Shadows of The Forgotten

Shadows of The Forgotten

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Things seem to have calmed in the land of Valcrest. The war, the assassins' inner disputes, the peoples' demands for a solution... But is the land actually calm, or is this just a calm moment before a even bigger storm? (FULL)

8,505 readers have visited Shadows of The Forgotten since Blackbird26 created it.
Mr_Doomed are listed as curators, giving them final say over any conflict & the ability to clean up mistakes.

Introduction

DISCLAIMER:

The land of Valcrest, its cities, history, as well as the Wolfpack and its rules, are my own creation and are not to be used without my consent. (As well as any of my characters).

This RP is, as of this moment, full and no longer accepting.


Thank you.

Blackbird26 – Your friendly GM. ^_^




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[The White Shadows]

I was told as a child that the Land of Valcrest was blessed by the Gods with its beauty and magic. Now, I’m no longer certain of such fact. Centuries of war have ripped the beauty of this Land, now only a shadow of its former glory remains, kept alive by old tales and legends. The magic now is simply viewed as a tool to be used by one side or another as an advantage in battle. No one speaks of blessings nowadays… I wonder what the Gods would have to say about that.

I’m no longer a child now, and I can go as far as to say I was never truly innocent, growing up where I did. I know for a fact that Blackhurst was a city of Enlightened. The scholars who once lived there only sought knowledge on their own origins, they never thought their actions would cause the Land to self-destruct; they simply wanted to understand where they came from. It was an innocent quest for knowledge that led us here. They found what they were looking for... And were killed for their knowledge.

Surely, those people were being naïve. They should have kept quiet as to what they were doing, they should have kept what they discovered a secret. If they had, none of this would have happened. I assume, no living person outside of my clan knows how exactly this war has started. Dani Rivers was the last outsider to hear the story. I violated the laws of this clan by telling her, we are sworn to secrecy, for obvious reasons. When the Enlightened started being killed I thought it might have some relation to that particular piece of history, so I thought I should tell her… I’m still not convinced that it was an unrelated incident, in spite of having no actual facts to back up those suspicions. Something about the whole thing resembles something I’ve read somewhere; however, I can’t quite remember what. I have read a lot of things in the past couple of decades.

I always tell my apprentices this:

The term “Enlightened” today is associated with a magical ability an individual possesses. It once meant being knowledgeable, wise. That is why we study. Being born with a specific ability doesn’t mean being born fully capable of mastering that ability. We are all born capable of great things, not all of us are capable of achieving that greatness, or even fully understand what greatness means. To most, greatness still means power. To most, power still means force.

Sounds very preachy, I know. I thought so too when I arrived in this place. The angry, impulsive child I was back then found it easier to simply curse the world for being as it is. Many similar children have arrived since then, now more than ever; orphaned, homeless and lost children. Filled with rage, void of any type of understanding; the perfect tools for any heartless egomaniac to use with the purpose of fulfilling its own delusions of grandeur. Some have been twisted to such purposes. I have even heard rumors of cults and sects being raised far in the south.
For me, it was difficult to accept the change I was being asked to make in my ways. It took me time to finally listen to what I was being told. My enlightenment was not the curse I believed it to be; the real curse was my lack of willingness to develop it. Fear, perhaps.

What does this have to do with anything? Well… Everything is relevant when it comes to this Land. Everything is connected in a way or another. Every action causes a reaction, if not now, in the future. The past is never truly dead… It sleeps, soundly, until one day it begins to stir in its sleep and causes the ground to shake, sometimes even crumble beneath our feet.

And so we fall; only time will tell when we will finally ever hit the bottom. That is… If there is even a bottom to hit after all.

Helena Turner – Leader of the White Shadows


A diary page left behind dated ten years ago. That was all Lena Turner left of herself for the ones who had followed her for 25 years.
A new dawn came for the White Shadows and many others followed. Now, three years later, they are barely starting to return to the ruins of Blackhurst where they once built their homes. One foot there, another one in the desert ruins of Brightvale. The healers were finally closer to what they once were, thanks to the endless efforts of Lena’s young daughter. However, their numbers are now severely reduced, and the unbreakable faith that once drove them to die for their beliefs was, in the very least, shaken. Many healers deserted, a great number of them left Valcrest for good after having seeing the war reach the only safe place left. It was undeniable that those people were not prepared for such a thing. For those who stayed, however, there was still the never-ending and exhausting task of providing help to those who needed it.

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[The Desert]

Legends tell that the Goddess called Heart was one the most rebellious of the 14 children of the Gods that fathered Valcrest. Impulsive and irrational, some would say. Her passion for the mortal beings only matched by her anger towards Mother and Father for forcing her to leave them and the forest where she and her twin made their home. She revolted and chose a mortal man to father her children, encouraging her siblings to do the same so that, this way, they would never truly leave Valcrest. Unlike her brothers and sisters, Heart became attached to her children and so, she used her powers to summons the packs of wolves that lived in the snow covered lands to the north into the forest as her final gift to the children of the forest, explaining to them that the wolves were always true to their hearts and loyal to their family and so, as long as they remained together, they would always be protected. She warned them that they would always be stronger as long as they were able to remain as one.

Heart’s twin brother, Mind, on the other hand, was not one to grow attachments to any mortal creature. He left his children in Valcrest for the sake of maintaining balance in the world, for without reason there could be no order. He used his sister’s gift to pass his teachings to his sons and daughters, telling them to always remember that the wolves always maintained a hierarchy and every member of the pack played his part for no task was unimportant. The leader should always be the wisest, strongest and most respected amongst the members; otherwise he would be challenged and cast aside.

And so, when Heart and Mind left Valcrest, they left behind their clan, today known as The Wolfpack.


This legend has been told to children of the Wolfpack as a bedtime story for generations. It was Crystal’s favorite as a child and it was also Dani’s favorite way to remind her of her responsibilities. Ever since she was little she would hear her mother say that the Pack had two leaders to represent the Twins, because if only one person ruled the clan alone, there could never be balance, and without it the clan would fall.

Now, however, Crystal Rivers stood in a very difficult position. Exiled to the desert for the past three years, she had her hands tied as her clan fell to pieces. The Wolfpack was no more. What was left was barely recognizable as the proud assassin clan that it once was. The people who once lived there still lived there, for the most part, but the clan was no more: that was how she saw it.

The betrayal had been painful. Not only the assassination attempt that left her very close to death, but the attacks on her parents’ honor after everything they had done for the clan.
The few people who had followed Crys into the desert didn’t complain about the new life, in fact, most of them seemed to think that it was far better than what they had three years ago. Life in the desert was less conflicted, and they mostly enjoyed the company of the mercenary clan that had taken them in, as well as few remaining healers.
Even so, Crys couldn’t seem to get over the fact that the Wolfpack had fallen apart under her command and, of the few choices she was left with, she was still tempted to try and salvage the past somehow, knowing very well that there was probably nothing left to save by now.

[The Wolfpack]

Once upon a time, the Wolfpack stood tall, proud, and untouchable. Those days ended with the appearance of a group of men and women called the Wolf Hunters. Those people, who called themselves victims of the assassins, terrorized the clan for generations. Killing, without mercy, anyone that stood between them and their targets, they posed a severe threat to the Pack’s survival.

In one night, one damned night, the Hunters attacked the camp. In one blow they took out all the recruits, most of the instructors, and of the leader’s family… Only one survived. That night came to be remembered as the Red Night and, until this day, it remains as the biggest massacre to ever occur within the Pack’s territory.
In the morning that followed such massacre, a young Dani Rivers, shortly after burying her parents and twelve year old sister, along with great part of the clan, announced that she would declare war on the Wolf Hunters and that she would not rest until every live lost that night was avenged.

Two long years and many lives later, the Wolfpack celebrated their victory over the Wolf Hunters. The clan was rebuilt and thrived for over 20 years after that under Dani’s command.


The above story was the official tale that had been told to every new arrival and to all the children born in the clan ever since that fated night. Sean Fletcher had grown up believing it, and so did his brothers and sister, and everyone else in the clan.

However, that story was a lie.

Dani won the respect of her clan by winning a war that she fought out of guilt, not revenge. The truth, the actual truth, was that Dani had lied to her mother, to her clan, and brought a Wolf Hunter into their camp. Along with him, death followed. The Hunters raise hell to avenge the death of the boy named Sebastian, however… He was never dead to begin with, he was alive and well living amongst the assassins.
Now, almost thirty years later, after the truth has been exposed, the Pack tries to rid itself from its past and change under a new leadership. The situation of the assassins had improved, but the clan as a whole suffered a severe blow by having the most important part of their history exposed as a lie. Those who remained under the new leadership are struggling to stay together, even with all that has improved. The truth is: the Pack is yet to find its place in the world again.



THE PLOT:
Three years have passed since Shadows of The Past. The several factions, as well as the cities, have cleaned up the debris left by the final battles/parties/storms, and attempted to move on with their lives in the best way they could. Some of them now find themselves struggling to simply leave the past behind, others attempting to build a new future from scratch. Others are finding that things can in fact get worse than they have ever been before. Some are even catching a small glimpse of light in the end of a long period of uncertainty.
The fighting amongst the factions seems to have cooled off for the first time in a long while. In spite of the of the peaceful that it gives to the Land at first glance, some wonder if this is really peace, or if war is simply evolving into a much more silent killer.

Which is the actual truth, or if the truth is something else entirely, beyond what simple mortal minds can grasp… That, only time will tell.



THE HISTORY:
Official story of Valcrest:
The land of Valcrest originally consisted of five great cities and some smaller villages. It has a vast forest and one great river that run from one side of the land to the other. The first two cities to be created there were Blackpond and Newhaven. These two cities exist ever since there is a record of human life in Valcrest and they co-existed in harmony for many centuries until the other cities were built and the land started to expand. Several power struggles started to shake the peaceful existence of the two cities, after many years of minor disputes, the two cities finally declared war. Out of the three other cities, the city of Elffort took the side of Blackpond and the city of Brightvale took the side of Newhaven.
The fifth city, Blackhurst, decided to remain neutral. Ironically it was the first to be attacked.
After the great war that raged for many years across the land of Valcrest, out of the five cities that existed there, only two remained. Originally in opposite sides of a dispute that has been long forgotten, the cities of Blackpond and Newhaven continue to fight each other until this day.

THE LAND:

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1. Valcrest: The land of Valcrest was once rich and full of life. Now its territory is only a shadow of what it once was. Most of the population is now concentrated around the forest, the two remaining cities and the plains and the desert. The mountains to the south and the ruined town of Effort remain unpopulated until this day, only visited by those who leave the land through that path, which are a rare few, since the easiest way out of Valcrest is through the north.

a) The Woods (Center of the land): The great forest is the center of Valcrest and, at present time, the most populated area. Deep inside of the forest, lies the territory of the assassin clan; the Wolfpack. The small mercenary groups that could once be found there have now disappeared, fled from the Pack’s sudden urge to take over the territory of the forest. The open trails that cross the forest and lead to the nearby cities are mostly respected and watched from a distance by the assassins, but straying from them may cause anyone, even the most experienced tracker, to become lost. Wandering into the wrong territory unannounced is something that can get any person killed fast.
Several small streams can be found amongst the trees, but only one bigger lake is present, in the outskirts of the Wolfpack territory, making it off limits to any human outsider that walks that forest.
Wildlife is abundant as well as other sources of food. Mostly wild boar, rabbit, and deer can be found easily for hunting purposes. No one has actually been attacked by predators larger than a snake in these woods, but it is told that wolves live there as well, and in quiet nights their howling can be heard in any point of the forest. Adjacent to the forest and at a distance sometimes considered uncomfortable, are the two remaining cities of Valcrest. No more than a day on foot can get a traveler from one city to another and from any one of them to the depths of the forest.

b) The Plains (West): This territory now is far less inhabited than it once was. However where the ruins of Blackhurst now lie, the healers once made their home. It has been three years since the army of Blackpond chased the White Shadows away from their home, and only now they are starting to come back. The still fertile soil, once used to grow healing herbs, flowers and spices are now void. One or two food crops are currently planted there, mainly for the purpose of keeping the few healers that have returned fed.
The healers once received supplies from the two cities; however, after fleeing to the desert, the healers have cut their ties with all factions involved in the war, and accept the same amount of aid as they provide: None. They help those who reach their camp and advice anyone who is in need of help controlling their enlightened ability, but now the once open territory of the White Shadows is only available to a chosen few, and members of the Crimson Shadows have been placed at their gates to make sure of it.

A long, long, time ago in this territory, the great city of Blackhurst once stood proud and tall. The city looked like one ever growing village, the houses and shops mixed together and scattered within its stone walls, The ruler’s home only recognizable for being larger and more isolated. The army mostly consisted of archers that guarded the walls and could shower attackers with arrows at miles away… Once past them though, the city was defenseless. Most people who lived on the inside of the city walls were scholars, medics and teachers, peaceful and educated people. Outside the walls smaller villages formed as ramifications of the larger city area, those villages were composed mostly of hunters and craftsmen, as well as their families. When Blackhurst suffered its defeat in battle the villages stood and their inhabitants refused to leave. As consequence, many massacres occurred in that area. It is rumored that most of the population of the city consisted of Enlightened and that was the actual reason behind the furious attacks on the city and its population. Both sides carried too much fear of what would happen should Blackhurst choose to get involved in the dispute. Those, however, are only rumors. The true motives behind the destruction of Blackhurst are, until this day, unknown.

c) The Desert (South): To the South of the forest lays a small wasteland where the merchant city of Brightvale once stood. The people who once occupied the city of Brightvale were experienced horsemen and sturdy travelers. Some were known to brag about traveling to the furthest lands known to men in order to acquire their goods, and therefore had seen it all. The Completely deserted once the city was destroyed, the area was rarely visited and only inhabited by a few bandits and runaways that preyed on any unsuspecting and bold adventurers that crossed the territory. Most people saw no point on going through these parts unless the person was leaving Valcrest forever or in need of hiding, however a few years following the abandonment of Brightvale, the mercenary group known as the Crimson Shadows claimed the territory of Brightvale as rightfully theirs. From then on, they made sure no travelers were harm unless they posed a threat to the clan, many times they escorted travelers through the desert and to the mountains, for a small fee, of course.
The mercenary group consists of descendants of the people of Brightvale and Effort; brave warriors as well as a friendly and talkative bunch, the Crimson will extend their welcome to anyone who is in need of shelter, for a night or longer, as long as the traveler is smart enough not to abuse their good will.
Currently the ruins of Brightvale have become a refuge to great part of the White Shadows as well as a, small, exiled group of assassins. Protected and assisted by the Crimson, by the order of their leader.

d) The Mountains (Further South): Beyond the desert, snowcapped mountains determine the limits of the Land. Protected by the stone walls of the mountains, the brave men and women of Effort once lived. The people that once lived there were known as proud warriors and horsemen. They were also known for their mining skills and for fabricating the first explosives seen in Valcrest. They were not the most educated people in the land, but were honorable and proud men and women. A population made extinct when they marched into war beside Blackpond and went into direct confrontation with the nearby city of Brightvale. Having their supplies cut short and their territory being the constant target of attacks… Effort also came to an end. The mines and homes left abandoned until this day.

2. The city of Blackpond (North end of the forest): The city of Blackpond is one of the most ancient and traditional cities to ever exist in Valcrest, its creation only preceded by that of Newhaven. The war with the neighboring city has left its marks on the proud kingdom, but through everything and anything; it has survived.
King Rory had ruled Blackpond for many decades. He was loved and respected within the city walls, as well as Commander Hastings. For the most part, the mass of Blackpond’s population, even though struggling against poor living conditions, had faith in their leader and were proud of their city’s warrior spirit. The city had its problems, it was clear, but what they lacked in wealth or beauty they made up for in spirit. A city filled with warriors and survivors, admired even by its enemies for never allowing itself to break or bend.
However, sorrow filled the city when word spread of the events that occurred in the castle. The news of their King being murdered would by his most trusted officer, along with the news of Hastings’ death spread quickly, first throughout the castle, then across the city streets. Not long after, it became known that Rory had a son.
Under the new leadership, Blackpond seems to have gradually lost the little order it had left when it came to its living conditions, and in the short period of three years, it has slipped into complete and total chaos. Crime rules the street and no punishments are given to those who rape, murder, steal, and vandalize as they please. It’s every man for himself and women and children are safer (in theory) locked on the inside of the house. Even then, when the people of Blackpond leave their homes, there’s no guarantee they will be back unscathed.
These days, anyone who wanders into the, once mighty, city of Blackpond can immediately see that something is very wrong with the city, however, those who are wise enough to know their place would never dare say it; and those who aren’t are usually never seen or heard of again.

3. The City of Newhaven (East end of the forest): Newhaven is nowhere near its former glory, but it’s slowly getting there. With the announcement that those responsible for the killing of their king, and the news of a new heir to take the throne, great part of the rage and fear that once roamed the city streets has subsided. In three years, the people of Newhaven are finally beginning to see a light in the end of a four year struggle to regain its former balance. However, Newhaven is far from being free of problems.
Even with the efforts of the City Guards and Knights combined, the rate of smaller crimes has gone up considerably due to the number of citizens to lose their homes, families, or businesses during the several attacks the city has endured. Small gangs of thieves have begun to form on the less privileged areas of the city, making it now impossible for people to walk the streets unarmed as they once used to. Some businesses are being closed as others are reopening. The economy in Newhaven is not at its possible worst, but it’s fragile. The city funds are growing slim, and there has been talk amongst the city council (and rumors amongst the population) of increasing taxes. Still, even if still shaky, order seems to have slowly been restored to city, especially since Blackpond seems to have lost its interest in attacking Newhaven, ever since the death of their most beloved ruler.

4. Assassin’s Camp (Within the forest): Between the grounds of the two cities, deep inside the forest, lies a clan of assassins, they name themselves the “ Wolfpack”, or simply the Pack” and they have prospered for years eliminating targets on both sides of the feud. The camp consists of one huge clearing surrounded by woods and several hidden paths that lead across them. Inside the clearing there are several cabins made of logs, and also a few tents. One big, more secluded cabin is the home of leaders. In the very center of the camp there is one big camp fire which is lit every night.
In the last three years the Pack has suffered with internal disputes after their leader was thought to be dead and then was discovered to be alive. However, the young woman was unfit to fight properly to maintain the leadership of the clan, and was forced to flee to the desert. A few actives followed after their former leader that night as well. Ever since, many others have considered abandoning the clan as well. The Wolfpack is actually in a better place than it was three years ago, however their place in the world in uncertain and the tense relations between the clan and its former members, as well as the Crimson Shadows, has made living a little bit more difficult; to say the very least.

Toggle Rules

GENERAL RULES

1- Read these rules, read and post on the OOC before submitting a character. I will view your profile and look at your other RPs when you apply, it's there to be read, am I right? I also reserve myself the right to request a writing sample before approving your character (in case I found none on your profile).

2 – No God-modding , autohitting, or any other of those annoying habits that make people call you a douche and complain to me. You may autohit NPCs unless I state otherwise, but killing someone else’s character without consent, or attempting to do so will get you a nice boot print in the ass, be warned.

3 - Battles between PCs must be discussed through PMs beforehand and have a conclusion both players agree to. Keep in mind Enlightenments contain side effects, and do NOT, under any circumstance, start a pissing match on the OOC. There is going to be plenty of fights to go around, don’t expect to win them all!

4 – There is no posting minimum or limit in this RP. As long as you give your fellow players enough to work with and a little bit extra just for fun, that’s great. We love reading as much as we love to write, don’t be afraid to be creative.

5 - I’m fine with romance, but don’t expect things to stop so that you can concentrate on your love life. It just doesn’t work that way. No need to tell you people to keep it clean, but… I will anyway: Keep it clean!

6 – Try to post at least every 3 days, unless you are waiting on a reply. If you can’t, let us know. If you have to drop, let us know and write your character of, or ask if someone wants to adopt it. ABANDON your character if you’re dropping out.

7 – Don’t make more characters than you can handle.

8 – Feel free to spend time in the OOC lounge and share a laugh or two with us. ;)

9 – This RP is mostly character driven so feel very welcome to bring your own ideas to the table.

10 – There shall be no divine interventions unless if relevant to the plot. Which means that: if it must be done, it will be done by me or a fellow co-GM. The Twins are not playable characters in this RP and the Myth of Creation is just that: a myth. There is no proof to verify that there are actually Gods. It is a blind faith.

11 – I will NOT tolerate disrespect, whining, trolling, or arguing on my thread. Do NOT PM me about another player unless said player is violating the rules and I missed it. I have no interest in gossip and I’m not a babysitter. If you have problems with another player, work it out with them.

I’m a friendly person and whatever assistance you need I’m here. However, I’m also GM of this RP. Being so, it’s my duty to enforce these rules. And I will enforce these rules. So if it comes necessary for characters, or posts, being edited I will take no whining about it.

Browse All » 8 Settings to roleplay in

Valcrest

Valcrest by Blackbird26

The Land of Valcrest

Newhaven

Newhaven by RolePlayGateway

City of Newhaven

Blackpond

Blackpond by RolePlayGateway

City of Blackpond

Assassin's Camp

Assassin's Camp by RolePlayGateway

The Wolfpack Camp

The Ruins (Healer's camp)

The Ruins (Healer's camp) by RolePlayGateway

The Ruins of Blackhurst, home of the White Shadows

The Desert

The Desert by RolePlayGateway

The ruins of Brightvale, home of the Crimson Shadows

The Manor

The Manor by RolePlayGateway

Headquarters of The Order.

Raven's Nest

Raven's Nest by RolePlayGateway

Camp of the former Black Guard.

The Story So Far... Write a Post » as written by 14 authors

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Annie Turner Character Portrait: Darren Hearst

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[Otium 16, mid-afternoon]

Annie had been silent on the walk from the Wolves’ camp to the plains. Usually she couldn’t stand to be in the company of another person and not speak to them, but she had not spoken a word to Darren the entire walk home, her mind occupied with things she was, at the moment, unable to speak of. He seemed understanding of her silence however, and she was thankful for that.

If she were to ask herself how Sean’s burial, or the lengthy conversation she had with Donovan afterwards, had made her feel she wouldn’t know what to make of it. Truth be told she wasn’t sure if she was there to bury her brother or if she was just a healer seeing off a lost soul like any other. Donovan wanted answers she couldn’t give, to questions that had been persistent since she received the news of Sean’s death. Could he have killed himself? Would he? She had been asked these things as though she was supposed to know Sean better and maybe as of late that was true. If it was, then she had to ask herself if there was something more she could have done for him. If maybe she could have prevented this. It was foolish thinking, she knew, but still there it was.

Depressing affairs aside, it was a beautiful sunny day and the sun was still shining bright when they entered the plains. Annie had purposely taken a longer route to enter the Shadows Camp in order to enter through the gardens. She wanted to smell the flowers, feel the sun, for a brief moment at least before responsibilities started to weigh on her shoulders again. She crossed the gardens picking off a flower here and there and entered the cemetery, placing the flowers on her mother’s grave before sitting on the grass beside it. It was a silent understanding that she was not to be bothered with anything while sitting there, so even though her presence was noted, no one approached them just yet. Annie smiled at Emily as the girl passed them and waved, seeming to blush furiously and quicken her step as she caught Darren’s gaze. Sora followed after the girl in the direction of the children’s ward, probably to check on her ‘baby’.

Annie’s gaze followed them until they were at a considerable distance, a soft chuckle escaping under her breath at Emily’s behavior. She heaved a long sigh, tension seeming to leave her for the first time since they left the desert, her brown eyes fixed on the silver ring Donovan had insisted she keep. She didn’t want it, truth be told, but it was her father’s ring and she hadn’t in her to refuse or dispose of it. Even though she kept it in hand during their walk, considering actually throwing it away in the woods somewhere. “I never did tell you about my father, did I?” She asked Darren, placing the ring on top of the blue flowers by the white gravestone. “I hear he was a good man, I think I might have liked him.” Annie lay back in the grass, closing her eyes as she felt exhaustion setting in. “Unfortunately he died before I discovered who he was. Before my mother left... to wherever it is she went last year... I asked her why she refused to tell me. She said that she planned to, but changed her mind when he died. ‘Can you really miss what you never had?’, she said. That’s a pretty good question. I didn’t know him, but I still feel like his death should mean something more to me now that I know, but it doesn’t. However, Sean... I’d known him for years, I didn’t particularly dislike him, but he was always, in general, a bit of an asshole, but things changed between us when he found out. He wasn’t less of an asshole, I don’t think I actually got to know him any better... Logically there’s no reason his death should mean more than my father’s. It’s a strange thing.”

Darren had taken the silent walk back to the White Shadows as the perfect time to mull over pieces of conversations he had been allowed to hear, putting together a puzzle of who Sean was beyond just the ‘Wolfpack’s latest Alpha’. He hadn’t asked any questions minus the ones that pertained to Annie eating or drinking. As much as he knew he should encourage her to rest, knowing she was running on smoke alone, he didn’t even bring that up. Darren simply kept by her side or even a few steps behind as if to give her space but remain close enough if she needed to lean on him. All the man wished to do was rest his head along hers, taking deep breaths of her hair that was permeating of herbs and menthol from the relentless salves they had applied to the numerous wounded at the Crimson camp. He just wanted to hold her and run his fingers through her hair. It was all he could think of until she finally spoke.

“You mentioned him once in passing..”

Darren followed Annie up to her mother’s grave and left a few flowers next to hers before sitting beside where she lay. He lay on his side facing her, propped up on his elbow, barely noticing Emily as she walked by. An automatic smile crossed his face but it never touched his eyes and faded to a contemplative expression as he listened to Annie. He slipped off his gloves, brushing a few strands of the woman’s hair from her face. The man’s strength was in place, the blue of his eyes hinting to his control and when he determined it was ok to do so, he reached for Annie’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

“I didn’t know I could miss something I never had, but it is possible if it existed in some manner at one point or another. You exist and therefore you had a father, so it is reasonable to believe he can be missed even if you didn’t know him. Or perhaps ‘missing them’ isn’t the correct phrase. Perhaps one yearns for what could have been and what was misplaced from their life; a soul, a presence. Sometimes we see in the world what is missing from ourselves and deep down wonder what we’ve been deprived of. To say it is a needless feeling or act I guess would depend on the person affected and the reason behind it.” Darren paused, picking at a few weedling flowers that were scattered beside Annie and himself, casually decorating the girl’s hair in yellow and golds as he seemed to ponder.

“If someone never knew what it was like to feel loved, wouldn’t they still deep down miss it? Wouldn’t there always be that void they can’t explain as if a piece of them were always missing? Maybe they would try it fill it in other ways, but would it really be possible to fill that hole?” Darren leaned in a bit closer, strategically placing more tiny flowers on the other side of Annie’s hair.

“Do you feel Sean’s passing more deeply than the passing of the father you never got to know? That’s really not that strange, Annie because you did know your brother for a time and some sort of connection was there, even if he was an asshole as you say. It wasn’t just a story told to you so that it may have felt unreal because he was there right in front of you.” Darren casted his gaze downwards so that his hat covered his face. “I didn’t know I had or have siblings out there somewhere and perhaps before they existed, before they were real, I didn’t ‘miss them’ but now that they do exist and I know, part of me does. Just like I swore to never stop searching for my mother, I will keep the same promise to those faceless sisters out there somewhere. ‘If one wants something they ‘never had’ then perhaps one should follow the path normally not seen.’” He snorted, an unusual hardening to his voice coating his words which he quickly chased away with an ironic laugh. “Now I understand what that means and even though it makes me uneasy to quote my father, he did have a point. Maybe he stole it from someone much more intelligent.”

Annie chuckled under her breath, running her fingers through her hair and grasping a few petals between her fingertips. “What is strange is not so much that Sean’s death affects me more than my father’s... It’s more the fact that just because we shared blood he gained such importance in my life...” She shook her head. “It’s ironic. He was always accusing me of being unaffected by death. He thought that I should be angrier, that I should suffer more. I don’t know why people think I’m never angry. I should scream and break things more often... Jake says it’s therapeutic, but then... Jake would say that.” She smirked, sitting up and shaking some more flowers off her hair. “One of these days, I’m gonna get chased by bees, I just know it.” She snickered. “You know, when Crys’ mother died, my mom was heartbroken. It was hard to tell with her, but I knew she was. When I brought it up with her she told me that as healers we have to tell ourselves that no life matters above all others, but sooner or later; at some point, we’ll be lying to ourselves. I think that’s just... A frightening thought to someone like me; that sometimes what we know and what we believe in counts for nothing. Sean wasn’t a good man, not anymore at least. In many ways the world is better off with him gone... In some ways, he’s better off too. I know that, and yet I still wish I could have helped him...”

Annie went silent for a few moments, watching the movement of the camp in the distance, a discreet smile crossing her features. Stressful as things might be there lately, it was still nice to be home. “Depressing couple of days, huh?” She smiled, tapping the brim of Darren’s hat so that it lowered further into his eyes. “Least the company’s been pleasant.”

Darren smiled, playfully trying to look out from beneath the tilted brim of his hat, one eye squinted as he looked at her. At first his eyes lingered within hers, noting the sadness behind her smile, his gaze distracted temporarily at the falling petals from her hair. He reached out to brush a few more from her strands, his baby blues shining with an intensity that burned with a life of their own. Violet flecks of color remained subdued as a pinkish hue touched his cheeks, his eyes falling down to Annie’s mouth tias she spoke. He leaned in a bit and whispered, “I think Sean was just bewildered by your strength...that he maybe lacked himself..”

Darren let out a shaky sigh, letting his hand trail from Annie’s dark locks of hair as it cascaded along her shoulder, his fingers caressing her arm. Using the top of her head, Darren pushed the brim of his hat upwards so he could see her easier, and as his gaze found its way back to hers, he bit down on his bottom lip. “How...do you do it?” He whispered, his question not specific in what answer he was actually searching for as he stared at the woman with a look of amazement and awe.

Annie held Darren’s gaze with a look of curiosity and amusement in her brown eyes. “I don’t think Sean was that perceptive.” She mumbled, giving a slight shrug as to indicate that she was done talking about the man, done thinking about death, for the moment at least. It was still a lovely afternoon, the sun was still warm in the sky; even if a bit lower than before, and allowing sadness into her heart on such a beautiful day would have been inconceivable to her not long ago. After a few moments of silence she reached out and covered his eyes with her hand, parting her fingers so that he could peek through them. “Uh, oh... Did I accidentally use my super secret power of hypnosis on you?” She teased.

“..You’re always hypnotizing me..”

Darren slid his hand down Annie’s arm, along her wrist and up to her fingers that playfully covered his eyes. For a second, his touch lingered, the tips of his fingers gently massaging the base of Annie’s knuckles before pulling her hand to his lips and releasing, just to stare at her again.

“How..do you do it? How do you keep your light from fading into darkness? How do you live each day..with so much..passion?” Darren’s voice failed him, the man swallowing hard as he appeared to be struggling with a decision. His cerulean eyes fluttered between Annie and his own hands, Darren closing his eyes as he breathed through his nerves, cleansing his will and when they opened he reached out for Annie. One hand found the middle of her back and held her close, his other tracing across her jawline, the man’s fingers cradling her chin so that his lips were almost touching her skin. “Your faith in humanity and sanctity of life is humbling..do you even know how beautiful that is; how beautiful you are?”

Darren knocked off his hat, uncaring how it rolled along the ground, a breeze pushing it along like a wheel through the grass before lodging itself along a tombstone. He seemed as if he was going to pull away, again biting down on his lip, but his brows narrowed in a determined expression and as if he were indeed hypnotized, his will yielded. His skin tingled when his lips found hers, cradling them for a few seconds before he withdrew to plant another kiss along her forehead. “Passion is contagious..moving men beyond themselves..beyond our shortcomings...beyond our failures. You...are contagious and maybe..” He turned away from Annie letting his gaze fall onto Lena’s headstone. “Maybe..I can learn to look at the world as you do.”

Annie was a bit taken aback by Darren’s words. She’d never thought of herself, of her way of seeing the world, as anything that worthy of note. To be honest, she had rarely ever thought about it before and whatever thoughts she might have had then were lost on her the moment he had pulled her close. She just stared at Darren in a stunned silence, observant of every little change in his expression. Annie could see, clear as day, the decision forming in his mind merely a moment before his lips met hers. She let her eyes close feeling warmth coursing through her veins, pushing to the surface, spreading across her skin, and she knew she was blushing furiously. If there was one coherent thought left in her mind still, she would have tried and failed to remember the last time that had actually happened. For someone who almost prided herself in not being easily rattled, Annie had to admit Darren made it difficult not to swoon.

Her eyes opened once he turned away, her gaze trailing away from him to the spot where his hat had ended up. The fog now lifting, Annie’s mind retrieved the words last spoken, a frown marking the girl’s features as she considered them. “I was seven years old when I first watched someone die. Wasn’t a pretty death either; some thief that exploded himself trying to bust open a safe. Half the man’s face was black and burned, he had missing fingers; worst of all he wouldn’t stop screaming. I remember standing there and trying not to cry while I helped my mother tend to his burns. I just wanted him to shut up, but when he did...” Annie shook her head, her smile turning slightly bitter. “We’ve done all we could, but it wouldn’t have mattered either way. Afterwards, mom brought me to the gardens; blood still on our clothes, my stomach still turning from the smell of burning flesh... She told me to look around me and I did, it was the middle of winter; the grass was grey and brittle, the flowers were all but gone... Then she reminded me how in a few weeks that dead grey soil would be full of life, of color... Of warmth. She told me to always remind myself that regardless of what we do, everything eventually dies, and beauty never truly fades from the world. Sometimes you have to tell yourself it’s still there, that you just can’t see it, and believe it’s never actually gone. Right now, I see the world as a very long winter. I just... Can’t allow myself to believe it won’t eventually end.” Annie shook her head as she went silent, a warm smile slowly spreading across her features and lighting up her eyes as she turned to face Darren again, reaching out and running her fingers through his dark curls. “I think... Your hat tried to make a daring escape... Maybe reunite with its long-lost feather... So tragically ripped away all those months ago.” She teased.

“A very long winter…” Darren stared for some time at his hat that was leaning against the gravestone, an unexpected smile cradling his square chin. “Don’t get me wrong...I love the spring. I love the smell of fresh blossoms hidden beneath the brush and the first rain falling along the leaves, but winter… The silence is so peaceful and it’s almost deafening in our steps crunching when one walks along the season’s first snow. The chill is soothing even when I crave for Summer’s warmth… It’s human nature to find beauty in the desolate silence and yet still yearn for the elegant hum of chaos. The cold numbs the soul to sleep and the warmth wills us to fight for our dreams, even if they remain far from our grasp. Even if the scenery is void of color, void of substance, perhaps what one is searching for lies budding beneath the surface. Hmm, that’s what Mom always says.” Darren sighed, turning to nudge Annie with a wink, “She loves the warmth but she loves the cold more because of the silence. I think I just favor the snowball fights.”

Darren let his fingers trail up to meet Annie’s that clasped his dark curls and snorted, “That feather was far too large and gaudy for my liking. I’m not one for flare.I prefer the simple touches. Maybe if it wasn’t so bright and fluffy, I wouldn’t mind.”

“Well, you don’t mind Sora... She’s bright and fluffy.” Annie teased with a playful smile. “But I see... I seee...” She let her words fade, still amused. “Your mother and mine would have had some interesting things to say to one another. In more ways than one, I believe. A pity their meetings turned out to be so brief.” Annie leaned into Darren, resting her head on his shoulder, not entirely oblivious to the fact Alistair had been watching from afar, looking as though he had something to say. It didn’t seem like it’d be pleasant news either. “I don’t mind the cold much, but... There’s something melancholic around here in the winter it’s just so... Grey all the time... As for the silence, after a while it can become a bit too heavy in my opinion. It’s almost a reminder of all the life, all the noise, that should exist here and is no more. Mom used to say she could still hear them in the wind; as if they were still there, but in a separate plain of existence we couldn’t possibly see or touch... Echos, she’d say. I remember I’d try to stay awake, when it was quiet, and I’d try to listen, but... I never heard anything. It’s very likely she made the whole thing up just to scare the apprentices, I wouldn’t put it past her, but sometimes I’m not sure. I think she saw a lot more in these fields than she was willing to tell me.”

After a little while Annie sighed and raised her voice enough that it could be heard from a distance. “What do you want, Al?”

Alistair took his time walking into the cemetery, simply nodding a greeting to Darren, as he stopped by the grave. “I didn’t want to interrupt, but... I was wondering if one of you would go talk to that kid, Irvin.”

“Why? Did he grope someone again?” Annie asked, holding back a laugh.

“No, he... Wait, again?” Alistair repeated, arching an eyebrow. “But no, he and Jake got into some sort of fight it seems and he just left the kid here... I’m not sure what happened, but the left side of his face is bruised and I had to bandage his wrist. Not to mention he’s spent the last couple of hours pacing and muttering things to himself. Normally I might have insisted he talk to me, but really... someone had to keep this place running while you were away.”

“You poor thing, you work so hard.” Annie playfully mocked. “I wasn’t exactly taking a vacation, Al.”

Alistair rolled his eyes at her, feigning annoyance. “Yes, I know. I’m just saying that between the dying folk and the teenager having a meltdown, I have my priorities. Tell me though, how are things in the desert?”

“Not good, but I suppose it might actually have been worse. From this, I think, they’ll recover.”

“And the burial?”

“It was a burial, Al... There’s only one way those can go, you know.” Annie answered with a shrug.

Alistair nodded along to Annie’s words, knowing well that she wasn’t being entirely honest, but not pressing the issue. “Fair enough, kid. Oh, and uh... Some of the children have been harassing Emily for the past hour demanding your presence. Something about you owing them a story? I’d think taking care of that fox would be entertainment enough, but nooo.” He chuckled. “By the way, are you sure keeping that thing around the patients is a good idea, don’t they carry diseases or something?”

“Don’t be stupid Alistair.” Annie scolded the man. “Unless the children were to touch its blood, or poop, no; it couldn’t make them ill. Give me a bit more credit, will you.”

“Alright, alright. But if it poops anywhere in this camp, you’re sure as hell going to clean it yourself, because I’m not going to.”

“Yes, mom.” Annie muttered. “Anything else?”

“No, no... That was all.” Alistair smirked. The man started to walk away, but stopped a few steps away to speak over his shoulder. “Although, you kids might want to... you know... get a room... The graveyard is hardly the most appropriate place for smooching. And I doubt you’d be doing that in front of you mother if she was still alive.”

“You... Just... Keep walking, Alistair.” Annie muttered, frowning at the man’s outburst of laughter as he continued on his way.

Darren kissed the top of Annie’s head and sat straighter, slowly putting his gloves back on, his eyes flickering a hint of violet. He leaned forward against one knee and quirked a brow back over at his hat, still thinking about said ‘fluffy’ feather. Shaking his head he playfully bumped Annie’s shoulder with his own.

“Sora...wears a kick ass mask and likes to ‘sing’ with Kaya. She may be cuddly but not sooo fluffy.” Darren chuckled. “Her baby fox however…,” he cleared his throat, standing with a small burst of energy and crossed his arms as if suddenly offended, “Doesn’t Al know I am the one who has to clean up after the fox? Pfft.”

Darren bent down to pick up his hat, shaking the dirt off the edges that could have been there but wasn’t visible. He ran his fingers along the brim several times as if to adjust it but never really changing a thing, and tilted his head back to place it back on his head. “So, I can go round up Irv and maybe drag him back with me to story time, hmm? Gotta know what that was all about with ‘Uncle’ Jake.” Darren politely tipped his hat to Lena’s gravestone, muttering playful apologies before steering off towards where he thought Irv would be.

The setting changes from The Ruins (Healer's camp) to Newhaven

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Otium 15- Early Morning

Newhaven was a city that relished in its glory. The glory of the Sun and Moon living harmoniously in perfect bliss to bring light to Valcrest in its brightest and darkest of days. The light of Valcrest, its true King, had gone out years before and the shadow of that past had finally caught up to them. Newhaven was falling. The system was breaking and young revolutionaries wished to find the light again. But the young were foolish. Time hadn't allowed them the pleasure of learning the intricacies of Life. They didn't understand the struggles that the older, more experienced had been trudging through in the past several years to make things right. They all just saw an endless war, an unknown disease, and a continuous struggle for balance. These kids didn't see what was happening deep within the shadows. How could they ever understand? They tried to, but failed.
Evin understood. He understood more than he ever wanted to know. It wasn't by choice, but rather by nature. He could blame it on Dani or on the Wolf Pack for getting him involved in things that were beyond even his full comprehension. Rather, he had to blame himself for his continued search for the apex of the shadows. Maybe it had all started when he was still young and foolish. Maybe he still was young and foolish, yet here he was, wiping the blood off his sword while the young fools around him regarded him as a war hero.
What the kids called bravery, Evin called self defence. There was no bravery in killing a man. He'd learned that years ago. He wasn't sure what true bravery was, exactly, but he expected that even War would agree with Evin's analysis. No, Evin just managed to do more to protect himself than the other's in the room at the time of the fighting.
But the kids regarded him with too much respect now. A level of respect which deserved a party, or so they insisted. And before even the earliest of birds had started chirping, the celebrations in the Inn had begun.

“I hate parties.” Evin said in an annoyed tone to Piccolo, the one who had been in charge of the initial rebellion.

Piccolo stood tall, despite his short stature and jovially explained, “Its time to celebrate Life, good friend! Reports are coming in from all around the city. We've taken several strategic points. Destroyed many military supplies and have essentially annexed the city. It is ours now.”

“And what of the castle?”

“Who cares!”

“There are strategies to insure that Newhaven doesn't fall under rebel control. Newhaven Castle has never been taken by rebels in any other rebellion. Historically, during a rebellion, Newhaven armies fill the castle barracks to the brim and defend for long enough, until Blackpond comes to take advantage of the in-fighting. Then the castle pushes Blackpond out of the city and cuts their losses. What measures do you have in place to make sure this doesn't happen to you.”

“Blackpond is too busy fighting their own civil war to concern themselves with us.”

“Yes, but Blackpond is home of War. The people there don't see War in the same way that most people do. They see opportunity before personal conflict. If the opportunity arises to come out victorious in the great Valcrest war, it is quite possible that the civil war will be put on hold and Newhaven will be crushed. So again, I ask you what measures you have in place to make sure this doesn't happen?”

“We'll wait for word from the castle. But for now, enjoy the party. Life is short we don't know how much time we have left.”
“Exactly.” Silence. “Now quit wasting away on your drink and actually commit your life to something.”

Evin finally realized it. That was what made him different. He couldn't sit idle because otherwise his life would be wasted on the world. He didn't push himself into the world to sit back the moment things seemed to be going right. Evin would never find anything right. He didn't fight against anything but the fight itself.

A man burst into the room that Evin and Piccolo sat. A few of the men who'd volunteered to guard Piccolo stood up, ready to draw their weapons, but calmed down as soon as they realized that it was one of Piccolo's men at arms who'd burst in.

“Word from the castle.” The boy said under heavy breath. “Fighting continues, but we've managed to capture the Queen.”

Piccolo's eyes brightened. He averted his gaze to Evin, with a sharp grin as if to tell him, 'I told you so', before asking, “Where is she being taken?”

“She's been taken, under heavy guard to the Church of Sun. There is a clear path that is under our control in that section of the city and our fortifications in that area are at the strongest at this moment. It would take a sizable force to get to her.”

“Good. Now to celebrate. Evin, will you join us now?” Piccolo offered Evin the bottle. “Wait. Where are you going?”

Evin tensed as he reached for the door. He tilted his head to one side and softly let out a steady breath. Turning around, he didn't look over at Piccolo, but the soldier that had come to bring the news of Ella. “The castle, soldier. Tell me how the fight goes.”

The boy tightened up, planting his feet and erecting himself to become as stiff as a board. “Fighting is slow, sir. A Black Knight and small contingent of guards has been holding the Knight's Quarters for the past two hours.”

Evin didn't say anything more. He glanced at Piccolo for a moment. Trying to read his thoughts. His face remained stern and attentive. Despite what Evin thought of his complacency, he seemed to be a good leader. For a rebellion, he was exactly what the cause needed. Before Evin could get caught staring for too long, he walked out the door. After shutting it, he began his pace quickened as he pushed through the celebrating crowds to exit the building. These rebels were going to cause so much more trouble than they were worth. Something that to be done to prevent them from holding any true position of power.

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Blades sang their horrific tune through the halls of Newhaven Castle leading to the Knight's corridors. Each song telling a talk of grief. Starting with the high pitched percussion of of first contact. The song's end would only come in the moments that the families were told the news of untimely death at which point the song would crescendo with the guttural cries of grief and finally, denouement into the last whimpers of the final time someone would cry over them.
What Dominic hated over all of that was the sound that a dying man made. Most hardened soldiers that he spoke to seemed to say that they didn't even notice the sounds anymore. Dominic couldn't help but hear it. The sounds of gurgling after opening a chest cavity. The wheezing. The dull thud of metal on bone. The grunts and moans. All of these sounds were things that Dominic would hear in his dreams and after every rough battle. The sounds of this battle would never leave him.
There must have been upwards of a hundred dying and dead bodies across the long hallway. Dominic was the only defender left. The rest of his friends were laying across the floor, dead or soon to be dead. Among the castle guards were the revolting citizens who were also strewn across the floor.
Only about a dozen attackers remained.
Dominic gave strength to the word “knight” in his fighting. His ferocity outpaced even the bravest of soldiers in history. Yet, there was only so far that he could push himself and he was close to breaking. He could no longer lift his claymore and instead, opted for a decorative sword that had been hung on the wall. The attackers had noticed this and saw it as a sign of weakness. This only added flames to the attackers and they fought with more strength.
Dominic eyed the attackers as they seemed to move into a formation. Only about three or four could attack at one given time, so they formed lines. When one man fell, the next could easily take their place. It was simple and it was smart. Of course it was. The only ones who survived a battle as horrific as this were the ones who were smart enough to understand how to survive. Even the lucky ones couldn't survive in a fight that had drawn itself out for so long.
The first four attacked in near unison. Dominic had expected it, but it wasn't until that moment that he realized how unfavourable his position was. A block would defend against maybe two at the most and a dodge would protect against three. Instinct kicked in at that moment. He stumbled backwards, protecting himself for another moment. It was enough to open the big wooden door behind him, swinging to block one of the oncoming attackers. Now he could dodge. He huffed and jumped his lumbering body back, just grazing his head off the high frame as he passed through the door. Now there was a real choke between the two of them. The first man barged through without a single thought. And was quickly mowed down. Dominic shuddered for a moment as he heard the man's face smack against the black marble floor.
Dominic made the next move. A feint backwards, welcoming his next attacker through the door. He followed with a lunge forward, perforating the man's stomach. He collapsed right in the doorway, shaking violently and slowly drifted off.
After that, no one moved on Dominic. One of the rebels stood just at the doorway, only meters away from Dominic. Dominic stared at the guy through the thin holes of his helmet. He looked around thirty years old. One of the older men who he'd encountered in his fights that night. He looked just as withered and tired as Dominic was feeling. Sweat was pouring down his beat red face and blood covered his clothes. Nothing in the man's face told Dominic that the man wanted to pass the precipice of the door frame, but another look spoke of wishing he could.
The man behind him couldn't contain himself. He pushed the other man out of the way and rushed through the door. In his excitement, however, he missed the fact that there was a body on the floor and tripped over it. It was almost too easy, but Dominic showed no mercy or remorse. Again, he couldn't help but cringe as the sound of the man's skull cracking under his boot attacked his ears. It was cruel, but it sent a message to anyone else who stepped through that door. Hopefully no one else would. Hopefully it was enough.
He looked back at the man who had been standing at the door frame. He wasn't looking at Dominic anymore. He couldn't look at Dominic. How could anyone look at him after doing such a monstrous act. It didn't bother him, though. Only the sounds really bothered him. If it meant that Dominic would live to fight another day, then so be it. Dominic slowly backed away from the fight, praying to War that he had seen victory in this battle.
When Dominic was a safe distance down the hall, he turned into his room. Instantly, he fell to his knees. He ripped off his helmet and let in one big breath, but quickly coughed it out. His body opted for smaller breaths. He tried to sigh, but coughed again as he looked at his helmet. Its once shiny ebony polish was now a dented and scratched mess. He always liked to keep his Black Knight armour clean and polished.
He lifted himself off the floor with an unreasonably loud grunt. His aching bones cracked as he stepped towards his bed.
Then he heard the footsteps. Nearly inaudible, but moving towards his room quickly. Dominic let in as deep a breath as he could muster before snapping the leg off a chair. When he turned around, arms fully cocked and ready to attack, he stopped. “Conrad.” Dominic said. “If I didn't recognize the crest on your shoulder pad, you would be dead right now.”
Conrad took his helmet off, showing an equally battered warrior underneath. “Sorry Dominic, but there's no time. The rebels have stolen Ella. My child is in danger.”

------

The parade was a morbid one. A possessed queen being touted about a street covered in bodies and blood. Revolutionaries, merely peasants, touting their stolen weapons and armour and harassing any poor villager that even dared to look out their window. Each step brought them closer to the stronghold. Lionel, the youngest of the revolutionaries could nearly see it.
Above the rest of the city's rooftops was a spire. Not too far in the distance. Only another three hundred meters or so away. It marked the centre of the district's square. It wasn't anything special or ornate. It was merely a beacon that allowed the city folk to know which direction the square was. Newhaveners took pride in those beacons, often saying that one could never get lost in Newhaven because of them. You could always tell where you were in the city based on the colour of the spire.
Lionel could remember the several times he would race to these landmarks with his friends as a child. A game that ever Newhaven child could relate to. The thing that was uniquely 'Newhaven'. He would often look for ways to cheat at the racing game, but never really found an effective method. The closest he ever came to it was by causing a tar spill down one of the streets where his friends would often run his race. Lionel had done it the night before, but by the time the race began, the city had managed to band together to clean up the spill. He ran down a different route, splitting off from his friends before he could see the spill had been cleaned up already. His friends for years would tease him for the look of shock he had on his face when he saw his friends had arrived at the finish a whole minute before Lionel did.
Now the spire meant so much more to him and his comrades. It meant a new beginning. A beginning that would end the war and fighting once an for all. A beginning of a new ruling class in Newhaven. One that was more competent than the one that had ruled for nearly five hundred years now. The era of Pages was nearly over. In a few days, the public execution in the square would solidify that truth for them.
Only two hundred meters were left to travel. The roads were so familiar to Lionel. He could walk down them blindfolded. He was sure of that.
“Hold!” The group stopped at the order. Lionel looked at the leader, who was looking down the road. He followed the gaze of his leader until he saw it. “Some old beggar on the streets. Lionel, Carry! Shew him off so we can pass safely.
Lionel rolled his eyes as he and carry jumped off the cart that they'd been protecting. It was only some old bard, out to survey the damage of the battle to inevitably write some poem about the Newhaven revolution. The man simply sat in the middle of the rode, tuning his viol. His ashen hair the colour of the soot from nearby fires that burned around him. As he got closer, however, he noticed that the man looked a lot younger than his hair would suggest. Still old, but not old enough or wrinkled enough to have the hair in such a colour. Stress must have taken its tole on the musician.
“Come on, buddy. Time to go. There's nothing to see here.” Lionel said as kindly as possible while still attempting to exert his authority, but the man ignored. He just continued to tune his viol. “I'm serious. Please don't make me force you out of here.”
This time the old bard looked up at Lionel, then back at the cart protected by the soldiers down the street. Then, just as before, he continued with his viol. Carry reacted this time, pointing his stolen sword towards the bard. He didn't say anything, but the action suggested the threat of the situation that the bard had placed himself in. Lionel gripped his sword a little tighter, readying himself to be more forceful too.
Again, the bard looked up, this time at Carry. He looked behind them again, but then looked back at Carry. The bard raised his hand slowly towards the sword in the least threatening way possible. Gently, he poked the tip of the sword with his finger and looked at it. He didn't draw blood. Then he looked at Lionel's sword hand. Could the bard notice that he was gripping it tighter? He looked down at his viol again, just twisting the top most nob slightly before looking back at the two of them again.
That's when Lionel noticed something wrong. The bard's hands were covered in soot. Everywhere else was clean, but as he gazed closely at the man's face, he noticed that there was soot where his hairline brushed against his forehead. The hair had been purposely rubbed with soot. At an even closer look, he noticed something wrong with the viol. The strings on the instrument weren't attached at the bottom like they were supposed to. In fact, they extended to the ground and slithered in every which way across the cobblestone.
Lionel reached out to the bard, attempting to take away his instrument, but the bard instinctively pulled the instrument back, causing the strings to go taught. The bard's eyes sparkled a deep black and in a motion faster than he'd ever seen a man move, he plucked each of the strings. Behind him, he heard screams as the men protecting the waggon fell, knives sticking out of their necks. When Lionel turned back around, the bard was no longer there. He shot his head in both directions and saw Carry, lying beside him with his throat slit open. He hadn't even heard a struggle!
Before Lionel could even react, he felt a cold steel blade cut cleanly through his neck. He didn't even feel the sharp blade's cut, but knew what had happened when he could no longer breath. He fell over, slowly fading out. Right in front of him, the viol crashed to the ground, splintering as it shattered. All he heard was the man's footsteps growing further away as Lionel slowly drifted off.

------

Dominic arrived at the odd scene. All of the bodies had fallen perfectly in formation, except for two which were down the road a little further. There was not a single sign that a fight even took place. The only markings were single penetrating wounds to various vital parts of the men and woman’s bodies. Even stranger was the fact that not a single one of the bodies were of any enemy. Whoever had killed the convoy was precise and deadly.
He walked closer to the carriage to see if the Queen was hidden under anything. A crow flew from out of the cart, but all that was there was the body of yet another soldier.
“These are the people that you saw taking the Queen away?” Dominic turned around to ask Conrad.
Dominic turned to see Conrad nod and then proceeded to look around the carriage to see if he could find anything.
They were too late. That was for certain. The Queen and the only surviving heir to the throne was gone, without a trace. The city was falling apart and while Blackpond had it own problems, a chance that everything that Newhaven ever had managed to accomplish seemed further away than ever. His life's work to protect the City and its interests would never be achieved. Dominic wouldn't see Peace in his lifetime. It was the nail in a coffin intended for the grave that Valcrest had been digging for its entire lifetime.
Dominic shook his head a few times and leaned against the waggon. His feet planted heavy in the ground and his shoulders hunched over as he placed a hand against his forehead. The steel plates of his gloves scraped against his helmet in contemplation. Nothing.
“We should probably get back to the castle and—”
“The woman you're looking for is with a man named Evin Bana.” The voice came from behind them.
Dominic didn't turn around to see who it was. He simply looked at Conrad, who frantically looked out into the night to see the figure. If Conrad couldn't see the man who was speaking, it was likely that he wouldn't be able to see him either. Instead, he displayed his sword, ringing out through the empty streets as he unsheathed it. Holding it in a passive position, he leaned against the carriage.
The voice continued. “He killed the entire convey in a single attack and then took off with the woman towards the west gate. I'd suspect he's headed for Blackpond.”
“Seems like a tall accusation. A single man killing an entire group of soldiers trusted to protect the ransomed Queen.” Conrad shouted out. Then his gazed focused on a single point to Dominic's left. The man had revealed himself.
Dominic shifted his weight over the carriage to look at the unremarkable man. He wore unremarkable clothes and seemed to just ooze mediocrity. Even his unusual trait of cherry-kissed blond hair seemed unremarkable. An average man with a far from average story.
“You sound like a man whose never actually become acquainted with Evin Bana. He's a man filled with tall tales. Tales just as tall as a woman being kept alive by a man who can bring back the dead.”
“Who are you?” Dominic interjected.
“I'm Wyatt. You could say that Evin and I have been aquaintences for a while. Not sure if I'd consider that a blessing or a curse.” He smirked, but looked away when he realized that no one else understood the joke.
“And why do you think he went to Blackpond. Leaving from the west gate isn't uncommon. Everything is west of Newhaven.”
“Because Crystal Rivers is in Newhaven and she is the only living person that Evin would trust to help him protect the girl, Ella.”
“Blackpond isn't the safest place to be bringing the unborn heir of Newhaven to.” Dominic said. He contemplated looking back at Conrad for a moment, but he figured it best to avoid making eye contact with him after making comments regarding his child in any way.
“If you haven't noticed, nowhere is safe anymore.” Dominic didn't reply to Wyatt's comment. He just sat in the silence until Wyatt decided to continue. “I can assure you that the safest place for Ella is where ever Evin takes her. His protective nature is almost unnatural at times. You probably still want to be close to her, though. That is understandable. Twins save the Queen and all that nonsense. I'll help you too, but there is one thing I need from you.”
“Here we go...” Conrad said.
“I need to find Jake Turner.”


Blackpond: Otium 17- Midday

Rita patiently waited at the gates of hell. She knew that her actions were likely leading her towards her death. But there she stood, with all the bravery of an army. She had no weapons and wasn't even wearing armor. None of that would have saved her anyway. All she wore was a simple shirt and pants representing all the worth of the person that she had come to meet.
Slowly the gate, but there was no one on the other side to greet her. She had waited nearly forty minutes at that gate, expecting at least some form of greeting. Then again, for Lamya, this was a greeting all its own. The whole emptiness of the castle courtyard made it all the more terrifying. No sentries, no porter, no stable boy. In fact, there weren't even any animals at the stables. Rita took a deep breath and slipped into the castle.
Lmaya's theme continued. Not a single person was seen within the castle either. If there was one thing that woman actually cared about, it was the aesthetics of her way of life. She made her way towards the throne room, only to find that there was nothing there. No art, no throne. Not even a spec of dust was left in the room. The paint had been stripped from the walls, leaving the light wood walls scratched. Only one of the walls had been sanded down. It was the path that Lamya clearly wanted her to take. With no other choice, she went through the door that had been sanded down for her.
The corridor that the door lead her too was the same as the throne room. Perfectly clean and bare with nothing of interest to keep her attention as she wandered down the path. This forced her to think about what would be at the end of the path. Rita already know where the path lead. That bitch. Her chest tightened and her breath went shallow.
Rita couldn't let this get to her. She had to stay composed. She had to find the reason to keep pushing forward. Her crusade had been an emotionally fueled trip of vengeance and pride for her city. What was it getting her? A drawn out war. There was enough of that in Valcrest.
She climbed the stairs up to the third floor. She was just above the castle's barracks now. Only one more left turn. Before she turned the corridor, she leaned against the wall. Rita slipped to the floor and hit the ground with a thud. The wall had been so perfectly polished. She'd expected more resistance. It shocked her and she let out a sheepish yelp. She braced her hands on the floor—also perfectly polished—and her arms tensed as she sucked in a deep breath. Her hands clenched, nails breaking on the stone underneath them. Her head dipped forward. Hair cascaded over her face. Her next breath came shuttering through her lungs. She quirked a momentary smirk; she really had to wash her hair. The next breath was even deeper, but had even less control. At this point, she lost control completely and exhaled. Everything.
Hell opened in its full fury a wayward shriek. It was a sound so sullied by its own creator that she didn't even hear it come from her. Rita's world voided out. From her head to her toe, she was unfeeling. It was only when the world came back to her in a stark white light that she realized what had just happened. She looked up through strands of hair to see that she hadn't moved. She felt warm and she was drenched in sweat. Or was it tears? She couldn't tell. Her hands hurt. Looking at them, she realized that she had clenched the stone floor so hard that her nails had broken. Some nearly completely off, and now her hands were bleeding.
It had been such a long time since she had let anything go. The entirety of the last three and a half years had been a lesson in self control for her.
Pushing herself up, she made the turn down the final corridor. She opened the final door at the end of the hall and was welcomed by what she'd expected.
The room was not much different than it was the last time she was in there. The only thing that had changed was the curtains. They were now a dark blue velvet that blotted out the sun. The room, as usual, was mostly lit by torch, leaving it uncomfortably hot during the summer months. Thankfully, it wasn't a hot day and the room was a comfortable temperature.
Lamya stood in the corner of Hastings' room. Her expression was far different than what Rita had ever seen on her before. The meticulous, heartless expression of content wasn't there. Rather, a far more human expression—A longing of sorts—filled the center of her eyes and across the lines of her face. Rita's rage towards the woman subsided, but the tears continued to flow.
“Come here, lovely.” Lamya said, reaching her arms out for an embrace.
Rita slowly stepped towards the woman. Lamya was standing there, stoic yet maternal, emotional yet sincere. Or was she? Rita stopped mid stride, just out of reach of the woman and took a step back. It was all a lie. It was always a lie. Lamya didn't have an ounce of honesty to give towards anyone. There was everything to gain from allowing Rita, in her vulnerable state, to get close enough to Lamya. It almost sickened her knowing how close it had come to working.
She took yet another step back and then reached for her belt, forgetting that she'd left her weapons behind. How foolish could she be? This was why Rita could never wear her heart on her sleeve. She was just too reckless when she did.
“You look upset.” Despite trying, there was no way Rita could convey in that sentence, the hatred she felt with her running nose.
“To be rejected is hurtful. I know you understand that feeling.”
“Shut up!” Rita shouted. “Stop trying to hurt me.”
“I'm just relating my—”
“You know exactly what you're doing. I don't need a weapon. I'll kill you right now. Haven't you broken me enough? All those years you've been torture… I'll do it! I'll fucking do it! I strangle you and watch as the panic sets in and the life in your eyes slowly fades out. I'll show you how much you actually care about Life!”
Lamya's brows furrowed and she slightly pursed her dark red lips. Then, she relaxed them for just long enough to bite down on her bottom lip. The calculated Lamya had completely disappeared and revealed humanity underneath the cloak she'd been hiding behind this whole time. Then, it all shifted, like she had been softly touched by a feather.
The tone Lamya spoke in was one Rita hadn't heard from her. It was soft and relaxed, but not intentional. It was silvery. “You can kill me if you really want, but I promise you that you won't see fear in my eyes. I don't fear escape from Life. I don't fear the embrace of Death. When you finally come to realize that the worth of the Twins. How meaningless even their existence was to our world. You realize then, that caring about anything that can be attributed to a god is pointless. Why spend my days pondering Death? Why spend them embracing life? Why even spend the day to begin with?
“So yes, kill me because you feel like I've in some way impeded on your life's journey and that it is me who you can blame for it. Say I broke you. The only thing that broke you is yourself. You broke yourself by choosing to care about the things that I decided to destroy.
“I'll tell you what broken really is. On an island south of Terra, there is a nation which believes in a single god. They believe all other gods of the world are false and only this one is real. They call this god, The Broken One. This god is who they all attribute magic to. It was created out of three parts. Beauty, thought and soul. The Broken One was perfect in all three of these aspects and so, she had perfect mastery of the divine, as any true god would. The Broken One could call upon the very fabric which made up the world and will it to do anything and everything.
“Despite this, the Broken One became terribly depressed with the world. This god went recluse until appearing again, in a display that even the most balanced of intellects have gone crazy trying to describe. This god became broken. The three pieces which made up the very fabric of existence, Beauty, thought and soulfulness, were split apart and broken. The entire balance of the world fractured that day. Painters who were there to witness the event spent the rest of their lives mixing colors, trying to recreate the colors which they saw. A futile attempt as the colors created by this event don't even exist. Many also said to have seen the very essence of humanity. These men attempted to connect to their fellow man once more, but failed because they couldn't find people who connect with them on a level as deep as they could connect with others. Finally, there were the mathematicians, who, in an instant, saw, for a moment, the entirety of existence in numbers. Only, whenever asked about what they saw, all they could say was 'nothing'.
“This was the Broken One's attempt at killing itself. Only gods don't exist in the same way people do and death doesn't come naturally to them. It is said that the three broken pieces of the Broken One still remain on the world, even to this day. A broken body, a broken mind and a broken spirit. These three broken pieces of divinity search for a release. And to me, that is what broken really sounds like.
“So kill me. See what good it does you. How your life becomes so much better than before. Or, we can talk. Either way, nothing will really change.”
Rita stood in silence. She had been so engaged in what Lamya had said to her that she'd barely even noticed when she was finished. She had gotten too caught up in her own head. Why did she even tell Rita this story? What purpose did it pose? Did it even pose any purpose? This was the conundrum that always seemed to come up when around Lamya.
“Why do you do all this?” Rita finally asked.
“Why not?”
“Let's not act like kids, now. You Know why you do this.” Rita said.
“Then maybe kids live closer to the truth than we will ever care to admit.”
Rita sighed, knowing she was wasting her time here. “Okay. What are we doing, now?”
In a stark, matter of fact, sort of way, Lamya said. “You can have it. Blackpond is yours.”
Rita was taken aback. There was no reason for Lamya to give up a position like this. She still had months before Rita's forces could even make a solid attack on the city. This was not a secret to either side. Rita was going to ask, but she was stopped before she could even lift her lip with the only answer that she should have expected from Lamya. “Why not?” She said.
“And just like that...wow.”
“I figured I'd keep this room the way it is. I might not care, but I know that you do.”
Lamya began to walk out the door.
“I'm not letting you go. You must understand that. Rita said. Lamya stopped at the door. “You've committed so many crimes that a regular execution doesn't seem like it is enough. Hell, I don't know if anything is enough for the number of things you've done to this city and its people.”
“I understand.” Lamya said. “However, I'm going to continue on my way. There are things that I've set out to do. I will be back, maybe, but in the meantime, there's a rumor going around about some fun little games to be played in the Blackpond underground and I'd be sore to miss out of the explosive fun.”
Rita knew it was futile to try to stop her. She was going to leave and Rita was going to let her. This was just how it would be She would have to trust that Lamya would be back to face her crimes. Only Time would tell.
Lamya walked right up to Rita. Rita didn't flinch despite every instinct telling her, begging her to react. Bowing forward, Lamya brought her face in close to Rita's and she kissed her on the cheek.
“Until next time.” Lamya said with a wink.
She spun herself around from the hips and quickly strode out the door and out of sight.
Rita was now alone in the only decorated room in the entire castle, yet it felt so empty. She looked around and took in a big breath. Her head dipped down and she went to sit on the bed. She had hoped that the familiar smell of Hastings' room would still be there. Instead, she smelt nothing.
She wasn't sure what to do now. Ruling an entire city had never been something she was interested in, but she knew that she wouldn't be able to trust anyone who sat on the throne. No one would oppose her rule. Blackpond had a lot of respect for those who overthrew the current rule and had a long history to prove it. Another favorable point was her extensive military background. Blackpond loved a military rule.
The bed shook as she heaved her entire body to lay on it. “I hope this was all worth it, Al.” She said as she closed her eyes and slept, alone in the lonesome castle.

------

The forest at night was always an uncomfortable place. Many of the more ferocious of things came out at night; and it wasn't only the animals that one had to worry about. An assassin knew it best. The night was the best time to strike. Even an expected attack could come as a surprise at night. With the crackling fire betraying their position and blinding him to the light, Evin kept a closer eye than usual.
The fire was something that Evin didn't particularly want to have, but it was necessary. Usually, he would suffer through the cold, the presence of Ella necessitated a proper fire. She was nearing her due date and her baby needed the warmth.
He looked over at Ella, who was sleeping so peacefully in the makeshift bed he'd made of pine tree and dead leaves. She was the only student Evin ever had during his time as an instructor. He'd failed to reel in her impulsive behavior and it got her killed. Dani probably should have never let him teach. Even he knew that having miniature Evin's running around the camp would have been disastrous. He couldn't have ever taught self control to Ella. The type of impulse that Evin possessed couldn't be taught. It worked for Evin because he knew, by instinct when an impulse would work. Ella, with just one year of experience followed by three years without practice, couldn't have known. In a dimly lit ballroom, filled with dangerous people who were all on edge, it wasn't a good idea to be doing anything impulsive.
Despite the morbid thoughts of Ella's death passing through his mind, Evin chuckled. He knew that he couldn't blame his training for that one. Rather, he had to blame an impulsive choice that he'd made several years back. There was no denying that leaving his friend Perry to die was a terrible idea, both in the moment and after reflecting on all that it caused. Perry had been the cause of almost all of the troubles that he and everyone he knew had faced over the years. Yet, it was only now that he was beginning to realize how drastically the one impulse decision he'd made had changed the entire melody of Time.
Evin jumped to his feet when he heard a small rustle in the bushes. A rather hefty racoon scurried towards him. In the glow of the fire, its eyes beaded a creamy green. He kept cautious as it approached in fear that it may be rabid. It didn't look it, but caution was always a good option with unknown animals. The raccoon got within five or six feet of him and stood on its hind legs. It reached its arms out and beckoned for food.
Evin reached into his pocket and grabbed a few crumbs, tossing it towards the raccoon. It caught the food with its hands in mid air and instantly began to eat its free food. Evin let it enjoy its mean while he continued to watch the shell of his former student in the glow of the fire.
He wondered if Ella was still in the body somewhere or if it was just the parasite, feeding off the life of the baby within the body to sustain his old on the mortal world. If Ella was there, how aware was she? What would happen to her when the baby was born? The questions were endless, and they just continued to become more disheartening. Evin decided to stop thinking about it.
He looked back at the raccoon, which was now finished its meal and lying by the fire for some warmth.
“How long will it be before you decide to show me your true form? Or do you just some hermit who tricks campers into feeding them by pretending to be a raccoon?” Evin asked.
In tha moment, the raccoon transformed from animal to human in the blink of an eye. The man was dressed in the markings of the Ravens; a former member of the Black Guard.
“You had me tricked,” Evin said, “up until you caught the food like a human would. Then I realized that your eyes weren't glowing from the fire, but from your enlightenment. Don't you find it useless to sneak up on me like that. Last I checked, I had no issue with the Ravens. What was your plan anyway?”
“I've never met you, but I've heard stories about you. You don't come across as the most approachable people, even to your friends.”
Evin chuckled. “I'm glad Mageria thinks so highly of me.
“I'd rather not have emerged from the bushes as a human in the presence of an assassin who is known to ask questions later.”
“Good point. Why are you here?”
“I didn't come looking for you, but I feel as though this is my lucky moment. I was sent out to recruit for a raid. I wont go into detail, but there is an extensive network in the Blackpond underground that the Ravens intend to dismantle.”
“So this meeting has nothing to do with her?” Evin gestured towards the sleeping Ella.
The Raven looked over Evin's shoulder to get a look at the sleeping girl. His eyes widened and he looked back at Evin inquisitively. A question formed at the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it. Evin tensed a little as he saw a thought form in the man's eyes.
“Does this meeting have anything to do with her?” Evin repeated.
“Why is she with you?”
“It doesn't matter. All that matters is that the Page legacy is safe with her. I would help you, but I can't protect the Queen and fight at the same time.”
“She would be safe at the Nest while you were off with the raiding party.”
“Ella doesn't leave my sight.”
“At least come to the Nest. You'll be safe among friends.”
“I'm not so sure about that.” Evin stare at the Raven was now cold. He really mean to be as brash as he was. He'd never really been this way before.
The crow got the message. His voice seemed to disappear within himself. Very quietly, said, “You know where to find us.”, before his eyes glowed in the light green. He transformed himself back into a raccoon and jumped back into the shadows of the bushes.
Evin didn't sleep that night He spent the rest of the night setting up an ambush. The rest of his night was spent atop a tree, carefully watching his surroundings. No one, person or animal, disturbed his campsite for the rest of the night. The next night was spent doing much the same as the next.
On the next morning, an hour before dawn, he woke Ella and the two of them traveled to the Raven's Nest. No one questioned his arrival or the arrival of his unexpected companion. They just showed him to a camp site which Evin would claim as his own for the duration of his stay.

Raven's Nest: Otium 17- Evening
Ella felt something unfamiliar to her. It was something she had never really experienced in her life. Now in her quasi-state between life and death, she recognized something that no living being could recognize fully. Life. Sure, she understood the concept of it, but there was a difference here. She fully realized the presence of life. Not her's but of others. She experienced this other life that was present with her and she felt an unbelievable sense of connection with it. It was almost as if it were a part of her, yet it had freedom. It was completely autonomous of Ella, and even the sick man who had taken her body from her.
These two lives, her's and the unknown one, felt as though they were in an embrace that transcended the very fabric of reality itself. If she could express herself in any form, all she would be able to do is yell and wail in a way that wouldn't really reveal any sign of an emotion. In this moment, she felt realer than she'd ever felt before. Before she had gotten herself killed and after she'd been taken from the real world. This is what reality truly was.
Then a wave of clarity washed over her. This connection she was feeling with this other being was more real than she could have ever imagined. It was her child. But wait. There was another. Twins?
She'd been attempting to fight her host all alone this entire time. The will of one against the will of one other. Was it Lazurus' hold on the mortal realm that made his will stronger than that of Ella? What would happen if she fought back with the will of three? A mother and her two children. Was there a bond stronger than that?
Ella connected to her children again. It was a boy and a girl.
Stephen, that's his name. Ella thought. It didn't even take any consideration. The girl, however, she didn't know yet. My children.

The setting changes from Newhaven to Assassin's Camp

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Annie Turner Character Portrait: Ess

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[Wolfpack Camp, Otium 16 - Afternoon]

“The Pack laws are clear, Ryan. When the Alpha dies without appointing a Second, the clan votes.”

“There’s no need to vote. Donovan is the obvious candidate.”

“He’s a kid!”

“So was Dani Rivers and she wasn’t the Second when she took over as Alpha.”

“With all due respect, Dani took over after all but a few full fledged Wolves had been eliminated. And the kid’s not Dani Rivers! He’s barely out of training.”

“We should call Crystal back.”

“She’s not coming back, Lawrence!”

Donovan was literally standing in the middle of a divided clan. His expression was empty despite the repeated arguments towards his lack of competence. It had taken him a while, but he had found all that Sean had left behind in the Leader’s Cabin. His brother’s wishes were beyond clear, and if it killed him, Donovan would see them met.

Doni,

I trust no one else. Not only with this, but with anything. As much as it pains me to admit, Bana had a point in killing our Seconds all this time, because; look around you. Look at what the Wolfpack has become now. The shattered pieces of what we used to stand for. I know in many ways I’ve caused this, but if you’re reading this, then it’s out of my hands to fix it. Do you want to know what made Dani the leader she was? Crystal? Their willingness to open up and bleed.

I didn’t appoint a Second in command because what the Wolfpack needs now is not someone’s sense of duty. What the Pack needs is someone willing to bleed. Someone willing to pour their own life into a shattered group of frightened men and women and make it whole again.

What the Pack needs is a willing sacrifice


Donovan opened his eyes to the sight of the entire clan staring at him, awaiting the answer to a question he hadn’t bothered to hear. The boy heaved a long sigh. “I don’t want to be Alpha,” he stated.

The argument resumed following his statement, every voice in the clearing speaking at the same time in a mess of blurred words and discord. Doni let it go on for about a minute before putting both index fingers to his lips and letting out an ear piercing whistle. “I’m not done talking.” He muttered, once the act managed to silence the crowds. “I don’t want to be Alpha, but I will.”

“With what authority?” Lawrence spoke up, stepping out of the crowd to stand before Donovan, the man towering over the teenage boy with a menacing sneer curling his lips.

Donovan smiled calmly, stopping Ryan with a gesture as his friend seemed ready to make the Instructor swallow his words. Doni put his hand in his pocket and fished the ring Crys had given him. He held the object for the clan to see. “Crys gave me this after Sean died...”

“She has no authority in the clan to appoint a new Alph-” Lawrence started, but was interrupted with yet another whistle from Donovan.

“Let me finish, will you?” Donovan snorted. He held out the ring in the palm of his hand. “I want you to look around you, Lawrence. I want you to look at this bunch of frightened, pathetic, broken, losers. At this pathetic excuse for a clan. These aren’t warriors. These aren’t Wolves; not anymore. They’re frightened children desperately searching for someone to blame. Like I said, I don’t want to be Alpha. I don’t want to stand here and say ‘this is my fault’, but I’m willing. I will. I’ll take that burden knowing what it means. So let me ask you, brother, do you want to be Alpha? Do you want this ring? Because if you do; take it.”

Lawrence shook in his resolve immediately. The entire encampment fell into a stunned silence at Donovan’s words. The teenager standing alone amongst hundreds of trained killers, whom he had just called pathetic in about three different ways, watching as the older man slowly backed away from him as though Donovan had him at sword point.

“Anyone?” Donovan offered. His tone was calm, his outstretched hand perfectly steady as he held out the silver ring. “Last chance.” He stated, giving a few more moments. “No?” Finally he closed his fist around the ring and lowered his hand. “Congratulations. You’ve all voted. Ryan is my Second from this moment forward. As for the rest of you; hold on to your ranks while you can. Starting tomorrow things are going to change.”

“What do you mean?” One of the younger actives questioned.

“I mean that Dani Rivers is buried. My brother is buried. And both left more than enough fuck ups to last a thousand lifetimes. Where power lies within this clan is only one of them.”

“You’re changing the clan’s Hierarchy?”

“Not literally, but in a sense.” Donovan answered. The boy snickered at the apprehensive looks being shot his way. “It’s not a concern right now. Those of you not in charge of security tonight, take the day to rest. Breathe. While you can.”

The stunned silence resumed as the clan dispersed. Donovan turned around, heading towards the leader’s cabin with Ryan one step behind. The clan didn’t accept; even less trusted him, but for now he only needed them to listen, to follow. All else would come to them with time. Or so he hoped.

------------

[Raven’s Nest, Otium 16 - Afternoon]

Jake was silent on the trip from Newhaven to the Nest. He wanted to get there as soon as possible and not dawdle on the way so he bound Rick’s wrists together and tied the man with a reasonable length of rope to Shadow’s saddle so that he was forced to keep up. For the most part Jake dragged the mad king behind him, uncaring whenever the man stumbled over his own feet. Why Rick was needed alive was beyond him; the King was barely functional, and even before that he was a worthless excuse of a man. Every now and again he shot a glance to Simon to make sure the man was following as well. As they drew near, Jake slowed Shadow enough that Rick could recover from his latest tumble and he could pay better attention to his unwanted company. “Tell me one thing, Simon... Lamya; what is she to your little group? I’ve met her, I believe, twice... And the only thing that was entirely clear to me is that the woman is insane. Not like good King Rick here; no, but not one word out of her mouth is to be trusted. I’d soon keep the company of a feral cat than someone like her.” Jake kept his eyes on the path as though not actually caring for an answer. “How does someone like that get to be elite in the Blackpond military? That is how you all started, isn’t it? It baffles me. Never took Hastings for a fool. An asshole and a drunk; sure, but not a fool.”

Simon could appreciate the silence that came with accompanying Jake Turner. From what he'd learned as a part of the Conflict, the Turners had a tendency towards stoicism. This was likely a result of the matriarch of the family. Helena Turner was a woman who only ever used her words when she felt there was something to gain from them. At least, that was the impression that Simon had got with the many scouting missions that Hastings had them take to the Healers. Her daughter might not have been the most silent of the bunch, but she was also a rebel in many ways through her childhood and even on into her adulthood. Jake, however, seemed to hold truer to Helena's image. That being said, Simon knew next to nothing about Jake besides what he'd gathered through adventuring his mind on the rare occasion that he could actually tap into Jake's mind.
The silence was suddenly broken when Jake chose to rant about Lamya. It was odd; well, not entirely. It was only odd that he would even choose to go on about this. It completely shattered the stoic attitude that Jake seemed so hard pressed to keep up. He may have seemed to be throwing away the question, but the verbal vomit gave away his morbid curiosity.
Simon thought about letting the question pass, letting it eat away at his psyche. It would have been fun, but he had no reason to keep the Conflict's secrets anymore. Simon's secrets were his own. They were the only ones that mattered.
“I'm sorry to disappoint you. I know some things about Lamya that you don't, but it only leads me to fear her even more. She acts like it’s all a game, but she speaks like her actions have no rhyme or reason. Even fighting to her looks like a game. She fights on a level beyond anyone else that I've ever met and it looks like a predator playing with its food when she really fights. I've never seen her lose a fight and I've never seen her take any of those fights seriously. Hastings feared her, Rory feared her, and clearly you fear her. If you don't, take it from someone who spent his life putting his trust in her: you should fear her.” He looked to see if Jake was even paying attention.

“You spent your life depositing your trust in someone you fear? That is, literally, the saddest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I think now I might pity you.” Jake stated simply, his eyes fixed on the path still. “I don’t fear Lamya, Simon. I’ll admit that she invokes several different feelings in me, but I assure you fear is definitely not one. Even if she is all those things you say, and possibly more, she bleeds like everyone else.”

Jake pressed Shadow on, making the horse tug on Rick’s bindings; causing the man to stumble just because, returning to his silence for the most part. As much as Jake wanted to see Lamya bleed, as much as he believed the world safer without her, he genuinely didn’t believe her to be worth him going out of his way when he was needed by his crew and his family. If the opportunity presented itself however, he would sure as hell take it. “It is a sad thought... That a city like Blackpond would crumble like it did all in fear of one crazy woman.” Despite calling the situation ‘sad’, Jake couldn’t help the bit of laughter that escaped him at the sound of his own words. It sounded like a terrible joke told by a drunken bard. “Oh how the mighty have fallen,” he snorted.

The horse moved on and so did the world. Simon ignored Rick as he stumbled to keep up. Jake's attitude towards the king was understandable. Rick was nothing more a vestigial tumour in Jake's life. For that matter, Simon was not much better. They were merely two men with intersecting paths on the journey that lead them towards whatever end they were fated to meet. The dagger was what held the two together and as long as Simon needed the dagger, he would find himself in close proximity to Jake. Or at least hunted by him.
Rick made another grunt. This time, Simon looked back to make sure he was alright. He didn't care much for Rick. At least, not beyond the utility of the man. It was his hope that Simon's encounter with the other telepath within Rick's mind would be an opportunity to gain a complete sense of obedience within Rick. Making Rick Simon's servant would have made his life a lot easier. The other telepath was more of a problem than Simon had anticipated, though. Simon had to scramble Rick's mind in order to even have a chance at salvaging any sort of complacency in Rick.
He hoped that Rick would make it just a little while longer, but Simon feared that Rick wouldn't make it much longer until the sickness overtook him.
Simon had held out on Jake for long enough now. “I've looked into the mind of everyone I've ever had a conversation with. I'm looking at your mind right now. I can't control it. It isn't even something I really want to do most times. However, this allows me to have a unique insight into people that I'm sure not many get the pleasure of having. Most minds are like an open book. Unless you're insane, that is. The insane are like a maze. If I didn't know the path through Rick's mind, I don't know what I'd do. Lamya's mind is different than even that. It’s like she has no thoughts. No memories. Nothing. She may bleed like everyone else, but her mind is like no one else's and if that doesn't invoke any sort of fear in you, than I pity you.”

Jake snickered under his breath. “The mind shuts down when you die, Simon. Everything shuts down when you die. And as you and I both know... We’re all gonna die. Sooner or later. One way or another. Am I more pitiful than you for not living my life in fear of someone else’s mind? For surrendering my time to people I consider worthy of emotions far more valuable to me than fear? You’re surely entitled to your opinion.” He shrugged.

The rest of the trip was silent, but the Nest was not too far along the path and as soon as they crossed the borders of the Raven’s territory the three men were greeted by a pair of large wolves; a lean, rust colored male and a white fluffy female. Kaya dashed forward and immediately started to circle Jake and Shadow, sniffing at the horse’s legs and thoroughly annoying the animal. Ward, the rust colored pup, remained seated a bit ahead down the path. Jake stopped Shadow before the horse decided to kick his fluffy nuisance and jumped down from the horse, letting Kaya thoroughly inspect him and lick his face and hands. “Where’s your plush, Kaya? Did you leave it with Crys? Hm?” He asked the wolf, scratching her between her ears. “That’s a good girl, yes you are... Such a pretty girl...”

Once the white wolf seemed pleased enough with the affection given she turned her attention to Jake’s company. Her ears perked and her tail raising slightly, swishing from side to side as she approached them, sniffing. Jake allowed the wolf to explore freely as he untied Rick’s rope from Shadow and threw it at Simon as though handing him a dog’s leash. “Kaya, come here.” He called. Kaya immediately retreated to stand at Jake’s right, ears upright, her mismatched eyes staring up at him in wait of a command. Jake got on one knee and whispered to the wolf, his right hand pointing in Simon and Rick’s direction. Kaya darted towards the men, circling them both with a much more watchful demeanor; all her playfulness and curiosity now gone. “For as long as you’re under my responsibility, Kaya is going to be stuck to your asses wherever you go in this camp. She’s the calmest animal you’ll ever meet, but should you try and step one toe outside the limits of this camp she’ll immediately set off an alarm and hunt you down like rabbits. Another thing; there are children in this camp. You are to stay out of their path and most importantly keep Your Highness over there the hell away from them. Otherwise, you are free to roam. Consider yourselves our guests.”

-----------

[White Shadows Encampment, Otium 16 - early evening]

“Annie...”

“Hm.” Annie mumbled, acknowledging Emily’s voice but not looking at the girl as she walked from the archive to the children’s ward.

“Alistair said that the man who died, the Alpha, that he was your brother.”

“Half brother.” Annie corrected, glancing at the girl. “We shared a father, if one could even say that; I haven’t actually met the man. Why?”

“So that girl who died, his sister...”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry. That must be difficult.”

“It is. And if you tell anyone I admitted to that I’ll deny it.” Annie smiled at the girl and gave a half shrug. “I have a reputation too, you know.”

“I remember my brothers now.”

Annie stopped walking before reaching the children’s tent, the sound of excited chatter and Sora’s barks reaching them. “Enough to look for them?”

“There’s nothing to look for. One of them... Well... He hurt me. The other died.”

“And that’s all you remember?”

“I still don’t know where I’ve been or how I got here. Do you think it’ll come back? I... I don’t think I want it to. If I try to think about it, I feel sick.”

Annie sighed. “I can’t answer that with any amount of certainty, Emily. All I can do is try to help you; whatever happens. Though my mother would say that you shouldn’t be afraid, that if or when the memory comes back it’s because you decided it’s time to deal with it.”

“That’s... What I’m afraid of.” Emily mumbled.

Annie gave the girl’s shoulder a firm squeeze. “We’re all afraid of something.”

“I guess.” Emily half smiled. “I think... I’m going to skip on story time this once, if you don’t mind. I’m not feeling very well.”

-------

Jet black splinters of formerly unbreakable stone crashed down upon the earth with such force that the very foundations of Valcrest trembled upon impact. The deafening sound of the explosion created by the shattering of War’s dark armor combined with the God’s angered roars to create a sound that shook the very soul of every human present in the battle field. The shards flew in every direction, engulfed in crimson fire, scattering throughout the land and embedding themselves into its very core. The warriors of Blackpond fell to their knees and the Knights of Newhaven stayed their blades, such was their shock at the sight. The battle fell into absolute silence as the fallen God, now stripped of his armor, lay fallen on the bloodied ground.

War had never walked the mortal realm without his armor and those who dared glance at his defenseless form described it as the image of a large man with skin pale as ash and hair as black as the surface of his helm, glowing red eyes widened in what could be fear or rage; or both as he continued to scream into the winds. If there were words spoken amongst the wounded God’s roars, they were not in any language known to men.

Whether there were words amongst War’s anguished screams; calling to her, or it was the screaming itself that drew her, is unknown. What those present knew for certain, what they witnessed, was the silent figure of a young girl draped in white silk, golden light emanating from her eyes underneath locks of dark hair. Peace was now walking amongst the stunned warriors; dirt and gore staining the skin of her bare feet as well as the hem of her gown as she crossed the battlefield towards her fallen Brother; her steps calm and persistent.

The young Goddess’ presence caused every soldier in her path to drop their weapons, the battle now forgotten, as they stood in awe of her. This was the closest Peace had ever ventured to the walls of Blackpond, the two siblings never before seen in each other’s company since their arrival in Valcrest. It had been the people’s assumption that there was resentment between them, as there would sometimes be amongst human siblings, but the truth was that they knew nothing of Gods and their ways.

Peace appeared small, fragile, kneeling beside her Twin, but she seemed to have no trouble pulling the fallen God partially onto her lap, cradling his massive form in her arms in a gentle embrace. Peace spoke to her brother, her words sounding to the humans present as unintelligible whispers, her tone gentle and soothing. Gradually the fallen God’s screams faded as though his Sister’s words could somehow ease his pain.

A long time passed and soon there was no longer sound in the ravaged battlefield; no screams, no whispers, not even the breaths of those surrounding the two Twins were heard. Finally War closed his eyes and breathed for one last time, his form disintegrating into specks of golden ash, slipping through his Sister’s hands and fading in the winds. Peace remained kneeled upon the filthy ground for a few moments still, her gaze rose to the skies and the trace of a smile could be seen briefly crossing her delicate features. At last she stood, and as calmly as she had arrived, she now took her leave from the battlefield; the blood and grime coating the previously white silk gown the only remains of the fallen God of War.


Annie looked around as she finished telling the story. There was absolute silence within the white canvas of the tent. Not the children, nor the apprentices had made a sound while the young healer read and silent they had remained once she had finally closed the book to end the story session. One of the younger patients had asked an apprentice earlier that day about death and whether or not there was an afterlife... The girl had been at a loss for words, which in these sorts of situation is quite understandable, and Annie decided that the story might be a good idea. It didn’t necessarily speak of Death or the Beyond, however it spoke greatly of the act of dying; of letting go, and Annie believed it to be the most frightening part of the process. The most difficult even for adult minds to bear. She didn’t ask the children what, if anything, they had learned from the story; she expected they would draw their conclusions and ask what they needed to ask.

“Is this why you give people who are dying a ‘blessing’?” One of the smaller boys asked finally, breaking the silence. “Is that the same thing Peace was doing?”

Annie nodded, watching with the corner of her eye as Irvin stood up and left the tent in a hurry. “Some people think that if a healer prays; calls, to Her on their behalf then Peace will whisper to them and ease their fears. Others just want to hear comforting words, or simply not be alone when they die.”

“Is it true,” Kieran cut in, “that you can only really feel at peace when you die?”

“Some people believe that. I don’t.” Annie shrugged. “I think people expect things like Peace and happiness to be constant; absolute, and so they don’t truly acknowledge the fact that these things exist already in their lives within moments. Death is only that, Kieran; one final moment. It can mean whatever you want it to mean. It doesn’t have to be painful, it doesn’t have to be frightening. It doesn’t even have to be the end.”

“Aren’t you afraid to die, Miss Annie?”

Annie sighed at the young boy’s question. “We’re all a little bit of afraid, Joshua, and no one really wants to die, but whenever Lady Death comes for me, I trust that I’ll be ready.”

--------------

“Irvin, we can’t be here right now. We need to get to the White Shadows. You need to move.”
Jake grabbed Irvin by the arm and shoved him into the trees. “Kid! Move! Now!”

Irvin walked the path for a few miles, but stopped again. “You promised to help me get him! You said...”

“I said I would help you.” Jake corrected him. “That’s what I’ve been doing. It’s what I’m still doing.”

“That’s not the kind of help I needed, Killer! What I wanted; what I needed, was to make him pay.”

“And he will, Irvin. There’s no reason why your life needs to end with his.”

“That’s not your decision; or your business, Jake!”

“Yes, it is my business, Kid. It is my business because I started this. You want someone to hate, you want someone to punish with your own two hands, then I’m here. I put the knife in his hand, I watched him breaking and I did nothing. I wanted someone to pay and I didn’t care who else got hurt. I did. Me. You think you know what you saw, but you don’t, Irvin... Forget who he is now, or whatever else he’s done, that day; on that one day, Sean was just another casualty; same as you. I’m the bad guy in this story. And you’re in denial, because you think it takes the kind of person Sean is now to go that far, but it doesn’t. That’ll be you in ten years if you don’t stop and reevaluate.”

Irvin shook his head, not wanting to listen. Jake was going to say something else, but stopped when he heard movement, lowering his tone. “We can finish this later, right now we need to get going.”

When Jake tried to pull Irvin along with him, the boy pulled his arm from his grasp and punched him in jaw. Jake didn’t even seem to feel the punch and responded by striking Irvin in return and then dragging him along the path by the collar. “Sorry, Kid... We don’t have time for this.”


Irvin had left the tent as soon as Annie finished with her story, not wanting to hear any more of it. He hadn’t told Darren anything of what happened between him and Jake and only really agreed to come along to the story so he didn’t have to talk.The bruise on the left side of his face was stinging still; not to mention his knuckles. The pain was a reminder of a lot of things he wished had never happened. He couldn’t ignore it as well as he had ignored everything else for the past six years of his life. This was a bad idea. All of it. Maybe he would have been better in prison doing that psychotic redhead’s bidding after all; at least he’d be having fun. Irv sighed, walking aimlessly and not paying attention to his surroundings, purposely ignoring one of the healers as the man asked if he was alright, only stopping when he felt himself collide with someone at full force. “Sorry,” he muttered, not sounding sorry in one bit, but stopping and turning to help the girl he knocked over; or so he intended, but when he caught sight of her he immediately froze in place. “Ems?”

The girl looked up at Irvin with wide eyes, crawling backwards away from him and shuffling to her feet. “Can’t be...” She muttered, rubbing her temples. “Can’t...”

“Emily...” Irvin called, taking a step forward, but stopping when Emily retreated. “Come on, it’s me... I’m your brother...”

“No... Nononono...” She whimpered, turning her back to Irvin and wandering off as though trying to ignore a very persistent hallucination.

“Ems...” Irvin called, starting off after his sister. “Ems, stop, talk to me... What happened? Hey...” He ran a few steps to catch up to her and grabbed her wrist. “Stop, please.”

Emily pulled her arm out of Irvin’s grip. “Don’t... Touch me! Leave me a alone!”

“Emily... What...”

“You’re not my brother!” Emily shouted. “My brother’s dead!”

Irvin flinched, not knowing what to say or how to ease his little sister’s distress. “I... Ems...” He mumbled, once again trying to reach out to his sister only to stop in his tracks when she retreated away from him like a frightened infant, tears pooling in her eyes and rolling down her cheeks.He didn’t know if she was in denial, or if truly didn’t recognize him, and he didn’t know what to do or say to help the situation. “I’m not dead.” He spoke softly. “Allan lied to you, Emmy. They just took me to prison. I was fine.”

Emily shook her head, once again rubbing her temples as though it hurt her to think. “No, no, no... I remember... I don’t... I can’t...” She groaned closing her eyes tight. “I don’t know.”

Some of the children had run out of the tent at the commotion, someone had called out for Annie, and the rest of the healers were standing around almost as stunned as Irvin, not sure whether to treat the situation as though he was harassing the girl or as though it was a personal matter, only watching that it not escalate to anything possibly harmful.

“Look at me. Emily, look at me...” Irvin pleaded, “I’m right here.”

“Why? Why are you hurting me? Leave me alone...” She mumbled, eyes still shut tight, hands clutching the sides of her head.

Irvin opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He was staring at the distraught girl in complete and utter shock. He was only startled out of his stupor when someone walked right past him in a blur. Annie had walked a straight line to Emily, wrapping one arm around the girl’s shoulders and starting to lead her away. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll deal with you in a minute.” She spoke over her shoulder at Irvin.

Irv stood there until both girls were out of sight, finally hiding his face in his hands and letting out a muffled cry. The boy sighed, running his hands over his eyes and through his hair. “She’s alive... She’s safe...” He whispered to himself, trying to take comfort in the fact even though the look in his little sister’s eyes was causing him a searing pain in the pit of his stomach.

------------

[Blackpond Inn, Otium 17th - Morning]

“Where are you going, Boss?” Nick called cheerfully, watching Crys head for the door of the Inn.
“Nicholas...” Crys muttered, stopping and turning to face the man. “I’ve told you not to call me that. I don’t like it, alright?” She warned calmly. “I’m going to pay someone a visit. I don’t plan on being away too long. If someone comes looking for me you tell them to come back tomorrow, unless it’s a friend; if it’s a friend you can let them wait if they like.”

“Okay... How am I supposed to know if they’re a friend?” Nick questioned seeming a bit confused.

“Be a good judge of character, Nicky; that’s what I pay you for.” Crys smirked, not waiting for the man to respond before leaving the Inn.

“I want a raise!” Nick shouted after her, snorting as the door closed. “You don’t even pay me anything, crazy woman...” He mumbled under his breath.

The Inn was rarely quiet during the day even when Crys was out, but on this particular day the recruits were training out of city with a couple of the other assassins and the place was completely empty aside from himself. So after a couple of hours of absolutely nothing to do, Nick started stacking empty bottles on the counter in the shape of a pyramid.

Essence had managed to ‘convince’ her wolf companions to remain outside the city, which was not an easy feat by any means. She didn’t think cake would be a good bribe or if they would even understand, but nevertheless she promised it to them. Tala and Beo had managed to follow her every step of the way from the Nest to the desert and now to Blackpond. Ess had wanted them to remain in camp, but the wolves seemed uneasy and so she lost that small battle. She couldn’t refuse the company though on the long ride towards the city, her heart weighing heavy from her visit with Dastan. Ess may not have known the man or his people long or very well, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the party at the Nest just before the eclipse. She wanted to make sure to pay her respects and to make sure Dastan knew he had another friend in her, even if he felt he didn’t deserve it.

Instead of going right back to camp the following day, she felt she needed some more time away; preferably around a female. The Captain was almost never around lately, Deidra was still off doing Twins knew what, and Ess started to feel a bit whelmed with the majority of male friends she had. Not that she didn’t appreciate them, but she really needed a woman’s perspective on things and who better to understand her without even having to speak a word, than Crystal. So since she had never been to the tavern before and perhaps a small part of her hoped to run into Luckas there, she made it her sole mission to waste as much of her day as she could and procrastinating before she had to go back to camp.

Ess kept looking over her shoulder as she walked the streets of Blackpond, unconvinced that the wolves were behaving and staying to the woods. Still they were nowhere in sight when she reached the tavern and stepped inside. As per her habits, she was focusing her enlightenment to mirror a freckled skin teenager with chin length, brown hair, a small button nose and thin lips. She was dressed in black leggings, boots, sleeveless red shirt, and fully equipped to the teeth. Ali’s bow was strung over her back, the quiver of arrows at her right hip, while her left hip carried her relic blade. She simply smiled at the curious bottle tower that was being built, making her way towards the counter where she proceeded to unload several daggers across the bar top and carefully lean her bow along the counter’s edge beside her.

“Anything vintage on the shelf? Or maybe something sweet, handsome? Or am I interrupting your masterful puzzle you have going over there?”

Nicholas had climbed up in one of the bar stools and was placing the last bottle on the top of his tower when the door opened, breaking his concentration. The bottle slipped from the man’s hand and he managed to somehow catch it with his left foot and keep himself balanced on the stool. “Ta-da!” he exclaimed playfully, kicking the bottle up in the air and catching it in his hand as he jumped off from the stool. His gaze quickly observing the weapons laid over the counter and the girl who just entered. “We’re closed, love... You look to me a bit too young to be drinking anyways... If you’d like I could arrange for a glass of warm milk, however.” He offered with an amused smirk, placing the bottle gently on the counter and casually pulling a strand of dark red hair away from his green eyes. “Anything else I may be of help with, love?”

“Closed?” Ess purred, dropping a small pouch of coin next to a couple of her daggers. “Closed to paying customers? Since when?” She turned so that she was leaning one arm along the counter, crossing her legs in a dainty fashion so that her boot heel tapped the wooden wall of the counter. “Such an interesting world we live in, where a person may be old enough to fight in a war; old enough to take a life, but not old enough for alcohol.” Ess let her violet gaze casually drink in the man before her, her smile extending from ear to ear. She eased up on some of her focus, letting her dimples show through her facade as her eyes sparkled devilishly at her current companion. “Would it help if I looked a few years older?” Ess shook her hair playfully so that tiny red curls materialized and grew from her brown locs. When she was still once more, her skin was darker, aged as if from too much sun exposure and yet she still chose to keep the same adorable freckles one could almost connect into an image similar to the constellation of the stars. “Now...about that drink..”

Nick snorted a bit of a laugh. “Well, I don’t make the rules, sweetie, I just follow ‘em... Sort of.” He grinned, not seeming too fazed by Ess’ face changing right before his eyes. “I’m going to be very honest with you now, Miss Essence... For future reference if you’d like to not cause anyone trouble...” The man started while pouring Ess a drink, his eyes flashing slightly as the glass floated away from his hand in the woman’s direction. “If you hadn’t been carrying Ali’s handy work with you I would have pushed you out the door by now for not stating your business.” He nodded towards the bow. “And Twins forbid it ever became known to Jake Turner that I denied his sister a drink... I have a pretty face, I’d like to keep it that way” The man faked a frightful expression and chuckled. “I take it you’ve come for our fearless leader? I’m not sure when she’ll be back, but my instructions are that friends are welcome to wait.” Nicholas poured himself a drink and nodded politely. “Don’t think we’ve actually met though, have we? I’m Nick, the Innkeeper, at your service.” Nick emptied his glass and took a rather exaggerated bow.

Ess’ eyes brightened at the floating glass as it approached, happily gripping the drink and tossing it back. She took a moment to relish how the liquid seemed to satisfy and swell her thirst at the same time, before pushing the glass back over towards Nick for a refill. “I don’t state my business to those I don’t know, to be fair. For all I knew, you could have been a spy.” She snickered, letting a bit more of the mirage fade, giving way to more details of her true face. It was as if piece by piece, an extravagant puzzle was slowly coming together. “And I did tell you my business. Honestly, I just need a friendly face and since your leader is away, I suppose you will do until she returns. You do have pretty eyes.” Ess sighed, letting her fingers trail over her collarbone to find the leather tie to her necklace, her nails tracing the outline of the oak design. “Nick, is it? Can you make anything float?”

“Oh, but I am a spy. Whether or not I would spy on you, now that’s a different matter.” He smirked, refilling both glasses and returning Ess hers by the same methods as before. “I hear you’ve got your fill of stalkers by now however, so I’ll try to contain myself for you benefit. I’m a gentleman that way.”

When Ess questioned whether he could make anything float, Nick once again emptied his glass and then climbed onto the countertop, standing on the edge, arms spread as though he was standing at the edge of a cliff. The man closed his eyes and over-dramatically stepping forward, opening one and peeking around as though surprised at himself when he simply continued walking as though standing on an invisible bridge. With a calm shrug the man sat down, still floating in thin air. “Anything.” He answered simply.

Ess’ smile dwindled, thinking on how much Nick, who was rightly a stranger to her, knew about her. She stared at her floating glass a moment longer than intended before taking it in her hand, this time sipping her drink. “..I am still getting use to this..friends and family thing...but I don’t think I like the idea of people I don’t know, so familiar with particulars of my life.” Ess shrugged. “At this point, what’s one more stalker, really? My number one, black eyed friend though is quite the jealous type, so to not make trouble for you, I suggest not taking up that hobby.”

Essence looked up from her glass, absently swirling the liquid around in its tiny prison, her smile returning when Nick stood on the counter and proceeded to float in midair. Placing her glass down on the counter, she giggled, showing her appreciation by clapping at the display. “I’m a bit jealous, I think. You must be quite popular with the ladies, no? To literally sweep some sweet girl off her feet; to float away in someone’s arms, safe from the world…” She rested her elbow on the counter, her fingers twirling and tugging at her loose curls as they further unraveled across her shoulders, letting her mirage disappear completely. “I bet you’re quite ‘light on your feet’ when dancing, no?” Ess snorted at her subtle joke, her attention falling back on her drink.

Nicholas chuckled, slowly descending onto the ground and staring up at Essence with a sweet smile. “Oh, don’t worry now, I’m very discreet. It is a part of my job to know things about people however. I’m sure you realize Crys wouldn’t waste a talented guy such as myself on simple bartending duties. She’s a smart lady like that.” The man winked playfully. “Oh I’m aware of your favorite stalker, Miss. Are you very possessive of him, though? I won’t lie he’s quite adorable, especially when he gets that confused puppy look in his eyes.” Nick snorted in slight amusement at his own words. Nicholas stood up and poured himself another drink. “I am quite an exquisite dancer, that’s true. Perhaps I’ll attend your next birthday party and you’ll see for yourself, hm?”

“I trust..Crystal, so I guess that will have to satisfy my concerns.” She stated simply with a shrug, finishing off her drink and holding out her glass towards Nick for a refill. “How much are you aware of my stalker?” Ess cleared her throat, uncrossing and recrossing her legs to adjust her comfort. Her eyes flashed suddenly when Nick commented on how adorable Luckas was, her gaze trailing calmly around the Inn as if she were more interested in the decorating than the conversation. “I suppose I am just as possessive of him as he is of me, to be fair.” She squinted her eyes as if glaring at something in particular before returning her sweet smile towards Nick. “The puppy look gets frustrating after a while; trust me. You won’t have to wait another year for a birthday party, if there is one that is. See, my birthday is actually in the Winter time, at some point. Jakey and I just have a tradition of sorts, I guess, to celebrate our birthdays at the same time. Next party then, you’ll save me a dance?”

Nick chuckled, shaking his head as though slightly disappointed at Ess’ statement that she was just as possessive of Luckas. “All the good ones are taken, I swear...” He playfully complained. “How aware? Well, he visits. So we’ve met. Aside from that, Jake asked me to keep him under watch around Crys, as a favor, and told me he was a rather clingy friend of yours. I just... Sensed his tone... Mostly. He didn’t give me any particulars.” The man shrugged dismissively. “He’s not caused any form of trouble and is eventually fun to converse with. Crys seems to find his visits amusing. So I see no issue with letting him hang around here.” Smiling and bowing slightly Nick adopted a rather solemn tone as he promised. “I will save you my first dance of the evening, Milady. I give you my word as a gentleman.”

“Aw, now I’m sure I could introduce you to some charming and handsome bachelors. Not ALL the good ones are taken, but sometimes it does seem like that.” Ess snickered, winking at Nick. “Probably why I’m attracted to the bad ones.” She seemed to relax when Nick briefly mentioned what he exactly knew about Luckas, nodding along slowly with his words. “Lovely!” Ess giggled, standing to reach for the bottle and pour herself a drink. “My son is an excellent dancer, but a girl can use a change of scenery. I don’t think dancing is much of Luckas’ cup of tea; or perhaps it was the crowd thing. You know, I didn’t even get to dance with my own brother.” Ess shook her head in an over exaggerated expression of disbelief. Pausing in refilling her glass she stared at Nick a moment, an amusing memory coming back to her as she backtracked on the conversation a bit. “You know, I always wanted to fly or ‘float’ and Jakey knows that, and well funny thing, one day while we were sparring he went all invisible on me. I’m getting better at finding him, but still need to work on it. Anyways, I heard him trip over something, who knows what, and leap at him, apparently clinging to his back so to the onlooker it looked like I was floating.” Ess laughed, sipping her drink. “You know, it also looked like I was being bucked off an invisible horse too. Anyways, I will hold you to your promise Nick. And please, you can call me Ess.”

“Tsk, tsk, those boys... You say neither asked you for a dance? Well, I’m going to give them a talking to when I see them again.” Nick nodded at his own words. “I got your back, sister.” Nicholas winked playfully as he poured himself another drink. “Heh, Jakey... Jakey... Did he ever tell you ‘bout the time, a couple of years into his training, Sean dared him to make the wall he was leaning against turn invisible? The wall was to a girl’s bedroom... She was changing her clothes... So she screamed and called Jake a pervert for the entire camp to hear. Took months for people to forget it. He was furious with Sean.” The man snorted a laugh. “Dani sat him down to talk about girls and boundaries, he said it was the most embarrassing moment in his life.”

Going silent for a moment Nick examined Ess with his eyes as if very literally weighing her. “You’d like to float, Ess? That can be arranged.” He offered.

“Aw, now don’t be too hard on Luckas. I think he was in poor spirits that day and didn’t seem to know about the party. I bet Jake ’Forgot’ to tell him about it. He really does dislike Luckas.” She snorted, some of her drink coming back out her nose as she laughed at Nick’s story of Jake. “Noooo...What? He never told me that, but I can see why. I didn’t know Jakey could do that..hmm.” Ess coughed through a breath and refilled her glass once again, drinking half of its contents down. “I would have been furious too if I was Jake. Poor Jakey. He grew up with girls as a strong influence so I’m sure that whole thing bothered him. So, I take it you’ve known Jake for a little while then?” Ess smiled nodding towards Nick’s offer to make her float, her cheeks flushing slightly from embarrassment. “Well, how bout we save that for the dance, hmm? You and I Nick, I bet we could make some jaws drop.”

Giggling into her glass, her voice echoed , the sound of her laugh coming off darker than it was meant to. “But Jakey..he’s always wanted to do the right thing, you know? First day I met him, he must have been about seven years old and me? Gosh, I must have been thirteen or fourteen and he witnessed something terrible happen to me. Even then, he tried to save me even before he knew me.” Ess’ smile faded, her tone a bit nostalgic as she withheld her amusement with the change of subject. “He could have been killed, but that was a day I remember that changed a lot for me.”

Nick shook his head laughing. “Poor Jakey. Think he was probably already interested in Crys back then, must’ve not been a comfortable situation, getting ‘the talk’ from her mom.” The man sighed softly, still chuckling, but at the same time seeming slightly saddened by the memory. “I’ve known Jake a while yes... We were the outlanders in camp at that time, me and my brother Justin arrived about a year and a half after Jake into the Pack, and Ali a little while after that. All other recruits had been born into the clan at that time. We didn’t exactly hang around the same people back then though; oddly I only got to know the two of them better after the exile. Well, actually, Ali and Justin were friends, but Justin and I were not getting along at the time and then he... Died...” The man paused scratching the back of his head and laughing awkwardly. “I’m sorry, that took a bit of a depressing turn, didn’t it?”

“I know what it is to lose family.” Ess nodded, giving Nick a playful shove against his shoulder. “Hey, no apologies necessary. It was probably my fault anyways from bringing up death and stuff. Besides, us redheads are a bit erratic when it comes to emotions sometimes and we need to stick together.” She smiled softly, turning the conversation some in a different direction. “Nick, how have you been feeling? I mean, you know...the sickness and all. Do you get nightmares or sleepwalk? I keep getting told to go visit the healers, but honestly, what are they going to do? No one seems to know what is going on, so just seems like a waste of their time. Probably why I haven’t gone.” Ess turned her glass upside down, hanging it over her head as she turned her face upwards, mouth open to let the last droplets of the liquor fall onto her tongue.

Nick smiled appreciatively at Ess for her support, letting the subject rest there. The man leaned against the counter, wincing as the gesture caused the bottle tower to sway. It didn’t fall, thankfully, so he seemed to immediately forget about it. “I haven’t felt anything yet. Doesn’t seem to matter though... One of the healer boys died a couple of months back without presenting any symptoms, he just... Had a fit and...” Nick stopped himself and chuckled. “Damn it, here comes the death and stuff again.” The man snorted slightly as if mentally scolding himself, but then shrugged. “I think they’re asking people to go more to collect as much information on those afflicted as possible. Main reason why they can’t figure it out is that it acts so differently from individual to individual... They’ve been doing their best to alleviate symptoms as well... Maybe give some people a release from pain or a restful night’s sleep here and there... Hasn’t helped Jake much though for what I hear...”

“Lady Death is not to be ignored so probably why she always has a knack for coming up in conversation, hmm?” Ess sighed, nodding along to Nick’s telling of the healer’s sudden death, Darren having been the one who had relayed that story to her. She went over the idea again in her mind that maybe it was sort of an obligation of hers to indeed visit the Healers, if even just to give them some feedback on what she was experiencing. No one could really make her sit there and be poked or prodded in an examination unless she trusted the person enough to endure it. Forcing a smile she leaned in close towards Nick as if to make sure no one else heard her, even though they were still indeed alone in the Inn. “..Maybe I’ll go, if not just to visit Annie at the very least, I mean she is kind of family. Maybe if there were some adorable Healers to stare at I wouldn’t feel so awkward. Are there any sweets gentle enough of the eyes?” Her last words were more teasing, trying to mask the uneasiness the visit did stir inside her. Ess reached for her necklace at the mention of Jacob, all amusement fading, shifting her gaze back towards her empty glass. “..It’s taking a toll on my brother and he just keeps piling more responsibility onto his plate and..I just hope...I’m not the reason if or when…” She cleared her throat, a dry almost manic chuckle escaping her as it was apparently her turn to bring up death again. “Stubborn bitch..” She whispered, shaking her head. “For the most part, I tend to sleep better when a certain someone visits. I just don’t wake up to EVERY noise or seem to have as many nightmares as compared to when I am alone. Funny…”

Nicholas nodded at Ess’ comment about Jake as if disagreeing, but didn’t say anything about it, and focused on her question about healers “Ooh, you’d want Alistair. He’s a piece of eye candy that man. A bit grouchy as of late, and it’s probably a bad idea to ask to see his scars, but he is a good looking man. Mhm.” Nick smiled reassuringly. “Annie would probably want to see you herself though, you being family and all. I’m sure you’ll get along... It’s nearly impossible to not like that kid.”

Nick pretty much stumbled into a bar stool, somehow managing to remain seated and not fall over, the bottles that were piled on top of the counter however tumbled over and crashed behind the counter causing the man to wince and then fall into a fit of giggles. “Crap. Crys won’t like that very much.” He chuckled. “Where is she? She’s been out for hours... Said she was gonna pay someone a visit... Hope she’s not getting into trouble somewhere.” The man shook his head, going behind the counter to pick up the broken glass. “It’s natural to sleep better when there’s someone you trust around to check under your bed for monsters.” He stated casually.

“Alistair, hmm?” Ess waggled her eyebrows and chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind. Why on earth would someone ask to see another’s scars? That is a bit rude, no? If someone did that to me, I’d probably show them, by displaying fresh ones on the one inquiring.” She smiled innocently, the color in her eyes strobing in bright shades of violet before falling dark once again. When Nick stumbled, Ess automatically reached outwards, as if she were going to steady the man, her eyes widening as the bottles came down with a crash. “Are you always this graceful? Should I be worried about letting you lead when we dance?” Ess stretched herself over the counter, lazily rolling over and off to the other side to grab a broom she caught out of the corner of her eye, quietly trying to help Nick clean up his mess. “You can always say it was my fault for the bottles.” She played, giving Nick a wink, her smile only widening. “Did Crys have Kaya with her? If so, Tala and Beo may have found her. Just a thought because I left them outside the city. I’m not very discreet with two wolves following me everywhere. Beo doesn’t seem to get how to be inconspicuous yet, or maybe he just doesn’t care. I forgot to ask him.”

Nicholas smiled in silent appreciation when Ess started to help clean up the mess of broken bottles, shaking his head at her offer to take the blame for it. “No, I couldn’t say that. It was my mistake after all. I’m not allowed to play with bottles.” Nick smiled, and amused expression crossing his features. “Crys took Kaya to Blackwell yesterday... You should have seen the commotion in that man’s workshop, I thought he was going to explode. Today though she sent her off with the recruits to train. She’s really good at keeping them in line. It’s almost the same as if Crys was there herself.” He arched an eyebrow. “Why is it offensive to want to see a person’s scars? I’d show you mine if you want.” He offered, giving Ess a playful wink. “I was clearly not being serious, there was no reason to overreact over a silly joke. People need to lighten up, is what I think.”

Nick moved to pick up a bucket and drop the glass shards into it. “I get it that I probably touched a nerve. In the end though, we’ve all gone through some horrible shit in our pasts, I don’t carry my anger around to throw it at people when they push my buttons; trust me, I could. I don’t take kindly of others when they do it to me.”

At this point the door opened and Crys entered, stopping as soon as she crossed the doorway and frowning severely. “Were you making a bottle tower again, Nicholas?”

“I’m cleaning it up.” Nick sighed.

“It’s the third time you’ve done this.” She scolded. “You’re obviously terrible at it, and you’re breaking all my bottles.”

“Take ‘em off my pay.... Boss.” Nick smirked.

“Don’t push your luck, mister.” Crys snorted, moving to sit in one of the bar stools and smiling. “Ess, how fortunate to find you here. Have you been waiting long?”

Ess snorted, trying to imagine what kind of commotion Kaya caused when visiting Blackwell, a small ping of anxiety swelling inside her as she began to miss her own furry companions. She swept some shards of glass into a small pile and carefully picked them up to put them in the bucket. “How can you not find it rude to ask something so personal of a question, as to an origin to their scars?” Ess glanced at Nick a bit surprised, but shrugged. “You seem like a pretty nice guy Nick but perhaps I am just not a very nice woman. I don’t try to mask that I’m sensitive, but then again, I didn’t kill Luckas when he asked me about this..” Ess smiled, pointing to the dark scar at her left cheek. “So I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t unleash my demons on you either. Maybe it’s the manner in which someone asks then. Scars can be sexy, so maybe I take it close to heart just as I would with unwanted advances.”

Essence held her smile even after Crys entered, shaking her head at her scolding to Nick and his bottle tower. “His tower was actually pretty darn adorable.” She giggled, dropping a few more shards into the bucket before hopping over the counter and seating herself next to Crys. Snaking one arm through Cry’s arm, she gave the woman a half hug before releasing her hold. “Fortunate how? And no, I haven’t been waiting too long, I don’t think. Nick has been pleasant company, helping to pass the time. He is a redhead after all. I bet he could be part of the club, except you know, he’s a boy.” She winked over at Nick playfully, returning her attention to Crys. “I just came from paying Dastan a visit and I guess there are some new ‘wrinkles’ that have come to light, that I feel I need to discuss with someone who isn’t my crazy stalker or crazy brother. But, where are my manners.. How have you been doing these past couple days?”

“I wasn’t legitimately asking, but even if I was... Could always just not answer or say no. If someone wants to get offended fine, but that’s not really my fault for trying to be playful. I guess I’d just rather be judged by my intentions rather than my unfortunate choices.” Nicholas shrugged, picking the last of the bottle shards and dropping them onto the bucket. “Want a drink, Boss?”

“No, I’m good, Nick... And don’t call me that; I won’t warn you a third time.” She scolded. “And perhaps you should make less unfortunate choices so people wouldn’t judge you so harshly, just a thought.”

Nicholas laughed softly. “Fair enough. I suppose I am responsible for my unfortunate choices after all.” He gave Ess an exaggerated bow. “Lady Essence...” He snorted a laugh. “I’ll leave you two to talk. It’s about nap time anyway, I’ve got a long night ahead of me.”

“Have a good sleep Nick.” Crys smiled at the man as he awkwardly stumbled up the stairs. She turned to face Essence, chuckling as the man audibly tripped over his own feet and cursed quite loudly. “Poor boy, he shouldn’t be drinking right now. He’s been up for two days straight. I’ll probably have someone else take over the bar tonight.” Crys paused as if to make sure Nick hadn’t hurt himself before speaking further. “I just came back from that Sam woman’s house. We had an interesting chat. I thought you’d be interested.”

Ess chuckled at Nick as he took his leave, smiling over at Crys. “I like him. He makes me smile. To be fair, I may have indirectly encouraged the drinking. I think we finished off an entire bottle.” Ess tried to mask a small hiccup, her fingers trailing over her daggers that were still placed in a somewhat orderly fashion along the bar counter. She slightly tensed, keeping her smile and light hearted tone when Crystal mentioned having a chat with Sam, the idea actually quite surprising to her. Internally she cringed at the name, her cheeks flushing a deep red as her eyes narrowed. “I take it you had a chat with Jacob? What did Sam have to say? I mean was it the kind of chat you had with Sheila?” Ess laughed, the tone dry and filled with a certain sense of hopeful irony.

Crys laughed in amusement. “No, not quite like Sheila. We had tea and biscuits... and quite an unexpectedly civilized conversation. She avoided questions about her ‘associates’ and their businesses, but when I questioned her about child slavery she mentioned Asher as an associate of an associate. She advised me to ask Darren about his whereabouts. If they are, and I suspect they may be, keeping tabs on Asher’s associates you may want to let Darren know. She didn’t say it but she doesn’t sound pleased with the man at all. She said she would gladly hand him over to me and she meant it.” Crys ran her fingers through her hair and frowned slightly. “There was one more thing that caught my attention. She told me a story that she claimed is the only she has of her mother, the... Story mentioned dragons traveling far from home to lay their eggs... Your father’s story mentioned a dragon egg, didn’t it?”

Ess sat in silence for an uncomfortable amount of time, as she went over her conversation with Luckas the night of her birthday party. There were relevant bits of knowledge that she felt she needed to share with Crystal but she was honestly afraid of it coming off as betrayal of sorts, at the same time; not to mention how this would look if Jacob heard it. Finally she leaned in, lowering her voice to almost a whisper, even though they were clearly alone in the room. “I need to invoke a Sister-Sister confidentiality where Luckas is concerned, granted there is plenty I’m not revealing but..” Ess let out a long sigh.

“Jake told you about Sam and I’s conversation, correct? That night, after I left you and Jakey, I had a long conversation with Luckas. Some things I was told in confidence and I can’t break that trust...however, there are some things that should be discussed. I read Asher’s journal and there are specific mentions of his ‘associate’ that has ties to his business and the fire at my village and my abduction; they are described in terms of a dragon. The symbol, Ali opened our eyes to, of the sword and eye, is in that journal.” Ess hesitated a moment, dwelling on what she should say and which she should keep private before continuing. “Sam said to me, basically that she had Luckas’ memories erased and so I asked Luckas about it. He said, that Sam explained it as a precaution to protect him from her father, who is no longer alive. Something happened to Luckas, it’s not clear exactly, but he said Sam’s father was working to sell him and his brother as weapons to NewHaven at one point when they were just children. I..don’t get that because they were just children, right? How could they be weapons? Apparently that idea failed and he was going to have Luckas and his brother killed, which obviously was evaded. Which brings me to the rumors and things I read in Asher’s journal. I think Asher worked with Sam’s father when he was alive. There are clues linking that idea, so it is possible. Asher clearly didn’t like the person mentioned who took over when his associate ‘passed”...maybe if it is Sam, they were not seeing eye to eye on business.” She shrugged. “I don’t believe for one second though she would just hand Asher over, at least alive.”

Ess ruffled up her loose curls that tickled her forehead and groaned. “When I was in the city before, when I killed Ian, I was in a place where Luckas was approached by a dark skinned man and I caught his name as Zeke, but Luckas was in a rush to get me out of there and soon after met up with me. He didn’t want to answer questions except enlightened were not welcome in that establishment and that he was leading people to believe he was someone else. All of this really seems strange and may not look good, which is why I would appreciate your discretion on certain details with Jacob, until more facts arise.” Ess let out another long sigh, her breath shaky as if she was feeling nervous, tiny beads of sweat appearing at her brow. She bit through her anxiety, refocusing back on Asher once again, but in all truth to the matter, the idea of the man twisted her stomach even more.

“I really find it amusing that Sam wants to give up Asher when she just reminds me of him so much. It is in their mannerisms and how they both seem...territorial about certain things or people. Maybe that’s part of the issue. Maybe, because what he is involved in is no longer a secret, she wants him disposed of. Maybe Sam is involved or maybe she isn’t. Either way it’s bad for her to have it out in the air of her association with him. Matthew is the only other person I’ve told so far what I basically told you, except I left Luckas out of it. Matt says we are getting information daily now on this whole thing but won’t say more yet, just that we will be acting on it soon and to be ready.”

Essence stared at Crystal a moment, thinking back on her dad and the story of the dragon egg, a look of confusion in her tone. “What do you think the stories mean? Do you think they are related? Coincidence that Asher speaks of this associate of his as a dragon?”

Crys opened a reassuring smile, nodding in agreement to Ess’ request for confidentiality. There was no reason why she wouldn’t keep this between them. “I talked to Jacob about the talk you two had, well, some of it at least. When Aiden brought me the wolf armor designs I asked him about Sam’s visit. I also talked to Mageria about it a while back.” She rested her arms over the counter and snickered somewhat bitterly. “The woman’s dragon story, she said she believes it meant she would find her way home one day; to her mother. In that context the dragons would represent her family. It corroborates the idea that the Dragon in Asher’s journal is her father. Sam doesn’t implicate herself in anything, but she doesn’t hide her involvement either; that worries me a little because the woman is smart, undoubtedly. If she’s not hiding this... It makes me wonder what she is in fact hiding.”

Crys rubbed her temples slowly as she paused, giving herself a moment to think. “Ali first spotted that symbol, of the sword and the eye, branded onto the skin of the man who tried to kill her when the Wolves attacked the Crimson Shadows; an attack that Sean stated over and over that he didn’t authorize. He was in Newhaven and his Second was away at the time. I believed him even if no one else did, because Sean would have never given an order like that and wandered off to do something else; he wasn’t that trusting. The woman left in charge, who gave the order on Sean’s behalf, disappeared without a trace.... Now this... The eclipse, what happened to the Crimson... To Dastan. It’s the second attack directed at the Crimson Shadows to happen in such strange circumstances. The first time it was Dastan’s arrival that ended the fight, this time he was incapacitated. According to Annie it would take someone extremely powerful to do all that killing using shadow manipulation, something beyond what Dastan would ever be capable of. And Sam kept talking to me about the greater scheme of things and how we’re all insignificant... If all of this is insignificant to her... What are we missing?”

Ess nodded along as Crys spoke, “What is the connection?” She groaned, palming one of her tiny daggers before twirling it between her fingers as she contemplated an answer to her own question.”Think about it. Two attacks on the Crimson and for what? Who is so adamant on wiping them out and why? What does someone gain from this? Territory doesn’t seem like a likely choice there, but then reasons for war don’t always make sense. There’s greed, power, or to diminish the opponent’s strength and allies.” Ess cocked her head slightly, glancing from her dagger to Crys and back. “Do we know if someone was responsible for Sean?” Ess sighed, tapping her nails along the blade of her throwing dagger. “Do you think any of it is connected; the attacks and the sickness? I feel like all of Valcrest is being picked apart, piece by piece. I just can’t...Hm, if Sam is involved in any way and, like you said; she states we are all ‘insignificant’, then what would be the greater goal? To keep with this theme, if individually we are unimportant, then together..what would be significant?” Ess trailed off, mumbling ideas to herself, unsure of where voicing her thoughts would lead her, but she didn’t feel anxious or stressed when she did so around Crys and it was a bit of a relief to not feel insane around someone when she rambled.

“The Wolfpack doesn’t want to look into Sean’s death too much. They’re afraid of what they’ll find, is what I think. A lot of people wanted Sean dead, but the circumstances... What’s on everyone’s minds; the ones who saw the state he was in, is that he did it himself.” Crys gave a slight shrug of her shoulder, an unenthusiastic laugh escaping her lips. “I’d like to be able to say, with certainty, that it isn’t the case, but I’m not sure. Katelyn was very important to Sean and her death... We all knew that it would be the easiest way to destroy him. We just wouldn’t go that far. Maybe I shouldn’t have given him that much time alone with his thoughts... I could have just ended this. It could have been better that way.” She shook her head, an amused smile crossing her expression. “Look at me grieving for that guy I wanted dead... Then I complain when people call me soft.” She snickered. After a few moments Crys let her smile fade and went into thought. Things didn’t quite make sense to her yet, but there was definitely something on the horizon. “I don’t know what anyone would want with the Crimson, or hold against them, but... We’ll find out. One way or another. This won’t go unpunished.”

After another moment of silence Crys heaved a sigh and changed the subject entirely, wanting to distract herself from the sense of impending doom, even if for a moment. “Did Nick tell you I took Kaya to see Blackwell? She did a number on his shop, but he was interested enough on Aiden’s designs to not be completely furious with me. I have a feeling he’ll make something good for the wolves. I also talked to him about some armor for Shadow, I assume you’d be interested in something for Shockwave as well, right?”

Ess’ mind was temporarily overrun with ideas, theories, and speculations; however that was the problem: They were only ‘what ifs’ She didn’t have to voice aloud what she was thinking, if in fact Sam’s family was the referenced Dragon in Asher’s journal and what that could mean and how far their involvement would be. Perhaps the same people that were responsible for the Crimson were responsible for the burnings, but again, without proof it was just a theory.

Shaking a few curls over her eyes, Essence pushed those thoughts aside, listening to Crys talk about Sean. The woman really had little opinion of the man, granted she didn’t like many of the things she had heard he had done to those she cared about, but she couldn’t hate the man. To be truthful, she had little personal reason to. “I think it shows great character to understand an enemy and sympathize while not losing sight in one’s own beliefs. I think that is a necessary quality for a leader to have, no?” Ess smiled over at Crys, “My only experience around the man was at the ball and my impression was a good one, in my personal experience because anyone who disliked Ebony even for a fraction of a second, I had to hold a certain amount of respect for. Not to mention the woman tried to take a hit out on me, which failed miserably.”

Ess laughed, quirking a brow when Crys mentioned Kaya, nodding along to her words. “Turned the shop upside down, did she? Reminds me of the first time Stalker went to the baker’s shop.” Her shoulders bounced in a small giggle fit, the thought reminding her she had to stop by there for the much promised cake for her furry companions. “Glad that didn’t..disway Blackwell. So, the wolves and our horses will be badass looking and I have yet to acquire any armor for myself. Oh, the irony. I am not too fond of what was lying around in camp, maybe leather is just more my type especially if I’m going to be playing with fire because I don’t want to feel..restricted.” Ess playfully elbowed Cry’s in the arm. “What could be scarier than two redheads adorned in armor, riding their ‘war horses’ into battle with their scaled wolf companions by their side? Jake will be jealous.”

“Aw, Jakey can always ride in the back with me, Shadow wouldn’t mind... He’ll be scary by association.” Crys played, laughing at the thought of what Jake would say if he had heard her. “Yeah I use leather armor when I do... Less restricting... Silent also... And it will save you in most situations. It’s just generally better for us sneaky types... I honestly never understood how Mageria manages to move so swiftly with all that metal on her. Jake said he didn’t mind re-joining the knights but he’s never going to wear that armor again. Although I suppose he’d have sentimental reasons to not want it anymore; besides it being heavy.” Crys snorted as if trying but failing to force a laugh. “You know, I’m really glad you two found each other. He’s been a lot happier these past months, hasn’t thrown himself in any dungeon cells or gotten involved in any other type of suicidal plans; always a good sign. Despite what happened at the party he really is doing a lot better now than he has in years. I hope you do realize that has a lot to do with you. Family makes all the difference when one is feeling lost.”

The way Crystal described the change in Jacob over the past couple months, brought back subtle memories of Jess from long ago. Ess wasn’t sure if it was Crys’ words per se or her tone, but she couldn’t help but think of Jessica. Silence lingered on for a moment, Ess’ hand trembling a bit so that she lost her grip on her throwing knife, letting it thud upon the counter top. A sad smile parted her lips, Ess finally nodding to Cry’s words. “I appreciate you saying that because I do feel a sense of strength that I thought I had lost since he appeared back in my life. I was so afraid and so sure he would hate me or find me such a disappointment or even worse; be disgusted, but Jess was right. She told me long ago that the way he sees me would never change, even when he was old enough to understand what I was involved in and the type of person I was because she said, ‘..Love doesn’t work that way..’ And now, I think he wants to keep that promise he made to me so long ago, about protecting me.”

Ess tugged at a loose curl, pulling it out straight and releasing it to watch it bounce. She repeated the act over and over again as she thought, her smile widening. “Jake was the first person to look at me and see me for who I was; for who I am. I do love him like family, but it’s always been stronger than that for me. How do I explain…” Ess’ eyes darted around the room as if searching for a clue on how to explain what she felt, her gaze darting back to Crys the moment she reached a conclusion. “Finding Jake again, was like finding a piece of my soul that I thought had been destroyed forever. I’ve..only felt like that a few times in my life. Finding Darren was another time I felt that way.” Ess purposely moved on from that aspect of the conversation, picking up her blade once again to twirl and attempt to balance it on it’s point upon the bar top. “I wouldn’t be alive, I don’t think, if Jakey hadn’t come into my life. His presence always felt right as if he had always been there and so I use that as a comparison when it comes to trusting certain men.”

“Hm...” Crys snickered, pouring herself a drink. “I see the hero complex started early.” She mumbled, her tone only half amused. Crys sighed, her talk with Sam still lingering somewhere in the back of her mind. “I’ll tell you a secret, Ess. Well, it’s not that much of a secret, rather something I won’t admit to anyone else again if I can help it... All this time I’ve been angry, I wasn’t entirely angry at Jake. Well, I was a little angry at Jake; he is infuriating as you know, but for the most part I was angry at myself. Otherwise I would have hunted his ass down at some point in the past three years. I didn’t, because I started to ask myself how good we really are for each other and, as it turns out, that was a much more complicated question than I expected it to be. After all, love isn’t a choice, love is absolute, you can’t just decide to shut it down and walk away, but a relationship between two people is a series of little choices. Choices they have to make every day, commit to, and live with. When I looked back on our relationship what I saw was that all the things that systematically broke him down in the past five years happened as a result of my choices. I could tell myself I didn’t know, but I did. Jake was better off in Newhaven, he was happier as a hired sword than as an assassin; working for himself... And the only reason he ever came back to the Wolfpack was because I called. I knew that was all l’d ever have to do to make him walk away from everything he built...” Crys emptied her glass and grimaced at the burning liquid. “Because I needed someone to hold my hand. It seems like such a stupid reason now.”

Crys refilled her glass, but refrained from drinking any more right away. “I wasn’t angry because I blamed myself for the past either; what would be the point of that? No. I was angry because if I was completely honest with myself I’d have to admit that, maybe, together we’re incapable of making better choices. I had to admit that... That particular relationship... Needed to end.” She smiled, finally emptying her glass a second time and pushing it away. “And that... That is why when Sheila made it a point of throwing that fact in my face I reacted by trying to break hers... And then stabbing her in the hand. Not my proudest moment, but I can’t quite say I’d take it back.”

“Pfft, well from what I saw, Sheila needed a good stabbing.” Ess chuckled, slowly shaking her head. “It was intimidating though. Even I made a comment to Luckas saying as such. However, no relationship is easy. I think everyone that isn’t out to destroy the person they love, thinks about it. It’s the struggle that makes it all worth it. I had asked Jake If I was..to Luckas and he said probably and that he deserved it.” Ess snorted. “When is love enough.? It’s like…” Ess let out a long sigh and reached for the bottle Crys was using to refill her glass, topped her off and filled one of her own. She swirled the liquid around the glass, nodding along to her own thoughts. “We blame ourselves because we need something or someone to blame; right or wrong. Knowing is only half the battle, right? It always makes more sense in our heads...it isn’t until we say it outloud do things start to become clearer. I swear..the men in our lives are like puppies because they always find their way back. People make jokes about how men will never understand women and it’s funny for me to think about especially with Luckas in my head, you would think he’d have all the secrets; even if trusting him turns out to be a disaster.” Essence smiled, draining her glass dry and playfully clanging it against Crys empty glass.

-------------------

Ess’ visit had left Crys with a lot to consider. Not just about Sam and what she might be up to, but also things pertaining to past conversations they’d had. The recruits were still out in the woods with Kaya, Nick had gone to sleep, and the Inn was dead silent. Crys retreated to her room, thinking of maybe sleeping a bit herself seeing as she had been struggling with it at night, but she found herself sitting back on her bed with her flute in her hands. She put the instrument to her lips and began to play a familiar melody, her index finger briefly touching the little wolf figurine that sat atop the flute, the gesture bringing a smile to her lips.

[5 months ago]

“The most important things a person can say will always be the ones left unsaid, because there are not enough words to translate what goes on inside the human soul. The complexity of human emotion is not something simple words can capture. A person’s soul, and heart, will not be found in their words... It will be found in their silences, in those little unconscious gestures that seem so insignificant, yet reveal so much to those willing to pay attention. Life... You will find... Is in the details.”

The night was cool and pleasantly so, with only a slight, soft, breeze that seem to exist for the sole purpose of carrying on the soft melody of a wooden flute. As usual, Crys wasn’t all too sure of where the music came from, except that it came from a place deep inside herself, a place too complex for words... It wasn’t a sad melody she played, it was only soft... Soothing... And somewhat hopeful in its essence. It was peaceful, but it didn’t bring the usual feeling of peace, it was peace with something more meaningful behind it, like the silences her father used to speak of. The memories were welcome, and comforting, and that was something she hadn’t felt in a long time, not while looking back at what was past. Stretching her legs where she sat by a small fire pit she smiled quietly, interrupting the music and lowering the flute... Letting all sound fade to a comfortable silence.

It fell quiet, earlier than usual; Tala nestled with her pups, safe within the kennel across from the oak. A heavy weight still pressed upon Ess’ heart as she stared upon the fresh plot beneath the tree, a few blue buds beginning to spring forth in a silent beauty. She didn’t want to think of it, so she shut her eyes to absorb the sweet quiet except for the soft snores of the wolves. One, as always, did not wish to stay silent while the rest slumbered and almost on cue, Ess was prodded by a small cold nose. Opening one eye she grinned bending down to pick up the snow white pup. “Can’t sleep again, hmm?” Ess whispered, pressing a firm kiss upon the wolf’s head. Picking up a tiny comb by her side, Ess began brushing the pup’s fur so that she resembled a white, puffy cloud. The pup cocked its head and yipped curiously, bringing Ess to a stop, straining to listen for what could have procured the wolf’s attention. A gentle breeze came in, carrying a lulled tune on its back. The pup turned to look at Ess before hopping away from her, standing beside the fire light; arching its head back she began to howl. Giggling at the sheer cuteness of the pup, brought Ess to her feet to wander away from the fire and through the shadows.

As the sound grew louder, Ess turned to wave the cub onward to follow her, a low whistle following which sent the pup on it’s heels in a clumsy pounce into the direction of the soothing music. So familiar it was that she began humming it, not realizing that she knew the next few notes before they were even played. The music seemed to die down the moment Ess and Tala’s pup reached another boundary of light. With a sigh, she waited to see if Crys would continue, remaining silent as to not interrupt her moment.

Crys had stopped playing as she felt she wasn’t alone, not because the presence of another person was disturbing to her, but simply because she wanted to give her company the space to come closer and not feel intrusive. Sighing softly she leaned back, resting her back against a boulder she had padded with a folded cloak, her fingers quietly tracing the markings along the surface of the wooden instrument an appreciative smile crossing her features at the insane amount of thought and work that had gone into the object. Before she knew it more than a couple of moments had passed in silence and she once again brought the flute to her lips and continued playing, a few random notes echoing amongst the trees and slowly changing into another soft melody.

Stepping into the ring of light, Ess bent down to pick up the pup, ruffling up it’s fur to keep it silent. Gradually she knelt across from Crys, besides the fire, an insightive smile spreading from ear to ear as she stared in a timid awe when the melody changed to something she most definitely recognized. Her lips formed a childish pout in her confusion, not understanding how Crys knew the song. It was the very same Ess’ father had sang to her when she was a child; the very same she was told, was passed down from family only. Running a few fingers through her curls she choked back a giggle, shaking her head, mouthing in silence her response. ‘Jake...’ Lightly tapping the wolf on the nose, Ess bravely let her voice sneak it’s way into the breeze that seemed to surround them. The calming tone and subdued grace that resonated in synch with the flute sent chills down her arms, gradually rising in pitch to form into words.

"There’s a little bird...
Somebody sent...down to the Earth to live on the wind...
Blowing on the wind...and she sleeps on the wind...
This little bird, somebody sent..."

Ess inhaled, a gentle pause before she moved to the next verse. The pup sat in her lap, wiggling to escape, which proved futile against Ess’ fingertips. A sudden amused expression crossed her features as the wolf tilted her head back, releasing a low howl that coincidentally added a bit of harmony to the song.

Crys was caught a bit off guard when Ess’ voice joined the sound of the flute; the words of the song unknown to her until that particular moment in time. Curiosity and amusement brought a spark of light to the woman’s eyes as she continued to play without a flinch, despite the feeling of surprise and childish delight that had worked their way past her moment of silent contemplation. As the song ended and slowly faded to silence, the silence didn’t last for long as Crys released a small wave of laughter; her tone amused and cheerful as she spoke. “I’m impressed... You found a way to sneak up on me!” She played, sitting up straight and letting the flute rest by her side on top of its leather casing. “You really sing well, Ess... And your little friend too.” She chuckled at the wolf pup. “I’m curious though. Never knew the words to this song, actually... Never knew there were any. It is a... Personal favorite though.”

The pup wiggled out from Ess’ grasp, bouncing and stumbling forward towards Crystal, pausing inches away from her to stare curiously at the flute at her side. Essence smiled, her cheeks flushing to a light pink at the compliment. “...Well I don’t sing around just anyone..and honestly it was you and the music that snuck up on me. I...love the adaptation you’ve given it with that flute...I think..it truly brings out a certain..” Ess paused, quirking a brow in thought..”Oh, what’s the word...release..” She nodded as if satisfied with the term. “...I honestly didn’t expect anyone to know the song but I assume you heard it from Jake? I know he knows the words.” The woman chuckled, crossing her legs out before her and leaning back against her palms for support. “One of many family treasures I keep buried inside my soul. Jake was the first I shared it with. It’s fitting you should know it too, I think.”

“Fitting indeed...” Crys replied in a near-whisper. “I shouldn’t be surprised by this, it’s pretty consistent with what I’ve known of Jake from day one... Always clinging to the past and yet running from it as if it was an angry beast. So hard to get him to understand that it’s just not healthy behavior.” She snickered softly. “What I mean is... He was constantly humming this whenever he thought no one was watching, but he refused to talk about it. If you sneak up on him on a quiet moment you’ll see he still does it. Although, nowadays I’m not so sure if he’s still aware that he does it, some things just tend to become a part of who we are in time, and then we simply stop noticing them. People as well... They become a part of you before you know it, and their habits become your habits... That can be a good thing, or a bad thing though... It depends.” She concluded, a slightly contemplative expression marking her features as if she was genuinely trying to decide which one it was. Slowly the expression shifted back to amusement, her hand reaching for the instrument at her side, fingers resting upon a tiny wooden figurine of a wolf that was glued to the top of the flute. “Your little friend is a music lover, I see... A natural born singer.” She smiled. “Sensitive souls are drawn to music, it seems.”

“Hmm..” Ess kept her gaze upon the cub, the memories of her friend from long ago bringing that familiar sting to her eyes. She sighed, “I..was so mad at him when I thought he had forgotten me; either purposely or by accident from the passing years. It shames me now, to hear how much I am still apart of him but comforting to know because it’s the same for with him owning that piece of my soul. I have his past and you hold his present and future.” When Crys reached for her flute again, the movement naturally attracted Ess’ violet gaze, her smile widening at the tiny wolf upon the instrument. “Ali make that for you?” She inquired, her fingers absently slipping into her pocket to retrieve her own little figurine that was given to her the day Ali and her met. For a reason unclear to her, she had kept it on her everyday since then; even hiding it in her hair when she had no pockets. Several moments of silence passed as she stared into the tiny wooden statue in deep thought. “That tiny friend of mine is growing faster than Tala did. At least, as much as I can remember. Already at that stage where they start developing their own little personalities and stuff..” Ess giggled, “Just like children. Can’t wait for the stubborn ‘teenage’ years. But...” Quirking her other brow she sat up leaning forward when the pup yipped up at Crys curiously. “..They are starting to fixate. This one, has a lot of spirit.” Clear amusement could be heard in her voice as she continued. “Something, I remember you saying I should keep an eye out for. Clearly, all Tala’s pups are spirited, but..” She shrugged, falling silent. “It’s up to them. I would never chain down a free spirit. It’s funny, how even the most ferocious creatures can be lulled or even hypnotized by the right kind of music; the right sound. As long as it speaks to them.”

“Jacob...” Crys sighed. “Has a way of angering people who love him. Hopefully that habit hasn’t yet become a part of him. Either way... The future is uncertain.” She smiled quietly. “And the present is still a bit too tense for my liking.” Another sigh escaped her, but Crys’ smile widened, welcoming the change of subject as she pulled the wooden flute onto her lap, nodding affirmatively to the question. “Ali made it, yes. She says... I’m unbearable when I don’t play. I have a feeling she’s right about that too. It is a great part of my personality, and I don’t feel quite like myself without it. Apparently, not feeling like myself makes me bitchy... Go figure.” A saddened smile crossed Crys’ expression and faded as she added. “Amusing how I got my first flute because I was afraid to lose myself in other people’s feelings... It took me some time, but I discovered there is only one way I can lose myself... And other people’s feelings are the least of my problems... You know, that ‘you’re your own enemy’ thing.” She snorted out a bit of laughter. “Sorry... I’m way too sober to be rambling this way.”

Setting whatever thoughts aside Crys let her attentions fall on the little wolf pup, a curious smile on her face as she nodded at Ess’ words. “Spirit, yes... I remember mentioning it... At the stables. Shockwave, reminded me of Shadow a bit... Of course back then I thought I wouldn’t see Shadow again. We should race them one day... It would be a fun exercise.” Staring at the pup, Crys tilted her head to the side in a curious gesture and once again lifted the flute, playing a few random notes, in no particular order although the sound in itself was pleasant. A delighted look crossed the woman’s eyes as the sound of the flute was joined by a short howl from the young animal. After a few more notes she stopped playing, lowering the instrument with a chuckle. “Adorable. We should start a band.” She stated playfully reaching out and ruffling the little wolf’s fur. “... And isn’t it what we all want, really? Something, or someone, anything, that will speak to us in a different level? The world can be... A very lonely place sometimes.”

'The future is uncertain...'

Essence sighed, “I’m reminded of this every day..That and what we think we know is just another illusion.” Snickering she added, “I mean, so many people that I firmly believed were dead are now walking around Valcrest. Is the world coming to an end or something?” Pushing herself to her feet, Ess approached Crys and quietly sat beside her, giving space between them. Retrieving her flask at her side she giggled, lightly pushing it against Crys’ shoulder. “Too sober for rambling, eh I can fix that.” She played, offering her a drink. “No worries though, I tend to have that effect on people, and who is to say I won’t do it back?”

At Crys’ mention of racing their horses, a strobe like glow lit up her eyes. It had been a while since she had gone riding just to enjoy the scenery and to appreciate all the little things she still loved. Ess knew it was very much needed and long overdue. “Sounds like a plan.” A mischievous grin took over her expression. “Care to make a friendly wager? Perhaps, something the loser would have to do?” Reaching towards the pup, her smile softened. “You know..I still haven’t named these little guys yet. That’s not a very good Auntie of me. Guess I’m leaving it up to them.” Ess shifted a bit uncomfortably, her tone remaining soft and upbeat. “..True, no one wants to be alone. I don’t know what is scarier though: Never finding that something or someone that understands you better than yourself or finding it.” Her mind drifted, purposely shoving aside anything concrete that would start to form in ideas or thoughts. It was easier nowadays to trigger that link between Luckas and herself, little focus needed. In fact, if she reminisced into one of the many memories she now carried that involved him, it would trigger it; even if only for a second. Sometimes it was smells or sounds only, but she always pulled back immediately. Ess wasn’t about to let one of the few things in her life that she could control, spin into chaos. Luckas didn’t need to know how often he was thought of. “..Probably get me into trouble..” She mumbled under her breath.

Crys snickered softly taking the flask from Ess and taking a drink from it. “Just because something isn’t real... It doesn’t mean it can’t be true. I mean, even if reality isn’t what you believed it was, it doesn’t immediately make it meaningless, because... You lived it, and I think that automatically makes it real, doesn’t it? I personally believe that reality in itself depends on our perspective and so... Perhaps the people you believed to be dead were actually dead for as long as you believed them to be. I was dead myself and, I think... In many ways I’m still dead... To a lot of people. To a few I will always be dead because they prefer it that way...” Taking another drink she chuckled. “... And not even close to drunk yet. Perhaps you should ramble a bit too, so I feel less crazy.” She played, an amused expression on her face as offered the flask back to Ess.

The mention of a wager brought back the look of curiosity to Crys’ eyes and she smirked, going into thinking for a couple of moments. “Hmm... Always interesting. Although, if that’s the case, maybe you should consider giving the blind girl a head start, huh?” She joked. “Although to be fair, I doubt that Shadow needs my guidance. You have something in mind to bet on?” Going into relatively silent thinking again, Crys played a few more random notes on her flute, a random and cheerful tune forming itself before being cut to silence as she stopped. “Hmm...” She mumbled, tapping her chin with the flute as she thought. “I guess... It’s scarier not to find it, although, might not be as painful. Depends.” Heaving a small sigh, she shook her head as if trying to push unwelcome thoughts away and smiled softly at the puppy. “So, little friend... What shall we call you, huh?”

Essence opened a warm smile, taking the flask from Crys to guzzle a bit longer than she anticipated of the liquor. “...I..would like to think of myself as a great actress, when necessary...but for some reason my wits are lost as of late, more so than usual. I am trying so hard not to be ruled by my emotions...I don’t even know if it’s possible.” Absently she ran her fingers through her curly bangs. “At least for me..not sure about the rest of the world. It would be nice if all it took was belief to make something real; one’s perception of reality. If it’s real or not, I tend to stay stubborn enough to make those beliefs a reality even if they are not true for the rest of the world.” Ess laughed, her tone hinting at a gentle memory; her own words tossed back into her face. “It’s like...the first day I met Jake..I told him something along the lines of always trusting in yourself because that may be all that’s left in the end. You know I do believe that still, but I also learned it’s good to trust in others too, even though it has been one of the hardest things for me to do.”

Once again passing the flask back to Crys, Ess playfully bumped the woman’s shoulder. “There’s a mini ramble for you, but if you want to know anything just ask. I am sure you have questions for me, no? I know I have questions for you. I feel..a bit lost now not really knowing who my little Jakey is now and yet it’s ironic how much I still see of that boy inside the ‘Man’.” Shaking her head in amusement she shrugged, “We can race...I’ll even give you a head start.” Ess played. “Although I agree, left up to the horses it doesn’t matter. I figure we can leave the bet open. Let’s just say I’ll owe you a favor and visa versa. Not that I wouldn’t help out a friend if asked..” Glancing down at the pup, Ess ruffled up her fur in a gentle but playful gesture, quirking a brow as if she expected the cub to answer Crys on what her name should be.

Crys laughed in amusement as she took the flask and took another short drink from it. “Ever consider the possibility that you may be trying too hard? The human heart is a wild beast, the more you try to restrain it, the harder it fights you. What I mean is... Sometimes people mistake trying to control their emotional responses with trying to control their actual emotions. They try to feel less intensely instead of training themselves to separate. Because that’s certainly harder. What I’m asking is... If you know which one you are trying really.” She took another sip from the flask before returning it. “My father used to say that the only thing that makes our dreams fantasy is our unwillingness to believe in them. He was sort of a ‘anything is possible’ kind of a guy. I find that a comforting thought, whether it’s true or not... Of course hearing stuff like that while growing up might have had an unhealthy effect on my level of stubbornness.” An amused smirk momentarily crossed her features as she sat her flute aside, carefully letting it rest by her side again and readjusted herself so that she was facing Ess. “Well... I’m good with leaving the bet open... It’s always nice to have your friends owe you.” She chuckled, resting her head against the cloak-covered boulder. “I have some questions, but I’m honestly more curious about yours. As I might have mentioned, Jake has changed little from the day I met him. I mean, he’s not ten anymore, but basically still the same person in his best and worst qualities. At the same time, you tell me how much he’s changed... It makes me curious to know what is it you see and what confuses you.” Running her hand through the strands of her hair she mumbled a few things under her breath, momentarily putting her focus on the wolf pup, letting her fingertips slowly graze the animal’s fur as there was some sort of wordless conversation occurring between the two. Smiling back at Ess she continued to speak as if the pause had never happened. “...Well, maybe that was a question after all; what you see.”

Essence nodded here and there as Crys spoke, agreeing with all she said. It was insightful to hear someone speak to her the way Crys was. “Sounds like your father and mine may have gotten along.” She whispered sadly, still holding her smile. “My father use to tell me stories, preaching the same kind of beliefs but I lost hold of those for quite some time. It wasn’t until the dreams became a reality and thus persevering into a darker truth...” Trailing off a moment as if to think over her next words she added, “I know I would rather have the truth, comforting or not than be blissfully unaware. I believe ignorance is what gets us killed. But, what does one do when those truths are indeed comforting?” Shaking her head, Ess snorted in amusement. “Jake and I, even though parted for all those years, seem to subconsciously cling to our demons; to our past.” Heaving a shaky sigh, her smile faded. “He never talked about me, but he never talked about Jess either?” Her tone was in question, half waiting for the answer she pretty much already knew. "The past is a tricky thing...sometimes it's etched in stone...and other times its rendered in soft memories...and if you meddle too long in deep dark things, who knows what monsters you shall awaken...and I think little by little I am finally making some sort of progress, but I worry about Jake. I don’t want it to consume him like it did to me for so long. The sorrow, the emptiness. I did many things to fill the space; to avoid thinking of those painful memories while still clinging to them. So, maybe I went so long avoiding it all, that now everything hits me a hundred times harder. Maybe I do try to control my emotions because I was able to suppress and create new ones for so long.”

Glancing over at the fire, Ess stood to add a few more logs to the flames before settling back down besides Crys. “My Jacob-Bear..” She whispered almost inaudibly. “I know innocence doesn’t last forever and I think that’s at the top of my list of what makes my heart break when I look at him. He still seems to talk plenty but not like he use to. He use to show so much more excitement and curiosity to know about everything and talk about anything. I was there when he lost his father. I was there with him and Jess.” A muffled groan escaped her at the memory before she spoke again. “Jess looks like his mother...” A single tear trailed down her cheek through her painted smile. Clearing her throat she broke out of her straying thought and continued. “Jake has been the same since you met him. I agree this Jacob can be quite infuriating, but tell me...What is your favorite attribute of my brother? What about him touches your soul?” Ess opened a slight smile, her eyes locking on the pup as she curled up between Ess and Crys.

Crys sighed quietly, closing her eyes for moment as if searching for something to say for an answer. Maybe it was about time to stop trying to just not think about the past anymore, she knew that was the one thing that would never solve her problems. Opening her eyes again she nodded slightly as if deciding on words, but let the silence last just a bit longer before speaking in a tone that was far more serene than she felt it should be. “I know why Jake never mentioned you to me. I mean... There is no way in hell I would have let him play dead had I known anything. I would have dragged his sorry ass straight to Newhaven and he was probably just trying to avoid that. Jessica is a whole different story. The most he ever talked about her in the past thirteen years was to mention her death in some way. It’s like he can’t stand to remember her alive. And yet... He keeps that locket close to his heart almost at all times.” Crys shook her head, a noticeable look of frustration in her eyes. “So, this worries me still... This avoidance of his... The fact that I know he’s told me more than he has ever told anyone combined with the fact he’s told me so little, just makes me think that it can’t be much longer until something snaps.” Going silent for yet another moment, Crys slowly reached towards the collar of her shirt, letting her fingertips trace the metal chain around her neck, but keeping it tucked away underneath her clothes. “Jakey is complicated to me... And these are complicated questions because... The things I like the most in him are the usually the ones to make me angry. For instance, one of the last times we spoke before he left he said that people walk away from things everyday, and the he could understand how easy it was to wake up in the morning and just want to tell the world to... Fuck off. What he couldn’t understand was how they could actually do it. It’s like the same part of his personality that won’t allow him to actually leave people behind, as we know he would like to sometimes, also won’t let him let go of anything ever. He literally has to try and fix everything and that’s adorable until you know... It starts to drive you crazy.” She heaved a long sigh that ended in a hint of laughter. “Jake was also that person in my life who said things along the lines of ‘what’s the worse that can happen?’ and ‘why are you so afraid of people?’... My personal favorite was always ‘your left shoe is not the same color as the right one’... That one always used to come after I had already passed about fifty people who were probably thinking the exact same thing. It also taught me to mark my shoes.” She chuckled. “...How about Kaya... For the pup... It suits her... It’s a name with a lot of meanings.”

Ess huffed a tiny sigh and shrugged. “Jake kind of did say fuck the world and walk away..in some ways..and I think he’s facing that now. He seems to want to make right and that part you speak of, that stubbornness I think is eating at him. Think when I saw that, that is what made me want to forgive him and not lose him again.” Leaning back on her hands she glanced up at the sky, brows furrowing as a wave of clouds crept in and hid those familiar stars. “What’s that saying...about losing something and it returning? That it’s meant to be? In times like today, can we really afford to push away those who love us?” Her tone faded almost to a whisper. “Especially if it’s a rarity...” Returning back on a previous thought she spoke up. “He said he believes he failed me and that was a reason he saw it better that I knew him as dead. I would say he’s a bloody fool, but I understand fearing to disappoint those who meant most. Jake means most to me. He looks at me still as if I’m someone to look up to, like he did as a child. I don’t see it...but I do know that if he were to ever look at me with disgust...” Ess shook her head, not even voicing the rest of her thought. “Jess always said that would never be possible; not for Jake. Jess, was beautiful and she had a way of explaining things so they made sense and thus were beautiful.”

Closing her eyes, she went silent for a few moments, a subtle hint of a hum reverberating from her throat before she spoke again. “But things do change...and now there’s....Luckas and Jake doesn’t like to hear me explain how much that guy and I are alike, but I know he’s still got my back. He’s like Tala...very protective and what he gives is unconditional. He...reminds me of my father...now that I think of it.” Ess turned to face Crys. “Now that he’s older too. Makes sense...” Her smile returned, irony glittering in her eyes. “I know I am not well versed in your business, nor is it really my right to know. I understand little when it comes to...’falling’ in love, but....do you love my brother? I was taught to believe ‘Love’ is enough because it fuels strength for so many emotions and motivation that ‘anything is possible.’ Is that not true?” An honest, curious expression crossed her face as she waited for an answer. Ess knew what she wanted to believe but she had not the experience to understand the truth or lie of the philosophy. From afar she had watched how people could be strengthened or torn down by such a concept. She had witnessed how a gesture or single touch could make someone melt or go insane with hatred. It was a tantalizing concept she wanted to be open to but it frightened her more than she could explain. Fear of loss, fear of rejection, fear of betrayal; or the fear of never finding it, as was brought up earlier. “Is this a question of which pain is more bearable? I mean, we all would like to think we’d never intentionally hurt the people we care about, but that’s an empty promise. Least I’ve come to realize. Perhaps, we are suppose to focus on whether that pain is worth the time we spent with them.”

Essence snickered at the name, ‘Kaya,’ rubbing her fingers behind the pup’s ears. “Kaya...” She whispered, looking at the wolf as if waiting for approval. “What does it mean, Crys?”

Crys snickered under her breath at some of Ess’ questions, it felt odd to be asked about matters such as these and realize she had never actually stopped to really think them through all that much. She was taught to deal with things as they occurred, act on what she felt presently and not on what she may or not feel in the future. The future was a huge blank as far as Crys could tell, especially when these things were concerned. Trying to rationalize things and make them understandable actually drove Crys into rather long moment of introspection, which she broke only to give the one answer she actually felt she could give. “It’s a name with several meanings, like I said... my favorite meaning would be maybe ‘home’ or ‘restful place’, other meanings... hmm... Different types of trees I forget, beautiful one, wise child...” She chuckled. “... Forgiveness.”

With a soft sigh, Crys let silence linger once more while she put her thoughts in order. After another moment had come and gone she went back to what the main topic of conversation had turned into. “I feel... Love is such a vast term. Another word that holds a lot of different meanings. Also a great motivator, even greater than fear, I believe, but... Motivation can only do so much for a person. It’s like... Being the greatest warrior that ever lived and not knowing what you are fighting for. It feels empty after a while. That said... Yes, I love your stupid brother. I can’t honestly remember a point in the past when I didn’t love him, or picture a point in my future when I won’t still love him.” She spoke, shrugging dismissively as if the words held a considerably lighter weight than they actually did. “The problem between me and Jake is not about love, or even forgiveness really. I think... The problem is we have a lot of promises left hanging in the air... Promises that were made under circumstances that no longer exist. The life we had back then is gone and until we’re both done mourning that loss, there is no chance of starting over.” She smiled softly regarding Ess with an amused and curious expression. “That’s just... My particular business though. It does not and should not apply to anyone else’s. Or at least I hope not.” She laughed, shaking her head in amusement, her eyes sparkling discretely as she stared at the woman sitting in front of her. “Alright so... I don’t mean to intrude or anything, and so feel free to ignore this slight change of subject, but... You and Luckas... The two of you share a... uh... Bond, of sorts, yes? I’ve noticed some... How do I put it... Some of your responses don’t exactly fit into the subject of Jake, but then... They kind of became a bit clearer when you mentioned Luckas. And on the other hand I have managed to get a couple of rather amusing reactions from him by simply threatening to mention you so... Again, I don’t mean to intrude I just happen to have noticed it and thought maybe you might want to discuss that with someone at some point.”

Essence began to chuckle at Crys’ comment of Jake being ‘stupid’, slowly it escalated into a muffled laugh as she worked to catch her breath. “People at least have a way of surprising us, no?” She hummed at the idea of emptiness, feeling a familiar knot throbbing in her gut. That had to be one of the worst feelings she carried on with for years until she began finding different things to stuff in the gaping hole inside herself. Something she had decent knowledge of what it could mean but mostly she had accepted its existence for so long that it almost melded to be a part of her. “Not so long ago...” She muttered, her violet eyes widening for a split second before returning to their normal size. Ess held her breath for a few moments before exhaling heavily through her nostrils. Letting her eyes close at the mention of her friends’ name, she pushed back a tiny chill that ran up her spine, tiny goose bumps appearing at the base of her neck. “Fair is fair with questions, right? I did ask you a very personal question. My question is, what exactly do you mean by bond?” Opening her eyes again she quirked a brow. “I think we just confuse one another a bit much.” Ess played, forcing a smile. Her mind drifted back to Crys’ answer on how ‘love’ is different to everyone and she couldn’t help but wonder what it was to feel like. “What does it feel like to Love Jake? I understand that’s rather personal, but how would you describe that feeling for you?”

Crys smiled at Ess’ response to her questioning, slowly shaking her head. “Fair is fair, yes, but... I believe you do have a bit more of a right to ask than me, Jake is your little brother after all, no? It’s sort of in your job description to pry on his personal business a bit.” A curious look crossed Crys’ eyes momentarily as she wasn’t exactly sure what she had meant by ‘bond’, it was the closest term she could find for what she perceived, but she didn’t know exactly what it meant. “I think... By bond, I mean... A connection of some sort... Emotions are vague, and not very easy to describe, thus I don’t like to try and speculate much on what I can tell from people. It would be horribly irresponsible, not to mention wrong, of me to do so.”

The question of how it felt to love Jake caused two different reactions on Crys, the first was a slight wince as if she had been startled by the words and the second was a little chuckle that slowly grew into a short fit of laughter. Once she managed to stop and breathe she spoke, still a bit breathless. “Sorry... Just... You just reminded me of when I was last asked this question.” Coughing a couple of times to clear her throat, Crys managed to settle down in a more serious tone. “Almost unfair that I answer it now...” She mumbled under her breath, not hesitating to raise her voice and move the conversation along. “It’s a difficult description to make... almost as if I asked you to describe color to me. Some people have given me some interesting answers, but I still don’t know what makes blue different from yellow.” Picking her flute from her side Crys began to play a few notes on the instrument, eyes sparkling slightly as the random notes changed into a soothing melody, so soft it was as almost like the flute whispered the notes onto the air; as if telling a secret. The softly played notes faded from barely audible to fully silent even though the transition made it clear that the song was still playing somewhere in the back of Crys’ mind even as she set the flute aside once more and began to speak. “In the simplest terms I can think of... It feels as if I’ve taken my heart right out my chest, where it was safe, and placed on the hands of a stupid boy who doesn’t seem to think it’s much of a big deal to just take it and run off with it whenever he pleases. It makes me feel frightened, helpless and more often than not; foolish, because I’ve given someone else power over everything that makes me who I am and that can so easily destroy me... And at the same time, I feel that none of that matters because if there is one person in the world I would trust my whole heart to, Jake is that person... Even when he hurts me, even when he angers me, and even in the one single moment when I hated him... Because at some point, I’m not sure exactly when, the mere fact that he exists in the world just makes it so... Much... Better.” Crys stopped talking, forcing herself to take a long deep breath taking notice of how shaky it had turned out. “I am an empath, and to someone who experiences emotions the way I do... Emotional connections are difficult, letting people in can be terrifying and painful. Jake feels... Warm, and safe... And the world feels warmer and safer because of him.” She sighed occupying herself with petting the wolf pup as she went silent. After a few moments passed she turned her attention back to Ess. “Tell me something... While we have been talking... Have you tried not to let your feelings show on your expression, even though I can’t see your face? I have a feeling that you have, but I’m not sure.”

Ess took in a shaky breath and sighed, relaxing a bit on what Crys was feeling from her and trying to make sense out of the disarray of her emotions. The term ‘Bond’ had thrown her for a loop, momentarily worried if anyone else knew about her and Luckas’ link. Not that she didn’t feel she couldn’t trust Crys, but she thought it best to have as few people know about it as possible. With Jake, she felt almost obligated to share everything with him; if she wanted to or not. As she listened to Crystal answer her question on what it felt like to Love, an embarrassed, almost guilty feeling crept into stomach. “Perhaps it was an unfair question to ask..” She whispered.

'...I’ve given someone else power over everything that makes me who I am and that can so easily destroy me...'

Essence froze, a feeling of nausea passing over her momentarily at the thought, tiny beads of sweat appearing against her hairline. “Warm...and safe...I think that’s a good way to explain that feeling...” She trailed off with a shrug. “Blue...would be my feeling of warm and safe, maybe sometimes cold since blue tends to correspond to water much of the time even though it’s an illusion. Jake’s eyes are blue.. Yellow...” Ess smiled. “Yellow would be like looking into the sun, also warm but blinding. It makes my eyes hurt and water to stare into it, even for a second. I can understand why colors can be confusing to comprehend but mostly they lead into emotions and visa versa; if that makes any sense.” An awkward laugh escaped her, humming in acknowledgement of Crys’ perception of her emotions inwardly V.S. outwardly. “I know it doesn’t matter what I show on my expression around you. I guess you can call it an...’occupational hazard’ that’s never left me. I spent a very long time always interpreting someone else in physical and auditory form to create the perfect illusion. Part of my gift; my attention to detail.”

Crys nodded along to Ess’ words as she spoke of what the colors meant to her, but she wasn’t quite paying attention. She could remember the several times she had a different explanation, some of which she found particularly interesting, but none of them actually made a difference on how she perceived, or rather didn’t perceive, things. “My mother once told me that... There’s color in music... She taught me to play what she felt each color sounded like... Blue sounds like... Something soft... Soothing... Much like waves, maybe. Jakey described it as sinking into warm water after a long day of training...” Slowly she shook her head and snickered. “Blinding... Huh... Is that why yellow is usually associated with fear? Although, it seems to me that the beautiful things in life are usually the ones that blind us... So, Ess... What is your favorite color?” She asked, a look of genuine interest in her expression as she seemed to examine the other woman. “Occupational hazzard, huh? Something else my father used to say... The most important part of being deceptive is to not let yourself forget your ‘true face’.”

“Yellow...fear...creation...out of the ashes of fire, new life is sustained .”Ess muttered as if in a trance, smirking at the idea of fire. “I ..guess my favorite color would be red, but I like all dark colors: blues, greens, purples.. and the metallic shadows of the night sky. I like anything I can get lost in.” Clearing her throat, she began tapping her nails against the side of the flask. “It was easier to ignore what and who I was then, especially when I didn’t know. Guess you could say I wandered around aimlessly numb and careless through the rest of my teenage years. I spent more than half my life pretending and less time sorting out what kind of person I am. I don’t know, maybe I just always knew.”Ess nodded as if to confirm her thought, her mind drifting back to the subject of Jacob. “I bet I could get Jake to talk about Jess..even if only a little. I know what it’s like to not face one’s ghosts. He did bring her up one of the times we chatted.” She shrugged, not really sure where her mind was going with that one except that she was avoiding something within herself, that which she refused to acknowledge. A dull ache began to form behind her ears while she rubbed at her eyes through a defiant yawn. “Crys.....since you are blind...do you dream? I mean...well maybe I don’t know what I mean. Guess was wondering what that must be like.”

“Red...” Crys mumbled. “That’s an interesting color, I’m told...” She trailed off, not elaborating on what made red so interesting to her, and focusing on what Ess was saying instead, absently wondering what numb and careless must feel like; she wasn’t sure she had ever experienced either one. “I always found it difficult to separate... You know, who I am from what I am. It’s so very easy to let ourselves be defined by our place in the world, whatever it may be, than to try and figure out what else is there. It’s something that still confuses me.” Heaving a small sigh she closed her eyes momentarily, allowing her mind to drift off as she focused on the sounds and feels of the camp around them. She wasn’t sure of the time, but a lot of the people had retired for the night or were about to, even those who were still awake were mostly silent. Taking a deep breath she opened her eyes at the question of what her dreams were like. “My mind cannot form images, obviously, but other than that... My dreams are much like everyone else’s... Some of them feel awfully real, some aren’t quite real enough for my liking... Some dreams are of things that were real at some point in the past... I dream about my mother a lot, mostly when I’m stressed for some reason. Which is odd, really. My mom was many things in my life, but she was not a calming presence.” Letting out a small chuckle she shook her head, slowly letting her focus fall back to Jake she sighed. “I’m sure he would talk to you about her, if you push him just a little bit.” She paused for a moment, a small flicker of light crossing her eyes as she added. “He can’t sleep again.”

Ess appeared to not be listening when in actuality all she kept thinking about for a few moments were Crys’ words, ..’who I am from what I am...’. “I...would like to think that both are things that can be shaped in our desired image, in addition to those things we can’t control in life. My position is changing...I’m no longer defined by those lonely, survival terrors I thought I had to suffer with.” Lifting her head up with a hint of pride she smirked, her tone a soft whisper, “I’m no longer someone else’s fantasy to use and abuse.” Ess paused glancing at Crys curiously as she mentioned her own dreams, nodding along with her words which brought Essence a bit of comfort to hear. Quirking a brow she sighed. “Jake doesn’t sleep either, huh? You mean right now or in general?” She laughed, another question forming, distracting her from where she was going with her previous words. “How far is your range to sense someone?” She asked, leaning towards Crys as she awaited an answer.

“Hmm...” Crys mumbled, trying to somehow measure the range of her enlightenment in her mind. “It’s hard to say. Generally speaking, I can sense everyone within the boundaries of this camp. People I know, I can sense at greater distances if I concentrate. And then there are... Exceptional cases...” She paused for a moment before shrugging slightly and moving on. “There are levels of emotions though... There is what I can sense without trying and there is what I could sense if I tried... Those things people are mostly unaware that they carry inside themselves. In training I have been encouraged to take these things and use them, but it’s not something I was ever comfortable with. Keeping some lines intact is a rather vital part of my personal code.”

Going back on the conversation a little, and consequently pulling the focus away from her enlightenment, Crys nodded. “I think, that purpose for some people is something that is, or can be, desired and sought and for others... It just exists. I was born into mine, in a way. I mean, it’s debatable, if one is born an Alpha or if one can become one... If it’s the first then I’ll always be the Alpha, as some like to believe, but if it’s the latter... Then what am I now? It’s tricky, and then I can’t help but wonder what the hell does it even matter anyway? This really hasn’t changed me all that much, not as much as I believe it should anyway... Or maybe that side of me is a bit numb.” Running her fingers through the strands of her hair, Crys released a soft and slightly awkward laugh. “Your turn to ramble now, I think.” She played, letting her laughter fade as she mumbled. “I don’t remember the last time I caught Jacob sleeping.”

“Why is it, Crys, that it’s always easier to give sound advice than to take it? Ironic how we can see others easier than ourselves.” Ess smiled, noting how the pup had fallen asleep, reaching over to give a little scratch behind her ear. “The changes are subtle sometimes, however there. I realized the other day, after I awoke from a random nightmare that my change coincides with the night I met up with Mageria in the city; the night I ran into Luckas again. I didn’t see it or know it then, but..” Essence sighed, gently massaging the base of her neck before shaking her head, tossing her thick curls over her face. “Well there’s lots of reasons for the change and perhaps it started a few years back but I walked away from some old habits and haven’t looked back since that night. Problem is, with that change, I’m still haunted and judged for those past transgressions; even if it’s only myself who is doing the judging. It’s so hard sometimes, though. To NOT forget myself and fall into the actress mode. I always said I’d never show any man the real me, and Jacob doesn’t count.” She snickered, brushing a few curls from her gaze. “Think I’m breaking my own promise. But who knows right? Maybe some promises should be broken.” Ess took a moment to breathe. “So, was that considered a ramble?” She joked. “Well, even if Jakey is awake, I think it’s a bit late to spring on an emotional conversation..I’ll probably wait until tomorrow at some point even though I probably won’t be doing much sleeping myself unless one considers sleepwalking actual rest. But, I don’t want to keep you too much longer my friend.”


[Otium 17 - Afternoon]

Crys was sitting by her desk when Ike knocked on the door. She urged the man in wordlessly and continued to write down notes as he sat across from her. She could hear the man’s foot nervously tapping against the wooden floor and his breathing starting to quicken from the thick silence.

“Have you come here for a reason, Ike? If so, I suggest you speak. I can’t read minds you know.”

“I... I was wondering about something, Crys. If I may ask...”

“Ask, and then we’ll see if you may or not. Like I said; not a telepath.” Crys smiled, lowering her pen and putting her focus on the shaky man.

“I remember that you said... You said... You couldn’t make killers out of us.”

“I did.”

“Is that true?”

“No.” Crys smiled. “You know it’s not true, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking. What you really want to know is why I won’t.”

“Why won’t you? The ginger, up at the Inn, said you were recruiting, but you don’t seem to want some of us to stay.”

“I could make all of you into killers, Ike, because anyone can be a killer given the right circumstances, the right motivations, or if you take away enough of their humanity. I know it doesn’t look that way from where you stand, but there is something me and my crew all share; we are cold at our cores. Were not inhuman, we’re not cruel, we’re not numb to emotions; not usually, but we can be. We can turn it off for a split second, because that’s how long it takes a skilled assassin to take a life. And then we can turn it back on and go about our business as if nothing ever happened. Here one second. Gone the next. And yes I could instill that in all of you, within a year’s time... Less depending on your willingness to bleed. Thing is I know well the toll that takes. A lot of you came to us with nothing to lose, but some of you are here because you lost something you hope to still salvage. I intend your souls to remain intact for when you do. Simple as that.”

“I see...”

“You’re here because your brother was killed and your niece and nephew were taken, isn’t that so?” Crys asked, her eyes focused on the man. “What kind of a family do you suppose a killer would be able to provide those children?”

“Uh... I...” Ike mumbled.

“You’re afraid you won’t find them alive. I understand. And if that’s the case, we can have this conversation again.”

“I guess... I...”

“And don’t feel discouraged, Ike. You’re doing quite well on your training. Irena is one of our toughest recruits. However she is also one of the nicest girls I know. I thought you’d do well as a team for the time being.”

“Yes. I see that.” The man agreed, lowering his head and clearly giving up any sort of argument he still planned on having.

“And if that was all, I suggest you go back to it. I’ll be right down in a minute.”

“Uhm... Yes...” The man mumbled. “Oh... Nick asked me to let you know that Kaya has gone back to the Nest. If that... makes sense...” The man scratched his head on his way out.

Crys snickered. “It makes perfect sense.” She whispered, closing the book she’d been writing on and following the man down to the bar, sitting across from Nick while Ike continued down to the training room. “Those guys are more trouble than I thought.” Crys mumbled.

“I warned you about recruiting so openly, Boss.” Nick shrugged. “Those guys have far too naive notions of what Death entails. It could be dangerous to teach them as much as we have and just spit them back out.”

“Maybe we ought to show them.” Crys snorted.

“Wha...?” Nick jumped in his seat. “What are you saying?”

“The others are ready to start taking on assignments. We’ve partnered them, haven’t we?”

“Boss...” Nick mumbled. “That’s a bit extreme... They can’t possibly keep up...”

“They’re not supposed to keep up. That’s the point.”

“They could endanger the other recruits. Or get themselves killed... This is not...”

“Nicholas.” Crys interrupted the man. “There are things in life that words can never teach, right now they need to learn this to survive. It’s important. Because something’s about happen, it’s in the air, in this town... And once it does... It’s a point of no return. If they’re not ready then, if we are not ready...”

“Boss?” Nick mumbled.

“I’ll make sure they understand the risks.” Crys exhaled sharply through her nose. “Trust me.”

Nicholas flinched at the words. They were voiced in the form of a simple request, but there was a weight underneath them as though she’d had just asked him to follow her into war. “You know I do, Boss.”

“Good.” Crys smiled.

“Just don’t go killing off the newbs.” Nick warned. “That strikes me as a tad bit counter productive.”

Crys laughed. “I’ll keep that under consideration, but I’ll make no promises.” She grinned, standing up from her stool and taking the stairs down to the basement.

[Three weeks ago]

“I’m just saying; we don’t know who these people really are. They ask us to follow this little girl when we barely know who she or what she’s capable of...”

“What alternative do we have, Ike? Do we lay down and die? No one else has offered up a better solution.”

“It looks way too good of an opportunity, if you ask me. These people come to your rescue, say they’re going to help us take back our City; and what’s in it for th-...”

The man named Ike silenced himself the moment the sound of footsteps echoed from the stairs. Crys made her descent as slow as possible, reading the reactions of the other recruits to her presence. She didn’t blame them for the doubt; those men weren’t fighters, they were shopkeepers, bakers, farmers... They didn’t know what they were doing there, only that they needed to do something. Ike was the oldest of the new recruits, already in his early forties, mistrustful, rough around the edges and a loud mouth for sure, but all in all a good man.

When Crys reached the bottom of the stairs, the training room was dead silent. It wasn’t respect; not yet, but apprehension. They’d seen very little of her since recruitment, but they’d heard plenty from their instructors. Crys gestured towards the staircase and a group of cloaked assassins descended after her. “These men and women,” Crys spoke, indicating the group, “are the last generation of recruits. They followed us out of the forest; most of them straight out of basic training, and have been training under my associates, and myself, for the past three years.” As she spoke, the assassins rid themselves of their cloaks and picked up training weapons as though given a command none of the others had been able to hear. “I brought them in today to show you first hand who and what we are. I could make perfect weapons out of most of you within a year’s time, but we don’t have a year and you’re not killers. For now, your goal is to not become victims... Again... And yes, we can help with that.”

Each of the assassins moved to stand before one of the new recruits, awaiting further instructions, much to the new guys’ confusion.

“Irena,” Crys called, drawing the attention of a short brown haired girl, “switch with Randall, I want you paired with Ike. I believe fighting you will do his pride a lot of good.”

Irena promptly switched places with her colleague, smiling sweetly at Ike. “Ello, handsome,” she greeted, looking up at the man. Ike towered over the young girl, not to mention he was old enough to be her father.

“Take a good look at the person standing before you. You’ll share a room, meals, bathroom breaks, and you’ll train together always from now on. I expect that within a month you’ll be giving them a semblance of a challenge.” She pointed at the center of the room, “I want four pairs in the center, show your new partners what you’ve learned so far; the rest stand back and observe. Come on, people, move.”

“Nicholas,” Crys called as the recruits took positions in the center, “Jake’s on his way over. Send him down when he arrives.”

--------------

It was the middle of the afternoon, so finding the Inn empty upon his arrival was not a complete surprise to Jake, he calmly sat by the bar waiting for someone to show up. It’d been a while since he had last been there. The night he killed Joffrey. The place was really looking good compared to the mess it was back then.

“Hey, Jake!” Nicholas’ voice called out behind him and Jake turned in his seat. “Crys wants to see you, she’s downstairs with the newbies.”

“Newbies?” Jake questioned with a chuckle, stashing his travel bag behind the bar counter and following Nick down to the basement.

“Newbies. You know, the recruits.” Nick explained. “We gathered a few since you last came around. They’re a bit reluctant to take orders from the blind girl, so...” Nick shrugged as they entered the training room. Jake was surprised that the noise there couldn’t be heard from the bar. There were four spars going on at the same time between an experienced assassin and a ‘newbie’, as Nick called them. The only person there seemingly able to keep up with them all was Crys, moving amongst the pairs of fighters and issuing instructions here and there to the recruits.

When Jake approached the center Crys ended the fights with a gesture that prompted the assassins to disarm and subdue their ‘opponents’ in a matter of seconds and stand at attention. It was amusing how blatantly clear it was that they had been taking it easy on the newcomers all along; all fights ending with the ‘newbies’ fallen at the assassins’ feet unarmed. Jake didn’t remember ever getting that sort of leniency when he was in training, but he couldn’t deny those guys were more organized and focused than he had ever seen them and Jake had to ask himself how long Crys had been planning to move into Blackpond. It just seemed like she had done too good of a job of it for something she had thought up during a particularly disastrous Castle ball. This looked like ‘years worth of planning’ work.

“I’m impressed.” He declared, smirking as one of the recruits cursed under his breath, pushing himself up from the ground.

“It’s not much, but it’s a start.” Crys answered with a shrug. “It’s quite... Fortunate... That you decided to show up today though, I was hoping you’d help me out with something. If you have some time to spare, that is.”

“Oh well you know me; I’m always willing to help...” Jake smiled, knowing he’d probably regret saying that soon enough. “What do you need me for?”

“Well, Jacob, you see... Those tough guys over there, whom you’ve just witnessed get knocked on their asses in less than a full minute, have been wondering whether it’s wise of them to accept training from someone they have never seen in a fight. And now they’re probably a bit uncomfortable because they thought they had said that behind my back. You have to excuse their naivety... They’re still learning.”

“You want to give them a demonstration.” Jake concluded, nodding his agreement. “We haven’t really sparred in... uhm... Five years? Since Theron’s training, I think, wasn’t it?”

“Something like that.” Crys smiled. “Are you up for it?”

“How could I possibly deny you the opportunity to beat the crap out of me?” Jake retorted with a laugh. “Are we using real gear, or... The toy swords?”

“Usually I’d say real gear, but... I’m afraid I’d be too tempted to put another mark on that pretty face of yours, so maybe we should disarm ourselves.” Crys suggested, calmly ridding herself of all her weapons as well as the thin leather armor she wore. As Jake began to do the same he saw Nicholas hurry upstairs as though he’d forgotten something. Not paying much attention to the man’s behavior, Jake got rid of his cloak, all his blades, his needles, and even his shirt so that it was clear to those watching he wasn’t hiding anything.

“You might want to put that in your pocket, Jakey.” Crys pointed out, indicating the golden locket hanging over his chest. “You wouldn’t want the chain to break or anything.”
“It’s not going to break, besides... It protects me. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.” Jake retorted.

“Probably.” Crys snickered, retrieving a pair of wooden fighting sticks about the size of a short one-hand sword and casually tossing them in Jake’s direction, grabbing another pair for herself. “So you want to assign points for each hit or should we just keep going until someone says ‘stop’?” She asked. “If I recall correctly you cried last time we did that.”

“You elbowed me in the n-...” Jake stopped himself from protesting and shook his head, a faint chuckle escaping him. “You know what... I’m fine whichever way you want to do this. After all, this is a teaching exercise and these are your recruits, no?”

“Fair enough... Until someone says ‘stop’. I assume you still remember what happened last time you tried to take it easy on me.” She warned.

Jake laughed softly, indicating the scar above his eye with the end of his left-hand weapon as he replied. “Vividly.” He smirked, feeling the weight of the wooden weapons. much lighter that what he was used to. “I haven’t used these since basic training. Your father loved smacking us around with these...”

“If he was still alive he would have given us both real smackdown.” Crys replied severely.

“I’m sure of it.” Jake agreed, assuming a defensive stance. “Ready when you are.” He told her, encouraging her to strike first. Just as he said that however, Nicholas came running down into the basement, followed closely by Ali. They both seemed to have ran a good distance straight into the room, not wanting to miss anything. Their arrival distracted Jake from Crys, which resulted in the man being struck painfully in the face by one of her wooden sticks.

Jake groaned as the blow was quite forceful, but he still managed to block the next strike even though his sight actually blurred for a moment. “Ow.” He muttered.

“You said you were ready.” Crys stated simply, a smirk forming across her lips. “How about now, Jakey? Ready now?” She teased.

Jake replied only with an angry snort as he attacked, the sound of wood colliding over and over again echoed through the basement as the training weapons clashed in mid air. It silenced all other sounds as recruits and assassins alike stopped to watch the spar. Of course the newbies were impressed with the display of skill from both sides, but for the assassins there was more to their interest than simply observing the technique, they knew the history between Jake and Crys, most of it at least, and they were waiting for some form of hell to break loose at any minute.

The fight had started out balanced, and somewhat playful, Jake purposely lowering his guard at times and dodging Crys’ weapons as they slashed dangerously close to his face. It was as if they were putting on a little show. The mood changed rapidly at the first few actual hits though, neither Crys or Jake seemed hindered by the strikes they suffered, instead they seemed to be driven by them. Jake managed to strike Crys’ in her right hand, forcing her to drop one of the weapons. He pushed her left handed weapon to the side with his right and struck her in the stomach with the heel of his boot; in the spot where she had once been stabbed. Crys doubled over, momentarily winded.

“Are you holding back or has Death softened you?” Jake scolded, kicking the fallen training weapon to her as she recovered. “Pick it up!”

A few of the assassins flinched at Jake’s words, but Crys simply laughed as she recovered the training weapon. The fight resumed a bit more intense and Jake was now and again struggling to avoid Crys’ blows; the empath now attacking with furious determination, pushing Jake back step by step while the man just defended her attacks. It soon became clear that Jake was waiting for something, because he abruptly change from just defending to dodging Crys’ attack and then quickly countering with strikes of his own, one of them breaking past her guard and striking her with full force across the face. Jake hesitated, but Crys wasn’t so hindered by the blow, quickly retaliating, but quickly striking both of Jake’s hands, face, and ending the fight by kicking his feet from under him. She straddled him and began to swing her right stick once again towards his face.

“Stop.” Jake muttered.

Crys stopped mid-blow, the fighting stick less than an inch from Jake’s skull, and stood up. She turned away and groaned, spitting a bit of blood on the ground. “You almost had me; why did you stop?” She questioned.

Jake slowly pushed himself up, stumbling a bit in his step, still feeling the blow to the face. “I didn’t stop, I just hesitated. Are you alright? You spat blood.”

“Just a little cut inside my mouth. Not serious.” She muttered, rubbing her left cheek. “I’m gonna bruise though. Hmph.” Heaving a sigh Crys glared in the direction of her assassins. “You all enjoyed the show? Good; now get your asses back to work.”

She didn’t have to ask twice.

“Well that was very entertaining.” Ali smirked. “You know... Letting off some aggression instead of just using your words... Very healthy.”

Crys shook her head, stopping when the act became painful. “Just... Do me a favor and supervise the pups... I need to rest my head and I’m sure Jake didn’t stop by just so we could beat each other with sticks; as fun as that was.”

Crys walked past Ali and Nick upstairs to the bar and further to the second floor, Jake grabbing his gear and following after her until they reached a large room that had been made into an office. She leaned against the large desk in the center of the room and half smiled. “So, what brings you?”

“You sure you’re okay?” Jake questioned again, dropping his weapons and belongings on the corner of the room and throwing his shirt back on.

Crys snorted a laugh. “I can take a beating, Jake. Even more than just a beating. I’ll be okay. Is that why you flinched? You felt bad for hitting me in the face? Wouldn’t have stopped you before.”

“I know what you can and can’t take. Doesn’t mean I still won’t hate seeing you hurt.”

“Then close your eyes.” Crys argued.

Jake sighed. “Crys... Just...”

“I’m serious. It was a spar; you were supposed to hit me and you should have kept hitting me until I said ‘stop’. That’s what we agreed on, remember? You were supposed to trust me to know my own limits.”

“I trust you completely.” Jake protested. “It’s just not easy for me to keep things separate; especially when I don’t know where I stand with you anymore.”

“Back there when you asked if Death had softened me...” She snickered. “That was the closest to normal I’ve gotten out of you in years. Because you were never afraid to say anything to my face.”

“I said one too many things to your face last time...” Jake mumbled, walking closer to her and gently tracing his fingertips along the forming bruise on her cheek. “I should have never...” He sighed.

“Jacob... None of what happened in the desert was your fault. It was mine. You know, you were right; I was doubting myself, I was hiding, I was afraid. No one would have seen it, but you. No one else would have so openly called me out on it... Not like that. And I’m not... Angry... Not anymore. Because as painful as everything has been in the past three years... The distance has done us both some good.”

“You think so?”

“I think...” She smiled, leaning into his touch. “I think we’re both very stubborn people and we were so determined to be together that we ignored all the little ways we were hurting each other. I think, I was particularly unfair to you. Cruel at times maybe. Because you are the way you are; you want to fix the world and you want to... Protect... Everything you love and it’s so easy for me to just cling to you when I’m hurting. It eases the pain, but at the same time it puts this weight on your shoulders that shouldn’t be yours to bear.”

Jake sighed softly, leaning into Crys, his hand still holding the side of her face. “I think you’re being too hard on yourself.”

“Maybe. We were kids; practically, when this whole thing started, we didn’t know any better, but we’re not kids anymore, Jacob. We know how naive some promises truly are and how horrifying the world can get. We know that we are... No longer the same.”

“Last time we spoke... You said...”

“I said I was done doing ‘this’ with you. I am done going around in circles... What we had, to me, is over. Because it has to be. Because it wasn’t healthy for either of us. That doesn’t mean that we can’t or that we shouldn’t start over. I never said, and I will never say, that you’re allowed to quit on me.”

“Oh...” Jake mumbled.

“Yeah... Oh.” Crys laughed, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him close. “You do realize I love you, don’t you? Idiot.”

Jake smirked, pressing his forehead to hers. “Of course you do, I’m amazing.”

Crys laughed. “You didn’t hit me in the head that hard, Jakey,” she teased, turning her head and kissing his palm. “But you do have your moments, love.”

Jake snorted a laugh. “I’ll take that compliment.” He lowered his hand from her cheek, frowning at the welt left by the wooden stick. It’d fade in a few days; he knew, but he didn’t like it there.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve had worse.” She whispered. “Do I need to remind you that I actually beat you down there?”

“You say we should start over. You’re right. And you know I’ll do whatever you ask me, but don’t ask me not to worry. That I can’t do.” He said, wrapping his left arm around her waist.

Crys smiled at the words, her fingers toying with a few strands of his hair. “Mhm... I know that...” She answered. “Honestly Jake, there are two things I need from you if we are to make this work and I think they’re simple enough.” She smirked. “Even for you.”

“Fair enough. So tell me; what might those things be?”

“First and foremost, Jakey; no more running. And no more promises. Do you think you can do that?”

“I think that I can, but I can’t promise though.” He snickered.

Crys snorted a laugh, her hand moving from Jake’s hair to put a firm grip on the man’s chin, locking his eyes with hers. “Take this seriously, Jake.” She warned.

“I always take you seriously.”

“Oy, Killer, you in there?” Irvin’s voice called down the hall from the office. The boy’s footsteps drawing near.

“Looks like that’s your cue, Jakey.” Crys smirked. “Off to save the world and whatever.”

Jake laughed softly under his breath, leaning in and unceremoniously kissing her lips. It caught her off guard and for a split second he thought she might push him away, but she pulled him close instead, her body relaxing into his embrace. Just like that, it was as though Time lost all meaning, and they’d both been there all along.

“Hello?”

The sound of the opening door forced Jake to pull away from Crys, a sigh escaping his nostrils at the awkward silence that lingered in the room.

“I’m interrupting something?” Irvin mumbled sheepishly. “The barkeep said I could just come up.”
Crys snorted a laugh. “Sure he did.”

Irvin looked from Crys to Jake with a curious look in his eyes. “I don’t wanna rush you, Killer, but did you ask her? We have to go back soon.”

“No, Kid, just... give us a couple more minutes... I’ll be right down.”

“Kay, sure.” Irvin answered, hurrying out of the office and down the stairs.

“Nick must be really curious to send the kid up here like that.” Crys chuckled. “So, what were you supposed to ask me?”

Jake shook his head, amused at Irvin’s obvious embarrassment, but also a bit annoyed at the interruption. “Right, right... You distracted me.” He snickered. “Uhm... My birthday’s coming up and... I need your help throwing a surprise party.”

“You’re... Surprising yourself?” Crys laughed. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Nooo...” Jake laughed out. “It’s for Ess. You know, we never knew what her birthday was growing up so... I sort of shared mine. I haven’t really celebrated my birthday in years, but since we now found each other again... You know... Maybe a party is due.”

“Hm... I seee... So we’re doing this for that sister you never once mentioned in all these years we’ve known each other.” Crys asked, her tone slightly severe.

“Yeah, I know, I’m sorry about that.”

“Please, Jakey, I know why you never told me. You know I would have dragged your ass to Newhaven the moment I found out. I still can’t get it in my head that if it wasn’t for Mageria you might not have ever looked for her.”

“I would have, Crys. I know, I would have. It just happened the way it did, alright?” Jake muttered.

“Remember what you said, back in the desert, when you told me I was hiding, that I was afraid to take action... You told me that it’s stupid to sit around and expect Fate to deliver. That we have to go after what we want. Remember that?”

“I thought about it and I did, in a way, look while I was in Newhaven...” He started, leaning against the desk beside Crys. “When I was living there, I looked for her in every person I passed on the street. I told myself I might not know her face, but I’d know it was her when I saw her... I know her eyes... And I looked. I just... I didn’t track her down, because that I didn’t have the courage to do, but I did look for her. I did want to see her again. I just... I told myself that since I was dead, she would have been over me, that she was okay without me, that it was better if I didn’t...”

Crys reached for Jake’s hand and give it a comforting squeeze. “I know Jakey.”

“I know I was wrong, that both our lives might have been a lot better if I had found her then, but I was afraid. I knew I wasn’t going to be the man Jess and I wanted me to be. The man I told her I would be. I was afraid she’d... Look at me and... She’d be disappointed. She’d turn me down. And I know it’s not reasonable, or fair, of me to feel that way, but I did. And I know that she feels that too, that she worries I might one day look at her differently and leave her. That she still fears that now and... I think, I just want to show her that she’s not alone and that no matter what she’ll never be alone again. Because she doesn’t have just me anymore. You know?”

“I know. We’ll just need to make this party extra special then, won’t we?” Crys smiled. “After all, she’s family; yours and mine, and family always deserves the best.”

“Exactly.” Jake smiled. “So you’ll help then?”

“Oh, you can count me in. Absolutely.” She nodded along to her words. “Now you better be off and I should go back to my recruits... They require a lot of work still.” She kissed his cheek and smirked. “And the world’s not gonna save itself, is it?”


[Otium 17 - Early Evening]

They had made progress. More so, they had become an unit, still Crys couldn’t shake the fear that these people were far from prepared for what they might have to face. She wasn’t even sure she knew what there was to face in the first place. Idly she paced the training room, walking amongst the pairs of fighters, taking note of the sounds of their footsteps, the clashing of their training weapons, their heart rates, breathing... She was pleased at how they had become more focused, calmer, more precise, but it wasn’t enough.

Crys rose her hand and the pairs ceased fighting, standing at attention. She walked to the weapon racks and pulled two short blades, dropping them in the center of the room. “Enough playing with toy swords. One of you, pick those up.” She commanded, drawing her Sai. “Come on.”

No one moved at first. It was clear no one wanted to fight Crys; even less using real blades. It was Irena who made the first move and stepped forth to pick up the swords. “Shall we fight, Boss?” The girl asked.

“Give one to your partner, you’re a team, no?” Crys smiled.

“What?” Ike muttered, glaring daggers at Irena as he took the sword from her.

“Are you afraid, Ikey?” The girl grinned. “We’re fighting two against one after all... I promise I’ll protect you?”

“I’m not afraid.” The man snorted. “I just don’t appreciate having decisions made for me, alright?”

“I’ll take that under consideration next time, Ikey-Wikey.” Irena playfully cooed at the older man.

“A bit late for that now, so why don’t you step forward? The sooner we begin the sooner it’ll be over.” Crys stated calmly. “Do you think the people who murdered your brother did so fighting with sticks, Ike? If you can’t pick up a blade you’ll never be able to stand up and fend for yourself. If you’re afraid to bleed a little, then trust me; you’re going to die out there. I don’t take kindly to that idea. I’m your Instructor after all. If you fail, I fail. And I hate failure.”

Ike was momentarily stunned at Crys’ words, his body tensed for a moment, fist clenching around the hilt of the sword, but after a moment it passed and the man nodded calmly to the blind assassin’s words. “Yes, Boss.”

----------------

[Raven’s Nest, Otium 13 - Night]

Luckas was standing by the oak, back resting against the trunk of the tree, eyes fixed at some random spot in the distance he wasn’t exactly paying attention to. The afternoon after the eclipse was spent in the forest with Stalker, both hunting and thinking things over. Something was off in what had happened and Luckas had his suspicions as to what that could be. The truth was though, that he didn’t want to think about it. After both himself and the wolf had gotten a good deal of exercise Luckas found and shot a small wild boar, dragging the animal back to camp and occupying himself with skinning and gutting the animal; a task made rather difficult by Stalker constantly poking his nose trying to snatch himself some innards or a hunk of meat. It was only after Luke had given in and let the wolf have the boar’s heart that he was able to work in peace. So, as the sun was almost about to set, he rested under the shadows of the tree as the pork roasted over the fire. He’d not seen Ess since he made off into the forest with Stalker, but he was sure she would turn up soon and didn’t think it was necessary to go find her... At least not yet. Besides, even a psychotic stalker can enjoy having a quiet moment to himself from time to time.

“Mister Aiden been looking for that, you know.” A curious voice sounded in Luke’s ears causing him to look around a couple of times in confusion until he caught sight of Lily standing there pointing at the crossbow that lay at his feet.

“You don’t say. Well...” Luckas pushed himself away from the tree and crouched down to the girl’s eye level. “When you next see Beast Boy, you can tell him he’s more than welcome to come and get it.” He spoke, smirking deviously at the girl momentarily before standing up and leaning back against the tree. “Isn’t it past your bedtime or something, Miss Lily? When the sun goes away... that’s when the monsters come out of the shadows looking for pretty little girls, much like yourself... And they grind their bones to make bread... It’s quite tasty, I’ve heard.”
The girl simply chuckled at Luckas, occupying herself with scratching behind Stalker’s ears, the wolf more than happy with the attention. “Jason says that’s just a story, you can’t make bread with bones.”

“No, but you can try... Maybe no one told the monsters that and that’s why they keep trying.” Luckas replied with a snicker.

“You’re silly.” Lily answered, looking up at Luckas and giggling as Stalker whined at her for more scritches.

“Have I not mentioned, Miss Lily? I am quite a gifted fool; everyone always tells me so.” Luckas snickered.

“Have you got any more?” She asked, a bit excitedly.
“More what?” Luckas asked, sincerely confused by what the girl was referring to exactly.

“Stories, silly. Do you know any more?” Lily’s expression turned into a very accurate impersonation of Mageria’s severe glare. “You promised a story if you were still here, remember? And you’re here.”

“Ah.” Luckas arched an eyebrow at the girl and nodded. “Most of my stories are not for little girls, Miss Lily. I’m not sure I have any more to tell, to be honest.”

“Whyyy?” Lily asked, seeming even more curious now. “Are they scary? I won’t be scared, no one’s checked my bed for monsters in almost a year!”

“Almost a year, eh?” Luckas asked, amused. “I’m sure you are very brave, little Miss, but I still think it’s best if we save the monster stories for when you’re a bit older.”

“Doesn’t have to be a monster story, can be any story.” The girl argued, smiling at Luckas.

“Hmm... I don’t know...” Luckas mumbled, finding it a bit difficult to just say no to the kid, after all; he did promise. A promise is a promise.

“Pleease Mister Luckas... Just one story... Doesn’t even have to be a very big story... Can be a really little one.” She insisted, Stalker emitting a few sympathetic whines, staring up at Luckas with his big dark puppy eyes. “You said you would.”

Luckas ran his fingers through his hair, ruffling up his dark locks a few times as he sighed softly and muttered. “Alright, you’re right, I did promise... One little story, and that’s it, okay?”

“Okay!” Lily exclaimed, bouncing excitedly and starting to run off. “I’ll go tell everyone!”
“Wait... Everyone? What...” Luckas mumbled, still scratching the back of his head in confusion as he watched Lily run off to gather all the children.

“So much for enjoying a quiet moment.” Luckas muttered to himself as all the kids gathered around Ess’ campfire, oddly quiet as they sat in a semicircle, facing the oak and staring at him in wait. Lily and Jason were the only kids that had ever been brave enough to interact with Luckas on their own. The others were always sheltered by their little pack. Most of their names Luke had never really bothered to learn. Not only the children, but Puppy, Ward, and a few of the guard had stopped to listen in; seemed as though Lily had really told EVERYONE.

Stalker remained seated at Luke’s side as he stood against the tree, in the same spot, silently looking around as if in search of something, almost as if he didn’t notice there were other people there. This went on for a good while, until some of the kids were already on the last of their restraint and starting to exchange curious whispers amongst themselves. Finally Luckas moved, rather abruptly as if he was snapping out of a trance. “Alright!” He exclaimed, bouncing for a couple of steps and dropping down onto the ground to sit facing the children. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?” He started, picking up a twig that was lying beside him on the ground and calmly waiting while Stalker sniffed his way around the group of children and finally settled down beside him. “First some ground rules: Don’t interrupt me, if you have questions save them for later, if you get bored or frightened, just get up and leave, if you get thirsty, hungry, sleepy, or need to go pee pee, find someone from the Guard, because I’m not going to help you with that. Are we clear? Good.” He smiled as the kids nodded their agreement, idly tracing lines on the ground with the twig he’d picked up. “There are sixteen deities in Valcrest mythology; deities means ‘Gods’ for those of you who don’t know the word, and mythology is a fancy name for ‘stories about Gods’. Anywho... There are sixteen Gods, Mother and Father and their fourteen Twins. The Myths are filled with pretty stories that teach important life lessons to little kids and most adults would tell you one of those, but... I think you guys aren’t too young to learn a little about Lady Death. Most people still think that the best way to deal with Death is to pretend it’s not out there, and not talk about it unless they have to, but one of my favorite stories when I started reading the myths was about how humans were given the gift of mortality. See, back when the Twins first came to Valcrest and one by one they granted humans their gifts, people had never truly known Death. Even though all her siblings had given gifts, except for Life but we’re not talking about him; that’s a different story, Death refused to give the humans any gift. She said people weren’t ready for what she had to give, that they wouldn’t like it, but the humans were greedy and they were curious to know what Death’s gift was, so they insisted. One young man in particular, let’s call him Lionel, spent a lot of his time attempting to reason with Death and convince her to grant humans her gift. He insisted so much and for so long that one day Death finally gave in and told Lionel to bring his whole family and meet her in this nearby cave at nightfall. Lionel agreed, so as night came he and his family walked to the cave where Death said she would be waiting for them. As soon as they entered they saw Death, and in front of her there was a wooden table, on the table there was an hourglass filled with golden sand. ‘This is my gift’, Death said, pointing at the hourglass. Lionel and his family were confused, they had been given time already. When they questioned Death, the Goddess smirked and explained that time wasn’t the gift; the humans had all the time they needed, and the hourglass itself also wasn’t the gift. Since they still looked confused she explained that she and Brother Time had crafted that hourglass and that it didn’t mark the passing of time like a normal hourglass, but in a way only she herself would understand. Death looked straight into Lionel’s eyes and asked if he was absolutely sure he wanted the gift; she reminded him of all the warnings she had given and repeated that they wouldn’t like it. Lionel held Death’s gaze, and persisted. He wanted the gift. So... Death flipped the hourglass. At first nothing happened, the golden sand stayed in the top half of the hourglass, not a single grain dropped as if Time had frozen still. Then Death smiled and explained that from the moment she had flipped the hourglass, time had become limited for all creatures in Valcrest and every time a grain of the golden sand dropped it meant someone’s time had run out. Then she told Lionel that he had been given pretty much everything and instead of enjoying what he had he chose to spend his time chasing after yet another gift, not caring what it actually was and that the time he wasted would never come back. That her gift to mankind was to simply make it so everything else they were given was fully appreciated. Her gift to humanity was to allow them to look at the world bearing the knowledge that nothing lasts forever. She then told Lionel that she had asked him to bring his family so that they could pass along the message. When Death finished her explanation, a moment of silence passed and then... The first grain of golden sand dropped, and as it hit the bottom of the hourglass Lionel also dropped, lifeless, to the floor. Death then told Lionel’s family that the hourglass didn’t mark the passing of time like a normal hourglass; there was no way to predict when another grain of Golden Sand would drop. From that moment on the human race came to know Death.” Luckas went silent for a moment, smirking slightly as he looked over the children one by one. “A lot of people, over the years, since the Twins left Valcrest have searched the land for Death’s cave believing that the hourglass is still there. They believed that if they could break it, they could make the human race immortal again.”

Essence had spent most of her day occupied with the normal routines of training. There was nothing really special about her day for the most part. It was when she had been soaking her feet in the river, that she heard the whispers and chatter of the children. Something had peeked their curiosity in a such a way, that their excitement spread amongst them like a common cold. Tala was lying in the tall grass, Beo and Ward rolling around beside her in a playful battle for dominance. Each time one would conquer and tackle the other it never lasted more than a few seconds before the one at a disadvantage, would wiggle away. Eventually the brother’s rough and chaotic attacks spilled over their mother, Tala seeming barely phased even though they managed to knock her over. Still, the mother wolf just sat there, reacting as if mere flys were buzzing around her head. Occasionally she snapped in the direction of one of her boys, but mostly her ears were perked on alert, listening to the winding down movements of the camp. Ess picked up her feet and stood, grabbing her boots in one hand as someone called to the rusty colored wolf. All three froze, halting their current play before sprinting after the voice. Ess just shrugged and followed from a distance, lazily dragging her feet along the cool shards of grass.

When Essence realized she was being led back to her camp, along with some other men and women of the guard, a mischievous smile traced her lips. Tala and her boys had settled along the tree line where the fire light reached while Ess quietly left her boots beside them and slinked around the shadows to a tree with low branches and shimmied up them. That was when she heard Luckas begin his story. She ever so silently positioned herself adjacent to her Oak tree where she sat along a sturdy branch, dangling her legs so that they were the only thing one could see; the rest of her form hidden in shadow. Ess didn’t move while she and the others listened attentively to Luckas’ words on Lady Death and the curious story of the hourglass. She honestly couldn’t remember hearing it before. It took her back to the nights she would harass her father for stories of her mother but this was different. Still, a childlike awe was frozen upon her face until the moment Luckas paused, Ess rushing to be the first to ask a question before even the children, startling some below her when discovering her presence.

“...If someone were to break the hourglass, why would that make us immortal again? If each spec of golden sand represents one of us, then wouldn’t we all meet Lady Death at the same time? Wouldn’t that be like, ending the world?”

“Maybe that’s why no one has found it.” Lily chimed in.

Essence laughed. “Oh really?”

“Yes, really!” The girl chimed in, standing tall as she spoke. “Maybe someone hid it so that will never happen.”

Some of the other children began agreeing, chatting among themselves until Jason spoke causing the others to fall silent. “...What is done...can not be..undone...If there are people who think they can change it back, then that is just..crazy.”

Luckas was startled for a moment, his thoughts still in the story and the theme behind it. His first instinct was to look for Ess at the sound of her voice, looking upwards and leaning back so that he was nearly lying down on the ground as he stared, amusement in his expression as her question turned into a little debate. He waited until Jason had spoken and a few moments more before finally speaking his mind, shrugging as he scratched Stalker behind the ears. “The hourglass is supposed to represent boundaries, Lady. The amount of sand contained inside a glass is something that can be measured, as opposed to the amount of sand contained... Well... Everywhere else. If it can’t be counted, it’s technically infinite. Like the stars. So, the belief behind the search for the hourglass is that if you break the glass and scatter the sand, our time on this plane becomes infinite again.” He paused, going into another brief moment of thought before nodding. “Jason has a point though, these things can’t be undone... Not in the literal sense anyways. And if someone was to believe the myths to be true, several of them mention that something created by the hands of the Gods can’t be broken. So even if someone could find the hourglass; if it was actually in a cave somewhere, it couldn’t be broken. It would just be a constant reminder that people everywhere are dying.” Luke chuckled, shaking his head. “Then, denial is the first stage of grief for a reason, a great part of humanity has been unable to move on for a very long time.”

Several things went through Essence’s mind at the same time. Many of which she did not voice as she glanced around at the children’s faces, wondering if this was even an appropriate story topic. It was unavoidable though. Death was a part of life. Ess sighed, a grumble of sorts coming from above before she pushed herself off the branch to land just beside Luckas’ feet. “...Like we need a reminder that people are dying..” She breathed, her voice not carrying to where the children sat. Clearing her throat she spoke up this time. “I don’t think it’s denial. We see death every day. We eat the deer and the rabbit and they have to die in order for us to live, no? People grow old and pass on.”

“Right...everyone will die one day.” Jason added, wrapping a comforting arm around Lily as her eyes widened at the thought. Ess turned so she was facing the girl, kneeling down to sit beside her. “..For every death...every time a soul leaves this land, another one is born. Another life enters in it’s place. When you grow up Lily, one day, you will have children and I believe, in a way, that is the loophole to mortality. I believe that we carry those lives inside us and pass them down to our children and our children’s children and thus, we are still immortalized in a way. In a way, we still live forever. We take the good and the bad; the beauty and ugliness with us, just like stories you read in a book.” Ess paused, smiling at Lily, brushing her bangs from her face. “But that is just what I belive, Lily. The purpose of this is for you to think of what you believe too. But if you think too much you may never fall asleep, hmm?” Ess’ internal voice continued on in her personal rant, her eyes moving past the girl and staring off into empty space. 'Maybe, they are the shadows we love and fear. Maybe those shadows are the souls of generations past...watching….waiting. A reminder that they are apart of us and always with us..' Ess was startled out of her mini trance to two tiny arms strangling her in a tight hug, muttering her goodnights as some of the other guardsmen were trying to coax the children to turn in for the evening.

“Good night Miss Ess! You did a real good job of talking about heaven...I think. Where we go after we die to see our family again.” Lily smiled brightly, running over towards Luckas to say her good nights, Ess only realizing what she was doing when she was just out of arm’s reach, a surprised expression crossing her face.

Luckas didn’t do more than mumble under his breath here and there while Ess spoke. He knew well enough that it wouldn’t be very appropriate to speak his mind about some things in front of the kids. So he kept to himself, doodling on the dirt with the stick he still held in his hand for some random reason, his expression seeming a bit confused as he seemed to be thinking hard on what he was hearing. Shaking his head as though arguing with himself Luke stood, wiping the dirt from his pants as he casually checked on the pork that was roasting over the fire. He was turning away from the fire pit when he caught Lily running at him for a hug. Luke stepped back, nearly tripping over the fire, but catching his balance as he held the girl back with a gesture. Crouching down to the girl’s eye level, Luckas smiled and said something to her in a whisper, winking playfully. Whatever he said wiped the confusion from the girl’s face and caused a short burst of giggles. “Night, silly!” Lily exclaimed, ruffling Luke’s hair and running off to join the other children. Luckas snickered as he watched the kids wander off to retire for the night, his smile fading to a more contemplative expression as he wondered if maybe he should have chosen a different story. Returning to his usual spot by the oak, he sat heaving a small sigh, eyeing Ess curiously as he spoke. “You know, your speech might have killed the point of my story, but that was probably for the best anyway. I should’ve probably gone for something more traditional and boring like... pffft... Dragons and knights and whatever... Lily kind of caught me off guard though and I suppose Death is just what comes naturally.”

Essence quirked a brow at Luckas when he managed to thwart Lily’s attempt at a hug, wondering what he had said to her to make her giggle and run off. Gradually her expression softened to a more defensive, perplexed frown. “I thought it was a good story, Luckas. I thought you made many points in it, but not all I felt like bringing up in front of the kids. At least not Lily.” Ess sighed, turning to stand in search of her boots she had left behind. “I’ll stay quiet next time...Hmph..” She groaned, noting that one boot was now missing and when she stepped into the shadows in search for it she found Beo’s snout burrowed deep into the leather. Instead of snapping her fingers or calling his name to grab his attention, Essence casually tip toed around the wolf, tackling Beo from behind, the wolf’s snout falling further into the boot so now it was wedged over his face. Beo whined, rolling over in an attempt to pry the boot from his face. She laughed at the confused yet sweet look in his eyes as she reached over and scratched under his chin before tugging the boot free from her furry friend. “Mine…”

Luckas snickered simply as Ess said she’d stay quiet next time. “Well, I don’t really plan on there being a next time, but if there were to be a next time, know that that’s not what I meant, and if I had meant it like that, I honestly doubt you would actually stay quiet. Personally, I think the point of stories is to say difficult things in a way that kids will understand when they think back on them years later, but if we were to get into what points a story like this brings up they’d probably handle it better than most adults we know. That’s one of the reasons kids annoy me much less than adults do.” Luckas shrugged, standing up from his seat and picking up the crossbow he had left in the ground, disappearing with it in the bushes for a while as he continued. “Miss Lily will grow up eventually, I like the thought of her looking back on this as a nice reminder of a time when stories were just stories and nothing more.” He added, returning to his spot under the shadows of the oak, now empty handed and snickering under his breath as he leaned against the tree. He stood in silence for a moment, once again lost in a moment of thought. “I’m curious though, Lady. How do you see Death’s gift? From what you said it still seems to me like you’re also trying to find immortality in some way, even if not literal, but maybe I just didn’t understand all that well.”

Essence sighed, nodding some as Luckas spoke before turning back to sit by the fire. She stirred the coals as if contemplating to add more wood to the flames. “Is..it wrong of me...to want her to keep her innocence as long as possible?” Ess whispered. “..Until there is a reason to shatter her sweetness…” She paused, smiling as the wolfs settled down at her feet, resting their heads upon their paws to also stare into the firelight. “..Death is suppose to be a release. It is a blessing, a gift but also a curse. In one light, it ends suffering and pain. In another, it is the central cause of it all. But isn’t that what being human is? Living and enduring pain? It’s a balance. For something to live something else must die. If we were immortal, then those who are truly…’Evil' would be left to roam the land and never stop…” Essence choked, as if something were momentarily stuck in her throat before she continued. “..Which is why those who I have...hunted...do not go easily...They don’t deserve that release. Eventually though it becomes apparent that their death is not about how their suffering comes to an end...but sparing someone else that torment.”

Looking up from the flames, the light dancing in her pupils, she stared over a Luckas. “Some days I want that release...some days I fear it. It’s not even the dying the scares me...It’s if my death would matter...and I don’t know what is more scary. If it were to matter or not. I’ve felt both. One is empty and painful and the other is just agonizing, but not empty.” A sweet smile spread across her lips as she reached down to run her fingers between Tala’s ears. “Like I said...it was a good story, my dear Luckas.”

“I never said you were wrong, Lady, but I think sometimes you mistake innocence with ignorance... I can’t blame you, there’s a very fine line between one and the other that makes it pretty difficult to tell the difference.” Luckas replied calmly, his eyes glancing at his surroundings as he heard movement in the shadows just out of the firelight’s reach, noting that Stalker was nowhere to be seen. “If I believed I had the right to want anything for those kids, I’d want them to not look at death as a release from life, or a punishment for people who don’t deserve life, or a journey; the end or the beginning of one, doesn’t matter. I’d want them to see death for its actual purpose; which is to make it so our time actually means something. Have you ever thought to yourself, or said the words ‘now or never’? What meaning would they have if time wasn’t an issue? What would it matter what you do today, or tomorrow, if you have countless todays and tomorrows to actually make something of yourself? I think the simplest way to be optimistic is to understand that we are born and we die and everything else in between will either count for something or not depending on our actions. If I were to wish anything for Miss Lily, it would be that. Because that is a view on life that may actually not disappoint her completely once she’s old enough to notice just how often shit happens.” Luckas sighed and fell silent for a few moments, listening in on the ruffling in the bushes and wondering what Stalker was up to that was making so much noise. “I don’t want to die, Lady, now more than ever I don’t want to die, but Death by itself will never scare me. Not enough time, not enough said and done, maybe, but not Death. Death is a certainty, Life is doubt; it’s Life that will always scare me most.” As he finished speaking the sound of a low growl caught Luke’s attention and he spotted Stalker waking into the lit area of the camp, slowly dragging the crossbow Luckas had just taken the time to hide in the woods. “Aw, damn it... That wasn’t for you to find, Stalker.” Luckas frowned at the wolf, unable to actually hold a severe expression for too long. “That’s not for you.” He repeated, crouching to poke the wolf’s snout playfully. “Not. For. You.” Turning his attention from the wolf and back to Ess Luckas added. “Tell me something, Lady... Do you believe our time together would really be as meaningful if we weren’t absolutely certain it will eventually end?”

Ess snorted somewhere in between annoyance and amusement, “...I know plenty of ignorance…” Her tone carried a bit of bitterness as she thought on those words as if she held personal resentment towards it like it were a person. A subtle ache crept from her belly to her chest, remembering how often she thought of both innocence and ignorance when she use to look at Jake when they were young. Shaking her head she brought her focus back on the present. “Maybe I am not explaining myself in the correct way...I think I agree with you..in many ways. Yet, I am unsure how to answer your question. I don’t deny all things come to an end and I don’t try to pretend they don’t. With that said, I also don’t sit here and dwell on how it will end and that is not why I hold certain moments so dear. I feel things are as meaningful as we make them if we had all the time in the world or not. It is true though...people tend to waste less time when they live in the moment and not...for it.” Ess’ voice faded as she thought outloud, not purposely trying to hide her words but at the same time not trying to let the world hear her either. “...Maybe that’s my problem..” Essence stood, leaning towards the boar that was still hoisted over the fire and closed her eyes, breathing deeply the aroma. “No. I don’t think our time together would be less meaningful if we didn’t know one day it would end. I do think things are a bit more appreciated, to know it wasn’t all a dream..even if it feels like it can be..” Opening her eyes again she smiled. “Why so interested in what I think, hm? What do you think?”

Luckas nodded as he listened to what Ess had to say although, as usual, he wasn’t sure how much of it he actually understood. He didn’t think it was worth to keep disagreeing on the matter, because when it came to Death it actually didn’t matter. “I already said what I think; death in itself is necessary. If people truly understood its purpose and were actually able to see how precious time actually is I think not nearly as much of it would have been wasted fighting over nothing. And when have I ever been anything less than interested in your opinions, Lady? I usually prefer listening to your opinions than my own... And I can’t say that about most people.”

Luckas took a few moments to silently scratch behind Stalker’s ears. “I don’t think anything in life would hold the same meaning if it could last forever. It’s like saying a loaf of bread has the same value to a nobleman who has never known hunger than to a kid who has to risk his life on the streets for said bread. Sure it’s the same bread, it tastes the same, but it’s worth a hundred times more for someone who knows what it’s like to not see proper food in weeks. Looking back to the story, if that Lionel guy knew that his time was ending, would he have felt it was worth spending chasing after something that may possibly be unpleasant to him? He was warned that he wouldn’t like what he would get, he insisted because he believed there was nothing to lose.”


[The Manor, Otium 18 - Early morning]

Luckas groaned as something collided forcefully with his ribs. He rolled around into fetal position and muttered at whatever it was to piss off, only fully waking up with the sharp pain of someone’s boot striking the middle of his back.

“I said get your ass off the fucking floor!”

Luckas vaguely recognized the male voice, opening one eye to see the redhead boy who’d accompanied him to the Ball. “Fuck off Amber.”

Amber responded by kicking him again. “I can do this all day, fuckface.”

“Fine.” Luckas snorted, sitting up and rubbing the back of his neck. “Give me a moment.” He groaned, pushing himself up. It had just dawned on him he’d spent the night in the hall outside Sam’s door. Her door still closed behind Amber’s back.

“Don’t even think about it. Sammy’s resting and you absolutely can’t see her.” She silenced Luckas with a dangerous glare before he had the chance to argue. “No. I don’t care what you said, or what you did, Dickhead... Here’s what I do know; you hurt her. She’s hurt. So you don’t decide when you see her. You don’t camp outside her door. And you don’t whine for her to forgive you, you pathetic little shit. She’ll come to you whenever the fuck she’s good and ready.”

Luckas flinched at Amber’s behavior. She was serious; one hundred percent serious. Luckas didn’t think he’d ever seen her utter more than a sentence without breaking out in giggles. “I...”

“One more thing, Bitchface... Whatever it is you said; or did, she wouldn’t say and I don’t want to know... If you do it again... So help me, I’ll destroy everything you hold dear in every single way imaginable and I have a fucking vivid imagination. I’d probably start off with that little birdie Marcus has caged in the city. See what your Lady thinks of you if I send a Raven’s head to her with your name on it, Lukey.”

Luke’s fists clenched so tight his nails sank into his palms, but his voice remained calm as he answered. “That threat is... Unnecessary.” He muttered.

“Oh, I don’t think it is.” Amber snorted. “See, Lukey, I’m a free spirit... I like to go along with whatever Life throws at me. I’m not easily affected by things. So believe me when I say; you are far from seeing me angry. I’m as tolerant of your shit as Sammy is; for the most part. I keep you alive, I protect you from Zeke, all... Well, partly because it’s fun, but for the most part because it’s what she wants. The moment that changes... You’re gonna have problems like you’ve never had before; are we clear?”

“Very.” Luckas muttered.

“Good.” Amber smiled sweetly. “You have a pretty face, I’d be sad if I had to tear it off.”

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

“Love ya too, Lukey.”

“Tell me something.”

“Okay... So this one time, Lizzy and I sneaked into Amara’s room with a bucket of pig tripe and some rope and...”

“No... Amber... I have a question!”

“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that?” She frowned. “Well, your loss. That was a good story.”

Luckas groaned under his breath, starting to walk off towards the opposite end of the hall. “Why are you and Sammy so close? What are you to her?”

“Who am I? That’s an awfully personal question, don’t you think, Lukey? I mean, I think if I told you that I might have to kill you... Okay, maybe I wouldn’t have to, but I might want to... Are you sure you really want to know?”

“Yes, I want to know.”

Amber glared intensely at Luckas, not in anger like before, but in a more inspecting way. “Alright,” she agreed, grabbing Luckas by the front of his shirt and dragging him along to her room, closing the door behind them. “You can sit anywhere, if you’re brave enough.”

Amber’s room was, for the most part, a mess of empty and half empty vials, assorted blades and suspicious stains. Upon entering Luckas immediately gagged as a pungent smell of rot invaded his senses. “What the hell is that stench?”

“Hm. Good question.” Amber mumbled, pulling a box from under her bed and rummaging through it. “The fish are still fresh, so it can’t be that. Unless there’s some leftover from the last batch... Sometimes Seth comes in here and drags one under the bedside table.”

“Fis-...” Luckas began to mumble, noting the bucket of fish placed by the door as though that was a perfectly normal place to keep fish. “Of course.”

Amber didn’t seem to give the smell any more thought and simply continued searching the box until she pulled out a file bound in leather. “Here.”

“What is that?”

“My file. All Branded have one.” She answered, matter-of-factly as she flipped through it. “I stole mine about two years ago after I remembered some things from before. Sammy let me keep it.” She pulled a sheet of parchment from the middle of it and handed it to Luckas. “Read this.”

I, Amber Jacobson, hereby declare that I have requested and chosen to undergo the process of Imprinting with full understanding that it is a painful, possibly lethal, and irreversible procedure.

I have been fully informed of, and agreed to undergo, the process of ‘conditioning’ for a period of time seen fit by my handler. I have been fully informed of, and agreed to pledge my allegiance and my Life to, this Brotherhood.

At the end of the note there was the date Amber’s signature.

“Not all of us have had a choice, of course, but those who seek out The Order or request an Imprint, have to write down one of these.” Amber said, taking the document back from Luckas. “You want to know my story, Lukey? I was born in Newhaven, my mother was a... ‘servant’... in the house Sammy’s dear ol’ Dad owned there. See that man, he was not one to respect the Brotherhood’s customs. Once one of the Master’s children manifests an enlightenment he is not supposed to produce any more. Dear ol’ Dad though found it simpler to just get rid of his little buggers once they were out instead of just... preventing them. Thus, I was not supposed to be alive. However, my mother had more than one. And when the executioners came she picked one at random and hid. That was me. My poor little brother didn’t quite have my luck. He was crier, and so it would be pointless to hide him. I was snucked out somehow... Bounced around from shit hole to shit hole... As the children of nobodies tend to do... And at age ten I ended up here... in the lower levels, wearing grey.” Amber put her file away and sat on her bed, staring up at Luckas without any trace of any discernible human emotion. “Things happened to me, as you know they do, down there. I toughed it out sometimes... I fought back others... One particular time it got really bad. I already told you this part. I bit back, thought I was gonna die, but I woke in the sick ward and Sammy was there. She says... She says she saw me and she knew. She knew who I was. She said she felt responsible for me.... That she owed me a life. Any life I wanted.”

“And this is what you chose?” Luke questioned.

“In a manner of speaking.” Amber shrugged. “She asked me what I wanted. Anything. I said I wanted to be someone; anyone, else. She said she could do that, but I needed to be sure. She explained what Imprinting was, what it entailed, that it might kill me. I had nothing better to do with my life. What else would I ask for? I’m perfectly content to serve the Order Lukey. I was never forced into this. I chose. Good thing I did, because clearly Sammy needs me.”

“So you and Sammy are...”

“Sisters. Yes.” Amber snorted. “No one knows, not even Zeke, and no one is to know. Needless to say I’ll consider you personally responsible if word gets around.”

“Far from me to let that happen.” Luke said, frowning at her threat. “Do all Branded have files like that?”

“Well... Most do. You and Matthew, however... I’m afraid not. Sammy destroyed your files while she was trying to hide you from Dad. You were both thoroughly erased from the Order’s records.” She smirked. “Trust me; I looked.”

“If your father was Sammy’s father that means...”

“My blood was tainted; yes. My chances of surviving the imprint were only a little bit above zero and the process was not without risks for her either because of that. As I’ve said before, Sammy saved my life. She says she’s responsible for me, but not the way I see it. She could have left me to die. I wouldn’t have blamed her.”

“Doesn’t it affect you then; this illness?”

“No. The Imprint changes your blood, Luckas. I’m no longer tainted, and I’d appreciate it if you never bring that up again.” She muttered.

“Fine. Sorry.” Luke chuckled, holding up his hands. “I won’t bring it up again.”

“Good. If you know all you wanted to know, Lukey... Piss off, will ya? I have some fun things to do that in no way involve you.”

Luckas snorted, turning and leaving the room immediately. Once in the hall he took a long deep breath, glancing at Sam’s end of the hall, but eventually heading for the stairs. He needed to walk.

--------------

[Desert, Otium 18 - Early Morning]

”Why do we wear red, little brother?”

Dastan mumbled his answer, his voice muffled by warm sand.

“What was that?”

The six year old pushed himself to his hands and knees, repeating his answer as he got back on his feet, wooden sword tightly wrapped by a clenched fist. “Warriors bleed.”

“Warriors bleed.” Tarek repeated. “But we never let it show.”


Blades sang as they sliced open the air in the arena, steel clashing into living darkness as two mirrored warriors danced around each other in the sand. Every move Dastan made was mirrored by his shadow, and its dark blades posed an impenetrable obstacle for the mercenary’s relentless strikes.

Despite the fear that had plagued the Crimson Shadows’ encampment after the Eclipse, some of the bravest younglings had posted themselves around the training area to watch the man’s ‘spar’. Most of them had never seen Dastan wield his blades before, they’d only heard of his skill, and curiosity spoke to them much louder than fear.

The silence echoing through the empty arena, disrupted only by clashing steel, resonated like an eerie melody; one that only Dastan himself truly knew. It echoed in his bones with each strike of his blade, it coursed through his veins with every beat of his heart. It poured out of him with every single drop of sweat and every ragged breath.

”I’m not ready.” Dastan muttered.

“Neither am I,” Vikram answered, “but it’s important you learn now. No one lives forever, little brother. One day it’ll be me in there. Who will free my spirit then, if not you?”

Dastan swallowed hard and nodded to his brother’s words. “Okay.”

“It’ll be alright, just say it after me.”

Dastan stood awkwardly beside his brother as Vikram raised the torch. Lying motionless in the unlit pyre was their eldest brother. Tarek looked asleep if not for the large brown-ish red taint on his shirt. Vikram’s voice was muffled in the back of Dastan’s mind, drowned out by a persistent ringing that filled his ears and head with a dull ache. Even so, he managed to repeat his brother’s prayer word for word.


Tarek had bled through in the end. Enough for all to see. And Dastan had always remembered his brother for that one advice: warriors bleed. As for hiding it... Sometimes that just wasn’t an option.

Dastan stumbled back as his swords struck the shadow’s blades with a bit too much force, the golem mimicking his moves and taking a couple of clumsy steps back. Dastan lowered his swords for a moment, his eyes flickering back to their usual brown before being overtaken with a thick black fog. The shadow’s void features shifted to ones more resembling that of Dastan, dark orbs flickering back at him amidst his clones’ dark features. Dastan buried his blades into the soft sand, removing both his cape and shirt, spreading his arms to the shadow golem, a smirk crossing his features as he whispered. “In honor of our fallen Brothers we ignite this flame...” The shadow advanced quickly towards Dastan, dark blades rising as it rushed in his direction. “...That it may consume these now broken vessels and return them to the Earth from which they came...” Dastan twisted his body away as the shadow’s right blade jabbed at his chest, ducking underneath its next attack, pulling one of his blades from the sand and raising it over his head to block yet another strike. “Send these spirits soaring free into Air’s loving embrace...” He continued to mutter as he kicked at the shadow’s knees knocking it off its footing long enough for him to retrieve his second sword and roll to his feet.

“May their memory linger forever within ours...” His voice sounded louder, a lingering growl underneath his words as he fended off yet another attack. “May their Fire ever guide us...” He slipped underneath another slash, bringing his right sword upwards towards the shadow’s face, meeting resistance and retaliation from the golem, the shadow’s attacks now quicker and more furious, twice barely missing the mercenary’s naked chest. “Now and forever...” Dastan stumbled as the shadow broke through his guard and struck him in the face with the hilt of its sword. “Until the end of our days.” He ended the prayer and regained balance, planting both feet firmly on the ground and rushing into the shadow, blades clashing in a series of furious blows. What had started as a simple exercise had now devolved into a rage-fueled battle, the mercenary dancing with his shadow in a chaotic and brutal display. The fight coming to a sudden end when the shadow managed to sweep kick Dastan’s feet right from under him, burying both its blades into the mercenary’s chest the moment his back hit the ground.

The Crimson boys yelped in shock and surprise as the shadow stabbed into Dastan and then faded, the man remaining on the ground on his back, motionless. They stared at each other for a moment as if wondering whether to run and get someone or check for themselves whether the man was still alive. Eventually the small group paced towards their fallen leader with hesitant steps, stopping in their tracks as they noticed the man didn’t seem wounded in the slightest. One of them dared a step closer and leaned over Dastan, immediately startling as the man’s eyes snapped open, still entirely black.

“Boo.” Dastan whispered, smirking at the younglings. Sending all but one running off immediately. He sat up staring at the one boy who didn’t run. “You kids are not supposed to be out here without a trainer.”

“There are no trainers left.” The boy shrugged.

Dastan sighed. “True, but you’re still not allowed in the training area, for obvious reasons.” He stared up at the boy. “Andrew, isn’t it?”

“Yessir.”

“You’re not as impressionable as your friends, I see.” Dastan snickered. “Not sure whether that’s stupid or smart of you.”

“I’m not sure either.” Andrew said, his eyes scanning Dastan from head to toe. “You’re not hurt?”

“Of course not, kid.” Dastan laughed, jumping to his feet. “You don’t think I’m suicidal, do you? That’s rather counter-productive... As Indrani would say. No... For now it seems I had the situation entirely under control. The healer girl was right; I’m not dangerous yet.”

“Jackson said someone else caused the eclipse.” Andrew said, his tone slightly questioning.

“That seems to be the most plausible scenario.” Dastan nodded, beginning to pace in the direction of the encampment.

“Are we going after them?” Andrew asked.

“I am.” Dastan replied.

“Alone? Why?” Andrew argued. “We all suffered losses, Shaykh.”

“Not alone. There are other people already going after them, I plan to join them.” Dastan put one hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I understand your outrage, kid, but the clan needs to heal and being involved in this only ought to make things worse.”

“I guess.” Andrew sighed. “I just... I wish I could help.”

“You can help.” Dastan smiled. “My sister, your mother... All the others... They’ll need your help. Help them. Don’t wait for them to ask, just do it.”

Andrew nodded in agreement. They both walked in silence until they walked past the stables and the kid stopped. “Isn’t she supposed to be in bed rest?”

Dastan frowned as he followed Andrew’s gaze to Indrani, leaning against the fence by the horse enclosure. “Like I sad, the girl needs help.” He muttered. “Go on and find your mum, kid. I’ll handle this.”

Dastan parted ways with Andrew and walked over to Indrani, leaning against the fence beside her. “What are you doing? You’re not supposed to be walking around.”

“I talked Jackson into carrying me.” Indrani mumbled, staring off at Mirage and the other horses running around inside the fence. “I was sick of lying around that dusty place. I want to sleep in my tent tonight.”

Dastan was about to argue that Indrani shouldn’t be standing either, but stopped himself when he caught the tone of her voice. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Indrani muttered.

“Come on now, we both know that when you say ‘nothing’ it means literally everything.” Dastan argued. “Tell me.”

Indrani lowered her head until it was touching the fence, a silent sob shaking her. “I don’t want to talk about this with you... Just... Leave it, Dastan.”

Dastan sighed, carefully putting one arm around his sister’s shoulders and pulling her to him. “I can’t leave it... You... Like this.” He whispered.

Indrani sighed, turning to her brother and wrapping her arms around him. “Why are you never wearing a shirt?” She muttered.

“For the ladies.” Dastan snickered. “Indi...”

“Why did no one tell me about Sean sooner?” She mumbled.

“Oh...” Dastan sighed. “Annie’s decision.”

“What?”

“We were only supposed to wait until the fever broke, but... I thought I shouldn’t be the one to tell you and... Jackson couldn’t seem to find a way to...” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I should have...”

“Dastan, I... Doesn’t matter...”

“I hated the guy, but I know how much he meant to you... And I can’t shake the feeling that what happened was in part my fault.”

“Twins, Dastan, don’t...” Indrani protested, clinging to him as her voice cracked and another wave of sobs overtook her. “Don’t... Say that... None of this is your fault!”

“Sean was never behind that attack, and, after this... Someone’s out to hurt me, sis and I feel like I’ve dragged the rest of you down with me. I...”

“Dastan... Stop, just... Stop...” She grabbed his face with both hands and pulled him down so his forehead was pressed to hers. “Look at me... I made a lot of mistakes; with you, with Sean, and they are mine to live with. I should never have acted behind your back... I should have given him a chance. I can’t take that back and it... It’s killing me, but... You did nothing wrong. Do you understand me? And if someone is out to hurt you... Heavens save them... Because once I’m healed I will rip their hearts out. You are my family; my home... I won’t let them take you.”

“Remember...” Dastan started, taking Indrani’s hands in his and slowly lowering them. “When you were six years old and you heard that Jackson broke my arm in training? You didn’t care that it was an accident, or if he was sorry... You chased him down and beat on him so hard you sprained your wrist...” He chuckled. “You were always the strong one. Always the fighter.” He kissed Indrani’s forehead and wrapped his arms around her in a tight embrace. “But this is where I need you to be strong for me. Because this... Is one battle you can’t fight.” He paused, his voice failing as he felt his sister sob against him. “I need you here, Indrani. I need you here because one way or another I am coming home. And if... If it comes to that... Who will free my spirit... If not you?”

“Don’t say that! Don’t...”

“No one lives forever, little sister. Just promise me you’ll be here.”

“Dastan...”

“Please.” He whispered. “I need you to do this for me.”

“I... I promise.”

Dastan silently held Indrani, letting her cry on him for as long as she wanted. Pulling away once her sobbing subsided, calmly wiping at her tears as she stared up at him. “Remember, sis, no matter what happens... I will always love you. And even if I die tomorrow, I will always take care of you. Always. That’s a promise.”

---------

[Desert, Otium 18 - Afternoon]

The entirety of the Crimson Shadows; those still apt to wield swords and fight, had gathered near the edge of their territory at the sight of the cloaked teenager. Donovan looked much older than the last time he’d been there; even if it hadn’t been all that long ago that he’d tried and failed to strike Crys down in the center of that camp. He was clearly not the only one who remembered that incident.

“What do you want here, Wolf?”

Donovan opened his cloak wide and rose his hands; one empty and the other clutching an envelope. “May I please see your Commander, Jackson? I have a message for her.”

“No, you may not. I think we can both agree she’s been through enough.”

“Yes, she has, but then so have I.” Doni spoke calmly. “I’ve just buried the last of my family, and Sean may not have been the greatest of people, but he was my brother and I will honor his wishes; or die trying.” The young Alpha sighed softly. “If she tells me to leave, then I will burn this letter and go, but you’ll at least allow me to hear it from her.”

Jackson didn’t seem very willing to listen, neither did most of the mercenaries around. A handful of Crimson Shadows could still take on a lone Wolf; Doni knew that, but he was standing his ground nonetheless. “Come on, man; we’ve all seen more than enough bloodshed lately.”

“Jackson... Let the boy through.” Dastan commanded, the Crimson leader emerging from the temple with a heavy travel bag slung across his shoulders, sturdy boots on his feet, and both swords sheathed at his waist.

“Yes, Shaykh.” Jackson muttered, turning his back on Donovan without further addressing him, his fellow Crimson follow in his example.

Donovan put his hands down, shaking his head in sincere disappointment at the whole situation. “Suppose I should get used to this kind of reception.” He snorted.

“When you have no actions to your name those around you are bound to judge your brother’s, Little Fletcher.” The man smirked. “It’ll not last forever.”

“Hopefully not.” Donovan shrugged.

“For what is worth, I am sorry for your loss, Alpha.”

“And I yours Shaykh.” Donovan responded, confused at Dastan addressing him by title.

Dastan snickered when Donovan seemed puzzled at his use of the title. “Your hand.” He indicated the boy’s ring finger, now adorned with two rings; his still unmarked initiation ring and Dani’s Alpha ring. “I thought you’re not supposed to use ‘em both.”

“We’re not, but...” Donovan shrugged. “Tradition is not to be set in stone, but scribbled in shifting sand.”

Dastan snorted a laugh. “So it is.”He replied, briefly patting the boy on the shoulder. “Perhaps you’ll bring honor back to your name after all, Lil’ Fletcher.”

“We’ll see.” Donovan smirked.

“Well, if it’s Indrani you want she’ll be where the horses are, or in her tent. I trust you know the way.”

“I do. Thank you, Shaykh.”

“Don’t mention it.” Dastan shrugged, walking past the young Alpha and very casually leaving the encampment.

Doni took a moment to observe the fact Dastan was leaving for what seemed like a long while without as much as a word to his brethren, but then figured he was probably taking things out of context. Not like the man to turn his back on anything; Donovan knew that much.

Just as Dastan said, Indrani was stubbornly on her feet, leaning against the fence of the horse enclosure, observing the animals with watchful eyes. Donovan leaned against the fence as well, heaving a long sigh, not knowing what to really say to the woman. “Hey,” he mumbled.

“Hey, Don. Sorry, I missed the funeral. I was otherwise engaged.” Indrani smirked.

“So I’ve heard. I don’t think you were supposed to be on your feet this soon.”

“You sound like my brother.” Indrani snickered. “You can see he’s not exactly won that argument.”

“I do better sounding like your brother than mine.” Donovan mumbled.

“You shouldn’t resent him so much, Doni. Sean loved you, you know that.” Indrani scolded.

“Aye, I have no doubts he did.” Donovan sighed. “I suppose I just wish he hadn’t left me alone to clean up the mess he started.”

“Hm.” Indrani chuckled. “My clan, our ancestors nearly wiped each other out. Our existence, for generations, has been a mess they created. It has not been an easy one, but we don’t resent them, Don, we honor them. It was their mistakes that taught us to be better. Do you understand?”

Donovan heaved a long deep breath, his body relaxing against the wooden fence in the process, his eyes following Indrani’s gaze to the horses. “I guess I do.”

“Good. It’s important for a leader to never shy away from the past, or their own mistakes, Donovan.”

“Hmph... Leader... I don’t know why I thought I could do this. I’m just a kid barely out of training; as everyone so loves to remind me.”

“Have you been challenged yet?” Indrani asked. “If your clan believes you too weak, or unfit, to lead them, they would want to remove you, no?”

“I’m sure they think that, but no one wants to be Alpha right now, Indrani. Not after Sean.”

“Then you have something the others don’t already, no? You’re crazy enough to want the job.”

Donovan laughed under his breath. “That’s true.”

“So there you have it, Alpha.” Indrani smiled, turning to face Donovan with an inspecting gaze. “My, my, look at you Little Fletcher. You’ve changed since I last saw you. If I didn’t know better I’d never guess this is the same ten year old who kept trying to watch me undress.”

“I... No... That was an accident!” Donovan protested, turning very red in the face.

“You’re still a terrible liar.” She smirked. “It’s okay, now, Doni. Boys will do that. Growing up here I’ve seen more than my share of ‘accidents’.”

Donovan frowned, but didn’t argue his case any further. “Have you seen or heard of Ari, by any chance?”

“She hasn’t come looking for me, no. You’re not... You’re not going to brand her a traitor, are you?”

“No. Of course not. I’m the Alpha, I can nullify her oath, but...”

“If you do that she can never go back.” Indrani sighed. “How long do you plan to wait for her?”

“We’re still in mourning. I can give her a month or two. I know... She was very attached to both Sean and Franklin... Losing them both so fast would have taken a large toll on her, but I can’t excuse her leaving without a word. Not indefinitely.”

“I understand. If I see her, I will make sure to let you know.”

“I’d appreciate that.” Donovan smiled. “Look, I have... Sean left something for you and I... I wasn’t sure on whether or not to deliver it, but figured, best you decide for yourself whether or not you want it.” He mumbled, offering her the envelope.

Indrani’s expression immediately shut when her eyes caught the envelope in Donovan’s hand. “I... Doni... Is it true? What they’re saying... Did he...?”

“Sean didn’t kill himself. He wouldn’t...” Donovan answered, his eyes darkening as he lowered them to the ground. “My brother was a lot of things, but he was not that much of a coward. I don’t believe it.”

“I don’t either.” Indrani nodded, taking the envelope from Donovan’s hands. “I appreciate you bringing me this. I...” She sighed. “I should have given him a chance to speak... Sooner... Before things came to this. The very least I can do is accept his words now.”

“Don’t...” Donovan mumbled, reaching out for Indrani’s arm and gripping her wrist for a brief moment. “Don’t blame yourself for that. It wasn’t your fault, what happened. Sean had done more than enough to warrant your mistrust. He knew that well. Please don’t go on thinking you failed him in any way. That’s not true.”

Indrani shook her head at Donovan’s words, a sad smile spreading across her features, her golden eyes watering as she stared at sealed envelope she was holding. “I know that, but knowing and accepting are two very different things.” She let her eyes meet his and her smile changed, her gaze more stern. “You...” She started, grasping his chin. “You’ve grown into a kind man, Doni. I expect you to never let anyone take that from you. Ever. Do you hear me?”

Donovan flinched at her words, nodding his response with an wide-eyed expression.

“Good.” She stated, giving him a brief kiss on the cheek and releasing her grip on his face. “You run on home now, Little Fletcher. I’m sure your clan will be missing you at this point.”

Donovan snorted a laugh, but Indrani did have a point that his absence would have been noticed by now. “I’ll do that.” The young Alpha turned and began walking away from the fence, stopping after a couple of steps to speak over his shoulder. “Oy, Princess... I noticed you’re just a tad bit short on people, so... Don’t hesitate to call on me... Should you need any help in the future. What are friends for after all?”

Indrani stifled a laugh at Donovan’s offer. It was kind of him, but at the same time the Wolfpack was hardly in a good enough shape to go running to anyone’s rescue. She had meant what she said however, Doni seemed to have grown in the Alpha’s shoes rather quickly; whether he realized it or not. There was no doubt in her mind that he would eventually put things back in order.

Indrani breathed deep, holding Sean’s envelope with both hands, and carefully examining the familiar handwriting on the back. She wondered when that letter was written, how long ago, since her friend had refused to see or speak with her after Katelyn’s death. Annie had assured her that Sean didn’t blame her, but Indrani couldn’t quite believe that. After all, she’d been there right beside Sean when the girl took her final breath. She knew that if she hadn’t been, perhaps he could have made it in time to save her. She closed her eyes for a moment as she opened the envelope, feeling her fingers shake as they reached inside for her friend’s letter, unsure whether or not she actually wanted to read it. Eventually though, she opened her eyes and forced herself to look at its contents.

Princess,

I’ve debated writing this letter. I’ve debated it because if you’re reading this, then I am no longer present amongst the living and, as such, my words may come off now as an act of cruelty. If that’s the case, I am deeply sorry. Still, I thought it best to not leave any pages left unturned in our story. I hope that if this should cause you any pain, that it will not last long and you will inevitably see why I decided this was for the best. Please excuse me if I turn out to be mistaken.

When I was just a kid, on my first day of training, Bastian Rivers looked me in the eyes and asked me who I wanted to be. I didn’t know. I only knew who I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be that kid hiding in the woods, frozen by fear. I wanted to be strong on the inside so much more than I wanted to be on the outside. And for the most part, I was. I don’t remember being afraid of anything or anyone ever again... Until I met you. The day we met, that first time we fought, was the most frightening moment of my life. Not because I felt my life was in danger, but because that was when I knew.

I knew I loved you then.

That’s been my secret ever since. My deepest, darkest, most intimate secret. One I could never share, even with my best friend. It has also been my very worst fear; that one day I’d look into your eyes and the words would somehow escape me. Because at some point, Indrani, I’ve come to terms with the fact I could never escape my rage, or the man it’d inevitably change me into. I knew that man could never be worth the dirt beneath your feet, no matter how much he loved you. When I made a conscious choice to become a traitor, with that choice came the price of never being worthy of loving you. And I swore to myself that you would never know. That I would never tell you. If not for any other reason, because I knew what kind of a coward this made me.

I told myself day after day that I didn’t regret anything. I knew I was lying. I regret the path I’ve chosen. I regret it because it meant I could never choose you. For a while I could convince myself that sacrifice was worth it, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t. In many ways I knew it from the start, but it never became more painfully clear than when you said I was dead to you.

If not for Katie, I would have let you kill me, because it was my fault it all came to that. It was my fault because I kept that secret. And you never knew that I would rather die than see you hurt. That I would let a blade through my heart to keep you safe or make you happy. It was my decision to keep you in the dark, to let you doubt my feelings for you, because the truth felt so much more painful to me than that. It wasn’t fair to make you live with it as well.

I’m only writing this now because I was afraid you’d feel guilty. I can’t bear the thought of you thinking you’ve somehow failed me. Thinking that I somehow blame you. Because that couldn’t be farther from the truth. And I owe you the truth, Princess, even though now it’s practically worthless.

I don’t know what fate awaits me, or through which circumstances you’ll find yourself reading this letter. The future is always uncertain apart from the very end and I feel mine is considerably near. I am not afraid. I am no longer angry. Whatever happens, I’ve already accepted. After all, in the end, we all must pay for what harm we’ve caused and I’ve caused more than just my share.

There are too many things I wish I could have said, things I’ll never get to say, and perhaps things would have been different; much different, if only I had been entirely honest from the very beginning. And I’m sorry, Princess. Words cannot express how deeply I regret not being man enough to look you in the eyes and tell you all of this. That I kept this secret under lock and key; that I buried it with me in the end.

I’m sorry that I didn’t have the courage to accept when you offered to take me home with you, that I didn’t have it in me to turn my back on this when you asked. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to show you how much you matter to me, how beautiful and how amazing I believe you are. I’m sorry I never kissed you. Because there wasn’t one day, from the moment we met, when I didn’t wish I had.

I’m sorry I never said that I love you. That I always have. That I always will. And even though I never have been able to forgive myself, Princess, I only hope that, somehow, you will. Because even now, your forgiveness means the world to me.

However, I won’t ask that you forgive me. The only thing I ask is that when my death no longer feels so painful, in a time when these words won’t cut quite as deep as I imagine they do now, that you’ll remember me for one thing, and one thing only, Princess:

Remember me as someone who loved you. Because in the end, that’s the only part of me still truly worth something.

Farewell, Princess.

-Sean


“Sean... Wh-...” Indrani mumbled under her breath. Her sight was so blurred she could barely read her friend’s signature, the shock and confusion masking the fact she been crying profusely onto the sheet of parchment and for a brief moment she was unable to understand why it was so hard to breathe. Sean was right; she never knew. She never saw it, although, now; looking back on their time together, she could. It was there. It had always been there from day one.

“Of all the stupid... Things... You’ve done...” She muttered, glaring at his words. “What made you think this was your choice to begin with? You stubborn, idiot... Piece of shit... Why... You selfish BASTARD! YOU COULD HAVE LET ME HELP YOU! I could... Have...” Indrani’s voice cracked and her knees gave out on her. When some of her fellow Crimson came running in response to her shouting they found their Commander curled up in the sand, sobbing like a child. Something none of them had ever seen her do; not even as a child. The men stood there for about half a minute before simply walking away, afraid to say or do anything to cause the woman any more distress. No one short of Dastan himself had ever been able to calm Indrani, and they knew better than to try and change that now, knowing that the man was halfway across Valcrest.

It took some time, but eventually Indrani managed to stop crying, her golden eyes bloodshot as she reread her friend’s letter word by word. Sean had gotten one thing right; she no longer felt guilt, but now she was angry beyond all belief. “Stupid, selfish, brat... You inconsiderate son of a bitch... Thoughtless jerk...” She sneered, crumpling the letter within a clenched fist. “What right did you have to decide...” She stopped herself, breathing in deep and making to sure to not cry anymore. “It wasn’t too late Sean... You should have given me a chance to show you... What right did you have to give up on me? How am I supposed to forgive that? How am I supposed to...” She snorted, running her fingers through her hair, a bit of laughter escaping under her breath. “Fucking moron... Why would you do this yourself? To me. Things could have been different.”

The setting changes from Assassin's Camp to Valcrest

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Ess Character Portrait: Darren Hearst

0.00 INK

#, as written by Essence
White Shadows Camp, Otium 16th, Evening

Darren had been watching in mild shock, the exchange between Irv and Emily, along with a few others that paused to stop and stare. Once he realized he had been gawking like a trout fresh out of water, he quietly encouraged the others to disperse as Annie escorted Emily away from the spectacle. To think, his friend’s sister was here all this time right under their noses, but wasn’t that the irony of this land? Much to be seen if one knows where to look.

The blued eyed man approached Irv from the right, placing a firm yet reassuring hand on Irv’s shoulder. “Yes...she’s safe. It’ll work out, Guy, I mean..just look at my mom and Jake?” A slight smirk peeked out from the corner of his mouth as he let out a long sigh, casually pulling Irv along to sit. The kid looked pale and he wasn’t sure if he felt disorientated from the shock of the discovery that his sister was indeed alive and well, only to have her convinced her own brother was dead. Darren snorted, “Valcrest...the land that tears people apart and tosses them back together...while the Twins watch us in meaningful silence..” he trailed off, unblinking as if some philosophical realization had sudden dawned on him. It was unclear to what he was thinking but his eyes reflected a sort of peace, however fleeting. “It could have gone much worse, Irv. Be thankful and give it time. We’ll figure it all out. It’s...It’s just like what my mom said the first time we met at the ball...Things or life never goes as expected so we improvise. Either way it will hurt but it heals...we will heal...Emily, WILL heal. She’s in good hands here, Irv.”


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Raven’s Nest, Otium 17th Late Afternoon

Muscles strained, back and feet sore, Essence had settled beneath the oak in the spot Luckas normally occupied. Within seconds she had fallen asleep in sanctuary from the beating sun, the day’s training taking a higher toll on her than normal. Her subconscious was beckoned into the warm waters of memory, her dreams seducing reality into a place most unexpected.

Bathed in darkness, it were as if she simply had her eyes closed, but she wasn’t afraid to open them. She didn’t fear or question where she was, only swimming into a peaceful calm; not even startled when she felt something brush her shoulder in a tender gesture. There was no surprise, only acceptance when she felt a pair of lips touch that same shoulder, trailing to meet her own lips. In that moment, she felt no sickness at the closeness of her company, instead she trusted every move the person made. Her pale cheeks flushed at the intimacy she had always feared and when she opened those eyes, they were met with a familiar pair glowing a fierce red in the shadows. Ess smiled, reaching out towards the darkness, her caress soothing those dangerous eyes to a cool grey.

Essence gasped, the pleasant dream tearing away from her when she awoke with a violent shudder. Her entire face was a deep shade of red and as her eyes searched her surroundings to reassure she was indeed still alone. Wiping a bit of sweat off her brow, her legs wobbled as she stood, leaning against the oak for support. Her vision was a blur as she wandered off towards the river where she squatted down to splash water on her face. A few moments of indulging in the icy sting and she seemed convinced she was awake, the dream beginning to fade leaving behind a tingle along her neck that reminded her of the soft petals of flowers grazing her skin.

She itched at her skin, rubbing beneath her hair as if to confirm there was nothing crawling on her and once satisfied, Ess changed course to where the horses grazed. As she approached Shockwave, the horse turned from his meal to stare at her curiously, stamping excitedly in the dirt when she paused in front of him.

“Don’t look at me like that…” Ess mumbled, glancing around as if she meant to dodge prying eyes, but the only people around were across the tiny meadow brushing their own steeds. She slid her hand over the horse’s muzzle, gently patting him along his forehead and over his ears. The animals snorted in approval, leaning into Ess and resting his chin just past her shoulder in an unusual embrace.

“Miss Ess, Miss Ess! Look at me!”

Ess startled turning about so that her horse’s muzzle hugged her cheek. At first she didn’t see where the tiny voice of Lily was coming from and the girl giggled at her, riding up from behind on a small palfrey led by Aiden who held the reins. The young girl was practically bouncing in her saddle from where she sat, proudly staring down at Ess with the biggest smile.

“Oh my,” Ess laughed, “well look at you Miss Lily. When did you graduate from the pony..what was her name?”


“Buttercup! And just today Mr. Aiden said he would teach me how to brush em’ and feed em’ properly without getting my fingers snatched, too.” Lily looked over at Aiden, her smile fading some as she shot him a pouting scowl. “You let go now, please? He listens to me real good! I want to show Miss Ess, please?”

Aiden quirked a brow as if he were pondering the request before walking around and handing Lily the reins. “Ok, but you remember what we talked about, yes?”

“Who you talking to? Buttercup or Lily?” Ess snorted.

“I’ll have you know, Talon, I did nothing to influence Buttercup. Miss Lily is learning to bond and gain her trust all on her own. And that was the pony, if you recall. This is Cinnamon. Isn’t that right, Lily?” He patted the horse on its side.

“That’s right!” Lily took the reins in her hands, making sure she had a firm grip but leaving plenty of slack. She puckered her lips and whistled, a soft beckoning as she barely leaned to the right, Cinnamon walking in a circle to the right. Two times around and Lily leaned to the left, leading the horse in the opposite direction. Once he came to a stop, Lily lifted the reins and the horse stepped backwards a few paces.

Aiden clapped in approval, bowing low towards Lily. “My apologies, you remembered just fine. Go right ahead and take him for a walk.”

As Lily wandered off someone called for Aiden in the distance, the man groaning in annoyance. He waved towards Keith and nodded, “Hey, Talon...you think you ca-”

“No problem, I’ll keep an eye on Miss Lily.” Ess smiled, patting Aiden on the arm and catching the man’s stare so that she awkwardly turned away to trot after Lily. “You better not keep Keith waiting.”

Aiden simply stood, as if purposely moving slower in defiance to the ‘command’, watching Essence while he left the fields until she was out of sight. Ess found Shockwave by a bucket of grains, stuffing his face. He noted her approach by the twitching of his ears, his one eye facing her, staring until he had finished his meal and finally lifted his head to nuzzle her hand.

“Come on, let’s catch up to Miss Lily, hm?” Ess hoisted herself onto her horse’s bare back and lightly tugged on his mane in the direction of Lily, Shockwave taking off in a burst of energy until he was side by side with Cinnamon.

“Look at me! Look at me!” Lily beamed proudly, bouncing in her saddle.

“I see, I see.” Ess laughed, enjoying as several minutes passed in silence, the two girls trotting away from the fields and along the path to the edge of camp where they turned around. It appeared Cinnamon was now more following Shockwave around than letting himself be directed by the young girl. As they circled the outskirts of the camp, they slowed to a walk, Ess’ gaze locked onto the back of Lily’s head, her mind drifting in the silence until Lily and her horse came to a hault. The young girl looked up at Ess which broke the woman out of her trance, a small concerned frown marking the girl’s features.

“Miss Ess, when do you know if killing someone is ok?”

Ess lulled Shockwave to pause beside Lily, her brows furrowing in a perplexed manner. “What? What are you talking about Lily? What brought this on?”

“I just don’t get it. I don’t get how someone knows when it’s ok. Like with war and bad people and then there’s you and Mr Luckas, Maga, Mr Aiden, Miss Deidra….Mr Jake…”

“Lily...it’s never ok to kill someone, technically, but people do it. People give reasons and either care or don’t care about their actions. In war, it can’t be avoided. It’s part of what people do to survive too. They don’t want to necessarily kill the person they are fighting but if they don’t defend themselves, then they could end up dead.” Ess sighed, her eyes trailing between Lily’s somewhat confused gaze and the horses.

“Is that like what Maga says about us having to learn to protect ourselves but we don’t have to fight like she does?”

“Yes..and no. Lily, there are people out there who kill others for no reason or because they want what they have..”

“Like money?”

“..Sometimes...or people..or land. Sometimes people call it justice or revenge, like if someone hurt Maga, you know the Guard wouldn’t put up with that.”

“..They’d kill that person?”

“Maybe...or lock them up forever. It would depend what may be more hurtful to that person and we would want to make sure they don’t get to hurt anyone else again.”

“So..if they don’t feel bad about killing, then they are ok to kill?”

Ess coughed almost choking on her own words as she tried to answer the young girl. She wiped at a line of sweat that was beading along the back of her neck and shook her head. “It’s never that simple, Lily. There are times I have felt bad and times I have not. Do you think I’m a bad person who deserves to die because I have killed people?”

Lily’s eyes bugged and she shook her blond locs furiously from side to side, “Noo! You’re nice and play with us kids and take care of us..and and..”

“Lily..not everyone in Valcrest may think as you do. Do you see why that’s not an easy question to answer?”

The girl went to speak and then just answered in a silent nod.

“So, I’m going to tell you what I told Mr Jake a loooong time ago when we were kids. You need to make your own choices and decide if you believe if someone is good or not. Sometimes they can be both, as you will learn as you grow. Your gut..that feeling you get when your tummy hurts or feels full when you haven’t eaten, will help remind you when you should be wary of someone or not. Not everyone may agree with how you feel, but you should always agree with yourself and don’t change your mind because of someone else. You understand?”

“I ...I think so. Like Mr Aiden...him and Mr Luckas don’t like each other but we like them both. I won’t stop being Mr Aiden’s friend just because Mr Luckas doesn’t like him and stuff.” Lily began chewing on the end of her blonde braid in thought. “I don’t want to kill anyone….”

Ess smiled and shrugged, “Well, that’s your decision. Darren thinks like that too, you know. People in the White Shadows do too. Some people see all life as important and with their part to play. Some people believe everyone has a right to live and some people don’t.”

“What do you believe?” Lily mumbled, still chewing on her hair.

Ess tapped her heel into Shockwaves side, the horse walking forward, Cinnamon automatically following in step. “I believe in listening to my gut, and if I make the right or wrong choice, it is mine to live with. I believe those who harm others, for the most part, should not be allowed to continue to harm them.”

“Do...do you like to kill them?”

“..Lily...I don’t think we should be talking about this anymore…” Ess began, trying to lead the horse further ahead of Lily, the young girl digging her heels into Cinnamon so that the horse trotted forward and was now ahead of Ess.

“Do you?”

“....Lily..”

“DOOO YOU?”

“Sometimes.”

“Why? Does it make you feel better?”

Ess had to take a deep breath, remembering that it was a child talking to her before she answered. She knew the kid just had a million questions and was trying to understand, but it was a lot for someone her age to grasp, no matter how smart she was.

“..Sometimes...for a little while, but you know what happens?”

“What…?”

“..It will leave an emptiness inside you. That good feeling will go away. You have to remember that killing someone, who may have killed a person you loved, will not bring them back.”

“...But it will stop them from killing other people you love. Or someone else loves.” Lily had turned the horse around so that they walked circles around Ess, Shockwave snorting and stamping in response. Ess hadn’t even noticed they had stopped again, the woman watching Lily in amazement, the image reminding her of those first moments with Jake. She frowned, remembering how one day, Lily may not feel the same way and all that sweet innocence would be gone.

“Miss Ess?”

The woman smiled, “Yes Lily?”

“I...I heard Mr Aiden talking to Maga long time ago...about Mr Luckas…”

“Oh? You know you aren’t suppose to listen in on people’s conversations, Little Miss.”

“I know...I’m sorry, but...I don’t get why Mr Aiden says Mr Luckas will end up hurting you. I don’t think that’s true.”

Ess chuckled. “I don’t think so either. Tell me though, what do you think Lily?”

“I...I think Mr Aiden thinks Mr Luckas is bad, but I don’t think that. But I still don’t get why he thinks that.”

“Well...I think sometimes people say and do things when they are upset or scared. Lots of times those things tend to be mean but not true. Kind of like when Clayton teased you about your hair that time when he was just mad you had a toy he wanted, remember?”

“Oh, so he’s jealous?”

Ess snorted, “Possibly, but I can only give my opinion on it. Mr Luckas is...a complicated subject that I think we should drop. It’s rude to talk about people anywho. You should just ask them about it if you really want to know what they think.”

“ I dunno, I don’t want to make them mad. Jess says some things are not our business.”

“Oh, I’m sure they wouldn’t be mad, but Jess is correct. However, you will get away with most questions because you’re little. Just remember you won’t get away with as much as you get older.”

“Why not?”

“Because kids are cute and adorable and want to learn about everything.”

“But, what if I stay cute and adorable when I get big? Maybe they will still answer my questions?”

“I have no doubt about that, Little Miss, “ she giggled, “just be respectful if they don’t want to answer you, ok?”

“..Ok.”


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Raven’s Nest, Otium 17th Late Evening

Tala had been following Ess around for some time, the wolf even barking here and there trying to get the woman’s attention with no success. Essence’s body was swaying side to side with each step, her legs shaky as if they may give way from her at any moment. At first, she simply crawled out of her tent and stood idle, her eyes closed. Slowly they peeked open and she shuffled forward, circling her fire pit in an apparent confusion before stalking off away from camp. For no reason at all, still in a dazed silence, she would pause, eyes closing once again for a few moments. Again they opened about half way, not a hint of glow to her empty stare as she would continue forward.

The next time she stopped, she was standing just outside Jacob’s tent, her eyes opening wide this time, as if she were awake, a pleading, angered scream suddenly erupting into the silence. Ess was no where conscious enough to even react to her wolf’s excited yelps and whines; even when Tala grabbed hold of her dress and tried to pull her backwards, she fought to rush forward.


Essence screamed in despair, her plea seeming to fall onto deaf ears. “Stop it! Stop it Jake! Please..”

Jacob had his fingers clenched firmly around Luckas’ throat, squeezing so hard that his face strained to take breath, veins bulging in his forehead. Even though Luckas appeared to be smiling in some sort of amusement, his pale features were turning a grey-blue, unable to even gasp for air. Ess flew at Jake, punching him in the back of his head until he let go. Abruptly turning to grab Ess by the shoulders and using his body weight, he flipped her over his head. She was already turning onto her belly, scurrying to stand; this time the dagger in hand as she again lunged, slashing wildly across his chest which he dodged left and right, ducking low to ram his shoulders into her torso, knocking her down once again, the dagger skidding across the ground. Jake quickly pinned her down at the shoulders, his legs crossed as he practically sat on her to keep Ess in place. “Get off of me! I won’t let you do it...I won’t let you..”

“Ess...he’s a liar...he hurts people for amusement...he’s murder and needs to be ripped from the world..” Jake spoke calmly, an eerie, icy glow staring down upon Ess. From behind she saw Luckas stand, fierce red eyes glaring down between Jake and Essence. “...No...no, no, no, no. I won’t let you Jacob.”

“That’s right, JB.” Luckas sneered. “She’ll end up having to kill one of us if she doesn’t want us both dead..”

Ess growled, feeling her body fall limp as defeated tears streaked her cheeks and fell across her ears. “...I’d rather you kill me...” She whimpered.


~~~~

Essence’s eyes began to glow, reddish tears streaking her pale skin as she awoke from her night terror, yet she wasn’t sure what was real. It seemed she was still dreaming, feeling herself pinned down, unable to move still, yet the look in Jacob’s eyes was not the same. Ess began to sob. “..I’d rather you kill me...”

Jake had been drifting in and out of an agitated sleep. Even in his most unconscious state, he couldn’t say he had any rest that night and if he hadn’t been so tired he probably would have noticed the movement around his tent a lot sooner than he did. As he was... All he could really grasp of what was happening was that he heard Ess’ voice and when he got up to check it out she had jumped him; he had no idea why. He couldn’t even tell if she was trying to hit him exactly, but none of the many things he shouted in his shock seemed to do a very good job of getting through. Finally after a bit of awkward struggling he managed to pin his friend down and hold her still, his shock rising as he noticed she seemed to not actually see him as if she was in some kind of a trance. Frowning in confusion Jake looked from Ess to Tala and then back to Ess as if he tried to think of some explanation; anything that made the slightest bit of sense. Before he could find one, however, she seemed to awake; which didn’t help Jake’s confusion, really. It only turned the man’s confusion into a small panic at her words. “What... Why...” He mumbled, quickly pulling away from her and shaking his head. “What are you talking about... You know... I’d never hurt you... Why would you even say that?” Jake kept watching her with wide eyes, as if half expecting her to jump him again, somewhat unsure of whether he should try and comfort her, and overall just confused by the whole thing.

“...What happened to not making promises you can’t keep, Jacob...?” She murmured sadly, an occasional sniffle interrupting her words. It took a moment for Ess to realize Jake had released her, her eyes searching her surroundings frantically as the fuzziness started to fade. She crawled back and in the opposite direction from Jake, wiping a few tears aside. “Where...is...How did I get here?” A sharp pain struck between her eyes, startling her so that her head fell, her hands reaching up to support herself but hovering along her temples as if afraid to make the pain worse. Luckily it only lasted a few moments, the only traces of it were a few drops of blood falling from her nose, splattering across her faded, green, gown, where her knee would be beneath the fabric. “..Jake?...I’m...sorry...I don’t know....” Essence sighed, her eyes rising to meet her friend’s concerned blues. “..It’s getting worse...” She stated, as if only voicing half of a thought, her fingers finally gaining the nerve to gently massage the bridge of her nose.

Jake sat down, watching Ess with a mix of concern and confusion in his eyes. He didn’t understand what she meant about promises, but at the moment he was far more concerned about her confusion, and pain. Took him a little bit to collect his thoughts, but when he managed to think straight he moved to look for a flask amongst his things; he took the flask and a clean cloth and moved to sit beside his friend, offering the flask to her. “Here, take a swig, it’ll calm you. Careful though, it’s... Strong stuff. For people who aren’t allowed to drink, the healers do know what to do with some alcohol.” He said, forcing a bit of shaky laughter before heaving a sigh. “Ess, what... What is getting worse? Were you hallucinating, dreaming, what? Are you in pain? Can I do something to help?”

Ess’ hand trembled when she reached out to take the flask from Jake, slowly taking a sip which caused her to cough and laugh at the same time when she realized he wasn’t kidding about the drink. “Gee....Twins almighty, what...” She coughed again, taking a deep breath in through her nose, a funny whistling noise escaping her as she breathed. “..Man, where was this stuff when I had my cold? Clears up the lungs and such instantly.” Wiping at a dribble of liquid at the corner of her mouth she handed back the flask, nodding to signal she was all set with that. “...Nightmares Jake....nightmares.....and they are changing...well...having the same ones but others now too..and..” Ess groaned, knowing what she was about to tell Jake would not be taken lightly. She knew she should have mentioned what happened the first time she had an ‘episode’ like this, and probably should have at least told the Captain, but she honestly hoped it would pass; that it was a fluke. “...I didn’t think this would happen again...a little while back...Luckas woke me up because apparently I was trying to stand in the open flames of my campfire.” Ess glanced shyly at Jake, a defensive look crossing her face. “I swear, I am not suicidal...I don’t remember or understand why I would do such a thing. It’s just..my nightmare...the one that repeats..always ends with me burning, strapped to an Oak tree that will, in turn, not burn.” Ess sighed, whispering her next few words. “...I burn so someone else doesn’t have to..”

Jake sighed deeply staring at the flask in his hand before taking a drink from it himself, coughing a bit as the liquid burned its way down, causing his eyes to water a bit. Rubbing his eyes with one hand he nodded silently to show he was listening as Ess spoke, going over the little she had disclosed of her dreams a few times in his mind before replying. “You should’ve told me sooner, you know... Luckas isn’t here all the time... What if you tried that again tonight instead of... Jumping me? Tala’s not enough to hold you, clearly.” He concluded, running one hand through his hair and glancing down at the flask as if trying to decide on whether or not to take another swig as he mumbled. “Maybe you should talk to a healer about this... Not just a medic, but one of the White Shadows... I don’t know, seems like the best thing to do if it’s getting worse. You wouldn’t want to hurt yourself. Least, I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.” He sighed, eyeing the flask for a little bit longer before drinking from it, coughing slightly less than the previous time, but still quite a bit. Taking a long deep breath he set it aside as if not wanting to even think about drinking any more. “I haven’t been sleeping much for, oh, I don’t know... Think it’s been about two years since the last time I remember sleeping through the night. If I take certain herbs, or drink just enough, I can black out, but it’s not quite the same as actual sleep. First the healers said it was stress, but last they checked they admitted they’re just not sure. Migraines started kicking in a while ago...” He sighed. “It’s either I’m going nuts or something’s physically wrong with me. Same as yours in that sense. Either way, you shouldn’t try and deal with it by yourself.”

“Maybe telling you sooner would have helped, but honestly you can’t watch over me all the time, Jakey. Either can Luckas..” Ess sighed, thinking a bit more to that sentence but not voicing it except with a soft chuckle. Her amusement faded, an honest, worried look in her eyes as she quickly looked over Jake from head to toe. “You need to make sure not to forget about yourself too and I don’t want to feel like an invalid eith-...ah, Jake...I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Ess nodded slowly, her gaze falling to Tala, mumbling into the wolf’s fur as she scratched behind her ear. “Oh, I dunno, I thought you were doing a great job there girl..” She snickered, trying to distract herself from the idea of having to be examined and asked tons of questions by a healer, the idea somewhat unpleasant. “Ugh...well...Ali did offer to take me back that way, to where I was born and to where my home once stood. Just one more reason I guess...and I suppose it can’t make things any worse...so fine...” Ess rolled her eyes, an annoyed sigh permeating the silence that fell upon them. She had listened intently when Jake went on about his own lack of sleep and other curious symptoms, and after a bit of thought she spoke. “So...either we are both going insane, we are both sick, or maybe we are insanely sick...” She smirked, “You know...neither of us should deal with this ourselves. Jake, now that you mention migraines it makes me think of how the pains in my head are similar to those, except they are intermittent and brief, accompanied by my bleeds...among other things.” Essence scooted closer to Jake, playfully resting a chin upon his shoulder. “..We are suppose to take care of each other, I know this...and I am sorry I tried to beat you up again...I didn’t mean it this time.”

Jake snickered softly at Ess’ annoyed response to the idea of seeing the healers. He couldn’t blame her, aside from Annie, and maybe Alistair, they could be quite obnoxious and intrusive. “Won’t be so bad if you go with Ali, she knows how to avoid the pokers... And then there are the guys who like to test medicine on people too... Eh... You should probably just ask for Annie. She’s... I wouldn’t say normal, she’s Lena’s kid after all, but she’s less of a sadist than the rest, believe it or not. Not to mention she’d know quite a bit of history too. I’m pretty sure she could tell you about your village.” Letting out a long yawn, Jake nodded. “I think everyone gradually loses their sanity in time, so we’re probably just ahead of everyone else... Or the majority at least.” He played, although he couldn’t completely hide the concern in his voice. There was something about sharing his problems with someone else that just made them all the more real to him. Maybe he should have worried a lot sooner, but he really felt like somehow he had no time to stop and think about his insomnia. Sighing softly he opened a small smile. “Hey, it’s alright, I know you didn’t mean to, besides... I’d say not just anyone has what it takes to beat me up in their sleep.” He said, giving Ess a playful nudge. “But not bad.”

Essence opened a warm smile, “Lena’s kid, huh? So...your cousin. Well, practically family, so I trust your advise. Besides she did send me a gift and I haven’t even met the girl yet. But yea...no one else is allowed to poke at me...I may poke back and that would not be so wise..” Shifting her position she leaned over on her knees, wrapping her arms tightly around Jake’s neck in a sudden hug, squeezing like she was afraid he’d disappear. “...You know Jacob, I really didn’t realize how much I still needed my best friend until now..” Ess whispered softly. “I...” She sighed, unable to finish her sentence, instead changing the subject as she released her friend. “..Should try to get some sleep...uh...would it be weird If I asked you to keep me company? I really am not comfortable being by myself right now..”

Jake quietly wrapped one arm around his friend, a little caught off guard by how tight she’d hugged him, nodding along to her words for a few moments before speaking. “You should... Try and sleep some more, true. I’ll keep you company, sure. Whatever you need.” He smirked in amusement as he added. “Besides... I’m not sure I’m comfortable with you being by yourself either. I might have to start stalking you now too.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Raven’s Nest, Otium 18th, Late Afternoon

“What are you doing?” Ess chuckled, kneeling down beside Lily who was staring very intently at Puppy in a cold stone expression. She looked so serious and was silent as the grave as the large dog stared right back at her, his expression much more curious and adorable as his ears perked up at Ess’ approach. When Lily didn’t answer, Ess folded her hands in her lap and watched the two for quite some time. Ess felt like it had been forever and went to ask Lily again what she was up to, when the girl tilted her head back, her face stretching in a wide and noisy yawn. Essence quirked a brow, thinking that maybe the child had grown tired of this staring contest, absently stifling a yawn of her own. Puppy’s tail thumped happily over at Lily as he reflected her gesture and let out a soft whine, his jaws parting in a yawn of his own, tongue lolling out of his mouth. Lily broke her statue like pose and began giggling and tackled her fury protector in a massive hug, the dog covering the girl in kisses.

Ess snorted shaking her head. “Lily...what are you doing?” She smiled in amusement.

“Hi Miss Ess! I was trying an spearmint..” Lily giggled, when Ess’ expression when dumbfounded.


“ A what?”

“A spearmint! Jason said that he read that animals and people...who are good...sense someone is good and you can tell this by if yawning and seeing if that animal or person does it too.” Lily lifted her head proudly as if she were giving a lesson on morality.

“OOooh...an experiment.” Ess laughed and nodded, tapping her chin thoughtfully as she listened to Lily’s explanation.

“Dat’s what I said, Miss Ess. An exspearmint. And it worked. Puppy yawned when I did.”

Ess fell silent for a few moments, watching the girl lovingly play with the Wolfhound. Thinking over the girl’s words, she began to understand what she was doing, a warm smile touching her eyes as she quietly appreciated the girl’s intelligence. Lily had a pretty good understanding of what Jason had explained to her, but Ess was familiar with what the boy had read and knew it was still quite a bit over the young girl’s head.

“It’s to tell..if someone has Empathy, Miss Lily. Do you know what Empathy is?” Ess sang softly, reaching over to ruffle up Puppy’s fur. Lily looked up at Essence and tilted her head in curiosity, staying silent to politely wait for the woman to finish.

“Um..well basically it’s..for example...Let’s pretend you fell and hurt your leg and I found you. I would feel bad and sad that you hurt yourself and want to help you. Your pain I don’t really feel, because I’m not hurt, but I see you’re in pain and I want to help it go away.I would want to take care of you.” Ess reached over and lifted the girl onto her lap as she spoke, running her fingers through her hair to separate and braid the loose strands.

“So...it’s wanting to help people?” Lily asked, quietly settling into Ess’ lap.

“Sometimes. It’s understanding what someone else feels, even if you don’t feel it. Sometimes you do feel it too.” Ess snorted, shaking her head when Lily looked back at her a bit confused. “Ok..what if Puppy didn’t yawn back, what did Jason say that would have meant?”

Lily was thoughtfully quiet as Ess twisted six small braids; three on each side of Lily’s head, uniting them at the base of her neck where she began braiding those together into a much larger design. When Ess was finished, that was when Lily seemed to come to an answer.

“I think...it would mean that Puppy was bad. I think if someone didn’t care about me then they’d be mean. I’m a good girl and I like making people stuff and helping Jason and the other kids and Maga. I was sad that day your hands hurt Miss Ess and you couldn’t eat..so I helped. So..I have mapthy..”

“Empathy..” Ess corrected, brushing a few hairs from her eyes. “..Yes...you do. and you’re right...those who don’t..can be very mean..”

“You have empathy too then.” Lily smiled.

Essence giggled, lifting her head as if to listen to a distant whisper on the wind, the woman slowly turning back towards the little girl with a gentle pat on her back. “Why don’t you go find out if Mr Luckas does too? Go play your game with him...but don’t tell him why until after, ok?”

“Ok!” Lily jumped up with a small burst of energy and went to run off to find Luckas. “Miss Ess?” Lily paused in step and looked over at Essence with what could only be recognized as confidence. “...You know what?”

“What is it, Lily?”

“Mr. Luckas has to have empathy because he’s never mean to me.”

“Is that so? Well, you sure it’s not because he knows he’d get his butt whooped by a camp full of guardsmen and women if he were to be mean to you?”

Lily laughed, clapping a bit in amusement. “Maybe..but I don’t think so..”

The setting changes from Valcrest to Blackpond

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Evin Bana Character Portrait: Dominic Adams Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Ella Page

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[Otium 18th, Morning]

Rita let her go. She watched Lamya walk out of the door and didn't do anything to stop her. It would be next to impossible to track her now. She'd let Rita find her if it was Lamya's desire. Now, Rita had one promise to rely on and a tip where she may find her. That was all she had to go from and there wasn't a reason to believe any of it. Lamya didn't believe in honesty. Honesty went against her code.

These thoughts of Lamya rushed through her head as she stood in front of the Blackpond war room. Alone; still, within the barren hallway that Rita had yet to decorate. No structure was in place for castle guards yet. The castle was empty for the most part, save for a motley crew of guards scattered along the castle's hall. This was one of many reasons why Rita and her war council had to have this meeting. Many things needed clearing up before Blackpond would be in working order again. Roles needed reassignment, laws needed rewriting, the nobility restructured. What Rita and her war council had in front of them was a difficult range of mountains the new rule had yet to surmount. It was what Blackpond needed. Rita took a deep breath before she pushed open the doors to let herself into the room.

A small council of five people were sitting at a table, pages tossed about the table with reckless abandonment. Each of the five stood upon Rita's entrance.
"Sit down, everyone. We're all equals in this room until we've established who the real leaders of Blackpond are. Let's get to it."
The room sat in silence for a moment, each person looking at one another for approval before taking their seats again. Rita found her seat and joined them at the table. Nothing she could do would prepare her for the long day of discussion that lay ahead.

The six people all looked around the room. Rita noted each expression and tried to make sense of where they were at. They were apprehensive. Some of them more than others. Some of them likely didn't want to be at this meeting, but they had no choice. Arcadius Trivelli, for example, was a military man, through and through. He wasn't much for diplomacy. The only time he felt comfortable sitting was when it was on the back of his spirited warhorse. Brute force in the face of adversity was his forté and while not always the answer, it still commanded respect.

After a prolonged silence Oswald Valkenburg was the first to speak. He was a patient man, choosing his moments with care. "What do we do now?" He asked. "The military campaign is over and the city is ours again. We fought, but we didn't place any thought on who would lead when this was over."

"Isn't that why we're here?" Brianna Westall said in reply. "To decide on a leader?"

Brianna was a formidable officer. She committed to risking everything to achieve her goals. Sometimes it scared Rita knowing how close to defeat Brianna would go in securing a victory, but she her methods never failed her. Some would call it crazy, but Rita saw it for what it was: abstract. For that reason alone, Rita saw Brianna's tactics as an asset.

"And I thought we were here to discuss religion. We can go beating around the bush all we want, but I think everyone in this room can agree. It's time to jump to the conclusion of this meeting. Rita will reject the idea vehemently for a couple of hours, but cave to it eventually. She's going to be our next Queen, it's only a matter of time before she realises this fact herself." Mayson Coffman proposed. He was the outspoken wit of Rita's army. Fun to have around but at times, a nuisance.

"I won't accept that. I'm not meant to lead a city. I struggle leading an army sometimes. The only reason I'm useful is because I can see the battlefield from a bird's eye view." Rita said.

"You took the city back," Oswald said.

"I was handed the city," Rita said.

"It doesn't matter, much, does it? Which one of us would be better at ruling the city? You were closest to the royals before the death of Rory. You would know better than any of us how this city should run." Arcadius said.

"I know next to nothing that went on in Rory's rule over the city. I was like one of you, an officer of Commander Hastings' army." Rita said.

"She's right, you know," said Korvin Strongwell, who had up until that moment, remained silent. "None of us are close to understanding how to run the city. With the fire from earlier this year, we no longer have the resources to learn for ourselves."

"You spend more time in that library than you do the battlefield. You're telling us that you've never read anything about City politics?" Arcadius asked flippantly.

Korvin edged his gaze towards Arcadius. Cool and collected, but direct with his intent. Rita shifted in her seat slightly. It was as if the room's lights had all flickered out at once. Although relaxed, Korvin was prone to bouts of energy that he would direct on his enemies. It was useful in battle but in a discussion, it was a deadly detriment.

"What an immense waste of time for a warrior to read of politics," Korvin said. Mayson scoffed but Korvin didn't skip a syllable as he continued. "I spent my time in the library reading through the largest collection of battle records known to Valcrest. Something a jokester such as you, Mayson, could find beneficial."

"Okay, let's settle down for a moment!" Brianna stepped in to defuse the conflict.

Oswald continued by saying, "let me get this straight. A group of assassins could run a city but we couldn't? I have a hard time believing that."

"This city wasn't a city while it was under their power. Their only means of political tactics were assassinations of any and all dissenters." Rita said.

"Surely that wasn't their only tactic. Why don't we speak to him; the guy that gave you the city?" Oswald asked.

The whole room looked to Rita. The suggestion was a promising one. One that could get insight into the workings of Blackpond from the people who ran it before them. They might have known more than the military leaders would. Surely they'd know more. Assassins had an air about them, making them look like they could achieve anything. That was the propaganda spread by the Wolves in their threatening days, which made them true shadows of any creed. All this told to her in the eyes of each of the five people looking at her for answers.

"After she gave me the city, she started to walk out the room. I told her that she wasn't going to leave this room alive. The crimes she committed against the city and it's people were too great to let pass. She turned around and before she could get another word out, I killed her." Rita said.

"Are you okay, Rita?" Mayson asked.

Rita looked down at her hands. She was grasping papers that were in front of her on the table. When she let go, the papers remained in their crumpled form, jumping off the table. Korvin and Arcadius rose from their seats and fumbled along the floor to grab the papers.

"I'm alright. My point is," she looked around the table, "she is no longer around. She can't help us." Both those statements were true. Lamya wasn't around and even if she were, she wouldn't be of any help. It was best to let the group believe she was dead than have them searching for the woman on their own. She hoped.

Briana chose this moment to interject. "It might be time for us to choose something new. Why not start with the six of us? We can rule the city as a collective. Making choices together, like we do on the battlefield."

"Because that worked well for us already."

"Enough of the unwanted comments, Mayson. The more people who are making decisions for the city, the better off we will be. We can shoot down stupid choices and discuss choices that don't have clear answers." Brianna continued.

"You suggest we vote on decisions; the six of us?" Oswald asked.

"Exactly."

"And if we split the vote?"

Brianna thought about it for a moment. "We have a seventh member. A swing vote."

"That sounds rather corruptable. The swing could side with one person on every issue. They'd become the de facto king or queen with all the power of the council."

"I don't know. What do you think, Rita?" Brianna asked.

"What?"

Rita hadn't been listening for the past couple of minutes. Her mind was elsewhere, looking down at the papers that she'd crumpled which Korvin and Arcadius did their best to decrease. Her mind leapt back to Lamya again. It was the same thing, over and over. She couldn't forget that Lamya was on the loose and what that meant for her and everyone around her. For anyone Lamya chose to cross paths with. No new thoughts were passing through her head. Not for the past day since she saw the woman last, but her mind fixated on it.

Now her lie made things complicated. She couldn't ask for help. She couldn't put Lamya on trial. Rita would have to settle things are her own, without the knowledge of her closest of advisors to help.

"We were wondering what you thought about us six making all the choices and voting on the matters. The only problem is that there are six of us and to have a single swing vote could prove to be disastrous." Korvin repeated.

"All we need is more than one swing vote," Rita said.

"Of course!" Mayson said.

"Shut up," Brianna said to defuse Mayson again.

"I'd say nine more people would be good. That would round us out to 15 people." Arcadius said.

"So a small council of 6 and then 9 more to make a large council of 15 that could vote when the small council is divided," Oswald said. "It sounds solid."

"Now comes to fun part," Mayson said with a sarcastic smile. "The fine details."

Mayson was right. The group sat in the room for the next two hours discussing how exactly this council system would work. They decided on how long each term would be. How the council would elect a new member when the term was over. They decided on who might fit the bill to be on the large council. By the time they finished, each member felt confident that the city was now in competent hands.


[Otium 18th, Midday] Raven's Nest

Jake had been told about Evin’s presence the day of his arrival but decided to keep his distance at first. They hadn’t actually spoken two words to one another in a long time, but as of late, he was constantly running into the man wherever he went. It made that silence heavier for some reason and, even though Jake didn’t know what he’d even have to say to Evin in the first place, he felt compelled to break it. He thought about what good could come of that, he thought it about it most of the night as he watched over Ess’ sleep, he thought it about it during his morning drills... And he had no idea. Matthew had made a comment about it maybe being a good idea having Evin there, but when Jake asked what he meant the man said they’d talk about it later, that it wasn’t time yet. Something in his words made Jake uneasy, but he pushed it aside for ‘later’, not much else to do about that. Jake had learned a long time ago that it was impossible to trick any information out of Matthew.

After lunch Jake left the mess hall and made his way to the little storage shed Evin had holed up in, knocking on the door and not awaiting a response before going in and closing it behind his back. “You know, there might something to be said about you kidnapping the queen, but... coming to think of it... Not the first time you stole the kid, is it? That’s not that surprising to me, but... You being here is, though. Never considered this to be a place you’d run to, regardless of how much you may trust the Captain.”

The storage shed Evin had found was an adequate space for living. He had managed to create a small bed for Ella using a broken table and some torn fabrics that he'd found. And while his hair was now covered in cobwebs, he had managed to occupy his time by organising the space to provide him with a little more space. The space, while cramped was just enough for Evin. Hardly enough for the monster hijacking Ella's body, though. In Ella's waking hours, Evin would listen to the constant complaints of the living conditions. It was hard to imagine that this person was skilled enough to do anything let alone steal a dying girl's body.
Evin was just about to use the new space he'd acquired to work out and train when he heard footsteps outside his door. A sudden dread raced through him. He'd have done his best to avoid it, but he knew that coming to the Nest, he'd be bound to face it. Before Jake even revealed himself, Evin seemed to know exactly who it was. He knew that the two of them could only go on avoiding each other for so long. This had to come to a head at some point. That point was now.
“Thank you for the reminder,” Evin said in reference to Ella. “When first I stole her, she was practically dead. This time, she's a corpse. I'd rather she be in my hands than in the hands of a young, headstrong resistance leader, though.” He paused to see if Ella was still sleeping. “I don't run from anything, Jake. I'm not like you. I came here because I couldn't tell you the first thing about birthing a child. I figure that it'd be best that Ella's child be born in the arms of my friends.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Jake spoke with a shrug, leaning against the wall beside the door and staring at the man a mix of amusement and veiled contempt. “Not that you’re nothing like me; that is much clear, but I highly doubt you don’t run from anything. I’m pretty damn sure that running into all the things you do on a regular basis is nothing more than a way to escape something. I can just picture you setting off explosions out there as a way to drown out your own thoughts.”

Jake’s gaze softened momentarily as he looked at Ella. The girl was gone. He had to remember that. Crys had said she was still there; weak, fading, but there. Even so, there was no saving Ella’s life. He didn't know the girl well, but if she was still enduring all this, he had to acknowledge; she was tougher at her core than she would ever be given credit for. “And then what?” He asked. “I’m assuming this child has a father, no?”

“The only thing I ever ran from is my best friend and I swore I'd never do that again. If that means I'm running from my true, cowardly self, then so be it. I don't drown out my thoughts. Some people I know might drown problems, but that's not me. I let my thoughts out. I'm honest with my feelings and I express them and I feel like my actions reflect that nicely.” Evin's gaze narrowed. He thought for a moment if he had ever punched Jake. He knew he'd done so in training, but that was hardly worth anything. A good punch, without warning or any real reason. Just bottled up frustration with the boy. While pleasurable, it would accomplish nothing. Evin relaxed just a little, placing his hands in his pockets as there was no better place to keep them contained.
“For all I know, the father's died the night I kidnapped her. That's a question for another time.” Evin closed his eyes and let out a loud, audible sigh. “Did you just come here to trade insults or is there a reason for this intrusive visit?”

Jake chuckled at Evin’s question. “Insults? Who’s insulting who here?” He asked, smirking at the man. “I am, whether either one of us likes it, the highest ranking Raven in this camp, Evin. So I’d consider you dragging kidnapped dying royalty in here to be much my business. Especially now.” He quietly rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling an all too familiar sting of pain behind his eyes. “Pardon my intrusion, however. Are you comfortable? Can I get you anything?” He asked, lowering his hand and crossing both arms over his chest. “And surely, you’re a shining example of emotional stability; my apologies for implying otherwise. I honestly don’t know what could have given me that idea.”

Jake shook his head as if realising the amount of sarcasm that had come out of him at once and mentally scolding himself. “I don’t think it’s ever too early to start asking some questions. Who knows, if more questions were asked three years ago, maybe this kid wouldn’t have ended up where she is now; wherever that may be.”

Evin restrained himself for long enough. He did his best to contain himself when around Jake most times, but he could only hold back the seething anger he felt for so long. His eyes sparked a shining black and like a flash, his fist connected with Jake's jaw. Time raced back to its regular pace and that's when Evin began to feel the pain. It was more intense than usual. He keeled over as if he'd been punched in the gut himself. It was only after a few moments that he began to feel the pain in his fist. The punch wasn't proper. In his anger, he'd forgotten his technique. It was a dirty, street punch like none other that he'd given to someone. The pain he felt in his hand was satisfying in a way peculiar to Evin, but the pain in his stomach was disturbing. Reality seemed to snap back to him.
“We both want the same things yet somehow we devolve into this. You're a real ass, you know that?”

There was no time to react. Evin’s fist had connected before Jake could process what was happening and still; he couldn’t say he didn’t see it coming. The assassin’s punch had pushed Jake’s head against the wall behind him and left him with a lingering ache in the back of his head as well as his jaw. It wasn’t what Jake would call a proper punch by any means, but he would still be feeling it for a while. “Did you always want to be a Wolf, Evin? When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Knight. I thought knights protected people; I wanted to always be able to protect those around me.” Jake mumbled, sliding down the wall and sitting on the floor, rubbing his temples. “I never wanted to be a Wolf. Dani was one of two people I admitted that to at the time of my expulsion. She knew that I only came back; the only reason I would ever, was because Crys said she needed me...” Jake snorted softly. “And I’m always going to wonder, if part of the reason she sent me to Newhaven was to give me a way out, or if she just outright used me. Likewise, I’ll always be the one who killed her... You’re always going to be the guy who cut off a piece of my ear... Some things simply cannot be mended for the sake of any greater good. They are what they are.” Jake sighed. “Regardless, I meant what I said; about the kid. It’s not too soon to think about it, especially if the father’s gone. Ella’s mother put her in that orphanage to keep her safe. If not for The Shadow; for us, it might have worked.”

Jake went on about his life as if it were important. As if the fact that he chose to be a Knight was important. As if killing Dani was important and as if a superficial loss of his ear garnered importance. He was right, these were all things that couldn't be taken back. He spoke as if fate was a factor in all this. However, there was no merit to fate. “They are what they are,” Evin repeated.
“I never had the chance to not want to be a Wolf, Jake. I was a Wolf the moment that I was born into the camp. It wasn't something that I wanted or even something that I didn't want, for that matter. It was who I was. Through and through. Ella was the same. She was a Page and the Page family is royal. From the moment of her birth until her unnaturally long death, she's been royal. Hiding her in an orphanage didn't change that fact. Disguising her as a Wolf didn't change that either. And in the end, her death wasn't a consequence of any of these events. The events that happened in that ballroom lived in their own little world, Jake.”

“Pawns will be pawns... and Kings will be Kings... Like little pieces of a chess board, right? You can tell yourself that all you want, Evin. The world can tell itself that all it wants. I see how that’s reassuring. To strip choice from the equation, take away responsibility...” Jake laughed softly. “If Ella was always a Royal and nothing would change that, then why bring her to the forest, to begin with? Why train her in the first place if she was never going to truly be a Wolf? She was already a royal then, the only difference was no one knew. Dani said she had potential then. So, when people did know, did she change? Did all that potential die? I don’t want to throw this in your face, but I find it amusing that Sean was the one who fought for her to stay. And I’m not saying that would have been better, but I’m saying it was still an option.” Jake sighed, pushing himself to stand before the task became too difficult, swaying a bit in place. “You do what you have to, Evin, or find someone who will... I admit it’s not my business; not one bit, and this won’t be one of the many things keeping me up at night.”

“This girl was passed around her entire life. She went from castle to orphanage, back to the castle, to the dungeons, to the Wolves, to another dungeon before finally, she found her way back to the castle. Only once did she ever have a choice in the matter of where to go. Ella could have stayed with the Wolves. She could have chosen to go off and live a normal life, too. If she wanted to, she could have. I was her mentor. You know what happened to Owen. Did you just expect me to leave her with the man who’d just admitted to attempting to kill Crys? I gave her to Ria and then Ella chose to go to Newhaven instead of the desert. Ella was like the daughter I nev--”
“How sweet.” The young voice of the girl who Evin had thought was sleeping said. “You didn’t kidnap Ella to keep the baby safe, did you? You just want to hold onto your precious baby girl a little longer.”
“Now is not the time to be aggravating me.” Evin retorted.
“Oh, or what? You’ll hit me like you did to the jackass over there? I’d dare you to punch your precious little pregnant girl.”

“Evin, might not be able to, but I would, so I suggest you shut it.” Jake warned, not seeming at all fazed by the interruption and continuing to address Evin as though ‘Ella’ had never spoken. “I understand the facts, Evin. And that’s exactly the point. Ella’s life was mostly driven by desperation; her mother left her out of desperation, we dragged her to the forest to save her life, the White Knights were after her in some desperate attempt to restore order to Newhaven... By the time she had any choice, how was she expected to know what she wanted or who she even was? However there is a chance here to do for this child what was never done for her and, if there truly is no longer a father, maybe you and Captain should discuss this amongst yourselves. If anyone cared about that girl as much as you, it’s her. Think about it.”

“Are you suggesting I raise the child? I’m too old for it, Jake. Ria’s close to being too old for it. Hell, I’m nearing 38 now. When that child’s matured, I’ll be nearing my 60’s. As stressful as my life is now, I couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.” Evin said. Then he chuckled. “Who knows, I might not even make it past next month with all things considered.”
“It’s amazing that you brought me all this way without a plan,” Ella said, the tone mocking.
“There is another reason I’m here,” Evin said, ignoring the fact that he was being mocked. “I’m following leads on a person. He goes by the name of Wyatt. Seems to have been involved with Xypher in attempting to remove Ria from Newhaven. He also seems to know that I’m looking for him. Following me in bars, assassinating people who may have known about him. It almost reminds me of Perry in a way. It almost scares me how similar they are.”

Jake was silent for a few moments, a goofy look of amusement spreading across his features as he was clearly trying to imagine Evin and Mageria teaming up to raise a baby. While he managed to burst out laughing he did chuckle briefly. “Look, all I’m saying is that when a child loses both parents it should be up to their closest family to decide their fate. Whether or not the child’s mother was Queen shouldn’t change that. The fact of the matter is, you and Captain are the closest to a family this kid’s gonna have, so whatever is decided, you should at least decide together.” He shrugged.

Jake continued to ignore the necromancer, Evin’s mention of the name Wyatt peaking his interest. “Wyatt? That’s odd. Ali mentioned meeting a Wyatt at the ball in Blackpond. She described him as a redhead teenager, said he was in the company of this blonde couple and the woman seemed to be trying to kidnap Donovan. She distinctly remembered warning Ryan about them.”

Evin was interested, but not captivated by Allison’s encounter with a Wyatt. The description didn’t seem to fit what he was looking for. A teenager wouldn’t have the influence or skills to do what the Wyatt Evin was looking for could. The Wyatt he was looking for was a killer who had a way with words. That much, Evin could infer. How common of a name was Wyatt? He couldn’t think of any other Wyatt’s that he knew. The thief, Lionel likely used the name for himself because of its obscurity.
“I’m not sure if it’s the same Wyatt, but I’ll keep it in mind.”
Evin looked over to Ella again for a moment. She was twitching. It wasn’t an uncommon sight. Every once in awhile, the host would seem to disappear into Ella’s body and then the convulsions would start. Evin wasn’t quite sure what was going on but figured he wouldn’t worry himself over it too much.
“He can’t hear us right now,” Evin said, motioning to Ella. “If you want to say it… or anything for that matter, now would be the time.”

“It’s probably not the same, no, but maybe this person has some connection to your Wyatt. I mean, it’s plausible the man isn’t working alone. By your own comparison, I’m still not convinced The Shadow didn’t have people backing him. Impressive as his manipulative skills were, no one impersonates a king for that long without someone noticing.”

Jake stared at Ella’s twitching form, pondering Evin’s words. Some things were probably best left unsaid. Left alone. Buried. He sighed. “I went by the Wolves camp while they were preparing Sean for burial... I did promise him I’d return his knife after all... The clan seems to be falling behind Donovan now. I’m not sure whether it’s official yet, but... Suppose he’s just as good a candidate for Alpha as the next guy. The Pack and I will likely never be in good terms again, considering what I’ve done, but for the rest of you, the animosity hopefully died with Sean.”

Evin nodded his head at Jake. It was true, Sean’s death marked the end of many things to many people. To Evin, it marked the end of his connections with the Wolfpack. Everyone who kept him to the Wolfpack was either dead or had defected. Everything that Evin had built his life on was now completely unaffiliated with the Wolfpack. All his friends, companions, rivals, and associates were now bigger than what the Wolfpack had become. “I see cooperation in the future for the two of us. As long as you can keep yourself from killing my good friends, I think we can make this work. The past did die with Sean. I think it’s time to start anew.”

Jake couldn’t help but arch an eyebrow at Evin’s words about the past dying with Sean. It sounded unusually optimistic to him coming from Evin, but he wasn’t going to bring that up or argue the man’s statement. There’d be no point. He just nodded along instead. “That seems fair, I guess,” he answered calmly, rubbing his aching jaw as he took his leave.

------------------

Simon didn't bother wondering too far from where Jake had left him. There wasn't anything that he was after in the Raven's Nest. Simon's goal was singular. The campsite was just a resting spot until the opportunity arose and he was in no particular hurry rise. Nothing rushed him to complete his task. As long as he had the dagger, Simon didn't have to worry. His only worry rested with the wolf.

Simon didn't dislike dogs. He wasn't so sure about wolves. That wasn't what bothered him about his new companion, though. It all came down to Simon's pride. To have to be babysat by a dog brought Simon back to childhood when dogs would be used as a way to ensure Simon's safety from himself. When mother couldn't bother to take care of him, the family dog was always there to make sure Simon was safe. Now, many years later, Simon found himself in a similar position before. The only relief being that in Simon's metaphor for treating him as a child, Jake was Simon's mother. An amusing thought, but meaningless beyond Simon's headspace. The worry of the dog in itself was a meaningless thought which meant Simon could continue on, not caring for his predicament.

It was a spacious little area which Simon had been brought. By all means, one could almost call this encampment a town. It functioned much like any other town, except for the limitations to who may enter said camp. It was a military base before anything else, less involved in their previous obligations to Newhaven than before. Their obligations were elsewhere, now. Where they were, Simon couldn't discern from his limited view. He could have slipped into the various people's minds as they rushed by him. Maybe they could give him some insight. Did he care for insight? What would it gain him? It was possible that he'd gain nothing but at the same time, it was possible that he gained valuable information. It was also a waste of his time. What else would I do with my time?

Simon was right. There wasn't anything worthwhile to do in the camp. With the risk of a misstep resulting in a face ripped apart by a wolf, Simon preferred to stay on the safe side. It would be straightforward to get away with slipping into other people's minds unnoticed. The use of Simon's enlightenment was unassuming on most occasions.

There was a large rock propped by a tree. He ushered Rick to stand by the rock while Simon sat against the rock. He closed his eyes and when he opened them, he'd become attuned to the thoughts of the people around him. Most prevalent were the thoughts of Rick, deprived of logic and filled with depravities Simon preferred not to focus on. Broadening his thought, he started to catch glimpses of the people closest to him. A woman who was looking for her husband. A man who couldn't grasp the concept of swimming in the nearby river. Children hoping no one would catch them sneaking into the armoury to get a close look at all the interesting weapons. A conversation where two were dancing around the real talking points. And a mind all too familiar.

Simon snapped out of it. All the intrusive thoughts around him disappeared. He leapt off the ground, searching his surroundings for a specific face. The wolf growled, looking up at Simon with teeth bared and hair at attention. Simon settled back into the rock but didn't take his gaze off the wolf for one moment. While keeping a close eye on the wolf, he started to focus his thoughts again, looking for the familiar thoughts again.

It didn't take Simon long at all to focus back into the thought. To find where it was coming from wasn't all too difficult, either. He was just across the river and a couple dozen feet away from the person he was looking for.

"I never expected to find a mind so familiar to me when I ended up here. How did you end up here?" Simon asked the mind.

"I was kidnapped." The mind replied. "And you?"

Simon thought about that for a moment. Why would the Ravens feel a need to kidnap the queen from Newhaven? It wasn't a particular matter for him.

"I found Rick, but I also ended up finding the Black Knights. I have something now I've been put on quite a tight leash."

"You're going to give it to Vorso like you were instructed?" The mind asked.

"No," Simon said

"So you'll give it to Lamya?"

"I wouldn't give Lamya my socks."

"This isn't the smart thing to do, Simon. You're just going to abandon the Conflict like that?"

"The Conflict has never been a single entity. We are just a group of opportunists. Vorso, Lamya... you."

"I'm winning the war for Blackpond. I'm the closest thing to the Conflict's original purpose than anyone in this group is."

"Don't play me that way. I know more about you than you can ever comprehend. I know what you want better than you do." Simon said.

"I want Blackpond to win the war."

"Ella's an interesting woman. There's an interesting chapter about her in a book stored away somewhere in the White Shadows' archives. Myths of Medicine. You went to the archives that one time when Rory had us do reconnaissance, didn't you? How old were we again? Fifteen? Do remember what chapter it was? Don't hurt your brain, I know you don't but if you want, I could unlock that memory for you."

"You know, I never liked you."

"I know. To be frank, I don't care what you do. I don't care what any of you Valcrestians do as long as you aren't getting in my way."

Simon cut off the contact with the mind. Paying attention to reality again, he looked across the river to where the mind had come from. It was a small supply shed. From out the door, Jake walked out into the open. He thought about playing with Jake. Invading his mind and asking him why the Queen was in the camp. He decided against it. There was no need to provoke Jake anymore than he was already.

He looked back down to the wolf that was before him. Not having a particular need to provoke it, either, he decided to go off to find some food.


[Otium 18th, Evening] Blackpond

Rita looked around the room of Blackpond's new council. All fifteen members were now in the room. Present to hear what they were being offered. She knew some of them may reject their position and it was their right to do as they please. Every one of the people in the room was once a member of Rita's army. Most of them were competent generals and officers but there was an unlikely few that had been faceless soldiers to Rtia a short time before. They'd only had their chance to join the Large Council by recommendation of the new Small Council members who'd helped iron out Blackponds new political structure. It was important to have a mixture of people unknown to all of the Small Council Members. It allowed for diversity of opinions and was something Rita hoped would be beneficial to Blackpond's success from this point forward.

"We've spent the entire day discussing at great lengths what needs to be done to make this work. I can't guarantee that it will work and I'm sure we will run into problems but this is how things are going to be. The Small Council will consist of the six people who have been in discussion over the past ten hours. Those people are Oswald Valkenburg, Korvin Strongwell, Mayson Coffman, Brianna Westbrook, Arcadius Trivelli, and Ritania Lavoie-Hastings. The rest of you will sit on the Large Council if you so choose. Feel free to leave. We will find a replacement. If you wish to stay, we'll be discussing what your roles shall be in this new government."


[Otium 19th, Midnight] Not far from Blackpond

Dominic sat upright in his bed. He had been staring at the wardrobe in the corner of the room for what seemed like an hour now. It's bland features started blending into the wall as Dominic drifted in and out of conscious thought. For brief moments, he would be interrupted by the sound of Conrad or Wyatt turning in their sleep only to be drawn back to the corner of the room where he would continue to mindlessly drift through his thoughts.

There was no reason that Dominic was doing this. He was tired, but couldn't really sleep. He thought maybe it had something to do with Ella or possibly with the thought of Newhaven being crippled from the inside by revolutionaries. That wasn't the reason Dominic had trouble sleeping, though. He had moments like this before. Moments where he knew that he was facing a certain level of danger. It was the night before a battle. He'd only experienced it when he was certain that he was going to fight. This time, there was no sign that a fight was near.

"You can't sleep either?"

Dominic jumped to his feet but sat back down when he saw Wyatt adjusting himself upright in his bed. "No."

Wyatt didn't reply. He just stared back at Dominic. He supposed Wyatt expected him to continue his thoughts. Dominic went back to staring at the corner of the room, but he continued to look back at Wyatt who was just staring at Dominic. No real expression was on his face and he didn't seem at all willing to continue the conversation himself. Dominic let out a sigh.

"I've this feeling in my gut," Dominic said. "Can't place my finger on it."

"Do you suppose--"

"I can't place my finger on it."

Wyatt sluggishly slipped out of his bed. He walked into Dominic's vision, jolting Dominic out of his trance with the wall in front of him. "I was going to ask, do you suppose that it has something to do with the fact that even if you reclaim Ella from her assassin captor that she's practically dead anyway? At least, by all accounts, it sounds like she's a dead girl walking."

"No." Dominic paused for a moment but remembered that attempting to end this conversation was just leading to more anxiety. He continued. "I didn't become a knight to save the queen. I did it to preserve Sun and Moon's vision when they created Newhaven."

"And you know that vision?" Wyatt said.

"I wish I knew the exact answer to that. Have you ever felt that there is something bigger than you that you must achieve without knowing how to get there?"

"Long ago, yes," Wyatt said.

"You're just a kid. No older than Ella, at least. What would you know about, 'long ago'?" Dominic said.

Wyatt rolled his eyes at Dominic like anyone his age might do to someone undercutting their thoughts based on their age. Dominic didn't want to get into an argument with a kid over something like this, so he just avoided the question altogether. "I just know that Sun and Moon had a vision. If they didn't they wouldn't have created Newhaven to begin with. I'm fairly certain that Newhaven isn't nearly what it was like when Sun and Moon created it. Valcrest isn't anything that it was then, I imagine."

"I suppose you're right. That's what you're gut is telling you?"

"It has nothing to do with that. You asked me if it had to do with Ella and we got on this tangent. Like I said, I wasn't sure what my gut was telling me when you started this conversation and that fact hasn't changed in the last five minutes that we've been spent talking." Dominic said.

"Sorry. Does it have anything to do with the group that's been following us since we left Newhaven?"

"What?" Dominic asked.

"The five men that have been following us. You haven't noticed them. I don't think they're after us if that's any consolation. If I were to make a guess, I'd say that they're after something like us. Maybe they're hoping we'll lead them to it? I'm not sure, but that's what I'd do if I were them. They'll likely try to get the jump on us just before we reach our goal."

Dominic had gotten out of his bed while Wyatt was talking. He'd walked over to the window, next to Conrad's bed. Just a dirt path. What did he expect at that time of night? Across the road, there was another house not unlike the one that the three of them were staying in for the night. Dominic caught a glimpse of something on the roof. He peered towards it and then another movement caught his attention. A curtain in the window across the way ruffled a bit as a hand pushed open a window. He then caught a man coming from around the side of the house. He opened the front door. from behind the shadows of the door, Dominic caught a familiar flash. He ducked as the window he'd been staring out of shattered. A thud behind him. The wardrobe behind him splintered and a crossbow bolt stuck itself deep into the wood. Dominic looked back up through the window. He just caught a leg crawling through the window from the house across the way.

"What the hell is going on!" Conrad shouted. He'd already gotten out of bed, hardly clothed and brandishing his weapons that he'd left leaning against his bedside table.

Dominic didn't reply. Another crossbow bolt came flying through the window. This time, it whizzed just past Dominic's ear. He rushed out of the room, to the ground level where he'd left his weapon. Conrad followed not too far behind. Dominic didn't bother to check to see if Wyatt had followed them, too. Dominic busted through the door. Two men were standing there. Waiting for him. Dominic brandished the tip of his blade directly at one of the men in a threatening stance, but he didn't strike. He had more honour than to strike an unarmed opponent, even given their threatening nature.

The man didn't flinch. He stood there, almost stoic. "I don't mean to be so threatening. I only wish to show off my group's talents. We aren't after the queen and we aren't after you. We're after a man whose betrayed our cause and it just so happens that he's gone in the same direction as your queen's abductor. Would you at all be opposed to a tentative partnership?"

Dominic looked behind the man. His attackers had dropped all their weapons and slipped out of the shadows. He then looked back at Conrad and Wyatt who were just behind him.

"I'm not sure what you're angle is," Dominic said. He was weary of these men for good reason but it wouldn't be the first time that a Black Knight had worked with dubious and deceitful people. He'd already picked up Wyatt, who still wasn't too clear about his motives. "I suppose we can at least talk about it. Come in."

The setting changes from Blackpond to Raven's Nest

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Evin Bana Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Thomas Sidin Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Annie Turner

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[Raven's Nest - Otium 18, late afternoon]

Luckas sighed, holding back a laugh. They had been doing this for a while now; Lily had found him the moment he arrived in the Nest and been following him around ever since, chasing him for a bit then standing in front of him, staring for a few seconds, then yawning vigorously. After some time of making the girl chase him down for this; with no explanation as to why whatsoever, Luckas finally stopped trying to get away and just sat down by the oak, compliant, watching as she stared at him for long periods of time and then let out another exaggerated yawn, Stalker joining the girl in her yawning and eventually just curling up beside Luckas and taking a nap. Finally, Lily threw her arms up in the air in clear frustration and stormed off. Luckas was intrigued, so he jumped to his feet and went off after her.

Lily hadn’t gone far, she was standing beside an amused looking Jason, arms crossed and a severe expression that was a clear imitation of the one Jess would give the children at bedtime. “It doesn’t work!”

“There’s nothing wrong with the test, Lily.” The boy responded as if not wanting to explain anything more than that.

“Nuh-uh!” Lily protested. “I did just like you said and it didn’t work at all.”

“Okay...” Luckas snorted a laugh. “What is going here? What was that all about with the yawning and why are you two arguing?”

“It’s an empathy test,” Jason explained.

“An empathy tes-...” Luckas cut himself off, a look of understanding spreading across his features slowly. “I see.” Luke sighed, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. “Well, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with the test, Miss Lily... It just means I didn’t pass.”

The girl shook her head stubbornly. “That’s not right. Because you’re not mean so you should pass!” She argued.

Luke arched an eyebrow at the girl. “Is this an empathy test or a meanness test, hm?” He questioned playfully. “Listen, kid, it doesn’t mean I don’t have any empathy. I just have... a lot less of it than most people. So your test wouldn’t work on me because tests are made for regular people. You understand? Either way, not having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean a person is bad. It means it’s easier for them to do bad things because they wouldn’t feel bad about them.”

“But I think you have lots of empathy! You do nice things all the time.” Lily argued. “You tell us stories, and you help Jess with Danny even if you don’t really have to... And you make Miss Ess smile all the time... and stuff...”

Luckas snickered. “Do I? Huuh...” He mumbled, scratching his head playfully as though he hadn’t actually noticed these things before. “Weeeird.” Noting the girl’s confused expression Luckas sighed crouching down to her level. “Listen, Little Miss, I’m nice to you because I like you, yes? I like Miss Ess... and Jess is just very, very, bossy, you know? It’s easy being good to people you like. Good people are good even when it’s not easy. That’s something I can’t do.”

Lily frowned a bit as she thought about Luke’s words, making a face as if she had tasted something bitter. “Are you saying that to be good you have to be nice to people even if you don’t like them?”

Luckas laughed at the girl’s expression. “Nah, Miss Lily, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that good people don’t do bad things to people just because they don’t like them, or because they can. They would feel bad if they did.” He asked, standing up straight and waiting for her to nod in response before starting to walk back the way he came, purposely keeping his pace relaxed, knowing that the questioning wasn’t quite over yet.

“So you’ve done bad things to people just ‘cause you didn’t like them?” Lily asked, following after Luckas.

“Sometimes. More often than that because I could.”

“Why?”

“Why not?” Luckas retorted, his tone almost bitter, yet he halted and glanced at the girl with the corner of his eye, softening his next words. “That’s what empathy’s for, Miss Lily. It tells you why not.”

“Mister Luckas... Why do some people don’t have empathy then?” The girl asked.

Luckas shrugged casually and resumed walking. “I don’t think anyone knows, Miss Lily. Some people say that you are either born with empathy or not. Others think that people learn empathy from their parents when they’re still babies and that if something really bad happens then, or if they have no one to teach them, they never learn. Nobody knows which is true, though.”

“My Mommy and my Da taught me then!” Lily stated proudly. “You didn’t have a mommy to teach you?”

Luckas snorted slightly. “Not really.”

“Is she in Heaven like my mommy?”

“No,” Luckas mumbled. “No, she’s... She’s alive, but... She wasn’t a very good mommy. See, she didn’t want to take care of me or my brother; so she gave us away to some bad people.”

“Like the bad people taking children away now?”

Luckas frowned deeply but kept his tone relaxed. “You heard about that, huh?”

“We hear lots of things. Jess says we’re not supposed to, but...”

“I see,” Luckas smirked, a little bit amused. He stopped walking as he reached his spot by the oak and was greeted by Stalker lazily getting up from his nap to lick his hand. Luke scratched behind the wolf’s ears and sighed, unable to lie to the girl; even about this. “Yes, those people were something like that.”

“How could she do that?” Lily asked, clinging to Stalker as if he was a giant teddy bear and peeking at Luckas from behind a cover of black fluff.

“She had no empathy; not for us anyway.” Luke shrugged, sitting down by the tree and forcing a smile that was rather unconvincing. “You shouldn’t worry about that, it was a very long time ago.”

“Well, you know what? You have lots more empathy than she did.” Lily stated firmly. “So you didn’t need her to teach you anyways.”

Luckas shook his head but agreed with the girl, not wanting to extend that conversation any more than necessary. “I suppose you’re right Miss Lily.” Luke went silent for a little while before smiling wickedly at the girl. “You know what, I could really use some tea right now. Should we have some tea, Miss Lily?”

Lily’s eyes lit up in excitement as she vigorously nodded. “Okay! Wait here, I’ll be right back!” She exclaimed, running off towards the Captain’s cabin.

Luckas watched the girl wander off, his expression darkening considerably now that she couldn’t see him anymore; a reddish hue lingering underneath the dark of his eyes.

------------

[Raven's Nest - Otium 18, early evening]

Luckas’ spirits had lifted considerably while having ‘tea’ with miss Lily. For the most part, he had let the girl talk his ears off about all the new people gracing the Nest with their presence and how she had tried to sneak a look at the Queen but was caught by Jess before she could manage a peek. Luckas’ interest in Ella or Jake’s prisoners was barely existent and his only addition to the conversation at this point was to stress the fact Lily should absolutely not go near any prisoners under any circumstance. The girl rolled her eyes at him but agreed. After a while, Jess came by to break up their play date and Lily gathered her things in a hurry to join the other kids for supper, telling Luckas he could keep the shiny paper crown she’d given him to wear. It was a nice looking piece of sparkly paper, and Luke held on to it, even though he didn’t quite see himself as a crown-wearing kind of guy.

It didn’t strike him as odd that he hadn’t seen Ess since he arrived in the Nest, or the amount of drills the Ravens had been running lately. He knew better than anyone that all hell was going to break loose soon enough. It only made sense that the camp be this busy. While usually Luckas would have made it a point to find her, even if just to see what she was doing, this time, he decided to just wait by the oak and enjoy a quiet moment. Those plans were almost immediately thwarted by a loud sneeze and an annoyed whine.

“Hey, Tala...” Luckas sighed. “I know, I forgot to change, I smell wrong. Just deal with it, alright? I had a rough couple of days, I just want some quiet.”

Tala let out a short bark, and continued sniffing and prodding Luckas, whining in protest to his scent and when it became clear to the wolf that the man wasn’t going to anything about his ‘condition’, she took action herself, persistently rubbing her fur against the man’s clothes face and hair.

“Ugh, Tala, no, stop it,” Luckas complained, shoving the wolf aside and getting up on his feet. “Fine, for fuck's sake, I’ll go wash up.” He muttered, retrieving a clean set of clothes and the boots Ess had given him from his travel bag and starting towards the river. “I’m not one of your pups, you know? Just because you stopped trying to bite my face off doesn’t mean I have to listen to you.”

Tala barked in response, following after Luckas and still sniffing at his heels.

“Knock it off,” Luckas mumbled, glaring at the wolf. “You couldn’t just cut me a little slack for once, could ya? Noooo... ” He continued to mutter at the wolf under his breath as they reached a more secluded area in the outskirts of the camp. He nudged Stalker, the wolf tracking ahead to make sure there was no one currently at the water pool. It was unlikely, but seeing as some of the women in the camp often bathed there he’d rather not risk it. The wolf’s short howl told Luckas that the area was clear and the man continued on, annoyance still clear in his voice as he mumbled to himself. “As if I didn’t have enough to worry about... No one would even notice if you didn’t make such a big deal every time... bloody wolf...”

Luckas was quick to strip naked and get in the pool, feeling a bit of shock from the cold water as he sunk in and exhaling sharply as it subsided. The idea of bathing in the Nest was unappealing to him for several reasons, but most of all because if anyone so much as glimpsed the mark on the back of his shoulder he would be done for. “Do you have any idea, the risk you’re making me take? Hm? Maybe you are still trying to kill me.” He muttered at Tala, resting both arms on the edge of the pool and glaring at the wolf. Tala responded with a snort, inching closer and taking a whiff of Luke’s hair before licking his nose, seeming satisfied that he was clean. “Yeah, yeah, I’m watching you.” He chuckled as the wolf wandered off, most likely to find Ess.

When Luckas returned to the Nest, once again thinking of just going back to the Oak and relaxing. Once again, his plan was immediately thwarted when he spotted Clayton stalking this man along the camp, the boy looking very determined and scared out of his mind at the same time. It took Luckas half a glance to know that man was far from the innocent victim he was making himself out to be. Luckas gestured for Stalker to hide and the wolf immediately disappeared in the woods. Luke then walked straight to Clayton and grabbed the boy by the collar of his shirt. “What, if I may ask, do you think you’re doing?” He snapped.

Clayton winced, eyes widening at being caught. “Uh, I...”

Luckas pulled the boy further away so that he was now standing between him and the stranger. “You don’t go around shoving your hands into people’s pockets like that! Who’s been teaching you this stuff?”

“Irvin did, but...”

“Irvin is an idiot. Which is not surprising considering the idiot in charge of his training.” Luckas snorted, softening his tone a bit when he realized Clayton was just about to start crying on him. “Listen to me, Clay; you do not prey on people blindly like this. Just because they look distracted it doesn’t mean they are. And if they’re pretending to be, you have to ask yourself...” He glanced at the man. “...Why?” He let go of Clayton’s shirt. “If you want to practice, practice on the guard. You’re not ready for this, do you understand?”

Clayton nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“Okay. Now go find Jess, go on. You should be going to bed by now.”

“Okay, I will. Thank you, Mister Luckas.” Clayton smiled, peeking at the stranger for a bit and waving. “Bye Mister Creepy Man!”

Luckas snorted a chuckle as the boy ran off. “So... Mister Creepy Man...” Luke muttered, now taking a good look at the stranger and immediately recognizing his face. “Mind telling me what your plan was with the kid? Because there're only two kinds of people I know who would willingly lead a child to reach into their pockets, but seeing as you’re Captain’s friend I’ll be kind enough to assume you are neither.”

Evin hadn't left his commandeered hut since he'd arrived. Keeping his eye on Ella was his top priority. However, in the Nest, he keep know that there was a certain level of safety. He could leave the cabin for a short while and while most of the previous Black Guards didn't know him, Evin knew them all too well. He'd tasked some of the better guards to protect the hut before leaving the cabin's sight. It would give him a chance to take a look around the camp and to keep up with the goings on around camp.
He'd only just left when he heard soft shuffles scuttling behind him. Evin didn't indicate at all that he knew he was being followed but continued on with a little more caution. He slowly circled around himself, taking note of his tracks on the ground as he walked by them. It was a kid. A younger one, at that. Evin relaxed. He led the kid on a wild chase through the camp until eventually finding a rather secluded place to stop. Rather irritated, he took his shoe off, shaking it as if there was a rock inside. When he felt rummaging through his pocket, he gently chucked his shoe over his head.
“Ouch!” The kid yelped.
“I don't know what you look like. Make sure you keep it that way, kid. Drop the string behind me. You can keep the copper pieces.” Evin said with a stern tone.
The kid scuttled off again, but not before he heard him shout, back a farewell to Evin. Am I really that old?
Then a younger man walked up to him. He looked no older than twenty with deep-set black eyes and black hair which seemed to partly cover his face.
“I have a hard time presuming that you walk around this camp and don't at least know my name. I'm Evin. Now that you know my name, you can use it.”

Luckas crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Evin with an eyebrow raised. “I know your name, sir. Mister Bana. Mister Evin. Mister Ev... J-Bear has some other names for you, I could use one of those as well.” He shrugged lightly. “So, yes, I can use your name. There’s a great many deal of things I can do, in fact. Just because I can, though, doesn’t mean I will.”

Luke unfolded his arms and ran his fingers through his hair, noting it was still damp from his impromptu bath. His smoothed his locks and picked the shiny paper crown miss Lily had let him keep earlier from his pocket. Unfolding the hat and placing it over his head. “There was one person I sometimes... Sometimes... Called by name,” he said, casually. “Sometimes I called her Lena. Most times I just called her Evil Bitch. We had a complicated relationship, but in my defense, she didn’t seem to mind that. She did mind what you called her, though. She didn’t say it but she minded, and you knew that she minded... Yet you did it anyway.” Luke’s eyes narrowed at Evin and sparkled red for a moment before his posture relaxed. Once again he shrugged at the man. “You did it because you knew that she minded and I think, hey far from me to judge, but you know... At the same time, you’re one to talk when it comes to how people address you. Mister Assassin Man.” Luckas’ face scrunched up for a moment as he thought over the name. “Nah... Mister Frowny Man? Mister Frowny Assassin Man? Mister Crankypants? Hmmm... I’m a bit off my game today, but no worries... I’ll find one that suits you soon enough.”

Eyes glossed over as Evin listened to this man drone on. He wasn’t even sure what the black-haired little brat was saying, but Evin indulged him the opportunity to continue talking. Evin wouldn’t have liked to say it, but he felt above this sort of condescending conversation from total strangers. He replied with the only thing that seemed dignified the conversation, “okay”and he moved on his way, towards what seemed to be the smell of some freshly cooked rabbit.

“I’m glad you agree,” Luckas said as he continued wandering off after Evin, eyeing him as though trying to make out what kind of person he was. After a few steps he whispered under his breath, it was a soft command, simple, one that might go unnoticed to someone naturally prone to tripping over their own feet, which was what Evin ended up doing. He caught himself, but Luke didn’t mean to cause a fall, only slow him down. He used the man’s misstep to run ahead of him and get in his face, looking into his eyes and catching a glimpse of the freshest memories on his mind. “You seem preoccupied, Mister Grumpy Man... You worried about Little Ella? Is she still not done playing puppet to that idiot? I told her I could help her, but she said ‘no’. No. ‘Cause of the kid I guess.” Luke smiled. “Always took her for a wimp, but even I have to admit that’s commendable. I don’t think anyone would fault her for wanting an easy way out in this case.”

Evin jumped to life at the mention of Ella. He grabbed Luckas by his shirt and pushed him backward. Luckas’ breath escaped him as he was violently backed into a tree. A dagger pressed against his throat with another one flashing from a hidden pocket in Evin’s coat to hold what seemed to be Luckas’ dominant hand against the tree. Any struggle would likely end with either Luckas’ throat cut or his hand pinned to the tree behind him, or both. “What’s your game with Ella? Who are you? What do you want from her?” He said through a stiff jaw. “And it’s Evin.”

Luke didn’t seem to care much for being roughed up. That was really a daily occurrence, or almost, at this point. He let out a small chuckle at the man’s response. “What could I possibly want from her? I did her a favor. Someone needed to explain what this was. She thought she was still alive. Understanding takes away the fear, or so I hoped.” Luke gave a half shrug, careful not to move too much. “I was just curious, if you don’t want to tell me how she’s doing, that’s fine by me.”

Evin let up his death grip on Luckas. He backed away a few steps and allowed him to compose himself in whatever way comforted him. Evin still felt in control and with a dagger in his hand, he could rest assured that should this strange fellow try to attack, that he wouldn’t have the jump on Evin. Luckas hadn’t revealed anything about himself, yet. Evin could respect that on a certain level. It took one man to fear someone who had a dagger to his throat and didn’t flinch but Evin wasn’t that man. Someone who could look at Death--or the perceived threat of Death--and not for a moment worry of what may come of it deserved respect. In fact, someone of that composure almost demanded it. Sean may have decided to address it and Perry, he knew, must have feared it. Evin was even thinking about it right now but this stranger in front of him seemed to be familiar enough with it to hold it with little regard.
“I wouldn’t know how Ella’s doing. It’s rather difficult to speak with someone who can’t speak with you. How you managed to speak to her would be a mystery. I’m a smart man. I have my suspicions.”
Evin put away one of his daggers, pivoting it through his fingers without a thought before tucking it away through a seem that almost seemed to disappear when his hand came back in view. “You still haven’t told me who you are.”

“Eh, my name is Luckas. Just Luckas.” Luke gave a long moment of thought to the question he was just asked and then shrugged yet again. “That doesn’t quite answer your question, but... Who I am is an awfully convoluted mess I’m sure you have no time or patience to figure out, sir.” He calmly stretched, trying to work some stiffness out of his body, his eyes not leaving Evin though he really wasn’t worried. “And I’m a telepath. I talked to her that way, but I doubt he’ll let me do it again. He’s really annoying for a dead man. I mean, I could enter their mind, sure, but that doesn’t mean he’ll let her talk. He’s in control for the most part.” Luke grinned, mostly at himself, not voicing what thought prompted the shift in his expression just yet. “You know, Jakey-Bear doesn’t seem to like you much; what I’ve seen of his thoughts before I got bored with it at least, but... You are a smart man. A crankypants, but smart. I’m sure if you look, you could find a way to talk to her. I’d be rather bored if I was stuck with that idiot and waiting for death. Little Ella should definitely appreciate the visit.”

Evin didn’t like riddles. He didn’t like the idea that people would beat around the bush when they knew the answer to his problems. Evin wasn’t even sure what the problem was. Luckas did. He knew the problem, the answer, and likely the means to by which to accomplish every task that would be faced in looking for the answers. Did Luckas want to tell Evin any of this? No. Not by any direct means, that is. He looked down into the dirt and shuffled his feet. “You must’ve been telling the truth when you said you know Lena,” Evin muttered mostly to himself. Looking back towards Luckas, he said, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Luckas blinked, seeming momentarily confused at Evin’s statement. “Okay, maybe you’re not as smart as I thought. I’ll draw you a little picture then.” He snorted, gesturing with his right hand to a point right behind Evin. “Easy, champ,” he mumbled, carrying on speaking as though there’d been no interruption and not giving another thought to the large black wolf that was now sniffing at Evin’s boots. “The necromancer responsible for Little Ella’s state is in control of her... well... their... consciousness. It’s a bit of a collective mind type thing, I guess. So even if a telepath can enter her, their, mind... There’s no guarantee to speak with her. That’s one issue there. The second issue would be that even if I could talk to her I couldn’t form a link between her mind and yours so that the two of you could speak. That said, there is someone I know who can and for what I heard he’s somewhere in this camp. The man’s name is Simon. I don’t know what interest he’d have in helping you communicate, but he could.” Luckas shrugged. “Like I said, though, you’ll have to look around. I don’t know where he is.” Luke snorted a chuckle as he watched Stalker poking his nose at the assassin for a few more seconds before coming to his side and sitting, he scratched behind the wolf’s ears in silent praise. “I think, maybe you’ll find him easier if you look for the giant white wolf Jakey Bear had following their asses around camp. I guess the purpose of that would be keeping the mad king from... I don’t know... Drooling on someone. The man is pretty much a potato at this point, I figure. If you find him, tell him I said hello.”

A telepath that could link communications. Evin had never heard of a telepath that could do that. He knew Lena couldn’t do that. She never revealed it to Evin if she did. But what would Evin gain from linking his mind to Ella’s? Was there a purpose to it all? Could he do anything to free her from her death grip? Probably not. Evin’s eyelids stiffened slightly. He retracted his lips into his mouth and looked away from Luckas for a moment. Letting out a heavy sigh, Evin looked back at Luckas and the wolf. “A potato and a white wolf. Sounds like it will be easy enough to find. Thanks.” Evin turned around to walk away. Despite not looking at Luckas, he made sure to be hyper aware of his surroundings as he wandered off. As he was about to pass behind a tree, he turned around. Luckas wasn’t there anymore. He wasn’t far. “You may have been helpful to me, but I swear: Some memories aren’t meant to be explored. If you cross me, I won’t be kind.”

Luckas snorted a laugh at Evin’s threat, poking his head from behind a tree just long enough to issue a reply. “Buddy, I have better things to do with my life, but... if you think that little threat would stop me doing anything, you clearly don’t know who you’re dealing with. Besides; don’t thank me, I’m not doing this for you.”

That said, Luke ‘disappeared’ behind the trees once again, glancing at Stalker as he started to finally head back to the oak. “Hate to agree with Lena on anything, but he is a bit of a self-entitled brat, isn’t he?”

================================

[White Shadows Camp - Otium 16, late night]

It took Annie a good while and some considerable effort to calm down Emily. She had to administer a tranquilizer to get the girl to settle down and after a few moments of uncontrollable sobbing she’d fallen asleep. Once the girl had calmed and was asleep, Alistair peered into the room to check on what was happening. Finding an uncharacteristically agitated Annie pacing around the tent like a beast in a cage. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“I don’t know what to tell that kid, Alistair. What can I tell him, really?" Annie blurted out, ignoring his question entirely.

“You’re not allowed to repeat anything you’re told, but what you’ve seen...” Alistair trailed off, watching Annie closely as the younger healer paced back and forth in front of him. “I know she might not want her brother to know the details, but it might be easier to make him understand the situation if you’re a little blunt.”

Annie stopped walking and turned to face Alistair. “We’ve dealt with cases like this before, but Emily is complicated. I can’t know what she would want, I can’t just ask her what she wants without...” She snorted a laugh. “Mom would know how to handle this better, I’m no telepath, I don’t know how mental damage like this actually works. As if Luckas wasn’t bad enough,” she muttered, rubbing her eyes. “Telling Irvin about things she doesn’t remember seems... Wrong.”

“From an ethical standpoint, maybe, but it’ll be easier on them both if he’s prepared for what will happen when she does begin to remember everything. Because it will eventually come back.”

Annie heaved a lengthy sigh, her eyes trailing from Alistair to the sleeping girl. “I suppose you’re right. Her memory is coming back faster than I expected and she’s not taking well to the idea of remembering.”

“I could talk to him if you want. I know this won’t be easy to say.” Alistair offered.

“No, Al, she’s my apprentice, I’m responsible for her. Besides...” Annie trailed off, her voice fading into a pained silence.

“You’re the only one who’s seen the state she was in.” Alistair finished her sentence with a nod. “I know.”

“Keep an eye on her for me, have someone come get me the moment she wakes up. Do not leave her alone, not for a second, Al.”

“Yes, Your Worshipness.”

Annie laughed at the man’s teasing. “Shut up.”

“Ah, see? Pretty boy over there is not the only one who knows how to make you smile.” Alistair chuckled.

“Aaaw, Al... Don’t tell me you’re jealous of Darren, now? You’ll always be my favorite big brother.”

“Normally I’d argue I’m your only brother, but that’s not quite true anymore is it?” Alistair quipped.

Annie laughed again, this time more softly, her expression more contemplative than amused as she wrapped her arms around Alistair. “You know, I’m happy you came back. You didn’t have to, but I’m glad you did.”

“Eh, anything for you shorty.” Alistair smiled, patting the top of Annie’s head.

“I’ve told you to never to call me that, Al,” Annie complained, breaking the hug and give him a forceful shove. “Way to ruin the moment, jerkface.”

“Heh, sorry, kiddo.” Alistair shrugged. “You know me, I can’t handle all this emotional stuff.”

“Mhm,” Annie mumbled, giving her brother a playful look of disbelief. “Just keep an eye on the kid for me,” she instructed. “I kept Irvin waiting long enough and I’m sure he’s worried sick.”

-------

Annie traced her steps back to where she left Irvin. The boy hadn’t moved a muscle from where he was standing, his eyes empty and focused at some random patch of grass at his feet. This was already shaping up to be a difficult conversation, but he looked so utterly lost it was actually painful. She sighed softly, walking towards him and placing her hand on his shoulder to draw his attention. “Irvin? Can you come with me please?”

Irvin nodded in agreement and Annie led him to her tent. Once inside, she sat him down and made some tea, giving the both some time to gather their thoughts. She pushed a full cup into the boy’s hands and sat across from him. “Emily is going to be okay, Irvin. She was just a little bit rattled. I gave her something to calm her nerves, she’s sleeping now.”

“This is my fault. It’s all my fault. I’ve been so focused on... Worthless shit... I didn’t even look for her. I just left her with him. Stupid of me to think he’d be able to care for anyone.”

“Your brother?”

“Did she talk about him?”

“Not really, Irvin. Emily’s memory is... Not the most reliable right now. When she first got here, she couldn’t even tell me her name. She still has no recollection of where she’s been in the past months or how she got here.”

“Jake and I ran into Alan; my brother, at the Blackpond Ball. He said he sold Emily off to pay a gambling debt. That he hadn’t seen her in months. I never should have left her with him. Even if she ended up in the dungeons with me she would have been safer.”

“You don’t know that,” Annie reassured. “You couldn’t have known any of this. It’s not your fault.”

“How long has she been here?” Irvin asked, staring at his cup of tea and wincing at the realization his tea was now frozen solid.

“Emily arrived here while I was in Blackpond for the Ball. When I came back, I was informed of her situation by the healers I left in charge in my absence. She was confused and terrified. I had to drug her in order to conduct just a simple physical examination and it took days to get her to speak to anyone. In hindsight, she’s made incredible progress in the weeks she’s been with us.”

“Was she hurt? How did she lose her memory?”

Annie’s head lowered and she stared at her untouched tea for a few moment before answering. “Her memory was tempered with. I’m not sure how exactly, but her memories were blocked, locked away. She wasn’t hurt when she got here, but... All signs indicate that she had been hurt, a lot, wherever she was.” She took a sip from her tea and heaved a deep breath. “Emily had bruises in several stages of healing, scarred lashes, healed fractures... She showed signs of severe abuse.”

Irvin grimaced, taking a long deep breath as he concentrated in reheating his frozen tea for few seconds, taking a short sip of the, now warm, liquid. “Abuse?” He questioned. “What kind of... Was she...” He shook his head, trying to find words that didn’t seem as horrible. “Did they?”

“Yes.”

Irvin dropped his cup of tea, a choked sound escaping his throat as he stared at his hands. The confirmation sending a stabbing, agonizing, pain through his heart. He never asked Jake what had happened to Alan, but if he was still alive; he wouldn’t be for much longer. “She doesn’t remember any of it?”

“Not yet. She will.” Annie sighed. “Like I said, her memories are blocked. It’s possible that the trauma is what’s keeping them from coming back fully. Emily herself says she’s afraid to remember and that fear is hindering her recovery, but... The mind heals, Irvin. Those memories; those events, they won’t be locked away forever. They will come back eventually.”

Irvin hid his face in his hands for a few moments, his voice coming out muffled. “Is that why she reacted that way? She said... She said I was dead...”

“She was probably told that you were. Sometimes where there are gaps in a memory the mind will try to fill in the blanks; treat statements as fact.” Annie reached for Irvin’s shoulder in an attempt to comfort the boy. “I know this is difficult to hear. All of it. But Emily is healing, she’s been adjusting well here and, once she wakes up and the fog starts to lift from her mind, she’ll be happy to see you.”

Irvin sighed. “You think so? I don’t want... I don’t want to makes things worse for her. If me being here, if seeing me, is hurtful in any way I can just...”

“You’re her family. She needs you. You being here is not going to make anything worse, I promise.”

“I abandoned her. I let this happen. What if she hates me? I can’t...” Irvin shook his head, unable to properly finish his thought.

“You’re alive. You’re here now. She’s not going to hate you.” Annie smiled at Irvin. “Who knows, maybe you’ll both heal a lot faster together.”

As if on cue, a healer called out to Annie and entered the tent. “I’m sorry to intrude Annie, but Alistair asked me to warn you.”

“Emily woke up?”

“She’s on her way over, I don’t think he’ll be able to stop her.”

Annie chuckled. “If she’s well enough to get past Alistair, that’s a good sign in my opinion. Thank you, Elora.”

The woman was barely out of the tent when Emily stormed in, she still looked shaky, but a lot more lucid than she had been in quite a while. Irvin jumped to his feet at the sight of his sister and the girl stood for a long moment staring at him before rushing in his direction and wrapping her arms around him in a tight embrace. “You’re real,” she spoke, choked laughter escaping amidst her words. “You’re real... You’re really here...”

Irvin was momentarily at a loss for words, returning his sister’s embrace and watching the girl sob against him for nearly a full minute before he managed a word. “You remember me?”

Emily nodded. “Mhm... I... I’m still a little confused, but... I remember when you left and Alan said the guard had caught up with you. He said...” She shook her head. “I should have known he was lying. I’m so sorry.”

“No. No, no, no... Ems, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have left you. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Irvin, I don’t care that you left.” Emily broke their hug and looked up at her brother with a wide smile. “I’m just happy you’re alive.” The girl then frowned as she finally stopped to get a good look at his face. “What happened? Did someone hit you?”

“What? Oh...” Irvin reached for his bruised cheek and snorted a laugh. “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”

Emily’s eyes narrowed for a moment in a severe glare, but she continued to smile at her older brother, pulling Irvin by the hand. “Come on, let’s go get something to eat, I want to know where you’ve been the past year.”

Irvin shot Annie a slightly panicked look at Emily’s sudden excitement, but let himself be dragged along anyway, seeming as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

--------------------------------

[White Shadows Camp - Otium 19, early morning]

“I still think it’s funny... You’ve been with the Ravens all this time, Annie’s cousin was training you, you’re pals with Darren and no one realized your missing sister was right here all this time.” Emily sighed, giving Irvin an amused smirk as he helped her change a patient’s bandages; noticing that he was looking quite queasy from the process. “I can’t help but think that me telling everyone my brother was dead might have gotten in the way a bit.”

“That’s not your fault, Ems.”

“I know.” She shrugged. “There, all done, sir.” She smiled at the injured mercenary and led Irvin out of the examination tent.

“Any more gruesome head injuries before breakfast?” Irvin asked, frowning at his sister. “I swear that guy’s brain was showing.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Emily laughed. “It was a nasty wound, but if his brain was exposed he would be a potato right now. Not to mention it’d be smelling a lot worse.”

“You know what? Forget breakfast.” Irvin shuddered.

“Wuss,” Emily teased, bumping against her brother as they walked towards the center of the camp. “Well, I’m hungry and it’s gonna be a busy day. They’re all busy days.”

“You really like it here, huh?”

“I do. It’s good... Helping people. And I’m good at it. Annie said I can be a fantastic healer if I want to.”

The pair walked up to one of the tents were some healers were having tea and picking at an assortment of bread, fruit, and cheese. Emily smiled and greeted them by name before helping herself to some fresh fruit.

“I’m glad,” Irvin said, helping himself to a roll and biting into it.

“Oh?”

“Mhm. You seem at home here. That’s good. That’s... The closest any one of us has gotten to one.”

“What about you?” Emily asked, looking at Irvin with concern. “You’re clearly not cut out to be a healer.”

Irvin laughed. “No... No... We know what I’m good at, though, don’t we?” He smirked.

“Iiiirv...” Emily scolded.

Irvin snickered. “I don’t know, sis. The Ravens were good to me, but I don’t think I can go back now. Not... Anymore... So I guess for now I hang around here? At least I get to spend time with you. Even if that means dealing with exposed brains now and again.”

“Aaaw, you’d do that for me? That’s so sweet.” Emily smiled. “Just don’t slow me down. And don’t puke anywhere, I’m not cleaning it up.”

“Love you too, Ems.” Irvin rolled his eyes at her, finishing his breakfast roll and shrugging. “And I won’t make any promises on the puking thing.”

=====================================

[The Desert - Otium 19, midday]

Indrani’s eyes followed the horse’s every move with an intensity reserved for a lioness guarding her cubs. She could remember as though it was only yesterday, the day she took Mirage from her previous owner; a scrawny, mistreated, ugly thing. One look at that poor excuse for what should have been a majestic animal and no one thought she’d ever amount to anything. “It’d be kinder to put the poor thing to rest,” that had been Jackson’s say in the matter. Indrani wasn’t having it. It wasn’t something she would’ve argued with normally; prolonging an animal’s suffering for your own selfish pride was wrong and she knew that, but she could tell Mirage was different. There was something in the mare’s eyes that told Indrani she wasn’t ready to give up just yet and she was more than determined to see her through.

It worked out in the end. Not without a lot of time and effort from the both of them, but it worked out. The horse’s faded sickly coat was no less gray, but it had grown shiny and speckled in white, her mane long and silky, her body had filled up with muscle and fat. Mirage wasn’t what one would consider a prized specimen by usual standards, but she was healthy, strong, and the fastest mare in all of Valcrest without question. Indrani’s pride and joy.

A soft, near-inaudible, whistle blew past the woman’s lips, causing the horse’s ears to twitch ever so slightly. Mirage turned and trotted towards the fence to Indrani, the woman smiling softly as she stared into the animal’s dark eyes. “There she is...” Indrani whispered, chuckles escaping her as Mirage nuzzled her hair and neck. “Someone’s been a stubborn girl, I hear. Hmm?” she smiled, calmly waiting for the mare to finish her ‘greeting’ before pressing her forehead to the the animal’s and letting out a soft sigh. “Things got a bit too frightening for you, I reckon. I don’t blame you, girly, I was pretty scared too...”

“What are you doing up and about? You’re supposed to be on bed rest; Annie’s going to kill you if she finds out.”

“I’m fine. It barely hurts as long as I’m careful.” Indrani snorted, turning to face Allison as the assassin calmly leaned against the fence beside her. “How come you’re still here?”

“Well, you still have injured people who need helping and I’m in no hurry to go back to Newhaven.” Ali shrugged. “I honestly don’t think I’m very useful there anyway. Crys just wants me away from Blackpond.”

“That may be her way of protecting you, but I doubt she’d place you where you’re not needed,” Indrani spoke, calmly petting Mirage between the ears.

“Eh, it doesn’t matter.” Ali shrugged.

“No? I’d think you’d want to be more involved with your clan’s activities. It’s not like you to be this... Apathetic... Are you alright?”

Ali snorted a laugh as Mirage started to sniff and prod her hair with her nose. “I’m alright, I’m just... Really tired, I guess.”

Indrani calmly caught Ali’s hand midway to petting the horse and forced it down. “Wait,” she told her, smiling at the questioning look the archer shot her. “Horses are very sensitive animals, you know. They enjoy giving and receiving affection, but... They can’t do both simultaneously. If Mirage is being affectionate with you, if she’s giving, the way to show affection in return is to be still and receive.” She released Ali’s hand and smiled. “I think this is one of my favorite things about horses. They experience every moment, however small, with all of their focus; the whole of their beings. It’s a lesson for humanity, really... To honor the one you’re with by simply allowing them to love you.”

Ali stood there silent at Indrani’s words. They made sense, in a way. Everyone she knew, at one point or another, pushed their loved ones away out of love itself. For protection, out of guilt, fear of the future, or the past, she wasn’t sure. What sounded like such a simple thing the way Indrani said it, really wasn’t. To just allow yourself to be loved for the duration of a single moment. “We make such a great team, you and me...” Ali smiled. “I’m apathetic, you’re melancholic... Neither of us is quite like they should be right now. Which, begs the question; how are you doing?” She asked, calmly waiting for Mirage to turn her muzzle away from her ear and petting the horse’s neck. “Jackson was a bit worried yesterday.”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Indrani muttered.

“Listen, I’m not going to pretend I’m sad Sean died. I can’t. And I honestly don’t think he’s even worth your grief, but... You’re my friend. And if you need to talk, I’m here to listen. At least, I’m here right now.”

“I was stupid. I can’t stop thinking about how stupid I was. I can’t stop thinking that if I’d seen things for what they were right from the start, none of this had to happen.” Indrani sighed, slouching into the fence and letting out a groan. “I know that’s not true. Or at least the truth is not as simple as that, but... He was my friend. I still wanted to save him even after all the little ways he managed to hurt me. Even now that he’s gone. A part of me still thinks that if I could reach out to him... I could fix this. And I can’t. I couldn’t help Sean, I can’t help Dastan... I can barely stand even less help my clan now... I’m...”

“You’re not useless, Indi, you’re just broken. Trust me, because I’ve been; a lot, this doesn’t last forever. Right now, though, maybe it’s time for you to just be still. To just live the moment and allow yourself to feel this. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Indrani shook her head. “I just... I’m so tired of failing the people who need me.”

“You’re the only one who thinks you’ve failed, Indrani.”

Indrani let out a bitter laugh. “No, no I’m not.” She tugged on the pendant hanging from her neck, the sigil of Effort. “My people believed in honor, in loyalty, you die if you must, but you never betray your duties. Not once. Not for any reason, but I...”

Ali shook her head, utter amusement in her expression. “You can’t change the things you’ve done and punishing yourself for them now helps no one; not yourself or your clan.”

“Dastan shouldn’t have put their lives in my hands after everything.”

“Your brother is a lot of things. A lot of them. But he’s not stupid, Indrani. If he left the Crimson under your leadership is because he trusts you more than he trusts himself right now. If you want to honor anything, honor that trust.”

“You do realize I acted against your people while you were with us, right?”

“That doesn’t matter. Even if you hadn’t, we weren’t going to just sit here and move on with our lives. Things were going to turn ugly one way or another, sooner or later, and if anything; I understand you wanting to shield your people from it.” She sighed. “Just don’t ever bring this up with Evin, okay? You might invoke his wrath and then who knows what’ll happen.”

Indrani laughed. “Oh no, we wouldn’t want that. We have enough explosions around here as is.”

“I hear Annie almost lost her patience with Dastan and his firework experiments before Jake’s birthday.”

“I wasn’t exactly happy about them myself, but he was excited about something for a change. He hasn’t quite been himself since...” She silenced for a moment. “I don’t think he’ll ever be the same again now, but... You know...”

“I know. I don’t think any of us will, though. The past three years have been...” Ali cut herself off, a pained groan escaping her as she doubled over, leaning into the fence and clinging to the wood with both hands.

“Ali, are you alright? What...?”

“I’m fine,” Ali mumbled, letting out a sharp breath. “It’s alright, it... It already passed.”

Indrani was unconvinced, staring at her friend with concern in her eyes. “How long have you been having symptoms like this?”

“Indi, I’m fine, really. Don’t worry about it. We’re all sick, it’s nothing new at this point.” She slowly steadied herself, forcing a few deeper breaths.

Indrani shook her head. “This was not ‘nothing’, Ali. Wh-...” She stopped talking, the realization suddenly hitting her. “This is why you stayed behind, isn’t it? This is why you just let Crys push you to Newhaven... There’s no way you would just accept sitting on the sidelines five months ago, but now...”

“Indrani, let it go,” Ali warned, glaring at the commander. “Just... Let it go.”

“When do you plan on telling them?”

“Telling them what?” Ali muttered. “What do you suggest I tell them exactly? ‘Oh, hey, my nervous system is slowly going to shit and injecting me with unbearable, excruciating, pain to a point where soon enough I’ll be complete and utterly useless until I finally drop dead’; is that what I should tell them? Because I don’t know... It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. I don’t want to waste what’s left of my time trying to endure everyone’s pity or, Twins forbid, guilt over the fact they can’t help me. They can’t help me, Indi. What could I possibly say to make that any easier?”

“Maybe they can’t save you, Allison, but they are your friends; your family, these are the people who love you. If you’re in pain, if you’re afraid, they’re the only ones who can help you.”

Ali snorted softly, pushing away from the fence. “I don’t want that kind of help.” Her eyes softened for a moment as she watched the horses running about inside the fence. “I just want to feel like myself for as long as I still can. I know it’s selfish, but right now I feel like I have that right. So, please, just... Let it go.”

==================

[Newhaven - Otium 19, early afternoon]

Ryan had argued against Donovan’s decision. He didn’t see a point in reclaiming the Inn considering the state Newhaven was currently in. They would need to start recruiting as soon as possible; sure, but the way things were in the city, prioritizing this now felt to him like a waste of energy. The Alpha felt differently, however, and in this case, the Alpha had spoken. And so Ryan entered the establishment, alone, hauling a bag of sand over his shoulder. The commotion that had taken place at the bar had ended by now, but about a dozen rebels remained, some of them still suffering the effects of their celebrations.

“Huh. I might not even need this,” Ryan mused, dropping the bag of sand, the fabric splitting open and spreading its contents to the floor at his feet. He walked to one of the men who was sprawled on the ground amongst empty bottles and broken chairs, crouching to the man’s level and slapping him hard across the face. The man groaned in pain and looked up at Ryan in confusion, muttering at him to ‘piss off’. Ryan slapped him again; harder, and the man seemed to wake up fully this time.

“WHAT is your issue, mate!?”

“Your sorry ass on my floor is my issue. So why don’t you and your pals drag yourselves out before I decide to take matters into my own hands?”

“Your floor? Pffft... Haven’t you heard buddy? We own this city now.”

“I was hoping I’d get some kind of smartass response like that,” Ryan smirked. “Gives me a good excuse to do this...” He grabbed the intoxicated man by the collar and landed a punch to his jaw so forceful his head was knocked back into the floorboards with the impact. Ryan then proceeded to drag the unconscious man out the door of the bar.

Once he stepped back into the Inn, all of the other; far less intoxicated, rebels were standing at attention with weapons in hand. “Oh, fellows, that’s not a good idea,” he smirked. “Do you know where you are right now? This is a neutral zone for my clan, you’re disrespecting that.”

The only one of the men who seemed to be actually fully sober took a step towards Ryan, scoffing at his words. “Listen here, little pup, we took over this city; all of it. The Wolfpack doesn’t hold the same amount of influence it once did and you’re outnumbered, so I suggest you walk out of here with your tail between your legs.”

Ryan sighed softly. “No blades, Ryan... We shouldn’t be killing off civilians, Ryan... That’s not the impression we want to make right now, Ryan...” He mumbled, pulling two fighting sticks sheathed at his back. “I’d advise against what you’re about to do, pal,” he warned. When the rebel ignored the warning and charged at him, Ryan very calmly dodged his attacks as if they were nothing, striking at his hands to make him drop his blades. Once the first of the men was unarmed, the others, in a moment of sheer stupidity, decided to charge Ryan as a group. There were only ten of them, and out of those ten, only two were fully sober. The Wolf could easily handle them on his own, but he wasn’t going to waste any more time than necessary.

Ryan’s eyes irradiated a golden light as the sand he had previously spilled on the floor started to move and split into eight identical piles, each pile rising from the ground and forming into an exact clone of Ryan; from the tip of his boots to the fighting sticks in his hands. With the clones weighing in heavily in his favor, the ensuing confrontation took no more than a couple of minutes to be resolved and ended in a pile of groaning wounded rebels who Ryan’s clones proceeded to drag outside the Inn without the least bit of care.

Ryan sheathed his weapons and took a quick look around the upper floors, the basement and the tunnels underneath the bar to make sure there were no unwanted guests left. Once certain that the place was cleared he walked outside, finding Sheila standing in front of establishment watching with an amused expression as the clones dragged the semi-conscious men out of the bar.

“Heh, wonder how much those White Knights would be willing to pay us to clean up the castle for them,” she mused.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Ryan answered. “Donovan says, and I agree, that we’ve let ourselves get roped into their problems one too many times. We’re here to deliver a message and leave; nothing more.”

“Yes, well, with how often we need to keep rebuilding this place, we could use the extra income.”

Ryan chuckled. “Oh, relax, if it’s not on fire we can manage it. I’ll come by later and give you a hand cleaning up.”

“Oh, come on now, I’m sure the Alpha’s Second has better things to do than help me clean. I can handle it by myself.”

“Eh, I just have to haul this trash back to its source. Shouldn’t take too long,” Ryan said with a shrug. “I’ll help while Donovan is tending to his side of things.”

“Eh... Shouldn’t you back him up on this?”

Ryan snorted a laugh, idly poking one of the unconscious men with his foot. “I was ordered not to.”

“And I thought Sean was an idiot... That boy’s not going to survive a full year at this rate.”

“Who knows, maybe the kid’s on to something.” Ryan shrugged. “All I can say is the kid’s being really intense about asserting ourselves in this situation.”

“Don’t get me wrong, sweetie, it’s not a bad idea, I just feel his execution is a bit risky,” Sheila responded with a shrug. “The way things have been, we lose another Alpha and that’s it for the Pack.”

“You don’t need to tell me that, and trust me; I’ve made that point repeatedly, but the kid’s stubborn. Says he shouldn’t need a bodyguard just go in for a chat.”

“The only reason Sean survived a chat with that woman in the first place is that they were both too banged up from their own stupidity to have a go at each other.” Sheila pointed out.

“Well, we had no time to break her legs beforehand, so I guess Doni will have to be a little more tactful and a little less... Fletcher...” Ryan snickered. “Regardless, I know what I have to do.”

------------------------------

The doors of the throne room slammed open with the thundering sound of cracking wood. A thin layer of smoke permeating the air and temporarily concealing the figures crossing the threshold. Ryan and his clones walked through the fog and dropped the unconscious rebels in front of the throne, much to the dismay of a group of twenty heavily armed dumbfounded men. “Which of you nimrods is responsible for this trash littering our Inn?” he questioned.

“Your Inn?” A man responded from his position on the throne. That enough would be grounds for execution, Ryan figured, but at this point, it didn’t matter. The man wasn’t that tall and didn’t seem that much older than their new Alpha. He stood from the throne, his chest puffed out in a ridiculous display of cockiness. Ryan had to at least acknowledge the fact these people weren’t stupid. They were competent enough to take over the city up to and including the castle. Still, if that was their leader; they wouldn’t hold it for long. “I was under the impression the Pack had abandoned their bar. Again. You people aren’t quite what you used to be.”

“What do you think you know, you pipsqueak, of what we are or used to be?” Ryan questioned, amused at the man’s words. “I’m here to deliver a message; stay out. We allow you to exist and fight your little rebellion because we don’t care. Give us reason enough to care and we’ll shut it down. Simple as that.”

“Shut us down? You and what army?” The man opened his arms wide and looked around. “There used to be one here, but they didn’t manage to shut us down.” He sighed, shaking his head in amusement. “I see that you mean well, though, mate. You’re carrying fighting sticks, bringing our men back alive... In your position, I see that you had no obligation to do that. I can appreciate that. So don’t worry, we’re not going to give you any more trouble. You have my word.”

Ryan sighed. “That’s good enough, kid, but for the record; you defeated half of an army that was already stretched too thin and poorly managed due to their Captains trying to run this dump of a town, which; good luck with that by the way. The fact that you’re considering yourself victorious right now is a great indicator that you didn’t really think this all the way through. I give you a month to hold this place and I’m being generous.” He smirked at the rebel leader, his eyes glowing as his sand golems collapsed back into useless piles. “At least the moron who usurped our leadership managed to hold it for three and a half years.”

“Come back in five. We’ll be sitting right here.”

Ryan snorted a laugh on his way out of the room. “Sure buddy. Sorry about the mess, by the way. Let’s just call it even.”

-----------------------------------

Newhaven Castle was nothing but a shadow of its former self. One could be fooled into believing the place was struck by a tornado if not for the sounds of fighting still echoing some of the empty halls. All but one section of the castle had been secured by the rebels, but they hadn’t done the best job of setting up security as of yet. Their successful assault looked like one hell of a stroke of luck to Donovan and one that was bound to be short-lived unless they managed to put someone in charge who understood the art of war a lot better than this. Sneaking his way past the intruders had been easy, even in the sections where there was a higher concentration of them. Anyone not in Guards uniform was assumed to be on their side and Donovan was able to simply stroll past their defenses unscathed.

Once the young Alpha reached the upper floors, however, things changed rather abruptly. The third floor of the Castle was silent compared to the rest, pieces of furniture and doors pulled from their hinges were piled in order to barricade the halls, leaving only one narrow path available. “Clever,” he whispered, “very, clever.”

“Isn’t it?”

Donovan didn’t have the time to turn around and check the source of the sudden voice in his ear, the split second he had available was used to dodge an expertly aimed blow to the side of his head, the sound of the wooden baton connecting with the stone wall beside him rang painfully in his ears. If it had actually hit him, he would have been out cold instantly.

The boy spun around, grabbing his bow and using it to block the next flurry of blows aimed at his body. He could now barely make out the form of a woman clad in black leather armor as his attacker and assumed she was part of Mageria’s Guard. “Hey... Hi... Excuse... Me...” he started, barely dodging a blow aimed right at his face. “Can you... Not... Please...” He sighed, dropping the bow at his feet and raising his hands, eyes closed as he braced for an impact that never came.

“Oy, boy, are you dumb? Did I get your head at some point there?” She taunted.

Doni opened his eyes to the sight of one the batons held still less than an inch from his face. “My sister made this bow for me before she died, I’d rather damage my face than use it for a fighting staff any longer.” He muttered.

“You’re a bit too quick on your feet for a rebel.” She pointed out, lightly poking him between the eyes with the baton.

Before he knew it, something coiled around Donovan’s neck restraining his movements as another woman spoke behind him. “Don’t fight like no rebel either.”

Donovan briefly attempted to glance at this new person restraining him from behind but felt the pressure tighten around his neck at his movement, so he kept his eyes on his first opponent instead. “You don’t fight like some prissy Knight either...” He retorted, tilting his head to the side so he could look past the weapon blocking his vision. “Although I have the feeling you held back a little. Not sure if I’m grateful or offended,” he added with a playful smile. “So, Miss...? Is your captain around? I’d like a word with her if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Oh? So you’re dropping in for a bit of chatter, are you? Suuure... The middle of a rebellion sounds like the best time to be doin’ that.”

“This isn’t the middle of a rebellion, technically speaking. As superior as you are in skill, the rebellion outnumbers you greatly and for what I hear of your Captain I don’t see her going all out on those idiots considering that in the end of the day they’re still civilians. What is the point of vowing to protect the people and then putting them down for daring to dethrone a dead Queen? I’m assuming the reason you took so easy on me is that you planned to restrain me without using lethal force, but since doing so with every rebel currently roaming the castle is a foolish endeavor at best, your Captain will be forced to either make peace with the fact you can’t hold this place, or... Well... Make an even bloodier mess of this whole thing and then make peace with the fact you can’t hold this place.”

Donovan felt the pressure tighten around his neck just a bit. “You’re too much of a talker for someone’s who’s here uninvited.”

“Sophie; that’s your name right?” Donovan questioned, still unable to see the woman standing behind him. “I’m Donovan Fletcher.”

“Suppose you’re not going to explain how you know my name, Donovan Fletcher?”

“Not unless you make me, but... We’d both be wasting our times and we both have better things we need to be doing. I just want a word with your Captain, and I’ll leave.”

Sophie seemed to be looking to her companion for direction now as the baton-wielding blonde give a small shrug and she responded by pushing Donovan forward towards the end of the hall. After a few steps, he halted. “My bow...”

“I’ve got it.”

Doni relaxed at that and allowed himself to be dragged along.

“Fletcher?” Sophie questioned. “As in...?”

“Sean was my brother,” Donovan answered.

“Was?”

Donovan shrugged in response.

“Ah. My sentiments.”

Donovan chuckled. “It’s commendable that you’d say that considering the shit he pulled on your squad, miss...?” He snickered when she still refused to give her name. “Come on, you know my name now. And I’m going to keep asking.”

“It’d be a bit hard to ask questions with a broken jaw, pretty boy; just a fair warning,” she said, pausing for a moment. “And it’s Sham; not ‘miss’. I really ain’t no prissy knight.”

“Noted.”

Sham walked ahead of the other two as they turned a corner, Sophie held Donovan back as she entered a room at the end of the hall. After a couple of minutes, she poked her head out and gestured for them to follow her inside. Sophie unraveled the object from around Donovan’s neck and he saw that it was a whip. “Little early in our relationship to be bringing out the whips, don’t you think?”

Sophie snickered. “Precious. I definitely never heard that one before.”

“I try.” Doni shrugged.

The room they entered was completely void of any furniture save for a table and two chairs. On the table was a map of the castle and a half bottle of rum, a weak flame flickering in the fireplace was the only source of light, casting odd shadows on the bare walls. Sitting in one of the chairs was a blonde man Donovan immediately recognized as Captain Thomas and across from him a woman with graying red hair he concluded to be Mageria Talsheir.

Sham briefly whispered to Mageria, placing Donovan’s bow in her hands. The captain shot the young Alpha a long inspecting gaze, her expression stern for a moment before letting slip a small trace of amusement. “When I told Crystal Rivers I was sorry she lost her mother, I actually meant it. I don’t know what to say to you.”

Donovan smiled at the woman. “That’s alright, Captain. I’m not exactly here to exchange pleasantries.”

“Why are you, here?” Thomas spoke up. “Not to be rude or anything, kid, but in case you haven’t noticed, we have a bit of a situation. Not the best time for a diplomatic chat, if that is in fact what you’re after.”

“Yes and no.” Donovan shrugged. “I’ll be quick; we have just cleared our Inn of your rebellion. I’m assuming that whichever way this goes it’ll be over soon, so we are taking the extra care to warn both sides that regardless of who wins, Newhaven would do well to continue respecting our boundaries.”

“You’ve come all the way here, infiltrated the castle, so you could stand face to face with both Knight Captains and tell them to wipe their feet before standing on your threshold?” Mageria asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Pretty much.”

Mageria tilted her head to the side, her eyes piercing through Donovan like daggers for a split second, despite the amused smirk playing on her lips. “Add a couple of innocent hostages and I can see the resemblance.”

Donovan chuckled at the woman’s response. “I guess that’s a fair assessment,” he agreed. “The case is, and I think we can both agree at least on that, if both our people knew their boundaries a little bit better, neither my clan or your city would be in the state they are in right now,”

“I don’t exactly see how we could have ignored an explosion in our throne room, any more than you could have ignored the bounty on your heads.”

“Maybe not, but we could both have acted smarter and maybe, just maybe, my clan ridding your city of a psychopathic killer posing as a royal might have turned out to be a good thing.”

“Hold on, what?” Thomas interrupted, glaring at Mageria with an expression mixed between shock and outrage.

“It’s a very long story, Tom.” The woman answered, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “To cut it short, the King was being impersonated by a killer and that was the man the Wolfpack killed. Of course, none of it could ever be officially proved, so we just allowed the public to assume the Wolves responsible had been executed.”

“And we don’t know what actually happened to King Stephen?”

“The only man who could answer that question was buried under his name, so unfortunately no one will ever know.”

“Why was I never informed of this?” Thomas demanded, heaving an exasperated sigh and seeming to lack the energy to be properly enraged by being kept in the dark.

“Honestly? Krander had just gone off Twins know where, you hadn’t been appointed Captain yet at the time this all happened, and after it was dealt with no one wanted to ever bring it up again.”

Thomas looked from Mageria to Sham and Sophie; neither seeming surprised in the slightest with the information. Sham gave a slight shrug as her eyes met Thomas’. “Jake was there,” she told him. “That boy gets a bit too chatty with a few drinks in ‘im. Most of the Blacks know the story by now.”

Donovan shrugged at the two Knight’s exchange. “Nonetheless, I’m not here to bring up history. Well, at least not after this.” Slowly, the boy reached into his coat, very aware of the fact Sham had her eyes on him all the while they’d been talking. He pulled out a small leather bound book. “Something like this has never left our camp, Captain, I expect you to appreciate that,” he said, offering the book to Mageria. “As you know, Evin Bana set fire to the clan records before the exile, but, Sean got his hands on a few files and hid them elsewhere before that happened. I’m still uncovering all his hiding places, but I found this in one of them. It concerns you.”

Mageria placed Donovan’s bow on the table, leaning against it and placing herself between the young assassin and the weapon as she took the file from his hands. “Concerns me how?”

“Just consider it a show of good faith,” Donovan told her, not answering the question. “I said all I’ve come here to say and you have more pressing matters to attend so if I may have that back,” he nodded at his bow, “I’ll be out of your way.”

Mageria stored the little bound book safely in her pocket and pushed herself away from the table, taking the bow and offering it to Donovan, still keeping a firm hold on the object when the Wolf tried to take it from her hands. The Captain’s eyes lingering on the two rings on his left-hand finger. “You know, I was wondering why your new Alpha would send a teenager to meet two Knight Captains in the middle of a rebellion.”

Donovan smiled, holding the woman’s gaze. “He didn’t.”

“Your brother must have been desperate to appoint you as Second.”

“Oh, Sean? He would never do that. In fact, my brother never appointed a Second-in-Command before he died. And see, where there is no Alpha, and there is no Second... The clan votes.” He smirked. “I’m not the first teenager appointed Alpha in our history, Captain, it shouldn’t seem like such a shock. Trust, I’m far more prepared for the job than your Queen was when she left our camp.”

Donovan stumbled back a step when Mageria abruptly released her hold on the bow. He snorted as he noticed the woman’s expression. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. I actually liked Ella quite a bit. It saddens me that she felt my brother’s life was worth risking her own.” He calmly inspected the bow in his hands, checking if there had been any damage during his short fight with the baton-wielding knight earlier. The wood seemed unscathed, and Donovan let relief wash over him for a brief moment.

“How old was she? Kate.” Mageria asked.

Donovan flinched at the mention of his sister’s name. “Seventeen. We were twins, Katie was four minutes older than me.” His gaze seemed to darken as he looked at Mageria, sheathing the bow at his back. “If you’d like to know how she died, you can ask your friend Evin when you next see him. I’m sure he’ll be able to tell you the story better than I could.” Donovan paused as an explosion was heard on the lower floor. He snickered under his breath and continued speaking as though it never happened. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Captain, I think I’ve already overstayed my welcome.” He unceremoniously turned his back on the Captain of the Black Knights and waved over his shoulder. “No need to show me the way out, I can manage.”

---------------------------------

When Donovan reached the courtyard Ryan was waiting, the man holding a handkerchief to his nose and seeming quite exhausted. “You overworked yourself, I told you to be more careful,” Doni scolded.

“I know, I’m sorry,” Ryan mumbled starting them on their way into the city. “I told Sheila I’d stop by and help with the clean up, is that alright?”

“I’ll help her. You’re going to get some rest. This clan has seen enough dead Seconds to last us a century.”

“We shouldn’t both be away from camp this long,” Ryan argued. “You should head back.”

“No. We’re both resting here and you can head back tomorrow. I’m going to stop by Blackpond.”

Ryan stopped walking and turned to Donovan “Blackpond? But...” His eyes widened for a moment. “By yourself? Are you insane?”

“Are you really going to keep asking that every time I do something reckless? Because it’s going to get exhausting really fast.”

“Doni, you’re pushing your luck. Not a lot of people know who you are yet, but that’ll change soon.”

“You worry way too much, buddy.” Donovan smiled, pushing Ryan to continue walking. “Let’s face it; if Crystal Rivers wanted me dead we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

============================

[Blackpond Inn - Otium 19 early evening]

“No... No, no, no... You guys aren’t listening, are you? STOP. NOW.”

The sound of metal clashing gradually fell into silence at Crys’ words. The recruits falling still like statues under the assassin’s blind stare. It had literally been the first time they had heard the woman raise her voice and, considering how these sessions had been when she was calm, they were understandably wary of what was about to take place.

“You’re training to use real blades and not play swords.” Crys spoke, her tone softer now that room was silent. “Hugo, Marc; front and center,” she commanded.

The two recruits shuffled forward side by side, looks of utter fright plastered on their faces. The tallest and strongest of the two wincing slightly when Crys unsheathed her sword and pointed it at his face.

“Do you see this, Hugo?” She questioned. “Does it look like a toy?”

“Yes... I mean, no... It’s not a toy.” The man answered.

“If you were fighting someone wielding a blade, the way you were fighting just now, you would have lost a limb or worse.” She scolded, resheathing the blade and taking a pair of training swords from the rack. “I’m going to tell you all one last time, this...” She struck at his left-hand blade. “...Is your sword and this...” She struck at his right-hand blade. “...Is your shield. And vice-versa. You attack and defend. At the same time. All of the time. Not one or the other; both. One slip, one opening, one missed opportunity, and it’s OVER. Are we clear or do I have to personally instill the fear of death into each and every one of you!?”

Marc opened his mouth to answer and was immediately cut off by a strike across the face. The man nearly spun in place with the force of the blow and stood swaying in place. Crys sighed. “That was a rhetorical question, smartass. Now tell me, did that hurt?”

“Yes,” Marc answered doubling over and spitting a few drops of blood onto the ground.

“Good. You should be glad. Because you know what? Death doesn’t hurt. Death is slowly fading into nothing until nothing is all you feel, nothing is all you are and nothing is all there is. And if that thought is in any way pleasant to any of you, be so kind as to pack up and leave. I’m not wasting my time on anyone with a fucking death wish.”

Silence lingered for little over a minute, the group of recruits careful to not as much as shuffle in place for as long as it lasted. “Good. Now get back to it. And get it right this time!”

“Whoa, Red, any more of that you’ll be instilling the fear of Death on the Lady herself.”

Crys let a smirk briefly cross her features at the voice calling from the top of the stairs, her eyes remained stern however as she addressed her recruits. “Continue the exercise until I get back and if I as much as suspect any of you to be slacking I’ll break your damn ribs.”

Once satisfied that her people were committed enough to their task, Crys left them to it and climbed the stairs up to the back of the Inn, finding Dastan seated at the kitchen table. “What are you doing here?” She asked, smiling at her friend. “And who let you in?”

“Your little Guard Ginger let me in. He warned me not to disturb your training, but I had to take a little peek. Hope that’s alright.”

Crys chuckled, finding the chair across from Dastan and taking a seat herself. “That’s fine, I... Eh... They’re making progress, and I wish I could praise them for it, but they’re just not ready for what’s out there.” She sighed, standing up again and beginning to rummage the stove in order to make herself some tea. “And I say that like I even know for sure what it means, but I don’t. I don’t know what we’re up against. How am I supposed to...”

“Breathe, Red,” Dastan spoke up. The noise coming from the bar almost drowning out the sound of his voice. The place was packed with people and filled with cheerful conversation. No one coming in would suspect there was a very miserable group of assassin recruits working tirelessly in the basement below.

“I am.” Crys muttered. “I do.” She left the tea kettle on the stove to heat and sat back down. “You didn’t answer my question, though; why are you here?”

“Eh... I thought I could hang around here for a few days if that’s alright with you.” Dastan answered. “I had to leave. I just... I had to. And suppose I should go offer my assistance to the Ravens soon, but...” He trailed off in a sigh. “I think I need more time.”

Crys reached for Dastan’s arm and gave him a reassuring pat. “Of course. You can stay as long as you like. Just don’t get into our stock, I’m running a business here.”

Dastan chuckled. “Don’t you worry about that, Red. I wouldn’t want to ruin your fine establishment,” the mercenary assured her, taking out his flask and taking a long swig from it.

Crys snorted a laugh at her friend, getting up to fetch the warm water from the stove and fixing herself a cup of tea. “In all seriousness, Dastan; how are you?”

“That’s a complicated question to be asking right now, Red. I’m.. Better, but that doesn’t change much. It doesn’t bring back the dead. Doesn’t change the facts. Certainly doesn’t give me any answers.” He took another swig and put the flask away, resting his arms on the table laying his head down. “I can’t let this go unpunished, so I had to leave. Even if I could ask the clan to fight my battles with me, they’re in no condition to do it. Indi and Jackson will take care of them while I’m gone. However long that turns out to be.”

“You do plan on going back, though, don’t you?” Crys questioned, sipping her tea.

“Sure. One way or another, everyone should go home one day, Red.”

“That sounds far from reassuring, I hope you know.”

Dastan chuckled. “Just trying to be realistic, Red. We don’t know what the future holds and all of that.”

Crys sighed. “Yeah, all of that.” She agreed, sipping her tea in silence until the cup was empty. “Well, you ask Nicky for a key to a vacant room when you feel like getting settled. It’s late and I’m tired, so I’m going to try and get some sleep.” She stood up and put the tea cup away before heading for the door.

“Alright.” Dastan agreed. “Oh, wait, Red...” He called after her. “Aren’tcha gonna relieve your recruits downstairs?”

Crys snickered. “I told them to repeat the exercise until I get back. If they’re still at it in the morning I’ll know I scared them enough.”

“I dread to think of how you could possibly scare them any further.” Dastan teased.

“Hopefully for them, we’ll never have to find out,” she answered, waving over her shoulder as she walked out of the kitchen.

==============================

[Raven's Nest - Otium 20, mid afternoon]

“Keith...I just got word from Kyle...It's time.” Matthew pronounced his last words with a certain kind of ferocity that seemed to grab Keith’s attention. The man looked at his superior with a mix of relief and contempt, a satisfied grin spreading across his face.

“What about the Captain…?” Keith asked, standing a bit taller now, Matthew having his complete attention, fully aware of what the man was talking about.

“We are to carry on as if she can not be there. I do need you to go to the city and personally retrieve Sophie and Bran. No ravens, no discussing what this is about. Everyone will be briefed before we leave and not a moment sooner. Everyone is now on strict routine exercises and curfew for the next few days, until further notice. If anyone complains or is insubordinate, they are given latrine duties and will be cut from any consideration for the mission. Am I making myself clear?”

“Yes, Sir. Crystal clear.”

“Oh, before you leave..send Jacob my way will you?” Matthew firmly patted Keith on the shoulder as he nodded and trotted off to find Jake.

Jake was sitting by his campfire, shirtless and barefoot, a metal pot hanging over the flames emitting some nauseating fumes. The man seemed completely unaffected by the smoke, as toxic as it might have seemed, and was occupied with stitching a tear through one of the leather sheaths that usually held his needles; a wooden box containing several of said metal needles open on the floor between his feet and a series of vials were scattered across the ground surrounding him, some empty and others already sealed and filled with poisonous substances, and he was half-humming half-mumbling words to a song under his breath as he worked. Once finished stitching up the tear on the leather, Jake strapped the empty sheath to his left forearm as tightly as possible, examining yet again to make sure it was right, before removing it and starting to carefully pick needles from the pot with the aid of a pair of tweezers, placing them on the sheath one by one.

It was during this process that a loud cough alerted Jake to another person’s presence and he lifted his head to see Keith approaching him in a bit of a hurried pace. “Need anything?” He questioned, pulling the pot from the fire, which caused the smoke to slowly dissipate, clearing the air just a bit.

“What the hell are you doing Jacob?” Keith asked, seeming to forget why he was even there for just a split second before shaking his head and regaining focus. “Matthew wants to see you.”

“Well, you didn’t think I just bought these at a smithy did you?” Jake retorted, nodding along to the information that Matthew wanted to see him while finishing his task, quickly attaching the sheath to his arm once more. “Where are you off to?”

“I’m going to stop by the city,” Keith answered simply. “You go and talk to Matthew as soon as you can, it’s important.”

“Hm.” Jake mumbled to himself watching Keith wander off again in a hurry. It didn’t take much to notice something was up and so he hurried to finish replenishing his other sheaths, and fixing up the hidden blades in his boots that had been taken out for a new coat of poison as well. He hurriedly cleaned up the area to make sure nothing possibly
harmful had been left where someone could stumble upon it and went off to find Matthew, finding him in the training area. “Matt! You need me for something?”

Matthew had his back to Jacob when he approached, momentarily distracted barking orders at a group of men and women who were sparring. Rubbing his head in frustration he growled. “No! No, no no. Again. Do it again, until you all get it right. Not one of you, ALL OF YOU. You’ve been lazy and we can’t afford laziness. Zane, that goes double for you. There’s no time to rest, GET BACK TO IT!” Matt sighed, muttering about letting Jason set some of the Guard on fire to get them properly motivated and turned to face Jake. He coughed, his face scrunching up as he detected an awkward odor coming from the man.

“Jake..what the hell did you bathe in today? That won’t last, will it? I’m putting you in charge of something..and discretion and stealth are going to be a necessity. You up for leading about a dozen of us?” Matt reached into his pocket, not really elaborating much more, and handed Jake a small scroll that would normally be fitting a raven and closed the man’s fingers around it tight.
“Do not give this to anyone and read it once you reach Blackpond, specifically to Crystal Rivers. We are going to need all the help we can get on this one. Captain’s orders. Afterwards..burn it and do not discuss anything with anyone, understood? No one is to be trusted except a select few. When you get back, I’m going to call a meeting..maybe in a day or so and I’ll explain more. Until then..” Matt lifted his head, glancing around to make sure no one was within earshot, most of his company occupied with relentless drills behind him, clearly unhappy with the physical stress.

“Until then...you talk to no one, especially Essence. I know she’s like a sister to you, but I need you to wait, ok? If you want to be the one..just wait..” He trailed off turning his back towards Jacob to watch the men.

Jake was confused, but only for a moment, nodding along to Matthew’s words and hurrying back to clear his camp and wash up before the trip. Whatever was in that letter sounded urgent.

==============================

[Blackpond Inn - Otium 20, early evening]

Donovan smiled as he reached the door of the Inn. It was early in the evening, but the place already had a small group of patrons chatting away and drinking at one of the tables. As he stepped inside he was approached by a tall man in his early forties who barred his entrance. “I’m sorry, but I must ask that you surrender your weapons. House rules.”

“Seriously?” Donovan chuckled, looking towards the redheaded man behind the bar. “Seriously, Nicholas?”

“Boss’ orders, Little Fletcher; no tough guys with weapons,” Nick replied.

“I’m not giving you my bow,” Donovan warned.

“Just the quiver will suffice,” the man replied, watching Donovan carefully as he rid himself of his daggers and handed over his quiver. “Thank you, sir, enjoy your evening.”

Donovan snorted a laugh. “Seriously, Crystal...” He mumbled under his breath. “So, where is your boss, Nicky? Is she in?”

“She’s in the office. Second floor, take a right, last door at the end of the hall. Knock before you enter.”

Donovan followed Nicholas’ direction and climbed up the stairs to the second floor, walked to the last door on the right of the stairs and knocked.

“Come in.” Crys answered from within the room.

Doni opened the door and walked in, closing the door after himself and looking around the office. “Nice place you got here,” he stated. The inside of the office was simple. Just Crys’ desk, her chair a couple of more chair across from hers and a mostly empty bookshelf. The rest of the room was empty space, filled with random bits of gear. It was clearly in the process of being fixed up to the assassin’s liking, but it already seemed comfortable enough. “Mind if I sit?”

Crys smiled at the young Alpha and motioned to the chair right across from her. “Please. And what do I owe a visit this soon, Alpha?”

Donovan placed a book on the desk. “You left this when we last saw each other. Your father’s journal? I thought you’d really want it, but you left without taking it.”

Crys reached out, her hand freezing as it touched the leather cover of the book, a soft sigh escaping her lips. “I did.” She snorted, and took the book from the desk, safe keeping it in one of the drawers. “I’ll have to find someone to read this with me at some point.” She smiled and leaned back in her seat, her focus now entirely on Donovan. “That’s not the only reason you’re here, though, is it?”

Donovan smiled. “No, no it isn’t. I think it’s time we have a little discussion about this place.”

“Oh?” Crys smirked. “What about this place?”

“You know what I’m talking about, Crys. You appropriated this establishment, but it still belongs to the Wolfpack.”

“I don’t think so.” Crys stated. “Your brother made a deal with Blackpond to have this Inn rebuilt. My death was part of that deal. To my understanding, if anyone holds any rights over something paid for with my blood, that someone is me. I was very sincere in my offer for cooperation, Doni, but there won’t be a negotiation here. I’m not leaving.”

Donovan sighed. “I was expecting you’d say that.” The boy ran his fingers through his hair. It was one thing to stand in front of the Knights of Newhaven and keep his cool, but the possibility of this turning into an argument was something else entirely. “I know you understand my reservations regarding your people occupying this building. Jake, Evin... Allison... I don’t want to see them step a foot near the Pack’s territory in any way under any circumstance. And Twins know; as loyal as they are to you, you can’t keep them under control.”

“Their problem was with Sean, Doni. I don’t see a reason why they would want anything to do with the Wolfpack now, but... If it makes you feel better, I can restrict access to the tunnels. It’ll take some time, but it can be done.”

“I would appreciate it if you could do that.” Donovan agreed. “It may be paranoia on my part, but I just honestly don’t want any more catastrophes where they can be avoided and the company you keep, Crys... They’re walking catastrophes. Every single one of them.”

Crys snorted a laugh. “That’s why I like them so much. What is life without a dozen weekly catastrophes?”

Donovan leaned back in his seat for a moment and stretched, letting out a tired groan. “I don’t know, but I’d very much like to find out.”

===============================

[Blackpond Inn - Otium 21, early morning]

Jake arrived in Blackpond early in the morning. The city streets were still mostly void of life awaiting the first rays of sunlight. By the time he reached the door of the Inn those rays were already reflecting on the glass windows of the establishment, pushing through the cracks on the wood, announcing the start of a new day. Just as Jake reached for the door it unexpectedly flung open and a glossy eyed mercenary stared at him for almost a full minute as though trying to see him through a deep fog.

“Jake!” Dastan exclaimed, opening a wide smile, pulling him inside by the shirt. “How’s it going buddy!?”

“I’m... Okay... What are you doing here, Dastan?” Jake questioned, a bit confused to see the Crimson leader there and concluding he must have gotten into the stock at some point last night to be swaying in place like that. “Is Crys around?”

“I’m just... Hanging ‘round for a bit. I was helping the little ginger run the bar last night... This burly fella thought he could drink me under the table, but I show...ed... him...” Dastan hiccuped the end of his sentence and laughed at himself before pretty much falling over onto a chair. “I think I need to sit.” He muttered under his breath. “Uh... I think Red was still sleeping. Least I didn’t see ‘er yet today. Pretty sure she wouldn’t mind you going up, so... Go on up... I’m... gonna wait for the room to stop spinning and... Then I’mmagotobed.” He announced, plopping his head down against the table top.

Jake snickered, closing and bolting the front door before making his way upstairs. He walked over to Crys’ room and gave a soft knock before pushing the door open. He took a quick glance into the room and saw that it was empty. “Hm,” he mumbled, shutting the door and heading for the office door instead. Once again he knocked and cracked the door open, seeing Crys sitting behind her desk, fast asleep with head resting on a small pile of papers. Jake entered the room and approached the desk, looking at the documents spread out around the sleeping assassin and seeing just series of marks indented into the parchment, like codes. He reached out and touched the surface of one of the sheets of paper and smiled, feeling the markings on his fingertips. It was a similar code to the ones Pack used, but adapted. “Clever girl.”

Jake sat in the chair across from Crys and slowly ran his fingers through her hair. “Heeey,” he whispered. “Wake up, sleepy head.”

Crys stirred at the sound of Jake’s voice, a lazy smile crossing her features as she reached out and caught his hand. “What’re you doing here, stupid?” She mumbled, heaving a sigh and pushing herself upright in her seat. “This is not a comfortable sleeping position.”

“No it isn’t,” Jake agreed, gently squeezing her hand. “I’d love to say I’m just visiting, but actually Matthew sent me.”

“Oh?” Crys asked, seeming a bit more awake now. “Is everything alright?”

“I’m not sure. I have a letter I’m supposed to read to you, it’s... All I know at this point.”

“Alright then,” Crys yawned, letting go of Jake’s hand and lifting her arms over her head in a lazy stretch. “I need some tea and something to eat, so if you can read it to me in the kitchen I’d appreciate it.” She smiled, standing up and walking past Jake out of the room.

Jake chuckled, following her outside and down the stairs. “So, how long has Dastan been staying here?”

“A couple of days. I think he’s just... I don’t know what he’s doing, but I’m just letting him. He’s been a help to Nicky and he actually managed to make people buy him drinks so he’s earning us money.”

“Whatever helps the guy heal, I guess.” Jake shook his head and they walked past the bar to the kitchen and he saw Dastan past out where he’d left him.

Once in the kitchen, Jake sat down at the table and watched as Crys started to heat up water for tea and rummage through the pantry. “So? What does your letter say?” She asked, placing a loaf of bread, some cheese and jerky on the table.

“Oh, let’s see...” Jake pulled the letter from his bag and read it aloud:

Miss. Rivers,

We have located potential hostiles within the city of Blackpond and what we believe to be a secret holding ground for captives; specifically children. We have gathered confirmation per an inside source and need to act soon if we are to retrieve that person alive as well as the other’s being held against their will. This is connected to Asher as we found he is a major supplier of ‘cattle’ to this group, however he will not be found in the city as far as we know. We may have stumbled onto more than a brushfire. We believe the reason why no one has reported seeing something this large is because it is mostly held underground, beneath the city and we have only just discovered access points. Sightings of the symbol have been reported in numerous locations, specifically at access points to these tunnels, although it is unclear how to get to them. We believe there are powerful enlightened who are protecting these locations so you are to expect the worst and prepare for the unexpected. This should be voluntary only because of the danger it involves. There is little time to waste and an immediate response is needed only in reinforcements. Do not travel together. Paranoia is not overrated here as we believe we could be being watched. We must assume these lives have little time and request the utmost haste.

Mr Turner will be leading this Raid, Captain’s recommendation. We are trusting you to assist and in selecting the best team possible to make this a success.

Be safe.

-M-


Crys froze while pouring herself a cup of tea and cursed loudly when the liquid overflowed and spilled onto her hand. “Fuck... Damn it!”

Jake jumped to his feet and took the kettle from her hands. “Careful, love.”

“I’m okay,” she sighed. “This is just... Shit...”

“Apparently, I’m leading a raid.” Jake snorted. “That is... Shit...”

Crys laughed at his response, shaking her head. “I can’t go. I mean, if you’re leading this thing, it’s... Not a good idea.”

“Definitely not. I mean, I won’t be able to keep Ess from getting involved and if you’re there too... I just can’t.”

“Okay. So, other than myself, who would I trust with your life?” She questioned, going back to table and taking a seat.

“Are we going by those standards? Because that immediately rules out Evin.”

Crys snorted. “I could send Nicky and I could offer you five more. Let’s see... Irena, Randall, Stuart, Michelle and... Peter, he’s not as experienced as the others, but his enlightenment could be very useful.”

“You heard Matty, though; they need to volunteer. It’s a risky mission.”

“He also said ‘children’. Trust me, they’ll jump at the opportunity to nail these bastards.” Crys sighed, parting the bread and offering Jake a piece. “You need to eat better.” She scolded, taking a piece for herself and biting into it.

“I eat.” Jake argued, biting his piece of bread and chewing on it slowly as he mulled over his thoughts. “Hmmph... how soon can you bring your people over?”

“Don’t travel together, he said. Four days to get everyone ready, we’ll take different routes and meet you there. You... Take Dastan with you when you go back. Once he’s lucid enough he’ll want to take part in this.”

“Uh... I... Are you sure? He looks pretty out of it right now and I don’t mean the fact that he’s wasted.”

“Trust me.”

Jake sighed, pouring himself some tea. “I always do.”

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Valcrest

Valcrest by Blackbird26

The Land of Valcrest

Newhaven

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City of Newhaven

Blackpond

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City of Blackpond

Assassin's Camp

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The Wolfpack Camp

The Ruins (Healer's camp)

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The Ruins of Blackhurst, home of the White Shadows

The Desert

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The ruins of Brightvale, home of the Crimson Shadows

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Headquarters of The Order.

Raven's Nest

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Camp of the former Black Guard.

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View All » Add Character » 51 Characters to follow in this universe

Character Portrait: Evin Bana
Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers
Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir
Character Portrait: Thomas Sidin
Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name)
Character Portrait: Dominic Adams
Character Portrait: Lamya
Character Portrait: Grim Pondus 'War'
Character Portrait: Dastan
Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar
Character Portrait: Luckas
Character Portrait: Jake Turner
Character Portrait: Annie Turner
Character Portrait: Ella Page
Character Portrait: Allison Blake
Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher
Character Portrait: Alexander
Character Portrait: Ess

Newest

Character Portrait: Sif Aeducen
Sif Aeducen

Mercenary - "What do you do when you've lost the will to live, but fear death? You fight on."

Character Portrait: Alisa "Temeti" Mare
Alisa "Temeti" Mare

"Pain... s-sister?"

Character Portrait: Alina "Suferinta" Mare
Alina "Suferinta" Mare

"What is there to be said? Nothing? Begone."

Character Portrait: Samantha 'Johnson'
Samantha 'Johnson'

"Trust is the most powerful thing, and yet...It's fascinating how easily it shatters..."

Character Portrait: Darren Hearst
Darren Hearst

"A Friend is just another version of yourself."

Character Portrait: Stephan Kalir
Stephan Kalir

Don't fret, my bite is worse then my bark

Character Portrait: Isyer Tiaem
Isyer Tiaem

"You wanna know how I got this eye?" *grins*

Trending

Character Portrait: Jake Turner
Jake Turner

"There is no truth, only perception."

Character Portrait: Kirsten Somare
Kirsten Somare

"Fear death? Because you just met him."

Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher
Sean Fletcher

Leader of the Wolfpack: "Keep your enemies closer? I think six feet under is just about close enough." (DECEASED)

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers
Crystal Rivers

"Sometimes, there is no such thing as justice... This might be one of those times."

Character Portrait: Darren Hearst
Darren Hearst

"A Friend is just another version of yourself."

Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name)
Sham (No Last Name)

Black Knight. There's no point in worrying about it, until there is.

Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar
Indrani Nayar

Crimson Shadow Commander: *sigh* "I'm not cleaning that up"

Character Portrait: Samantha 'Johnson'
Samantha 'Johnson'

"Trust is the most powerful thing, and yet...It's fascinating how easily it shatters..."

Character Portrait: Ess
Ess

Not many can resist her charms, deny her loyalty. Trying to outrun her violet stare, will only hypnotize one into her arms for eternity.

Character Portrait: Veronica Zein
Veronica Zein

White Knight. See, analyse, conquer.

Most Followed

Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar
Indrani Nayar

Crimson Shadow Commander: *sigh* "I'm not cleaning that up"

Character Portrait: Dastan
Dastan

Crimson Shadow Leader: "There's nothing a good party can't cure." *winks* "Am I right or am I right?"

Character Portrait: Phantom/Spirit
Phantom/Spirit

"Try to kill me, just try. You'll never get the chance."

Character Portrait: Jake Turner
Jake Turner

"There is no truth, only perception."

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers
Crystal Rivers

"Sometimes, there is no such thing as justice... This might be one of those times."

Character Portrait: Dominic Adams
Dominic Adams

"Black and White are pointless terms for anyone who really wants to get something done here."

Character Portrait: Ella Page
Ella Page

"The Queen is the strongest on the chess board. Why is it that I feel so weak?"-Deceased

Character Portrait: Allison Blake
Allison Blake

"The world becomes such a beautiful place once you learn to close your eyes."

Character Portrait: Samantha 'Johnson'
Samantha 'Johnson'

"Trust is the most powerful thing, and yet...It's fascinating how easily it shatters..."

Character Portrait: Annie Turner
Annie Turner

Leader of the White Shadows: "Peace is the most pleasant illusion"


View All » Places

Valcrest

Valcrest by Blackbird26

The Land of Valcrest

Newhaven

Newhaven by RolePlayGateway

City of Newhaven

Blackpond

Blackpond by RolePlayGateway

City of Blackpond

Assassin's Camp

Assassin's Camp by RolePlayGateway

The Wolfpack Camp

The Ruins (Healer's camp)

The Ruins (Healer's camp) by RolePlayGateway

The Ruins of Blackhurst, home of the White Shadows

The Desert

The Desert by RolePlayGateway

The ruins of Brightvale, home of the Crimson Shadows

The Manor

The Manor by RolePlayGateway

Headquarters of The Order.

Raven's Nest

Raven's Nest by RolePlayGateway

Camp of the former Black Guard.

Raven's Nest

Valcrest Raven's Nest Owner: RolePlayGateway

Camp of the former Black Guard.

Blackpond

Valcrest Blackpond Owner: RolePlayGateway

City of Blackpond

Newhaven

Valcrest Newhaven Owner: RolePlayGateway

City of Newhaven

The Ruins (Healer's camp)

The Ruins of Blackhurst, home of the White Shadows

The Manor

Valcrest The Manor Owner: RolePlayGateway

Headquarters of The Order.

The Desert

Valcrest The Desert Owner: RolePlayGateway

The ruins of Brightvale, home of the Crimson Shadows

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