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About Literature / Professional Steen Engel BelhageMale/Denmark Recent Activity
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Outside, the city was as wrought in shadows as before—more, perhaps, now that night had grown and taken a stronger hold upon the world. Darkness filled up the sky, blackened clouds obscuring the stars and the moon, leaving everything below with nothing but lanterns to light their way—and here, in the slums, even those were a rarity. But Duncan was in luck, for the lantern he had left in the porch had not been stolen, nor had it been extinguished. In his rush out the tavern, he swept up the lantern, and let its light guide him away from the tavern. As far away as he possible could.
His sabatons sloshed and slid in the mud as he rushed through the ragged squalor, the district forgotten and forlorn. The mist had lightened slightly since last he was here, but even so, he knew that if he tossed a stone, he would never see it land. Not for the mist, and not for the darkness; not even with the flickering light of his lantern.

It didn't take long for him to lose sight and earshot of the tavern, as he turned down muddy corners, braved darkened alleys, traversed wooden walkways that wound and interconnected all the homes of derelict decay. In fact, within what seemed like no more than a few minutes, he arrived at a small lake here in the city, with banks of granite rather than sand or earth. He came to a halt, and though the cold of night crept through his armor and caressed his skin, he could still feel his sweat behind the plates, drenching the small linen shirt underneath. He heaved and panted as he stopped, his boots at the edge of the lake's lapping waves as he slumped into the mud, exhausted. His head spun and his heart pounded, but still he felt relief. Relief for being away from the vice of that cesspool tavern. Relief for a moment of peace at the edge of a lake quite elegant. Relief for what he held now in his hand.

He was afraid he might have crushed it in his gauntlets, but as he opened up, he saw it lying there in his steel palm, as intact as ever. The swirling oil within, the sweet respite it promised. He wasn't quite certain about where he was, nor did he care much; all that seemed important was the subtlety of the place, where he could let himself drown in peace. In fact, what with the lake so near, he may even have a fine view to spice the rush. It was beautiful, in many ways. A pillar of moonlight had broken through the clouded overhang and fallen upon the lake, adorning the tiny waves with silver trappings. Slow plumes of mist coiled around its surface, gently gliding across it to veil the waters like the satin mask of a royal concubine. Duncan's breath slowed as he absorbed the peace of this place. His heart fell quiet as he sat in the mud, caring little for how he sullied his armor; it had seen worse things than mud, anyway. And then, carefully, in wake of the lake's beauty, he uncorked the vial and downed the whole thing.

It tasted sweet like candy, yet herbal too. He would greatly have preferred using a needle to simply inject it into his veins, but in his rush to get out of the tavern, he had forgotten all about that. Not that it mattered much—the only difference was that the effects took a little longer to kick in. Once he had swallowed the very last droplet, he threw aside the vial, saw it land softly in the mud. He closed his eyes. He leaned back in his seat of mud, resting upon the wall of a wooden house long forgotten by anything living save for rats and spiders. He waited for the dizziness that would take him far away from this world, to a place where war didn't exist, and where life was a joy, rather than a duty. He knew quite well that the effects took their time, but as the minutes passed, his patience grew thin. But then something awoke inside of him—but it was not what he had expected.

Rather than an ocean of relief washing over him, he felt his stomach contract in agony, all muscles suddenly shocked with pain. His eyes tore open at the explosion inside of him, forcing out a tortured grunt from his mouth, followed by specks of vomit. And with the explosion, came the flames. Spreading through his veins, his entire body was hurled into what felt like hellfire, cascading outwards from his stomach and conquering every limb within seconds. He rushed to his feet but found he could not stand. The boiling of his veins spread to his head, infecting his thoughts with that same agony, blurring his vision as blood started pooling in his eyes. A darkness not of the night began to grow in the fringes of his wide-eyed stare as he slumped to his knees, clutching his stomach, every muscle tensing and releasing in what seemed like total randomness. He staggered to the edge of the lake, simply trying to follow the shine of silver, panting like had he been running for days on end. His heart felt as if it was beating out of rhythm, every system in his body hurled into utter confusion about what was up and what was down. He had little to no control over what his body was doing, and before long, the smell of ammonia rose from his trousers. When he had finally crawled close enough to the lake, he plunged his head into its icy waters, hoping it could help. But it did not.

Hallucinations began to take over as he opened his eyes underwater, seeing things that did not belong in a lake so small. Angels of glittering colors swam before his eyes, blinding colors everywhere, all before a massive sea creature rose from the depths to swallow him whole. He yanked his head out of the waters in sheer terror; and not just terror about the monster he just saw. Terror of what was going on, and why it was. Questions in the thousands scurried around in his broken mind while he stared out over the edge of the lake, his hands shivering in the mud, the veins in his neck feeling like they were pulsing glass. But all those questions fell utterly silent, as he saw something gently dance out of the mist, walking upon its waters like was it solid ground.

Though that something quickly became a someone, as he recognized a face he had not expected to see like this. The way the black hair and the pale skin contrasted one another never failed to compliment her beauty, even if she probably didn't know it herself. Her eyes gleamed in the silver moonlight... but she was not alone.

While the colors of Rose contrasted one another, the one with whom she danced seemed to contrast the world entirely. The grey of the houses, the black of the night, and the white of the mist all became background nuances under the vibrant colors of an elf in theatrically flamboyant colors—green, red, purple, blue, yellow, he had it all in the velvet that wrapped him upon, some hanging loose, some sitting tight. A top hat crowned the strange splash of colors that he was, while golden yellow eyes bejeweled the whole thing. But what caught Duncan's attention, despite sitting here in agony, was their expressions; while the elf wore a smile that fit his jester image, Rose seemed almost scared. Her eyes were downcast, her movement slow and uncertain while the elf danced around with her, no matter how unwilling she seemed. Only then did Duncan notice how Rose's hands were blazing red from the elf's constricting grip.

“Are you not enjoying yourself, my dear?” the elf asked, a voice deep and brought forth upon a tongue sharp as razors “Relax now... take a deep breath, and learn to enjoy yourself. The night is sweet with silence, a silence just for us, so that we can hear one another's heartbeat.” he pulled her close, a velvet-swept hand slung around her waist “Can you hear how mine sings just for you, sweetheart?”

Duncan felt a new pain inside him, this one not as physical as the others that were raging within. He stared with helpless eyes as Rose shut her own, as if desperately trying to imagine herself elsewhere—anywhere else than in the arms of her vibrant dancing partner. The gentle mist was no taller than her hips, making it seem as if she was wearing a pale white ballet dress with her armor. Duncan's eyes were twitching, and the pain in his stomach was becoming more and more numb—not because he felt he was getting any better, but because he felt unconsciousness seep into his mind like the fall of night.

“I can hear yours, clearer than ever, like a gentle harp singing through the mist.” he continued, resting his head near hers, close enough to kiss “I can hear it sing a name... a name of the one who would drag you from solitude and confusion, free you from the binds of your insanity. Tell me, sweetheart... tell me that name. Say it so all the world may hear.”

Duncan stared with eyes swirling, eyelids heavy, reality seeming more and more distant with every passing second. The dark of night grew thick, strange figures jumped and played in the mist and the shadows, figments of a mind shattered by poison. But amidst the discord, one thing flashed clear, like a beacon's light upon a dark night's sea. Rose's eyes. His heart jumped as he met stares with her.

She gasped “Duncan!”

“What?!” the elf barked, then jolted to turn his glare on Duncan. His otherwise smooth face scrunched up in rancid disgust and anger, a single second before a burst of dark purple magic consumed him whole, then left him absent—and in that absence, Rose suddenly had no one to hold unto any longer. The water at her feet rose to swallow her up as she plunged into it, her arms flailing wildly, gasping for breath. Duncan tried to cry out her name, but it came out as nothing but a struggled wheeze, hardly even loud enough for himself to hear. He couldn't feel most of his limbs any longer, and darkness was corrupting is vision, spreading like a cancer over it. He told his muscles to carry him to the edge of the lake, but all they could do was hold him from slumping into the mud—and hardly even that. Helplessly he watched as Rose splashed in the moonlit lake, forced to swallow its waters again and again. Duncan's arms finally collapsed under him as they tried to keep his face out of the mud, but the poison that ravaged him from inside had finally sapped him of every last ounce of strength in him. Darkness had conquered so much of his vision that all he could see was but a few fickle specks here and there. But that was all he needed to see the hand of Rose grab unto the granite edge and pull herself ashore. That was all he needed to see, before everything became numb, dark, and silent.

Duncan was certain he had died. The way reality and all it entailed became a thing of the past, something to be remembered as he turned to face a world of silence and darkness. He was absolutely positive about it, for a moment, for what else could it have been? A death by poisoning seemed more than reasonable to assume, even though he would have wanted to die in so many other ways than this. He would have wanted to die fighting for what he loved, for the land he loved, for the people he loved. But instead, he died fighting nothing but his urge to vomit. He was no Mjaln like Ramund, but a death like this was a dishonor he would rather have avoided.

But was it really a death? Duncan's certainty shook a little, as he felt something beneath him, even though it seemed as if there was nothing beneath nor above in this strange, dark void that he had so certainly had called 'death'. It was a soft and cushioned feeling, like a bed. In fact, the more he touched it, the more it felt like a bed—an expensive and high quality one, at that. It was when he felt his chest rise and fall with burdened breath, that he slowly came to realize that he might not have died just yet. And he was not quite sure how to feel about that.

He slowly opened his eyes, vision blurry and out of focus. All things around him seemed to double, twins of everything everywhere, and it only served to make him even more dizzy than he already was. He slowly sat up, his body feeling like it was made of lead, but unlike last time he woke up from a world of darkness, this time he could actually feel that body. Curious, he thought... how he had fallen asleep in mud, but awoke in cushions.

Wherever he was, one thing was clear the second he opened those eyes: he was not in the slums any longer. The bed yielded and sunk under his weight, comfortable unlike anything he had ever slept in before, and it probably cost more than his entire life combined—and that was just the bed. Rich carpets covered mahogany floors, portraits in the dozens aligned the walls where bookshelves or cabinets or mosaic windows weren't, and all of it dimly lit up in the fickle glow of a few lanterns here and there. The mosaic of the windows all portrayed the same thing: a long and slender woman, draped in grey shawls and loose cloth, arms extended, head bowed, eyes closed, and with a pair of owls perched on her shoulders. Gentle moonlight washed through these artistic windows, a silver touch amongst the black, but the slight hint of dawn was squeezing through as well. As Duncan's vision grew more focused, he saw how the way the candles were set and the light played with the darkness was certainly not random. The boundaries between shadow and light seemed to mark transitions in some strange story woven into the carpets and painted on the walls—no story that Duncan could fathom right now, but there was certainly something to be told, here in this curious room of noble splendor and mystic darkness.

But as he sat up in the bed, he noticed that there was another source of light, and it was quite unlike that of the candles. It was coming from himself, it seemed, a gentle glow of deep green pushing through his own shirt. He had been stripped of his armor, the steel now poised on a wooden stand in the back of the bedroom, while he sat here in nothing but a shirt and trousers. But he quickly removed the shirt, anxious to see what was emitting such a strange glow from beneath, and removed to reveal what he recognized to be one of these runes—the magical sort. Long strokes of gentle green had been painted onto his chest, right by his heart, and the glow of those strokes seemed to rise and fall in accordance to his own heartbeat. The only remains of the poison in him was a slight weakness in his muscles and some difficulty breathing, and while uncomfortable, he wasn't dead, and that was always something. He figured this rune here played a large role in achieving exactly that. His fingers crept a little closer to the rune, curious.

“You shouldn't touch that.” Duncan startled in his bed, so hard he felt it shake beneath him, as a voice spoke from the shadows. A deeply familiar voice. He wondered how he hadn't noticed her until now; her eyes gleamed through the darkness like lonely gems, her black hair melding perfectly with her surroundings.

“I thought you were dead, Duncan.” she said, scooting her chair out of the shadows and into the gentle light of a nearby candle. Just like that, the ominous aura of her sitting and staring from beyond the darkened veil gave way to a much more concerned and even downright disappointed demeanor, now that the candlelight illuminated that smooth face of hers.

Duncan couldn't help but smile, ever so slightly “Heh... truth be told, so did I. I thought these soft cushions were Morrin's gentle arms... but I suppose I'll have to wait a little longer for that.” he looked into the bed, seeming a little self-ironic, before a sense of dread suddenly struck him. He turned his look back on Rose, mouth half-open, words hesitant and slow. Rose visibly turned a little more concerned too, as she saw the sudden disappearance of Duncan's smile.

“Rose, you... you weren't alone down there, by the lake.”

Rose grew silent. She seemed like she wanted to slip into the shadows again, or kill the humble candle at her side, anything to keep Duncan from looking at her any longer. But she didn't. Instead, she gave him a rather curious, befuddled look “Of course not.” she said “You were there.”
“No, I...” Duncan wasn't quite sure how to phrase this “There was someone else. On the water, an elf, all dressed in spangly clothing, looking like some kind of circus manager or a jester. And you... you were walking on the water!”

“Duncan, stop.” Rose leaned in a little closer, suddenly seeming quite displeased with him “Do you realize how insane you sound? I need you to stop saying these things. You were hallucinating. What you saw... it's not there. It never was. Okay? Do you understand?”

Duncan opened his mouth again to insist, but the words only got half-way before he swallowed them. His gaze fell from Rose's glaring eyes and into the cushions of the bed, shivers running up his spine as he remembered that monstrous hallucination he saw rising from the depths of the lake. The world was seeming more and more distant to him now—reality suddenly something that felt like it could easily slip between his fingers at any time. Was this the doing of the drug alone? He loathed to face it, but when he thought back to what happened in that Casserton graveyard, he knew all too well that the answer to that question was 'no'.

“I...” he licked his lips profusely, the aftereffects of the drug making them feel dry as sand “I suppose. I'm sorry, I... I just need some rest, perhaps? My head is still rather heavy, and I'm talking nonsense. It all just seemed so gods damn real.” Duncan said, the image of that strange elf unnaturally clear in his mind, the diabolic smile on his smooth features, and the disgusted look of defeat he inflicted on Rose. Was it all really just a product of his own broken mind?

“They always do.” Rose said, sitting back in her chair, fingers twiddling uneasily in her lap “Every time. Every single time, you'd swear they were there, as real as you, as real as me, as real as all this.” her hands ran across everything within reaching distance, patting it, touching it, showing that it was undeniably real “It's only when they're gone that you realize how... insane... it all is. And that's when they start jabbing needles into your neck, strapping straitjackets on you, putting you behind bars and claiming that they're helping you. But it only gets worse from there. Every day, you feel yourself only growing less and less acquainted with your own head.” she looked up at Duncan, staring him dead in the eye “Never fall that far, Duncan... always know your mind. Give it a name if you must; just never, ever forget it. For once you don't feel that you can recognize it any longer... then there's no help for you, any longer.”

Suddenly, the door went open. Duncan and Rose both turned their looks on it, as it slowly creaked open, a shadow amongst shadows stepping through. The black regalia of decadent velvet and the strangely pale skin, white and smooth as porcelain, seemed to contrast one another like that of a chessboard. With hair combed back and drowned in gel, and with an oily black goatee given the same treatment, he left no doubt of his higher standing and the richness of his blood. The floor creaked underneath his slow, sophisticated gait as he stepped inside, gently shutting the door behind him and walking up to the end of the bed. An imposing silence seemed to follow the man like a shadow among all the rest, a shadow that held one hand over Duncan's mouth and another around his throat. The light of the candle engulfed most of his upper body, but his face remained cloaked in darkness, with only an amber stare to pierce through it. And on his chest, an emblem of an owl bathed in the light of the full moon was sown, making him throw a glance back at the intricate mosaic windows on his right—but the stare of the lord demanded his attention.

“You are a lucky man, mister Ross. Your body rejected the drugs you were taking, which is a quite frequent cause of death for addicts in the slum—there comes a point where the body says 'no more'... and then this happens. Many have died before you, of the same reason. You're fortunate not to have added to that list.” he said, spoken by a tongue that had practiced the tone of nobility to absolute perfection “I can tell by your necklace that you must be religious, and so, I can only assume that it was not only Rose here, but Keyen too, who dragged you from death's claws. I would suggest a prayer of thanks to her, first chance you get. As I'm sure you know, the gods appreciate some... gratefulness.”

Duncan sat up in his bed, trying to seem as intact as possible in face of the lord before him “They do indeed, and I've done my best to show it. But even with the gods and even with Rose, I think there's still a third factor to be accounted for.” he tried a smile, looking the lord in the eye, despite how brutally invasive that amber stare was “You, lord... Umbral, I take it?” he asked, scrutinizing the blackness of the lord's attire, and the emblem sown on his chest.

“Quite so.” the lord answered back, a shadow-wrought nod of confirmation following “Lord Theodor Umbral, pleased to make your acquaintance... Duncan. I hear you're with the Dawn rebellion as well, and yet, you wear the plates of a crusader. How can that be?”

Duncan looked back at his armor that stood shimmering in the light of a nearby candle, a slight twist in his gut following. He had hoped Lord Umbral wouldn't have asked that question, but he figured that a house full of spies, scholars, and information brokers would be able to tell the garb of a crusader from that of a simple guardsman. He looked back at the lord, and left no twist or cushioning of his words as he spoke.

“I'm a deserter, your lordship.” the word 'deserter' seemed so distastefully criminal, but it was what he was, no two ways about it “I fled during the siege of Aegon, together with Rose here and my sergeant, Ramund. We survived to tell the tale of what actually happened there, unlike most false rumors that seem to be revolving around the whole tragedy.”

Theodor didn't seem too touched about him being a deserter—in fact, Duncan believed he could see a little smile peeking forth from the shadows, teeth as white as his skin “A Mjaln fleeing from battle... in all my years of information gathering, this is a secret I do not hear often.”

Duncan mimicked the lord's smile, even if his wasn't as sinuous as his “He didn't do so willingly, of course. He required a little... persuasion. I thank the gods that he was smart enough to see reason, though. Nothing survived that day, and strong as he may be, he would have been no exception.”

“But the question is: could it be that he would have preferred it that way?” Theodor asked, head inclined “I think we both know the relationship between Mjaln and death in battle. I happen to have spoken with this Ramund friend of yours, together with Rose too, as a matter of fact.” he said, his right hand brought to gesture to Rose at his side, even that small motion carrying an astounding amount of perfected eloquence “He's seen many years pass, and if he isn't careful, he may find himself being felled by age, rather than a sword. Curious that I should use a word like 'careful' in this case, as it is likely rambunctious recklessness that will get him his wish... but I think we're both in a mutual understanding about what I'm trying to say.” before Duncan could get an answer in, Theodor spoke again “Either way, you must be exhausted. In fact, I know you are—I can tell by the rune on your chest. You can thank my son Borrivar for that, if he comes by. Quite the aspiring mage, even if he breaks the family tradition of wizardry in favor of rune magic... but what can I say? Teenage rebellion, I assume... much like what you're doing, yourself.”

Duncan brought forth a little smile, only to realize what Theodor meant by that last sentence. But before he could retort, the shadow-swept lord had already given a nod of farewell, turned his back, and left the room. Duncan sat there with a strangely unfulfilled sense in his stomach, as if Theodor was not telling them something... but then again, such things were to be expected from someone whose entire family wealth was built on keeping secrets and only selling them to the highest bidder.

“Don't let yourself be bothered.” Rose said, breaking the silence Theodor had left in his departure “What you're feeling right now... it's all part of their game. Theodor is alright, but he's a noble. He's a vulture that has been taught to speak softly and wear expensive threads. As long as you keep in mind that everything he does, he does for his own sake... you'll be okay.”

Rose's face was still half-covered in shadow, but the smile she donned seemed brighter than any of the candles in this room. For but a moment, Duncan couldn't tell if this smile was real, or if his mind was still playing tricks on him. Strangely enough, he didn't seem to mind either.

“Now get some rest. I'll come back in an hour. Maybe I'll bring some tea. Maybe coffee. Maybe neither.” she stood to her feet and shrugged ever so slightly “We'll see.”

Duncan knew he didn't have to answer that, and clearly, Rose preferred it that way. He gave a smile of his own to mirror hers, just as she turned his back on him, and walked out that door. He wondered if she managed to even see it... but then again, perhaps it was best if she did not. He blew out the nearby candles, slid down into the soft cushions of the bed once more, and let Morrin pass the gentle hand of slumber over him.

But no more than an hour before that, outside the safe and comfortable walls of House Umbral, a lonely soul was wandering the dark, misty streets of Moonby Sanctuary, restless. The night was late, but not late enough for dawn to have any say in the wealth of the darkness; for the darkness was stronger than ever, even the lanterns seeming to dim in these blackened hours. Tired legs carried the lonesome figure through the shadows, the mist slithering around his hips like the creeping veil that always seemed to adorn graveyards, like milky white silken trappings. These cobbled streets were quiet with slumber, nothing but the gentle wind here to share the stranger's company. Even outside the slums, where the mud faded and made way for granite; where the wooden squalor made way for the tall and the grey; where wooden walkways made way for lapping aqueducts, full of water caught from rain and sipped from rivers. Even here, it was quiet. The booths that stood scattered here and there on the roadsides were all empty of merchant and merchandise alike, and the shops had long since passed closing hour. The last candlelight in the windows had gone out, and the sleepy city of Moonby Sanctuary now truly slept, as it did best.

But even so, the stranger wandered, only briefly visible in whatever lanterns may yet linger through the cold, the dark, and the wet of night. Sleepy eyes of rats seemed to stare from the sewer grates by the sidewalks as the stranger passed, this one pair of footsteps easily the only one they had heard since the sun went down. These very footsteps carried the stranger from the mud of the slum, into the granite streets of a more central district of the city, and then straight out again. But before long, the footsteps came to a stop before one particular door, in a quiet residential area of the city, where the rare and small middle class usually lived. And then, a lantern came to light, and swept over him.

Dienrod whipped the match in the air, killing the flame swiftly. The lantern at his door gently rocked from side to side in the nightly breezes, its flickering glow cast upon his humble home. He rested his entire left side on his cane, for his leg would do him no good any longer, serving as nothing but limp flesh for blood circulation. His rotten teeth came to light in the lantern's glow, together with the monstrous gash his cheek had suffered. While he stood there and fumbled with his keys, the rats always approached from the shadows, peeping and squeaking and circling around him like this misty world's equivalent of vultures. It was as if they knew he already had one foot in the grave, and were simply waiting for the next one to follow. But every time, they were disappointed. The lock went open with a mechanical clang, and the door soon followed.

It was a lonely place, this humble home of his. Cobwebs hung like satin strings, and the rats that stalked him often had the audacity to follow him inside as well—but he honestly didn't mind any longer. He had tried to rid himself of them, but he knew defeat when he saw it. The rats were not going away, so he would rather not waste what precious effort he still had left in him.

The lantern's light was blocked out, as he closed the door behind him. The moaning of the wind was still as clear as ever, these musty walls too ragged to provide much form of muffling, let alone insulation. Sometimes, it even felt as if the mist crept in as well, roiling around his feet while he sat in his chair, feeling life seep through his fingers, like so many other things seemed to do, these days.

His cane clacked with every step, as he navigated through the shadows of his home, the narrow walls so familiar to him that he didn't need much light to find his way. His kitchen was a small and cramped place, hardly even space for himself. He reached into a cabinet for a jug of water, filling up a small wooden cup. He didn't really know why he did it, for he knew the outcome was always the same: as he tried to drink, he got a little down, while all the rest seeped through those rotten teeth of his and trickled down his neck. He put the cup down, and for but a moment, felt a spark of desperate frustration inside a heart that had otherwise lost the will to feel anything, any longer.
“Look at you... can't even drink anymore.” a voice spoke from the shadows behind him, but he didn't startle, didn't scare. He simply stood there, coldly realizing the fact that he wasn't alone, as he had otherwise hoped he would be. Where any reasonable man would perhaps feel surprised, all Dienrod felt was... disappointment.

“Are you as pathetic inside as you are on the outside, Dienrod?” the voice spoke again, so hoarse and stern, spoken through gritted teeth and a veil of suppressed hatred. Dienrod could tell, even if he didn't feel it himself, any longer.

He turned around, slowly, showing that he didn't mean to fight the stranger. He stood there with a half-full cup of water and gazed numbly into the darkness, to where the stranger sat, half-lit in the feeble glow of a lantern outside the nearby window. His face was wrought in shadow, obscured, but the gun in his lap gleamed in the dim light of the lantern, together with a pair of hands that rested upon it, slightly wrinkly, like his own.

Quietly, Dienrod sat down opposite of the stranger, in a chair in the other side of the small living room. He realized there wasn't much to say, much to do, for if he tried to fight this stranger, he knew he wouldn't get far—not with this leg. The same went for trying to run away, so all he did, was sit down and accept that this fight was over as soon as it had begun. The chair sunk slightly as he sat into it, quietly gazing into the eyes that glimmered from beyond the curtain of shadows.

“Are you here to kill me?” he asked with a calm, even relaxed voice, mostly because he had long since forgotten how to express any kind of significant emotion; anger, fear, desperation, all of these were probably quite fitting in a situation like this, but he just couldn't get himself to feel them.

“I am.” Dienrod was glad that the stranger at least was honest in his intentions “But I want to make sure you know who killed you. Don't you recognize me, Dienrod?”

He fiddled with the cup in his hands as he sat there, looking down at the stranger's gun once more, and the fingers that held it. He looked into the eyes that stared from the darkness again “Of course I do. It was only a matter of time before you would be here. You're a hunter, always have been, always will be... sooner or later, you always find your prey.” his stare fell to the ground for but a second, before looking into the eyes once more “But if you think killing me will bring her back, then you've not learned a thing, Wolfe.”

“I learned more than enough that day.” his voice became a snarl, his ragged finger falling on the trigger of the gun in his lap “I'm not here to bring her back, Dienrod. I know she's dead, always will be, nothing can change that. I'm here to finish what I started.”

“To succeed where you before had failed?” Dienrod corrected, loosely motioning to the monstrous laceration of his cheek “We've been in this situation before, Wolfe, and we all lost, that day. At least, last time, you had the grace of trying to murder me in a believable and easily concealable manner. Breaking my leg during a demon raid out there in the wastes, in the middle of nowhere... no one would ask any questions, no one would come to investigate, no one would even think further than 'oh, that's a shame'. You've fallen quite low, to resort to something as simple as shooting me in the head.”

“Keep talking like that, and I might put a few bullets in your kneecaps before I do.” Wolfe retorted, the gleaming stare wrapped in shadow seeming to narrow “At this point, I don't care about finesse. As long as it gets the job done, I'm satisfied... and like this, no one gets killed, but you.”

Dienrod fell rather silent then, eyes falling to the floorboards “I have to confess... what happened that day was tragic for all three of us. I'm old, Wolfe, old and tired, and along the way of getting used to city life, I've asked the gods time and again why they couldn't just let me die, that day. Why Dorothy had to give her own life, for mine. Why she was more fit for death, than me.” he shook his head “It could have been so much easier, if I had just been killed. Goodness... I loved that woman so much, I would give my life for her in the blink of an eye; and who knows, if I really had died, maybe she would have been happier with you, than with me. Maybe you'd have been sent home free, maybe you'd have had cute little Fairlander children, maybe you'd have grown old in peace.”

“But that's not what happened, was it?” Wolfe interrupted, leaning in a little closer, his grizzled war-torn face coming to light in the lantern's rays “Dorothy just had to run out there and save your miserable little hide, and she just had to get herself slaughtered in the process. Yes, Dienrod, you're right: it would have been so much easier if you had just died. But instead, you survived, and returned to rat me out.” he leaned back in his chair, the shadows once again consuming his expression, darkness becoming his frame as much as his voice “Do you know how long I've waited for you to return from those front lines? Years upon years I've waited, held my anger at bay, trying to get used to civil life once more, even though I knew I wasn't bloody well finished killing things. I even had to slaughter some sad little shit under Deum's control, to get your location. These so-called 'witch hunters' are out after you as well, as I'm sure you know, and they were bloody close to getting you as well. Too bad they won't have the pleasure.” his grip tightened around the gun as he lifted it up, but Diendrod didn't as much as twitch as he stared down its barrel “I've been fighting for so long, Dienrod. Gave so many years of my life for The Crusade and it's twisted, stupid war. I've been trying to incorporate myself into society, without much luck. And you know what? I think I've found out why.” the gun clicked as he pulled back the hammer “For all these years I've fought, there was just this one demon I forgot to kill.”

Dienrod set the cup aside and folded his finger in his lap, stale and listless eyes meeting with the predatory stare of Wolfe. Dienrod didn't feel much within himself any longer, but he liked to think that he could still see emotions in other people... and when he looked into Wolfe's eyes, all he saw was a lust for murder. Truly, this lieutenant lived up to his name.

“Then kill me, Wolfe. Kill me and be done with it.” Dienrod positioned his head to make certain the first bullet would be lethal, all while maintaining contact with the eyes of Wolfe “Put down this demon, and convince yourself that you're free. But when the blood has caked and the dust has settled, you'll know that there is still one demon left... and unlike me, you won't survive this one. No one ever has.”

“We'll see.” Wolfe said shortly as he rose to his feet, his full figure now stepping into the gentle light, all while pushing the barrel of the gun close against Dienrod's forehead “I think we're done here.”

“We are.” Dienrod said, feeling the cold touch of steel against his skin “Goodbye, Wolfe... and good luck.”

Wolfe 's nose wrinkled in spite, his teeth bared in a sneer, but he said nothing. The time for words had passed.


The rats fled, as the gunshot rang throughout the quiet residential district.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 8
Another huge chapter that I have to split in three, rather than the usual two (or not have to split at all). This chapter was quite a lot of fun to write, as 'Stars' is actually a perfectly functional card-and-dice game that I've played with my friends a few times before. In fact, due to how long the game takes, the chapter has been named 'A Game of Stars' - could easily have been a G.R.R. Martin book title, huh? The rules are a little complicated, but I hope I expressed them well enough.

And that last bit in the chapter... I hope I expressed that well enough as well, but I didn't want to spell it out, as I feel that would ruin some of the realism. What, I wonder, did you understand from this?

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
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It took a little while of navigating through the ramshackle streets of the slum, to find what he was looking for. The way was nowhere near as simple as the man at the stall made it sound—that, or he had missed an important turn when he fled from the breath. He backtracked several times after finding himself walking in circles—again—while trying his best to seek toward one side of the city, so that he at least could be going in the right direction. He tried to navigate using the massive walls that encircled the city, but they were all completely drowned away in the white shroud that hung over the city—not to mention the fall of night made it no easier. All he had to keep the shadows at bay, was the stolen lantern in his hand, the flame protected from the cool breezes of night by a layer of dirty glass. However, he soon found that he didn't need its fickle flames, as other lights began to wink through the mist like the eyes of a maiden intent of seduction. And seduced he was. The scent of booze crept through the mist, and the sound of laughter too—this had to be it. He picked up his pace and hurried through the mist toward the light, afraid that it may just have been another play of his mind.

But it was not. The tavern scent grew stronger the closer he came, and what before was but a tempting glow that pierced through the mist became a tavern indeed. Surprisingly tall, with three entire floors to call its own, even though both top floors seemed like they had been added unto the bottom floor by whatever help they could scrap together with nothing to pay with but a pat on the shoulder and a mug of ale. Some boards were missing, windows shattered and never replaced, holes covered up by a single plank and a few rusty nails—it was as home here as the rest of this decrepit place indeed, but by the sound of laughter from inside, Duncan could tell that the people had learned to love it either way. He stood before the doorway, hesitant for a little while, but there was something in him that gripped him and kept him from walking away—for if not here, where? He took a deep breath and let it all out as he set the lantern by the muddy porch, and stepped inside.

The sound of merriment and mugs clashing together was something he could find relaxing, if anything. He saw a few cautious looks thrown his way, probably because of the way he was still in his armor, but the fun continued nonetheless. There were astoundingly many people present this evening, every table filled up, waitresses scurrying back and forth with trays full of mugs, all while a dancing show was going on atop a small makeshift stage in the back of the room, with bards and scantly clothed women performing their hearts out for the drunken audience. Duncan was glad to see that there was something to keep their attention elsewhere—he'd much rather slip in, slip out, and be done with it without much of a fuss. He figured the first step for doing so, was approaching the barkeep.

She was a scraggly old woman, with wiry brown hair and a back that could still keep her upright standing. In many ways, though her face told about the coming of age, she kept much of her natural beauty, which perhaps was one of the reasons why she could still keep this job, despite being old and slow. Duncan pulled up a stool by the bar, which was placed opposite of the stage, so the audience could look in one direction for booze, and the other direction for music and women in clothes thin as satin—though definitely not satin, for that would surely be far too pricey for a place like this. Duncan found himself sitting between a pair of men, one large and burly and with eyes deep in his half-full ale mug, and the other being a gaunt and rat-like man, with a cigarette in his mouth and even more needle wounds in his arm than the man at the stables. Duncan eyed them cautiously, his heart rate rising slightly—so this was the place indeed. His attention, however, was quickly caught by the old barkeep, as she stepped up before him.

“Whassis then? Soldier here for a mug, eh?” she asked him with an accent thick and drowsy, yet a surprisingly sweet smile—something she surely must have been practicing quite a bit “We don't serve guardsmen here, hun... but you ain't got the tabard, so I'm s'posing you've pledged your blade with other folk, eh?”

Duncan tried to smile, nodding once “That I have. I'm... not from around here. New in town. Heard about this place, though.”

“Is that so?” she asked while cleaning up a mug with a towel that seemed so filthy that it would only leave the mug in a worse state than it was before “'Tis a humble little place we got us here, but the folk like it, though I reckon that's because it's sort of, y'know, the only place in this end o' town. So what you heard, hun? Something good I'd hope, aye?”

Again, Duncan nodded “That it was, madam. It's passed me by that you've quite the, uhm, variety of things to purchase here. I'm sure you get this a lot. I'm not here for the drinks, you see.” Duncan said those words with quite some burden in them, and he feared they'd be ill returned, but much to his surprise, it seemed to make no difference at all for the woman before him.

“Say no more, hun.” she said, setting the mug down “I can't serve you that stuff meself, but go speak with Norman over there, he'll fix you up.” Duncan turned around as she pointed over his shoulder, to a table in the corner of the room, close by the stage. It was a table wider than the rest, circular too, with a group of three men and a woman playing a game of cards—though from here, he couldn't possibly tell what kind of game it was.

“He's the one with the 'stache. Lovely fella, comes here all the time, attracts more customers than any bard ever could. You go see him, hun, and ask directly. Norman don't want no fuss—he knows what you're after.”

Duncan gave the barkeep a grateful smile “Thanks.” was all he had to say, as he scooted off his stool, and made his way to Norman's table.

He sat down with quite some unease, but he tried his best not to show it. Places like these always made him more uncomfortable and paranoid than any demon-infested battlefield ever could. But then again, perhaps there wasn't such a great difference at all. There were just other tactics to keep in mind, other foes to know, and it was never quite certain who your allies were. But Duncan didn't have to worry about that. Coming in here, all alone, clad in armor, he knew he had none.

There were four sitting at the table, five with him joining it. Three of them were men, only one woman amongst them, but she seemed to have earned her respect as much as they had. She had a look in her eye that could surely kill a small creature, and all the scars that sullied her face only served to make it worse. She, along with the other three, gave Duncan wary and scrutinizing stares. Though he wasn't so sure about one of the men, who had an eye that rolled lazily about, and the other was going blind. Another one was as bony as the man at the counter, with arms that seemed like he'd need to order half mugs of ale, because he wouldn't be able to lift a full one. Duncan forced out an uncertain smile, but they all gave him nothing but narrowed stares in return... except for one of them.

“Look at him! He's smiling! Watch and learn, you rancid swine!” this had to be Norman, Duncan figured, judging by the impressive mustache that seemed to curl upwards with his festive smile. He whapped his comrades over their shoulders, forcing a smile out of the gaunt man, while the woman and the one with the lazy eye only gave him some befuddled, curious looks.

He rolled his eyes and sighed “I'm sorry about that, my friends here don't know how to socialize, despite spending most of their time in this dump, where the entire point is to socialize. I don't know how they do it, but they're some of the few. Makes me wonder why they're in my company. Am I really that boring?”

Duncan sat there and tried his best to echo Norman's laughter, but laughing while he had three pairs of eyes staring him down proved to be more difficult than he had anticipated. But Norman's laughter was abruptly halted, as he whipped out an open hand to Duncan.

“Name's Norman, I'm the distributor of this place. Got a mother who named you something, pal?”
Duncan startled a little at the sudden introduction, but found him shaking hands with Norman quite soon “A quite lovely one, and she named me Duncan.”

“Well, Duncan, I'm not sure what your mother taught you, but are you sure she'd be happy seeing you in a place like this?” Norman leaned back in his chair and let a hand drift over the scene around him “Scantly clothed women dancing for your amusement; curse words shoved into every second sentence; drunk men and women everywhere, most of them probably drunk on something more than just ale. I know for a fact that my own mother would disown me the second she saw what company I share—if she still drew breath, of course. Would yours?”

Duncan sat quiet, as Norman arched an eyebrow and curled a smirk at him, fingers entwined on his belly. He cast a look out the door, and wondered for but a moment what she would have thought of him, if she knew. This was not the son she had raised. This was not his father's legacy.
“I wouldn't know. It's been ages since her funeral, and truth be told, I've even forgotten her voice by now.” he lied, looking back at Norman, giving a shrug.

Before Norman could answer, the lazy-eyed man leaned in close and spoke in what he may have thought was a hushed tone, but was as loud as anyone else in this room “Hey boss... I think this one's a guardsman. Look at the armor, aye?”

“Time to shut your squealer, piglet.” Norman shoved the man back in his seat, his face suddenly contorted in a feral sneer “Open your fucking eyes you worm, do you see any tabard on him? Do you?”
“N-no boss. No I dunnae see no tabard, boss. Sorry boss.”

“Not to mention he's sweating like a northling in the fucking desert, hah!” the woman on his left spoke up, grinning like a monkey “First time here, obviously, so he can't be a guardsman. What's the matter, shrimp? Aren't soldiers like you supposed to be so bloody valiant and brave, or did you just loot that armor from some dead bastard?”

Duncan pulled off his gauntlet, and saw how his fingers were glistening with sweat—he hadn't even noticed, yet now that he saw it, he could feel the droplets all over his body like a thousand spiders, only making it worse than it already was “No, I—“

“Can we stop pestering the man already?!” Norman burst out, hammering a fist into the table, staring down those around him “We're here to play games and have a good time, not scare people away! You're fucking up my business, so please, if you don't have something intelligent to say, shut your traps and let them stay shut. I've no patience for your bullshit, got it?”

And suddenly, there was silence. Not only just at their table, but also the adjacent ones leapt in their seats in wake of Norman's anger, looking over their shoulders and making sure that it wasn't them he was talking to. A few seconds of painful quiet ruled the tavern, but things livened up again, soon enough. And then, Norman smiled.

“Actually, now that I mention it, a game wouldn't be too bad. Tell me, Duncan, are you acquainted with Stars?”

“Stars?” Duncan asked, confused for a moment, before it came back to him “Oh yes, Stars—hah, yeah, that was a popular game on the fr...” he stopped himself from saying 'frontlines' “...the barracks. Probably still is, I'm sure they're playing it as we speak.”

“Barracks? So you ARE a fucking guardsman!” The woman's eyes widened with seething wrath, but Duncan intervened.

“No no no, not the guards! I'm with the... militia. The militia!” Duncan had never lied so quick in his life “Outside of the Sanctuary, protecting travelers, keeping an eye on monsters, all that. I've no allegiance to the guardsmen, really. Even if the militia did, I sort of... left.”

“HAH!” Norman's laughter was like the bark of a dog “I had pegged you for a deserter, chum—your kind smell of treason for miles away. I kind of like that smell too; been considering making a perfume out of it. You're an idiot to still walk about in your armor, though. Questions will swarm to you like flies around a fresh piece of horse shit.”

Duncan's veins were still aflame with adrenaline, but he could see his lie had hit home, much to his relief “They already have, to be honest. But... I've grown used to this armor. It's like a second skin to me, you know?”

“No, I do not.” Norman said with a smile and direct honesty “But perhaps I can imagine it. Anyway, as much as I'd love to know every little juicy detail about you, Duncan, I believe we were playing Stars, weren't we?”

“Damn straight we were!” the man with the lazy eye suddenly burst out, giving the gaunt man beside him a few nudges of his elbow “I've already robbed you clean, you little shit, but I'll be happy to take those teeth of yours!”

“Mmmrrrhmm...” the gaunt man grumbled, shook his head, and stood up “I've ain't got nothing left to bet... you're gonna have to play without me. Can't afford risking me teeth as well.”
“What?!” the woman flung open her arms an exasperation “You're just gonna fucking bail on us? But we can't play just us four! You know the rules!”

“Well then let me take his place.” Duncan's attention quickly fell on a new voice that joined the company. The voice was old and haggard, yet some strength still remained in its tone, tenacious through the passing of years. Duncan looked up from his chair and saw a man approaching the table, dressed in soggy white clothes of cheap linen, and with all hairs on his head fallen to age. Duncan noticed how he was using a cane to approach, resting no weight on his left leg, crippled to uselessness somehow. But the injury of his leg was naught in comparison to his face. The right side of it seemed as healthy as any other of this man's age, but the left was ruin, a gash so horrid it had torn nearly all of his cheek off entirely. His teeth were perpetually bared and rot had set into them, turning half of his face into something that Duncan had only seen on demons. The gash gave him a devil's grin that he could not cease if he so wanted to, but Duncan knew perfectly well this man had little reason to smile.

“Like a guardian angel as always, Dienrod.” Norman returned the old man's chronic grin with a smile of his own “That seems to be an ongoing theme for you, doesn't it?”

“Are you taunting me, or praising me?” the old man, Dienrod, said as he took the seat of the gaunt man that had just left. He sat down slow and uneasy, his leg agonizing him with every inch he bent it, and though Duncan could see the pain contort his already warped facial expression, it was clear that this man had endured this pain for years “You know I'd rather forget my time with the Crusade... those weren't my best days, as my leg keeps reminding me.”

“And how your face keeps reminding the rest of us.” Norman snickered, and his two companions joined in, but Duncan was left in stifled silence. He stared at the man named Dienrod, at the monstrous disfiguration of his face, at the hollow look in his eye that seemed to tell stories of what things he had seen. He did not laugh, nor did he complain about Norman's rather crude jest, perhaps because these kinds of things just didn't touch him any longer. Duncan tried not to stare, but now that he knew where this man had been, he had even more reason to. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not decide: friend, or foe?

“You've got a mouth as always, Norman.” Duncan felt a blade in his heart as Dienrod turned his slow, dulled stare on Duncan “On the subject of faces: I don't think I know yours. New in town?”
Duncan hurried to nod, and stammer out “Y-yes. I'm from the militia. Out of town. Far out of town.”

“Ahh...” Dienrod raised his chin, while his empty stare seemed to devour Duncan's figure “So you're one of the mistwalkers... welcome to town, in that case. I'm Dienrod. A pleasure.” even though the word 'pleasure' was included, Dienrod's voice was a monotonous droning, a tumble of words that seemed to slur together in one flat line that may have carried coherence, but stripped of emotion. Duncan carefully took and shook Dienrod's hand as he extended it, and offered a wobbly, uncertain smile in return.

“Arright, enough fucking chatter—we gonna play or not?” the lazy-eyed man spoke out, leaning in over the table, staring down everyone as well as he now could with those eyes of his.

“Once you learn some bloody manners we might!” Norman snapped back, pushing the man right into his seat again “Now sit down you belligerent shit, and have some patience. Good gods, it's like I'm working with children here.” Norman growled in frustration and threw a look over those gathered at the table “Now... is there any doubt about the rules? Anyone who hasn't played Stars before?”

There was a little moment of silence, after that. No one raised their hands... save for Duncan, and he did so quite cautiously.

“I'll be honest with you here, though...” Duncan spoke up “...I didn't actually sit down to play cards. I just wanted some...” he licked his lips, the words clogging in his throat “...You know. Not booze.”

Another silence followed. All eyes were on Duncan, and he could feel all the little droplets of sweat again, trickling down his entire body. His heart seemed like it could just give up at any second now, with all these damned eyes staring at him. But as always, it was broken by Norman's laughter.

“HAH! Okay, okay, I get it—new guy, shy guy. Tell you what: since Stars is a game of gambling, I'd be willing to throw in a bottle of juice, and you'll have the chance of winning it—for free. Not to mention you'll scrape together whatever the others bet as well. Sounds good?”

Duncan opened his mouth to say that all he wanted was to get some of this stuff, and be out of here... but the way Norman smiled made it perfectly clear that he wasn't asking. Duncan swallowed some of his fears, and slowly nodded.

“Good! Now, the rules are fairly simple. If you've any idea what Rock Parchment Razor is, then this won't be too alien either.” he reached into his pocket, and drew out a deck of cards “There are fifteen cards in this deck, and each of us get three cards. Like so.” he began dishing out the cards to all five players at the table “Each card will 'defeat' seven others, while also being defeated by the same number. When you're defeated, you hand over your card to whoever defeated you, and that card will count as a 'point'—I don't think I need to tell you that the more points you have, the better, do I?” a scouring glare rolled over the four before him, just to make sure “Every round, we play down a single card, and see who has defeated who—and someone's been defeated by more than one, we roll about who gets the defeated's card, and thus the point. The defeated card is out of the game entirely, by the way—it's dead, done for, kaput. You've three cards in your hand, and we lay down until we've run out of cards, meaning three rounds in total. Simple, yeah?”

Duncan carefully picked up his cards, cradled tightly in his grasp to make certain no one peeked. The others did the same, though far more relaxed than him. He stared into his hand, and saw three artistically illustrated drawings, all in the same rigid yet colorful style, like a tarot card. He began to realize more and more how this was simply a complex version of Rock Parchment Razor, when he saw the names of fourteen other cards on his own cards—seven of which the card could defeat, seven of which it was defeated by. For convenience matters, he figured. If grunts like these had to remember what cards defeated what, surely every game of Stars would erupt in violent disagreement.

There was a good reason as to why this game was called 'Stars': all the cards were depictions of constellations on the night sky, and in his hand, he held three of them. Though he had never played this game for himself, he knew quite well the superstition that followed. Every card had its own story, its own meaning—and even thoughts, some said. But most of all, word was that the hand a player drew said something about the player himself. Duncan stared down at his cards, and though he was not a man for superstition, he couldn't help but wonder. The first card was a particularly shiny one, illustrating a gallant man in polished armor, claymore turned downwards at his plated breast and with his eyes hidden behind the intimidating slits of his steel helmet. The Knight. Duncan smiled ever so gently to himself. If the hand said anything about the player, this was almost flattery. A knight so brave and noble... but it was only the first card.

The next was a woman. Her long, flowing hair obscured a face that was buried in her own hands, her back hunched and tear drops dripping, depicted as stars themselves. Duncan knew this one, but he didn't like what he saw. The Weeper. A broken woman by all standards, a symbol of grief and suffering, often referred to in burial rites. What did this mean? The smile the Knight had given him swiftly disappeared as he stared down at the weeping woman. He had a feeling that he knew what this card was trying to tell him, remind him of. Was he really this broken?

The final card left him in a strange sense of distance and ambiguity. This was a man, though far from the shine and elegance of the Knight. This was a gaunt man, serpentine and slithering, with his right hand hiding his mouth, for all that came out of it was filth. The Liar, this one called itself. Duncan truly didn't know how to feel, holding this particular card in his hand. Why this one? He could see himself in the two cards before, but this one left him quiet and blank, uncertain of what to think... until he realized where he was. Looking around himself, where he sat, what company he shared, he came to see why he had drawn this card. Not only had he lied to Ramund, when he said he would stay away from the drugs—he had lied to himself as well. Once again, he looked back at the liar. It was with a heavy heart he had to confess, that of all three cards in his hand, perhaps this was the one that rang truest.

“Now... let's bet!” Norman's voice snatched Duncan's attention, just as he had immersed himself in his own cards “As I promised the good sir Duncan here, I will bet one vial of juice. I know the rest of you could have use for it as well, so if I hear anyone complain, shut your gabber and stop lying. Everyone wants this shit.” he declared as if it was an irrefutable truth, while his hand slipped into a small pouch hanging from his side. Duncan's heart rose to an excited pound as a vial of something all too recognizable was pushed unto the table. The verdant green oily liquid inside made his muscles tense simply by looking at them, and even now he could feel it coursing through his veins. All thoughts were blocked out of his head, the thought of this substance filling it up entirely. He hardly even noticed what the other players lay on the table. He figured there were some coins and some other useless stuff, but all he wanted was that tiny vial there. Only after the third time Norman asked “Duncan, are you gonna bet something?”, did he hear it.

“Huh? Oh! Oh, sorry, uhm...” he startled in his seat, feeling horribly embarrassed for fading away like that. This was when he realized that he hadn't actually thought of what he was going to bet. He had hardly any coin left, and he knew they would simply laugh at him, if he tried to bet some of the bandages in the pouches tied to his armor. Soon, his hand slid to his neck, where he felt the thin string of steel. His necklace. The pendant of Hrumalz, the god of war, a piece of jewelry he had worn for so long he often forgot he was wearing it. Yet now, in face of losing it, he came to understand how naked he would feel without it... but for the price of sweet relief? It was nothing. He would gladly risk it, to have a moment of peace in a world of constant, omnipresent war. He carefully unclasped the necklace, and lay it in the pile that had gathered on the table.

“Hmm... dainty little thing.” the woman on his left said, picking up the necklace and watching the symbol twirl around “I'm sure this could fetch a decent price.”

“If you sell it to a guardsman, perhaps.” Duncan said with an indifferent shrug “Hrumalz is a violent god. Farmers and bakers and butchers have no need for a necklace in his honor.”

Norman clicked his tongue a few times “Tsk tsk, Duncan. Degrading your own bet is a bad idea—we might demand more of you, if you convince us that you're betting little but piss and wind. Anyway, I'll let it slide for now. That thing does look fancy, after all.” he said, while his hand slid to one of his three cards and put it on the table, face down “Now... cards, people.”

Duncan watched as the other three put down their cards as well. His stare lingered on Dienrod, seeing how he seemed to find no joy in any of this. He had bet nothing but whatever coins his pockets carried, and strangely enough seemed like all he wanted was to be out of here. Odd, Duncan thought, as he was the one who wanted to join in the first place.

Duncan looked down at his cards again, a sudden strike of uncertainty pushing through him. What card to lay? The Liar, the Weeper, or the Knight? He didn't trust either of the two first, the Knight shining through like was it alight with pale fire. He knew perfectly well that it was all just superstition, that it would be a game of chance no matter how he put it, but even so, he found himself choosing the Knight over the other two. Down it went, on the table, the choice made.
And then, in perfect synchronization, the other players overturned their cards. Duncan tried his best to keep up, flopping his over as well to reveal the strong and valiant face of his card. A silence followed, as the players gazed over the cards that had been turned.

Norman had put down a card illustrating a hooded man with his arms wrapped around a jewelry box. The Thief. Duncan looked between the card and the owner of it. If the Thief was ever a symbol of the underground world, it could not have had a better owner.

Dienrod, meanwhile, had overturned the Wolf. It was the only card in the entire deck that wasn't a human being, and with good reason. For while all the other cards were dots connected between stars, the Wolf was a massive nebula in the sky that vaguely resembled a wolf. Legend had it that the world once had two suns, but one disappeared when the Wolf swallowed it whole, and it exploded inside its stomach—hence the reason why it was such a spread-out smudge in the sky. What it meant for Dienrod, though... Duncan wasn't quite certain. But with that vicious grin that one side of his face had been inflicted, he sure looked the part.

The woman threw down the Witch, while the lazy-eyed man threw down the Lumberjack. The silence continued for a while yet, while Duncan tried to figure out who he had defeated, and who had defeated him. But before he could, Norman spoke up.

“Alright, bring out the dice.” he said, which the lazy-eyed man did immediately “Seems like Dienrod and Jill need to roll for Frank's card. Afterward, Frank and I need to roll for Duncan's card. Then Jill and Frank gotta roll for my card. And finally, Duncan and Jill should roll for Dienrod's card.” he turned a look up at Duncan, smirking ever so slightly “But you got lucky, Duncan—you're the sole winner of Jill's card. So go on. Hand over the card, Jill.”

Jill, the woman on his left, grumbled a little as she slid her card, the Witch, over to Duncan. Duncan carefully reached out to take it, but she kept it pinned under her fingers for a few seconds. Duncan looked up to see her staring him dead in the eye, as if trying to see something beyond. To stare through a veil of lies that was surely weak and thin, what with Duncan feeling so excruciatingly nervous. Duncan wanted to say 'I swear I'm not cheating', but he never got that far, before she let go of the card.

The dice began to roll. Duncan, admittedly, wasn't quite certain about how the game progressed with the dice, and sometimes it seemed hard to tell how they decided who won what, or if it was just some made-up nonsense that no one really knew about, but somehow understood—like a group of kids trying to fathom the complexities of some more intricate gambling games, without anyone actually sitting them down and teaching it to them. He watched as cards changed hands, Norman's card going to Jill, Frank's card going to Dienrod, and his own card was snatched by Norman himself.

“Much appreciated, my boy.” Norman said with a cocky smile, wagging the Knight caught between his fingers. Duncan stared blankly, as he saw the way the Knight was caged in Norman's hands, defenseless in its tarot prison... Duncan truly did not believe in superstition, and even though he knew trying to find deeper meaning in this turn of events was utter folly, still he felt a stab in his heart. The noble and valiant Knight, at the mercy of the Thief.

Curiously though, something unexpected happened after that. The dice rolled again, and Duncan realized he hadn't quite paid attention to their numbers, as Dienrod slid his own card over to him. The Wolf, defeated before him.

“Keyen smiles on you, mistwalker.” Dienrod said in a voice as monotone as ever, half-spoken through the monstrous gash on his cheek “I can tell a religious man when I see one... and if it helps your fortune in card games, perhaps I should see what wonders a morning prayer each day can work as well.”

Duncan could see the mirth in his words, but his voice carried not even the faintest hint of it, even though he may have tried. It was as if there was just none such enjoyment left in the hollow husk he had become. Was this the work of war, as well? As Duncan looked at his disfiguration, remembered the way he walked, and heard the voice of numbed emptiness, he came to realize that he knew the answer to that question perfectly well.

“Wait... do religion count as cheatin'?” Frank asked, sounding like he was genuinely concerned about that.

“Only the same way counting to ten and knocking three times underneath the table counts as cheating.” Norman added with a sharp grin “The gods have greater things to deal with, than card games for a pack of dogs like us. It was simple coincidence that you won this round, Duncan—congratulations.”

Only then did Duncan realize he had actually won this round. Gazing around the table, he saw how the others had either only one card or none at all—while he, sitting here with the Witch and the Wolf, had two. Duncan blinked in surprise.

“O-oh... oh you're right! Heh. Nice.”

“Don't let it get to your head, though.” Norman raised a lecturing finger, leaning in a little closer “Declaring victory before victory is a road that only leads to defeat. And that's not even superstition—that's science! I think.”

Duncan humbly nodded a few times, forcing his surprised smile down. He looked into his hand once again, seeing how he was now left with the Liar and the Weeper. The Knight was all gone and spent—wisely so, it seemed, for now he sat here with one victory to call his own. He threw a look into the pile again, staring into the vial of oily liquid, with his own necklace curled around it like a snake around its prey.

“Alright, round two. Lay cards!” Norman raised his voice, for in a place like this with all the other patrons clashing mugs and laughing like hyenas—not to mention the show that was still going on the stage—speaking in a low and civilized manner would surely just be drowned away in the blare of it all. As Norman spoke, all five of them slapped down their cards in perfect synchronization—even Duncan was in. And he, though in deep uncertainty, had put down the Weeper. The Liar was an uncomfortable burden in his hand and he trusted nothing of it—putting down the Weeper was simply the lesser of two evils. He liked to convince himself that superstition meant nothing to him... yet still it all kept coming back to him, unrelenting.

The cards turned over, all of them, all at once. Duncan, with his fingers pinned on the Weeper, scoured the cards that had been overturned, scrutinizing every one. Frank had put down the Maiden, while Jill had put down the Wizard, both cards that he knew quite little about. But Norman, curiously, had put down the Artist. A beautiful card that was, far more colorful than all the rest, with thousands of colors at the mere fingertips of the man that the card displayed. But while his left hand was absorbed by the wealth of colors, his right hand carried only silver, for it was the one that painted the greatest beauty on the sky: the moon. Or so the legend went, that in years primordial, the Artist was the one who dreamed up the idea of a massive silver plate on the sky, which would illuminate the nights of travelers and bless the evenings of lovers young. And so, that was exactly what he made. Unsurprisingly, this constellation was often quite adjacent to the moon—hence this legend.

And while Duncan may have only played with the thought of one's hand saying something about oneself, he could not deny how curious it was, the card that Dienrod lay down. The Crusader. Much like the Knight in many ways, but engulfed in holy light and with angel wings sprouting from behind his armor. The symbols of all five gods emblazoned his white tabard, and in his left hand he held a golden sphere from which incense bled, while his right hand clutched a bright and shining blade. This was the first time Duncan had seen this card before, and he couldn't help but find it horribly... misleading. Was this the idea that the general populace had of crusaders? Was this the image they had been fed, nowadays? Duncan scowled a little, but tried to hide it. If this card was to be anything close to accurate, it needed a face like Dienrod's.

“Hmm... seems we've got quite a bit of dicing to do this time, folks.” Norman caressed his mustache as he looked over the cards, having played this game so much he didn't even need to look at his card to see what he had beaten, and what he had been beaten by “And if we're still thinking that gods could count as cheating... well, it seems yours haven't quite left you yet, Dienrod. You may be ugly as fuck, but Keyen still likes you. Look.” his hand drifted to point at Duncan and Frank's cards, while also lifting his own “You're up for rolls for three cards—three! Lucky bastard. But let's see if the dice like you as much as your gods do.”

Dienrod seemed almost as if he hadn't heard a word of what Norman said. His face was a ravaged stone, a lifeless mime that had been bled dry of more than just blood, and all he did was stare down at his own card, silently admiring it, if anything.

“But alas, you've been beaten by Jill... so hand over your card. Same goes for your card, Jill—it's been claimed by Duncan.”

This time, Jill made no fuss of giving her card to Duncan. She seemed more intent on grinning mockingly at Dienrod as she claimed his Crusader, her smile so wide as if she tried to mimic his disfiguration—and she was quite close, actually. Duncan quietly accepted the card, the Wizard, and took a glance down at it to see the old man in slouching blue robes, hands raised to engulf themselves in magical power. The classic wizard image, Duncan found, even though most wizards these days sought some alternative designs.

And so, the dice rolled. Over and over again they went, dancing across the tables, the carved dots on them dictating the course of the game—a course that seemed to fall quite a lot in Dienrod's favor. Immensely so, in fact. Norman's otherwise mirthful and confident smile suddenly fell to strange concern and disbelief as Dienrod claimed one card after another: the Artist, the Maiden, and the Weeper all fell to him. But as Duncan gave up his card to him, still there wasn't even a trace of enjoyment on his face. Duncan tried his best to see some kind of pleasure in that brutalized expression, but there was none—only sterile cold, all emotion withered away. All he said as Duncan gave his card, was a slow and droning “Thank you.”

“At least try to smile, you lifeless geezer.” Norman spat the words, but still he couldn't keep his smile at bay, clearly as amazed as he was insulted by Dienrod's luck “You don't win three cards in one round and take it without a smile—you just don't. Goodness, Dienrod, this is why you're so fucking good at card games—no one can read that face of yours. Maybe I should go spend a few years of my own on the front lines to perfect my own deadpan impression.”

While Jill and Frank snorted and guffawed, spitting more witty lines and tasteless jokes, all Dienrod did was shake his head.

“You wouldn't make it past a week.”

The table fell quiet after that. The guffawing stopped as Norman turned a slow, narrowed look at Dienrod, his own smile little but a lingering facade, a shadow “Oh? That's a rather harsh thing to say, old man. Would you like to take it back?”

“No.” Duncan felt himself shrink under the tension that rose from out of nothing, and Dienrod's words were not making it any better. The ravaged crusader simply sat there, calm as a still lake, folding the cards that he had claimed “We used to get many of your kind on the front lines... pathetic little idiots that wanted a taste of the glory they had heard so much about. I've seen them march off the airships with such confidence, oh so determined that they—and only they—will lay claim to legend, and their names will go down in history as heroes.” he laid the cards down “But come one week's time, they lay claim to nothing more than still breath and sand in their mouths. It's always the same.”

Duncan knew that all bets were off now, as Dienrod said those words. Anything could happen, but he knew that none of it would be good. His profile lowered like all he wanted to do was hide under the table and wait for this to blow over. He imagined Norman pulling a knife and plunging it into Dienrod's throat, all because he didn't like was coming up from it. But that wasn't what happened. Instead, he laughed. Slow to begin with, but then it picked up, and his two comrades joined in.
“Ohh Dienrod... the war may have taken much from you, but I can see humor is not one of them.” Norman's smile returned, wide as ever, his finger pointing at Dienrod as he spoke “But alright, I'll take your word for it. Perhaps the front lines aren't for me. I've got my own war to wage back here, anyway. Now... we were playing a card game, weren't we?”

“Yeah boss, we were playing Star—“

“Shut up Frank, it was a rhetorical question.” Norman held up his card, and looked across those around him “Final round, last card... Keyen be with you, men. And Jill.” he threw her a grinning look, just as he put down the card, all others joining in.

And so, it came down to this. In his hand, the card that served to do nothing but mock and humiliate him, was the only thing he could play. He hesitated as he put it down on the table, casting several skeptical glares at the tarot-styled face, at the man whose tongue was serpentine, his words his venom. His heart raced in his chest and his mind became a haze, but in a game of luck and gamble, he wouldn't need his mind anyway. He set the card down, reluctant as he may have been, but down it went anyway. And when the others turned the faces of their own cards upwards, as did he.

The final round of the game came flashing unto the table as all the players turned their cards. Duncan could feel himself sweating again, the hundreds of droplets making his skin crawl, and the silence that fell over the table only made it worse. Duncan knew that these five cards could just as well determine if he'd leave this place with his vial and his necklace alike, or if they would grant him nothing, nothing but wasted time and bitter defeat. As quickly as he could, he stared down at every card, to see what course the game would take.

Jill had put down the Harlequin, a card notorious for its unpredictability; word was that this card did as it pleased, affiliated with none, owner of itself, a trickster that would have the game take a turn for the... stranger. She was a young woman dressed in checkered clothes of black and white, with a feather in one hand and a bloodied dagger in the other, and the grin on her painted face foretold of cruel mirth and jests that were designed only to confuse. For this was what made the Harlequin laugh.

Duncan's stare fell to Norman's card afterward. A throne, a crown, a scepter—this was the King indeed, portrayed in the same classic—if not slightly cliché—image, just as the Wizard was. The King, Duncan found, was well suited for a man like Norman. For at this table, if not this entire room, he had left no doubt who sat on the throne, even if his chair was as ramshackle and moldy as all the rest.

Dienrod, next, had put down a card that resembled the King in many ways, but had a message of moral to it as well. The Noble. For was it a nobleman like those of this city's houses, or was it the act of being noble? The card portrayed a man wrapped in vibrant velvet of sea blue color, hair swept backwards and tied in a ponytail... but there was something else about this card, something that didn't belong. Duncan scrunched his nose as he saw how someone had drawn goat horns, fangs, and a tail on the man, with the illustrative skills of a ten year old child. Clearly, someone wanted to point out that it was no longer only humans that could lay claim to nobility.

And finally, there was the Priest, which Frank had put down. Duncan gazed down at his own card to see where this game would go, but as always, Norman was far swifter than he was to figure that out.

“Well I'll be burnt.” Norman said in a low voice, slouching back in his chair, wearing an amused and amazed smile “Duncan my boy, my man, my friend... you're as far from the gods as you get, here in this shithole, but it seems your guardian angel is more tenacious than what I expected.” Duncan wasn't quite sure what Norman was talking about, until he pointed out all the cards “See this? Every single one of us, you've countered, and none of us have countered you. You've a chance to walk away claiming all of our cards—not to mention this lovely pile here.” he lay his hand on the bets in the middle of the table “But still, a chance is all it is... you may just as likely walk home with nothing. The dice will determine that.” his gaze turned on Dienrod next, the smile he wore becoming a great and taunting grin “You, on the other hand, sit in the polar opposite of Duncan. Sorry, Dienrod... you've countered no one, but all have countered you. Better luck next time.”

Dienrod had nothing to say to that—nothing but a disgruntled 'hmm'. His expression was as cold as always, even though his bets seemed so far away, all of a sudden. Duncan looked up at the ravaged man, and couldn't help but feel a little guilty. He didn't play this game to rob these people blind; he played this game because he had no choice.

“But fret not, if Duncan doesn't win, that means the two of you will play a private game together with the winner of this round—so don't go thinking you've won or lost just yet. In games of cards and dice, every second is uncertain.” but then he, much to Duncan's surprise, slid his own card—the King—across the table to him “Except for this second. This second is pretty damn certain. You're the sole winner of my card, Duncan, so go ahead. Take it. It's yours.”

And Duncan did so, trying to put in a grateful nod as well, as he accepted the card and set it by the rest of his claimed constellations. Norman did the same before he sat back, and cradled the dice in his hands.

And so, they fell. Duncan couldn't blink as the small wooden cubes tumbled across the table, their verdict yet uncertain, their will yet unclear. Four times did they tumble, four times did Norman pick them up and toss them again, each time revealing a new set of numbers that would determine who got the first card: Dienrod's. And by the final toss, only one of four smiled.

“Ooooh, come to me, honey, yes please.” Jill snickered with such insolent ridicule in her voice as she craned her hand all the way over to the opposite end of the table, putting a single finger on Dienrod's card and dragging it over to her own side. She did all this while giving the ravaged veteran a grin so demonic, she could easily have gone for being a succubus, had she only wings and horns.

“I hold no grudges there.” Norman said with a shrug “The chance of me winning that card was only one out of four anyway. Odds seem a little sweeter with your card, Frank. That's rolling for me, Jill, and Duncan. Shall we?”

“We shall.” Jill said, seeming quite confident after having claimed Dienrod's card like that, now sitting there in her chair with the card pinched between her fingers, smirking slightly at the stupid additions that had been drawn on that card.

The dice fell again. Three times, this time. Duncan stared intensely, fiddling with his own fingers, sticky with sweat. He knew he would only need to win one of these, to secure his victory, to walk away with all his belongings—and more. Unfortunately, that victory did not make itself present in this round, as the dice determined that Frank's card had to go to Norman instead.
“I see your guardian angel likes to share her benevolence, Duncan.” his smile returned, wide and confident as always, even though most of it was hidden beneath that mustache of his “That, or she used up all her powers on having you counter all of us. I say... I'm looking forward to meeting you in the second round. Did you know that bets double, in such cases? Oh... no, you didn't, did you?”
No, no he did not. His hand slid to his neck where his necklace used to be, and he realized he couldn't afford a second round. He had nothing to give—nothing he had not already given. The hazard of gambling quickly became apparent to him.

“Very well... final dice.” Norman picked up the dice, squeezing one of the cubes between his fingers, staring at it poetically “Quaint how it should come to this. It's between you and I, Duncan, rolling for Jill's card. If you win, you get to leave with all the stuff, and no one will hold any anger toward you—we all knew the risk of games like these, when we made our bets. But if I win... if I win, we proceed to the second round... and bets double.” he turned his soft, yet oppressive gaze on him again, his smile never dying “Of course, if you can't afford such things, you could always forfeit.”

Duncan knew perfectly well that he didn't have anything to bet. He would have to strip himself of his armor if Norman won, and even then, he would still have to win the second round, or he would walk out that door with no victory, no necklace, and no armor. If he forfeited, at least he would only have lost his necklace, and a free vial of dragon tears. It was the wisest thing to do. It was the only thing where he could be certain he would walk away with his dignity intact. And yet... he shook his head.

“No.” he said, the word pushed through a throat cramped together “No. No I won't forfeit. I'll play.”

To this, Norman had nothing to say—nothing to say but what his shrewd smile said for him. The dice disappeared into his palm, before he tossed them. Duncan squeezed shut his eyes in hopes of those dice never settling, simply continuing into eternity to never determine whether he had lost everything, or won everything. Once they rolled and stopped. But twice was needed, to bring about the verdict. And so, Norman picked up the dice once more, and let them dance the final dance across the table. This time, Duncan's eyes were wide open, staring with eyelids that felt as if they could never close again, his heart brought to a still and his veins running cold. He watched as they came to a stop, their numbers displayed... all before he realized he hadn't seen what the previous roll had determined.

He snapped his stare up at Norman. His hand remained in the tossing motion, and his smile, how it grew even wider. Silently, Duncan screamed, for this was the smile of victory on Norman's lips. He couldn't afford this. He had naught to give but his armor, how was he—

“Congratulations.”

Duncan's head fell into sudden silence, as Norman said that single word. He looked into his eyes, the mustached man leaning back in his chair with his hands folded on his belly. Duncan wasn't quite certain what he had said, until he said it again.

“Congratulations, Duncan...” he gestured gently to the pile on the table “...You won.”

“I... I did?”

“Yes you did. By quite a few numbers, actually. You beat us fair and square. The loot is yours.”
Duncan was a wreck of colliding emotions, none of this seeming to make any sense. But even in his confused distress, he knew better than to test the patience of these people. He put on a smile, twitchy as it may have been, and quickly collected all the things he needed—but that was only the necklace, and the vial.

“Thank you.” he rushed to say “Thank you. Keep the rest. This is all I need. Thank you.”

He gave the four other players not a single chance to respond, before he turned for the exit, and hurried out of it. Only one look was thrown over his shoulder, and in it, he saw Dienrod... who seemed almost as if, for but a moment, he could smile.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 7.6
Another huge chapter that I have to split in three, rather than the usual two (or not have to split at all). This chapter was quite a lot of fun to write, as 'Stars' is actually a perfectly functional card-and-dice game that I've played with my friends a few times before. In fact, due to how long the game takes, the chapter has been named 'A Game of Stars' - could easily have been a G.R.R. Martin book title, huh? The rules are a little complicated, but I hope I expressed them well enough.

And that last bit in the chapter... I hope I expressed that well enough as well, but I didn't want to spell it out, as I feel that would ruin some of the realism. What, I wonder, did you understand from this?

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
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The mist swept and leaned against the massive gates of Moonby Sanctuary, hands of silky white obscuring the lifeless gray of granite that reached so tall, so proud into the sky. The mist crept around the waists of the twin knightly statues on either side of the gate, like a pair of white gowns to go with their granite armor. Peeking forth from the gentle white, colors of all five great houses behind these walls peeked forth; Rex, Cercy, Umbral, Hedwen, and Zakadiev. The horses whinnied and snorted under the shadow of the imposing gates, stretched long across the muddy landscape under the slanted light of the setting sun. Deep red and orange had grown stronger and more vibrant across the mist-riddled sky, the clouds so far above made blush in the evening glow.

If anything, Duncan was surprised that he even had the chance of seeing the sky, in a realm like this. For once, although he was so wet it wouldn't quite matter anyway, it did not rain. He sat there upon a horse just as wet, beside an aging lieutenant suffering from the same condition. His hair clung to his cheeks and the steel armor that sloped down to engulf his entire right arm shimmered in the thousand droplets that adorned it. He, just like himself, had bound a woolen shawl to his armor, to keep the rain off as well as possible—but by now, that shawl seemed only to serve as a soaked weight on their shoulders. He had been silent for quite some time now, which only fit a man like him. Duncan had grown uneasy every time he spoke, nervous that he might bring up a subject that was better left forgotten. But Duncan knew perfectly well, that it never would. It may have ceased to rain in the waking world, but in his mind, it never stopped.

“Ho, down there!” a voice called from above, hidden somewhere behind a passing length of mist “The gates have been sealed in preparation of the coming threat from the south! State your business, or begone!”

Wolfe narrowed his eyes at the voice from above, but the face of the one who owned it was nowhere to be seen. Wolfe turned a look at Duncan, and flashed a little smile “Heh, at least they realize that the demons are a threat. That's a step in the right direction.”

Duncan tried to smile and answer, but Wolfe had already raised his voice for the guard upon the walls “We are Lieutenant Edan Wolfe and Captain Duncan Montgomery Ross, of the Dawn rebellion! We seek entry to council with the nobles!”

“More of you guys?!” the voice shouted back “Tell me, what are you riding?”

Wolfe threw a befuddled look at Duncan, and all Duncan could do was give a lazy shrug. Wolfe raised his voice again “A pair of proud steeds, of course! Will you let us in or not?”

“Aha, yeah sure, 'proud steeds', uh huh.” the voice said with sarcasm so dense he might not even have needed words to express it—simple noises would have sufficed just as well “And will these 'proud steeds' try to devour my colleagues whole, armor and everything?”

Wolfe snorted, baffled “Are you quite sane, guardsman? All these steeds will try to devour are your hay supply.”

“Sane enough to know when my own hide is in danger!” the guardsman shouted back, still hidden behind the mist “So these are actual horses? Hooves, mane, and everything?”

“Last I checked, yes!” Wolfe said, sarcastically glancing at all four hooves, even though he knew that the guardsman couldn't see him “A lovely hazel mane indeed, well-groomed and with a scent of sweat and mud. As authentic as they come, I assure you.”

Duncan leaned in closer “Is this some kind of game? I'm not following.” he spoke, voice lowered.

“Damned if I know, Duncan. If it's a game, then the rules are beyond me.” Wolfe muttered back, just as the guardsman shouted.

“Good gods, that's a relief. You see, just a few hours ago, a Mjaln came riding in on a fucking warg, no less! I was so gullible as to think he could bind it where you usually bind horses, but hell, that monster tore loose like the pole was butter and decided to roam the outskirts, like we need another bloody creature lurking about in the mists, threatening to gobble up whatever sorry fool that wanders out into it. Now we've got a whole platoon of guards out there, searching for the cursed thing! Haven't seen them back since, and I'm beginning to think about how I'm gonna tell their families that they became dog food. Probably not the way they had hoped to go, when signing up for the guard, you know?”

Duncan threw a look to his left, and saw a wooden pole lay flat across the ground, torn free what seems like no more than a few hours ago. He looked back at Wolfe, and saw the tiny smile that had crept unto his expression “Gee, I wonder what Mjaln that could be.”

“A warg, though?” Duncan asked, seeming a little confused, unable to imagine Ramund sitting on one of those beasts.

“Well, a horse certainly isn't going to carry him.” Wolfe chuckled hoarsely and pointed to the legs of his steed, which surely would snap under Ramund's weight. Duncan tried to smile back, but it was weak and feeble. There wasn't much life left in him, Wolfe could clearly tell, even if he tried his very best to hide it. It was as if he had run out of life inside, and now sought life from the outside; the peace of the misty landscape breathed some soothing winds into him, some specks of respite, but he needed more. He needed far more, if he wanted to fill this empty vessel that his body was becoming. Much, much more.

Wolfe shook his head, and raised his voice yet again for the guardsman on the wall “Well I'm terribly sorry to hear about what may or may not be a sad fate for your colleagues, but frankly, that's none of our concern. Our concern, right now, is to get inside. Are you going to keep hindering us?”

There was some silence after that. Duncan gazed upwards at the misty ceiling above them, in which the guardsman was hiding somewhere. He wondered if the guardsman had just up and left, but that thought was quickly shattered, as his accented voice returned.

“You said you were from the Dawn rebellion, yeah?”

Wolfe rolled his eyes “Yes, a lieutenant and a captain. Goodness sake guardsman, if you treat every visitor like this, you'll be having some long shifts!”

“That's the thing, though—we don't get many visitors from the south, not after that whole demon threat thing came up. We've got a few lucky survivors here and there, and now you guys show up. How are we to know you're not just spies from hell?”

“Because anything from hell doesn't ask nicely!” Wolfe shouted back, his nose wrinkled and his temper rising.

“Well... I suppose that's a good point. Alright, alright, fair game. Welcome to Moonby.”
Just as he said that, the gates of the sanctuary growled and thundered, massive mechanics within the stonework coming to life, hundreds of cogs and gears churning to force open the colossal gates. Their horses snorted and backed up in wake of the gates opening, the very earth at their feet seeming to jitter like an earthquake was abound. The water in the puddles all around them danced and jumped, thousands of tiny droplets making it seem as if the rain that had fallen, suddenly decided to go back up again. And even so, the gates only opened up a fraction of their full width, to let the two riders inside. And inside they went.

The tall, grey houses of the sanctuary cast long shadows upon the ground, stretched in the colorful light of the setting sun. But it seemed that the sun was the only colorful thing present, today. Duncan hadn't ever been to Moonby Sanctuary; stories and illustrations were the only reference he had to understand what it looked like from the inside. None of those did it justice, he found. He stared up at the towering houses, homes built upon homes, built upon homes, stabbing through the misty ceiling like granite swords. Aqueducts ran here and there like an intricate granite web binding it all together, and creeks flowed through the streets as if they were part of them. There were a few evening stragglers here and there, but it seemed most people had retreated to their homes, in the coming of night. The sound of Duncan and Wolfe's horses were returned with nothing but the song of rivers that swept through the city, and that of their own echoes on the dull, grey walls. But dull as they may have been, Duncan saw beauty within it, where others may have seen little but lifeless granite and ghostly mist. These days, he couldn't afford ignoring beauty, for beauty was all he had left.

Unlike the last great city he had ventured through, Moonby wasn't a bustling, shouting city, with merchants at every corner trying to convince you that they sold better wares than the thousand other merchants selling the exact same thing. Moonby was a quiet place, he found, quiet as the mist that seeped through it like just another citizen—albeit a much larger one. The only life he and Wolfe passed now and then, were old men sitting in benches by the riverside with little to do but count the growing shadows, and boys playing a game of tag while clearly their mothers would rather have them home in time for dinner. And each and every one of these threw some slow, curious looks at he and Wolfe, wondering who these shawl-draped, armor-clad strangers were. Rarely were the looks any good. They knew what men in armor meant for the peace of the city.

“Don't let yourself be worried, Duncan.” Wolfe's hoarse and smokey voice gave some gritty contrast to the otherwise smooth and misty world around them “They may look angry, but it's not us that anger is directed at. It's fear, turned to helplessness, turned to anger. I've seen it before, as I'm sure you have as well.” he didn't even as much as glance at Duncan as he spoke, hazel eyes kept on the grey road before him “The Wasteland natives often gave us these looks, when my squad came to secure their camp from the demons. The natives and their shamans would always know when the veil between worlds was at its thinnest, and a demon attack was at hand. But they could never do anything about it, hence the helplessness.” he led a hand to gesture at a woman by her porch, who had just given them that very same look “This right here? Exactly the same. You've got these big, proud walls, but they've heard of Aegon's fall. And if Aegon couldn't withstand such an attack, how could they ever hope to?”

Duncan looked behind him at the woman, and saw her slam the door behind her, as he walked back into her home of grey granite. At some point, he could understand their helplessness. He had seen the fall of Aegon first-hand, he had seen how the demons tossed their troops over the massive walls like trebuchet boulders, and he had somehow survived it. He knew that these people couldn't hope for the same.

“And where are they to run? North, into the woods of Nightweald, where werewolves and vampires roam? East, through the Swamp of Nox where every breath could mean a slow and toxic death? South, into the very maws of the demons they're trying to run from? They've got nowhere to go. And you know perfectly well what happens when you corner an animal... the fangs come out. We're looking at them right now.”

Duncan gritted his teeth, a look of defeat slowly corrupting his expression “By Hrumalz, I pray that the nobles will know to set aside their differences when demons come banging at their gates.” He sighed, eyes rising to the tower-like homes that stood from the ground like a thousand man-made stalagmites “And even that can seem unrealistic. If they can't follow each other, how can we ever expect them to follow us in our rebellion, Wolfe? What magic words do we feed them, to bring them on our side?” ever since he woke up and was told that he was part of a rebellion, had he wanted to know this, but he dreaded to doubt his own cause “I believe in this rebellion, Wolfe, I really do—but what are we to them, but wasted veterans seeking for some remnant of justice? Is our entire cause really built up around the fair treatment of soldiers? If so, I dread the response we'll get from these nobles, Wolfe.” he spoke with such weight and honesty in his words, that a surge of relief came flooding back to him. It was a brief hint that there still was some life and feelings left in him, even if it was dread, even if it was hopeless. But it was far, far better than the emptiness. That slow, inevitable emptiness that infected more and more of the man he thought he was.

“Our 'magic words' will be nothing but the truth, Duncan.” Wolfe answered, still not looking at him, still not looking at the sorry fool Duncan knew he thought he was “There's more to this rebellion than a soldier's justice. If the fair treatment of soldiers was all this rebellion was about, how could we have rallied the Tu'Myaa, and two entire Fairlandish villages? They don't fear the dread of the Wastelands, because they've never been there, and probably never will. No. They fear tyranny. They fear a world turned into a puppet, with strings of propaganda and secret murder, and with Deum as the puppeteer. They fear the illusion of free will, where all insurgent behavior is answered with nothing but gunpowder and lead. And honestly speaking? So do I.” this time, Wolfe finally turned his eyes on Duncan, and in them, a vehemence shined brighter than any sun “The justice of soldiers is but the kindling, Duncan. And with it, we've lit a fire of greater things than just that.”

Duncan left a silence between them, after Wolfe had spoken. The old veteran turned to look back at the misty grey road before them, hands on his reins, a stifled grumble on his lips. Duncan had seen hatred in the eyes of many, but what fires burned within the predatory stare of Wolfe was something else. While some had their entire lives robbed of them because of what pointless, bloody war they had been thrown into, Wolfe had lost more than just that. There were times were Duncan wanted to ask Wolfe if he would have rather let himself be executed, rather than his wife and unborn child. But it was naught. He knew the answer perfectly well already.

“I hope you're right, Edan.” Duncan said, forcing out a smile, artificial as it may have been “I confess, there have been moments where I've begun to doubt that we're even doing the right thing—or if we're the right ones to do it. But I suppose you've a fair point... this justice for soldiers like we are but the spark of it all. There are bigger things at stake, and I get the feeling that it's too late to back out now. There's a long way to go yet, but with allies like these, we may just live to see the end of it. If anything, we can thank the gods for King Magnus... as long as he still breathes, at least someone will have a collar on Deum.”

“Indeed. He's a gold coin in a pile of shit, if anything.” Wolfe continued with the tiniest of smiles “We don't see many of those, these days. Truth be told, I'm not so certain we'll see any trace of success from this whole rally-the-nobles endeavor—the nobles are no better than Deum, after all. Worse, some might say. They dress like angels, but we all know what demons they are they beneath that velvet facade.” he shook his head, his smile disappearing as quick as it became.

Silence reigned between the two riders, after that. The shadows in all the granite corners were growing stronger by the second, and the streets were only getting quieter, as the people retreated to their home, fleeing from the coming of night. A fickle rain began to drop through the misty overhang, naught but a few lonesome droplets falling into Duncan's lengthy black hair. He looked heavenward to see the pale mist blush as it passed some of the gothic lanterns that hung from the grey granite walls, but everywhere else, it was becoming hauntingly dark in the absence of the sun. It took him a while to find the courage to stop his horse in its tracks, and look back at Wolfe.

“If we're looking for Ramund, I'd suggest we split. There is a lot of ground that needs covering, and he could be anywhere by now. The bright side is that he, being ten feet tall, is not exactly the most inconspicuous of people.”

Wolfe gave an amused smirk in return “So, just follow the footprint-craters in the road and ask the people if they've seen a giant stroll by—got it. This may just be easier than anticipated.”

Duncan mirrored Wolfe's smirk, but it felt as if that was all he could do—imitate. It felt like a mask he put on, lying to himself that he might still have control of who and what he was on the inside. The truth was that he couldn't quite recognize that man any longer—the one named Duncan.

“That sounds about right. We should rendezvous at the nearest tavern by dawn. We'll have the entire morning to get things straightened out. Let's hope Ramund has good news for us.”

“In the city of intrigue, I wouldn't bet my money on it. Best of luck to you, captain.” Wolfe gave a quick nod of farewell as he pulled the reins of his horse, and lead it down a soaked alley on his right, where gentle creeks trickled on either side of him.

“As to you.” was all Duncan got to say, before Wolfe had already disappeared down the lonesome alley. He watched as he faded into the mist, his shape becoming gradually more pale, until it was completely indistinguishable from the rest. Duncan remained where he was for a little while, savoring the quiet and the soft clatter of rain drops on the granite road. It was only when he saw an old man in rags coming by, lighting lanterns on his way, that he too turned his horse from the road and sought for a darker place, where lanterns held no flames and hearts held no law.

Finding such a place proved easier than what he had anticipated. It all seemed to melt together in the mist, that white curtain leaving everything in a fading transition, nothing sudden anywhere. It was a city of blurred lines and unclear borders, with spectral mist filling up all the in-betweens.
His horse strolled through the whiteness of it all, fickle lanterns being the only things that pushed away the darkness, but even those seemed to fade, one by one. Shadows were growing, night was falling, and Duncan knew better than to wander aimlessly into darkness, lest he risk that he might never wander out again—so he took the chance, while he was hidden in the mist anyway, to unhook one of the live lanterns and bring it with him. He held it forth with his right hand while his left hand clutched the reins of his horse, which seemed to grow more and more uneasy by the minute. Mud began to conquer more and more of the streets, the granite bricks of the road becoming less visible the further into the growing shadows he went. The houses became ragged and shaggy, the proud homes of grey stone turning slowly to a squalor of lichen-infested wood and scavenged bricks.
Makeshift planks held it all together, tall homes consisting of houses built on houses, as if they had run out of horizontal space and had to begin building vertically. Ladders and ropes and ramshackle staircases connected it all where before the elegant aqueducts served to do the same. There were even small bridges going from house to house, nailed together with rusty bolts and spare parts found lying around in the mud.

Most of these houses, Duncan found, had been long since abandoned. The only inhabitants in several of them were naught but rats that squealed and scurried as he brought his lantern close to the window, and cast its glow inside. To his disgust, he had seen what he found to be a body lying on the floor in there as well, old and forgotten, half-eaten by the very same vermin. This place reeked of plague, and his horse was starting to doubt his command. The further into the squalor he went, the more the horse seemed to realize that the safety of the road was far gone, and they had entered a realm where law had no say, and hungry daggers lurked around every corner. He had to find a stable for the creature, or he'd surely stress it to death, if it didn't run away first.

But it seemed that while law may have had no say, Keyen did, the sweet mistress of luck. Tucked away in a corner of this filthy slum, a small stable had been built, offering shelter for no more than three horses at a time. Fortunately, only one of them was taken—by a donkey. A lonesome lantern hung from the low roof of the stable, and in its somber glow, a man around Duncan's age sat, face half-covered in a plume of smoke from the pipe in his mouth. Duncan couldn't tell if he was sleeping or awake while approaching quietly, because of the way his eyebrows hung like wet towels and his eyes squinted. He was a rather gruff individual with quite a stomach to speak for, his large fingers intertwined on it as he sat there. Duncan hopped off his steed and held it by its reins, as he stepped closer, and gave a cough for attention.

True enough, the man let out a quick grunt as he was woken up, but even so, his eyes opened only just wide enough for his pupils to peek through those heavy, heavy eyelids of his. He struggled to sit up in his chair, and only then did Duncan notice: this man had no legs. Duncan was shocked that he hadn't noticed earlier, but with the darkness encroaching and the mist engulfing everything, he had to focus just to see a few meters ahead of him. The man picked his pipe from his mouth, and lay it in his lap.

“You're out late, my friend.” he spoke in a slow and wheezing tone, lungs burdened by too much smoke “Are you new here, or just stupid?”

Duncan found himself stammering over words, tongue feeling thick in his mouth. Maybe it was the way the mist seemed to coil and twist into familiar shapes, dead faces peering at him behind the shroud of white, before melding together with it. He shook his head and tried to ignore them, but they kept coming back. General Yrvan, that old veteran in Aegon, the woman he had butchered... the native girl. In the corners of his eyes he saw them, and he tried for the life of him to focus on the man before him. He hadn't noticed how horribly long he had stood there in painful silence, before he spoke.

“Just stupid.” he echoed through heavy breath, and swallowed what he hoped was his disorientation “Looking for a stable.”

“Well you found it, mate.” the man gave a wheezing laugh, smoke puffing from his throat as he did. Duncan noticed how most of his teeth had given way to rot, most of them fallen out while the rest were covered in moldy filth. And his breath, how it reeked, like something had died in his mouth and it had lain there for three weeks. Duncan felt dizzy, nauseous, he had to get away.
“Three crowns for the horse, or no stable. You can always find something fancier, but if you can't afford this, you can't afford anything, take my word.”

Wordlessly, Duncan stuffed his hand down a small pouch hanging from his belt after several tries, eyes blinking frantically, swaying in and out of consciousness like a swing that wouldn't stop swinging. He ended up handing over ten crowns instead as he drunkenly forced his horse into the stable. There was something about that horrid breath that fogged up his mind and put several clumps of vomit into his mouth that he had to quickly swallow, to avoid seeming rude. He saw how the man didn't even question being handed ten whole crowns, and quickly trickled them down a pouch on his chest. And as he did, Duncan noticed something else—something that set his heart racing. He stared at it for several seconds just to make sure it wasn't his mind playing tricks on him, all while he stood there in the mud, clutching unto a nearby dark lantern post, to keep himself from falling over. Those were needle wounds.

“Hey... hey, are those...” he trailed off, tongue fumbling and words seeming so hard to grasp. He was left with no form of communication but to groggily point at the needle wounds, but as soon as the man noticed what he was pointing at, he hid them away.

“They are. What's it to you?” he asked, suddenly sharp and defensive in his tone “I've lost my legs for gods' sake, the phantom pains are killing me. A cripple needs some relief, okay?”

“No, I know, I...” Duncan swallowed some more vomit and he tried his best to breathe the somewhat clean misty air, rather than the filth that spilled from the man's mouth “I... I want some too.”

“...Oh.” clearly, he hadn't expected this, and quickly dropped his defenses. If anything, he seemed a little sympathetic for Duncan, and bobbed his head down the road on his left “That way, chum. Just keep walking. You'll know when you get there.”

But Duncan didn't walk—he ran, to his best ability. He felt as if that putrid breath was going to suffocate him then and there, and he wheezed and gasped like a drowning man bursting through the surface, clean air flowing into his lungs in sweet relief. He didn't care what the man at the stables thought of him... but he had to confess that he did feel rather bad for seeming so rude.
The clean air washed through him like a cleansing stream of water, bringing sensible thoughts to his head and a cool reinvigoration in his muscles. He stood there for a little while, in some godforsaken corner of this godforsaken slum, breathing in deep and hearty gulps of air, another one of his senses being pulled back from a putrid abyss with every breath he took. There was something utterly unholy about that man's breath, like a gate to hell from where a thousand little demons scurried. Duncan stood in that corner for several minutes on end, feeling the air wash out more of that rancid filth, and soon found himself swept clean on the inside. He stood up straight and looked back at the muddy road that lead back to the stall. His head may have been clear now, but the memory of that breath still lingered in there, branded and carved into his mind... but why? The more he thought about it, the more he wondered why this particular breath had had such a horrible impact on him. It wasn't the first time he had smelled bad breath, but this one... this one was different. This one smelled of demons.

He shook his head and looked away, eyes squeezed shut. 'Pull yourself together, Duncan, it was just bad breath is all' he told himself, but the truth danced around his lies, laughing at them like imps, ever present. It was a truth he dreaded to admit, let alone acknowledge for being a possibility in the first place. Was his mind truly not his own any longer?

He wanted no more of this. It was nonsense, all of it. He couldn't discern lies from truth anymore, and he knew overcontemplation would certainly spell madness for him. He turned to the way ahead, and marched forward, determination in his steps.

My mind is my own, my mind is my own, my mind is my own.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 7.3
Another huge chapter that I have to split in three, rather than the usual two (or not have to split at all). This chapter was quite a lot of fun to write, as 'Stars' is actually a perfectly functional card-and-dice game that I've played with my friends a few times before. In fact, due to how long the game takes, the chapter has been named 'A Game of Stars' - could easily have been a G.R.R. Martin book title, huh? The rules are a little complicated, but I hope I expressed them well enough.

And that last bit in the chapter... I hope I expressed that well enough as well, but I didn't want to spell it out, as I feel that would ruin some of the realism. What, I wonder, did you understand from this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“...Worthy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferdinand,

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

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

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

~Lucius Pius Deum, Regent of the Sacred Empire.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I'm protecting a friend!”

“And dying, while doing so!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But damn it. What choice do we have?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
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SteenBelhage
Steen Engel Belhage
Artist | Professional | Literature
Denmark
My name is Steen, and I am a writer. I believe that title will stick with me for many years to come, as it is one of the few productive passions I have ever had. I've picked up many hobbies and free-time activities, but many of them have somehow faded into the vast depths of boredom. However, my writing has never suffered that fate. I am determined and passionate in my work and I do my very best to train myself to be disciplined about it as well. If I wish to make a living of it, I'll need to be able to write even when I don't want to. But let me tell you... it isn't easy.
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:iconthat1personyouforgot:
That1PersonYouForgot Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday! :cake: I hope you have a wonderful day! :boogie:
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Professional Writer
Why thank you! I should hope so too! :D
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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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bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
A gamer and a writer?
:)
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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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