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Sham (No Last Name)

Black Knight. There's no point in worrying about it, until there is.

164 views · last seen in Valcrest
a character in “Shadows of The Forgotten”, as played by Trickster

Groups

Former Black Guard

Description

Age: 22
Gender: Female
Rank: Black Knight
City: Newhaven

Ability: Sham is a hunter. When she activates her Enlightenment, she gains superior reflexes and heightened senses. She can see in low light; she can practically run up the wall using only her fingertips and toes to hold on; she can jump from great heights and not hurt herself; she’s capable of great feats of agility; see here and here Just an idea, this sort of stuff only crazier. The problem is that when she uses her gift, she uses up energy even more than normal. The more she uses it, the worse the effect is. A normal use would leave her tired and extremely hungry, while extended use could leave her dangerously weakened and near comatose. For this reason she tends to the thin side while eating like a male twice her size.


Description: Sham is about 5’9”, well muscled with an athletes build. She has very short blond hair, kept about an inch long mostly because she absolutely hates to mess with it. She has bright green eyes and a nose that was broken a couple of times in the past. When she moves it’s always no more than she needs to and she’s always balanced and centered. She tends to be very aware of her environment, part of her Enlightenment.

Personality

Sham is a very ‘in the moment’ kind of person. She tends not to worry about things in the past or what’s going to happen in the future. She knows that this will mean that she’s never going to advance to a position of command and she’s fine with that. In the past she was part of a street gang that had a run in with Mageria during the siege, that’s when she first got the idea that she could use her skills for more than just stealing. She has a very loose grasp of the law, instead relying more on what she considers right and wrong.

Equipment

Sham uses two bladed eskrima sticks when she fights example 1 example 2 along with hand to hand combat. She wears gauntlets to protect her forearms when she blocks a blow and refuses to wear anything more than banded leather armor on the grounds that it restricts her movements. Her back up weapons tend to be a couple of daggers that she has tucked in her boots and at the small of her back.

History

Sham ran with her gang ever since she was a little girl, they taught her to fight and to steal and to run. When she came into her Enlightenment it meant that she was a more efficient thief and better able to defend the territory of her gang. She never managed to become more than second or third in command, not because she was bad at what she did, but because she didn’t bother with planning or thinking too far ahead. If she saw something that she wanted, she tended to wander off with it.

Sham first met Mageria during the second siege of Newhaven by Blackpond. She had given the gangs the go ahead to do what they could to the Blackpond soldiers, offering medical support and supplies in exchange for them causing what trouble they could. It was the first time that any of them had seen that anybody official cared about them. Sham was so curious about the Knight that she met that she followed her for the rest of the siege and tracked her through the city for weeks afterward. It was after the events of the last RP that she actually tried to steal something from Mageria, just to see what would happen. Mageria caught her and the two of them fought. It was the only time that someone could keep up with her, more than that it was so amazing that someone with no Enlightenment could keep up with her that Sham couldn’t stay away. After about six months of following Mageria around and bothering her, the Knight finally managed to recruit her. She was put through another six months of intensive training, then eventually became a Knight. Her loyalty is more directly to Mageria as a friend than as a Commander, she doesn’t really do the whole, chain of command thing.

So begins...

Sham (No Last Name)'s Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Thomas Sidin Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name)
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Footnotes

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INK

“Just breathe, slow and calm.” Mageria’s voice was smooth and steady and she watched the young boy sitting next to her though eyes that were half closed. He in turn stared at the pile of tinder in front of them both with a determined expression that carried with it a heavy dose of dread.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Jason. The tinder’s the only thing that would light and we’re far enough away that we won’t get burned. Just concentrate like we practiced and don’t worry about it so much.”

Jason was one of the orphans that now lived in the Castle along with the men of the Guard. Three years ago his parents had died in the siege of Newhaven, leaving him nowhere to go. His father had been one of the Black Guard under her command and his mother had been one of the servants who had died when they got in the way of a Blackpond assassin. Because of the madness of the siege and it’s aftermath, it took people awhile to realize that there were now several orphans living in the Castle. The Council had wanted to simply chuck them into the orphanage and call it done, but when Mageria had found out about it she had thrown a fit. She inspected the orphanage and found it to be in a horrible state of disrepair; not fit to house children in her opinion. She had gone to the Council to secure funds for it’s repair, but they had turned the idea down flat. Sarris had been beyond furious, but Mageria had simply smiled and thanked them for their time.
The next morning, each Council member who had voted no for the extra money woke up with a note neatly pinned to their nightcloths, asking “What do you think would happen to your children if you were no longer around?” Somehow after that the money was suddenly available, but there was no way that she was letting the children of her men live there while she was still around. She had taken care of their parents and when they died that meant she was going to take care of their children. And so the children of the Guard had moved into a set of rooms at the Castle, being taken care of by some of the servants and mentored by the soldiers that lived there as well. It had been difficult at times, but Mageira had made a promise; she would take care of the families of her people. It was really that simple for her.

Jason, the boy sitting next to her, had been about nine when the siege happened. Now, three years later it seemed that he was growing into an Enlightenment of his own. He was a firestarter, or perhaps someone who could control fire as he willed. It was really too early in his training to tell, so far he could only manage to cause fire to flare up unexpectedly, mostly when he was upset. This came to light when they realized that the problems they had been having with fires had been due to Jason; he had been in an argument with Lily, another of the orphans and Mageria had moved in to break it up. Right as she had, the logs behind her in the fireplace had burst into flame, blackening the ceiling and causing her to loose several inches of hair in the process. The braid that hung over her shoulder used to stretch down almost to her waist, now it merely reached to below her shoulder blades. The number of jokes about red heads having flaming tempers had more than tripled. Jason had taken one look at what had happened and had run out of the room in complete terror. Once she had calmed Lily down and changed into other cloths, it had taken her and several other men almost five hours to track the kid down and another hour of her talking to him though a locked door for her to convince him that she wasn’t going to throw him out into the street just because he had almost lit her on fire. Ever since then they had been working together several hours a day in order to help him get control of his new found ability. At least to the point where he wasn’t causing random flareups every time he got upset. Jason was having trouble controlling his ability and she had written a letter to the White Shadows asking for advice on training him. But until their answer arrived she was making do with her own best instincts; which for now told her that working with him and making sure that he wasn’t afraid of what he could do was the best thing that she could do for him. Which left them sitting in the middle of the courtyard, staring at a pile of tinder with several buckets of water sitting behind them.

“Come on, Jason. Deep breath in and focus. Once more and we can be done for the day.”
Jason nodded and took a deep shuddering breath, focusing entirely on the pile of dried twigs and grass in front of him. Sweat gathered on his brow and his muscles clenched; then with a hissing roar the pile in front of them was engulfed in a merry bonfire. He sat back with a sigh and looked over at her; Mageria smiled and reached over to hug him with one arm. “Very good.” They watched the pile burn down to ashes before getting up to go in.

------------------------------------
Thomas growled in frustration under his breath as he watched the newest recruits working in the yard. The problem with some of them is that they were straight from the nobility, which meant that they had private instructors in the art of fighting. Not that this meant that they were bad fighters, but that they weren’t up to the standard that he expected from his Guards. Even worse that some of them hoped to someday become Knights, if they tried to fight beyond their abilities most of them would end up dead on a battlefield someday. Finally he had to step in. Drawing his rapier he walked into the middle of the bout and disarmed them both with just a few moves, letting their weapons spin away to hit the dust.
“You both fight too pretty. You flourish and pose and act like this is a duel. It isn’t. You are both fighting for your lives, not honor. If you continue to act like nobility when you fight, you will die. It’s that simple.” He sheathed his sword and planted both hands on his hips. Both young men looked scornful at his words. It was obvious that they believed that their lineage would protect them, and not all of the words that he had would make a difference. Shaking his head, he looked around at the rest of the Guards standing around at ease in their crisp uniforms, waiting for their turns to practice. Then he walked past them to a different corner of the yard, where a ragtag group of men and women sat in the dirt, watching a few of their number go after each other in something that was just short of a killing frenzy. He tapped one young woman on the shoulder, smiling politely when she looked up at him.
“Excuse me. I need to teach a few of my recruits a lesson. Would you mind helping me out?” She nodded in return, picking up a set of sticks and brushing the dust off of her pants as she followed him. He returned to his group and stood in front of them.
“So, you two believe that since you’ve been taught to fight since you could hold a blade, you don’t need to learn anything else, right?” They at least had the grace not to nod, but he could see the answer in their eyes. He stepped to the side and gestured to the young woman standing behind him.
“So, here’s the chance to prove that you’re right. If you can win in a bout against her, you’ll have proved that your way is better. The both of you, formally trained, against one person who never had a day of formal training before she got here.” Thomas stepped back and gestured for them all to start. The two men lost a moment glancing at each other in confusion, while the young woman took her sticks in both hands and went on the attack. It was clear after just a moment that she was the better fighter as she chased them both around the ring, working first on one then the other, pushing them into each other and tripping them up. In the first minute of the fight, it was clear that she had won, but Thomas let the bout continue for the full usual ten minutes, just to prove his point. Once the bout was over, the two former nobles were panting and gasping in the dirt, while the young woman dressed in Black stood over them with her sticks in hand.
“Thank you for the demonstration, it was much appreciated.” Thomas gave a respectful nod while the young woman bowed in return. She went back to her group while Thomas turned to his. “Now. Start again. And do it right this time.”
-------------------------------------

Hours later Mageria was sitting alone in the common room of the Black Guard’s barracks; stitching together a broken piece of practice armor. The braid that hung over her shoulder was streaked with white; the patch at her temple had remained white ever since her brush with death three years ago. Between that and the stories that evidently went around about ‘The woman who came back from Death’ had lead to some interesting rumors floating around the barracks that were evidently used to frighten new recruits. She didn’t mind so much, if they were already afraid of her she didn’t have to work so hard to get them worked into shape. It was quiet and almost peaceful, the only sounds ones that floated in through the open window.

Suddenly she raised her head, alerted by the sense that something had changed. Since she didn’t have any type of Enlightenment, Mageria had honed her senses over the years until she frequently sensed things that others missed. She couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but something was different. Slipping the hilt of a dagger into one hand, she turned and peered into the shadows, searching for what had alerted her.
“Hello?”

From behind her there was the slightest scrape of leather on stone, that was the only warning that she had before a figure dressed in black leather launched itself at her. Mageria barely dodged out of the way in time, twisting as she did so that she could land a firm push on the other’s back and send them stumbling on past. Spinning on the ball of one foot, Mageria pulled another dagger and set herself for a fight. Unfortunately she recognized the person that was attacking her, and she knew that she wasn’t going to get away without a struggle.
“All right then.” She gestured with the daggers in a ‘bring it on’ motion. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
The other woman grinned evilly and pulled a pair of sticks from her back, setting herself in a fighting stance as well; she pressed something on the sticks that caused sickle like blades to pop out, making them fighting scythes. With a quick pair of steps the other woman pressed the attack, while Mageria dropped down and brought one leg around in a sweeping motion. The other woman jumped up on the table, kicking a bowl at Mageria’s head. She in turn rolled under the table and launched herself upwards, slamming the table up and over. She heard a grunt as the other woman fell, then rolled and sprang back up. She brought her scythes up and around in a move that would have ripped her throat out if Mageria hadn’t blocked it with her forearm. The only thing that saved her from losing her arm was the fact that she wore vambraces heavily reenforced with metal ribs. She’d have a bruise, but it was worth it as she rotated her arm around and used the motion to pull the scythe from her opponent. Her opponent hissed in frustration and brought her other stick around in a backhand move to try and smash it into Mageria’s jaw, she ducked and tackled the other woman, pushing her into the wall. For a few minutes, both women traded blows that would have done considerable damage if any of them had managed to land, yet they both kept fighting. At one point Mageria managed to get a grip on the other woman’s shirt and arm, using it to try and throw her against the wall. Instead of hitting the wall, she managed to use the momentum to run up and flip over Mageria, grabbing her in turn and spinning her around. The other woman used the opportunity to launch a roundhouse punch that Mageria wasn’t completely able to dodge, but she rolled with it and ended up standing a couple of feet away. Turning, she grabbed random things off the table and flinging them at her attacker with deadly accuracy. She dodged some, grabbed a few others out of the air, but she couldn’t dodge them all. The other woman took a couple of steps back under the rain of missiles, not noticing that Mageria was driving her toward a puddle of something that gleamed in the light. One boot heel caught the edge of it and went out from under her, she flailed wildly before twisting and landing badly. Mageria didn’t let the opportunity slip by, she sprinted over and grabbed her, twisting one arm up and planting a knee in the other woman’s back to drive her to the floor. With a grunt she grabbed the back of the woman’s neck and slammed her head into the floor.
“Yield, Sham.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name)
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Footnotes

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INK

Sham growled in frustration. She really thought that she was going to get the Captain this time, the woman had been completly distracted . . . . She should have been surprised! Mageria’s knee was planted firmly in the middle of her back and any more pressure on her arm and it would be dislocated. She was about to admit defeat when a strange male voice intruded.

“Hey, Captain, I have a letter for you, but I see you are rather busy. Should I come back later?”

Hopeful, she stayed still for a moment, hoping that Mageria would get distracted. She felt the Captain's weight shift just a bit, as she cheerfully replied. “Jake!? Hold on, I’ll be with you in . . .” Sham thrashed violently, turning so that she faced into the hold that Mageria had on her arm. It worked, up to a point. Her arm was in no more danger of being dislocated but now Mageria had a tight grip on her neck and was steadily applying pressure.
“Sham. You know the rules. Now yield, or it gets twice as bad.”
Sham sighed and finally yielded. Mageria released her grip and Sham gratefully drew in a deep breath of air. Looking up, she saw Mageria walk over to someone with long black hair with a rather interesting scar over one eye. Oddly enough, the Captain seemed really happy to see this stranger. Sham got up and perched on one of the few tables still standing, grabbing a piece of fruit and biting into it.
“Heya Cap’n. Old boyfriend?” She leaned over and took a good look, actually the stranger seemed a bit young for Mageria. “No wait, boytoy? Raise ‘em up right?” Mageria choked on something that sounded a lot like a laugh and turned so that she faced both of them. “No, an old friend is all. Sham, this is Jake. Jake, this is Sham, whom I foolishly have taken into the Knights a couple of years back.” She looked over at Jake. “It’s been what? Three years?”
Sham stretched, wandering over to the open window. “Are you sure he’s not a ‘friend’?” She sketched quotes in the air. “I mean, you really need to loosen up, Cap’n” She yelped as Mageria turned and hurled a mug at her head, leaping up to crouch in the window ledge. “Cause if he’s not available, I know a guy . . .”
“OUT!” Mageria grabbed another mug and sent it whizzing at her head, Sham leapt backwards out of the window in a backwards somersault, grabbing the mug and placing it in the window as she fell.

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

Mageria sighed as she turned back to Jake, rubbing one temple in frustration. “Every day it's like this. No, actually, this is it being calm around here any more. But still Jake, it’s good to see you.” She tilted her head to the side as she looked him over. “You look as if you’re doing well. Thanks for the letter, it’s been something I’ve been a bit worried about.” She took the envelope and gestured to the one untouched table. “Do you have time to stay a while?”

Setting

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Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name)
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INK

Sham was running along the ledges of the Castle walls when she heard a couple of people talking about the deaths of some bandits down in the Lower City. Given the particularly gruesome manner in which they had died and the card left behind, there could be only one person responsible. And wasn’t the Captain going to be upset when she heard about it? Moving quickly she worked her way over rooftops and ledges, at a few points leaping across spaces more than six feet across, until she found where Michael usually went when he got back from patrolling. Grinning she wandered in and perched on a table next to where he leaned back in a chair.
“You just had to leave the cards, didn’t you? You know how the Cap’n feels about those.” Even years living in the Castle couldn’t erase the clear evidence of her street child upbringing. But around Michael her accent tended to become a bit thicker, just because she thought that it annoyed the former noble. Sometimes she couldn’t help tweaking people.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Lamya
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INK

You need to listen to this music for the chase scene in order to get the full effect. Please and Thank You.

Sham felt just a bit more delight in the chase than she should have. The woman in the red cloak was damn fast, darting in and out through the corridors with a a recklessness that wasn’t wise for someone who cared about their future health. Red Cloak ran down one of the more busy hallways, laughing as she ran between the people, grabbing a few of them and slinging them in her wake. Sham followed, leaping over the fallen servants when she couldn’t dodge them. Red Cloak glanced back and giggled when she saw Sham chasing her, grabbing a suit of armor and pulling it down with a loud clatter. The helmet the woman spun and threw at Sham, who dodged to one side and returned it with force. The other woman dodged it as well, spinning on one foot to leap down a stairwell. Sham followed, turning a corner just in time to see Red Cloak grab the edge of a tapestry and jump, using it to swing down to the ground floor. The reason she did so was obvious, the stairway was crowded with people. Sham on the other hand, drew on her gift and jumped up, running down the banister and gaining speed as she went.

Red Cloak simply smiled as if she was a child given the perfect gift and picked up her skirt with both hands. She whirled and darted through the staring crowd, moving as if they were standing still. Most of them screamed and ran, unfortunately the majority of them were idiots and managed to tangle themselves up and get in Sham’s way. So she simply leapt and started leaping from shoulders to backs to tables back to someone else’s shoulder. She really didn’t want to know what Mageria was going to hear about this.

Red Cloak simply grabbed a vase off a table and hurled it through a nearby window, following it a moment later. Apparently the woman really hated doors. Sham followed her, diving head first out the window, rolling when she hit the ground. It was purely luck that let her dodge the blow that the woman aimed at her from beside the window, swinging a heavy length of wood that would have caved in Sham’s skull if it had connected. Sham finished rolling into a crouch, planting her hands on the ground and pushing off of them in a tackle. Red Cloak gripped the staff in both hands, planted it on the ground in front of her and somehow used it to flip up and over Sham while leaving the staff behind. Sham couldn’t halt her momentum and instead just ran up the wall, flipping over and spinning to see Red Cloak taking off across the courtyard. Sham followed, but apparently ever damn person in the entire Castle was wandering through the area at that time AND GETTING IN HER WAY! With a loud oath, Sham leapt past people, over them, using some of them for springboards . . . She saw Red Cloak actually skid under a horse at one point, startling the poor thing into a wild rear. Sham certainly didn’t help, while the handler was trying to hang onto the reins and control it, Sham ran up, leapt, placing one hand on it’s rump and leaping over it, spinning in mid-air.

She couldn’t make it to the woman before she got out the gate, leaving her no choice but to follow as Red Cloak lead her on a chase through the entirety of Newhaven. Sham used her abilities at every turn, but Red Cloak was damn fast to begin with and she didn’t care if she hurt anyone in the process of getting away. Finally they neared the City walls, where a bit of scaffolding was all that remained to show that the walls had ever fallen. They were in the process of being dismantled, but that didn’t stop Red Cloak as she ran lightly up them, daintily holding her skirt out of the way.
“You’ve got nowhere else to go! There’s no other way out!” Sham yelled as she worked her way up the scaffolding, pushing from stairs to bracing to whatever looked like it would hold her weight. Panting, she reached the top to find that Red Cloak was standing at the very edge of what was left, far above the ground and the far edge of the wall. Turning around, she smiled gently.
“There’s always another way out.” With that Red Cloak fell backwards off the platform. Sham ran after her to see that she had somehow wrapped a rope around her waist and was running down the outside of the wall. Sham only wasted a moment in staring before backing up a few steps and running at the same place. As she went she whipped out one of her batons, the blade snapping smoothly out. Almost absently she severed the rope, then she was leaping, her eyes flaring brightly as she smoothly twisted through the air to land in a crouch a few feet away from where Red Cloak had landed in a tangle of dress and cloak. With a flick of the wrist Sham pulled out her other baton, extending that blade as well. Breathing hard, she planted her feet and stared at the other woman.
“You tried to hurt my friends.”

Red Cloak didn't bother to untangle herself from the mess her clothes had created. Looking down the edge of the blade, she just smiled. It didn't matter if she died right then. Nature would take it's course and things would work themselves out in the long run. Of course, she wouldn't see it all unfold, but it didn't really matter. Truth was, if she died, so did those soldiers and the corruptible shadow, Mageria would feel responsible, even if she didn't admit it.
"What makes them your friends?"

Sham tilted her head to the side and frowned, not letting her guard down. "I choose to call them that. My reasons are my own and nothing I think that you would understand." She shifted the tiniest bit to be sure of her footing. "Why does Blackpond think that sending someone who would threaten us with bombs would make us more inclined to do as they want?"


Red Cloak snickered, placing her forehead right on the tip of the blade, eyeballing Sham with doe eyes and an indifferent frown. "Well it's safe to assume that you like to deflect questions you don't know the answer to by making assumptions of your own about the person you speak to. Am I being a hypocrite? Yes. Do I care?" She continued eyeballing Sham, but her gaze grew more an more sinister the longer she looked into her eyes. She then placed the tip of her finger o the edge of the blade and ran it down towards her forehead. When her finger got close enough to connect with her forehead, she let the blood course down the blade and eventually onto her head where it ran down to the tip of her nose and slowly dripped. She then grabbed the blade and forced it to her where her heart would be, cutting her hand till it became a bloody mess, but she didn't flinch one bit. Instead that indifferent frown turned into a jubilant smile. "Blackpond doesn't think it. Why should a city have only one voice? I think Mageria has had the same idea as I have for a while now and she knows that it must be done to insure optimal survival."
She paused again for a moment, taking time to think about what she was going to say next. She wanted to word it perfectly as to not leave any room for stipulation. "Now I have a story for you." Red Cloak said. There was once a woman at the mercy of another woman. The first woman-- let's call her Yishka-- was on the ground with the blade of the second woman aimed directly for her heart. Yishka was a vile woman, who used threats and lied to get her way. No one could tell how many people's death she was responsible for. The second woman, with the perfect chance to kill this woman has a difficult choice to make herself however. She could kill Yishka, but face the consequence when 27 innocent soldiers die or she could let Yishka go, not knowing how many innocent lives she could possibly take herself. So, would you rather play the soulless tango with Mother Death herself or would you rather kill what you know you need to have to be happy?"

It seemed to Sham that everything froze for just a moment. She could feel a breeze blowing across the back of her neck, hear birdsong off in the distance. And in front of her, ruby red drops of blood ran down the length of her blade to drip onto the ground. She literally held the lives of 28 people with the twitch of a blade.

Almost gently, she pressed her scythe forward, digging it deeper into the other woman’s chest.

Finally, reluctantly, she stopped. It hadn’t advanced very far, but it was still enough to cause a scarlet patch to grow and spread.
“Yishka, is it? At least at the moment, I’d say. Your world must be a very cold place, that you can stand so bravely behind the shield of another’s life.” She withdrew her blade, not caring if she cut the other woman’s hand.
“Go back to your King, Yishka. You’ve delivered his message, you’ve made your threats. You’ll know soon enough what our decisions are.”
Slowly Sham backed up, giving the other woman the room to stand up and walk away. Stone faced, she watched as Yishka held up her bleeding hand to her face, watching the blood run down her wrist to soak into her sleeve. Then she brought the edge of her cloak around and started to wipe her fingers on it as if she was drawing some sort of pattern into the cloth.

Sham watched her get up and walk away, waiting until she couldn’t see her any more before turning and walking back into the City, stopping at the first food vendor that she saw in order to deal with the sudden pit that she held in her gut. She had eaten about a meal and a half as she was walking before she noticed that Thomas was riding beside her.
“Report please, Sham.” He raised an eyebrow at the trail of confusion that lead back towards the Castle. “A great deal seems to have happened while I was gone.” Sham snorted softly and did her best to catch him up in between bites.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Thomas Sidin Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Jake Turner
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Footnotes

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INK

Jake could guess what the whole thing was about before Mageria even spoke a word to him; the slightly evil smile on the woman's face was a very good hint of what was to come. His suspicions growing as she led him by the arm, and confirmed as they reached a training area. He heaved a small sigh knowing that he would probably leave this with a few bruises and aches, but grinned even so. It had been a long while since he had a chance at a (considerably) leveled fight. This would actually turn out to be quite fun for him.

Before picking up training gear, Jake needed to get rid of what he definitely wouldn't be using for this: his needles. So he carefully removed the sheathes located at his waist, forearms, and ankles, each containing ten to twenty needles. Afterwards he felt the weight of the training swords until he decided to arm himself with two short swords. They were heavier than his own sword, but weren't as heavy as the ones the knights were used to. He also got a couple of daggers, easily concealing them here and there as needed. Once done, he proceeded to join the Captain in the center of the courtyard. "Fair enough." He stated simply "You will have to excuse me if I'm a bit rusty though. You know, it's been a while." He added, a slight smirk showing on his face as he walked towards the woman, feeling his feet sink slightly in the muddy ground, one sword in each hand and some daggers hidden just in case, after all, old habits die hard.

Jake paced calmly towards Mageria, and never actually stopped before her. Not wasting any time in delivering the first couple of blows, he aimed a first hit with his left sword directly at Mageria's face and a second with his right sword at her chest.

Mageria snorted at the "a bit rusty" claim of Jake's. As if he would let any skills of his get rusty. She set her feet in a fighting stance and watched as Jake made his way towards her. Behind them both standing under the awnings were a number of the Guards watching them both and making bets on them both. When Jake struck at her face, Mageria brought her right arm up and deflected it off of her vambrace, letting it slide harmlessly past her head. The right hand sword she caught on the dagger in her left hand, twisting slightly so that she was inside Jake's guard. Bringing her right arm in tight, she aimed her elbow toward Jake's gut and jabbed it backwards . . .

Jake didn't try to escape the blow aimed at his gut, instead he simply decided to twist his body enough to protect his mid section and not get the wind knocked out of him. As he took the hit, he walked back a couple of steps so he could to put his guard up again properly, raising his left sword in a defensive manner while attacking with his good hand. Then he shook his head lightly and opened up a small smirk. "Now, what did I tell you? Rusty. It's almost shameful." He stated. Obviously, he didn't expect Mageria to believe that, but he was getting a bit of a kick out of messing with the guards who were betting on the fight. Following the statement, Jake advanced again; this time being careful not to leave another opening like the one before, aiming for body blows that were easily dodged or blocked and returned as he looked for an opening.

Mageria raised her eyebrows sardonically and tilted her head at Jake's words. Then a lightning grin worked it's way across her face and she started raining blows down on Jake, driving him across the yard and through a couple of puddles. He blocked every blow, so she took a moment to take a step back and dig her toe into a puddle and fling a glob of mud at Jake's face.



Jake notice the mud flying off the ground towards his face a moment too late to dodge, as the 'projectile' hit him straight in the face he dropped his left sword and let a dagger slide from under his sleeve, concealing it with his enlightenment. He then raised his hand as if to wipe the mud of his face, and threw the dagger in the direction of Mageria's face before to wiping the mud of his eyes.

Impressed with Jake's ability to conceal his actions, Mageria dove to one side to avoid the dagger flying at her face, rolling on the ground and coming up in a crouch. Bracing one hand on the ground, she brought her leg around in a sweeping motion towards Jake's legs.

Jake wiped his eyes and regained sight barely in time to see the incoming sweep kick. He attempted to jump over the kick, but it still caught his left foot, causing him to lose his balance and stumble back as he landed. The muddy ground didn't help his case, and he ended up slipping and falling backwards, immediately rolling over to his left and retrieving the sword he had dropped in order to defend himself better from the attack he knew would be coming next.

Mageria smoothly spun up from her crouch, settling her weight on both feet once again. She turned to see that Jake was rolling away, reaching for his sword and trying to bring it up. Walking towards him, she absently swung first the sword in her right hand and the long dagger in her left in circles, keeping her wrists loose and flinging a bit of mud off.
"Come on then. Stand up." Stopping a couple of steps away, she gestured with her sword, giving Jake the chance to get up out of the mud. When he hesitated, she raised one eyebrow and smiled.
"Don't you trust me?" Keeping back, she waited for what he'd do next.
Of course she pushed an attack the instant he started to move, aiming a couple of heavy blows toward his head.

Jake hesitated when Mageria told him to stand up. He did trust the woman with his life, but he knew for a fact she wasn't one to hold back, even if it was training, and he wouldn't really expect her to. Besides, the first thing he was taught, still as a kid, was: Never listen to a word your opponent says. Still, simply lying there would accomplish nothing so he took his chance at pulling himself off the ground, knowing it wouldn't be that simple.
Of course, the moment he moved he was met with several blows aimed towards his head. Jake wasn't even standing up straight yet as he was forced to lift up his left sword to stop Mageria's blade from hitting him in the head. As he blocked the first blow he almost lost balance again, but managed to steady himself, blocking the second blow as well. As the next blows came his way, instead of trying to properly stand and block them, he dropped to one knee, still protecting his head with his left sword, and swung his right sword towards Mageria's knees.

Mageria brought her dagger around to block Jake's blow, but couldn't block all of the force. It actually caught her in just the right place that it made her knee buckle, throwing her to the side and driving the air from her lungs for an instant. Forcing herself up, she rolled and drove herself to her feet.

Jake had an opportunity and he wasn't going to waste it. In the few moments it took for Mageria to bring herself up again, he activated his enlightenment and vanished, being careful to walk quietly and stepping over his own footprints not to give himself away, he circled her and attacked from behind, aiming a blow to her back.

Jake was gone. Well, obviously not gone, but not visible anymore. Obviously he was counting on his Enlightenment to give him the advantage, but like most Enlightened, he counted on it far too much, in her opinion. Drawing a careful breath, Mageria let her eyes drift half closed, pushing her dagger back into it's sheath to leave her left hand free. Most mercenaries practiced blind fighting for fun, but it was a skill that she had found extremely useful. It involved the ability to rely on senses other than sight, concentrating instead on trying to sense an opponent's movements with a sense of the space around a fighter.

Mageria settled her weight on both feet and concentrated. Half a breath in . . . she spun, eyes still half closed and brought her sword up, hearing it clang against another weapon. With her left hand she grabbed the invisible arm and seized a pressure point, using it to lever Jake's arm out and down in a rather painful hold. She smiled as she heard bets being settled back in the doorway.
"Nice try Jake. Care to try again?"

Later that night Mageria grinned a bit as she got ready for bed. Jake hadn’t done that bad, really. She’d have no problem bringing him up to a proper level of skill in no time. With a small sigh of exhaustion, she went about her nightly rituals. First was making sure that there was enough oil in the lamp sitting on her mantle. It was a small, squat lamp known as a Traveler’s Blessing, a bit of mercenary superstition that she couldn’t quite break herself of. Most mercenaries, once they managed to settle down, still had friends that were walking “The Long Road” as it was known. The belief was that if a light was kept burning for them, one day they would be able to find their way home. At the moment, there were two wicks burning, each of them labeled with a small metal tag. Because naming the person that was watched for meant that Death would also be watching for them, the tradition was that they were labeled with something that represented the person. One of the wicks was labeled with an ancient rune which meant “Strength through Courage” while the other read “Strength through Faith”. She brushed her fingers across it and moved on. One day they would find their rest.

Next she checked her weapons, another habit, but one she wasn’t about to break. Everything was in order, and her smile was tinged with sadness as she ran her fingers over a war hammer hanging from a rack. It was bright silver, with several ancient holy symbols impressed into it. The shaft was badly scratched, as if a hand with claws had tried to hold it. And it had, really. There was also blood that had soaked into the wood, no matter how hard she tried she hadn’t been able to clean it off. There was a leather thong on one end that would be used to attach it to a belt, from that dangled a battered iron cross.
“Hold on Daniel. I know that you’re out there.”

Finally she crossed to her desk to carefully shelve a couple of books. The knowledge that they held had been hard won, and not something that she would care to let just anyone know. The shelf that she put them on held several old and battered journals, most of them ancient and each stamped with either a golden sun or a silver crescent. Sometimes the best way to learn was to listen to those who were no longer able to speak.

Pushing herself to relax, she finally climbed into bed. Today had been exciting enough. Tomorrow might hold even more . . .

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

Thomas rubbed his hands through his hair and sighed in impatience. He just knew that things were going to get complicated with the Salamanders camped right outside the walls of Newhaven, but there was nothing he could do about it. Best to just move on to what he could control. Reaching out with one arm, he drug a stack of reports nearer and started leafing through it. He hadn’t been ready to become the Captain of the White Knights in the first place, ever since then it had felt like a desperate scramble to catch up. There had been months of late nights like this, trying to fill a role that he had been shoved into. Absently he ate with one hand while studying the reports with the other, not even tasting what he was eating. It took him a couple of hours, but he finally waded through them all. Putting them in a pile to deal with later, he wandered back into his bed room and shrugged out of his shirt. Not even bothering to pull anything else off, he just collapsed backwards and pulled a pillow over his head; dropping into a dreamless sleep.

-------

Sham was sitting on the edge of a roof watching the city when the stars started coming out. She liked to watch the city put itself to sleep, remembering when this time of day used to be her most active. For some reason nobody looked around during twilight. She hugged her knees to her chest, more disturbed with the actions and words of Yishka than she wanted to admit

“Why should a city have only one voice? I think Mageria has had the same idea as I have for a while now and she knows that it must be done to insure optimal survival."

"Now I have a story for you. . . . There was once a woman at the mercy of another woman. The first woman-- let's call her Yishka-- was on the ground with the blade of the second woman aimed directly for her heart. Yishka was a vile woman, who used threats and lied to get her way. No one could tell how many people's death she was responsible for. The second woman, with the perfect chance to kill this woman has a difficult choice to make herself however. She could kill Yishka, but face the consequence when 27 innocent soldiers die or she could let Yishka go, not knowing how many innocent lives she could possibly take herself. So, would you rather play the soulless tango with Mother Death herself or would you rather kill what you know you need to have to be happy?"


Did Mageria think the same way that this Yishka did? She knew that the woman was capable of almost anything, but surely there were limits to what the Captain would do. Weren’t there?

Finally Sham stood up and started running along the edge of the roof, her eyes flaring green as she shifted her sight to better deal with the dark. There was nothing she could do about it now. She’d just have to see how things turned out next.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Luckas
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INK

Mageria watched as Luckas pulled the bandages aside to reveal a set of slash marks across the width of his chest. Gently, she touched the edges, nothing the red puffiness that indicated infection. "You need to have those looked at again." she said absently. In her mind she was reliving the siege of the Lower City, moments after Daniel had used his spell to transform himself in a desperate effort to save Newhaven.

A chill ran it's way up and down her spin. Those marks, that description . . . could it be anything else? Almost without realizing it, she brushed her fingers across the scars running down from her left temple. Abruptly she turned and strode to her room, crossing to her bookcase and pulling a leather bound journal out. It was the sum total of three years of research, put together only with exhausting effort. She snapped it open the the first page, which contained a sketch of the Beast that she had fought. Walking back out, she brandished the open book at Luckas. "Was it this?"

She was waiting for his response when one of her scouts ran up to her at full speed. Skidding to a stop, he grabbed her shoulder and started to whisper harshly into her ear. “Salamander camp . . . attacked . . . Warlord was outnumbered . . .” She really didn’t hear much more than that.

The book that she had worked on for three years slipped from fingers suddenly gone numb. A sense of foreboding ran it’s way up her back; as if she could feel Death taking an interest. Taking off at a dead sprint, she followed her scout down to the stables.
------------
Sham had rather enjoyed watching the quiet guy take apart the new toughs, it was obvious that he was a professional of some kind. She had moved out of the way, leaning against one of the windows and privately making bets about what was going to happen. It was about halfway through when she noticed a few Black-clad riders galloping down the street. She thought that she recognized the Cap’n at the front, and there were few things that could cause her to rush like that. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that the fight was over.
“Jake? I’ve got a bad feeling about something. Com’on.” She pushed out of the Inn and saw that a second group of riders were following after the first. Reaching out with one hand, she grabbed the arm of one of the passing Guard and swung up behind him. With a few minutes of frantic riding they reached what must have been the camp of the Salamanders. Sham swung down and shook her head . . . there was so much blood . . .
-------------
Mageria scarcely noticed the ride from the Castle to the camp. The report hadn't been clear, just that there was something appearing to be a coup and that Grim was involved. She just got him back, he couldn't . . . . she couldn't even think it. She just held on as her horse galloped out of the gates and into the forest where she had walked just hours earlier.

Swinging to her feet as the horse slowed, she looked around and was nearly sick to her stomach. A couple of her Guard walked into her line of sight, she hadn't even noticed them following.
"Fan out, search for survivors." But she didn't think that there would be any. She had seen battlefields often enough to read the signs of this one . . . Most of the men must have been drugged somehow, they lay as if they had been killed in their sleep or taken unawares by someone they trusted. Heart in her mouth, she started walking though the carnage, searching for that one familiar, beloved face. But Grim was nowhere to be found. She almost dared to hope when she was hailed from a path that took a winding way back to Newhaven. She followed at a lope as her scout lead her to a second battle scene. This one bore the familiar sign that Grim had been there, body parts lay about as if a child had ripped their dolls apart in a fit of rage. And leading away, a steady trail of blood.

Numbly, Mageria followed the blood trail. There had been one last fight, it seemed. Two bodies lay crumbled not far from one another. Chandos, recognizable only from the scars and eyepatch, had a spear through what remained of his head. She wouldn't mourn that overmuch, because it was obvious that the other man had caused that injury.

Grim.

Her friend lay in a pool of his own blood, a gaping hole through his stomach and an eerily peaceful smile on his face; scarcely breathing. Her mediocre healing knowledge had no hope to offer her, only one of the Twins could save him from a wound such as this. Anything she could do would only prolong the pain, and he wouldn't thank her for her efforts. Even if she could save his life, he'd never be the man he once was. Carefully, she knelt down next to him and ran her fingers through his hair before pulling his head into her lap.
"Ah Grim. What has the world done to you?"

Behind her she could hear some of her people starting to gather the bodies of the Salamanders together; she gladly left them to it, grateful for just a moment of peace to say goodbye in.

The edges of his fingers crept over her hand, what once possessed such strength could hardly hold her now. Meekly clinging to Mageria, he carefully lay down chuckling just under his breath. What voice he had carried just beyond his lips. The emeralds of his eyes watching as they drifted toward a distant horizon refusing to focus.

“You came- back for me.. I-I somehow knew you would…I’m afraid it’s- … I got in over my head Th- this time...”

The touch of his hand was ice and every breath was far too labored. His body shakily rising and falling, wincing as it did, but holding fast for his friend. Still smiling as blood dribbled from the corners of his mouth. It wouldn’t be much longer.

“T… the beast is gone. I am free.. The gift is spent and I am just another man.. What I always- hrk.. Wanted…
P-please do not- blame yourself..’

Mageria gripped his hand tightly and leaned over him, tears glinting in her eyes but refusing to fall. "But I'm the Captain. I'm always in charge, you know that."

He had forever been nagging her for trying to control the world, for fretting about things that were out of her reach. How many times had he pulled her away from her plans in the middle of the night, telling her; "If you don't rest Captain, how are you going to order the Twins around?"

Gently, she brushed some of his hair out of his eyes, taking a trembling breath as she did so. "Of course I came back for you." A choked laugh forced it's way out of her throat. "You always did have to bite off more than you could chew." A deep breath. "You know, I never got the chance to tell you how much it always meant to me that you believed in me. I sometimes think it was the only thing that let me hold on for so long." Leaning over, she brushed her lips against his forehead. "Thank You, my dearest friend."

The lights of his eyes dimmed and the lids grew heavy sinking over the green orbs. The pacing rhythm of Grim’s heartbeat slowed, drawing air shallowly. The old familiar darkness edging it from all around his mind.

“.. I-I’ve seen.. The Black Sea… and I’ve- spo- spoken with the Moon. I must go now.. But- will wait for you..
M-mm… My dear sister… I love you too.”

The Black Knight’s hand gently sank from Mageria’s and rested on the earth never to rise again. That night in the black skies of Valcrest, the Moon would show her face in full brimming down over the land. A light when all else is in shadow.

Mageria felt something in her break. “My brother. I will always love you.” She tried desperately to take a breath but a wire had wrapped itself around her chest and she couldn’t breathe right. Gently she brushed Grim’s eyes closed and looked away. Somewhere she could hear birds calling . . . it sounded so normal. So unfair . . .

She didn’t know how much later it was when footsteps approached her. Mageria didn’t look up, just kept holding Grim as if he might wake up at any moment.
“Captain?” It was Sham, kneeling down next to her with a worried look in her eyes. She looked over her shoulder where several of the Guard waited. “You need to get up now . . . They’ll take care of him.” Gently she reached out and shook Mageria’s shoulder. The blank look on her Captain’s face worried her. Always in the past when someone she knew had lost a friend, it was crying and tears and threats. Not this . . . emptyness.

Mechanically, Mageria laid Grim . . . laid Grim’s body down on the ground and followed Sham back to where the horses were. They had only taken a few steps before Mageria turned and looked back at where the Guard had started to pick up Chandos as well as Grim. “Not him. He betrayed his brothers. Leave him for the dogs.” The look that they gave to the body mirrored what she felt. To a group such as theirs, nothing was worse than that. Already she could see where her men were putting up a funeral pyre. It would be put to use tonight; but first there were duties to be seen too. Slowly, she started to ride back home.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Jake Turner
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INK

Sham made her way down to the stables, a pack of everything that she thought she might need slung over one shoulder and a couple of breakfast rolls in her hands. Her pack had a couple of changes of clothing, some food, some money, her backup weapons . . . . and a few surprises that she had in a special pocket sewn into the lining. But for now she just looked like a reasonably well off young woman who was out to travel into the city for a festival. Grinning at Jake, who had managed to get there before her, she tossed him a stuffed role and went to check out her horse. Finding it to be ready to go, she mounted and waited, following Jake as he rode out.

Sham looked around as she rode, she always enjoyed the Blessings Festivals, not the least because it had always been an opportunity for thieving. But even then, the sheer giddiness of the celebration always made the world seem a little brighter. Leaning over, she accepted a flower held out to her by a little girl, tucking it behind one ear as the finally made it through the gates and out of the city. Glancing sideways out of the corner of her eye she studied the young man carefully, waiting until they were well out of earshot of anybody else.

"So," she finally broke the silence. "I understand the need to be causing trouble, in the name of the greater good and all that. But you look to be walkin' up to a bee's nest and whacking it with a stick." She rode for a moment more in silence. "Now, you have your reasons, and I'll not push if you'll not talk of them. But nobody paints a target on themselves and invites the archers to take their best shot without a powerful reason." She looked at Jake and then away, waiting for his answer. "So what is it that gives you such a wish to queer Blackpond's plans?"

Jake had been quiet as they rode out, only stopping as they crossed the castle gates onto the city. There he handed one of the guards the note he had written for Mageria, leaning down and whispering something to the man before riding on. He looked around at all the people as they crossed the city, curiously wondering how the Wolves would be celebrating it this time. He had poisoned their food supplies the last couple of years, but he would be too busy for that this time, what a pity... But Sean had been moved back on his list of priorities just a little bit for now

He was lost in thought, he wasn't sure for how long, until Sham spoke to him about why he was doing this. He thought about it for a few seconds, thinking that he has way too many reasons to name them all. "So, I take it that now you know me well enough to ask questions, huh?" He started with a little grin. "I don't really believe in greater good, you know; it's an impossibility. All of my reasons for this are personal in a way, some are strong enough to be risking my life" He sighed. "My strongest reason? I like Blackpond. I spent a lot of my nights in the Inns of that city as a teenager, I always thought people there had a lot of spirit to survive with so little as they did. I always thought that the whole city had a lot of potential, which they wasted in the war, but potential nonetheless... So I don't like how things are doing there. I also don't believe their King is who he says he is, and I have a special kind of hatred for fake Kings."

He looked around a little bit in silence then added. "There is also something that I've been looking for, for about four years now, and I suspect it might be there, but that's mostly a guess." He said, patting his horse absently. "What about you? Why are you helping me? Aside from it being great fun."

Sham grinned back. "Sometimes you need to ask the questions, just to see how somebody don't answer them." She scratched her nose and leaned back a bit. "You'd be wanting to save the city from themselves? That's be a mighty big hope, even for somebody who's been a Knight, twice over. And even if ya can prove that the King not be who he says he is, what then? Newhaven had the same deal, somebody killed the King and everything went to hell. And then things just kept getting worse, leading to us going out to stir up trouble all over again."

Absently, Sham traced a scar on the back of her left hand, in the shape of a jagged X. It was the swearing in mark from her old gang, all that she had left to show that they had ever existed. Carefully, she peeled off the fingerless glove and showed it to Jake.
"I told ya, Cap'n found me during the last siege, me an' my mates. This be our mark. Our territory was square in the way of the fighting, so pickings was good for a while. Took the Blackpond dogs a while to catch on that it was a buncha kids taking 'em out one by one. Took them longer to track us down and do somethin' about it. But when they did . . ." She shook her head, for once losing the cheerful demeanor that characterized her. "I was the bait, out lookin' for a mark. I heard . . . screams. And things blowin' up. And . . . worse. By the time I got back, all that was left was bits. Just burned up and torn apart. Naught but kids, but they were old enough to fight back. Old enough to kill." Sham pulled her glove back on, rubbing the stiffness out of her neck.

"I wandered around for a while, just looking for a reason to keep going. Eventually Cap'n and I crossed paths a couple times. One thing to another, I joined up." Sham shrugged. "So aye, I'd be looking for a bit of revenge. But back with my gang days, there was one rule we held above all others. You never leave your mate in the wind. You always back 'em." She glanced out of the corner of her eyes at Jake and grinned. "No matter how mad they seem at the time."

"Oh, I don't want to save Blackpond. I think salvation, no matter what you think it is, is your own choice. I just think they also deserve to have that choice. No more, no less." Jake stated simply. "And I don't have to prove anything. Rita, or whoever else is interested, can take care of that... I'll just give it a push if I can."

He then went silent listening to Sham's story. Something in her tone while she told it seemed all too familiar to him. He'd used that tone way too many times before, each of those times left a mark he would never be able to erase, but in a way or two it was worth the price. He was silent all the while she spoke and few moments after that. Then out of the blue he talked again. "When I talked to Lamya she... She dropped her cloak in the middle of the hall. We walked past it, and when we reached the door to the meeting room, she told me I had the choice to pick it up myself and let her walk in ahead of me, or enter the room while she picked it up. She said it didn't matter which choice I made, it would only lead to the same meaningless result. That stuck in my head for a little while, not for any reason other than it sounded like the most honest thing she said. Or maybe I'm wrong and she was just messing with me... Either way, I can't decide if I agree with that or not. Does anything actually matter? One day we're all going to die, and be forgotten. If we end this war today, what's to say it won't start all over again in a hundred years when no one even remembers how much sacrifice it took to end it in the first place? Under that perspective, isn't it correct to say that nothing has actual meaning: Everything is temporary and pointless?"

Suddenly he took notice of the fact that he was just making himself sound a lot crazier and let out a small chuckle. "You know... Never mind that, I was just thinking aloud." He told her, scratching the back of his head. "Do you want to go through the forest or around it? Through the forest is faster, but we might have trouble with the wolves. As you know, they don't like me much." He shrugged. "Up to you, really."

Sham shrugged. "Aye, everything might just be a bit pointless. So the meaning, that be the meaning that we give them, no? We know that we're born, we know that we die, all that in the middle, that's what we make of it. We can waste it or we can take the chance the Twins gave us and try and leave a mark. The choices we make, that's what makes us who we are. Those that just allow the world to push them around? They be the ones that will be forgotten the fastest."
She shrugged uncomfortably at the look that Jake gave her. "One of the best places to stay warm during the winter was in some of the eating houses; a lot of time people got together and argued about all manner of things to pass the time. I was bored, so I listened."

Sham looked between the both of them, neither of them were anything that looked like it would attract too much attention. She shifted, looking up at the sun to gauge the time. "Well, we want to be getting to Blackpond as quick as can be, aye? I'd say we take the quicker path. Any trouble we get into, I'd say we can get out of fast enough. And you wanted to cause trouble with everyone, aye? Might as well get started."

Jake nodded simply, taking the path that crossed the forest. "Suppose, you're right, although depending on the kind of trouble it might slow us down a bit." He grinned. "Not that I'm complaining. I'm all for causing trouble." Riding further into the woods, Jake kept silent for a little while longer then he turned to face Sham. "Ever been to Blackpond before?" He asked absently. They weren't far enough in the woods for there to be Pack scouts around, but still, Jake made sure to keep his ears open for any movement. The snow from the night before had melted in the sun, leaving a pleasant smell of wet dirt in the air. It reminded him of when he was a simple Pack recruit, a smile even crossed his expression for a split second... It was funny how meaningless things brought back such meaningful memories. "Oh, I was meaning to ask: That little scene I stumbled upon when I first got to the castle..." He let out a little snicker. "Was that a... Regular occurrence?"

Sham kept her own eyes on the forest as they talked, her eyes growing faintly greener as she drew slightly on her Enlightenment in order to track the sights and sounds of their surroundings. Odd how skills that she had used to keep track of potential marks back in the city translated into use outside Newhaven.
"Aye, I've been there a time or three, enough to know my way around. Both before and after I joined the Night Crew, which lead to some interesting times. But one thing stays the same in both places, almost no one ever looks up." She smiled at the memories.

Turning, she flicked a glance at Jake before settling back in her saddle and shrugging. "You mean when Cap'n and I were sparring? Happen's every once in a while. For someone with not a bit of a Gift, I haven't an idea how she always manages to know what's going on around her like that. So I keep tryin' and she keeps makin' me eat dirt. The deal was, so long as she kept beating me, I had to do drills, longer each time I failed. I'm up to" she rolled her eyes back, counting on her fingers. "About six hours of drills if I want to keep trying to jump her."

"What about you? I heard about your match with Cap'n as well. Didn't even faze her when you went all see through. Any idea how she does it?"

"Some people don't need to look up, like I said." He chuckled. "But since I didn't notice you following me either, I'll just shut up about it. And that match was not my proudest moment, even when training is considered, I kind of expected a worse beating than what I got actually. Although... In a life or death scenario I would have worked it from another angle." He said absently, shifting in his saddle and patting Shadow when the horse snorted out in annoyance. "Some of the guys from the Guard used to go on about how she's got a hidden enlightenment, but I don't really believe that. With extensive training it's possible for someone to enhance their sense to a point of gaining a sixth sense of sorts. I know a few veterans of the Pack who had trained themselves to that extent. So I figure it must be that." He said with a little shrug. "So, I guess you just have to keep trying then." He said with a little smirk, turning as he heard movement in the bushes, but brushing it aside when realizing it was something too small to be human. "When we get there, there's one place I need to go before anything else." He informed simply.

Sham nodded. "Will you be wanting company? If no, then I'll use the time to stable the horses and start looking for places to cache supplies. I'm fine with sleeping out of the way, means that there's more ways out when some come after us. And it might even be better to just scout places where we can steal what we need on the way out rather than try and hide anything. It's not as if it's that far between Blackpond and Newhaven. Fair warnin' though. The longer I use my Enlightenment, the more I hav' ta eat. So if we end up runnin' we may end up huntin' on the way back. But that's the only problem that I can see."

Sham scratched her nose and listened carefully as something bounded away from them in the trees. "So . . . what was this I heard about the Cap'n wrecking her room? And somebody comin' back from the dead?"

"Sounds good to me, I'd much rather be alone for this, actually." Jake replied. He thought for a little while on Sham's next question, wondering just how much he should tell of something he had no business knowing about in the first place, but then he decided it really didn't matter, the whole thing had probably turned into gossip by now anyway. "The, uh, somebody who came back, for what I understand, is the former Captain of the White Knights. Everyone thought he died three years ago when Blackpond invaded. He was never found anywhere, not even a piece of him, only the sword. He was declared missing, presumed dead... I'm not sure, I wasn't there then. I never liked the guy much for the little I knew him, thought he was too loud and flashy for my liking, but he and Mageria were pretty close. And for what I heard of the shouting he just showed up out of nowhere, or at least I assume it was him... Can't think of anyone else who fits the description of an 'arrogant overdressed prick'." He scratched his head for a moment. "Gotta admit that the guy's timing was less than ideal."

They were riding closer to the assassins camp now, which made Jake straighten up a bit in his saddle and draw his hands closer to his sword on an instinct. Hopefully there would be no trouble, few of the Wolves who had remained in the clan knew his face, and unless he was recognized, they shouldn't try to stop the two of them.

Sham snorted. "I'll shove off then, I know when I'm not wanted." A grin took the sting out of her snarky comment. Then she tilted her head to the side. "So, three years ago, a bunch of you all took off at abouts the same time. And then you come back, and join back up. And Pondus comes back and dies in the Cap'n's arms. And this other Cap'n comes back and pushs Cap'n into a bout of screaming and breakin' things." She scratched her nose and nodded. "I will be very surprised if she doesn't end up a bit cracked after all that."

Watching Jake closely, she noticed that he was getting more tense and ready to fight. In response, she slipped one of her batons out of it's holder on her back and laid it across her lap. "Out of curiosity, just how much do they 'not like' you around here?"

"Who isn't cracked nowadays..." Jake mumbled in response to Sham's comments. It seemed there was so much going on lately, but still when he looked around there was nothing out of place. He felt like some crazy person chasing ghosts sometimes; he knew there was something there, he could just feel it, but he couldn't see it. Sometimes he had to wonder if he was just getting too paranoid.

"They don't like me in one bit." He stated. "I'm still well known as the traitor who pledged allegiance to the Black Knights and poisoned their most beloved leader." He said absently, lowering his head respectfully at the memory of Dani, but the moment lasted only a few seconds. "Although technically that's true... It's not really the whole story. The whole story is a bit of a long one... And it would require a considerable amount of alcohol for me to get through it." He said, keeping his eyes and ears open to any strange movement. There was none. "It's all quiet, they're probably celebrating." He concluded, relaxing just a little bit. "I remember these parties being good, it was one of the few occasions alcohol was allowed in camp... Can't get any funnier than drunken assassins." He said with a little chuckle.

"Unfortunately, I'm out of booze at the moment." Sham shifted and her eyes started darting around the forest. "That'll have to wait for later."

A brief smile flashed over her face. "Me an' my crew, we never really celebrated Creation day. We celebrated the day after . . . . day of was one of our busiest days. We worked hard enough, we had enough swag and glim to keep us eating for the next month or so. Half the time you didn't even need to sneak through the houses, everyone was down in the parlors getting as drunk as they could, no one knew who was supposed to be there because they hired extra help. One time I even walked into one of those parties with a drink tray, lifted some jewelry on my way through." She sighed wistfully. "We always ate well too, nicking food from the rich folks kitchens."

Sham looked down at the warm clothing that now covered her, well made with no holes, something that she could only have dreamed of just a few years ago. "Strange, the places that life will take you, aye?"

"The day after was fun when I was kid. I got to pull pranks on the Instructors while they were passed out drunk." Jake laughed. "Not so fun when I was an Active and had to wake up early for training or assignments." He said with a little grin. "And then, of course, I've been everywhere over the past few years, so..." The rest of the sentence was lost the moment Jake noticed the movement he had been looking out for; something had moved in the bushes to his left.

Jake pulled on the reigns, slowing Shadow to a halt, and gripped the hilt of his sword. There were five or six assassins surrounding them, as far as he could tell, but they hadn't decided to make a move yet. Jake stopped, and now it was clear that he knew the Wolves were there, so if they knew him, they would attack, if they didn't, they would most likely be very quiet until the intruders decided to move along. A moment passed in silence, two... "Shit." He muttered as he leaned back to dodge an arrow.

"My, my, my... Jake Turner." A man greeted as he walked out of the shadows, holding a bow in his hand. "Sean will be glad to see your corpse once I'm through with you. Who's your friend?"
Jake sighed in annoyance as he dismounted, he knew this man, and he knew he wasn't going to back down. "Terry... Nice to see you still manage to fire a bow without the fingers I cut off."
"Sean demoted me after that humiliation you put me through, but not this time, see, it's snowing, so you can't hide like the coward you are."

Jake sighed. "Come on, Terry... I have somewhere else I need to be, and my friend here has nothing to do with this. Can we settle this another time?" Jake wasn't scared of him, but he was a former Instructor and an enlightened, nothing like those idiots from the Inn, and taking him out wouldn't be so easy if it came to that. "Sorry, kid, but we settle this here." As he said that, four scouts came out of the bushes as well. "I was hoping you would show, Jacob... Didn't expect you to bring company though."

"Dani always said it was disrespectful to shed blood on the day of creation." Jake stated, with a little sigh. "Suppose you folks don't care as much for tradition as you claim, huh?"
Terry walked closer and closer until he was less than an inch away from Jake, then he leaned over and whispered. "Funny how much you still care for the opinions of a woman you murdered." In a louder tone of voice he added. "We're letting people through unscathed unless they make trouble, but that does not apply to traitors like you. So your friend can go on, if she wants, but you're not going anywhere."

Jake shook his head in amusement, glancing towards Sham. "You hear that? You're free to go. Ain't that nice?" He looked back to Terry his hand was still holding on to his blade, but he didn't draw it. He looked the assassin straight in the eyes and smirked. "No blood." He mumbled, releasing the hilt of the sword and striking with his fist instead. Terry dodged the punch and sighed, tossing aside the bow he was holding. "Fine kid, have it your way."

Sham frowned. “Five ta two hardly seems like a fair fight.” She shrugged. “But still, as if I’d leave when they went to the trouble to set up a party for us like this.” She whipped out her other baton and grinned wildly as her eyes flared a bright green. “No blood, aye?”

With that she pulled her feet free of the stirrups and pulled them up under her, pushing off the saddle to fly through the air at the man in the center. They had spread out in a rough fan pattern, which meant that she had plenty of room to move between them. The first one went down with a grunt as she landed feet first on his chest, Sham brought her baton around and smashed it into his head as hard as she could. “That was the easy one.” Sham muttered under her breath as she looked up. The rest of the folk surrounding her looked upset, to put it mildly.

The other three all attacked her with daggers and swords, some of them two handed and Sham had all that she could to to keep them from scoring a hit. She wove both her batons around herself in a dizzying blur, ducking and weaving as fast as she could in order to stay unscathed. She couldn’t managed anything beyond defense for a long moment, before a lucky strike drove one of her attackers back. The second one darted in, momentarily getting in the way of his partner. He struck high and low at the same time, trying to get past Sham’s guard. Sham blocked both strikes, but he used the movement to momentarily bind her weapons so she couldn’t do anything. Frustrated, Sham snarled and leaned back slightly, bringing her right foot up in a savage kick that caught him neatly on the point of his chin. His eyes rolled back almost comically and he dropped limply to the ground. Sham stepped back and spun her batons around her torso in a fancy bit of display. “Well? You two really want to keep going?”

Jake was barely managing to block the hits coming at him. Terry's enlightenment was, according to Lena, called Mirroring. Which meant that the guy could know the opponent's moved right before they were made. The only to go around it was if the opponent was out of sight. That wouldn't be a problem for Jake, wasn't for the snow. So at this point he was struggling to keep up. Finally, a slip of his foot, and he found himself face down on the ground.

"You lose, kid." Terry growled at him.

Jake chuckled in response. "No, I cheated. And you're dead."

Terry pulled a dagger at those words, but it was far too late. Before he had the chance to do anything else, he dropped unconscious. The other two assassins immediately rushed towards Jake as he stood, but stopped when he spoke. "He's not dead!" He stated. "Well, not yet. He will be if you don't get him to a healer in time though. So I suggest you get moving."

The two remaining Wolves looked confused as to what to do, but while they didn't move Jake was already walking back to his horse and mounting. "We'll be going now. You guys have a nice day." He said, as the two assassins finally decided to help Terry instead of just standing there. "And tell Sean I still plan on returning his knife."

Sham jumped on her horse as well and dug her heels into it's side, sending her cantering off after Jake as the assassins started pulling their leader into the bushes.
"And just what was that you'd be cheating with?" Sham twisted around and dug into her pack, pulling out a large strip of jerky and a hunk of bread. As her stomach growled almost embarrassingly loud, she ripped a piece off and nearly swallowed it whole.
"I'm only asking outa professional curiosity. I like ta know all the ways available to work on the sly."
Finishing the snack she dug out a bag full of trail mix, throwing the pieces up in the air one at a time and catching them in her mouth. Hopefully the rest of the ride would be quiet.

Jake shrugged absently and pulled a black needle, seemingly out of nowhere, and held it where it was visible. "Poison." He stated. "It's not really cheating, per say, but that's how they'd see it. I'm known for that too, a little bit. They think I don't fight like a man and all that crap." He said, putting away the needle and glancing at Sham with an amused smile as he heard a pretty loud growl. "Those guys back there were idiots, most of them, but the older guy, Terrence, is an experienced assassin. He was an Instructor until about a year ago when he caught me sneaking around camp. I escaped him, so he was demoted for it. To a guy like him there's nothing worse. I'll probably have to kill him eventually." He explained. "Which is too bad, because they don't make assassins like him anymore."

Rubbing his eyes in a clear sign of weariness, Jake figured it wouldn't be too long before they reached Blackpond, hopefully things would be a little lighter in the city during this particular date, it would be nice if he could speak to his contact without getting the man into too much trouble.

The rest of the ride was quiet and uneventful, thankfully. Jake wasn’t in a bad mood or anything, but he was tired and anyone else who tried to get in his way would not be as lucky as the assassins were. The man he was going to meet was his father’s best friend, he was retired from the Castle Guard, but he still had good connections on the inside, if Jake could find him and get the man to recognize him, he would be a great source of information. There was a small problem though: the man thought Jake had died thirteen years ago, on the same day as his sister.

As they crossed the gates, Jake wasn't sure if he should be glad or suspicious of the they stumbled upon; people were cheerful walking the streets without a care, having snowball fights, laughing and playing. Blackpond looked like a completely different city altogether. He couldn't help a smile as he watched the whole scene. "Well..." He mumbled. "This is surely surprising."

He dismounted once they were closer to the center of the city and offered Sham Shadow's reigns. "You said you were going to stable the horses, right? Careful though, he bites." He warned her with a smile. "I need to find an old friend, and... I'd rather do that alone, I have to talk him into helping and that might not be easy; amongst other things he doesn't like Knights all that much." He stated. "I'll be in the north end of the cemetery in about an hour, we can meet up there."

With that said, he began to walk away disappearing amongst the small crowds of people. He wasn't sure where the man would be, but he had a slight idea of where he should start looking; walking through a familiar street, he stopped in front of a particular house, not far from where he was born, and entered without knocking. The place was dark and looked abandoned, but two steps into the house and that proved itself not to be the case. Suddenly, Jake felt the tip of a blade on the back of his neck. "Who are you?"

Jake smiled as he heard the voice asking the question. "Nathaniel Morris?"
The blade was pressed harder onto his neck, almost breaking through his skin. "I know who I am, boy. Who are you?"
Jake reached slowly into his shirt and pulled the locket he wore around his neck, holding it where the man could see it over his shoulder. "Do you remember this?"
"Where did you get this?" The man growled withdrawing the knife. "Turn around."
Jake turned to face the older man, a smile still plastered on his face; the man looked exactly like Jake remembered him, a few wrinkles, grey hairs, and scars added to it, but it was the same face he knew as a kid. "Hello Nate." He greeted.
The man took a good couple of steps back, still pointing the knife at Jake, but now with a look of absolute shock in his face. "I don't know who you are, or what you are trying to pull, but i suggest you leave now." He said.
Jake chuckled. "You think I'm an illlusion? Take a good look at me... It's not a vision."
"I don't believe it. It just can't be... You." He mumbled, now lowering the knife and walking closer, narrowing his eyes at Jake. "Little Jacob?"
Jake laughed out. "Well, took you long enough old man. I was beginning to think you would never connect the dots."
"I thought those thieves dropped your corpse in the woods that day. Everyone saw them drag you away." The man said, finally sheathing the knife and relaxing. "Where have you been all this time?"
Jake sighed. "Everywhere. Anywhere. I was rescued by one of the leaders of the Wolfpack that day. I woke up in their encampment, I trained with them for almost six years." He explained, giving a light shrug. "I'd love to say I never looked back, but that's not entirely true."

Jake then walked back to the door and opened it. "Walk with me, I'll tell you everything you want to know before I tell you why I've come." He told the man, tucking the golden locket back underneath his shirt.
Nathaniel followed after him, always one step behind, as Jake headed for the cemetery. Both of them stopped as they reached a line of graves in the northern area of the graveyard. Jake eyes were fixed on the name of the second grave from the right. It read: Jessica Marie Turner, followed by his sister's date of birth and death. To the right of Jessica's grave there was another one that read Jacob Allen Turner, the same date of his sister's grave marked Jake's early demise... He did in fact die that day in more ways than one, but not in the way his father's best friend was led to believe he had.

Not taking a single glance at his parents' graves, Jake broke the silence after a long while of staring at Jessica's name. "I never had the courage to come here, I thought that maybe I should now." He lowered his head for a second before letting out a chuckle and shaking his head in an amused gesture. "You know what's funny? According to the Newhaven Archives, I died four years ago. Makes me wonder how many more times will I get to die before I'm really dead."
"Why are you dead according to Newhaven files?" Nate asked.
"I can tell you that, but you might not like the answer." Jake stated. "Remember after my father died, when you said he was always talking about how I could become anything I wanted and he would always be proud of me?"
"I remember that, yes." Nate answered.
"I highly doubt he would say that if he knew." Jake answered, with a little smirk.
"I don't think your father would mind it if you are a Wolf." Nate stated. "If that's what you're worried about."
"I'm not a Wolf, Nate. Not anymore." Jake said, turning away from the graves to face the older man. "I'm something far worse, to your eyes at least. Think of the absolute worse. I am it."

"You mean a..." Nate silenced the words he was about to speak, not even able to utter the name. "You are one of them? They killed your father, Jacob! What they have done to this city... There's no excuse for that!" The man exclaimed, spitting on the ground a Jake's feet.
"None of the people I know killed my father. Not that I would actually care if they had. The man who killed my father, I think his name was Morgan, is now dead. Yes, I did check." Jake stated, completely unfazed by the man's obvious anger. "Are you done now, or do you have more to say to that?"
"I have nothing more to say to a..."
"Traitor?" Jake asked, raising an eyebrow. "I admit that I am, in every possible sense, I sure as hell am. Although, not in this case." He nodded. "Unlike you, I owe no loyalty to Blackpond; if anything I should hate this place for everything it took from me. Instead I'm taking one huge risk to try and find answers people like you should be asking a long time ago. So, are you going to help me or not?"

Nate hesitated, Jake was his best friend's son, but he had just admited to being the one thing he despised the most in the world. He hadn't seen the kid in thirteen years, how much could he trust a Black Knight?
"Come on, Nate. I trusted you with my identity and I could have easily lied, give me some answers." Jake insisted.
"You still haven't told me why you've come." Nathaniel stated simply, his green eyes piercing through Jake in such a way, that if a simple gaze could kill, the young man would have dropped dead immediately.
"I was once asked what matters most: actions or intentions. If someone takes the life of someone you love, does it matter why they do it? No. Right? However if someone offers you help, that's the first thing you ask: Why?" He snickered. "Double standards are everywhere, huh? I have many reasons, doesn't matter which one I give, none of them will seem important to you. I'm not doing it in my father's memory, although I'm pretty sure that's what you wanted to hear." Jake answered.

Nate was silent again, still examining Jake with his eyes as if he expect to see something he could actually believe in. "Ask your question, and I'll decide whether or not I'll answer them." He said finally.
"Tell me about the assassin training program." Jake said finally.
"I cannot deny or confirm the fact that there was ever one. Just as much as you couldn't confirm or deny if asked if a certain person is in fact one of your people.
"I know it exists, Nate." Jake muttered. "I've seen the scar they left on a close friend of mine. So spare me that crap; What, if anything, do you know?"
"Only the King and the Commander knew anything concrete, Jake. What the rest of us knew was... Rumours, speculations. Most never believed they were actually real." Nate sighed. "Your father was head of Guard for almost ten years, but I doubt even he ever really knew anything."
"This I know you know: What happened when the King died?" Jake asked, lowering his voice as he noticed someone standing by a grave not far from them.
"What I actually know is that the King was found lying dead, apparently poisoned, Commander Hastings was found dead in the room as well, stabbed. The official story is that Hastings was caught after killing the King and killed as a traitor, but... I heard from a secure source that he was already dead." Nate looked around to see there were a few people paying their respects as well. "I never liked Hastings, a lot of people didn't. The man was a drunk and a bastard, but he was one of the best Commanders this city has ever seen in its history. And I would bet you anything you want that he didn't kill our Ruler."
"I didn't think he did." Jake mumbled. "Is there anything else, a detail maybe?"
"The curtains were missing. In the King's chambers, one of maids told me that, but... Haven't been able to find her ever since. She remembers it clearly, because the King seemed excited about the fabric. It was the same the White Shadows used."

Those words caused Jake's mind to travel back to Newhaven, to Lamya's visit, to that damned cloak that had disturbed him so much... "Shit."
"What, kid?" Nate asked, raising an eyebrow at Jake's expression.
"Nothing." Jake replied, shaking his head slightly as he tried to pull his thoughts together. "There's one more thing I need from you, Nate."
"What?" The man asked.
"A way out of the dungeons" Jake replied with a serious expression that showed he wasn't just asking that.
"Three years ago, maybe, kid. Now... I can't possibly give you that. I honestly doubt there even is one. What are you going to do?" The man asked.
"I'm going to protect Newhaven from any harm, at any cost." Jake stated simply. "That's... What we do." He said, opening a grin as he saw the disgusted look on the man's face. "But it might help Blackpond in a way or two. Or maybe make things worse, but that's really not my problem, is it?"
Nathaniel shook his head in clear disappointment as he turned to leave. "David Turner's son... A Black Knight... This land is really going to hell." He muttered. "Monsters... All of them, souless monsters..." The man mumbled on as he left the cemetery.

Jake simply stood, saying a silent prayer for his sister as he waited for Sham to meet him. He needed to talk with her one more time before he even considered causing the amount of trouble he had in mind.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Jake Turner
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INK

"You said you were going to stable the horses, right? Careful though, he bites."

Sham snickered at Jake’s warning. “Aye, and so do I.” She raised two fingers in a kind of salute. “Good luck with your friend.” She gathered up the reins and rode off, looking for the common stables; which was where those who couldn’t afford to keep their horses with them stabled while they were in town. It was relatively easy to find and she didn’t have any problem getting room for their mounts. After that she found her her way to one of the rougher parts of town where no one asked any questions. Surprisingly, that part of town was quite large, larger than it should have been. Obviously Blackpond had fallen on extremely hard times lately. Judging it to be safer to rent a room, if only for appearances, she found a sleazy little boarding house. It took her a bit of arguing, but she managed to get a room for the week. Assuming Jake didn’t get himself thrown in jail right off, he’d get to sleep on the floor. Which, judging from the state of the sheets, might be cleaner than the bed. But she’d slept in worse places. After securing the packs and gear as best she could, she went out to wander the streets for a while as she waited.

She only managed to get a couple of streets before there was a scuff on the roof near her. Sham looked up, spotting a flicker of movement where none should be. Obeying her instincts, she worked her way over to a side alley and quickly swarmed up the wall while no one was watching. The sight that greeted her wasn’t entirely unexpected. It was a crew of thieves, not so very different from the one that she had run with for a good long while. She nodded to their leader, while at the same time tracking the three that moved around behind her.
“You look ta be moving in ta my territory, bitch.” The lead stepped forward aggressively, looking slightly disappointed when Sham didn’t respond.
“Just movin’ through. I’m not lookin’ to step on anybodies’ toes.”
Everybody seemed to find this enormously funny, laughing quietly with an edge of menace. Sham held up one hand, looking hurt and innocent. “Nah, tellin’ true here! Moon strike me if I lie.” It had always struck her as odd that the patron of the Black Knights was also the Twin that thieves swore by, but in the end it made sense.
The gang shuffled uneasily at her oath, calling upon the Twins was not something done lightly. One of the more aggressive stepped forward and got right in her face. “If’n you ain’t here to scout for swag, whatcha doing then?”
Sham looked at him deadpan for a moment, before taking a half step forward and head butting him as hard as she could. Blood spurted from his nose as he staggered back, before snarling and coming back swinging. Sham grabbed his arm and twisted it around and back, leaning gently on the elbow almost to the breaking point.
“My business . . . would be my own.” She looked around at everyone else, who stood uneasily. Thieves for the most part, weren’t that aggressive unless they were pushed; this crew ran the lift’n lay, not snuffing for sport and pay. For the most part, that meant that they wouldn’t try and stick a knife in her now that she had proven that she could take them.
“Word to the Twins, I’m not hear to make trouble.” Sham released her captive and stepped back. “Standard fees though. I do business, I pay the tax.” They had to be satisfied with that, because Sham pushed past them and stepped off the edge of the roof, grabbing a couple of loose bricks and ledges to slow her descent.

After that she worked her way past the Castle to confirm an idea she had while they were riding, seeing that her guess was right she quickly found her way to the graveyard. Slowly,, she worked her way respectfully through the markers before she found Jake standing off alone. She walked up, not even trying to walk quietly.
“You find who ya looking for?”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Thomas Sidin Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name)
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INK

Mageria had dropped into a light doze when she felt a slight touch on one arm. Startled, she tried to grab at the wrist of whomever it was, but the pain of her injuries caused her to freeze up instead. Hissing in pain, she dropped back down and peeled her eyelids slowly open. A pair of dancing green eyes met her gaze, in a face that most people would have found to be very familiar if they happened to look around.
“Easy now, Captain. You have to rest after playing with the big boys.” Anna, one of Ella’s maids, scolded her gently.
“Should you even be here?” Mageira managed to raise one eyebrow. “I’m not exactly the person you want to be seen with right now.”
Anna snorted softly. “It’s easier to get you alone right now than it would be tomorrow. And you don’t think I’d let you walk away without so much as a goodbye, do you?”
Mageria grinned and closed her eyes. “Of course not. Not after all that time I put into training you.”

Anna had been handpicked by Mageria three years ago for a very special purpose. She was to be a bodyguard to Ella, one that the girl would never suspect. She could fight, she could spy, and best yet, she could think. And she had a very useful Enlightenment, one that would come in very handy soon.

“Can you keep up the act? Are you willing to?” Mageria’s voice was light, barely a whisper. Anna leaned in closer and kept her tone at the same level.
“Yes; because if nothing else, you’ll need it now more than ever.” Anna’s eyes were grave. “Your not . . .”
“Leaving you alone? Of course not. There will be a crew in the City, a couple in the Castle itself. The rest of us will be out at the training grounds. We can be back within twenty minutes. Just send the word. You still have what you need?”
“Yes, Cap . . . Mageria.” Anna nodded.
Mageria shifted slightly, pulling out a slightly crumpled letter. It was folded and sealed with a blob of wax. “Here. This is for Lady Ella. Make sure she gets it?” Anna nodded and tucked it away, reaching up to brush a strand of hair off her forehead.
“I have to go. Take care Captain.”
Mageria sighed and settle back to sleep, comforted in the knowledge that Ella wouldn’t be alone.

Later that night, a battered letter appeared on Ella’s pillow, just before bed.

Ella

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that my past choices are causing you such trouble. I’m sorry that I’m leaving you like this. But I have to admit that I’m not sorry about what I did. Honestly, I’d do it again and dance on the son of a bitch’s grave. There’s a reason that I was never chosen to wear White. I never could follow all those rules.

But that’s not what this is about. The Council is breaking their ties with me and mine, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we swore oaths of our own. Oaths that we will not break. We will continue to watch over Newhaven, just not in the way we have in the past. It is my hope that someday we might be welcome in Newhaven once more, but until that day we shall do what we do best. Survive and deceive. There will be some of us around, those of us that are best able to conceal themselves. The rest will come when needed. If you need to get in touch with me for any reason, leave a letter sealed with black wax on your desk. It will find it’s way to me.

Until we are welcomed back, please be careful. Try not to go anywhere on your own, at least take one of your maids with you. I have enough white hair as it is.

I hope . . . I hope that you will be able to forgive me, someday.

Mageria


---------------
Blackpond

Sham watched her quarry from a secure hiding place and tapped her fingers impatiently. There was a young woman working in the secondary kitchens who looked enough like her that she could take her place. Sham had learned a couple of things living in the Newhaven Castle for the past few years, one of them that very few people looked at those who worked in the lowest levels of serving, and more importantly, nobody really gave a damn. She’d take the woman’s place tomorrow, working in the kitchens for what would usually be barely enough to keep her alive. But she wasn’t going to be going for the wage or the benefits. The kitchen that produced the food for the other servants also produced the food for one other group. The prisoners. And if she could work her way into delivering the prisoner's food, then she could find Jake. One problem was, it was going to take a good long time. Hopefully Jake could hold on that long. But it would be worth it if she could help him break out.

Heaving a sigh, Sham went to find a place to sleep for the night. It was going to be a long couple of weeks.

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

Thomas ran one hand wearily through his hair. He was going to be up all night, trying desperately to restructure things so that Mageria’s absence wouldn’t be disastrous. He had barely gotten started when there was a loud thudding and yelling at his door. He snatched it open only to find that Xypher was standing there, clutching a splinted hand to his chest.
“That . . . bitch tried to kill me! She had some mind raper dig around in my memories and was torturing me for the hell of it!!” The elderly noble was half screaming, eyes ablaze in a righteous fury. Thomas felt something akin to a blow to his chest. Xypher could only be talking about Mageria. He could almost understand what she had done in the past, but this? Even if she had a reason, how could she be that stupid?
“Let’s go find her then.” Acid burning in his gut, Thomas waved for a couple of the Guard to follow him as he headed towards the Black’s wing. If her things were gone, then he would know that she was running. Which was something that he would never have guessed for her.

Striding into the Black’s wing, Thomas snapped out an order for Mageria’s location. A couple of people pointed towards the medic’s ward, saying that she was resting. Thomas’s eyebrows started knitting together. From what he could hear of people talking, she had been in a fight of some kind and evidently she was supposedly resting. Pushing in through the door, his eyes landed almost immediately on Mageria’s figure lying limply on a bed, a wolf curled up on her feet. She also looked beaten to within an inch of her life.

Turning to a nearby medic, he asked how long she had been there. Confused, the medic replied that the Captain had been in the ward for hours, ever since she had been brought in after a fight with the former Sir Pondus. She hadn’t left or even been out of anybody’s sight the entire time. Feeling a growing rage, Thomas left and all but drug the Warlord down the hall, ignoring the way he kept snarling and threatening all sorts of things. Finally, he had enough.
“Warlord Xypher. I don’t know what the hell you are doing, but enough. Mageria couldn’t have attacked you, not when she was lying in a bed in the medic’s ward. And given that she doesn’t have an Enlightenment, there’s no way she could have done anything. So, kindly shut the hell up.” Stalking away, Thomas made a mental note to have the Warlord closely watched for the next couple of days. The man obviously had an ulterior motive.

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Sham grit her teeth as she worked, ignoring the ache in her fingers and the crick in her neck.

23

That was the number of ways she could kill the overbearing, arrogant, dictator of a head cook who insisted on making life hell of anybody who dared enter her domain; using items that were easily found in the immediate area.

“Get off your arse and clean those carrots!!” The bellow was accompanied by the harsh clang of a pot being thrown across the room and the yelp of the poor potboy it had been hurled at. Sham resolutely looked only at the turnips in front of her and ignored the nearby pot of boiling water and all it’s options. She’d managed to work her way into some strange underground city through sheer dumb luck and she was pretty sure that Jake was somewhere down here. She’d just have to find him. Somehow. Which meant that she couldn’t follow through on a variety of impulses. Not yet anyways.

He damn well better appreciate what she was going through trying to help him.

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It had been a very long month and it would be a very exhausting journey out of Blackpond. Getting in and out of that prison had been a difficult and unpleasant experience, and insane even by Jake's standards; certainly not something he would like to repeat in his lifetime. The Sun was yet to come up and the streets were filled with a slightly haunting silence. Blackpond had never been the safest place in Valcrest, never as long as Jake could remember it, but it had always been a city full of Life if one knew were to look... The city now resembled a walking corpse with no soul; it existed, and it still stood, but it wasn't quite alive anymore. "Such a waste." He muttered, looking down at the empty streets.

Jake had decided to go back to stop by the desert before going back, and so he had pulled Sham aside for a talk because he hadn't had the chance to tell her of the things he learned while down there and he thought it best if that bit of information reached Mageria sooner rather than later. For that they found a quiet spot on the roof of what Jake assumed had been one of the many shops that had shut down in the past couple of years. "So... I've found out some things Captain should be made aware of, and... I'm not going back right away, I have something I'd like to get done before that, so I think I should tell you what I learned. First of all, the object I mentioned seeing was in the hands of the King, it was my impression that he didn't know what it was, but it doesn't make it any safer, might even make it worse, I don't know... I also met a woman called Rita, she is the Commander of the Blackpond army currently; she was close to Hastings and is not in one bit fond of 'King Richard'. She mentioned Rick being just a puppet and that she thought Lamya was the one actually running things... She seemed unsure of that theory though, she... She said that there is yet another person behind them both, but... She also mentioned that Lamya herself was who told her this, and that in itself makes me dubious. I also saw Dominic down there, with Lamya, but what stories she told him and which are true are a whole new level of crazy." He ran his hand through his hair and heaved a small sigh. "And then there is the people in that 'underground city'... Majority of them worships Lamya and believe she will lead them in saving Blackpond from ruin. She told me she simply plans on unleashing her army to cause random chaos, and honestly... She might do either, both, or none. Independent of what she chooses, it's going to be hassle... I just know it." He kept his eyes on the street below as he finished speaking, scratching the back of his head slightly as he added. "You know, something has been bugging me... You went back to see the Captain and she sent you back alone, I mean... Did something happen in the Castle?"

Sham couldn't stop the bitter laugh that burst forth. "You don't know the half of it. Honestly, I don't even know most of what went on. I got to the Castle after leaving here, got told the bare bones of what was going on and had to come back here." She bit her lip and closed her eyes, trying to forget the look in Mageria's eyes when she said that she couldn't send anybody else. It had been a long month of biting her tongue and keeping her head down, now acting like herself felt strange, like a suit of cloths that should fit but didn't.
"I didn't want to tell you while we were down there, didn't want to worry you when there was nothing we could do about it. . . Jake," Sham took a deep breath, blew it out. The words didn't want to come to her lips. Swallowing, she tried again.

"The Black was disbanded. The Captain . . . was exiled." Once she finally said it, the words started tumbling forth. "She wanted to help, she really did, but there just wasn't anything that she could do, they didn't leave her with anything. She had to take care of as many people as she could and . . . she only had a day to get everybody to safety. She just, she had to trust that we could take care of ourselves."

Jake couldn't have helped the shock in his expression if he tried, his eyes widening as the news began to sink in. "What?! Exiled? Why would they do that? What... Happened?" He stopped his series of questions and took a deep breath to calm himself. "I'm sorry, you just said you don't know everything... This is just..." He shook his head trying to contain his anger. "What were they thinking? Newhaven is just unprotected without the Blacks, they can't be that stupid!" He muttered, fists clenched tightly at his sides as he forced himself to breathe it out until his voice could sound calm. "Where did the Guard go then?" He asked, sure that if Mageria left Newhaven, she didn't leave alone. "And I understand that under the circumstances Captain couldn't have done more, if it was up to me you could've stayed too. It's not like my life was in danger down there... It just would have taken a bit longer to get out." He said, with a little smirk. "Well... Alright, a lot longer, I'll admit."

Sham sighed and pulled herself tighter, curling into a little ball. "All I know, is what they told me. They said . . . Cap'n said it was true . . . Seven years ago, Cap'n took over when that Morgan guy died, right? Well, turns out . . . Cap'n was . . . was the one who killed him. I don't know the how or the why . . . just that somehow somebody knew what happened and when she did something that pissed them off, they sent something that was proof enough for the Council to believe it." She sniffed and rested her chin on her knees, looking over the city of Blackpond.
"She coulda fought it, but she said that the truth was gonna come out sooner or later and she wasn't gonna keep quiet any more. Said she woulda done it again, if it came to it."

"As for where the Guard went, I think they were headed to that training camp, the one a bit north of Newhaven, near the river? So at least there's beds and a bit of food waiting for them." Sham bit her lip, worried still. She had been hungry a lot in her past, she prayed that her friends had managed to find what they needed.
"And you can just forget being left on your own, pretty boy," she teased him gently, making reference to a running joke between them about his ear and scars. "The thing about the Black is we don't leave nobody behind. Never. Might take us forever and a day to get out, but we'll manage . . . somehow."

Jake raised an eyebrow at the story Sham told him, a little laugh escaping him involuntarily. "Captain killed Morgan?" He laughed a little bit longer. "Oh.. That's just..." He shook his head in amusement, unable to shake the laughter off for yet a few seconds, until he managed to breathe deeply. "He deserved it, that's for sure." he added, watching Sham with the corner of his eyes and seeing the concern on her face. "I'm sure whatever the conditions are in the camp they will have made it work." He stated, nodding as to reassure them both. "And don't think I still have any hopes of being left on my own, I knew what I was getting myself into when I came back." He sighed. "I have a favor I'd like to ask of you as well... The two kids we brought out of the dungeons, I'd appreciated if you took them with you to the Guard. I don't want anyone tagging along with me where I'm about to go... It's... Personal. If there is no place for them there I will find another, but I do feel that I owe them."

Sham turned to look at Jake with one raised eyebrow. "An' will these paragons of helpfulness fit right in around the camp? I mean to say, hide the fine china and hope they don't make off with the silver?" She shrugged. "It's not as if the rest of us are all that good company. We'll find a spot to put them. We always do. Or did."

Jake snorted out a laugh. "Well, Darren is an alright guy, as far as I can tell, he's smart and a good fighter, haven't gotten his life story quite yet... As for Irvin, well... Let's just say I hope I'm there on the day he tries to pick your pockets, because that will be entertaining. And he will try to pick your pockets, and that is just one reason to watch his hands, if you know what I mean." He shrugged. "He's an alright kid though, that just seems to be his way of saying hello." He silently watched the streets below for a couple of minutes before rubbing his eyes a bit wearily and stating. "Sun's going to be up soon, we should get out
of the city while it's quiet."

Sham grinned slightly. "Well then, we'll have to make sure that he doesn't get a chance to get into trouble. If he tries anything else . . ." she shrugged. "Well, it's hard to pick a pocket wi'h broken fingers." She looked down at her own hands. "I'd'a know. We'll find a place for 'im. Or rather, I'll tell the Cap'n that they need a chance. Irvin annoys her too much and she might decide he needs 'special lessons'." She looked over the city as well. "Yeah . . . we should get going. Gonna be a long walk, seeing as how we were down there long enough that my horse got sold." She mock glared at Jake, before reaching down and grabbing a pack. "Well, let's get started, eh?" She stood up and glanced back, eyes glinting briefly as she simply dropped off the edge of the roof. There was a soft thump as she landed in a smooth crouch then looked up with a bright grin.
"Com' on then."

It only took them a few minutes to work their way out of the city and to part ways, Jake to wherever he was going and Sham with her new 'friends' heading towards Raven Camp.

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Sham sighed as she turned down the final path on the way to the camp. It had been a irritating long journey, with the two newbies giving her odd looks the entire time. She didn’t really care though, so long as they kept their hands to themselves. If they didn’t . . . well you could live with just one hand. Just not very well. Anyways, they were almost there. Tipping her head back, she whistled shrilly, letting the trail guards know that there were friendlies incoming. They would be cranky enough just seeing that there were strangers, she didn’t want to push it.

A horse shout answered her, with one figure leaping from concealment to wrap his arms around her. It was Devin, a training partner and friend.
“Sham!! You’re back woman! What the hell have you been doing, holing up somewhere cushy while we slog through the mud?”
Sham smiled till her cheeks hurt, wrapping her arms around Devin in return. “Nah, been on assignment. No cush job, not no how! Was there with Jake, he had other things to take care of and left me with these two. Says I need to introduce them to the Cap’n.”
Devin looked the two men up and down and sighed.
“Well good luck with that. We’ve had trouble plenty around here, but maybe you’ll catch her at a good time.” He waved them through with one hand.

Mageria had been putting her new recruits through their paces when she heard voices raised at the path into the camp.
“Swords down, walk to cool down. Then I want you to visit the other instructors for testing.” She wrapped her cloak around her shoulders and walked over, peering over a couple of heads in curiosity. Suddenly a delighted smile broke over her face.
“Sham! Welcome, well, not back. But welcome to Raven Camp.” She snorted at Sham’s look. “We had some time on our hands, ended up naming some things, having a couple contests, killing a couple monsters. It’s been fun.”
Sham nodded. “Aye. We’d been having fun as well.” She quickly filled Mageria in, hitting the important bits. When she was done, Mageria turned and gave the two men a good look up and down.
“Well, and you two are?”

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Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Darren Hearst
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Mageria smiled and bowed slightly in return, noticing the slight glow in the man's eyes and not about to take the hand he was holding out. She had been around far too long for that and given the look Sham was currently shooting him, she had to guess that it was a trick he had played on her already.
"Well, I'm glad we could help you out of a rough spot. I'm afraid that we're not in a good one ourselves, things are still really rough. But if you don't mind that there's no floor to the rooms beyond the dirt and treat the furniture carefully, I think we'll get along alright." She paused for a moment. "No, really. The furniture still tends to fall apart if you jump on it." She shrugged slightly. "We're soldiers. Good at the blowing things up and waving of swords, not so good with the building of things."

"But either way, welcome. Do you want something to eat or just to rest first?"

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Mageria nodded at Irvin. “Well, we are a bit short of space, but there’s a corner or two we can tuck a spare bedroll in. If you want to head that way,” she nodded towards the barracks, “and ask anybody, they’ll find you a spot. Sleep as long as you like, we’ll find something for you to do after that.”

She looked at Darren. “As for you, we do know quite a bit about codes and breaking them. I’d be glad to look at whatever it is if you want, or you can just give me a sample. Whatever you’re comfortable with. The food is at the end room of the barracks, and then somebody will find you with the chores. We’re not shy about asking for help around here.”

She shrugged slightly then turned towards Sham. “And what happened that took you so long to break out? I thought for sure that you would have been here weeks ago.” She eyed Sham up and down. “Are you loosing your edge? And you obviously didn’t get enough to eat.” It was true, Sham was at least a size smaller than she had been and she was on the small side to begin with. “Come on then. You can give me your report along with a good hot meal. We’ve finally got enough meat in the stew for you to chew. Makes all the difference in the world.” She clapped Sham on the shoulder and steered her towards the barracks and their kitchens, waving for the two newcomers to follow them.
Sham sighed and followed helplessly, it was pointless to argue when Mageria was in this sort of mood. Better to just keep your head down and endure.

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Mageria took the journal and started flipping through the pages, eyes scanning the pages rapidly. There was a pattern there, clearly a code that could be broken. It would take her some time, but she felt confident that she could break it, given time.
"Looks like a challenge. I'd be glad to help, gives me something to think about. It's been a bit boring around here lately."
She took a bit of bread and wiped the last of her broth up; it was too good to waste at this point. And the addition of fresh meat meant that they could chew it without risking a tooth.

Besides them Sham was busily working on her third bowl of stew, normally it would have been a glutinous waste, but she had lost enough weight during the past month that she needed it. Without replacing that, she was going to fall on her face the next time she tried to use her ability.
"Cap'n" She mumbled a bit around a chunk of some kind of vegetable, honestly she was eating too fast to tell what it was. "How much did you manage ta bring with? We makin' do or doing well?"

Mageria looked over and shrugged. "Somewhere in between, really. It was bad at first but we're getting better at it." She gave Sham a measuring look. "And I know what you're thinking, no we do not need to go 'acquire' things back at Newhaven. Don't even ask." Sham just shrugged and looked as innocent as she could. Mageria just shook her head and turned back to the two newcomers.
"So, is there anything else you can tell me about what's happening at Blackpond?"

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Mageria’s gaze grew a bit distant as she absorbed Irvin’s information. “That sounds . . . unpleasant. We should. . . .” She abruptly bit her lip, looking down for just a moment. “I mean, if I was still in Newhaven, that sounds like something we should look into.” She clenched her jaw as the reality of what happened hit her again. She still had all of her ideals, but none of the power. If she allowed her mind to dwell on it, she would go mad. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her mind back to where it belonged.

It did sound like something that she would have been looking into, had she still been with the Blacks. Yes it was good that the illegal element was being shut down, but it was the wrong way to do it. And that bit about children . . . she had a very bad feeling.

Sham speared her Captain with a glance and shook her head. Mageria had that look in her eye, the one that meant she felt like she was on to something that needed to be fixed. It usually showed up before events of great chaos, and never boded well for those that got in her way. She shook her head and polished off the last of her stew, glancing over at Irvin’s bowl. He was pushing the vegetables around like a fussy child and it didn’t look like he was going to eat them anytime soon.
“You gonna eat those?” She gestured with her spoon, hoping for a little extra to eat.

Mageria glanced over and shook her head, smiling just a tiny bit. “I would like it if you could draw out that map. You’re right, it could come in very handy.”

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Sham grabbed the bowl of leftover vegetables and almost ate them whole, finally slowing down a bit towards the end as she stopped to chew. An early childhood of never knowing where her dinner was going to come from had taught her that the best place to stoe food was where no one else could get at it. She glanced at Irvin as he walked away and then peered over at Mageria, a slight sideways grin on her face.
“Cap’n, I’m fairly certain that the club he’s talkin’ about, an’ the one you were talkin’ about, don’t happ’n to be the same thing.”
Mageria grinned briefly before looking back at the journal in her hands. “Why Sham, I don’t know what you mean. What could I possibly have said that would give him the wrong idea?”
Sham shook her head and got up, ready to seek out her own bedroll for the night. The Captain had the oddest sense of humor sometimes. . . .

Mageria leafed through a couple of the pages in front of her, face falling into somber lines as she thought about what it might contain.
“Darren, I promise you that if these rumors you’ve heard about the children are true, we’ll do something about it.” A hard smile slashed it’s way across her face. “Truth, it’d be harder to keep people here than get them to go, everybody here is used to solving their problems with a sword blade, we joined because we felt that we needed to, otherwise there were better ways to earn a living with a sword.” She looked him in the eye, her own slowly darkening to onyx. “Children are to be protected. Sometimes people need to be reminded of that. It’s not quite like what I did last time, but this is a different situation.” She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax, looking at the young man with a sharp assessing gaze.
“But if family was involved,” she gestured a bit with the journal, “are you going to be able to do what you have to?”

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Mageria shook her head at Ella's entrance. While she appreciated the show of support of the Black Guard, the girl never did learn the art of subtlety. She was there in a simple outfit of wide pants and high collared shirt, all in black of course. With the scars on her face there wasn't much point in trying for anything approaching beauty, but she did think that she managed to carry herself well. Sham was there as well, in a long split overdress over a pair of slim pants. Both were outfits that they could fight in and both carried as many concealed weapons as the could fit under their cloths. Not that they expected anyone else here to be any different.

"Sham, see what you can find, all right?" Mageria murmured over her shoulder. Sham nodded and disappeared into the crowd. Mageria moved off to the side and wound her way through the crowd. She had seen Grim off in the corner and she snorted softly to herself as she walked up, leaning one shoulder against the wall near him.

"You hate parties. And dancing. And just about anything else that's going to happen here."

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Silently, Sham materialized at the side of her Captain. She had seen most of what had happened from a perch high up nearby and had spent a bitter few moments worming her way through the crowd. She didn't know the Queen well enough to feel the grief that Mageria was obviously battling, but she felt a kind of frozen pain none the less. She looked up at Essence. "Go," she whispered. "If it's that important, just.... go while you can." She knelt down as well, looking at the wound. An accident. A stupid stupid accident. "Captain," she reached out and shook Mageria's shoulder. "We need to go. Now." Mageria didn't move. Taking a deep breath, Sham reached out and slapped the woman smartly across the face.

Mageria's head snapped up and she felt the frozen grief holding her start to crack. "Aye," she whispered. "It's time and past to leave this place." She brushed her fingers over the weapons she had never had a chance to draw. She shifted slightly and scooped up Ella's body, noting absently that it seemed lighter than it should. She stood up, easily bearing her weight. For an instant she felt a wild storm of grief and anger that made the room flash red, and all unwilling a wild howl of anger broke from her lips; one that rang from the very rafters of the ceiling. She choked it down in the next instant, locking everything down into an icy silence. She walked, bearing her Queen's body, toward the nearest side room, searching for shelter from the madness that was the ball room. She walked ahead of her Captain, moving people from their way.

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Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Annie Turner Character Portrait: Ess Character Portrait: Darren Hearst
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“Annie Turner... And who might you be?”

The noise around Darren dissipated briefly, his mind focusing on the woman’s voice, baby blues flashing curiously as he noted the way her shoulders bounced when she giggled. A small smile took over his trance, bowing low in return while removing his hat and holding it tight against his chest. His eyes never left her as he spoke, his free hand gently taking her’s and turning it so that his lips lightly grazed the top of her knuckles. “..Darren. Darren, Hearst..Miss Annie.” He whispered, his deep blues reflecting a purple hue that faded just as quickly as it appeared when he squinted, pushing back against a dull pain between his eyes. Instead of releasing her hand immediately when he felt his enlightenment take hold and mere flashes clouded his vision, he gave a slight squeeze, his fingertips lightly massaging the palm of her hand. “Turner?” Darren chuckled, politely releasing the woman’s hand. “Why do I have the feeling I’ve already met one of your relatives..” He stated matter of factly, more so than as a question.

Darren’s amusement faded, taking on a somewhat sympathetic expression as Annie dark locs faded into view. Tilting his head forward he raised his hat, letting his longer strands hide away beneath the leather interior, slowly standing up straight once again. “...I’m so sorry...” He began, adjusting his hat. “..She was a very lovely woman...You look like her..” Darren cleared his throat a bit awkwardly, quirking a brow as something crossed his mind suddenly. “..So...you’re into puzzles?” He muttered, hinting more at the images that had just flooded his mind. It wasn’t enough to make a lot of sense out of but he saw images of an older, similar version of the young lady who was now in focus before him. He had heard her name whispered within the camp and upon hearing the girl’s name he made the simple connection. Then, there was the flutter of pages covered in odd groupings of numbers that seemed to go on forever. It reminded Darren somewhat of his father’s journal but at the same time it couldn’t have been more different. Needless to say, it was intriguing and it moved him to ask something else but he didn’t even get to open his mouth when he heard a sharp echo of a wounded animal, causing chills to shake down his spine. Darren stepped back, sighing some as his distraction left him and was brought back to his original purpose. “Apologies, I had a prior...engagement...” He winked, tipping his hat and without another word he trotted off in pursuit of the grey-haired hag and the wolf that followed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Go," she whispered. "If it's that important, just.... go while you can."

Essence froze, staring at Mageria in silence, lips parting to speak but words never finding life through her dizzy array of thoughts. Nodding absently to Sham as if she heard her words, Ess yet remained kneeled as she watched the woman pick up what was now only a shell of the Queen. It wasn’t the personal pain of loss that gripped hold of her insides, but of the ideals and reminders of what the Captain must now be feeling; it was in her eyes. An icy breath of death which mocked those left untouched, yet again and helpless to prevent what happened in mere seconds before their eyes. In that moment, Essence felt torn. It was something she normally would not be so conflicted with; the pursuit and killing of Ebony. That, was something she long desired ever since it was realized that woman still drew breath and she had never let anything hold her back to any similar desires before, but now things were changing.

‘There’s nothing to be done now..’ Essence told herself, trying to ease the guilt she felt as the Captain moved away in a grievance, hypnotizing state. She knew there wasn’t much to be said, at least not now. Yet, she felt like there had to be SOMETHING she could do, and perhaps continuing her pursuit of Ebony was all she was able to do at the moment. It wasn’t just about her own personal vengeance and her self righteous feeling of justice. Ebony had wronged many, many people all in the name of money and her illusion of power. Essence had spent a good portion of her young life, fueling that illusion, like a dog begging for scraps but too afraid to reach out for them. That had been part of her control over Ess which she had believed to have been shattered long ago, yet remanence of past pains still thrived through her veins. That anger, as if only just discovered in that exact second, began to trickle down in discreet, reddish streaks across her face as she pushed herself to her feet and slipped fluid and wispful like, as a wraith, her features shifting in a confusing blur of those she passed so that her ghost-like form was faceless for a moment. Essence knew she had no control over the life that was lost right before her eyes, but she knew she would have control over the life that still mocked her from across the room.

Taking advantage of the shrill screams of confusion and fear amidst the teasing of light, Ess slipped through the occasional darkness, straining to hear the distant growls and barks of her furry friend who had not hesitated to corner Ebony and Joffrey, pinning them against what use to be a window, now a melted barricade that slightly resembled a tombstone. ‘How fitting.’ Joffrey was growing weak, his movements stiffening as the paralysis began to take hold but not quick enough it seemed. Ess came upon the two, Tala in mid lunge for the man’s throat; Ebony too scared to move. Essence wasn’t even able to shout out for the wolf to be still when a blade sliced through the air and cut the animal along where her shoulder connected with the scruff of her neck, silver fur spotted with crimson. The wounded yelp of the creature was drowned out by an angry scream which Ess didn’t realize was coming from herself, until Joffrey looked upon her in surprise, that pause long enough for Tala to rip off his bladed hand.

Holding out her own blade, not taking her eyes off of Ebony, Ess’ free hand inspected the wound upon her wolf as Tala turned to drop the emaciated limb at her feet as if it were a gift. The gesture caused her to smile, barely noticing how Joffrey screamed like an infant longing for milk. He wasn’t going anywhere now, Tala able enough to stand guard as Ess reached down for the hand and playfully smacked the man hard across the face with it before whirling it in Ebony’s direction, the woman barely dodging the hand. Ess’ features were still once again, a manic glow flickering in her eyes accompanied by a series of giggles.She hit the woman with the hilt of her dagger again and again, causing her to fall upon her knees so that she was now at blade level, staring up at Ess in a wild panic.

“You can’t kill me, Pigeon! If you do, you’ll never know about your son...or your brother...I know where he is, you know..You NEED me...” Ebony stumbled over her own words with a hint of desperation mixed with that illusion of power that still hung about her. It would have been somewhat amusing if not for the Bitch’s words that simply caused Ess to press the blade harder against her throat. It baffled her to see how delusional the woman was up to her very end. As if considering what the woman had to say, Ess loosened her grip and took a step backwards.

“Your words, are poison....I ‘NEED’ you...like I need a hole in the head...” Ess snarled, her leg snapping outward to kick the woman onto her back, falling forward to pin her upon the ground.

“You’ll never be anything more than a toy..a plaything! It’s all you know! But if you list-” Ebony’s words were suddenly cut short by a chorus of angry screams as Essence was overtaken by a blood frenzy, her dagger stabbing the woman in the chest, neck, and empty eye socket over and over until it painted her white skin in the woman’s blood.

“I BELONG TO NO ONE!” She bellowed, screaming insults and curses, refusing to acknowledge anything further that wretched woman had to say. “I AM NO ONE’S TOY!” Essence didn’t even hear the voice behind her that had actually yelled out an objection to the act, disappointment at not hearing what the pile of flesh beneath her knees, had to say. “Lies...lies...all you ever said were lies...I can find out the truth WITHOUT YOU! Stupid bitch...there...is no...coming back....from this...” She continued to rant, thrusting the dagger into flesh each time she spoke. Her anger wasn’t relenting. There was no comforting release as she witnessed the body go limp, her blood spilling across the floor, quickly thickening against the chill. Her pain and scars would never leave her but there was a certain amount of satisfaction knowing there was one less child abusing, witch in Valcrest. Still, it wasn’t enough to calm her rage and even in the woman’s death, Ess wouldn’t stop. She couldn’t. It was as if she were temporarily possessed by one of her inner demons from her drawings; never sating the hunger that was fueling her need for blood.

Darren could have cared less for the blond who had passed out upon the floor from a gruesome injury, leaving him with a ragged stump where his hand should have been. His attention upon the wolf who was now sitting on her haunches, appearing as if she were trying not to lie down in the small puddle of blood slowly forming at her side. He immediately noticed the wound and after a few seconds decided it wasn’t life threatening but it didn’t look like it felt too good at all. Tala rumbled with a defensive growl, eyeing Darren, suspiciously sniffing in his direction. Very carefully in slow, calculated movements, he kneeled down a few feet away from Tala, causing the wolf to snarl and spit. Darren froze, “...It’s okay, girl...” He whispered, hesitating before he inched and stretched his fingers outwards. Again, she showed her teeth but no noise accompanied the gesture this time. Both the wolf and Darren’s attention were drawn away from one another when Essence screamed and began brutally stabbing at Ebony a few feet away. If Darren had given himself time to think on it, he wouldn’t of objected as much as he did as he found himself yelling for the woman to stop. A look of defeat slowly turned into a mix of shock and awe when he saw how the woman pressed on, noting she must have pierced Ebony more than a couple dozen times now and soon he lost track. For the first time ever, he hesitated to speak to a woman, somewhat afraid of the crazed look in her eye as she kept pace, not growing tired in the slightest as the blood splattered and dripped along her face.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name)
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INK

Mageria found an unnoticed corner of the ballroom, out of the fighting and containing a small banquet table. Sham cleared it with a sweep of one arm and Mageria gently laid out the body of her Queen, reaching down to straighten a lock of hair. Everything seemed to be very far away and she felt so very....cold. She could hear and see everything with a clarity that she had never achieved before, although it all seemed to be very far away. It was as if she was freezing from the outside in, icy shards reaching inwards to dull the pain. In a few minutes, she didn't feel anything at all.


Just..... Cold.


Sham shivered slightly as she watched her Captain. She could see Mageria's eyes slowly getting darker, until they were an unrelieved black, dark as sorrow and twice as bleak. It was as if the woman in front of her had been replaced by a living statue carved of ice and she half expected front to form on her as she breathed. She had know the Captain for all of her adult life and she still found herself taking a step backwards.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Ella Page
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INK

In the forest, a number of shadows lurked. They stood grimly, quietly, waiting for the moment they would be called upon. Most worrisome to some, they no longer wore the color that had become their badge, instead donning the colors of concealment; for they had a grim job indeed. Sham had arrived in camp an hour ago, collapsing after pushing herself to the very brink of her limits. She had gasped out her message and their orders before passing out. The medics gave her a one in two chance of making it through the night. If she did, she would be months recovering. But they all understood the need. Mageria's orders had been brief. "The Queen has been possessed and cannot be allowed to reach Newhaven. She bears a child that is now our heir. Stop her, without killing her."
They would do their duty.
They waited, until the royal coach came around the bend. With a nod, Mathew signaled his men further down, where they finished chopping through a smaller tree. The trunk came crashing down, blocking the way forwards. At the same time, two people in the tree branches, their faces well wrapped against what they carried, hurled cloth balls filled with sleeping dust at the horses. With an eerie silence, the rest of the team swept out, grimly intent on their goal.

The sudden stopping of the carriage was suspicious. It wasn't note-worthy, but suspicious. Lazurus knew that there could be several reasons to stop a carriage, but when there was such an unprecedented threat, there was reason for suspicion to take over. The clash of steel heightened that suspicion tenfold.
Lazurus reached to the other side of the carriage for the sword. He had fashioned a simple belt out of the dress which he used to hold the sword by his waist. He then opened the door to see exactly what was going on. Jumping up on the top of top of the carriage, he saw the fight unfold. There were five of them fighting the guards with efficiency. There was at least one more that he could see in the shadows of the forest and probably even more that he couldn't see.
He made his move faster than they could think. With the guards distracting those who were fighting, he had no troubles getting to the horse. Cutting the straps of one of the horses that was still knocked out. He then slit its throat, lighting up his eyes, it came back to life before it even fell over. Hopping up on the horse he announced, "To those of you who might want to shoot me off the horse, remember, if I fall off this horse, I may survive, but the child may not." He drew the sword and looked for an exit.

Keira had been waiting on the sidelines, hoping that the necromancer would place itself away from the others. She stepped forwards, holding the ends of several balls of tightly woven silk ribbons. It was said that great warriors in battle used to wear silk to the battlefield, because of the way it tangled around a blade and was almost impossible to cut. She whipped them out, a tangle of a dozen or more, yards long; sending them flying through the air to wind around the necromancer.

Lazurus didn't initially react when the ribbons started to fly around him. He had seen strange enlightenments, but he had never seen this one before. He didn't know to what extent this could be used against him, so he took it all in caution. Another reason for not reacting immediately was that ribbons could b the perfect distraction. It was becoming a new trend in the past hundred or so years that warriors would sometimes attach decorative items to weapons to attack people. This may have likely been the next evolutionary step forward from that. When no arrows came flying through the dome of ribbons surrounding him and the first ribbon attacked him, he was certain that he was safe from any distraction techniques for now.
Lazurus jumped off the un-dead horse to avoid the first attack. When that ribbon missed, it went back to the dome with the rest of the ribbons. With very little time to react after hitting the ground, the next ribbon went in to attack. He wrapped himself around the legs of the horse and forced the ribbon to follow until it tripped the horse, crushing the ribbon under it. Hopefully the horse was heavy enough to keep the ribbon stuck under it for a while. Odds were that the attacker was going to focus on the ribbons that weren't stuck somewhere so they could focus more on attacking.
With the few seconds that gave him to concentrate, he saw that there was one spot in the dome where he would actually have enough room to run out of. This was probably where the enlightened user had created a good line of sight. With the next attack, he dodged it, getting close enough to the side of the dome to get out safely. He was out.

Keira took one graceful step forwards; gesturing in a sweeping motion. The necromancer had come out of her blind spot and now she moved to correct that, her ribbons twisting through the air and pulling back to her. Behind her the rest of the Guard had the Royal Guard busy... there were enough of them that they could control the way things were going to happen. She only had ten ribbons left. That was fewer she could attack with, but conversely meant she had more control over them. She eyes shone a brilliant white, while she gestured again, her ribbons flying forth in a net that quickly closed around the retreating figure the same way the tentacles of an underwater predator closed about its prey.

The necromancer spun, its arms bound tightly to its side, while Keira walked forwards. She raised her hands, the ends for the ribbons wrapping back around her arms as she took up the slack. The necromancer watched her, eyes glittering for a moment, a crazed smile on its lips. Keira didn't have time to wonder as its actions; as a horse, its throat torn open and gaping, thundered towards her. She barely dodged, taking a crushing blow to the shoulder. She screamed rawly, as half her ribbons went limp, still tangled about the necromancer's body but now nothing more than strips of cloth. Her scream was echoed by an ear splitting whistle, as across the clearing one of her fellow guards let loose a sound that stunned anybody who wasn't expecting it.

The horse idea worked and the concentration of the woman had been broken significantly; up to the point where Lazurus was able to start loosening himself out of the binds. Then, a sound that could only be described as splintering. Very quickly, Lazurus started feeling uneasy. His breathing became spastic and despite being loosened greatly from the fabric, he felt more constricted than ever and with that, he became more frantic than ever. Struggling greatly to get out of that bondage that constrained him. Since the sound affected the woman who bound her too, he wasn't too afraid of what she might do. She probably had just as much chance of succeeding as he did, but she had just been hit by a horse, so he had the edge.
His desperation to feel unconstrained helped him loosen himself to the point where he was in as much control of the slack as the enlightened person was. He grabbed what slack he could and wrapped it around his hand until he had only a little slack left.
The woman attempted to defend herself by striking him with a kick, but Lazurus slipped by it and flung the ribbon forward, wrapping it around her neck. "Make the noise stop!" He yelled as loud as he could so she could hear him. "Make it stop and maybe you'll live!"

Keira bared her teeth in a bloodstained smile. She had one good arm, and five ribbons, six if she counted the one around her neck. A moment's thought loosened it slightly and then her eyes flared bright enough to cast a light of their own. The ribbons around the necromancer's arms twisted again, lashing themselves around the others neck and pulling tight as her own vision began to grey
We'll see...... how long the other lasts......

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.”