down to get work done, there would always come more in than he could send out. He had long since stopped aspiring to finish the job, for there was never an end to it anyway. Now it was only a matter of doing it well, doing it quick, and doing it in a manner that made himself look good.

He sat properly in his chair, running a slender and gentle hand through his golden hair. A proud mane like a gilded river ran down his back and his shoulders, glorious enough to make even the greatest lion weep in sheer envy. They said that you could tell a lot about a man by looking at his hair-—and if that was true, what did this make him? He looked about the room, his soft hazel gaze moving across the bejeweled bed, the dozens of wardrobes full of attires for all occasions, the carpet with a tale of northern kings woven into it... he knew this tale almost flawlessly, and could tell it off the top of his head if he wanted to. There was a long line of kings in the north-—the longest, historians had claimed, and each and every one of those kings were known for something. Each their glory. Each their perfection. Each their tale to tell.

There was a knock on the door. Three, in fact. He looked towards the door upon which the very same story of kings had been engraved, reminding him of it every time he entered or left. He raised his voice to call through the wood.

“Enter.” he said. His voice was full of authority and beauty, both in equal parts, almost like gold—-the strength of metal, but with an elegance worthy of gods. The voice that answered him back, though, was more comparable with old, moldy wood.

“My lord Deum, I humbly beg your pardon.” a little hunchbacked man, draped in dark brown robes came waddling in, age having degenerated the poor man. With a stark resemblance to a mole, he was an easily recognizable servant, and one of Deum's favorites. A good servant was loyal, humble, and effective—and this one fulfilled all of those with flying colors.

“Ah, Ferdinand.” Deum greeted with a smile, turning his chair to face the hunchback “You have my pardon. What news?”

Ferdinand walked inside, but kept the door open. He cleared his throat with a hoarse cough, and continued “My lord, I had thought you would like to know that our king has returned from his hunt in the south. He is in his quarters, and bids you join him.”

Deum couldn't help himself from uttering a little chuckle “Oh Magnus, always thinking he's still young. Ah well, if the king wants me to come and praise him for having his men kill a deer in his name, then I am no man to defy him. Thank you, Ferdinand. You may leave.” he said, giving the hunchback a smile before waving him away.

Ferdinand, of course, did as asked. He bowed his crooked body and waddled out the door, as fast as his stumpy legs could carry him. Deum remained for a little while, gazing out the window, beholding the great Angel's Ascent that reached over the city of Godshill like a protective hand. The cliff truly was a marvel in the sunlight, and the way that the cathedral atop it shimmered so beautifully. Deum realized that he hadn't been up there for a while. Maybe it was time to pay some respect to the gods... but for now, the king needed those honors. The gods could wait. He took another piece of the eastern fruit, wrinkled his nose at the bitter aftertaste, and walked out the door.

It was a beautiful day in Godshill; of that, there could be no doubt. The sun's glory was unobstructed by clouds, and freely rained down upon the rocky valley that stretched far into the horizon, before meeting the rising mountains in the distance. They were but fickle silhouettes at this distance, so far away, but they were beautiful nonetheless. Every day he had the pleasure of gazing upon them, each time he passed through these great big windows. The mountains were a blessing, all could agree. Not only were they beautiful to look upon, but they made Godshill a difficult place to invade. They were like wide, tall walls of bitter snow and jagged rock that made the people here feel so safe. And he had to agree. Seeing every morning that the mountains still stood gave him a pleasant comfort in his heart. They day that the mountains crumbled, would be a day to fear. Thankfully, such a thing was vastly unrealistic and nothing to worry about, he concluded.

He rose higher and higher over the city of Godshill as he ascended the curling staircase that led up to the king's quarters. There were windows here as well, allowing him to look down upon the city built upon this tall mountain slope, and see all the people slowly rise to greet the morning. All the merchants and bakers and guardsmen and housewives with their laundry filled up the streets and breathed life into the city. From up here they were but little specks of white shirts or uniforms, chatting with one another, sharing stories... sometimes he wondered what would happen if he went down there, and decided to join in. Would they even recognize him? The thought made his mood falter a little, so he tried not to think too much about it.

Eventually, he arrived at the door of the king's quarters. It was unguarded, but more importantly, it wasn't even closed. Deum smiled a little. Magnus was truly getting either careless or old... or both. He decided to take the open door as a symbol of the king's welcoming mood, and stepped inside.

True enough, simply by seeing the quarters, Deum was reminded that being High Commander was good... but being king was better. It was nearly a hall rather than a room, with a diamond-encrusted chandelier of gold hanging from the tall ceiling, and red carpets of the finest Targussian weave on floors and walls alike. Wardrobes with the thousand outfits of the king stood scattered across the boastful quarters, and a cornucopia of fruit and candies stood placed in little jars here and there for the king to enjoy whenever he felt the desire. Every now and then a pretty servant maid came in to replace aging fruit with freshly picked ones, and while Deum had Ferdinand to serve his needs, the king had a number of servants that Deum didn't even dare to count. Every time a maid stepped it, it felt like a new face. Every time he visited the king's quarters there always came a newly employed maid or butler to tend to the king. But most impressive of all, was what the previous king had installed in these quarters.

A spring, no less. A marble statue of a scantly clad woman with her hands held out to either side, water pouring from her palms. Her eyes were turned skyward, prayer in her expression and holy rites written all over what little clothes the sculptor had given her. The water had been scented too, and carried a sweet whiff of flowers. But in all the glory and splendor that filled this place, there was something rather important missing. The king himself.

“Out here, Lucius.” an elderly voice called. Lucius' attention fell to the other side of the room where a pair of glass doors opened up to the balcony beyond. The gentle mountain breezes blew cold air into the quarters, the silk curtains flowing like the drapes of ghosts. Lucius smiled as he heard the king's voice, and hurried out to accompany him.

“You hide well, your highness. I thought for a moment Ferdinand had mistaken in his report of you returning from your hunt.” Lucius said, as he sat down in the chair opposite of the king. He switched over to the refined tongue of High Speech, a language only spoken by nobles and men of higher standing. He rather liked that language, actually. It was like he didn't have to wear a mask any longer, when he spoke it. Not to mentioned that his name was High Speech too. It was natural to him, and the king understood it just fine.

He smiled. He had to, in face of the crownbearer, though sometimes he wondered if he could even see it. The king was a man at his life's dusk, and most of his eyesight was gone. His hair had greyed to the point where it seemed more white than anything, and his eyes were going the same way. He was dressed soft royal wool, a bit more casual than his formal attire, but a sight to behold nonetheless.

“Kings do not hide, Lucius.” the king answered in High Speech too, a smile on his lips and jest in his eyes “Only from angry queens and demanding advisers. Hah!” despite that he was old and crumbling, he could still laugh. In fact, it was one of the few things he did very well. Loud and hearty, there was none who had laughter like the king, and Lucius couldn't help but smile.

“Ahh, but these are delightful days when there is no queen to pester me and I can go hunting whenever I please. It is a boon that I have you to tend to the war, Lucius. Gods grant me strength if I'd need to sit with all that paperwork. I would have had my current appearance at the age of twenty!” he said, and laughed again. Every time he laughed, his wrinkles seemed to multiply. Lucius had made a game out of counting them, but every time he tried, he felt as if there were even more than last he checked. Confounding, to say the least.

“I do what best serves the king.” Lucius replied curtly, more out of routine and duty than politeness. He reached forward and plucked a grape from a little cluster the king had prepared himself on a table between him and Lucius. He flicked it into his mouth and began to chew, just as the king began to speak to him.

“Lucius, my dear High Commander... I've been meaning to speak with you about the war.” his smile dwindled, his chair creaking as he leaned back in it “You have served me long and well, have kept the war in distant lands just as long, yet now Aegon is a smoking ruin and demons have been reported seen in The Fairlands. Is there an explanation for this?” the king asked, looking at Lucius with more concern than inquisition.

“If there is...” Lucius said as he wiped some juice off his lips with a handkerchief “...then I'm afraid we don't know about it. Your scholars have been working day and night on an explanation, and even the wisest priests have been at a loss.” he shrugged “Some say the dark king Locux finally found a way to teach his demons how think tactically. Others say that there is a single intelligent figure that commands and controls them. And then there are those who claim that it is the end of days, and there is nought to be done. I like to think that it is not the latter one.”

“And I hope you're right.” the king said while reaching forward to fill a gilded goblet with wine “I would hate to see this line of kings so abruptly ended. We've been doing this for centuries now, and I wouldn't want myself to be the last one.” as he sat back in his chair and sipped at his wine, his hazy stare moved back to Lucius “You're supposed to succeed me, after all. When I die, the whole world is expecting you to take my place... but if the whole world is dead—-you included-—that will be good for nothing, won't it?”

Lucius' heart cramped up at the thought. He tried not to show it, his teeth gritting behind closed lips. He shook his head “No... no it wouldn't. But don't you worry, your highness. I have no doubt in my mind that this demon crisis will blow over soon enough, once we've figured out what is behind it all and discarded all silly notions of an apocalypse.” he plucked another grape, and looked at it while speaking “This isn't an apocalypse. It's just... an outbreak. An outbreak that will be analyzed, contained... and eliminated.” he flicked the grape into his mouth and felt it burst between his teeth.

As he chewed, he saw the king smile again. There was no doubt in the king's mind either that what had to be done, would be done, and it would be done with such a grace that the entire world would sing songs in honor of The Crusade... but Lucius feared that the king's name would be the one on their lips, rather than his own. For what had the king been doing throughout all this? He had been hunting deer in the south, drinking wine, and watching his own life slip between his fingers. The honors did not belong to the king. The honors belonged to the one who engineered the salvation of all things living. They belonged to Lucius Deum.

He swallowed the grape, and cleared his throat “On a similar subject, I received some rather amusing reports as soon as yesterday. According to my scouts and informants, the Tu'Myaa and some of the Fairlandish people have forged a yet unnamed rebellion, and have begun marching into the Rimnoll Wetlands. Word is that they mean to rally the Moonby noble houses to their own cause, but... in truth, I'm not concerned.” he said with a little dismissive wave of his hand “The Tu'Myaa employ horribly outdated methods of war, the Fairlandish people are all farmers and bakers and butchers. Not only will they be effortless to put down, but there is no way in this century that the houses of Moonby would give their forces to their cause.” he smiled, chuckling a little “If the nobles wanted to rebel, they would have done so already. Their forces easily triple that of the current rebellion, and still they have not even as much as raised a finger against us. They live outside the domain of our holy kingdom, and that's alright. Maybe, once we have pummeled this demon menace, they will reconsider their alliance.”

The king took a long drink of his wine, nearly downing the entire thing in one go. He wiped the droplets off his lips, and looked back at Lucius “Outdated methods or no, the Tu'Myaa are still a force to be reckoned with. I would not worry about the Fairlandish people, but the Tu'Myaa are no strangers to war, despite that they've never actually partaken in one. But I'm certain you've heard about their rather... infamous warg riders, haven't you?”

Lucius rolled his eyes “Ah yes, who hasn't heard about these 'legendary' dog-fondlers? I admit that they're known for being an invaluable asset against larger bandit raids, but those are bandits, your highness. Against a legion of gods-blessed knights like our own, it does not matter how large their kennel is-—they will be put down regardless. I am not afraid.”

“Well that's always something.” The king said with a jesting smile on his face, as he finished the last of his wine and reached forward to fill it up again. Just like there was no man that could laugh like the king, there was no man who could drink like him either. The look on his face when he watched the blood red wine coil inside the goblet was one he only wore at the prospect of getting so drunk he forgot that he was wearing a crown. Was this what it was like, being king? So much power, yet Magnus used it for nothing. Nothing except demanding more wine and pastries. He was a broken old man, yet he feasted like he was still in his prime years. Lucius thought well of Magnus, but the way he sullied that crown on his head made him feel rather sick to his stomach. A crown like this one did not belong on a head that always stumbled around in an intoxicated blur. If only there was someone more capable on that throne. Godshill deserved better.

Lucius shot a glance towards the door, then back at Magnus “You know, sometimes I wonder how you can still manage to climb those stairs to your quarters. I could feel the fatigue gnawing at me by the last few steps.”

“Calling me old, boy?” the king gave a judging look, then burst into another mighty guffaw “HAH! No no no, I jest. Of course I'm old, but my life is up here, Lucius. What would I ever do if I couldn't climb up to my own bed, to this sweet cornucopia that I've become so addicted to? The day that I fail to ascend my own staircase is the day I lay down and die, my friend.” he said, and began chugging down the next goblet of wine. Lucius watched as the king filled his belly with wine as if he knew that his life was at its eve, and he had to drink as much as possible before he drew his last breath. And maybe he did.

“Somehow, I have my doubts that starvation is what will kill you, your highness.” Lucius said with a smile, as he plucked another grape from the cluster and flicked it into his mouth. He swallowed before speaking “You said it yourself. Age has begun to take its toll on you. Have you considered writing down your legacy? At this point, death could come for you as soon as tomorrow.”

The king snorted, as he wiped some wine off his lips “Always so morbid, Lucius. Calm down, have a goblet. I have scholars to write my farewells, and when I finally decide to put down the crown and kick the bucket, I won't give two shits about what they've written. I could be known as the king who fornicated goats and used stillborn children as catapult ammunition, for all I care. Once I'm dead, I'll be in the arms of Morrin, in my own tailor-woven paradise. That's what they say about the afterlife, isn't it?”

“Indeed it is.” Lucius said as he leaned back, not responding to the king's offer of wine, and not intending to either “There will be life after death... and not just for you, your highness. Life will continue here in Godshill after you close your eyes for good. The people will want to know what your last thoughts were. You are like a god to them. They would be crushed to know that you only cared for wine and feasting.”

The king snorted loudly. He put down the goblet, and looked Lucius right in the eye “Need I remind you who you're talking to, boy?” he said, a sudden darkness in his voice “I will not have such accusations. A great line of kings have been before me, each and every one with a story of glory to tell, and I am no exception. I was the one who shook hands with the council of Aegon, and adopted them into my kingdom. I was the one who established trade routes with the Luminites, where even you thought that they were just going to shun us like they always had. So keep your tongue on a leash, Lucius. You're not king just yet.”

An unpleasant silence fell over them, in that moment. Lucius' eyes averted into the cluster of grapes and into the mountain-adorned horizon. He chewed at his lip, regretting those words. And here he had hoped for a friendly conversation to win a bit more of the king's favor. Magnus was right-—he wasn't king just yet. 'Yet' being the keyword.

“I apologize.” he said, although reluctantly, the words feeling like acid on his tongue. He forced himself to look back into the eyes of the king, head bowed slightly “I meant no offense, your highness. It was simply concerned for the people, that is all.”

The king looked away too, a sour frown having conquered where his smile once was “Well, you can stop that now. Your concern is unreasoned. I've been king for more years than the average peasant can count, so don't try to lecture me.” Lucius didn't think it possible, but the king actually managed to look angry and down an entire goblet of wine at the same time. He wiped the red droplets off his mouth, and looked back at Lucius “Besides... since when have you been concerned about the people at all? You're the one who feeds them propaganda 'till they're full to the bursting point—and then you feed them a bit more. Are you going to tell me this isn't true?”

Lucius' frowned a little too now, though not as harshly as the king “I've never said it wasn't true... but I am going to insist that it isn't meant with evil in mind. My father was a priest, and he taught me that lies can be used for far more than selfish gain. It is even written in the tomes of Jullix, the goddess of beauty and lies! 'The one who spares pain through lies, is more benevolent than the one who thoughtlessly spews out truth', remember? Sometimes it can be compassionate and kind to keep the truth from those whom the truth would only harm... were it not for me, the streets would be in riots day and night. If they knew what was going on out there-—“

“That's enough!” the king spat, wine droplets flying everywhere in the wake of his words “...Thank you, Lucius. You've made your point loud and clear. I know my holy rites, and I know that your efforts have been to much gain for Godshill, so... is it a pat on the head you want? I can give you one, if you want.”

Lucius was silenced. He had to swallow his words that were still in his mouth not to speak them. He had such an urge to speak, but he knew his place. The king was the king, and that was that... sadly. He folded his hands in his lap and said nothing, all too focused on keeping his frustrations at bay. He gave the smallest of nods to the king, and rose from his chair.

“I deeply apologize, your highness.” he said, forcing out a humble tone from the far corners of his patience “I must be very stressed. I thank you for the grapes and the company, and it pleases me to see that you have returned safely from your hunt. By your leave, I would return to my duties.”

The king looked up at Lucius, boredom and annoyance in his withering eyes. He gave a dismissive wave of his hand, and a low grumble “Begone, then. You've already put a sour taste on my tongue, and I fear that not even the next casket of wine can wash it away. Come back tomorrow, and maybe we can speak on better terms.”

Lucius performed a galant bow, and knew better than to say anything more. With a silenced tongue, he left the king's quarters, and returned to his own.

Once there, he slumped into his chair, and let out a long breath of relief. The king was a great man, but he was old, and he was taxing to speak with. Lucius' eyes looked upon the massive stack of paperwork that had to be done on the desk before him, and realized that the time he spent on the king could have been spent so much better on actually getting things done. The fool he was. In the time the king had been gone, he must have forgotten what kind of imbecile bore that crown. A long, brooding silence filled his quarters, only disturbed by the howling of mountain winds on his window. He looked at the stacks of papers, and knew that work had to be done. But amongst all these papers, there was one that cried out for attention. He picked it from the stack, inked his pen, and began to write.

Court Alchemist Orlan Grey,

My patience is long and my will tenacious, but I find myself so tragically miserable in face of it all. Godshill has lingered long enough in political lethargy. The time for change has come. I hope you still have that recipe we spoke of, for I expect a vial of it soon enough. You will be payed well, and you will face no consequences of what will happen. It will be as if you were never involved. Leave it to me, and Godshill shall see a brighter dawn once the old sun has set.
Do not betray me, Mr. Grey. I will personally see to it that your tongue is removed, if it wags the wrong way. And your head too, if it becomes necessary. Do not make it so.

Gods be with you.
~High Commander Lucius Deum


But in a place far away, half a dozen hours ago, things were not as bright and golden. Here, it was wet. Rose really didn't like the wetness of it all. It clung to her like gross, clammy hands all over her body, touching her places that only belonged to her. She had sought the shelter of tents as much as she could, just to avoid the rain. It had been raining all day, and even now, as the sun had set and night had conquered the world, it was still raining. She listened to the endless drumming of the raindrops on the tent ceiling, as if trying to get through. She heard it splash in the countless puddles outside, and she felt it under her shoes. A tiny creek was slipping through the linen entrance of the tent, as if the land was bleeding. It glimmered in the light of a single lantern. The flame was slowly dying out, now fickle and small, and the shadows around her seemed to grow thicker. But while Rose hated the rain, she had nothing against the darkness. Shadows made her feel... safe. At home, even. Even if she was so far from it.

In the lantern's yellow-brown glow, she sat. She had been awake all day but felt no desire to lay down and sleep, as the rest of the camp had. It was blissfully quiet now, were it not for the clatter of the rain. She had been watching the soldiers prance around in their armor, and couldn't help but be reminded of her years in The Wastelands. It was oddly nostalgic, but not something she enjoyed. So far, though, her dismay and distaste was simply something she conjured in her own head. It all smelled of war, but in many ways, it was not like what she had experienced before. There were no escorts to keep her from killing fellow soldiers; no iron cages that reeked of piss; no drunken guards groping her, knowing that if she complained, it would all just be seen as another symptom of her so-called 'insanity'. A delusion, they said. A defense mechanism... no one as much as suggested that here. It was as if she was just another civilian amongst the rest. She had even seen one of those Myaani warriors smile at her. For a moment, she had feared he was going to rape her. But he just walked by. It was almost too strange, even for her.

She flinched a little as she felt the tiny creek reach her ankle. She had been lost in thought, and it had sneaked up on her. Devious little thing! So icy and cold and clammy... she sneered, and stomped on it a few times for punishment. She watched the droplets scatter and seep into the mud, defeated. That'll teach it. She scooted over on a nearby chair and folded her legs up under herself this time, better prepared. She sat there, in the outermost fringes of the dying lantern's glow, feeling the shadows embrace her. She considered blowing out the lantern completely... but Duncan might not like that.

In the other side of the lantern's bubble of light, was Duncan. He lay there on his bed, stripped of everything but his undergarments to make space for the balms and bandages. He was covered in a blanket now, but she knew that underneath, his chest was wrapped up like a present and soaked in some weird substances that the medics claimed would heal him right back up. She sure hoped so. He was still breathing, so that was good. She had kept the healing balm that Duncan gave her, so many days ago, but the doctors had claimed that too. She didn't mind, though. She realized that it was a necessity.

“Would you like me to put some more oil on the lantern?” Rose asked him, pointing up at the lantern in the ceiling. He didn't answer. Rose wasn't surprised-—he was unconscious, after all. She smiled.

“That's true. I sleep best in darkness too. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, I do most things best in darkness!” she chuckled, fingertips at her lips as she did. Her eyes rose to the lantern, and this time she really considered killing that flame. But then again, it was going to die soon anyway, so it didn't really matter. She looked back down at Duncan.

“You know... I am really liking this Wolfe guy. Remember him? You were with him just as we were plowed down by that warg, and you were knocked out. He has a good head on his shoulders. Strong leadership, a tactical mind... all-round a good asset to our troops, I think.” she said, nodding a few times to herself to enforce her own opinion. She ran a hand through her short black hair, her fingers slightly numb from the cold. A silence fell between the two, Rose watching Duncan's chest rise and fall in a steady rhythm, and he lying there, unconscious as ever. She picked up her chair and sat down by his bed, close enough to touch. He had some needles in his neck, slowly pulsing medicine into his veins. His hair was a mess, to say the least. His otherwise beautiful lengthy crown of black hair had been ruffled and messed up, now a disorderly tangle that made him look so silly. Rose wrinkled her nose and moved over to a nearby desk, rummaging through one of the drawers until she found a comb. It was short and rusty, but it would have to do. She sat down again, lifted up his head, and began to comb out all the knots and tangles.

“Where oh where would you be without me, Duncan?” she wondered, smiling as she did “In trouble, I bet. What if some thug had found you there in Aegon, your veins blue and your brain drunk on whatever drug you had shot into your arm? He would have robbed you blind, I'm sure—-stolen your wallet, your clothes... your life even, if he was particularly nasty. But no. That didn't happen. I found you, didn't I?” the comb got stuck, and she had to yank pretty hard in his hair to get it free. She was glad that he was unconscious, or this would surely have made him scream.

She laughed a little again “Not that it's all that much better, of course. I admit, I considered killing you too... not that such a thing is all that uncommon. I imagine killing a lot of people, but your situation was just begging for it. You were a sitting duck, Duncan. I could have stuck a few fingers down your throat and made you suffocate on your own vomit. I could have put you face down on the road and watched you drown in a pile of sand.” her lips pursed, and her combing stopped. She quieted down, keeping silent for a while, her smile gone.

“Sometimes I wonder why I didn't do it. I would have spared you so much pain. I mean... just look at you. You're a wreck—-physically as well as mentally. Wolfe told me all about how you killed that woman, thinking she was a demon. That's... scary. Maybe you're still at war, Duncan. Maybe you never escaped the battlefront.” she looked down at his unconscious face, smiling again “We can be insane together, then! Wouldn't that be fun?” her words were dripping with self-ridicule and irony.

She finally combed out the last knots of his black mane, and ran a gentle hand over it “There. Nice and orderly. Doesn't that feel better?” she asked, looking down into his closed eyes, for a moment feeling like she deserved a response. Of course, she didn't get one. Duncan simply lay there in silence, the only sound escaping him being the breath that entered and exited his open mouth. She smiled sympathetically.

“I understand. You've had a hard few days, and you're exhausted. I admit that I am too, but... I think I got off easier than you did. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like, killing someone just like that.” she blatantly lied, but tried not to show it “If I were you, I'd find whatever family she had, and apologize. That would be nice. I'm sure they'll understand that you weren't yourself at that moment... I hope. We should find out.” she sat with her hands in her lap, as her smile began to dwindle a bit “Whenever you wake up, that is.”

“Who says he's going to?” a new voice suddenly joined the fray, and one that Rose dreaded she would hear again. Her teeth gritted, her veins grew icy, her muscles tensed as she heard that serpentine voice slither into her ear. She swallowed, and hoped for a moment that it was just a hallucination. It was just a trick of her mind. It was nothing. Just—-

“Come now my dear, be realistic.” the voice was there again, coming from behind her. It was clear now that it was not just her mind playing tricks on her—-he was actually there. She would curse, but she feared that he would hear that too. She slowly turned the chair around to see him there.

“I can hope.” she replied bitterly, nose wrinkled and eyes full of aggression “And I mean to do whatever it takes to get him back on his feet. Just you watch.”

“Oh, I'm watching! I've been watching for quite a while, in fact.” he was outside the lantern's reach, but the malignant grin on his face cut through the shadows like a knife. She could faintly see the silk and velvet folds of green and blue and red that made up his clothes, elaborate and vivid like a circus manager's drapes. His long elven ears stuck out the sides of his head, tall and sharp like daggers. He had his tall top hat on as always, and his cane in hand, gesturing widely and theatrically as he spoke “And what I see is a dead man, my love. I know you are so good at denial, but for once, look at the man and realize that he is not waking up. You saw fair and well what happened to him... ribcage broken inwards, internal bleeding galore... who's to say that his brain isn't bleeding like a stuck pig as well?” he asked, raising his palms in a shrug, his smile as wide as ever.

Rose sneered viciously, her fingers clenched so hard around the steel comb she was close to drawing blood “You joke about things you know nothing of! The doctors say that he may still live. And I'm sorry, but I think I'll prefer the doctors' words to yours.” she said, firm in her decision.

The elf rolled his eyes, sighing deeply “Oh how attached you have become to the poor fool! And here I thought you simply wanted to kill him; him and his old giant friend too. What ever happened to that, I ask? You used to be so much fun, sweet Rose.” the elf said, his smile gone, only his emerald eyes clear in the darkness before her. This time, it was Rose's turn to smile.

“Don't I entertain you any longer? Then stop following me. Find someone else to bother.” she snarled, teeth bared like an animal.

“Hm. Maybe I should.” the elf said, slowly rising from his chair. He walked through the light of the lantern, right up to Duncan's unconscious body, and drew a flintlock from his belt. He put it to Duncan's forehead, his smile gone, his jests run dry “But if I can't win you, I see no reason to uphold my promise any longer. I told you I would not kill your friends, in fear of hurting your feelings... but alas, if I cannot have your love, what is there left in it for me?” the flintlock gave a dry click as he pulled back the hammer of it.

Rose rushed to her feet, quickly pushing the flintlock aside “No no no, please don't!” her voice broke like fragile glass, her eyes wide as they stared up at the elf “I...” she gulped, hesitant in her words “...I love you.”

A silence lingered over them for uncomfortably long. She could hear her own heartbeat pound in her chest together with the endless drumming of rain on the linen tent. But clearest of all, was the sadistic glee inside the elf that she could hear as his smile grew wide once more.

“...There's the Rose I know.” he said, his voice like poisoned velvet as he lowered his hand, sheathing the flintlock “I knew you hadn't changed, my love. All of this ruckus is just... confusing you. Your feelings are tumbled, your mind led astray by all the war and destruction. But don't you worry, my dear. It will all be over soon.” she could feel his gentle fingers around her chin, raising her face so that he could look deep into her eyes. The emerald stare he gave her made her feel so dark inside, so paralyzed, like looking into a depiction of her own dread. Sweat began to trickle down her temples and cheeks, her hands shaking.

“And once it is, we can dance upon the corpses of entire nations; we can bathe in the blood of kings; we can frolic in great cities, now turned to ash... don't deny it, sweet Rose—it is what you want. You are in a haze of confusion, but don't be afraid... I will be your guide. And should you get too lost, I will always know how to bring you back on track, my dear.” he whispered into her ear, while gesturing at Duncan. Rose closed her eyes, not wanting to think about it. She couldn't for the life of her imagine Duncan dead at the hands of this... snake. She shook her head fearfully.

“I won't. I promise. I won't fall astray... when all this is done, I will be yours.” her voice shivered, the words on her tongue feeling venomous and acidic. She swallowed, and looked downwards, doing all she could to avoid his piercing stare. And only then did he let go of her.

“You'll be happy at the end of all this, sweet Rose.” he turned his back on her, standing in the entryway of the tent, gazing outside into the rain and darkness. He seemed oddly contemplative for a long while, the silence dragged out for almost a full minute, before he shot a gaze back at her, smiling softly “I only want the best for you. I want you to be happy... you just need to realize what your happiness is.”

Rose wanted to speak back, but she didn't get the chance. He walked outside into the rain right after his last word, and though Rose rushed outside to catch him, he was nowhere to be seen. In the dimly lit night where lanterns littered the world like fireflies, there was only rain and faint moonlight to be seen. She felt the icy cold raindrops on her skin and the cool breezes in her hair, but it was all drowned out by an exhausting sense of betrayal. She looked back at Duncan, only then realizing what she had done. Regret and anxiety came rushing into her, as epiphany struck. She felt her breath grow heavy, and she couldn't tell the difference between the rain and the tears on her cheek. Chewing on her lip, left in a bitter silence, she knew there was only one thing to do. She rushed over to the desk beside Duncan's bed, and found some parchment, a feather pen, and a full inkwell. She dipped the pen a few times, and immediately began to write.

This rose has too many thorns, and its petals have wilted. Don't come looking for me.

She left the paper there in the lantern's glow, and stepped away from the desk. Hesitation and fear gripped around her heart like constricting chains, but she knew there was no other way. Only now did she realize that Duncan was not suffering from trauma, not mental, not physical. He was suffering from her. She was his illness. She was his pain. All of this, all this war, all this apocalypse... if they were going to succeed, she could not be part of it. It was with steps heavy as lead, and a heart even heavier, that she ran out the door and into the rain.

Darkness became her, as shed fled the lantern-light that surrounded the camp. Like plunging into dark waters, she left the safety of light behind, and fled. Tears flowed from her eyes and mixed with the rain. She felt the thousand droplets clatter against her, collide against skin so pale and frail, icy cold with the touch of night. The winds had picked up, hurling the rain all over the place, sharpening the teeth of the cold. But she didn't mind the bite. She didn't mind the rain any longer, no matter how drenched she became, no matter how much her clothes stuck to her skin and no matter how much her hair became heavy—heavy as the heart that weighed down her chest. She glared into the darkness as she ran, hoping vainly for salvation beyond the shadows, but there was always only rain and this jagged road of forgotten stone. So desperately searching for home, but all she found was more rain, more cold, and more darkness. Her home was nowhere to be found, just as she thought her home was with them. In the camp, with the rebellion... with Duncan. So little she knew. So naive she had been. She saw clearly now, that women like her had no home.

Once the light of the camp had subsided, drowned away in shadows and mist, she slowed down. She wasn't in a hurry, after all. There was nowhere she wanted to go, nothing she had to reach. She sat down on the stony road, feeling the rain tap on her scalp, her eyes in a puddle at her feet. She watched with empty eyes the droplets fall from the bangs of her hair and into her lap. She felt tiny creeks trickle down her arms, through the linen underneath her leather armor. But most of all, she felt... relief. There was something oddly comforting in being here, all alone in the darkness. It reminded her of home—-her true home. Her throat felt like it was burning, a sobbing wail begging to come out, but she wouldn't let it. She didn't weep. She never wept. She could not hold back the tears, but she would not loose herself to severed ties and a broken heart. Here, no one could tell her tears from the rain anyway.

She looked into the darkness again, into where the road snaked and disappeared. She was surrounded by the shadows, and she felt the whisper to her. 'Useless', they said. 'Burden', they mocked. 'Murder', they tempted. She saw the shadows twist and move in the corners of her eyes, but every time she turned to look, there was only wind and rain. She clutched her own soaked hands, but she felt her fingers slip. Her hands had become numb from the cold, and she felt that the rest of her was soon to come. The ground was hard underneath her, and she felt so frail that she might break a bone by simply sitting here. And still, the shadows whispered. A hundred cackling voices, tongues of snakes that licked her ears, hissing dark words of despair to her. Finally, she snapped.

“What do you want from me?!” she howled into the darkness, her voice cracking as the wail escaped her. She could not hold it back any longer, and fell unto her back, screaming into the air and feeling the rain in her mouth. She finally broke. She felt the cold grasp her like a thousand touchy hands, and everything they touched became numb. She lay there in tears and mud, not knowing what to do, not knowing where to go. And here she thought that she'd never weep. She wailed out her lungs, but soon, there was no more air left in her lungs to wail. She became tired. Sleepy. Her arms felt heavy as they slouched limply down her side. Her eyes stared upwards, watching the clouds weep like she did, feeling their tears clap against her forehead. So gods mourned too, it seemed. What did they mourn for, she wondered. Was it her? Did they mourn the woman she had given up on being? Did they mourn her surrender to darkness? In these thoughts, she felt herself drift away from this cruel, dark world, and into dreams. But before her eyes closed, before sleep came to carry her away, she heard the sound of horse's hooves.

A dark rider comes for me, mother. He means to take me away. He means to take me to you, and to father.


How I have yearned for this.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 2
So, I actually posted chapter 2 some time ago, but I realized that I could smush chapter 2 and 3 into one chapter, so I did. Both of them were rather short, so I did the logical thing, and made one long chapter out of it! This one is named 'The Sun and the Weeping Heavens', where I introduce a few more characters. Re-introduce, that is. With this being early in the second book, I need to re-describe old characters to the audience, since people may easily have waited a while after finishing book 1, to pick up book 2. Hopefully it's not too annoying. Thanks for reading, see you next chapter!
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It was cold, and it was wet. These were two things that always seemed present, in lands like these. Night had fallen over the soaked realm of Rimnoll, and not only did it make it even colder than usual, but now it was dark too. This went doubly, inside the dark caves that opened up like a hundred hungry fish mouths, spotting the region, dug deep into muddy hillsides. The land was mostly flat, but sometimes it rose like a hunched giant's back from the earth, for reasons not many could explain. And in these hills, there were often caves that delved far into the wet bowels of the earth. The whiff of tulips, and the warm touch of sunshine was a thing of the past these days, and something that belonged to the south, to The Fairlands. In Rimnoll, only fog and perpetual rain would bid travelers welcome... and the occasional cave, like this one.

While it wasn't raining in here, it was even darker than usual, what with the silver moonlight being blocked away. And while it wasn't raining directly, the water still seeped through the earth and dripped from the ceiling in something that nearly may as well have been rain. Dryness and shelter was something only civilization could make, for nature had none to give. In Rimnoll, nothing escaped the water and mud.

The night was quiet. There was a mystical sense over it all, a silence disturbed only by the sound of droplets echoing off the ancient walls of this cave... and that of footsteps. Three pairs, by the sound of it, heard from deep within the cave. The sound of mud sloshing and giving way under heavy boots was something that this cave had not heard in a long time, and the bats that resided here seemed quite perplexed about it—-but when the torchlight came and chased away their precious darkness, they would have none of it. The squeaky cries of these flying rodents was something that may have frightened some at first, but after being squeaked at so many times beyond counting, it had almost become a background noise. The scream, the flutter of furry wings, and then back to the sound of muddy boots and fire. It seemed routine, nearly.

The torchlight continued to delve deeper into the cave, carried by a leather-draped hand. The dim yellow-brown glow of the flames revealed a bleak scenery of stony walls, thousands of stalactites hanging like javelins from the ceilings, and gentle creeks that trickled in from the mouth of the cave. It seemed mostly an abandoned cave, but many of them were home for animals that could be turned into food... and other times, they were home to vicious predators and monsters that would turn you into food. So far, though, all it had been was bats. Endless, innumerable, countless bats.

But as a silence fell in the cave, a strange sound became clearer. With the shroud of bat squeals torn away, a curious sound that certainly was no bat came to light. It came from a little side path, narrow and with a floor that was more water than dirt. The torchbearer came to a halt, to cease the sloshing of boots in mud from interfering as well. It was the sound of something brushing up against the walls, fur upon stone. It was brief, distant, and faint—-easily dismissed as just a play of the mind... and yet, the torchbearer stood still, listening. The leather hand slowly moved the flame from side to side, spilling the firelight all over the wet walls and what hid behind the forest of stalactites and stalagmites. The other footsteps ceased as well, and when the sound did too, tension grew in the air.

“Lewis. I need you to check that out.” the torchbearer spoke. His voice was hoarse and powerful, like the throaty growl of an animal. It allowed no debate.

“Of course, sir Wolfe-—uhh, lieutenant Wolfe... s-sir!” another voice, rather young and undisciplined, peeped up from outside the bubble of torchlight.

The torchbearer, Wolfe, sighed deeply. In the light of the torch, his face could be seen turning grim, his hazel stare full of authority. He was a man of age, surely past the half-way milestone of his life, but that was no excuse for weakness—-he had been sure to make this clear right from the beginning. He turned the torchlight to illuminate the face of the one behind him, the undisciplined little punk who doubted his orders.

“So why aren't you moving? Go!” he shooed the little man off, who startled and made his way down the side path like a frightened dog, squirming under its master's command. Wolfe watched the chubby worm scurry off, quickly disappearing into the darkness. He waited for something. Nothing happened.

“Uhm... sir. Won't he get lost in there?” another voice asked. Wolfe turned his torch towards the voice, and revealed a tall and rather gangly man, clad in armor far too big for him. Wolfe narrowed his eyes at him, his face wrinkling even further as a discontent sneer shaped on his face. He began wondering why he was given this pair of village idiots to accompany him in his scouting mission, when just one trained man would have been thrice as effective as his current party. Either it was a stupid joke that he didn't find particularly funny, or someone was trying to get these two dirt-heads killed. He figured it was some combination of both.

“It's a narrow corridor, Wilbur; he can only run back or forth. He'll continue going forth, and when he comes to an end, he'll be going back. And if he doesn't come back... well, I suppose that's all the information we're going to need.” Wolfe turned about on his heel and marched deeper into the cave. He could feel the fear radiating from Wilbur's frail heart, but even this guy knew that staying within the torchlight was a better idea than trying to run back. Darkness had a tendency to kill, after all. Lewis didn't seem to realize that, though.

Going further in, Wolfe noticed that the mud underfoot was getting soggier. Their boots were sinking further in, and the little creeks that trickled down the side of the muddy path seemed to have grown a few inches. He ran his tongue across his lips, considering this new change of environment. He didn't have to be a trained tracker to realize that this meant the cave was flattening out. It wasn't going any deeper into the earth, and the end of it was probably near... and he still hadn't found any food. He grimaced a little. But regardless, he pushed onwards, in hopes that there might be a sleeping bear at the end of this passage. Bears could be food too, after all.

He put his free hand on the hilt of his blade. If it was a bear, he knew he'd need to be ready for a fight. But he wasn't afraid of bears. He was well armed for a little tussle, having sharpened his blade just recently and fitted his armor to perfection. His armor was a strange mix of leather and steel, with his right arm heavily donned in layers of scale mail, and his left one free and light, easily maneuvered for quick strikes and ripostes. He remembered people calling him ambidextrous; 'the man of two right hands'. Maybe that was one of the many reasons he wasn't dead yet.

“S-sir...” the measly, pathetic voice of Wilbur never ceased to make him cringe “...Don't you think it would be smart to turn around? I dun wanna die, Sir.”

“Stick close, and you won't have to.” Wolfe swiftly retorted, sick and tired of Wilbur's cowardice “We'll find the end of the cave, see if there's anything there, and then head back, okay? If we're lucky, Lewis might even still be alive. But if you turn around and run now, I can tell you for certain that you won't be-—“ he was interrupted as the light of his torch came reflecting back against the stony wall of the cave's end. He halted abruptly, but not as much for the fact that there was nowhere further to go, but because of what he saw lie before him. Unconscious or sleeping in a pile of dried grass and sticks, there was a boy. Wilbur and Wolfe both stared down at him, eyes unblinking, mouth unspeaking. This was no normal boy, after all. Even idiots like Wilbur could see that—the boy's extraordinary features weren't exactly subtle. He was a scrawny little chump, lengthy hair and a pretty face, but Wolfe found that he could not tear his gaze away from the pair of horns that stuck out from his forehead. They were short and stumpy like those of lambs, but he could not deny they were there. They weren't the tipped horns of cattle, but the curved ones of goats and sheep, and littered with gold and silver rings. Furthermore, to make matters even stranger, Wolfe noticed that the boy had a tail as well; as long as himself, it lay limp in the pile of grass and sticks. It was naked from the root and right up until the tip of it, where there was a little tuft of hair, dyed red.

“Oi...” Wilbur spoke softly, as if trying not to wake the boy up “...Is that a—“

“Yes.” Wolfe sharply interrupted, not wanting to deal with Wilbur's voice right now “It is. Stay back. I'm going to have a closer look.” he said, carefully approaching the unconscious or sleeping boy, torch in his hand and caution in his step. He knelt down before him, and noticed in the light of his torch, that he was wearing surprisingly expensive clothes. Silk and velvet, colored red and black in beautiful patterns, with foreign symbols everywhere. Wolfe swallowed, hesitating only for a moment, as he reached forward to peel the boy's lips back from his teeth. He cringed as he saw them. Fangs. Vampire fangs, no less. So the stories were true.

“I've heard rumors about these people, the Krov... but I never thought I'd see one myself.” Wolfe watched the unconscious boy with suspicious eyes, not really sure what to make of this “And much less like this. If anything, I had figured my neck would be introduced to their fangs before I could even get to say hello.”

“Ohhh, dun say that, sir!” Wilbur complained, tripping back and forth, clearly unnerved by all of this. Wolfe wasn't even going to reply to that. Wilbur wasn't supposed to be here in the first place; he was a farmer's boy, more fit for squeezing cow udders than sword handles. However, Wolfe's attention was torn away from Wilbur, as he noticed something curious. He drew his torch closer, his eyes narrowed slightly. In the Krov boy's hand, there was a little piece of jewelry, from what Wolfe could tell. Circular, it looked almost like a pocket watch, but without the chain. Furthermore, it had at least four indicators, but there was no way he could tell what they were indicating. But most curious of all, was that it was broken. Cut in half, in fact, right down the middle. The boy was clutching it in his limp hand, as if it had meant a lot before he went out.

“We're taking this one back.” Wolfe said, and did not wait for Wilbur to sputter out another complaint about why that was a bad idea. Holding the torch in his left hand, he used his right to scoop up the boy, and haul him over his shoulder. Fortunately, he was a very light little runt, and proved no challenge to carry. Wolfe peeled the broken jewelry from the boy's hand, and held it himself. Holding it, he noticed that it gave a strange tingle to his palm, as if it was electric. But he figured it was just the cold playing games with his senses.

He slowly turned around to leave “Alright, let's head back. We're done here, and we don't want to—“ as he turned around, expecting to see Wilbur, that was certainly not what he came across. His heart cramped up and his muscles tensed as if he had been electrocuted as he found himself not looking into the stupid eyes of Wilbur, but a glare far more monstrous than that. Three eyes, each one with narrow yellow pupils, and a body looking like a pile of full-grown bears, rather than just one. Hulking muscle and fur winding together in distortion, looking almost as if it was stitched together, and bone sticking out random spots over this monstrous creature's body like branches from a tree.

“Gah! Stay back!” Wolfe shouted, lashing out after the monster with his torch. And just as he had expected, it let out a furious growl at the flames-—it was scared of it. In the torchlight, Wolfe saw all the blood that rolled down the abominable creature's mouth, through teeth as large as claymores. He quickly realized what had become of Wilbur-—and probably Lewis too.

“Afraid of a little fire, are we?” Wolfe grinned and lashed out after the creature again, and true enough, it was horrified of it. He had read about these creatures, seen illustrations, and every monster hunter tome claimed that a thing like this one-—a wendigo-—would dread fire like nothing else. Wolfe advanced on the creature, the boy on his shoulder, the torch in his left hand, and the piece of jewelry in his left. The wendigo kept backing away, its heavy steps sending tremors in the ground, but Wolfe could see in those monstrous three eyes that it wasn't going to last. It was building up courage, and the moment that it realized this petty torch flame wasn't so dangerous, things could take a turn for the worse. Wolfe's eyes darted between the wendigo and the way back, and considered dashing by it... but that was before the wendigo stopped moving backwards.

“I said stay back!” Wolfe shouted as loud as he could, flailing the torch in the face of the wendigo, but it was of no use. He took a deep breath as he realized that this wasn't going to end well. Just like that, the tables were turned when the wendigo slowly began to advance on him, and this time he was the one backing away. Sweat rolled down his cheeks like raindrops, his heart pounding in his chest. Fighting this thing with a blade was out of the question, and running seemed futile. He had seen his chance to flee... and missed it.

He could swear that he saw the wendigo smile, as his back bumped into the dead end of the cave. He was cornered. The wendigo came so close he could smell its putrid breath, warm and sticky, full of blood. He considered putting the boy down to draw his sword, but he feared that the wendigo would already have smashed him to pulp by then. He gritted his teeth, squeezed the piece of jewelry in his hand... and felt something strange. The jewelry felt like it was vibrating in his hand, full of some kind of peculiar energy-—an energy he felt surge into himself. The more he clutched the thing the more energy he felt pushing in through his palm and right into his bones. He wasn't certain what was happening, but in a split second, he suddenly felt so... powerful. Taking a step forward, he looked the wendigo right in the eyes, and raised his voice to a roar.

To his surprise, the sound of his voice was empowered to at least three times the strength, so loud he could feel the cave shuddering all around him. He felt as if his limbs were on fire, and when he looked at them, it seemed almost as if they were. Surging magical energies arced all over his body, red and blue and purple, winding together in a strange arcane weave that made him feel as if he was connected to all things in the world-—and beyond. The wendigo staggered slightly at the sudden thunderous bellow from Wolfe, but what really scared it was when the flame of the torch suddenly rose to become many, many times the size. The gentle flame that coiled around the torch suddenly became a bustling inferno that spilled out over the ceiling of the cave like an inverted waterfall.

The wendigo let out a horrified cry as all of hell suddenly seemed to rise to consume its home, the roar of flame almost as loud as Wolfe's. He advanced forward, snarling like a monster far more horrifying than the wendigo, and the wendigo knew that. It scuttled backward on its huge, furry limbs, but Wolfe did not stop flailing the hellish blaze that stood from his torch until the wendigo had disappeared completely into a little side path like a mouse retreating into its burrow. Wolfe could not explain what had happened, but he knew that there was a time for questions, and there was a time for action. For now, he simply counted it as a blessing. But before he sat down and began thanking the gods above, he prioritized his own hide, and made a run for it as swiftly as his legs would take him.

Once he came bursting out the mouth of the cave, he did not stop running for a solid minute. The sound of his boots sloshing in mud was now replaced with the splashing of puddles, until his knees came down as well. Fatigue ate him up from inside like an invisible fire burning in his legs. He came crashing down, never having run so fast in his life before—-it was made very clear to him that he didn't have the body of a stalwart soldier anymore. He felt the rain against his forehead and his cheeks, running down them like icy pearls. Mouth open and eyes closed, he panted and panted to get his breath back. But even in his fatigue, he was careful not to drop the boy, carefully laying him in his lap, away from all the water. For the Rimnoll Wetlands were not named this for no reason.

As his eyes open, he beheld the soaked world of Rimnoll. The rain seemed to never cease, the thick clouds overhead making people forget what the sun looked like. Countless puddles stretched over an endless flatland of mud and occasional groves-—but mostly mud. Were it not for the mist, some would claim that they could see all the way to the western waters from here.

The mist was another thing that never seemed to leave this place. Moving like massive, pale slugs over the land, these great clouds of silky mist were everywhere, and they were as thick as the stories had told them to be. Wolfe was lucky not to be inside one for the time being, but he remembered the all-consuming whiteness well. There wasn't much to remember, aside from the color white.

Once he had caught his breath, he looked about himself. He was in the approximate middle of nowhere, from what he could tell. It was almost like being back in The Wastelands—-except much, much wetter. A million creeks entwined to fill up a million puddles, scattered throughout the land wherever there wasn't grove or city. And considering that the groves were small and patchy, and there only was one city to speak of, that made up for quite a lot of puddles.

He looked over his shoulder, and saw the hillside behind him. It was the only thing that rose beyond sea level for the next many miles, the rest of this land flat, misty, and wet. The rain was pouring in a thick curtain by now, and even though there was no mist around him, he could not see far. And it was getting cold. He had to get to shelter-—or more importantly: he had to get the boy to shelter. He rose from the mud and water, hauled up the boy once more, and set off. He shot the piece of jewelry a skeptical look one more time, wondering what it was. Its magic had died out now... but he could still feel it tingling in his grasp.

He was fortunate to find his way back to the main road in this roaring downpour. It was barely there, slowly becoming one with all the mud, the bricks falling apart one by one. His short and grey hair was clinging to his scalp like glue by now, and the lengthy mane of the Krov boy was hanging like willow leaves, his tail just as well. With the wind howling and the rain pouring, it was getting dreadfully cold. His torch had died out quickly, but fortunate for him, it was high noon and he needed no torch. The light that came down through the clouds was thin, almost like a whisper hinting that the sun existed in the first place. He was cold, he was wet, and he was getting rather hungry too. But he had been through worse. He wasn't sure if he could say the same for the boy.

But within no more than half an hour, a familiar sound came cutting through the blare of the rain and wail of winds. It was the sound of armor, heavy sabatons trudging in perfect unison. In the fickle light that pierced through the woolly overhang, steel glinted. For a moment he thought he had gone the wrong way, but as soon as he saw those familiar armors break through the curtain of rain, he was glad to know that he hadn't.

“Hoy there!” he called out, hoping to speak through the noise of the rain “Lieutenant Wolfe here! I need blankets, and quick!”

The sound of sabatons quickened rapidly, and before long, the owners came breaking through the rain as well. They were Myaani, the odd middle-way between a man and a fox. Covered in tan fur from top to toe, with the head of a fox, the tail of one, and the hind legs of one, they weren't exactly hard to distinguish from humans. And these in particular belonged to the Tu'Myaa, the only Myaani tribe meant for war-—it was clear to see on the armor that weaved around their body like silk, yet was still steadfast as the strongest steel. Peculiar totemic inscriptions littered their armor, and in the time Wolfe had gotten to know these people, he remembered that the more inscriptions meant a higher-ranking soldier. These two in particular weren't as adorned as he had seen others, but at least they were carrying blankets.

“Quick, wrap the boy up! I'm not sure how long he'll last.” Wolfe ordered, pulling the boy from his shoulder to carry him in his arms instead. The two Myaani soldiers, one male and one female, hurried up with their blankets. Their canine ears perked and Wolfe could see the curiosity in their eyes-—these two had likely not seen a Krov before either. He caught some of the questioning glances they sent his way, but every one of them were given a look that seemed to say 'I'll explain later'.
Once the boy was completely wrapped up, only his horned head peeked forth. The blankets were beautifully woven with the totemic, tribal signs and glyphs of the Myaani people. It was a stroke of luck that these two soldiers were carrying them, as most of the Myaani simply made do with their own fur to keep the warmth. He was pleased to see that at least some of them were following protocol.

“I'll explain on the way. Let's just get back to camp before the cold gets him.” Wolfe ordered, the wrapped-up boy now back on his shoulder. He set up the pace and began to jog through the rain, the two Myaani soldiers close at his heels. It was not long before he reached camp.

Tents slowly began to appear here and there as he drew closer, simply following the main road through the downpour. Scout tents by the looks of it, small and easily packed together, if needed. But the further he ventured down the muddy road, the more tents began to appear through the rain. People too, some donned in heavy armor, others not. There were scouts and warriors, officers in boastful manes to signify their importance. There were lower soldiers in plain steel, others in leather, most with bows and swords alike. Some were Myaani, some were humans. There were a few other people, the occasional elf or so, but the Myaani and humans made up the majority. There were children and adults, some of the young frolicing in the mud and rain while others stayed inside the tents as their mothers had ordered them. But what they all were, was wet. Civilians and soldiers alike were all thoroughly drenched in the rain, the fur of the Myaani hanging limply down their sides-—not to mention the smell. The Myaani really didn't seem to like the rain, most of them with wrinkled noses and discontent looks in their eyes.

But despite the rain, as Wolfe went deeper into camp, he saw flocks of soldiers doing jumping-jacks, pushups, and going on jogging tours to keep themselves from getting lazy. This he could appreciate. He was beginning to think that it was a good idea for the Tu'Myaa to be part of this rebellion, for if there was anything the Tu'Myaa could take pride in, it was their discipline. Never did they question orders, and never did they whine. Trained for war, bred for it some would even say, they were stalwart and strong soldiers. And then there were the warg riders; soldiers with many years of training in the art of beast harnessing, and only those able to show true dominance could mount the wicked wargs. Wolves the size of horses, and many times stronger, these beasts were the claymores of the Tu'Myaa that could slice through enemy forces and bring down entire platoons effortlessly. Wolfe had heard legends of great riders that had tamed beasts stronger and fouler than any before, and how they brought these monsters to their knees. 'Yuurma the matriarch' was one such legend; a woman Myaani known for bending entire packs of wargs to her will. A one-woman army, they called her. If only humans were more like that.

The tents were growing closer like a forest becoming denser the closer to the heart you were. The tents were sitting side by side at this point, some tall, some small, and the crowds were getting thicker than ever. Patrols of soldiers marched through the rain while civilians sat in the shelter of their tents, trading stories or bartering items. But Wolfe's attention was only on one of those tents. Slightly larger than the rest, it was not hard to notice. Eager to get the boy out of the rain, he did not hesitate to throw open the linen entrance, and step inside.

“I hope you don't mind I come barging in.” Wolfe said “But I'm afraid it's slightly urgent.”

Stepping inside, he immediately caught eyes with a quite familiar face. He was sitting by his desk, seated upon a chair that seemed to buckle underneath his massive weight. On the topic of legends, this particular man had become some of one himself, even if just for his size and strength. The people must not have seen all that many Mjaln in their days.

“Ah, lieutenant Edan Wolfe!” he greeted him with a voice like distant thunder, turning his chair to face him. He was dressed casually for now, his ebony cape and steel armor discarded unto the bed that was enforced with iron planks to keep it from breaking while he slept. Wolfe, or Edan as his first name was, hadn't seen him dress casually before, and it was some of an odd sight, really. He was much more used to seeing this lesser giant with boastful shoulderguards and a cape that billowed in the wind, glorifying him even more than he already was. But now he was wearing little but a pair of trousers and a white linen shirt. He seemed much smaller than usual; but even so, he still stood a three heads taller than the average human.

Like Edan, he was a man of age as well, but much closer to the grave than him. His face was wrinkled and worn, and wrinkled even more as he smiled, but as his withering old eyes fell upon the boy that Edan was carrying, his smile seemed to die out.

“...And you bring company.”

“Rather odd company at that.” Edan added as he laid the boy into the bed in the back of the tent. He was still unconscious-—Edan determined the boy could not be asleep, as he would surely have woken up by now, if he was “Ever seen a Krov before, Ramund?”

The great man, Ramund, looked down at the boy with much curiosity in his eyes. He stroked the mighty beard that rolled from his chin like an avalanche over his chest, studded with steel braces engraved with the jagged runes of the northern mountains. He ran a hand through the great but pale mane of hair on his head, a ponytail held upwards by another steel stud. He shook his head, and sighed.

“I have not.” he said, almost regretfully “All I have seen of them has been drawings in books and drawings in my head. And I fear that the people have not either.” he leaned back in his chair, the wood creaking loudly; Edan was afraid it was going to collapse at any moment now. Ramund looked him in the eyes, and asked cautiously “Is he dead?”

Edan shook his head, but felt the boy's neck, just to be sure. True enough, there was a pulse, but it was slow. And by slow, it was the usual speed of a human's pulse; Edan remembered being told that Krov blood was much warmer than human blood, and they also had a far quicker heartbeat. He couldn't remember why this was.

“If he was, I would have left him in the cave I found him. Sadly, the same cannot be said for my company, Lewis and Wilbur. We hoped to find some food in a nearby cave, but all we found was death... and this boy. I'm surprised the wendigo that killed Wilbur and Lewis did not kill the boy. But I'm not an expert on wendigo behavior, so I won't over-contemplate.”

Ramund sighed, and folded his arms across his chest. Now that he wasn't wearing his armor, Edan could see how many scars this great man had accumulated over the years. It was as if he was gathering them like trophies. From what Edan knew of Mjaln culture, maybe he was. War and battle was a great part of life to these people, after all. And, if possible, an even greater part of death.

“I grieve for Lewis and Wilbur, but this is boy is most concerning.” Ramund said, eyes locked upon the sleeping boy. Edan saw his eyes fall upon the boy's horns and tail over and over again, clearly perplexed about these odd features. It seemed that even Ramund, old as he was, still had some things in life that he had not seen.

“I am glad that you brought this boy to me... but I fear what the people might say, should they be told of his presence.” his voice was concerned, underlined with a dire fear. He looked back at Edan “I assume you have already searched his mouth, have you not?”

“I have.” Edan said with a nod “Big, ugly fangs. Nearly the size of my pinky.” he was leaning against Ramund's wooden wardrobe and raised his pinky finger to illustrate his point. Ramund simply gave a nod as well.

“Then it is imperative that this boy remains a secret from the people. Civilians and soldiers alike. Rumor spreads like wildfire, and if they are told that there is a vampiric creature like this one in our midst, not only will we sow unease and fear in our own ranks, but we will put the boy's safety at stake.” Ramund massaged his temples, the gears of his mind grinding.

Edan shrugged a little “You don't think we can tell them that the Krov aren't the insane and bloodthirsty nutters from Nightweald? I mean... I admit that I'm not going to trust my neck to these people, but when you think about it, they've managed to incorporate themselves into society just fine. Noble society, no less! Surely they can't be that bad.”

“I agree.” Ramund replied shortly, eyes still on the boy “But would you risk the boy's life, hoping that all the civilians and soldiers of our little rebellion here would understand?” He shook his head, closing his eyes briefly “The Myaani will perhaps, but never the humans... the humans have lived secluded lives, worrying for nothing but their crops and their livestock. I have already faced enough scrutiny and suspicion, and that is simply because I am Mjaln. My speech back in The Fairlands breathed some trust into their heart, but still there are mouths whispering that I should not be an officer-—that a human is more suited for the task. I dread what they might do to a boy like him, should his existence come to light.” he said, gesturing loosely to the boy in the bed, sighing.

Edan sighed too. He sat down into the bed beside the boy, suddenly not so sure if he was more safe in that cave, than he was here. The wendigo must have kept him alive for a reason, but an angry mob of villages would kill him for none. There was a silence between him and Ramund, the situation suddenly seeming more dire than it did at first. But he couldn't just carry him away and leave him in the rain. He had already killed two men today, albeit indirectly. Leaving a boy for dead was a step he was not going to take.

However, as the boy's tail suddenly did a little twitch, he realized that perhaps he wouldn't have to. His gaze snapped towards Ramund, and the look on his face showed that he had seen it too. The boy was about to wake up. Edan stepped back from the bed and pulled up a nearby chair to sit beside Ramund, eyes on the boy. The tail twitched again, and this time, a tired moan escaped the boy as well. He moved. Edan watched attentively as the boy rolled a little in the bed, eyes still closed. He yawned, and in that yawn, he bared his fangs like a silent tiger's roar. Although weakly, his hand grasped after Ramund's pillow, and he scooted it in under his head. It was as if he didn't recall where he had been, and that he still was home... wherever that was. Edan looked towards Ramund with deep concern in his eyes, wondering what to do next. Ramund could only do a little shrug. But Edan wasn't going to wait for the boy to realize he wasn't home. He scooted his chair a little closer, his elbows on his knees, his eyes unwavering from the boy's face.

“Hey... kid. Get up.” he spoke softly, and in return, the boy gave a little complaining moan. Edan rolled his eyes. He swallowed, and reached forward to poke at the boy's shoulder. And when he did, finally his eyes opened up.

Edan nearly leaped off his seat as he saw what hid behind the boy's eyelids. Golden yellow filling the entire eyes, except for the vertical slit in the middle, serving as the pupil. It was like some twisted god had taken out the eyes of a human, and put in the eyes of a cat. Edan tried not to show his surprise as the boy sat up and slowly that he wasn't home anymore. He shot a glance towards Ramund, and saw no surprise on his face. Was it a normal Krov trait, to have eyes like these? He must have been too drunk to remember it, after being fed tales of the Krov in taverns back home.

“Where... where am I?” the boy spoke quietly, his feline, haunting eyes wide. His voice was sweet and soft, almost strictly so, as if he had been taught to speak like that. Edan looked back at him, and put on a little smile for the boy.

“You're safe, kid.” He reassured him, looking him right in the eyes, even though it made him horribly uncomfortable. The boy sat up in the bed, his gaze darting here and there, clearly nervous and scared—-not that this was a surprise, of course. His hands clenched around one another, his tail standing on end and his fangs bared in an uneasy gritting of his teeth. Edan did not look away from the boy until he realized that he was safe, and that Edan and Ramund were not going to eat him. With fangs like those, Edan was more concerned about the opposite.

“Are you hungry, child? Thirsty, perhaps?” Ramund's rumbling voice caught the attention of the boy, his eyebrows rising at the mention of food. His mouth stood open for a little while, but only silence came out of it. He resorted to simply nodding a few times.

“You're lucky to still have a sense of hunger, kid.” Edan added “Hell, you're lucky to have a sense of anything! Do you remember where you were, just an hour ago?” He asked, leaning back in his chair, trying to seem as relaxed as possible in hopes that the same might shed off on the boy.
Ramund approached shortly after with a plate of jerky, and put it on the boy's lap. His slitted eyes seemed to lighten up at the sight of food, and he did not hesitate one second before chowing down. The pieces of jerky disappeared into his mouth one after another, so fast that Edan had a hard time seeing when one ended and another began. It was as if the boy hadn't eaten in days. Maybe he hadn't?

Finally, as the boy realized that Edan had asked him a question, he stopped eating. He looked into Edan's eyes, his tail slowly falling back unto the bed, more comfortable now that his belly was full of jerky. He put the plate away and swallowed. The red-dyed tail moved unto his lap, where he fiddled with the little tuft of hair. He spoke softly.

“No.” it was as if he was confessing a crime; his eyes were in the ground, his face full of guilt “I don't remember much. It was dark. I remember a lot of dark things. Dark noises, dark smells...” he cringed and shook his head in disgust “It smelled so bad. Like... wet dog. No, an entire wet kennel! Ugh.”

Edan nodded a few times “Yeah, what you probably can remember is the wendigo. I found you in a cave, see. In a wendigo cave, to be exact. Do you know what a wendigo is?”

The boy let a silence linger as he stared at Edan with eyes that seemed to wonder how this question was relevant “I... yeah. My mother has warned me about those. She always said that I wasn't allowed outside the city walls, and that wendigos would get me if I did. But she also said that they would get me if I didn't eat my vegetables.”

“Then it seems you should've eaten those vegetables, kid.” Edan said, uttering a little chuckle as he did. However, that smile quickly died down, as his voice took a darker tone “You know... you could've been dead. Wendigos aren't known for sparing little kids, and yet, it spared you. If I were a gullible idiot, I'd even say it had cared for you! You were lying in a bed of straws, in the driest spot of the cave... how can this be, is all I'm asking.”

The boy only seemed more confused. He looked around, as if searching for help, but there was no help to find. He gritted his teeth, and all he could do, was give a humble shrug “I really don't know, mister.”

Edan sighed. A tongue ran across his lips as he sat there, thinking of how to reach into a kid's mind like this. He was no interrogator, and much less a psychologist. Something was not right, though. And it had something to do with that piece of jewelry.

“Let us back up a little, shall we not?” Ramund butted in again, smiling. The boy looked up at him, and saw the friendly expression on his face. Ramund, on the other hand, was a lot more qualified for this kind of thing. He was the one with a daughter, after all. If there was anyone in this room who knew how to speak to kids, it was him.

“Would you like to share your name with us, child? I'm Ramund, and this man beside me is Edan.” He said, gesturing to Edan beside him, who raised his hand in a slight wave at the mention of his name. Edan watched as the boy put on a smile and scooted off the bed to perform a practiced, elegant bow before the two. His tail rose.

“And I am Matvey, of the Zakadiev family. Usually, I... I would welcome you into my home, but... yeah. I'm not home. So...” he scratched the back of his head and smiled shyly, before he sat back down in the bed.

Edan tried not to show his cringe, as the boy mentioned his name. His surname in particular. He looked up at Ramund and saw hints of the same concern, as that name was spilled. It was spilled unto the floor like sour milk, and everyone knew it was going to stink sooner or later, if they didn't clean it up.

“So... you're a noble?” Edan couldn't hold his tongue, the words escaping his mouth as he looked Matvey in his slitted eyes.

“Yep!” Matvey responded, putting on a little smile, baring his fangs as he did so “Only just recently, though. We weren't considered nobles until... uhh... five years ago, I think. Do you know my family?” he asked, cocking his head a little, his little horns glinting in the light of a nearby candle.

Edan suddenly felt quite uncomfortable. This had just gone from troublesome, to a potential execution-—with his head on the chopping block. The parents had to be furious about finding their lost kid, and if they found him in Edan's arms? It reeked of kidnapping more than a farm dog reeked of cow shit. He swallowed and exhaled through his nose, his gaze wanting to look away from those haunting golden eyes, but politeness bound him. Not to mention that he was now sitting before a lordling, rather than just some kid who had lost his way and sought shelter in a cave. He leaned back in his chair, and shook his head.

“Not personally, but I've heard of you. Hell, the whole world has heard of you! You're practically living legends already, and that's simply because you have horns, tails, fangs, and... uhm... cat eyes?” he gave a shrug “Regardless, anything that shipwrecks on our shores from a far-off world across an endless sea has got to stir up some commotion in the world.”

Matvey scratched the back of his head, his tongue running across his lips; that's when Edan saw that even their tongues weren't like those of humans. It seemed clearer and clearer why the Krov were known as the 'patchwork people', as many of their features seemed like they had been sown on from other animals, to replace the human parts-—the tongue included. And the animal in question this time, was a snake. Matvey's tongue—-and the tongues of all other Krov, Edan assumed-—was slender and long and split at the end, rather than blunt like the ones you would find inside a human mouth. Whatever the function of a tongue like this was, he had no idea.

“Actually...” Matvey said “...We didn't shipwreck on your shores. I think. Mommy always told me these stories. We shipwrecked on the shores of a place called 'The Jemero Keys'. I don't remember the actual crashing-—I wasn't even born then, so I suppose I don't have to.” he chuckled a little, but Edan could clearly hear that he was still nervous about this whole thing “I was born the year after the crash. It was only when I was six that we left. I really liked that place. It was warm. Sunny. Nice fruit, and stuff. This place is just rain and mud.” he sulked a little, glancing upwards to the linen roof where the rain drummed endlessly.

“Actually, it's got a lot more charms than just rain and mud, if you take a closer look.” Edan retorted with a little smile, arms crossed over his chest “Ever been to the Academy of Advanced Gizmology?”

Matvey smiled, but shook his head “No, but I've always wanted to! My brothers have gone there. They told such wonderful stories of all the things they saw. But mommy won't let me... she will hardly let me out of the manor. She says I can't let myself get dirtied by 'lesser kids'. I don't know what she means by that.” his smiled died with a little sigh.

Edan opened his mouth to speak, but Ramund intervened “You are not allowed outside your home, yet you were found in the cave of a wendigo?” he asked with slight disbelief in his voice.

“Not being allowed something, doesn't mean not doing it.” Edan smirked, casting a sideways glance to Ramund “As a matter of fact, disallowing someone something often makes it even more intriguing than it is. And if his mother doesn't want him to get dirty, what better way of defying that, than moving in with a wendigo?” he looked back at Matvey “Isn't that something along the lines of what happened, kid?”

Matvey looked up at Edan, suddenly seeming strangely insulted “I... no! No, I... I just...” the words seemed to clog in his throat, making it hard for him to breathe. He swallowed and opened his mouth several times to speak, but each time, he had no words to give. He fiddled nervously with his own fingers, his lips squeezed together in a mix of concern and guilt. Finally, he shook his head and spoke.

“I don't remember. I don't remember how I left home.” the words were struggled, spoken so that it sounded like that even he, himself, didn't believe them “It's all just a blur, you know? I remember being at home, reading as mommy told me to, then going to bed... but I don't ever remember waking up.” he gave a shrug “Until now, of course.”

Edan's suspicion grew stronger with each word Matvey spilled. His story seemed laughable at best, yet he said it with such truth in his words. Edan could feel his fear jutting out of his mind, mixing with the confusion. This boy wasn't lying, Edan was certain of it. Still, lie or no, it stilled seemed ridiculous. He couldn't possibly have gone to that cave himself; Moonby Sanctuary was an entire day's journey from here. The kid wouldn't have the strength for such a thing. Someone put him there... against his will, most likely. And it had something to do with that piece of jewelry. He let his hand slide over his pocket, where he kept it. He feared there was something more to this, than simply a lost kid on the roads.

He smiled, and gave a nod at Matvey “Thanks, kid. You've been quite helpful. Now, I suggest you eat something, and get comfortable. It may be a little while before we can take you back to your parents.” Edan said, rising from his chair. Matvey seemed a little worried about this, but in the end, all he did was nod. The kid clearly trusted them, despite being complete strangers. Edan wasn't sure if that was a good thing.

“I take it you'll keep an eye on him, Ramund?” Edan asked as he moved to the linen entrance of the tent, looking back at Ramund.

Ramund smiled “I would be honored. It has been many years since I cared for a child, but I do believe I still have some expertise hidden in my sleeve. Not to mention that Matvey is a noble, no less... at this point, I would be rude not to keep an eye on him!” he said, chuckling a little, Matvey chuckling too for some reason. It seemed Ramund's voice was just so kind that Matvey couldn't help himself. Sometimes Edan wished he had that kind of voice.

“In that case, I'll be off. Let me know if anything new comes to light. Best of luck.” Edan said, throwing a farewell gesture over his shoulder as he stepped outside. The rain was still pouring, but at this point, Edan didn't mind. As he sloshed through the mud, away from Ramund's tent, there was only one thing in his mind. He wasn't a particular religious man, but if the gods didn't put that piece of jewelry there, he did not know who did. But there was something about it... something larger than what it seemed. And he feared this was only the beginning of it.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 1
So, while I hate doing so, I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut chapter names out since it fills too much for DeviantArt to accept as a title. Instead, I'm just going to write it here in the description. This first chapter of book 2 is called 'Mud and Gold', and I hope you enjoyed it! I like to think that it is a good contrast to the first chapter of book 1, as they both portray a war camp, but while one shows the dismay and dread of war, this chapter shows the hope it might bring, and the dawn it chases. Furthermore, we get to see through Edan Wolfe's eyes this time, which is something I've been looking forward to. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. See you next chapter, and thanks for reading!
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(Contains: violence/gore)
It was that smell again. That smell of destruction. The thick of smoke that permeated the air; the endless rubble underfoot; the fire. It all came together in a striking orchestra, singing the praises of death, of cruelty—-of war. Some may have thought it a vile cacophony, a chaotic blare of broken tunes and screaming voices. Other people, those with the ears for this kind of thing, saw beauty beyond that. He was one of them.

It was all such a sight to look upon, from up here. He remembered the green hills and groves so clearly. He remembered all the flowing rivers, the tulip fields, the sheep and cattle and collies hopping through the tall grass. It was all so... fine. Idyllic. Innocent. But was it beautiful? They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all, so it was hard to tell. But these days, there weren't many to point out the beauty of these lands-—The Fairlands. It was always sunny here, it seemed, but not the scorching kind of sunny that you would see south of here, in Targus. It was more of a gentle sunny, the kind that allowed vineyards to thrive and corn fields to flourish. Back in the day, he could appreciate this kind of thing-—who didn't appreciate a good glass of finer wines, and a day on the porch, feeling fresh winds on your face, and hearing morning birds at the break of dawn? Not many, that was for certain. But these were not those days. These days were different.

Beauty, in many ways, was a lot like art. It came in periods, ages where a certain style was popular and seemed to adorn every painting, every good book, every symphony on the maestro's stage. If you went back just two days, you'd see that gentle sun and tulip fields were the definition of beauty—-but that was two days ago, wasn't it? Today was today, and today brought with it a new definition of beauty. These days, skies clouded so thick with smoke that it blocked out the sun and streets drowned away in a grey snowfall of ash were 'in'. These days, the people wanted body parts strewn across the world, blood reddening everything. They wanted fires that never seemed to die, and demons gorging themselves upon slain mothers and fathers and their children too. They wanted to see the green hills turned black and grey with ash, and the groves wrought in flame 'till they were little but smoking husks of their former splendor. It was quite simple, really. They wanted war.

He smiled a little. As it just so happened, he, the one and only, was quite an artist when it came to war. Each stroke of his brush was a river of red; each dot was a body ripped open by hellish teeth and claws; each color some new aspect of cruelty, destruction, and death. So if someone ever asked him what beauty was, he could not give them a true answer. He could only show them what it was, for the time being... and that was exactly what he meant to do.

He let out a little sigh from his nose, and looked down at his hands. Gloved in green silk, their gentle and nimble fingers held a skull-—not a human one, though. Usually he would have done so, to gaze into the empty eyes of his audience, but this time he wasn't attending the stage. This time, he was looking into the eyes of a person he once called 'friend'... or 'mongrel', from time to time, but usually 'friend'. It was the skull of Trestin Galloway, the broken-jawed demon that had always been by his side, and been such a trusty companion—-truly a great friend, if he said so himself. Even in death, he was so... recognizable. The lumpy, wolf-sized head, looking like something between a reptile and a chicken, but with teeth as great as fingers and a pair of fangs as great as entire hands. A huge crack ran straight through the demon skull-—he had hoped he could mend it away, but Trestin's killers had been so damnably brutal to the poor guy. He frowned, still staring into the blackness that was Trestin's eye holes, and gritted his teeth. For his sake, they could kill all the demons in all the legions in all of hell's armies, and they could bring down the great lord Locux, king of the Netherworld... but of all demons they could have killed, they had to kill poor Trestin. An axe straight to the head, a last twitch of his limbs, an abruptly interrupted screech... and then old Trestin was a thing of the past. He wasn't sure if he could forgive them for that.

His green eyes wandered. He couldn't bear looking into Trestin's empty eyes much longer, and decided to wrap his skull up in pink silk instead. He looked up from the skull, and saw before him, his recently finished artwork. Casserton, the last village of The Fairlands, now part of this new age's sense of beauty. From the top of the great hill that Casserton was built upon, he could see it all, down to the smallest detail. It was like looking upon a painting so fresh that the colors were still drying. All the homes that before had straw roofs, now had roofs of fire, and walls of blackened wood. All streets were ripped up from the ground and thrown about, their rubble everywhere, the streets and houses unified in destruction. The clouds above wept tears of ash that fell upon every inch of this razed world, the green of the hills now but a fading memory. Demons great and small rampaged through the town, breaking down walls, fighting over body parts that weren't reduced to ash just yet. It seemed The Fairlands weren't so fair anymore... as some would say. But those that said so, would soon realize what fair truly meant.

He was interrupted, as he heard footsteps nearby. He turned toward the sound, and saw a demon, a rather small and ugly one, come waddling. It was a trooper. The main force of the demon army, not because of their strength, but because of their numbers. It took a while for him to appreciate their beauty, for in truth, they really were some ugly little runts. With the malformed faces, jagged with teeth and spikes, and with a pale exoskeleton on the outside and all the squishy parts on the inside... much like an overgrown insect, with great big blades of bone growing out of their arms. Normally they would use the tip of these blades as their front legs, but this particular demon was carrying something with those blades. Another body, it seemed, untouched, and almost not scorched by the fire at all. The demon humbly crept up to him, and sat the body down by him... amongst all the other bodies. The demons had been giving him gifts like these ever since the rampage began, and by now, he was sitting atop a pile of them. He didn't really mind the smell, and he couldn't complain about the softness of it; the Casserton people had lived tender lives, and thus had very tender flesh. The only thing that bothered him, was that there really weren't that many of them... all thanks to the battle they had with those Myaani folk. If there was anything he hated, it was when people tried to do his kind of art with such sloppiness that he couldn't help but cringe at it. The battle they had fought against the Myaani was so unprofessional-—so amateur! He had to give them credit for burning down the grove, but that seemed all they did right. There was hardly any torn limbs or ash clouds; no cannibalism or torture. They had just killed each other, and that was that. Boring. Tasteless. Uninspired.

He looked towards the demon that was slowly making its way back to the carnage, but interrupted it “You there.” he said calmly, his voice soft like silk, yet with an authority like steel. The demon halted abruptly and quickly spun around, its bloodshot eyes wide in attention. He gave it a little smile, and beckoned it closer.

“Come. Join me. I want someone to appreciate my artwork with me.” he said, patting a fleshy spot beside him, gesturing for the demon to take a seat. Obviously, it hesitated. It was clear to see that it feared this was some kind of trick, but disobeying him was certainly no option either. So, although reluctantly, it climbed the pile of broken, half-burnt bodies, and slumped down by his side. Demons sat in such a funny way. Their legs were stumpy and their arms long, so they always ended up sitting with a hunched back and a stupid look on their face. Regardless, he was glad to have someone by his side, to ponder the art with. His silk-draped hand fanned over the ashen ruins of Casserton, and couldn't help but smile.

“Tell me... what do you see?” he asked, beaming widely as his eyes fell upon the demon at his side. He looked into its bloodshot eyes, seeing the confusion mixing with fear. He knew perfectly well that demons couldn't speak, but sometimes it was still amusing to see their thoughts through those eyes of theirs. He looked back over the destruction, and exhaled through his nose.

“Want to know what I see?” he asked, though didn't wait for an answer-—he knew he wasn't getting one, regardless “I see a new age. I see a tidal wave coming in to wash away all the dirt and grime that had accumulated on the beach. I see a purging, a sunrise... a revolution, even. I dare say, the lord is going to have the time of his life once this painting is complete.” he chuckled a little, and looked back at the demon. Immediately, the demon snapped into a forced cackle as well, sounding mostly like its about to regurgitate. He appreciated that it was being polite. Polite demons stayed alive.

His eyes fell to the horizon, the one that had darkened under the clouds of ash. He remained quiet for a few seconds, lost in thought. The ashen snow had fallen to pile up on the brim of his great, bow-tied top hat, but he didn't care. He didn't look at the demon, when he spoke.

“And what's in it for me, you ask?” he continued, silk-draped hands twiddling, lips smiling “The greatest prize a man could get, no less. Oh she is a beauty, I tell you... stunning, just stunning, and with a mind so excitingly broken.” he gave an amorous, theatrical sigh “Usually I'm the one to put up a play, but this girl... enthralls me. And we're so alike, she and I! Would you believe it? I never thought I would find my destined love, but there she is... undeniable. And when all this is over, she and I shall dance endlessly upon withered roses and ash, 'till the lord claims us both.” he said, raising both hands upwards to the sun hidden behind dark clouds, glory in his voice and in his green eyes. But then, with a sigh, he let his hands drop. He shook his head.

“But I cannot let myself be torn away by wishes and dreams... we have work to do, my dear friend!” he said, rising to his feet, the demon immediately doing so as well. He didn't really care if it had been listening or not; in truth, it was just nice to have someone to speak with. A great big smile presented itself on his lips, as he gave the demon a pat on its lumpy head, looking it in the eyes.

“I'm glad you listened, my boy. Keep that up, and I might just promote you.” he said, as he wandered off the corpse pile. The demon stood there, stifled, as his words slowly crept into its thick skull. Eager to earn said promotion, it hurried after him, and decided to stay there... 'till the end of days, if necessary.

Such a thing was not unrealistic at this point, after all.
Vanguard, Book 2, Prologue
A little prologue to be re-introduced to the violent, gory world of war. It's funny, I have to admit that I am really enjoying writing from this guy's point of view... it gives such freedom to write all kinds of messed-up dialogue, and create such striking contrast between what we consider beautiful, and what he does. If beauty does lie in the eye of the beholder... who's to label him wrong? Let's just hope he doesn't take it too far. Oh, wait... too late for that now.

First chapter of book 2: Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 1
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SteenBelhage
Steen Engel Belhage
Artist | Professional | Literature
Denmark
My name is Steen, and I am a writer. I believe that title will stick with me for many years to come, as it is one of the few productive passions I have ever had. I've picked up many hobbies and free-time activities, but many of them have somehow faded into the vast depths of boredom. However, my writing has never suffered that fate. I am determined and passionate in my work and I do my very best to train myself to be disciplined about it as well. If I wish to make a living of it, I'll need to be able to write even when I don't want to. But let me tell you... it isn't easy.
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:iconthat1personyouforgot:
That1PersonYouForgot Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday! :cake: I hope you have a wonderful day! :boogie:
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Professional Writer
Why thank you! I should hope so too! :D
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:iconrollingtomorrow:
RollingTomorrow Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014   General Artist

Hello! :iconexcitedhiplz:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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