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He felt the claws snap his ribs. One by one, like twigs. He felt his body twitch as the claws dug deep  into it, and yet, of all the things he felt, death was not one of them. His eyes squeezed shut, his jaws clenched, the arms of his soul wide open for death's sweet embrace—but it never came. Had he been forgotten? Neglected? What was going on?

That was when his eyes opened. He gasped in deep like he had been underwater longer than his breath could hold. The first thing he noticed, was the cold and wet air that filled his lungs. Mist. His eyes were blurry at first, but he could recognize something... stars. A clear night sky spanned out before him, an illustrious carpet of heaven—a heaven he was not part of, yet. He felt the grass underneath him, his fingers coiling with the soft blades, and he knew that he was still mortal. Very much so, he knew, from the thumping pain in his head and the blood that trickled from his nose.

“Are you awake, Bjornsson?” a voice asked, and he recognized it. It was the chieftain's, and it carried a concern that was quite uncharacteristic for someone like him. Ramund slowly sat up, his head churning like a landslide. He saw the silver glow of the moon lay beautiful trappings upon the garden of the asylum and glimmer in the light of the pond. Strangely peaceful, all of a sudden, an almost disturbing contrast to what he had just faced.

“It... would appear so.” Ramund muttered in a haggard breath as he felt himself here and there, checking that he still had a heartbeat. He looked to his left, and saw the chieftain standing there, wielding something. Magic. Both hands were clawed, and in them some mystical threads of magic coiled between his fingers. His muzzle was wrinkled, aggressive, and he seemed curiously ready for battle.

“And you are still yourself?” he asked. Ramund suddenly understood why the chieftain seemed so cautious; and why both of his guards were standing at his side, lances ready and gleaming in the moonlight.

“I should hope so.” Ramund responded and slowly rose to his feet “I could prove it to you, if you wish.”

“That would be preferable.” the chieftain continued, seeming no less cautious than before—quite the opposite, in fact, now that Ramund stood before him, tall and imposing man as he was “We were having a short discussion with a third party, a few hours ago. Where did it happen, and what was the subject?”

“We were at the church of the Five.” Ramund started “We were discussing religious perspectives, how the heavens should be viewed—as a select elite of five, as a wealth of thousands, or as an intricate and many-faced entity. It seemed that both our ideas were rather ill received by that priestess of Hrumalz.”

The chieftain exhaled through his nose, letting loose a long plume in the cold air of night, before he quenched the magic that roiled in his hands. He gestured his guards to withdraw their lances, which they did.

“Do not ever meditate again, Bjornsson.” the chieftain said rather firmly “It seems that there is something on the other side that means to take you when you are weakest... when you are closest to the spiritual realm. I fear that if I had not pulled you back out, you would have been lost.” he took a step closer and looked at him, staring through the blindfold that covered his eyes “Tell me. What did you see?”

Ramund felt the blind gaze push into him, stare through him with a vision that saw more than just his physical self. There never was a stare more exposing, more penetrating, than the chieftain's—all in spite of his blindness. Under this stare, Ramund told him everything. He told him about where the visions began: his old hut in the mountains, and how empty it was. He told him about the hat that would not stop spinning, no matter how hard he tried. He told him about the throne room, the golden snake, and the poisoned crown.

“...And that was when I was visited.” Ramund said, his tone growing dark at the lingering memory of that ungodly face and that sickening breath “Even now, I am uncertain if it was just a figment of my visions, or if it was truly him.”

“Who?” The chieftain interrupted “You were nearly killed, Bjornsson, through something as harmless as meditation. Meditation is supposed to give you simulations and false realities, as if you were dreaming, and yet you were shaking hands with death but a mere moment ago. What kind of creature must you have met, which has the power to murder through dreams?”

Ramund clenched his teeth and shook his head “The worst kind, I fear. The demon king himself: Locux, the tyrant. I met him, and by all the stars... I have never felt such dread before.”

A vile growl trickled through the chieftain's bared teeth at the mention of that demonic name “Then this is worse than I had thought. The end of days is truly at our doorstep.” he turned away, pacing around the silver-tinted garden thoughtfully “It is nothing new that the demon king has been growing stronger—this has been true ever since he was banished to the Netherworld, all those centuries ago. With every soul he devours and deforms, his strength swells... but I had never thought that it would be this dire.” he sighed, deeply and anxiously, before he turned his blind stare to the starry heavens “The army of hell encroaches upon us from the south, the golden hand of the crusade strangles us from the north, and the demon king himself comes to murder us in our dreams... yes indeed. If this is not the eve of our existence, then I cannot imagine what would be.”

“Eve or no, we cannot let ourselves surrender to our fates.” Ramund spoke up “Our destinies are for ourselves to carve, and though things may seem dire, they are not hopeless. In my vision, the demon king claimed that it was my fate and destiny to meet him there, and it would seem he meant for me to die there as well.” a little smile grew at the edge of his lips “But we proved him wrong, did we not?”

The chieftain turned his gaze from the heavens and unto Ramund “We most certainly did.” he said “And we can do it again. You should go, Bjornsson, and warn your company of what you have seen. They deserve to know.”

Ramund nodded “Agreed. Thank you for this, chieftain. It has been... enlightening.”
The chieftain too gave a little smile at this, an expression that honestly did not fit his otherwise authoritarian and steely demeanor “Enlightenment comes to us in many ways, it seems. Spirits guide you, Bjornsson.”

“As to you, chieftain.” Ramund said, and gave a quick bow before him. As the chieftain returned it, Ramund immediately made for the misty streets of Moonby once more.

He was bound for the residential district of the city. He figured that his comrades must have been staying at the local inns while preparing for the battle that loomed just over the horizon. Through the somber streets he wandered, a hurried pace through soaked alleyways where every step was a splash in another puddle. The darkness had settled over the city by now, thick and oily, warded only by the few lanterns that were still lit, and the silver skies above. Starlight shimmered in the reflections of the puddles wherever a stone house had not cast its shadow. Ramund looked up at the skies, there where the moon engulfed passing clouds in silver, where stars littered everything in between. Ramund hadn't quite realized that it was night, until now. He remembered that it was only evening when he closed his eyes for meditation, but now it could well be midnight. It was curious how the world of dreams and that of reality did not seem to agree how quickly time should pass.

The city was asleep. This did not come as a surprise, for it seemed that this city would always sleep, no matter the hour. This was only broken in finer districts where operas and plays broke the perpetual quiet with their song, and the endless grey with their vibrant colors. Ramund had yet to see it for himself, but he had seen posters here and there, announcing the coming of another play, or another musician's performance. It was no wonder that they were all canceled.

But in the darkness, the city seemed quieter than usual. At first, at least. Ramund had expected a few patrols of guardsmen wandering the streets, ensuring that all was well, but after the third squad strolled by, it did seemed a little excessive. In the light from the lanterns they carried, Ramund saw all kinds of emblems on their armors, and not just those of the larger houses—there were several of them which he could not even recognize. Naturally, the forces of Rex, Hedwen, Cercy, or Zakadiev came passing by from time to time as well... but no Umbrals. After that fateful evening, it was as if the Umbrals had been erased from the city, torn from the history books, torn from existence. Perhaps that was for the better.

Soon, Ramund's curiosity got the better of him. What were all these soldiers doing at this hour? It would seem logical that they were preparing in their barracks, but it was as if they were all headed for the same place. Ramund decided to follow one of them, ideally unnoticed, but stealth never was a forte of his—his size usually betrayed him. Fortunately, the patrol he decided to follow did not seem to mind. And eventually, they led him to the city square where he had seen Lord Cercy lose his life.

He remembered the place with a crowd. But never this kind of crowd. Where before the square was filled up with citizens gathered to watch a lord die, this time it was filled up with soldiers. From one end to the other, a wealth of platoons and squads were positioned neatly in squares, each representing their own house. Ramund stared with great curiosity at the armored masses, the many tons of steel that glimmered in the light of the moon and flickering lanterns. Something odd was surely happening, and for some reason, it was a great concern of the army.

“Come to see the show, old man?” Ramund looked down at his left, and saw the grizzled expression of Wolfe presenting itself beside him. He hadn't noticed him—how could he, in this impressive crowd? Wolfe was but one of hundreds, if not thousands.

“Truth be spoken, I am not quite certain of what I have come to see.” Ramund said with an honest chuckle, eyes on the haggard veteran. Wolfe seemed like he hadn't had any sleep, eyes sagging and face pale—though that might just have been the moonlight. His hair was unkempt, and his armor loose. But what Ramund noticed first of all, was the scent of alcohol in his breath.

“Well, something is certainly going down. And it's going down on that stage there.” Wolfe replied, finger raised to point over the armored shoulders of those in front of him. He pointed to the scaffolding where Lord Cercy had been hung, and Ramund saw that it was undergoing some of a repurposing. Hired boys and men were taking down the gallows and replacing them with large sheets of some sort. They were rolled up, and small strings were hanging from them.

“It's a presentation, I believe.” Ramund looked now to his right, and saw another familiar face appear before him. The sleek curves, the pale color, the arched ears; this was a face he hadn't seen in quite some time. Lex, the high elf medic, gave Ramund a soft and delighted smile.

“Why, Lex, what coincidence!” Ramund said, returning the smile and putting a heavy hand on the elf's shoulder—he buckled slightly under the weight “I have been thinking of you, friend. Where have you been, in all this time?”

Lex peeled Ramund's hand off his shoulder, and gave a little shrug. He was wearing a short coat of toughened cloth, clearly of Myaani design, and so black that he seemed to blend with the night—if it wasn't for his snow-pale skin “Oh, about. Moonby Sanctuary is a gorgeous place, despite what some think. Dreary, they say, colorless... psch. It has its own misty charm.”

“A pity that the inhabitants insist on sullying it with murder.” Wolfe commented from Ramund's left, throwing in a disgruntled snort, before turning a look on Lex “We could have used you at the Umbral manor, doc. Plenty of wounded, even more dead. It didn't have to end that way.”

There was a pang of guilt on Lex's face, and he was silent for a little while. Ramund shot Wolfe a disapproving stare, but the old veteran didn't seem to mind, or even notice. Lex sighed through his nose “In my defense, I didn't hear about it until it was over. I spent my time with the Myaani, getting to know them a little better, swapping tricks and tools with their shamans. Their ways of healing are primitive, sure, but they know some things about the correlation between body and soul that few others do.” he looked Wolfe in the eye “But I heard what happened to Lord Umbral. Nasty business... but I hear he had it coming.”

“It was not unjust.” Ramund said with a stern tone, recalling the sound of Theodor's body hitting the floor after he had crashed through the ceiling window “Theodor knew the risks he was taking. What Lord Zakadiev did was a natural consequence, when you play the velvet liar's game. I do not mourn him.”

“Nor should you.” Wolfe groaned, lips twitching sourly, like an old guard dog growling at a passer-by “The man was a whoreson, a deceptive shit-eater with no shame in life. I saw what Vyacheslav did to his hands, and it only makes me wish I had seen it happen. By all the gods, I would have given everything to see the dread on his face and the piss in his pants.”

Ramund looked down at Wolfe with great discomfort, seeing the vile look that seemed to twist Wolfe's slightly intoxicated expression. Ramund did not like the vengeance that seemed to harbor in the veteran's eyes, and quickly decided to change the subject.

“Lex.” he said, turning to the elf “Did you say that this was a presentation?” he asked, gesturing to the scaffolding ahead of them.

“Quite so!” Lex confirmed, his smile returning “One of the commanders is going to make a presentation about demon psychology and physiology for the troops, whose closest encounters with demons has been the neighbor’s terrier. I suspect he'll tell a little about how they fight, how they think, and how to kill one.”

Wolfe's eyebrows creased “But we already know all that. Why waste our time with rookie stuff?”
To this, Lex's smile only grew, his teeth gleaming in the lantern glow “Because...” he trailed off, and raised his hand to gesture at the scaffolding.

As he did, the steel crowd went quiet. Not because of what Lex did, but what he gestured at. Ramund turned a look to the scaffolding, and saw a pair of guards escort someone, both of them holding high a pair of banners. But these banners did not represent any house, whether large or small, whether rich or poor. This banner stood above them all, for it represented not anyone, yet everyone—it was the banner of Moonby Sanctuary as a whole. The only neutral banner, the banner under which all other banners served—for the good of the city. It illustrated one of the great granite statues that flanked the gates of the city, surrounded by a white veil of mist. Ramund knew that this banner was of an almost sacred importance, for whenever it flew, it stood for something that went beyond noble affairs. It heralded a creed that had stood since the construction of the city, a creed that would silence the squabbles between houses, and unite them all, no matter their differences.

Between this pair of banners, Ramund saw the man whom he could only assume to be the aforementioned commander. His armor promised a high rank, that was certain. A finer set was rarely seen, plated heavily and decorated to emphasize this man's importance. The pale, blank steel was adorned with oily black raven feathers that stuck out from underneath the shoulderguards and the gauntlets. A long and flowing cape hung from the commander's shoulders, flying the same emblem of the banners that flanked him. His face was overshadowed, shrouded by a heavy hood. A respectful silence had taken the crowd. They watched with eager anticipation—as did Ramund—as the commander stepped up to a podium at the front of the scaffolding. And that was when he removed his hood.

Ramund felt a jerk inside of him, a tuck at his guts that robbed him of words. The moon, the stars, and the nearest lanterns shone down upon the commander's face, and though it was as clear as day, Ramund wondered if his aged mind was playing tricks with him. But he could never mistake that scar that ran across his nose.

“Soldiers of Moonby Sanctuary,” Duncan said. He spoke in a calm tone, but there was magic at work here: Ramund saw the rune that had been written on the plate just underneath his chin, a rune that enhanced the volume of his voice five-fold. His long black hair had been cut, shortened to only reach down under his ears, where before it would scrape his shoulders; with this armor and this hair, Ramund would perhaps not have recognized him, if not for the scar on his nose.

“soldiers of the entire Wetlands, perhaps. I am Duncan Montgomery Ross, and I stand before you not to tell you about the victories we will claim and the glorious feasts we will have afterward—that is a politician's job, not mine. I stand before you to ensure that these politicians' claims aren't just hot and hollow air.”

Ramund looked toward Lex. The elf was smiling greatly, his ivory-white teeth bared from ear to ear. There was a knowing look in his eye that left no doubt: he wasn't surprised at all. He was well aware of all this, who the man under the hood was, long before he had dropped it.

“I have seen what is out there.” Duncan continued, his hands on the podium, his confident stare on the crowd before him “And I have survived it. I was there when the demons crushed Camp Vanguard. I was there when they broke the walls of Aegon. I have seen what they can do, and I know that you are afraid, but hear me now: your fear is unreasoned. It is only a product of misinformation and ignorance. The demons prey on this fear, and through it, they will defeat us. Let there be no doubt: they are a force to be reckoned with, but they are not unstoppable. Not if we know how to fight them.”

He took a step back from the podium. A silence followed as he approached one of the rolled-up sheets and grabbed the string that hung from it.

“Know your enemy, comrades, and know him good. These are the words that have kept me alive for all the years I've spent out in the Wastelands, waking up every day to the same old nightmare. In this time, I have learned that the demons have patterns. They are wild creatures, but they can be predicted. They can be studied. They are a science in itself, and if we had the time, I would gladly teach you everything in detail. But these hours are precious, so listen closely.”
As he yanked at the string, the sheet unfolded. It unfolded to reveal something Ramund had seen many times before, in the days when Duncan would make these presentations for rookies in the Wastelands. A tactical overview opened up on this large sheet, round dots representing the soldiers, while crosses represented demons. The crosses were scattered here and there, but the dots stood in a circular formation of two layers—one inner, one outer. Ramund smiled, for he knew this one quite well indeed.

“This formation is what will, statistically, save your lives.” Duncan continued as he picked up a wooden pointer from the podium, and slapped its tip on the sheet “This formation has infallibly given the greatest rates of survival out in the Wastelands, and I expect that it will yield similar results here. What you see here, is a formation of two layers: the front layer being shieldbearers, while the hind layer are spearmen. One on one, a demon will almost always slaughter you effortlessly, but we have something that they don't: co-operation. Tactics. Brotherhood.” he used the pointer to gesture at the scattered crosses.

“The demons are wild and mindless at nature; they cannot feel fear, but similarly, this drives them into recklessness and stupidity. That being said, we have seen some... exceptions to this rule, in the recent attack on Aegon.”

Ramund recalled what happened at Aegon. The demons that were usually a wild and disorganized bunch, suddenly figured out how to make capapults out of juggernauts. He recalled the sight of flung troopers soaring over the walls like ungodly meteors, and shivered.

“But as a rule of thumb, they will not attack you in formations nor wield any kind of trained combat techniques; they rely solely on their lust for blood and their hard exo-skeleton. I'll get to that in a moment.” he pointed back at the formation “Their wildness is what makes this formation work. If we are to beat them, we must not play their game; we must not give ourselves to chaos, for it is in chaos that the demons excel. If we can keep our heads cool, the demons will crash against the shieldbearers of this formation, before being poked full of holes by the spearmen. It is a slow formation, but it will get the job done.”

He stepped up to the podium once more, holding the wooden pointer like a professor standing before his crowd of students. His face was a straight and confident mime, his eyes seeming to endlessly scrutinize each and every one of the soldiers before him. Was it all an act, Ramund wondered. For the more he looked at him, the more he saw the Duncan he knew from the early years of the front lines: experienced, hardened, and confident.

“How many of you have seen a demon before?” Duncan asked the crowd. A good part of the army that had gathered before him raised their hands. Duncan narrowed his eyes and rephrased his question “How many have seen a demon in person? Book illustrations don't count.”

With that, almost all the hands fell. A few remained and Duncan gave those that did a rather curious look, seeming to wonder where they had been, what they had done to have the gruesome pleasure of encountering a beast like this. He stepped back from his podium, and took in a long breath.

“Well, this is your lucky day.” he said, and looked to his left at someone down below the scaffolding. He beckoned them with his steel-clad hand, and made some space. For space was surely needed, when Ramund saw what was brought unto the stage. Draped in a thick shroud of cloth, a cage was carried up by some of the hired hands. Even from this distance, Ramund could hear the vicious snarling that emitted from behind the cloth, and felt a cold hand around his heart.

With a hard yank, Duncan pulled the cloth from the cage. A wave of commotion swept over the crowd as Ramund's concerns were confirmed: the cloth revealed a demon, a trooper, locked behind the bars. It stared at the army with those bloodshot eyes that set instant adrenaline in Ramund's veins, and it growled with a voice that made him feel sand on his skin already. He took in deep breath and folded his arms, liking less and less where this was going.

“What you see here,” Duncan continued, speaking much louder now, so as to drown out the furious growling of the demon “is what you will see the most of, when the demons come knocking. This is a trooper, the lowliest and most numerous of the demons. They are the foot-soldiers, the common foe, and there will be thousands of them—just as there are thousands of you tonight. But though they may be common, you must never underestimate them; for, like you, they too wear armor. Allow me to demonstrate.”

While the crowd muttered and shuffled around uncomfortably in their armor, those closet to the demon having backed up a few inches, Duncan marched over to a nearby guardsman and asked for his lance. Wearing this armor, these trappings of importance, he was given the lance without question.
“Their exoskeleton is sturdier than you may think. If you just lunge thoughtlessly at it, you will waste your time—and in the end, probably your life as well. I repeat: do not play their game. Fight smart more than brave—for you cannot be braver than a foe that does not feel fear.”

This was never a part of Duncan's usual presentation, this Ramund knew for certain. What Duncan was doing right now seemed bold, maybe even reckless. Ramund prayed that the cage would keep the creature—and he just couldn't stop asking himself: where did they even get this demon?

He watched as Duncan lowered the lance and thrust out after the trooper, stabbing at it through the bars of its cage. The shining blade of the lance collided with the demon's armor and bounced right off, leaving nothing but a scratch. The demon howled furiously, its hell-forged blades crashing against the bars, sending chills down Ramund's body every time. He flinched as he heard the steel creak, but fortunately, it did not break. For now.

“Do this, and you'll be dead.” Duncan continued, taking a step back from the raging demon “But they all have a weakness. Knowing their anatomy is as important as knowing their psychology; for you may know how they fight, but if you don't know how to kill one, you'll be fighting for ages—and trust me, these things do not grow tired.”

He moved to the back of the stage, where he yanked the strings of the two last presentation sheets. One of them illustrated the huge and imposing figure of a juggernaut, the prime abominations of the demon army, while the other illustrated a lurker. Duncan slapped his wooden pointer unto the picture of the lurker.

“What you see here, is a stealth unit of the demon army. These are—gods be thanked—quite rare. They are likely the smartest of all demons, as they do not charge head-on in reckless abandon, but will instead seek out the strongest of us and put them down. It is a hunter, a predator, and it employs a hellish magic that will leave it completely invisible to the naked eye. However, it is this stealth that it relies heavily on; in face-to-face combat, it is weak, clunky, and exposed. Its armor does not match that of a trooper, and its blades,” he turned the pointer to the long, bony extensions of the creature's arms “are pointy and long, like rapiers. They are designed for thrusting only, which means that if you can get close, you can take it down quite easily. Stay on your toes, men, and keep your eyes open. Or in this case: your ears.”

Next, he turned to the juggernaut “And this here is the juggernaut... the thing that has given many a soldier nightmares, if he is as fortunate as to survive an encounter. These creatures are strong, indomitable, and have been known to take down entire squadrons without much effort. As some of you might know, demons are the creation of Locux, the demon king, who catches stray souls and molds them into these creatures. Juggernauts are the result of a trooper being 'fed' more souls, so to speak—like packing more snow on a snowball. In all ways, they are better... but because they were once troopers, they carry the same weakness.” he raised the pointer to the center of its chest “Right here, the exoskeleton is weak. It is thin and brittle, meaning a well-placed strike from a sword can penetrate it. I take it you saw how this lance bounced off the trooper's armor... well, let's see what happens when we think our strikes a little more through.”

Again, he turned to the demon. He stared into its wild eyes, keeping a stern and unflinching demeanor. Even Ramund felt uneasy in the demon's presence, his thoughts again and again returning to the massacre that had taken place in that little tavern in Westport, but Duncan seemed as if its growls, its glares, and its stench never got under his skin. He set the wooden pointer down, grabbed the lance with both hands, and began to taunt the demon by tapping on its cage with the lance. The demon snarled and barked, purple saliva sloshing everywhere and pooling at its stumpy feet, while its long and bladed claws raked out after the lance. Again and again it lashed, but Duncan was alwways a step ahead of it—and then, in but a split second of opportunity, he trust forward. As the demon's arms reached sufficiently high, its brittle chest was exposed. In that slim window of time, Duncan's lance rushed forward and buried itself deep into the demon's tainted flesh. The monster howled and screeched in agony, a sound so high-pitched it sent a tremor through the crowd. But the noise died out quickly, as the demon did. The creature slumped in the cage and gave a few final twitches, before ceasing. Black blood trickled from the stab wound as Duncan yanked the lance free.

He backed away from the dead monstrosity, his eyes remaining at it, full of a loathing and hatred that only Ramund could see. He had seen that look in his eyes before, a look that only demons could summon.

“And there you have it.” he said as he moved back to the podium, resting the bloodied lance at its side “Do not let rumors and doomsayers get to you—these creatures can be killed. They can be fought and they can be defeated. But in ignorance, in fear, and in division, we will all die. Knowledge, courage, and unity is what will win this war.” a pause followed, before he gave a few nods to himself, then to the crowd “Thank you for your time... and gods bless you all.”

With that, the crowd applauded. Whistles rang through the nightly air, swords rattling and squads chanting motivational war cries to one another. Ramund felt a rush of courage inside him, not only because that of the crowd was contagious, but because of the smile that rose on Duncan's lips. As the crowd began to dissipate, the banner-bearers moved to flank him and guide him off the stage. Without a word of farewell, Ramund left Lex and Wolfe behind as he pushed through the countless armors, dodging lances and swords. After countless words of apology, he came within earshot of the newly-dubbed commander.

“Duncan!” he shouted, and with a voice like his, it did not go unheard. Duncan, who was well on his way to leave, turned around and smiled as he saw his mountainous friend.

“Ramund!” he called back, arms raised in excited greeting “Did you see it?” he asked, sounding almost like a child performing some impressive feat before his parent. The rune on his chest had faded and now he spoke with his own volume of voice.

“Of course I did.” Ramund replied, smiling just as well “You have impressed us all, old friend. Lex and Wolfe were with me, and I believe they were as pleased as I. To see you deliver the presentation again, and with such vigor, it gives me hope that this city may yet remain. I am convinced I speak for all the soldiers, when I say this.”

Duncan almost blushed at this. Ramund had become used to seeing the slain and sedated expression weighing down Duncan's face, but now, in this moment, it was alight with strength, with confidence, and indeed, with hope.

“I never thought I was going to deliver that presentation again—and in truth, I was glad for that—but when I stood on that stage... I'll be damned if it didn't make me feel more alive than ever. For once, I feel that I made a difference.” he looked down at his feathered gauntlets, opening and closing them as his smile grew “Not to mention I'm quite liking this new outfit. They made me a commander, as you've probably heard... never even dreamed that I was going to commandeer more than a squadron of five. Now they're making me commandeer nine thousand.”

Ramund almost choked at the number “Nine thousand?” he asked, baffled.

“Nine thousand.” Duncan echoed with a low and self-ridiculing chuckle “I'm as surprised as you are, Ramund. But I've spent some hours with one of the army's previous commanders, who taught me a few tips and tricks.” he looked back up at Ramund “I think it can work, Ramund. I really do.”

“As do I, Duncan. You possess the strength, you always have. It was but a matter of you realizing this fact.” Ramund said and tapped Duncan's forehead a few times, still smiling “You have unlocked something inside of you, Duncan. Something that has been caged for far too long.”

Duncan playfully batted Ramund's finger away, sharing his smile “Yeah yeah, old and wise man, your reservoir of profound sayings truly is endless. Come on... I'm parched, and I don't feel like sleeping. I hear they have some quality mead at a local inn. Care to join me?”

Ramund snorted skeptically “I am not certain these Wetlanders know what quality mead is. I shall taste it before I believe it. Very well then... let us put their brew to the test.”

With confidence in their hearts and laughter in their lungs, Ramund and Duncan set out for the misty streets in search of a moment of merriment. It was later that night, the word reached them: a scout had returned on horseback, bringing news of the front lines. It stained the merriment and sent a shiver down every spine in the city.

The demons would be here at dawn.
There was a district in this city much unlike the others. Just west of the residential district and north of the mage's district, there was a district the people only seemed to visit on certain days of the week, or when they were down on their luck. It was, of course, the church district. Curious, Ramund found, for of all districts in this city, this one seemed the most godforsaken.
Ramund had been to the slum district, and he knew its squalor. He knew the omnipresent stench of filth in there, the sewer entrances that spilled fumes like the open maw of hell itself. He knew the constant threat of thugs and murderers lurking in the shadows. And yet, this place somehow managed to present itself worse than that. For while the slum district held life, it seemed that the same could not be said about this place.

Simply walking its streets made him ill at ease. Everywhere he turned, the pitiful remains of what once may have been a house and a home stood as a neglected testimony to the rigors of war. Ruins, everywhere. The once proud and tall houses of misty stone were reduced to crumbled rubble that had long since seen the last glow of embers fade away. Some of them still stood, but a single push of the loose door would reveal the torn inside, the ceilings that had collapsed upon the floors, and sometimes even the floors that had collapsed into the sewers below. The wooden houses of this district were hardly even recognizable; they were little but scattered and shattered planks with a few  nails in, and something that could vaguely resemble furniture.

The streets themselves were as ravaged as the houses in between. Craters lay as brutal wounds in the cobblestones, mud spilled out like clotted blood. All the craters were empty, but the clear marks of the trebuchet shots remained. Sometimes, Ramund could even rewind the course of the crater and see where the shot had crashed through the wall; the walls in the distance remained standing, swiftly repaired, but the masonry was lousy and rushed, much unlike other parts of the same walls. This was going to be a weakness against the demons, Ramund figured, and something had to be done about it. He noted it down in his mind for later.

They said that it was The Silk War that caused all this. The strife between House Hedwen and House Rex had brought oblivion to this realm, and though Ramund doubted at first these words, his doubt was shattered as he laid eyes upon the sorrowful ruins. It had been many years since The Silk War, several decades if Ramund recalled correctly, and yet these ruins had gone completely untouched since the devastation. No one felt any desire to rebuild, it seemed, and now they remained as a quiet testimony to the rigors of the past. Even now, as Ramund wandered down the streets and gazed into the misty alleyways drowned in stray rubble, he could not only hear, but feel the ghosts of murdered families. They blended with the mist, and sought remembrance. But it seemed that the city just wanted to forget about all this... pretend it didn't happen.

But Ramund was not here to speak with ghosts. For he knew, in these strange times, life had returned to this district. Not the kind of life that the Moonby folk had expected, surely, but life nonetheless. He heard it in the distance, over the soft waft of evening winds herding the mist down the ruinous streets. The sound of commands being shouted. The sound of marching, the sound of swords clashing in spars between soldiers. The sound of music too, flutes and drums. The sound of children's voices, but not the children that this city was used to seeing. Three of them passed by in the outskirts of the mist, playing a game of tag, from what Ramund could tell. Their tails, their large ears, and their fur put them aside from regular human children, but Ramund found that despite their physical differences, Myaani children and human children were in essence the same. Perhaps it was when they grew older that they would develop opinions, distinctions, and inevitably: xenophobia. If it was not for the demon army encroaching from the borders, Ramund was certain that this number of Myaani refugees would never have been let through the gates—let alone allowed to settle. But these were strange times... and here they were.

It was curious to see how the influx of refugees had brought life to this broken district—in more ways than one. The ghosts of this place had suddenly found themselves with much more company than they perhaps had hoped for. The outskirts of the district, where it was bordering to the rest of the city, was a place of silence and mourning, but the heart of it had begun to beat once more. Though most would surely find this destruction rather disheartening, the Myaani children seemed all too pleased to leap around in the ruins, playing their hearts out as if the world was as peaceful a place as before they fled their home in The Fairlands. They climbed the tattered walls, bounded over the rubble, and skipped through the glassless windows with all the grace and agility that nature had given them.

But while the children played on the graves of this place, these same graves had been put to much better use, deeper into the district. The nomadic nature of the Myaani came to great expression, when Ramund saw how they had repurposed the ruins, brought them back to life, though in a vastly different form than what they were before. Colorful carpets and great sails of cloth became the substitutes for the dismantled walls and ceilings, wound together in wide linen canopies that flew overhead. All of the ruins had become interconnected by the vibrant weave that brought the color to this place that it so sorely lacked—and that could be said about anywhere in this misty city. This color was complimented even further in the light of the setting sun. The gentle winds sung in wind chimes that hung from the leaning skeletons of stone houses, adding in to the music being played by little troupes of young musicians sitting below, playing their pan flutes and drums, their whistles and their rattles. While proud warriors marched about the place, seeming as stoic and vigilant as always, the tribesmen and women were eagerly reviving another home, bringing it back to usefulness by adding even more carpets and cloth. It became a strange amalgamation between the foundation of grey and drowsy granite, and the vibrancy of Myaani mothers' weave.

It was a busy place, bustling and buzzing, chatter everywhere. Ramund strolled quietly through, doing nothing but enjoying the sight of life. The merchants and their wagons, the mothers and their children, and those that Ramund figured were perhaps the Myaani equivalent of politicians, debating away. What Ramund found the most curious, however, was how none of these people seemed particularly afraid about anything. While the humans would huddle and pray in face of the coming demons, the Myaani seemed strangely accepting about it all.

“Nyoukaua, Mjaln!” dashing in from the side, a young Myaani male intercepted Ramund in his path, looking up at him with a big and toothy smile. He was clothed in vividly colored leather and ornamental leaves making up his sleeves—Ramund guessed he was in his early teens “That would be 'hello' in your language. Could I interest in a huulashmen?” he asked. He was rocking back and forth on his large paws, arms swinging gently back and forth, and Ramund noticed how he had no less than two dozen small pouches hanging from his belt and down his legs. Some were even wound into his impressively large mane, which had been delicately braided.

“Pardon?” was all Ramund could ask.

“A huulashmen.” the Myaani repeated “It's a pastry. My mother makes them, and I sell them to people like you. Well... usually, the other tribesmen are more interested, but I figured this is a good chance of getting to share some of our culture. Now... want a huulashmen?”

Ramund gave the young Myaani a skeptical stare and raised both hands in a shrug “But I do not even know what it is.”

“I told you already. It's a pasty.” the Myaani said. It seemed as if he was hiding something “I can give you a sniff, but no taste testing. You bite it, you buy it.”

Ramund folded his large arms and looked down at the Myaani with some suspicion... but the smile he wore was so contagious. Ramund softened up “Consider me interested. But I shall not buy anything I have not seen with my own eyes. Would you show it to me?”

The Myaani scratched the underside of his muzzle, pondering the question, but ending up giving a light shrug “I don't see why not.” he said, and dug his nimble fingers into one of the pouches. Out of it, he pulled a perfectly spherical ball of baked dough; it seemed crunchy, and had a strange orange color. The Myaani rolled it about in his hands and juggled absent-mindedly with it in one hand, his eyes remaining on Ramund—and his beard in particular.

“It's rather small.” Ramund commented—for a man his size, this pastry would be little but a snack “How much do you ask?”

“Oh, as much as you're willing to give.” the Myaani said again, and spoke with quite pronounced gesticulation in his furry hands “How say... twenty crowns?”

Ramund narrowed an eye “I could find myself a bed and a full meal for that price. Let us say ten.”
“Seventeen.” the Myaani countered “What I have here in my hand is culture, Mjaln. I look at the paintings of this city and think the same. Would you pay ten crowns for a painting or a sculpture?”
Ramund snorted over his smile “Ah, but a painting or a sculpture is not made on an afternoon. But I cannot lie: you have made me curious. Let us say fifteen.”

“You got it.” the Myaani said and chucked the pastry to Ramund, who grabbed it with a single hand “You drive a hard bargain, but I'm sure you'll come back for more.”

While Ramund dug out the coins from his own pouch, he gave the Myaani an entertained look “You do know how to sell your wares, my friend. If they are as good as you make them sound, I am certain I shall return for more.” he reached out and trickled the coins into the Myaani's furry palms “Spend them well.”

“Oh, I shall.” the Myaani said as he slipped them into his pockets “Enjoy your pastry, sir. But do it out of sight. It may make you look... indecent.” he gave Ramund a sly wink and a gun-finger gesture with both hands, before slipping away into the busy crowds, gone as quick as he came. Ramund, from this height, could see him disappear into one of the restored houses, where he high-fived a female Myaani of similar age. Ramund sniffed the pastry—it smelled herbal. He shook his head, still smiling, as he tucked it away and resumed his path through the crowd.

The Tu'Myaa settlement expanded far into the district, and the deeper Ramund went, the more lively it became. It was far livelier than what the rest of the city had been, even in times of peace. Moonby Sanctuary had always been a quiet city, and Ramund figured the people here must have found their new guests quite peculiar—and tiring. It was the difference between an energetic child and a sleepy old man, especially considering the young age of the Myaani race as a whole. With only fifty years behind them, it was no wonder that they were eager to make their mark on the world.

Before long, Ramund arrived at what seemed like the only thing that had survived the devastation of war: the church. It was all too quaint that this particular building had gone unscathed, and many had called it divine intervention. In the light of the setting sun, the artistic windows and the white marble pillars donned a new and brighter tint. The church was of a quite peculiar architecture, drawing heavily upon styles from the holy north, but what truly made it so spectacular, was that it was split into five parts. One for each god, so the word was—and it was no small building at all. Each part was as large as a church on its own, and together they formed a truly glorious pantheon housed in clean-scrubbed white marble. Ramund imagined that from above, it must have looked like a starfish.

There was a clearing in the houses here, a wide courtyard that surrounded the proud building. It was almost a city square in itself, but curiously tucked away behind the ruins. In the evening light, Ramund saw the wealth of priests and priestesses wandering about, debating all the matters of the world and beyond, each wearing robes colored accordingly to whatever deity they had devoted themselves to. Pilgrims flocked around the grand church, praying before what seemed like holy scriptures inscribed upon the outside walls of each deity's section of the building. But Ramund remembered the last time he was here, and he knew that there were not nearly as many pilgrims now, as there once was. And with hell marching just on the other side of the horizon, he also knew why.
At the corner of each deity's section, there was an entrance to the center of the church. If the entrance was between the section of Keyen and that of Morrin, the great doors would be flanked by statues of these. The same repeated itself on all entrances, but Ramund found himself standing before an entrance that was flanked by the vicious god of war, Hrumalz, and his benevolent father, Lyrras, the god of life. He had expected the priests and the pilgrims passing him by to give him curious looks, wondering what business a Mjaln could ever have in a human church, but he was given none of these. And as he saw Myani wandering about, mingling with the priests and debating theology, he realized why. These were strange times, so strange that a Mjaln at a human church was beginning to seem mundane. It was actually some of a relief, Ramund found. With a confident smile, he entered.

It had begun to drip outside, a drip that heralded a larger shower, so he was pleased to be under the shelter of a roof. The inside of the church was even more magnificent than the outside of it, of this there was no doubt. The glory of human religion could never be overstated, but the architects of this place were surely trying their best, Ramund thought to himself. The center of the church was a wide forum with plenty of space, a circular hall that split into the five sections. It was a busy place, even at this evening hour. The echo of a hundred voices rang off the tall walls; walls where marble statues of ancient heroes and saints and kings stood tall and eternal; walls that had attracted the hand of every artist in the city, draped in an intricacy of mural paintings that Ramund had yet to see rivaled—anywhere. History was written on the walls, even if not in words, and even if from a religious human perspective, but history nonetheless. Ramund could follow the span of ancient times moving across the walls, rising slowly until it met the ceiling, where a glass dome let the blushing sunlight through. But of all the beauties and wonders that this place offered, Ramund was looking for something far more specific.

There were certain times where Ramund felt that he owed gratitude to his makers for the height they had given him—this was one of those times. Being well a few heads taller than everyone else in here, he could spy across the entire crowd, from one end to the other. He could look in one direction and see the proud altar of Lyrras where pilgrims and devotees flocked, praying for a long life for themselves and their nearest—and with just a turn of his head, he could see the vivid altar of the goddess Jullix, where artists and young maidens besought her, wishing for beauty either in song and writing, or in the flesh. But it was by the terrible altar of Hrumalz, that he found what he was looking for.

He was not particularly hard to spot, the Tu'Myaa chieftain. He had taken off his crown, resorting to more simple clothing of leather and leaves, but it was a pair of trusted bodyguards in tribal plating that gave him away. They flanked him on either side, keeping the crowds at a safe distance in some strange display of xenophobic paranoia. With tall feathered lances and with armor designed to give them a wolfish, predator demeanor, they effortlessly kept pilgrims and priests at a distance. But despite this, it seemed the chieftain had company: a priestess. She wore heavy robes of blood red color, battered plates of steel woven into the cloth, making her almost as armored as the guards that stood before her. The red color, the armored robes, and the pair of swords hanging from her belt left no doubt about to what god she was devoted.

“I have great respect for your people, chieftain, but I fail to see how you can denounce the holy five.” as Ramund approached, he began to hear the debate that was going on between the two “History has shown to us their greatness in mentions innumerable. Wars have been won under Hrumalz' banner, wars that faced impossible odds, but were won not through strength in numbers, but strength in virtue. In these times, more than ever, we must turn to the warrior god and seek his protection.” Ramund made no attempt at interrupting, simply watching for a few moments as the Hrumalz priestess gestured to the altar of her bloodthirsty god. He stood there in marble form, a tall and powerful man whose entire body was hidden behind plates of battered steel. He was designed in such a way that made him seem almost demonic, what with terrible spikes and horns sticking out from his armor. But Ramund knew all of this was part of his symbolism: he stood as a testament to the brutality of war. Even his hair, long and cloak-like reaching down past his elbows, was made from a thousand sword blades laid on end.

“I am not denouncing your gods.” the chieftain retorted as soon as the priestess had spoken “I am simply not glorifying them, claiming that they are somehow elevated above all others. These five 'gods' reign over important elements in our world, true, but there are other spirits that are arguably stronger than any of these. Take Magic, for one; she is the very essence that connects the heavens and our mortal realm. Or Fate, the great storyteller who determines the destiny not only of mortals, but spirits too—yes, even your so-called 'gods'. There is a wealth of thousands in the heavens above, and yet you choose to worship only five?” he shook his blindfolded head “Such negligence.”

“We glorify them not in vain, Myaani.” the priestess said again, chin raised slightly, plated fingers tapping on her elbows “We have picked and chosen out of our own preference, but by the measure of their strength—for I would argue that there exists no other spirit in the heavens that rival our gods. The reason is simple. No other spirits possess two elements at the same time. Hrumalz, the great maker of war, is also the bringer of justice. Lyrras stands for life, but also mercy. Keyen for luck, but also fortune. Jullix for beauty, but also deception. And finally, Morrin, who represents death, but also slumber.” she shrugged her armored shoulders “But surely, you must know this already. Do you not?”

“I believe what the chieftain means to say,” Ramund stepped in to join the discussion “is that it seems negligent to forget about other spirits. There is no doubt that these five possess great strength and importance, but this select elite cannot govern the world alone. We Mjaln, just like the Myaani, revere the spiritual world as a whole; no spirit is greater than the other, for they are all entwined, meaning that the decisions of one will inevitably have consequences for the others. In the north, we do not personify our spirits as much as the Myaani or you humans do, but rather pray to them—as a whole—for whatever it is we need. The skies will provide, by whatever measure is necessary.”

The chieftain did not look up at Ramund, and for a good reason. His large furry ears perked at the sound of his voice while he stared blindly out into thin air, smiling slightly. The priestess, however, looked up at Ramund with suspicion in her stare.

“And you are?” she asked.

“Ramund.” he answered, bowing his bearded head in greeting, once “Sergeant, I would suppose, of the Dawn rebellion.”

“Ah.” she said, as if that was the brick of the puzzle she was missing “Well, sergeant Ramund, I believe you might be glad to know that apprentices, pilgrims, novices, and even certain priests will often give gifts to the more... subordinate elements of the world, if it is a matter too small for the attention of the Five. We are all well aware that the Five do not govern all aspects of our wide and infinitely intricate world, but they have still proven to be superior, and thus deserve our more focused reverence.”

Ramund looked up at the glorious statue of Hrumalz that reached all the way up to the towering ceiling, the citizens and pilgrims kneeling and begging at his heavy sabatons, and the audacious halls that surrounded them “I do see that.” Ramund said, having to confess this obvious fact “We in the north would settle for a small tree made of stone as our shrines... but this will work too. Yes.” he decided not to pursue the issue any longer, his gaze falling to the chieftain next “But I was actually here for you, chieftain. Am I interrupting?”

“If you were, then you already have.” the chieftain said, his smile remaining, a finger raised “But I believe this debate is naught, regardless. What is on your mind, Bjornsson?”

As the priestess left to return to her duties, Ramund took the spot where she had stood. He returned the chieftain's smile, though he wasn't quite certain if it mattered or not for someone as blind as him “I was hoping that you could provide some insight into the battle before us. Being as attuned to the spiritual as you are... perhaps you had received some omens. I am confident that the spirits wish to tell us something, no?”

“Undoubtedly.” the chieftain said “But I have heard quite little. Nothing, as a matter of fact. My time has been exhausted on tending the refugees, arranging accommodations, securing supplies—the list continues. I have not had the chance to sit down and listen.” now, he turned his blindfolded eyes up on Ramund, staring at him through the pale cloth “But as it happens, I find that I may have a moment, as we speak. Perhaps you would like to join me?”

Ramund hadn't expected this “In meditation? Why... I am not certain I know how.”

“I can teach you.” the chieftain said as he pushed himself off the walls “Follow me. If we are swift, we can make it before nightfall.” he gestured Ramund to follow him, and immediately turned to wander down the marble aisle. The armor of his guards rattled as they followed him, and Ramund was caught in a moment of silence, too many questions clogging up his head. He sighed through his nose, decided that they would all be answered in time, and set off to follow the chieftain.

He was led out the great doors of the church and through the pious crowds that gathered around its sacred walls. He knew that the Chieftain was one who only spoke when he had something to say, and thus, Ramund stayed his tongue from small-talk. Silence hung between them as they wandered from the courtyard of the church, and into the ruinous streets once more. Gradually, it became quieter and quieter as they strayed from the chanting pilgrims, priests, and apprentices, the rattling footsteps of the chieftain's guards the only noise that remained. However, this soon came to a stop, as the chieftain gestured them to halt.

Ramund inevitably looked upon the building that the chieftain had led him to. Though whether it was still a building, was not quite certain. Where once there may have stood tall and smooth walls, now there was but a phantom and a hint of what it was before. The shadowy vestige of a manor stood as walls that were only half as tall as they once were, as upper floors that were reduced to lower floors, and lower floors that had collapsed into the sewers below under the wrath of a bygone war. A black fence of steel surrounded that broken manor, but the gates were open, creaking as they swayed in the wind.

But before the ruin, before the lingering tragedy where the mist coiled through the masonry like a peaceless specter, there was a garden. Quite the impressive one at that. Ramund followed the chieftain and got a closer look, seeing all the bushes and ferns that was surely once quite neatly kept and trimmed, but had now overgrown itself, climbing up the walls and fences. It was spacious, full of quaint little pathways of stone that snaked through the tall, wetly shimmering grass. The rain had given the plants all they needed to go on living, and in the sunlight, they shined. Ramund wondered what kind of place this was, for the more he looked upon it, the more it struck him: this did not look much like a manor at all. It did not have the same glorious entrances and proud doors that other manors would have; not to mention that it wasn't in the noble district either. He looked around for clues, and found a small plaque on the fence. But it was rusted over, hiding whatever words that may once have been inscribed. Fortunately, Ramund had a solution for that.

He reached his hand forward, palm turned upward. He began a quiet and brief chant, words muttered under his breath, which was all that was needed. Seeping through the clinks and cracks of his gauntlet, a metallic-colored energy began to coalesce. Once it had grown large enough, he blew at it, making it spill out over the plaque. The Metal magic cleansed the plaque, melting away the rust like a thin layer of ice doused in boiling water—and within the snap of a finger, the words were once again visible.

The Moonby Institution for the Ill of Mind.

“An Asylum?” Ramund asked with great curiosity, his eyes now on the chieftain.

“An Asylum.” the chieftain confirmed, his blind stare on the garden as well, nose raised to the gentle scent that enveloped it “This is a place of peace; that is what it was built for. The aura of serenity will help us meditate... not to mention that the garden is quite lovely, and I do prefer natural surroundings as I meditate. This city of granite is making me... uncomfortable.” he said. The guards on either side of him gave a few nods and agreed in their native tongue—or so Ramund assumed.

“That is a good point.” Ramund said, nodding too “In contrast to the rest of this sorrowful district, it is quite lovely indeed.”

“Hence my reason for choosing it.” The chieftain said, as he strolled on inside. Ramund followed in through the swaying gates of black steel, unto a pathway that had somehow escaped the destruction of the war. Ramund looked upon the building itself, and could imagine what it was once looked like: tall and squared, much like a hospital, with plenty of windows all around to give the asylum inmates all the daylight they wanted; even now, the fading glow cast some beautiful red trappings upon it. But he could also imagine how it had all come crashing down, as a trebuchet shot soared into it. In fact, with just one look in through the splintered door, he could see the floors that had collapsed on themselves—perhaps a relic of the war was to be found down there.

The chieftain's guards took their place at the gate's flanks, maybe mostly out of habit than anything else. The chieftain, however, led Ramund to a small pond in the corner of the garden. It was a cute little thing, adorned with a marble statue of a nameless woman who smiled brightly at the marble fish that surrounded her, circling around her as if they were birds.

The chieftain sat down on his knees before the pond and the statue, his blindfolded eyes seeming to rest on the gentle ripples that spread through the clear waters. He took deep breaths as if he was inhaling the mist, before he spoke to Ramund “Sit in any way you are comfortable. The less that the physical world may intrude upon you, the better.”

Ramund decided to sit with his legs folded and his hands on his knees. It had been quite some time since Ramund had last meditated; it was something he had sorely forgotten about, as moments of peace had seemed exceedingly rare out there on the battlefield—and even more so these days. He recalled, however, that he would use the tunes of his music box to soothe him... but perhaps not in the chieftain's company.

“Deep breaths, Ramund.” the chieftain said, and demonstrated “Fill your lungs with the mist, absorb it, then let it all out. Let your heartbeat slow and your thoughts fall quiet. In the silence of body and mind, you shall hear the spirits clearer.” he let the long breath out through his black nose “Acknowledge the physical world... then reject it.”

Ramund followed the chieftain's instructions, knowing perfectly well that while he may have been older than him, the chieftain harbored wisdom that age would not freely gift—it had to be earned. He felt the gentle mist pour into his lungs, its cold wetness enveloping him from the inside as well as the outside. It was the incense that would stimulate his senses, now that he took the time to truly acknowledge it... and then reject it. He let out his breath, and felt his eyelids grow heavier. Shadows seemed to seep in from the corners of his eyes, spreading pools of ink ever so gently conquering more and more of him. With his hands resting on his knees, his eyes closed and his breath controlled, he felt his mind slowing down. It was like a machine, a machine that could have no respite and no rest... until now. His thoughts grew heavy and drawn-out, his inner voice seeming curiously lethargic, all before it silenced completely. Slowly, slowly... then it stopped. A perfect stand-still of body, mind, and soul.

But he was ripped back to reality, as a hard and cold wind swept over him. He cringed, bitter at the rude interruption, the freezing bite reminding him of the presence of the physical world. The moan of the winds, the rustling in the trees... but wait a moment. There were no trees in Moonby.
His eyes slowly opened. The blushing eve and the city of stone was suddenly nowhere to be seen; all of it carried away upon the mystic rivers of the spiritual world. The ice he felt biting at his skin was surely no work of the Rimnoll Wetlands either; this was a frost he knew from somewhere else.

It was midday here. A cloudless sky spanned overhead, and through the dark green pine crowns, sunlight trickled. He was standing in snow to his knees, and he felt water dripping from the pines around him unto his head. He looked down, and saw that he was no longer in his armor, but in hunting garb of fur and leather. And as he looked up, he saw the rigid peaks of distant mountains—mountains that gave him an instant rush of nostalgia. Even now, he was standing at the side of one, on a steep slope that descended into a great and craggy gulch, so far below. Clouds sat upon the distant peaks like wooly hats and pine forests decorated the mountainsides with their seasonless green. He knelt down to scoop up a handful of snow; the sense of cold tingling in his palm could easily have convinced him that this was reality. But while all of this was quite astounding, he couldn't help but wonder: what was all this for? Why was he here?

He looked up the slope upon which he stood, and had his suspicions confirmed. But a little way up, there was a humble shelter, a wooden house that he once called home—though in truth, he would still call it home, if only he wasn't so far away. Upon recognizing it, however, he felt an immediate pang of concern. Would there be anyone inside? He was not certain he wanted that question answered—and yet, he knew he could not just stand here. With reluctant steps, he ascended the slope, the thick snow crunching underfoot.

He kicked the snow off his furry boots, mostly out of habit from older times. The curtains were drawn over the little windows on the front facade of the house, here were a small porch leaned forward over the slope. For a recreation of the spiritual world, this place was surprisingly detailed—the front porch was decorated with hunting gear on wooden racks, wet laundry drying in the hard winds, even some of his daughter's toys lying around. With such a perfect recreation of his past, he almost felt invaded, as if someone had been watching him for all this time, writing down the minutest of details.

With a careful hand, he pushed the door open. It was unlocked and it creaked as it yawned. Gentle warmth seeped out through the open door, soothing waves that dulled the teeth of ice biting at his skin. He stepped inside, into the humble room that was full of a welcoming warmth from the embers that tenaciously pulsated in the hearth. It was no rich place, hardly anything more than a hunting shack, but still it would house an entire family—he, his wife, and his daughter... but none of them were to be seen. Left and right he looked, and only empty chairs and a pair of beds he found. But the embers were still alive, and even a few candles too. If this had been any other situation, he would immediately have thought that someone had been here recently... but in this case, he could be certain of nothing.

His attention was caught by something. Over the howling of the winds and the quiet spits coming from the heart, he heard something. A rustling noise. It came from one of the side-rooms—his daughter's room, as a matter of fact. He felt his heartbeat rise. Something was amiss, and he grew more and more reluctant, yet anxious, to find out what. But the spirits had put him here for a reason, this he knew. With careful steps, he approached his daughter's room and pushed open the door.

He had thought for a moment that he would find his daughter inside; this would of course have made him quite glad, but he couldn't imagine what the spirits would tell him by doing so. What he found inside, was most certainly not his daughter. Her bed was empty, her toys scattered over the floors as usual, but his eyes fell on something rather odd, on the little table in the center of her room. It was a hat. A top hat, neatly decorated with colorful lining and bright polish... and it was spinning. Spinning, spinning, spinning, twirling around on its rims—and it didn't look like it was going to stop. He looked down at it with curious eyes, watching as it continued to spin.
“What are you trying to tell me?” he asked the top hat. It felt odd speaking to a hat at first, but he figured that he wasn't speaking as much to the hat, as he was speaking to the spirits that had led him here. Unsurprisingly, he received no answer. The hat just continued to spin in an endless loop that obviously defied the laws of physics.

“Are you a symbol of something?” Ramund asked the hat again, pacing around his daughter's room, circling the spinning hat “A symbol of aristocracy? Hrm... but why the spinning?” he stroked his beard as he mused to himself these questions, trying to solve the riddle that the hat posed. But rude as it was, it said nothing, and just continued to spin.

Ramund decided to attempt another approach. He stepped forward, looking at the top hat with challenging eyes. If words weren't going to squeeze secrets out of this hat, perhaps actions would. He put his hand on the hat, meaning to stop it. But it didn't stop. Even with his hand on it, it continued to spin. He frowned and put some more force on the hat, but no, it did not stop spinning. He put a second hand on it, but it didn't matter—it was as if it was many times stronger than him, somehow, not even as much as slowing down the pace of its spin.

“Ach... how frustrating!” Ramund exclaimed as he squeezed both hands unto the hat, to no avail at all. He eventually put his entire weight unto the cursed thing, and yet it completely ignored him—but then, with a sudden crack and a crash, he broke it. Not the hat, but the table upon which it had spun. Down the middle it snapped and he tumbled forward, just barely managing to keep his balance. But as he looked back down at the hat, at the snapped table, he saw to his dread and fury: it was still spinning. He gritted his teeth and reached for his axe, but stopped. He came to realize an undeniable fact.

“I can't stop it.” he said out loud as he let his hand drop. His eyes narrowed “Is that what you are trying to tell me, top hat? That I can't stop you?” he asked it, naturally with no answer but a continued spinning. But in the silence, a question surfaced inside him. A question that tasted wrong and wicked as it left his mouth, an appetizer for something deeper and darker, something that he wasn't certain he wanted to know of—and yet, he asked.

“...Who are you?”

It became clearer and clearer that whatever message the hat meant to deliver, it had been delivered; the question was whether or not Ramund had received it. He rested his eyes on the thing for a while. His latter question continued to echo in his mind—who, or what, was this hat a symbol of? If it was a symbol of aristocracy, did the spinning imply that the noble ranks were going to be shifted? A revolution, maybe? That would surely be an interesting play on words—and perhaps even a likely outcome. He had seen the filth that the Moonby people had to live in, while the nobles feasted like kings every evening... a revolution could indeed be a possibility.

If, perhaps, the city survived the demon attack.

He shook his head. Enough of this. He turned around, and decided to leave the hat be. But as he opened the door behind him, it was not the living room of the peaceful little mountain hut that it opened up to. The scent of embers had given way to the sharp smell of cleanliness, of a servant's hard-rubbed soap. The humble room had expanded into a hall that seemed like it had been shaped by the hands of gods, white marble and towering pillars everywhere. The little windows became illustrious artworks of mosaic finesse, entire libraries of sacred history unfolding itself upon walls as tall as church halls. An almost blinding midday shine spilled in through these windows of sanctified glory, and he knew instantly where he was, even though he had never been here. The holy symbols and white marble told clear tales, but what truly gave it away, where the banners hanging from the windowsills, emblazoned with a swan that he knew all too well. And at the very back of this proud hall bathed in sunlight that seemed to invade from all sides, spotlighted in their gilded rays, was a throne.

He looked behind him, and saw his daughter's room. He saw the hat that continued to spin, but before him, was nothing short of the holy regent's hall. The king of kings, the uppermost saint of them all—or so the titles went. Ramund had to squint his eyes in the brightness reflecting off the pale white walls and floors, now that his eyes had adapted to the brown and soft colors of his daughter's room. But through his squinted stare, he saw that the throne was empty... almost.
He stepped through the door. In the very second he did so, his hunting outfit was immediately replaced with the armor that he knew so well, that had become his second skin after all this time. The sound of his sabatons meeting the marble floors resounded off the distant walls with silken trappings, followed by the closing of the door behind him—which was far louder than he had anticipated. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the door was no longer the small one leading to his daughter's room, but a great and daunting one, one that would surely require at least three men to open. Or just one Mjaln.

He approached the throne. Wary were his steps as he did so, dreading what the spirits wanted to tell him, yet too curious to let it be. He saw how the throne was not occupied by a king... not all of one, at least. Only his crown, a ceremonial one, flamboyant with velvet drapes and gems innumerable. But for a second, Ramund thought his eyes deceived him: coiled around the crown, was a snake not of flesh and blood, but of solid gold. It writhed and slithered, and from its dazzling fangs, poison stained the vibrant crown.

“Spirits.” Ramund felt his breath stolen as he saw before him a warning and an omen that sent dire shivers down his back. His gaze snapped upward to the decorated ceilings, but he looked through them, staring at his hosts with a look of disbelief. This couldn't be. He prayed that he misinterpreted this symbol, but how? He felt a sudden darkness overcome him, as he had to face the vile truth that was being presented before him.

“I know you.” he said, slowly, his eyes on the golden snake “Don't I?”

The snake's golden eyes dug into Ramund's like needles, sinking deep into his spirit. It slowly rose up, long and powerful creature it was, its brilliant body shimmering in the sunlight. An equally golden tongue chased its wheezing breath, and its lips pulled back to bare its poison-drenched fangs. In its predatory stare, Ramund found his answer.

“You have sunken deep—deeper than I had once thought you capable of.” Ramund continued, the darkness inside him beginning to taint his words with anger and hatred “But it seems I have underestimated your wickedness.”

The snake hissed furiously at him, its golden body twitching and jittering. Its mouth opened up and it seemed ready to lash at him at any second. But Ramund did not waver.

“I should hope you know what you've done—and the consequences that shall inevitably follow.” he dared to take a step closer to the beast “Your lust for power has overtaken you, blinded you. Senselessly, you've walked into its trap; I pity you for your weakness, but that will not save you.” he raised his hand to point at it with an armored finger “We are coming for you. And we will dethrone you... Lucius.”

The snake's eyes flashed with rage at the mention of its name. With a high-pitched hiss, it lashed out at Ramund, fangs bared to bury themselves in his winter-hardened skin. But they never got that far. Ramund's heavy fist closed around the creature's skull through astoundingly sharp reflexes for a man of his age. But instead of crushing its skull then and there, he hurled the snake through the air, smashing it against the nearest marble pillar. It was satisfying to watch it clap against the stone, wrap half-way around the pillar, before falling to the floors. But Ramund was far from done.

“To think that I fought under your banner for all these years!” he shouted at the snake, his voice reverberating off the church-like walls “To think I gave this much of my life, and for what? To serve your poisonous agendas, Lucius? What a fool I have been. But my sacrifice is nothing in comparison to those who gave not just part of their lives, but all of it, in service of you. You could have bolstered Aegon's defenses, but you chose not to. You could have built walls at the borders, but you chose not to... for none of this would qualify as 'war', would it? In your twisted ambitions, you would rather sacrifice the lives of countless thousands, than let your own rank be threatened.” he looked toward the poison-stained crown “And unless I am mercifully mistaken... it seems that your efforts have finally borne fruit. May you choke on them.”

The snake was given no chance to answer. Not even as much as a hiss. For not the snake nor Ramund had expected what happened next. Dust shook from every surface as what felt like an earthquake surged through the floors. Ramund's heart leaped into his throat, and it would only get worse. Ramund watched with disbelieving eyes as the world seemed to break before him. Cracks ran like lightning bolts through the pillars and the floors, but while the pillars remained intact, the same could not be said about the floors. The cracks grew and grew, until they were cracks no more, but fissures. Ramund staggered and tumbled right into the throne, crushing the crown beneath him. He sat there and could not blink, a sudden spectator to what seemed like the end of the world. The elaborate mosaic windows shattered as a second shockwave came to follow the first one, and the brilliant sunlight that had poured through them grew dark, red... and evil. A demonic glow swelled up through the growing fissures in the marble floors, and glass from the ceiling windows started to rain over him. Ramund watched as the snake was consumed by one of the fissures, whipping and writhing helplessly as it tumbled into the depths. In but a few seconds, a place as holy as this had become nothing short of doomsday itself.

But in all the chaos, in all the destruction that unfurled around him, things could still get worse. And they did. The shadows around seemed to thicken like oil, and he felt an immeasurably dark presence filling up the halls. The shadows spilled from the corners, bleeding through tears in reality itself—or whatever this place was. Ramund could only watch, helpless as the floors, the ceiling, and the walls were all swallowed up by this inky blackness. But that was not the worst of it. Roiling from this darkness, a hollow laughter rumbled, rumbled like it was another shockwave. Ramund could feel the strength of it battering in his chest like the sound of a thousand marching sabatons. For once in a long time, Ramund felt something that he once thought himself rid of.
Fear.

“You are a fly, Ramund Bjornsson.” the laughter began to form words, words that were spoken with a voice that harked hellish wrath “A fly, caught in a web intricate far beyond your mortal comprehension. In a jape of fate, a twist of destiny, and a little lie at the right place... you ended up here. With me.”

Ramund froze, his every organ feeling like it had turned to ice, as this unholy visitor became more than just a voice. Breaking forth from the engulfing darkness and unto the broken marble floors, a claw that seemed forged in hellfire shattered a handful more tiles. Then another similar claw broke through, both of them easily the size of himself. But then, the crown of hell itself made its entrance. The face of the demon king was a product of the darkest nightmares, a sum of all evils concentrated into this dark, black, reptilian mask. Elongated like an arrowhead pointing downward, sleek wherever a spike did not jut forward. Teeth and fangs innumerable filled up a maw from which purple saliva dripped, and from which not one, but six tongues hung. The eyes had several shattered pupils, each and every one dark red, and simply looking into them made Ramund feel as if he was plunging into eternal damnation. An unholy rumble poured from his maw every time he exhaled another smoky, reeking breath.

“You can buzz and you can struggle, little fly, but you are too tightly bound.” he continued, nearing slowly, the darkness peeling off of his abominable figure “You think you are in control here... your little rebellion, your mortal games—it is all part of a greater scheme. From the very beginning, long before any of you were ever born, this scheme has been in motion... and you, though briefly on stage, have been playing a vital role in all of this.” the demon king's breath spilled out over Ramund now, his face so close that he could touch—if he was not frozen in place, overwhelmed and paralyzed “But I am afraid that your part is over, Bjornsson. You have served me well. In exchange for your diligent services, I shall give to you, a worthy rank...” his eyes suddenly came alight with dark purple fire “...in Hell!”

Raising like a guillotine, the demon king brought high his jagged claws, gleaming like steel in the flames that stood from his eyes. Ramund felt like his entire body had been petrified, like every muscle in his body had stiffened to a perfect still—even his heart. Locux's six tongues wagged as he laughed and laughed and laughed, a thunderous roar that felt like it would echo in his mind for centuries after he'd been killed. And as he stared up at the claw, he began to realize: that moment was now. This was what death looked like. As Locux brought down the claw, descending it upon him to rip him apart, he wondered and hoped if this would count as dying in battle.
There was an iridescence in the air. A slash of gold breaking through the drowsy mist. Every drifting droplet, every little speck of mist, made into tiny lanterns of prismatic light. The light of noon cast upon this grey, grey place gave it a touch of life that was hard to find in a city like this one. It was quiet, as always, save for the gentle song of water lapping against the granite banks. The lake shimmered in the sunlight, no less than the mist that adorned it, hovering just above its gentle waves. Even with the mud encircling it, even with the squalor of the slum district engulfed in the stench of sewer, manholes everywhere slowly bubbling filth like the streets themselves were vomiting, there was a beauty about this lake. True, it was artificial, man-made, but so were the greatest pieces of art that now hung in museums across the world. In its gilded shimmer, the lake was a jewel in a pile of dung; a refuge in a world otherwise so unforgiving. There were times where a fragile mind had to seek its solace, its peace in an age so ravaged by war. This was one of those times.

Duncan had challenged fate, coming here—this he knew. With the wind gently tucking in his long black locks, he gazed out over the noon-lit ripples in the water, a picture in his mind refusing to leave. The lake looked much different in the sunlight than in moonlight, but he was certain it was the same lake. There were not many—if any—like it. This was most certainly it. This was where he saw Rose come dancing across the waves, in the arms of that... man.

He sighed, breathing out a long plume of steam that roiled in the air, mixing with the mist. He had come here to empty his head, to be free of the slaughter that was taking place at the Umbral manor, but instead he came face-to-face with his own deceptive memories. What he saw... was it truly just a figment of his imagination? It seemed so real. But so did the massive sea monster that rose from the depths of the lake—and that was most certainly just his drug-addled brain playing tricks. Horrifying, ungodly tricks. Was this man just another one of them?

He emptied his mind again. He let it all out, silencing the dizzying rush that his thoughts had become. He let the sound of the lake's trickling and the quiet hum of the wind fill it up, all while focusing on the sense of the mist in his lungs. Through this, he knew he still had control over his own head... somewhat. A peaceful mind was easily harnessed, but it was in times of stress that it became furious... rabid... hungry. Images of the woman in Casserton came rushing back, but he hurried to evict them from his head. Not today. Today, he would have peace in mind.

“At least bring a blanket next time.” Duncan's eyes snapped open as words invaded and broke his silence “Or a coat.”

He felt his heart burst into a sudden rush, adrenaline bolting through his veins, but as he bounded to his feet and turned around, he saw who it was. Her wizened face was halfway illuminated in the light of noon washing clean these dingy streets, and mud covered up her shoes—as well as the rest of the district. She was strangely camouflaged, wearing a brown tunic that was a little too large for her small body. Her gaunt, frail hands were entwined, and her face grew a few extra wrinkles as she smiled so softly to her son.

“You can put the sword away, Duncan.” she said, glancing to the blade in Duncan's right hand. He looked down at it as well, and blinked in confusion. He couldn't recall drawing it at all, yet there it was, clenched firmly in his steel grip. He sheathed it slowly.

“You shouldn't be here.” Duncan said, the heat of adrenaline in him slowly dwindling as she approached, stepping up to the lake's granite banks, gazing out over the noon-lit waves like he had done just seconds ago “The slums are the worst place you could be, at the moment. With the rumor of the demons coming, every thief and every thug are robbing strangers like there's no tomorrow—which is seeming like a very real risk to them.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked, turning her old and withering eyes on Duncan, and though age may have taken most of her, there was still that parental authority in her stare. Duncan wasn't quite sure how to answer that, but when he looked out over the mist-swept lake again, he found what he was looking for.

“To get away from it all.” he said, mostly just to himself, but loud enough for Agatha to hear “Thugs and thieves seem much better than what's going on out there. When the bloodshed began, I had to get away. People killing people...” disgust spread like an infection inside him. He sighed it out “You know there's something wrong in the world when men will set aside the demons on their doorsteps, just so they can keep killing each other for a while longer. It seems like this is the time to band together and fend off hell pounding at our gates... but maybe I'm just naive.”

Agatha slowly sat down at the edge of the lake with Duncan's help, who then followed suit, taking his place beside her. He took off his boots and lay them beside him, so that his bare feet could gently touch the surface of the cold water. It was chilly, but soothing still.

“Do you remember what your father would always tell you?” Agatha asked, but kept her gaze on shafts of light that pierced the mist “And his father before him? Do you remember the book he gave you, all those years ago?”

Duncan smiled a little. He was surprised at this, and it felt almost alien, but he couldn't quite help it “Of course.” he nodded sincerely “Know your enemy—those were his undying words. I like to think that they are one of the reasons I'm still alive today.”

“I don't doubt it.” Agatha said, this time turning her eyes on Duncan “But I think they mean more than just the ability to summarize the demons' anatomy down to the smallest ligament. More than a complete schematic of their behavior, or in what varieties they come. More than through what hellish means they are created, or even the history of their appearance here in our realm.” she looked into his eyes, and smiled softly, sympathetically “It's great that you're well-versed in all of these things, and you're probably right that they are what has kept you alive... but in these times of uncertain allies, I think they have another meaning. It's important to know what your enemy is... but it's even more important to know who.” she took his hand, gently, her own feeling uncomfortably cold “Ask yourself again, Duncan. Do you know your enemy?”

Duncan's smile didn't last long. With Agatha's eyes in his and her question hanging heavily in the air, he found his tongue uncomfortably limp. He looked away from her, into the misty waves of the lake, and let silence settle in. But he broke it shortly after “I feel like I am the only one who does.” he said, an honesty in his words that felt relieving to express “Ramund too, thank the gods. But this whole rebellion...” he chewed on his lip while his eyes drifted over the distant grey skyline of the city, old giants of mist-wreathed stone casting their grim shadows upon the streets.

“...it's like they've got it all backwards. Unfortunately, I'm not sure they have much choice either. Fighting the crusade seems like suicide, but joining it would only give Deum even more power than he already has. It seems like the most prudent thing would simply be to lay down their differences to fight this common enemy—but what can you do, when one of them has greed stuck in his head and the world's largest army in his hands? That man is so bloody obsessed that we're left with nothing but two options: total submission, or full-fledged war. It's a lose-lose situation. I just pray we've chosen the lesser of these two evils.”

Agatha gave Duncan a rather unsatisfied look, as if this was not what she was looking for “Let politics be politics. Be as it may, we are still only bricks in a much larger game. The chieftain and the mayor—and hopefully the noble houses too—will see to these things. Your true enemy lies you much closer, Duncan.” she said, and this time, there was a look of great concern in her eyes. Duncan saw it, even felt it, but what she meant was beyond him. The motherly worry in her expression was all too familiar to him, in all those times when she wanted him to discover on his own what he had done wrong, or how he felt about something—usually, this had been about that sweet little girl from around the corner in Casserton, but she had never seemed this... afraid. What was it she wanted him to face?

Just as he was about to ask, a third came to join their company of two “Duncan!” he said, the powerful voice of Ramund seeming like thunder in comparison to Agatha's gentle words. Duncan turned around to see his sergeant standing there, tall as the squalid houses that surrounded him, mud covering up a new pair of boots; heavy, but fit for travel. He had cast off his armor, clad in dark green clothes that made him seem much smaller than usual, without the steel pauldrons he used to wear. The wind tucked at his beard and his white crown, and he seemed like he had been running, judging by his heavy breath.

“You are wanted.”

Duncan rose, helping Agatha to her feet as well, but his eyes remained on Ramund “Wanted? By whom?”
“The council.” Ramund answered swiftly—he seemed to be in quite the hurry “The noble council, at that.”

Duncan's eyes widened, and his heart jumped. Even Agatha seemed surprised “The council? Oh goodness... more politics. But why me?”

For a moment, Ramund seemed rather amused. His huge arms folded, and a little smile took shape behind his pale beard “Because you outrank me, Duncan. We may be deserters, but it seems that we are not quite out of the system yet.” his gaze moved between the two humans before him. An arched eyebrow indicated his realization of the situation “Oh... I didn't mean to intrude.”

“It's quite alright, Ramund.” Agatha said, gesturing for him to be at ease “We were finished anyway.” she turned to Duncan and gave him a smile too, squeezing his hand “Do what you must, Duncan. I've got a room at The Raincloud, just north of here. If you need me, for whatever reason, I'll be there. I know you're a grown man now... but I'm still your mother, and I care about you. Don't you ever forget that.” the weight in her words served to stoke the concern inside of him, but amidst it, there was comfort too. He looked into his mother's eyes and returned her smile, before reaching forth to give her a hug that he had been wanting to give for quite some time. It was easy, he found, to forget a mother's love in these turbulent times. He savored every moment of that hug.

“Now go on.” she said, as their arms released “A captain must do what a captain must do.”

“I do concur.” Ramund commented with a smile of his own “And I do not believe that patience is a virtue of the nobility.”

“Very well then.” Duncan said, taking a step back from his mother “I don't see what choice I have. Let's get this over with.” he straightened up his armor as best he could, suddenly wishing that he had chosen an attire like Ramund's instead of this plate—if only he didn't feel so naked without it. He held his mother's fragile hands, and uttered the words “Stay safe.” with some reluctance. It was with a final smile from both of them, that they parted ways—Agatha to her room at the inn, and Duncan to something he, in truth, wasn't quite certain he would escape alive from.

The door slowly opened up. Silent, gliding quietly upon well-oiled hinges. There was a scent of aristocracy in the air, such an astonishing contrast to the mud of the slums that he had been seeking solace in, just a few minutes ago. But here he stood, his boots cleaned by servants so as to not bring the outside filth in; the smell of varnished floors was everywhere, inescapable, and it made him feel uncomfortably ill at ease. As if he didn't belong.

And the eyes everywhere didn't make it any easier. Outside the large wooden doors, was the forum hall of nobility; here where the velvet lords would spend their time with other of similar rank, far from the ragged presence of the people, the rabble, the plebs. It was a large square hall with a high ceiling that carried all kinds of curious paintings, propaganda some might say, displaying a clearly exaggerated depiction of old noble lords conquering the monarchy that once ruled this realm—the paintings made it seem like a revolution of sorts, a quest of equality and justice... but even Duncan could see that while the spoils of that war may have been rich, equality was not amongst them. Maybe the lords could tell themselves this, looking to the glorified paintings of their ancestors riding into battle upon white steeds, but one glance out into the streets would surely tell another story.

The hall was quite popular at this hour, it seemed. Elderly lords sat and chatted on benches in between the staggeringly tall marble pillars that held the decorated ceiling aloft. Children in rich clothing and combed hair played around on the similar marble floors, marble where veins of strange colors slithered through, marble built by the populace, but enjoyed by this select elite. Duncan didn't know much about architecture, but it was clear that this particular building had taken plenty of inspiration from Godshill structures—which all was quite ironic, considering the opposition that most nobles had toward the Empire. With the white and clean colors of it all, it was unmistakable—and above the tall wooden door by which Duncan now stood, there was even inscribed some words in High Speech. “Domus Dei et Homines”, it wrote. Unfortunately, he didn't know High Speech.

His attention was swiftly diverted, as the servant that led him to these doors suddenly stomped his cane three times and raised his voice to the room beyond “Captain Duncan Montgomery Ross, of the Dawn rebellion!” he said, and Duncan swiftly snapped out of his fascination of the white forum halls, to see what the door opened up to. Or in this case: who. In a circular room, smaller than the forum hall but still impressively large, an equally circular table stood. And at this table, a dozen sincere-looking characters sat; men and women, some of them wearing formal uniform-like attires, while others wore what seemed like their everyday velvets. There were old and young alike, even a few children too, and Duncan swiftly noticed how the families were instantly recognizable—for they all wore their house colors.

The Rex family, consisting of the lord of the house, Barthol Rex, followed by his wife and his eldest son, wore dominantly red outfits, though slashed with certain other colors befitting their desires. Barthol Rex was easily recognized; he was the eldest of them all, this Duncan knew. Eldest of all nobility, as a matter of fact. He was the last living nobility to witness and be part of The Silk War, a bloody strife between House Rex and House Hedwen, that now had settled, but left an ever-present tension between these two houses—despite that there was only one person left who had actually witnessed it with his own eyes. Their emblem, the roaring red lion, decorated their side of the table.

The house of Hedwen sat opposite of this family, all of them wearing blue. The lord of this house was not nearly as old as Barthol, but still of age, and respected for it. He was flanked by his twin sons, who had grown to become men just like he, and on their side of the table, the soaring eagle was emblazoned.

The house of Cercy, golden yellow in their attire, had an empty seat. Duncan felt guilt rise within him as he saw this, the seat where Anton Cercy was sure to have been seated, if only he and the others had been swifter. It was clear to see that his representing family, now consisting only of his widowed wife and his fatherless daughter, were not too pleased to be here without him. But a noble's duties remained as they were: unyielding.

His eyes soon met a stare that he knew quite well already. The hard, penetrating glare, carried upon pupils narrow and slitted, cat-like. Vyacheslav sat at the far end, swept in clothes of black and red, but far more formal than the heavy coat of leather Duncan had seen him in, when the battle began. His wife, Nadezhda, sat by his side, wearing of course an outfit much befitting the situation; it was as Vyacheslav had said: no matter the occasion, this woman had a dress appropriate for it. Her hair hung loose this time, running down in long locks over her chest, and her lips were darkly red with lipstick.

But most curious, was what sat upon Vyacheslav's shoulder. Perched there with folded little legs, a creature unlike anything he'd seen before, a creature that he had only heard of in rumor. No more than half a meter tall, covered in fur from top to toe, and the head of a slender, elegant cat between its shoulders. It sat there with a small—and it was indeed small, even by this creature's standards—book in its hands, scribbling something upon it. It looked up briefly at Duncan, who couldn't keep eye contact for more than half a second. He swiftly looked away, and the creature returned to its writing.

The Umbral side of the table was the only one left completely empty. Duncan wasn't particularly surprised about this, not after getting told what had happened to Theodor and his family. Even the emblem of the owl cast in moonlight shine had been removed, haphazardly as if it was hurriedly done. It was clear that the Umbral house had become a spot of shame upon the collective nobility, and it was soon to be erased completely.

“We are well aware, thank you.” Vyacheslaw growled from the far end of the conference room, both arms on the table, both eyes on Duncan “Duncan. You may enter.”

Duncan would in all cases rather be free, but duty compelled him, this he knew. He looked once over his shoulder, seeing the only thing that stood out more in this hall of aristocracy more than he did. The children flocked around the massive Mjaln, whose patience was truly endless. He let them tuck at his beard, awe at his size, ask him all kinds of curious questions; few of which were not related to his physique. But as Duncan looked to him, he looked back. A smile took shape behind his beard, and he gave Duncan a nod. His eyes wished him all the best of luck that he needed.

As the door closed, it become surprisingly quiet. The sound of the children's excited voices resounding off the marble walls were suddenly stifled, as if they were never there in the first place. Duncan met all the eyes that fell upon him, and felt their scrutiny. He knew what it was to be examined, having gone through such processes times innumerable on the battlefield by inspectors, but never like this. These eyes scoured him clean for even the slightest sign of mistrust or weakness. Like vultures, their eyes picked him clean. This was the game they played. He had so dearly wished not to become part of it.

For a conference hall, it was hauntingly silent. The only sound that disturbed it was that of Duncan's boots meeting the floor as he made for a chair that Vyacheslav had gestured for him to take. It was a chair for the Umbrals, and as he sat down, he couldn't help but feel the weight of misplacement. This was not his seat, not his room—not his situation. And yet, here he sat. His eyes wandered aimlessly from face to face, before rising upward, to the ceiling. Instead of a painting this time, it was a glass dome, a window. A light rainfall fell upon it, the lingering water distorting the light of noon that pierced through. The cloud-speckled skies were cleanly visible, and Duncan figured that there may have been some symbolism with it. Transparency for the gods, perhaps? Such a shame that they did not care for transparency for the people. It seemed that eyes that looked to the heavens, were too busy to look to the streets.

“Do you know why you're here, Captain Ross?” the voice of Barthol Rex was well befitting his age, and yet it carried an authority that must have accumulated throughout his years of lordship. Duncan turned his eyes on the eldest man in this room, and met his stare. Though his voice carried no weakness, there was a softness in his eyes; one of grandfatherly care. This was quite an odd contrast, Duncan found.

“Well... yes. Because I'm the captain.” Duncan answered warily, uncertain how to answer that question. His uncertainty was repaid with a light chuckle from another end of the table.

“In other words: no.” Lord Hedwen said, seeming quite so amused. As Duncan looked toward this one, there was most certainly not the same sympathetic look in his eye, as the one residing in Barthol “I told you this was a waste of time. Why are we bringing in a captain, and not the chieftain? At least someone who has actually been in a conference room before! I mean... just look at him.” his disdainful look pierced through Duncan “He's even still wearing his armor.”

“Because the chieftain was sitting on his ass, doing nothing while we put down Theodor and his miserable house!” Vyacheslav snapped back, fangs bared and pupils narrowed “I am quickly growing tired of these Myaani and their fear of getting involved beyond their own closest concern. They call it objective solitude—I call it pissing their loincloths at the first sight of political presence. By this right, I am starting to believe Duncan has been in more conference rooms than that... dog.” at that notion, Duncan noticed the cat creature sitting on Vyacheslav's shoulder shaping  growing a little smile. It hadn't said a word, and in general seemed quite disconnected from the ongoing conversation—but this little bit, it definitely noticed. Its tall ears seemed to twitch in direction of whoever was speaking.

Lord Hedwen and Vyacheslav stared down one another for a few seconds thereafter, eyes clashing together like jousters at a tournament. And it seemed like Vyacheslav won this one, as Lord Hedwen uttered a displeased “Tch”, and leaned back in his chair, withdrawing. His sons muttered something to each other, something that apparently was worth chuckling over, but then the hall fell silent once more.

“Lord Hedwen might be an obnoxious fop,” from Duncan's left, a woman's voice spoke up. He turned to see that it was Lady Cercy, the widowed wife of Anton, who was speaking. Though she was a fair woman indeed, the look she gave Lord Hedwen was nothing short of hideous—brief, but hideous. This hideousness faded swiftly, though, as she looked to Vyacheslav “but he didn't lie. Duncan here could clearly do with some informing. This was mainly your idea... would you like the honors?”

Vyacheslav could only agree. He nodded once, and turned his bestial stare on Duncan “We haven't spoken much, Duncan, so I figured this is as good a time as any. Before I say anything, I'd like to ask a few questions first. How long have you been a captain?”

The question sent Duncan drifting far back into the past, and far beyond the horizon, into the wastelands once more. Most of it was a blur, the days always seeming to fade together—he had usually remedied this with his journal, but he found that he had been neglecting that thing recently—but this he remembered quite clearly. He led a hand to his chest, where the medal was embedded in the steel of his chestplate.

“About four years.” Duncan said, truthfully “Most captains would have advanced further by now, but I... well, I messed up somewhere along the line, and had to forfeit my promotion.”

“Messed up?” Lord Hedwen asked, his eyes predatory and curious “Elaborate.”

Duncan suppressed any desire to snap back at Lord Hedwen; he knew it wasn't his place. Instead, he answered as directly as he could “I got my squad killed.” he said with no small amount of regret on his tongue “Before I took in Ramund as my sergeant, my poor leadership got all the others butchered, one by one. My squad never was the largest, but... I think I was the only one to lead a squad of two. That is, until Rose came in... and another kid named Angus, but he didn't last long.”

Hushed words traveled through the small crowd of people gathered around the table, like ripples in a lake emitting from a thrown stone. But Duncan did not regret throwing it—he would not lie today. He would let himself be judged under the stare of this murder of crows, and whether they liked what they saw or not, he truly did not care. Soon enough, Vyacheslav silenced the whispers with a gesture of his hand. His penetrating stare did not waver.

“I am well acquainted with the rigors of the front lines.” he said, to Duncan's wonder “Not in person, but I am not stupid, Duncan. I don't let myself be fed with Deum's propaganda, those that would claim that the front lines see victory every day, that the demons are being culled like sheep at slaughtering season. No... it's more the other way around, isn't it?”

In the silence that followed, Duncan felt his throat clench. He recalled the smell of rot that rode the hot winds, emitting from scattered bodies that had lain too long in the sun. He recalled the dog tag duties, the countless names of soldiers claimed by the desert, their stomachs opened to spill into the endless sands. The memories were like barbs, cutting and slicing at him from the inside, and Vyacheslav's words only coaxed more of these memories forth. He asked him to think back upon something that was best left forgotten, yet things that would never truly leave those who had seen them. But Duncan evicted them from his head as swiftly as they came, banishing them from his mind with peaceful thoughts instead. The misty lake, the full moon casting its shine upon Fairlandish meadows. He did not need to contemplate the things he had seen and done on the front lines, to remind himself what it was like out there.

“Unfortunately so.” He said, wary of what words came out “Death is a stubborn inhabitant out there, refusing to leave us alone. Casualties like these... they are, in all ways, inevitable. We have to grow callous to them rather swiftly, or we're sure to snap. That's what happened to this Angus kid I mentioned... he took the easy way out.”

Vyacheslav turned a look on those around him “I'll take this from the horse's mouth long before anything the local town criers spew out. You heard the man... survival is a candle in a sand storm out there. Can we then blame him for having lost his squad, knowing the dangers that lurk around every corner? If anything... this is the exact reason why I have chosen you, Duncan.” he said, this time turning his stare on Duncan. There was a sincerity in them, a scrutinizing glare that seemed like it knew more about Duncan than he himself did. Even the cat creature had turned its large eyes on him, silently examining him while its little right hand scribbled onward as if it had a mind of its own.

“With all due respect,” Duncan said “you have yet to tell me what you have chosen me for.”

Vyacheslav leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. His wife sat silently by his side, looking Duncan over with eyes that seemed far more skeptical than those of her husband. Duncan wanted to return her stare with a smile, but he was afraid she would bite his head off. And considering what creatures he sat before, threats like these were surely not to be taken lightly.

Vyacheslav nodded his head once toward the door “You know better than I, better than anyone, what is out there. What is approaching from beyond the misty veil. We all know that they are demons, indeed, but very few of us have actually met one... let alone fought one. The knowledge we possess about demons is in many ways mere theories, but when they come crashing at our gates, we can't work with probabilities and assumptions. We need the real thing.” he looked away from the door “We need you, Duncan.”

Duncan, at first, felt flattered. He was happy to share the knowledge he had gathered throughout the years, though he couldn't help but wonder why Vyacheslav was making such a big fuss about it. But shortly after, he realized why—and this realization came to him as a dagger in his chest. He looked up at the Krov lord with wide eyes “You... you don't mean that—“

“But I do.” Vyacheslav interrupted him, having no patience for his stuttering “The men out there will need someone to look up to. They will need to know that they are confident, specialized hands. They will need to be able to put their faith in someone—someone who they know is well acquainted with the encroaching enemy. I don't claim to be the greatest battle tactician, but I know the importance of morale; if these men rout, we might as well open our gates and bid the demons welcome.” he leaned forward, eyes yet piercing through Duncan's, both hands on the table between the two of them “Have you ever commandeered nine thousand soldiers, Captain Ross?”

Duncan felt paralyzed. The weight of the eyes was too heavy to bear, and he felt as if he would collapse under them. Of all things he had expected when entering this room, this was certainly not one of them. He looked around, eyes refusing to blink, staring haunted at all the lords and ladies that seemed so expectant of him. He slowly looked back at Vyacheslav, where even the little cat creature had ceased its writing, waiting 'till Duncan had given his answer.

“You must be joking.” Duncan declared “This makes no sense. I told you already: I messed up my promotion. I'm leading a squad of two for goodness sake—what makes you think I can commandeer nine thousand!?”

“I told you this was a bad idea.” Lord Hedwen snorted from the other end of the table, but was promptly slapped across the cheek by Lady Cercy. A small chuckle followed throughout the gathering.

“I don't.” Vyacheslav said with a tone of honesty in his voice “Not yet. But you are the best shot we have—and you are already a captain. You have the training and the potential. You would likely crash and burn if I put you out there here and now, but you can be taught. No tome can match what knowledge you harbor, what experience you have. You know their behavior and their physiology, which makes you not only the best fit teacher for this problem, but the best fit commander too. We just need to... polish you a bit.” he said, seeming to examine Duncan yet again “There is a weakness in you. A certain... fragility. You'll need to learn to suppress that, or you'll shatter like delicate glass when the soldiers need you the most.”

This was insanity. Duncan was convinced that this whole council had gone collectively mad, and this was all just a product of their distress from facing certain death at the hands of the demons. But the more he looked into Vyacheslav's unwavering stare, the more he came to realize that there was no backing out. All he wanted, was for Ramund to come and take his place... do his dirty work for him... again.

Suddenly, he felt disgusted with himself. This desire repeated itself within him, and he came to spite that they had even been born. Was this the man he had become? How could he wear the captain's title, when he had thoughts like these filling up his head? He looked at himself, and realized just how pathetic he had become. All he wanted was to run away, pretend all these problems did not exist, leave it all to be solved by someone else... but he couldn't run forever. This fact hit him hard, and it hurt, but it was a pain that could—and would—drag him from the depths of his own self-pity.

His thoughts fell to his mother. If she could look into who he was behind the obscuring facade, would she still say that Kendrew, his father, was proud of him? Would she still entrust herself to defend her from the rigors of the world, while he himself would not think twice to run for his life?

His thoughts fell to Ramund. For too long, had he felt as if he was a burden to him, but he was just too patient to say anything about it. For too long did had he let Ramund take the heaviest load, all because he was too afraid—too weak.

And finally, his thoughts fell to Rose. Though the world was on fire, though the lives of millions were thrown into jeopardy, it was always her face that appeared in his mind, when he had to remind himself why he hadn't killed himself yet. All things were at stake, nothing was safe any longer, but it seemed as if there was one particular thing that was more worth saving than others—and its name was Rose.

He took a deep breath. In came the musty air of the council room, but out came his doubts, his hesitations, and his fears. He looked up into Vyacheslav's beating stare, and returned one that would rise to rival it.

“So be it.” he said, plunging in with both legs “You've convinced me. I see now where my duty lies, and I have no intention of forsaking it. When do we begin?”

To this, Vyacheslav smiled. His left fang peeked out from behind his lips, and his eyes gleamed with excitement—even the cat creature smiled, now having tucked away its notes. He stood up, rising to his mighty height, and held out his hand to Duncan.

“Immediately.”
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 11
Introducing a character I have been looking forward to writing more about. Mysterious little Xandra... oh where will your journey take you? Good question! I don't think I know yet! That's what makes writing so enjoyable. :D
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There was a taste in the air. There was a taste in... reality. This reality, at least. Her heavy tongue moved between her lips, but reached no further than the steel mask that covered her face from the nose and down. Still, she could taste it. The air. There was something different this day, though she couldn't tell if it was any different from yesterday; she could, in fact, not tell the difference between today and yesterday at all. Day and night meant so little down here, where the only light was the dim glow of candles at her side, spilling her silhouette over the grimy walls like black paint. The shadows that coiled around her never ceased to keep their secrets of the outside world, shrouding her in ignorance and solitude. Even so, she could feel it, this day. This day, there was something different. It hung on the fringes of reality, drifting through empty space like autumn leaves, settling on her tongue. It tasted of importance. Of significance. Though she could not tell the days apart, not while the sun and the moon were but fading memories of hers, not while she had forgotten what it was like to be free of these chains, she knew that she would remember this one. This day. It was not like the others.

She looked up slowly, her eyes heavy as always, so heavy she had to struggle not to close them. She had not slept in... a long time. She couldn't tell how long, exactly. Maybe it was a day, maybe it was a month—both seemed equally possible. She wished to sleep, so dearly she did, but it was no easy task, when her body was on fire. At least, that was how it felt. Every day, the burns that covered most of her lithe body felt as if they were as much on fire as the day she received them. But pain was an illusion; this she had been forced to learn all too swiftly. What was pain, but her body telling her that these burn marks were real, and still there? She knew this perfectly well, and needed no reminder. And yet, there it was, the pain. The agony that kept her awake. How she wished her brother, Lucius, would return soon with more balm.

Though the candles' glow was dim and dying, she always had to squint when raising her eyes to the little shrines before her. There they stood, on the mossy floor before her, their shadows cast unto the walls just as well. Hrumalz, the warrior patron, and Lyrras, the lifegiver. These two were her respite in loneliness; her refuge in agony. She found that though they were made of stone and often quite silent, she treasured their company nonetheless. Sometimes, their shadows on the wall seemed to dance and come alive, playing out a tiny theater performance before her. Lyrras would always rise to teach her the virtues of mercy, of self-forgiveness, and the value of staying alive; and in turn, Hrumalz would teach her strength, courage, and to never relent on those who deserved none. She loved Lyrras for the comfort he gave her in painful hours, and she loved Hrumalz for the strength he put in her, so that she could better fight this unwelcome inhabitant of hers. For she knew, all too well, that it was not just her, Hrumalz, and Lyrras who shared this room. There was one more... and he was here right now.

“Xandra...” he said, his tongue the shadows, his voice the fires of a darker world. She closed her eyes and hoped that his presence was just the product of her imagination, but she knew, deep inside, that he was as much there as she was. She could feel him, sense him lurking about in the darkness that surrounded her, swimming in between dimensions like a shark through seaweed. Her hands clenched and she pulled at the chains that locked her in place and kept her arms raised to either side like angel wings.

“...You are a tenacious one. This, I grant you. Most men would have succumbed to wounds like yours many months ago, and yet, here you sit. Still you breathe, still your hearts beats away in your little chest, and still your mind is your own...” he paused briefly, before his voice appeared in another shadowy corner of her prison “...somewhat.”

“I do not hear you, filthy one.” she snarled through her teeth, gaze stalwartly kept on the shrines and the candles before her “Though my wounds are grievous, though agony keeps me awake at night, I do not feel you. My gaze is turned heavenwards; I do not see you.” her words were spoken with unshakable vigilance, defiance even in face of an immortal and ancient presence such as his “You waste your time, hellish one. Sear my body as much as you wish, for in my soul there is only light. You shall never have it.”

A cold air swept through the room, followed by silence. She did not dare to blink while staring at the shrines before her, in fear that her eyes would open to his ungodly face. She had seen it before, and just like his fire had seared itself unto her skin, his eyes had seared themselves into her mind. Jewels of an unholy world, surrounded by fire and fangs, drenched in endless rivers of damned blood... this was the face of the great king of hell. Six tongues, all of which she felt were whispering in her ear, whispering from the darkness.

“Your faith is... admirable.” the darkness seemed to twitch with every word he spoke, and in the corner of her eyes, she could see him move, slithering like a serpent in the fringes of the candles' comforting glow “But faith, my dear, is but brittle glass. So easily shattered. Indeed, it may feel like steel, but you will only know how delicate it is, when your own is broken. And I do promise you, Xandra, that even yours cannot withstand what is coming for this world.”

She snorted violently “I know of these demons, in the south. I felt their presence long before the first messenger dove flew over the Godshill walls. My heart, my soul, and my faith lies with the gods... but my sword, hellish one, is forged from your fires. Mock away, mock 'till all six tongues are weary, you will never break me. Every day, I grow stronger; every day, my grip of the curse you put upon me tightens. Through it, I sense your demons as if I were one of them; I feel their will as if it was my own, their hatred as if it was my own... their strength, as if it was my own.” behind the steel mask on her face, her lips split in a vicious smile “How does it feel, I wonder, to have your precious flame wielded by a mere mortal?”

“HAH!” all six tongues shouted, and it was deafening “You wield NOTHING! In comparison to my inferno, you are but a spark, Xandra! Your tenacity is impressive, but your hubris leads you astray, deludes you. Have your beloved gods not taught you humility toward your betters, girl?”

“You are not my better.” she growled through gritted teeth, through the horrendous mask on her face “You are a plague, an overfed rat, and nothing more. There is a reason why the gods shine from their heavenly thrones while you rot away in the Netherworld, filth. I am not afraid of you. Others may fear you, but I know that the light of heaven will keep me from your shadows. Divinum lumen, protege me.”

“High Speech and prayers cannot save you today, Xandra.” he said again, drowning out her words with his voice of gnashing teeth and darkness “Your gods tremble in their golden thrones. The skies split with the coming of a new king... and it is not of your dear brother that I speak. Much can be said about Lucius Pius Deum, true, yet he is still but a mortal man, ruling over other mortal men. Let him rule his measly empire. It will matter naught, when the world burns.”

Xandra's jaws tightened, as the darkness spoke. Her frail heart pounded away in her chest, angry blood crashing through her veins. It was as if the candles dimmed and the shrines seemed to pale, simply at the mention “I know of whom you speak.” she said, reluctantly.

“I know you do.” the darkness continued to slither, all six tongues of the demon king seeming to writhe like phantasmal serpents in the fringes of her eyes, lurking somewhere between realities “Say his name.”

Xandra sneered from behind her mask. The name lingered on her tongue, and it tasted vile. She spat it out like the filth it was “Omnos.” she growled “An inflated name for an inflated threat. The rumor spreads like wildfire across our lands, but the people are strong, and they will know to keep their faith where it belongs: with the Five, and only the Five. The light of heaven will chase away the shadows that infest their minds, and they will wonder why they were ever lead astray. My brother will see to this. My brother will give them the truth that they deserve.”

Xandra had expected more mockery from any of the six tongues of the demon king. She had expected him to whisper words of vice in her ear, to try and shake her faith... but he did no such thing. Instead, he laughed. Quiet at first, but growing louder and louder, until Xandra could barely hear her own thoughts. She squeezed her eyes shut under his roaring guffaw and she tried to drown it out with hastened prayer. But then, at the bat of an eye, it was all swept away.

Footsteps. Xandra jerked her head upwards, as she heard footsteps from the darkness, from the staircase that led down into her solitary prison. Hope swelled up inside of her and pushed away the anger and the hatred, for she knew who was approaching. The light of a lantern washed down the stairs, growing brighter and brighter with every moment passing.

“Sister!” his voice was eager, merry, excited. She looked up to see him standing there before her, bathed in the light of his raised lantern, bathed in... something quite different. A white toga like her own covered him from his golden hair and all the way down to his sandals. A purple shawl was strapped to his shoulder, sweeping down across his hip, and on his head, a ceremonial laurel wreath. Realization struck.

“Is it today?!” she asked in sudden distress, furious at herself for forgetting.

“It is, dear sister.” Lucius answered with a blazing smile on his face as he set the lantern down and moved to her chains “The crowds are gathering as we speak. I have my speech all prepared, and the priests have seen good omens in the skies. They believe this day will mark a milestone in the history of Godshill—nay, the world!” he held a smiling pause “As do I, of course.”

Xandra watched with befuddled eyes as Lucius fiddled with a small keyring, standing before the massive manacles that bound her arms. Confusion conquered the anger in her “What... what are you doing?”

Lucius gave her an incredulous look “What does it look like? I wouldn't want you to miss my coronation, dear sister.”

Xandra's heart felt like it stood still for hours, even though only a second passed “But... but I'm not done praying!” she exclaimed, uncertain of what else to say.

“You are.” Lucius said, quite firmly “You've been down here long enough. I've seen what you can do, how well you've tamed your curse. There is a world out there waiting for you, dear sister, and I can think of no better day than today, for you to see it all.”

Xandra tried to speak, but was interrupted as the manacles suddenly burst open. Her left arm crashed to the ground, suddenly aching horribly. The magic in her had kept her muscles whole and strong, but it had been so long that she had clean forgotten how to use them. This kind of movement in her joints felt alien, uncomfortable, and it only got worse as Lucius released her from the second set of manacles too. On her knees, she fell forward, her palms striking the cold granite floor, her arms shivering like pines in a hurricane. She needed time to readjust, this she knew, but Lucius gave her none.

“Aren't you excited?” he asked her as he eagerly brought her to her feet, an arm under her left shoulder “The heavens smile on us today, dear sister. Just you watch. This day is a blessed one, and I mean to make the most of it.”

She was given no chance to answer his question, before he marched onwards, up the stairs, even though her legs felt as if they could fall off at any time. It had been so long. How she had hoped she could at least have prepared for this... but deep inside, there was something in her that could not stop smiling.

However, in the very second the door went open, her eyes felt as if they had caught fire. Deep into the roots they were scorched, and even though she squeezed them shut, the bright light still pushed through her eyelids. She winced and brought up her hand to shield them, but her arm was gripped by Lucius before she could manage.

“You need to adjust.” he said with great command in his voice “You've spent long enough time down there in the darkness. It's time to return to the light.”

Xandra shivered, but she knew he was right. Even with her eyes shut they burned, aching as if they were filled with acid. And it only became worse, when she opened them up. Her sight was but a painful blur and her eyes screamed to be shut, but she resisted. She resisted and let the pain wash away the darkness that had settled in her eyes. She felt as the shadows receded, and with them, the pain.

It had been so long since she had seen color. The only sight she had woken up to, in all this time, was the black of shadows and the grey of musty stone. She could hardly even recognize the colors that now opened up before her, let alone put names on them. It was like a kaleidoscope. A bed swept in vibrant velvets, carpets everywhere—even on the walls—and portraits of people she had never seen before, yet somehow felt she had to know. But most vibrant of all, was the sunlight that cascaded in through the windows. Awe took her tongue as she stood there, her mind racing to distinguish the colors that filled up this small yet vivid office. But soon, as soon as she dared, she looked to the window instead, and the world that stretched out before her. Mountain ranges as tall as gods rose near and far, all the way into the most distant of horizons, there they stood with their hats of snow and their bodies of ancient stone. She could hardly even recognize the land, despite that she had grown up here... but it had been so long. How she had missed the sight of the mountains that encircled the sacred valley like unflinching guardians. And the valley itself was nothing short of spectacular either. The long, rocky plains that stretched all the way to the foot of the most distant mountain, a snowless tundra where no trees grew, and the sun touched everything.

“Are you adjusted?” Lucius asked, looking into her eyes, seeming mostly to inspect that they were still intact. Xandra looked back at him, and the joy that had bloomed inside of her now shined through a wide smile on her pale lips. Lucius took this as more than enough of an answer and returned the smile.

“And this is just the beginning.” he said, but what he meant by that, he didn't tell. Xandra had no chance to ask before he carried her onward, pushing open the doors of the office.

The throne room was one of the things that had seemed to linger in her mind, and it had not changed one bit. The same throne of gold and silver stood towering tall over the long walkway before it, where peasants and pilgrims and nobles alike would come to seek the council or the blessings of the king, for whatever endeavor they had on their minds—but in face of the king, all were equally humble, this she remembered clearly. The same banners hung from the great pillars that held the church-like roof aloft, flying the proud emblem of Godshill, the sacred swan with wings raised like an angel. But there was one thing that was different from what she could remember. Where this hall had always been a refuge of peace and quiet, a place where she could feel safe in her childhood years, there was a noise this time. A noise of shouting, of an excited crowd. It came from outside the door.

As Lucius led her to a nearby window, she quickly realized why this was. No matter the pain that still lingered in them, her eyes shot open wide at the sight of what had gathered there, just on the other side of the door. Hundreds, if not thousands of citizens, flocked together in excitement, in anticipation of what was soon to happen—and who was soon to be crowned. Steel fences had been set up at the bottom step of the staircase that lead to the door, and a podium had been set up before the crowd—empty now, but she knew this wasn't going to last. Some of the citizens of Godshill flew small flags bearing the swan symbol of their proud nation, while others carried large signs that displayed some kind of political slogan in favor of Lucius. She was awestruck, and proud. Proud to know that this man, her brother, was such a beloved man with the people—and awestruck for the very same reason. She looked to him, and saw him smile.

“Stay here, sister. I'd want you to watch, but you deserve a better place than among the rabble.” his smile grew a little “Will you pray that I can deliver my speech properly?” he asked.

Xandra smiled back, even though she knew he couldn't see it through the steel mask on her face “I already am, brother.”

Lucius carefully bent her head forward and placed a soft kiss on her forehead, before letting her stand on her own, albeit reluctantly. She struggled to stand, but she did her best not to show it—this was not the time for Lucius to worry. This was his moment, and she didn't want to draw upon herself any unnecessary attention. Her mouth was silent, but her eyes wished him all the best—and with that, he left her there and went forward to greet the crowd.

Flung open were the doors, and the cheer of the crowd poured over him like a tidal wave. His golden hair rose in the brisk mountain winds, glimmering like a godly weave in the sunlight that fell over him. His arms were outstretched to either side like he was ready to embrace every single citizen that now flocked before him in the thousands, crying his name with eager anticipation and love. His ceremonial toga flapped in the hard winds, but he did not flinch, did not stagger, for this day would paint his image for eons to come. Guards stood in a half-circle around him, a ward of armor and spears, steel protectors whose plates were like mirrors in the radiant sunlight. The crowd tossed flower petals in the handfuls, sometimes whole flowers as well, and a few of the farmers from the outskirts of the realm had the strange custom of presenting a live lamb as a gift for the new king; not that the lamb would ever get that close, but it was an amusing sight, Xandra found, seeing the lamb bleat away together with the cheering crowd.

Lucius' smile was as winningly charismatic as always, the smile that the wives across the entire world wanted for their husbands. His hands were raised in greeting of the people, all from the nearest citizen pushing up against the fence, and to those who cheered from the balconies of their houses on the other side of the courtyard. The crowd was everywhere; every inch of space was filled up with a citizen that wanted to show his or her love for the new king, all of them wanting to be heard equally much. Xandra watched with a great swelling sensation of pride as her brother stepped up to the podium. There was a magical rune painted upon the podium's surface, and corresponding runes on the facade of the palace—though many, many times larger. Xandra could hardly close her eyes, and her own smile was stuck to her face. She watched eagerly as Lucius, with just a single gesture of his right hand, silenced the crowd. The cheering and the whooping and the flower-tossing quieted down, even the lamb ceased to bleat. It was astonishing... suddenly, there was only the sound of the wind moaning over the heads of the people. But that would not last.

“My blessed people,” Lucius began, his voice low and calm, but scattered for all to hear through the magic of the runes “you are the flesh and the bones of this nation; the strong and unflinching defenders of everything just, true, and holy. You are the hands that toil on the fields, the heart that pumps the flow of trade through the veins of our realm, and the legs that carry us on the path of light. In comparison to you, the people of Godshill—and the rest of our proud nation—I am but a humble man. Let not these pretty clothes and this dazzling title fool you... I am your servant, and I aim to serve. All that you need, all that you could ever want...” he said, so clean and so delicate in his words and his body language as he spoke “...I will give to you. It is not my place to take, to oppress, but to give. What do I not owe you, the people, for keeping our valiant nation alive? For growing food for our tables; for sewing clothes for our bodies; for building walls for our homes?”

There was a murmur amongst the crowd, the nodding of heads, the slow agreement to Lucius' words. Xandra even gave a few instinctive nods of her own, though she was unaware of it. Lucius slowly lowered his hands, and she saw how his smile faded slightly—but she knew this was very much on purpose. She knew that Lucius was perfectly aware of every facet of his speech; every emphasis on every word, every twist of every gesture, every turn of every expression. He knew what he was doing.

“The death of our king has struck deep in my heart, as I am certain it has for us all. It was a tragedy without measure, let there be no doubt. But I believe, with great certainty, that the heavens recognized how age was taking its toll on Magnus. With age came tiredness, tiredness that evolved into laziness, and it did not take long before he had lost his otherwise so firm grip on his own crown. He ate and he drank while he was not out spending the realm's coin on hunting trips for his own amusement. Magnus was a good man, but alas, age had changed him. It was no coincidence that Morrin took him into his arms at this time.” he straightened up his back and took in a deep breath.

“What I speak of, of course, is the waste of your labor that Magnus had conveyed. In his stead, I will not make that same mistake! As I take my place upon this throne, it will be of my greatest priority that you, the people, will not toil away on the fields so that you may sate the desires of a gluttonous king—but to bring back the pride of this great nation! Too long have we stagnated in lethargy; too long have we lingered, waiting our years away—but we are done waiting! How can we wait when hell itself knocks on our front doors? How can we wait when we know that traitors and terrorists exploit this period of great turmoil for their own nefarious intents? We cannot, I say! For centuries upon centuries, Godshill has been a beacon of hope and safety for this world, and we will not let our legacy be squandered! By the responsibility invested in me by the heavens above, I swear to you now, I will reclaim the glory that we once held so dear! Together, we will break these manacles of inaction, and we will remind the world: Godshill still exists! And we are as strong as ever before!”

As the crowd rose once again to cry their love and their excitement for Lucius, Xandra too began to applaud from behind the window. She watched as he stood there, arms wide open like he was bathing in the glory that his people were showering him with. Xandra couldn't stop smiling.

“He's good, isn't he?” her heart felt as if it would jump out of her chest as an unfamiliar voice spoke up just beside her. Her smile was killed and she felt instinctive demonic energies boil up inside of her, ready to defend herself, ready to slaughter... but all that quickly proved unnecessary, as she saw the man who stood there. He was a dark elf, a strangely short one at that, with a head shaven clean and a smile so smooth and charismatic it could rival her brother's. He wore a monocle held to his eye by three leather straps around his bald head, and he was clothed in neat and noble clothing; something she could only recognize from royal advisors and their like. But there was something about this man that didn't strike her as an advisor—even though he did have the necessary guile in his eye for the task.

There was a silence between the two for a while, not that the dark elf seemed to mind much. But Xandra did. She suddenly recalled who she was, why she wore this steel mask. She took a few steps backward and shook her head slowly, eyes in the marble floors “I... I wasn't supposed to be seen.”
The dark elf's smile only seemed to grow at the notion of this “We do a lot of things that we're not supposed to, in life—it is in our nature, sweetheart. But it's fortunate that it was me you bumped into... or rather, that I bumped into you, and not anyone else. We're already quite acquainted, you see, though not directly.”

Xandra stared for what felt like a full minute at the dark elf before her. She tried as best she could to dig up old memories of someone like this, but nothing in her inner library matched. And she knew that she would surely be able to recognize a man as aesthetically unsettling as him. Her eyes narrowed, but she didn't have to speak for him to get the message.

“Perhaps Lucius has mentioned me?” he asked, seeming a little hopeful to begin with, then disappointed when he received no answer “Ah, typical of him to keep our relationship secret... tsk. Oh well. My name is Orlan, a learned alchemist, and I do believe you are quite familiar with one of my creations.” he raised a jeweled finger to point at Xandra's shoulder, where a patch of burned flesh was exposed. Xandra looked down at it, then quickly covered it up with the white cloth of her toga.

“The balms.” she finally said, muttered behind the steel mask “Oh, the balms!”

“Yes, the balms!” Orlan echoed her, a little louder, his voice resounding throughout the throne hall “Goodness, why don't I change my name to 'the balms', as it is seems I'm practically synonymous with it. I dispense and I dispense, but never a word of thanks does your brother give me... I'm beginning to think he's just in it for the balms.”

Xandra felt quite a lot more comfortable now, knowing who this dark elf was. She had only pleasant experiences with his balms, and felt that she had many months of gratitude to repay him. She smiled to him, even though she knew that it couldn't be seen from behind the crude mask—it hurt to smile, with lips burned and skinless, but pain was a triviality “My brother can sometimes seem to be ungrateful, true, but what he does not say, he often feels. I am certain he is quite thankful for what you've done... and if not, then I suppose my own gratitude will have to suffice?”

Orlan seemed unimpressed. He turned his monocled gaze out the window, where the crowds were chanting Lucius' name, flower petals and lambs everywhere. He snorted roughly “I don't know... he seems to have no problem thanking the people for their hard work. Why can't I be thanked for mine?”

Xandra didn't have an answer for that. But as she saw how Orlan's frown couldn't last for long, that his sweet smile returned soon after, she knew that she didn't have to speak at all.

“Isn't he amazing?” he asked her, and bid her step closer to the window with him—which she did “Look at all of them: they're praising him as if he was the sun itself. These people are all sheep, willing to follow their shepherd wherever he goes. He's practically promising them even more war and even more death, but still they toss flowers at him... what kind of rhetoric genius must you be to convince them to toil away just to feed his hungry, hungry war machine?” the words themselves sounded foreboding and dangerous, but Orlan said them with such strange admiration and awe, like a young aspiring artist looking up to a master.

Xandra turned her look on Orlan “Are you a follower of my brother as well, then?”

“Follower?” Orlan asked with some skepticism in his voice “I'm not sure 'follower' is the right term. I wouldn't vote for him, if there was even such a thing as voting. I see myself more of a... fan.” his eyebrows raised “Ah, hush now, he's about to speak!”

And indeed he did. Silence became the crowd once more, eager eyes everywhere, all of them laid on Lucius as he bid them all be quiet. Xandra and Orlan both turned to gaze upon the holy man standing there, swept in the gilded sunlight, swept in his people's love. For a few seconds, there was nothing but the winds—it was as if even the birds had quieted down to listen.

“This is a day of tremendous joy for all of us, dearest citizens, but I know that you all expect me to speak my mind of a certain subject... and what choice do I have, but to oblige?” he asked, laying his hands on the podium before him, putting on quite a sincere expression “I speak of course of the downfall of the integrity of heaven. Or as it is better known: 'Omnos'. Rumor has spread far and wide, and I believe we all know that rumors can become twisted as they are recited time and again, leaping from mouth to mouth. Word is that I, your king... am also a god.” he shook his head “Let it be known far and wide, that this is not the case.”

Xandra gave a sigh of relief, deeply pleased that Lucius killed that insane rumor. She saw how some uncertain looks were exchanged among the crowd, disturbed murmurs, and then a few people exchanging coins; probably people who were betting whether or not the rumors were true. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Orlan seeming completely unfazed... and he was still smiling. Smiling like he knew something.

Lucius cleared his throat, and the crowd silenced. He leaned in a little closer and let an examining gaze drift across the crowd, eyebrows heavy and smile returning “But does that mean Omnos himself is but a wild rumor too? Hah... far from it.” Xandra's relief was struck down, and in its place, dread rose.

“He is as real as the word of him, my people! I speak to you not as a god, but as the envoy and the herald of a god—a god who will embody all, and to whom all other gods will kneel. From the pages of primordial history he has awoken, a being that created all, gave birth to all, and thus governs... all. He is the most ancient one, Omnos, the one whose existence preceded everything—even the concept of existence itself! Our mortal minds cannot comprehend his divinity, but he has spoken to me, as he has spoken to our high priests before. He said to me: 'Lucius, king of kings, it is by your hand that the world shall unite under my grace; for my love is eternal, and my will absolute. My children have watched this world for eons, but a thousand gods and spirits will bring nothing but division and discord to this world. Under my grace, and with you as my prophet, the world will finally know peace and unity—from east to west, from north to south, never again shall there be strife between nations, for all nations shall fly my banner.' So I ask you, people of Godshill: why do we let ourselves divide among thousands of divine entities, when now arises one who can unite us all? It is in a world divided, that the demons shall destroy us, one by one! But together—together we are strong! The time of polytheism has passed... and in its place, the god of gods will bring an eternity of peace, of unity, and unending light to this world!”

Xandra was at a loss for words. Even in her own head, there was nothing but stunned silence—all while the crowd resumed their cheering for the words of her brother. Or at least whom she had thought was her brother, but now seemed like nothing but a stranger. Who was this man who wore her brother's face? For what felt like minutes, she didn't breathe. Only when she turned to look at Orlan, did she.

“I—“

“—Don't understand?” Orlan turned his monocle-adorned gaze on her, slowly, his hypnotic smile stronger than ever “It is actually not that complicated, sweetheart. Simple enough for even the most common man to understand, as a matter of fact.” he looked out the window again, to where Lucius had his fist raised in glory, letting himself wash in the tide of cheers from the crowd “Being king is a treacherous thing, you see. Think for a moment about all the kings before him... Julius the Merciful; Decimus the Glorious; Tiberius the Valiant—do you see a pattern here? Each and every one of them have some positive adjective tied to their name, and it is through it that they are remembered. The history of Godshill is so long that the entire reigns of all the kings must be boiled down to these simple words, so that even the simple peasant knows who they are. So when history will remember you upon this single word... it is in the king's best interest to make sure that it is positively loaded.”

“But this is heresy!” Xandra burst out, pointing angrily at the stranger who stood out there in her brother's skin “This Omnos is all lies, all fiction! He can't just squander all gods and spirits for... for a fairy tale!” she howled furiously, her voice resounding off the distant walls of the throne room, and even now she could hear the laughter of the demon king—clearer than ever.

“Oh, but he can.” Orlan said, sounding genuinely impressed, his eyes still lingering on Lucius “That's what makes him so... amazing. You see, when you're put with the opportunity of making yourself a prophet of a god king, you don't let it slip between your fingers. You just don't. Even the most good-hearted, sympathetic politician would seize this opportunity without a second thought. Lucius' name will be forged as one of the greatest ones in all of history because of this. And can we blame him?” Orlan asked with a shrug “Personally, I think the entertainment is unparalleled. Unmatched. Ten out of ten.”

Xandra stared at Orlan with hellish wrath swelling inside of her, and the cheer of the crowd in the background was only making it worse. How could it come to this? Had the entire nation let itself plunge into arrogance, into hubris, thinking they could choose their own gods? The audacity was infuriating! When she looked out that window, upon the crowd that gathered out there, she felt nothing but disgust... and alienation. This was not her people. This was not the pious folk she had grown up with. These were liars and heretics, traitors and sinners, all in disguise of the good people she once knew. She felt as if the shadows around her grew thick in wake of her revulsion... until she realized, the shadows were actually, in fact, growing thicker.

“Ahh... they're here.” Orlan said. It was in that moment that Xandra's anger faded and gave way to fear. The cheering came to a stop as the same shadow washed out over the crowd, over the rooftops, over the entire city. She turned her eyes heavenward, and saw how the midday sun had been blocked out—not by clouds, but by airships. Massive engines of war that rode the winds came lumbering over the mountaintops behind the city—and there were so many of them. An eclipse engulfed the city, and only then did Xandra realize what was going on.

“Time to go, sweetheart.” she felt Orlan's hand gently pick up hers.

“What? Where are we going?” she asked, looking into his eyes and seeing nothing but guile and excitement “Where are we going?” she repeated.

“On an adventure.” Orlan's words were nearly inaudible through the thunderous roar of engines that suddenly came pouring over the city; hundreds of mechanical monsters filled up the skies, carrying the noble symbol of the swan on their balloons. Was this the world that she had waited so long to be reunited with? So long she had suffered down there in the dark, but she suddenly couldn't tell which one was worse. She stared with stifled eyes at Lucius, and wondered what had become of the brother she had treasured so dearly. But she wasn't left in her wonder for long, as Orlan soon led her out the back door and away from the cheer of the crowd.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 10.5
Introducing a character I have been looking forward to writing more about. Mysterious little Xandra... oh where will your journey take you? Good question! I don't think I know yet! That's what makes writing so enjoyable. :D
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About the author
Name: Steen Belhage.
Nationality: Danish.
Race: White.
Gender: Male.
Sexuality: Bisexual.
Political views: Anarchist communist.

What I am about to write about, is a thought that struck me just a few moments ago. I'm writing this information about myself, because I want the readers to know what kind of person is speaking - whether I'm biased in my opinions or not, so that you might have something to stab at, something to poke at and go "That's why he says what he says." It's always nice to have an explanation to something. Which is what I feel that I am missing, right now, regarding the priorities of the world.

I've just read a little piece of art that spoke about the importance of ensuring the lives of our poorest people, of preventing those who have fallen low from taking their own lives, because they feel there is no way back again - financially and emotionally. I absolutely agreed with this. However, the person then proceeded to bashing on homosexual teenagers, who were also taking their own lives due to bullying. The artist in question believed it to be ridiculous that these homosexuals receive more attention than the poor, who both are taking their own lives, but for different reasons. At first, I did not agree with this. The way he presented it made it all sound quite hateful, but as I thought about it, I couldn't make myself look away from the glaring truth.

If you've ever felt like the world has it all backwards regarding what's important, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Why does it feel like we're glorifying and dramatizing all the smaller things through media (I'm talking about reality stars and what have you), while we're pushing away all these greater things that can, and probably will inflict horrendous consequences on us all, given time? I've decided to make three 'layers' so to speak, regarding importance.

The uppermost important one that I can think of, is nature. You know it. Why is it that we so often hear about the smaller things, the gossip for example, before we are told anything about how we are destroying nature because oil barons and the like need to make a profit? Why is it we're being told about who just married who, who just broke up with who, while we should be hearing about the ever-decreasing number of wildlife, the destruction of entire forests, the pollution of oceans - the list is endless, and yet we still hear next to nothing of it, unless we deliberately go out there and look for it. Why, of all things, was this glaring importance set so low on our list of priorities? Why do Chinese children need to wear masks to go to school due to pollution, while we sit before our television and entertain ourselves with mindless distractions? Because someone needs to make a profit, of course.

If we can elevate this to our highest priority, we will already have secured us a good foothold in surviving. Nature can flourish, and we don't have to stare down the gun-barrel of rising sea levels and dwindling oxygen. Do this, and bravo, we've made a tremendous step in the right direction. However, there is more on the list - naturally. We've now secured the wildlife, but what about ourselves? We're already on a course of solidarity, so why not keep that up? Anyone could tell you about the mind-blowing distinction between rich and poor across the world; even on an international level, just try and compare a couple of countries and see if you can imagine them both with equal wealth. We pride ourselves so greatly with being above animals, but if we just look out our windows once in a while, have a chat with a homeless man, we might come to realize that we're fooling ourselves. As it stands, there is no animal more cruel than man. We won't think twice about pocketing an extra dollar, even if it means some other family going without dinner for tonight. We won't think twice about stepping on countless broken souls who couldn't afford an education, just so that we might revel in our privileged luxury that we take for granted. Solidarity dwindles, and the richer get richer. There are many solutions for this problem, my own being anarchist communism, but in essence, it does not matter how or where or when we approach this problem - as long as it is approached and dealt with. For we are humans, and humans take care of other humans... right?

And here it comes. The third layer of priorities. With solidarity in place, with all the nameless suicide victims who just couldn't make it in life, now given the help they need, we turn to the final issue in this list. Tolerance. Tolerance, on its own, is not a vital component for a functional and sustainable planet, but it is one of the corner-stones for human nature, and something that has been neglected all too many times. Homosexuals, women, people who don't have the same skin color as you - all of these have somewhere along the line faced oppression, hatred, slavery, murder, you name it. But I have placed it as my third list of priorities, because when we look upon this issue from a historical viewpoint, we cannot deny the progress we have made (all while the uppermost priority seems to have gone the other way). That is not to say that we are free from intolerance, of course - there are still those who take their own lives because they cannot live with the rejection of society. Intolerance is a disease that must be treated, or we are bound to become the animals that we thought we weren't.

I'm not going to deny that I am sorely disappointed in humanity. We have much to learn, so much it might all seem daunting. There are those who will shrug their shoulders and care not, because these problems likely cannot be solved in their lifetime - and you know what, they're probably right. There are also those who would say that it can't be done at all, but don't listen to these pessimists. With that attitude, no, it certainly can't. But it doesn't have to be that way. Your own contributions might feel like they aren't making a difference, but if everyone carried thoughts like those, then of course nothing is going to happen. All I am asking, is that we learn to open our eyes to gaze upon the things outside our own private bubble. There is so much wrong with the world, and we are faced with it every day, even if indirectly. Look to the oceans, and you'll see. Look to the streets at night, and you'll see. Look to the people around you, and you'll see. Do that, and you'll already be contributing to world-wide progress; a progress that can't be measured in dollars and cents. It might not feel like much, but no matter what it feels like, it helps, I promise you. Even something as small as a kind-hearted word to your fellow man helps.
Maybe, together, we can ensure a better tomorrow.

Wanna join?

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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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:iconbluelioneyes:
BlueLionEyes 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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