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Indrani Nayar

Crimson Shadow Commander: *sigh* "I'm not cleaning that up"

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a character in “Shadows of The Forgotten”, as played by Blackbird26

Groups

Mercenary group that resides in the Brightvale ruins in the desert.

Description

Name: Indrani Nayar

Age: 23

Gender: Female

Lineage: Royal Family of Effort – Crimson Shadow Commander

Ability (if Enlightened): N/A

Theme Song 01: Run to the Water – Live
Theme Song 02: Field of Innocence - Evanescence
Theme Song 03: Broken Pieces - Apocalyptica Ft. Lacey Sturm

Description: Indrani is tall-ish at 175cm, long light brown hair and golden eyes. She is very fit, quick, and stealthy. She also tends to stand out from the rest of the group for her quiet and overly polite attitude towards strangers, which contrasts with the casual and friendly demeanor of the group as a whole.

Reference image: LINK – I do not own this image. All credit goes to the artist.

Personality

Personality: Indrani is the personification of what Effort royalty would be; Intelligent , polite, reasonable, fierce, and incredibly stubborn.
One could say she takes things a little bit too seriously, and she is usually the first one to call Dastan an irresponsible prick. She is, however, the first one to admit that there is a certain method to all his madness, even if it’s never all that clear, so she respects him.

Underneath the rocky exterior lies a caring, sweet, and friendly girl. It may take a long while for people to ever see it, some never do, but Indrani is just as much of a trouble maker and a flirt as Dastan is, she is simply a little more discrete about it.

Likes: Horses, combat training, star gazing, solitude and quiet, annoying Dastan, dancing.

Dislikes: Rule breaking, disorder, arrogance, and overall rudeness.

Equipment

Weapons:
Indrani is best with pole weapons such as spears,halberds,scythes, and alike. She is also a skilled archer and known to fire accurate shots from the back of a moving horse.

Her favorite weapon is a double scythe

Other Items:

- A medallion with the crest of Effort, passed down by her mother.

History

Background: Indrani is an only child, which was problematic for her, since tradition in her family is to always have a male in command. Dastan and his brothers usually got much more of her father’s attentions and training. Which didn’t stop the girl from training for herself, and under the instruction of the older boys.
When she turned fourteen her father insisted that she married Dastan in order to be allowed to take command, however, her father died shortly before that could actually happen, leaving his only child, a single daughter, in command of the clan’s recruits and armory. The idea of marriage was set aside, according to both her and Dastan: “For the sake of both their sanities.”

Throughout the years she has slowly gained the respect of the group as a leader. She is usually the one who commands the mercenaries into assignments and comes up with the defense strategies, if they are needed. She is also the only person who seems able to shame Dastan into acting responsible, not that it ever lasts very long.

So begins...

Indrani Nayar's Story

Setting

Characters Present

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

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The sun came up in Valcrest once more. Allison’s eyes were closed, waiting for the sounds of the camp below to fill her ears; Dastan going on about not knowing where he left an object the night before, Indrani complaining about some mess someone surely had made while intoxicated, people walking and wishing others “good morning” as they passed. Eyes still closed, the assassin felt the engravings on the silver ring she was holding. The ring had been delivered to the desert by a seven year old worker. Sean probably thought not even Evin would have it in him to harm the little girl, Allison didn’t know, the man wasn’t present at the time, and she knew that she had fought the urge to send the worker’s corpse back to Sean in pieces. She didn’t touch the kid, it wasn’t her fault after all, but the thought of Sean made her feel a level of anger she hadn’t experienced in a couple of years. She thought she’d put that part of herself to rest, but her former colleague seemed to know exactly what to do to awaken it.

“Allison!” A voice called down in the distance.
Ali opened her eyes to see a mercenary waving with both arms in the direction of the tower the young assassin was looking down from. He couldn’t see her there at that distance, but everyone knew that if Ali wasn’t on a job and wasn’t in plain sight, she was on top of the watch tower. It had become her favorite place, much like the lake once used to be, back in the forest.

Quickly she climbed down into the ruins of the Fire Temple, and walked out of the building in the direction of the mercenary who had called her name. It only took a few minutes for the young woman to get from the top of the construction to the ground, but the man didn’t seem surprised as the girl reached him, a gentle smile crossing her face. “Jackson.” She greeted. “How did the hunt go?” She asked him, still smiling until she caught the look in the man’s eyes.
Jackson shook his head. “We lost Lionel. One moment he was right behind me, the next he was gone.” The man heaved a sigh. “Then, next we knew, we heard this… Noise; like something dropping, and when we all turned to look his body was lying dead on the trail. They killed Lionel.”
Ali sighed. “Those bastards…” She took the time to guard the ring, which she still held firmly, into her pocket. “Have you told Indrani about it yet?”
“No. Not yet.” The man mumbled staring at his feet. Then he raised his head and gave her a weak smile. “I managed to shoot a rabbit though.”
Ali chuckled, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder. “That’s really good, Jack. I’m impressed, rabbits are fast little buggers.” She said, attempting to cheer the man up a little.
“So they are.” The man agreed. Then, tilting his head to one side and giving her a playful smirk, the mercenary reached out and ran one finger down the bridge of her nose, which was red due a sun burn. “You’re a sensitive little forest creature, aren’t ya?” He provoked. “Can’t really remember the last time your face wasn’t red. Or maybe it’s just my charm…” He stated.
Ali rolled her eyes in annoyance and gave the man a gentle push away from her. “I see that you’re feeling better now.”
“Why, yes, but there are faster ways of cheering a guy up.” He replied, winking at her.
Ali sighed. “Isn’t your throat sore yet?”
Jackson looked at her in confusion. “What?”
“You know, from all this barking up the wrong tree you’ve been doing lately.” She replied smirking.

Jackson had opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by another Crimson that had come running towards them at full speed, tripping over everything. The man stopped, took one breath and exclaimed in overly-excited tone. “Dastan wants everyone available to go to the training area! He’s going to fight Crys!” He grabbed each of them by the shoulder and exclaimed in much more excited tone and in one single breath: “Whatareyoupeoplewaitingfor?!” That said, he ran straight to the training area. Ali and Jackson stood for a second, and then the two of them ran to the training field themselves, as fast as they possibly could. The excitement was for a reason: For over two years Dastan and Crys had been training in there, and every time Dastan would forbid anyone to go near the training area “not to interfere with concentration”. Now he was asking people to go there… This would certainly be entertaining.

As they arrived at the training field a small crowd her gathered, and now Ali understood why Dastan had done that; Crys looked extremely uncomfortable by the amount of people all around her. She looked slightly… Suffocated; her face was pale and her hands were shivering.

“Aright!” Dastan exclaimed. “Shut your mouths and just watch, don’t make me kick ya sorry butts outta here!”
Ali took a seat on the top of a nearby boulder, immediately going silent and watching Crys carefully as she began to take deep breaths to concentrate.
“What’s she doin’? Jackson whispered next to her.
“She’s ignoring us.” Ali stated “Or trying to at least.”
Jackson chuckled. “I betcha the blind girl is going to be eating sand in a moment.” Jackson stated. “My last pay against yours, watcha say blondie?” He asked offering a hand shake.
Ali gave the mercenary a suspecting glance before shaking his hand. “Fine.” Then she looked back to the arena to see that Dastan had sat on the ground. “Now, what is he doing?” She mumbled.
“Heh, heh.” Jackson chuckled. “You haven’t seen Shaykh’s enlightenment yet? Oh, what fun!”

“Wha-?” Ali’s questioning was interrupted by Indrani’s voice on the other side of her.
“He’s using Jon on her? That’s a little too much.” She stated.
“Jon?” Ali turned to Indrani with a completely confused expression. Indrani, however, simply nodded towards the arena. Ali turned her eyes to see the shadow figure that had appeared standing before Crys, holding replicas of Dastan’s weapons in its hands. His exact silhouette, his own shadow; materialized and alive, or at least animated. “Holy shit.” She mumbled watching as Crys pulled her Katana and took a stance. “Is he controlling it?” She asked, watching Dastan as he sat there, his eyes turned completely black.
Indrani chuckled. “Not quite. I mean, in a way you can say Jon has a mind of its own. He has free will even, unless Dastan gives him a direct order. Dastan tells me that, in reality, it is only a fragment of his own personality. So Jon is a version of Dastan, only fully rational and void of emotion; which means he won’t hesitate to kill Crystal.”
Ali’s eye widened as she watched the shadow advance towards Crys slowly, step by step. “Void of emotion?”
“Yes.” Indrani confirmed. “He also feels no pain and cannot be killed. I mean, it’s a shadow. The only way to stop Jon is knocking Dastan unconscious. So I assume her goal is to reach him.”
“How long can he keep it animated?” Ali asked, now unable to keep her eyes from the shadow figure as it circled Crys.
“His record is three days, but it almost killed him.” Indrani answered, a hint of excitement concealed in her tone.
“I’m going back on that bet.” Ali stated.
“Nah, blondie.” Jackson grinned. “You shook on it, a deal is a deal.”
“Damn it.” She muttered.

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“Are you ready?” Dastan had asked as he sat down on the sand. “Once I summon him there’s no turning back.”
“Sure. What is another beating? If I didn’t know any better I’d think he enjoys it.”
Dastan chuckled slightly. “That’s me you’re sensing there, Red.”
“Figured.” Crys stated, drawing her Katana and readying herself for an incoming strike. In the past two years, she had gone back to the very basics of her training: Using her senses instead of her enlightenment. Dastan’s enlightenment was the perfect aid; a “living” opponent with no emotions. Not only that, that shadow was completely silent, the only way to fight that thing was on raw instinct. Something she had come to develop. The progress had finally reached a point where they could take it one step further: Relying on her senses despite her enlightenment. The level of excitement of their little audience was more than enough to give Crys uncomfortable shivers. Soon enough, she felt the shadow’s presence circling her, it was difficult to explain… She could feel the movement on her skin... It was just cold.

Finally, she took a single step towards Dastan, immediately being forced to dodge the incoming hits. She slashed at the shadow, but it didn’t even slow it down; she had forgotten how useless it was to attack it. The more the fight progressed the more the excitement and tension grew around her… Such an overwhelming feeling…

“Shit!” Crys muttered as the shadow’s dark blade nicked her face. Her mind was drifting off, that couldn’t happen. Again, it nicked her. Again! Finally, she fell with her back to the ground, immediately rolling over to avoid the blade aimed directly at her head. Jumping to her feet she felt a hand grab her ankle. “Oh, crap.” She exclaimed, feeling the pull knocking her down again, face down on the sand, which was immediately followed by the weight of a knee on her back and a hand forcing her head down in to the sand; causing her to suffocate. She heard Indrani’s voice somewhere calling Dastan’s name, asking him to stop it. However, she didn’t succumb to the overall sensation of fear around her. She reached for a throwing knife in her belt, tried to pinpoint where Dastan was sitting and threw it at him. It must have worked because the weight holding her down disappeared and she managed to get on her hands and knees, coughing and spitting out sand. “Son of a bitch! I hate that damn thing!” She shouted after finally catching a breath.
Dastan laughed out. “You didn’t completely embarrass yourself, Red. Productive, but you only managed to break my concentration. I could have brought it back to finish the job.” He stood in front of her and offered his hand. “It was great progress though.”

As Crys got on her feet, wiping the sand of her hands and face, suddenly she lifted her head with the expression of someone who had felt an enormous chill down their spine.
“What’s the matter?” Dastan asked. “Crys… Are you listening to me?”
“It’s just not possible.” She mumbled, walking past Dastan and out of the arena.

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“Ha!” Jackson exclaimed. “Face down on the dirt like I said! Pay up!”
Allison was barely paying attention to him though; she pulled a bag of coins and dropped in his lap. “Here take it.” She mumbled, watching as Crys pulled a knife and tossed it in Dastan’s direction, missing him, but causing him to lose concentration. The shadow faded and Crys was able to breathe. When Ali looked around, she noticed Indrani had left. “Where did she go?” She asked Jackson.
“The scouts spotted travelers headed this way from the south. Indrani went to greet them and see what they want. It’s her duty and all.”

Ali chuckled hearing Crys shout that she hated the shadow, but her smile shut when she saw the look on her friend’s face as she walked away. It was completely unrelated to the training… Something had happened, something important.

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[The Ruins – White Shadows encampment]

It was a beautiful morning in the plains. A soft breeze was blowing and spreading the smell of flowers and tea throughout the encampment. Annie was sitting in her tent staring at a sealed envelope, waiting on her cousin to show up; as she had asked him to the night before. Jake had argued with her about what she wanted him to do, but there was no other way to go about it. She couldn’t possibly afford to send a healer as far as Newhaven.

The girl smiled brightly as she heard footsteps walking towards the tent. As Jake walked in, she had a cup of tea waiting for him. The man gave her an annoyed look as he sat in front of her. “No.” He stated simply, accepting the tea cup, but not drinking.
“Jake, don’t be a baby. Just deliver the letter, it’s a simple task.” She told him, with a slight frown.
“I haven’t been in Newhaven in, what, two years, haven’t been in the castle in almost three. Doesn’t it occur to you that I’m avoiding the place?”
“Any more than you’re avoiding everything else?” She asked him with a raised eyebrow. “Look, I have very few healers, a bunch of apprentices with minimum to no control over their enlightenments and a considerable number of injured people to tend to. So, I really couldn’t care less for your whining. You owe me this, and you’re taking the damn letter to Captain Mageria, or so help me, I will make your life a living hell!” She exclaimed.
Jake had opened his mouth to argue, but didn’t find words to say and simply closed it again. Finally he heaved a long sigh. “Alright… Your Worshipness.” He muttered, taking the letter from her and standing up. As he left a healer entered, looking rather shaky. “Annie, w-we have situation.”

Annie followed the healers to the gates and there a young man was simply making his way in, the reddish glow spread across his eyes was a warning for the healers not to stand in his way. He was simply passing through the healers in the most disrespectful way possible, however, Annie knew that Luke simply didn’t understand the need for social conventions: They were just pointless. He only stopped when he saw her, smiling pleasantly he took a bow – although the exaggerated gesture was filled with sarcasm – and spoke. “Honorable leader of the White Shadows, I’ve come here to respectfully ask for access to you clan’s archives.”
“Those are restricted Luckas.” Annie stated. “And cut the bullshit, please. I’m not in the mood.”
Luckas chuckled. “Oh, my… The princess said ‘shit’.” He nodded. “No seriously, I need to see those files.” He repeated, taking a step forward and looking straight into the girl’s eyes. “I’d hate to be more persuasive.” He whispered.
Annie simply put a hand in his chest and pushed him away, however she frowned when noticing that he had winced as she did so. “You’re hurt.” She stated.
Luckas didn’t answer, he simply repeated. “I need to see those files”

The setting changes from the-desert to Assassin's Camp

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher

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Sean had a busy morning. Busy, busy, busy. Another group of mercenaries had been caught hunting on their territory. The man was slightly disappointed to discover Allison was not amongst them this time. Perhaps Crystal had something to do with that; the archer hadn't been spotted in the territory even since her former recruit was executed. Sean thought he would drive her out of her cautious attitude with that, but it didn't work. It was a pity too, because he knew that if he managed to get to Allison, he could easily reach Crys through her. The blind woman had simply made herself disappear ever since he'd defeated her in camp three years ago. Unlike the other traitors who had invaded the territory and committed vengeful acts against him and the clan, Crys hadn't showed herself. It was a pleasant thought to him that maybe she had given up and retired, but that was unlikely. Being an assassin was all she knew, the clan was all she knew, and Crys wouldn't walk away like this. For that reason, the silence was unsettling.

As the active that had been reporting to him finished the accounts of how they had scared the mercenaries away, Sean nodded at the man as to show he understood, and waved him away without a word. These events had become ordinary now, so much that Sean had little to say in response to the man. Sitting back in his wooden chair and looking around the leader's cabin. If those walls could speak, Sean imagined what kind of stories they would be able to give. That house had seen so much, survived so much, that place was in itself a piece of history.

The past three years had been complicated. First was the cleaning and rebuilding of the camp, then there was the death of the Blackpond ruler that set things back a little bit. Turns out, as much Sean hated to admit it, Crys had a point: Sean had no idea who the new King was, or where he had come from. While he was able a keep a mutually respectful relationship with Rory, this so called son of his was another story, and Sean decided to keep his distance from Blackpond except if the new king decided to call upon one of the favors he owed. Then he would, of course, keep his word and answer whatever request the man had: A deal is a deal.

"Sean." An active called entering the cabin and taking a small bow.
"Yes, Alex, what is it?" Sean asked, turning his attention towards the young man.
"Dante already came back from his assignment. You had asked me to let you know, remember?"
"Oh... Right. Thank you, Alex."
"At your service." The active responded, walking out back to his duties.

Sean smiled as the active left the cabin, waiting a few moments before leaving himself. He didn't need to ask if Alex knew where Avius was, he knew exactly where to find his friend. As he walked in the direction of the lake he simply nodded in acknowledgement as some people told him good morning. Even if Sean's demeanor had changed very little with the new title, the man had become a little more introspective than he was as a simple Active, keeping his thoughts to himself and always measuring his words. Those who knew him longer had noticed that change, but then... Leading the Wolfpack was no easy task.

As he reached the lake, Sean found Avius sitting there, as he suspected he would be. "Hey Avius." Sean greeted, simply. Walking over and leaning against one of the trees.
”Hello Sean. Of what do I owe the pleasure?” The man responded, watching him.
Sean had let a chuckle escape him at the words. He didn't think anyone else would have seen his presence as 'a pleasure', it was a little bit funny. Finally he sat down by the edge of the lake himself. "Damn busy morning." Sean stated in a weary voice. "Mercenaries invading again. Although Allison wasn't with them this time..." He chuckled. "I think she just doesn't love me anymore." He stated sarcastically. "Or maybe she thought I would take it easier on them if she wasn't there..." It was an accurate assumption to make. As much as Sean wanted to punish Ali, and all the others who had turned on the clan, he still expected to go back into good terms with the Crimson one day. He held no personal grudge against the mercenaries, all he wanted was to make them see that aiding those traitors would only bring them trouble. He knew well how much the Crimson hated trouble. "It has been three years now. I thought that a few months of retaliation would convince those mercenaries to give the traitors up. I suppose Crystal's friendship with their leader is a lot stronger than I had assumed." He stated, reaching into the water absently. "So, tell me friend... How did your assignment go?"

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[The Desert]

Indrani was a little bit upset for having to leave while Crys was face down in the sand. The assassin was fast, and graceful for a blind person, Indrani had to give her that much... That not to mention that fighting that shadow took a lot of courage. It was without a doubt the deadliest thing Indrani had ever seen in her life, reason why Dastan didn't use his enlightenment in battle unless it was absolutely necessary. It was all very impressive, and right in the best part of it, she called away by the sight of travelers. She would have to ask someone what happened at a later time. Travelers coming from the south... That was far more important than some sparring match. Even this one.

As Indrani reached the southern gates, a group of mercenaries was already organized there awaiting her command. "Open the gates, and position yourselves. Do not move unless I command you to." She stated. As the gates opened, the men circled the incoming group. Indrani walked out and examined the oddest group of travelers she had ever laid eyes on. There, each on their own horse, a man in a mask that appeared to be the leader. A large dark green... Person? A slim white skin man who seemed slightly odd all in all, and a woman who, admittedly, had the most normal appearance in the group. She stood there watching the group for a moment, before finally putting her focus on the leader. The man had the posture of a person who had seen all, or the closest to it all as one could see. His demeanor was calm, respectful even, however it didn't make seem like less of a threat. Indrani wasn't as much of a people-person as Dastan, but she wasn't quick to judge and she liked to think the best of people until proven wrong... However, the last time a traveler came to them from those parts, they lost many of their people, not to mention their homes.

"Excuse my less than welcoming posture, kind sir. However, if is shelter you seek as well as the word of our leader, I must ask that first you state your name." She said giving a wave of her hand, so that the mercenaries would lower their weapons. "I wouldn't like to betray my clan's good reputation of being laid back and over-friendly, but the last outsiders to pass these gates abused our hospitality in the worse possible ways. Reason why I must now take caution."

As she finished speaking, however, footsteps sounded behind her and before she knew, Crys had walked past her and stopped before the masked man. For what Indrani could tell, the blind woman was slightly shocked and unsure whether she would smile or frown. Finally, Crys let out a small half-irritated, half-amused, snicker. "I'll be damned... I was starting to think you had dropped dead somewhere... Sir." She stated.
Indrani frowned slightly in confusion. "You know these people?" She asked.
Crys turned to face Indrani and gave her a small smile. "Not really. I do however know this man..." She nodded slightly towards the masked individual. "Enough to put my life on the hands of any friend of his." With that she started to walk back to the encampment. "Don't expect a warm welcome from Evin, but I'm sure Allison will be more than glad to see you." She stated over her shoulder.
Indrani stood for another moment, but finally she gave nod and the mercenaries dispersed, at which point she gave them a smile. "Well, since Crystal is rather fond of her life for what I know of her... In the name of the Crimson Shadows, I welcome you. If you would be so kind as to follow me..." She offered, walking past the gates and leading them into the camp, under the curious eyes of the rest of the mercenaries. One of them ran, most likely to warn Dastan of the visitors. She only hoped there was no trouble this time.

The setting changes from assassins-camp to Newhaven

Setting

Characters Present

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

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[Flashback – Wolfpack Camp, approximately 7 years ago]

Jake was sitting by the lake staring blankly at the surface of the water, trying to silence the cries and screams still ringing in his ears. This wasn’t at all what he had planned, and he had planned it thoroughly throughout the years, as it turned out: Revenge didn’t taste as sweet as he thought it would.

“Jakey, Jakey... You stink of fear shame.” Crys whispered in his ear mockingly. “Don’t worry now; she won’t hurt you that badly. You are an asset to this clan after all.”
Jake sighed, annoyed, as he stared into the water of the lake. “You’re not helping Crys.”
“Does it look like I’m trying to help? I was against this whole thing from the start, remember?”
“You’re a great friend, did you know?” He muttered.
“Yes, I do know.” She chuckled putting one arm around his shoulders. “You’ll do fine. Just don’t lie to her face and she’ll understand. You didn’t do anything after all.”
“Right… I didn’t do anything; that’s the problem.” Jake replied. “I should have done something.”
“What would you have done, killed Sean? Then you’d really be in trouble right now.” Crys said absently. “Even if you could have done something, it doesn’t matter now, does it?”
“I promised Lionel I wouldn’t say anything.” Jake mumbled, running one hand through his hair.
Crys gave him a small push in response. “No, Jake! You’ll tell her exactly what happened. You don’t owe Sean or Lionel anything.”
“What does it matter now what I tell her? It’s done!” He replied, pulling himself up and walking a few steps away from her.
“Yes, but you didn’t do it!” Crys shouted as he started to walk away. “Don’t lie to her, Jake!”

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[Flashback – Leader’s cabin, approximately 7 years ago]

“So, Jacob… Have a seat.” Dani said, indicating the chair across from her. “Let’s have a little chat.”
Jake stood in the doorway for another moment before closing the door behind him and sitting down without speaking a word. He thought it better to just let Dani speak first.
“I spoke to Sean about what happened in Blackpond. Now, he told me a random story about how the woman panicked and attacked the two of you and it was self-defense.” She started, leaning forward and looking at him from across the table with a serious expression, her blue eyes piercing right through him. “I didn’t believe a word of what he said to me and I advise you to be smarter than that if you attempt a lie. Now… Tell me: What exactly happened in that house, and who was responsible?”
Jake hesitated for a moment, thinking of all the lies he could make up and all the excuses he could give. Finally, he decided it was easier to just be honest. “I’m responsible. I crossed the line, I know, but I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to feel what I felt.”
“How so?” Dani asked, in a slightly interested tone, leaning forward a little bit more.
“Well, my sister was all I had and… They made me watch as they took her from me. There was nothing I could do to save her, I was useless then. I wanted him to feel that, even if for a moment.”
“You were ten, Jake. What do you assume you could have done?” Dani asked him.
“It doesn’t matter, it feels the same. You know the feeling.” Jake replied. “Logic doesn’t apply to situations like these. Logic doesn’t take away the feeling, now does it?” He asked leaning back in his seat.
Dani nodded. “How does it feel now? Better?” She chuckled. “I know that feeling as well.” She leaned back as well and sighed. “But… That’s not why you’re here. As much as I was against this stupidity, I was convinced to give my consent. What I didn’t allow was for an innocent woman to be disfigured as a part of it. I also don’t believe you did this yourself. Not after what was done to your sister.”
“I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to know the feeling. I wanted it.” Jake repeated. “Does it really matter who was holding the knife?”
“It matters to me. Who was holding the knife?” Dani asked.
“I was holding a knife, Sean was also holding a knife. I had blood on my knife, and so did he.” Jake stated simply, holding Dani’s gaze firmly.
“I see…” She replied. “Very well, I suppose I have no choice but to give the same punishment I gave Sean. You are suspended as of now, and will be placed under observation. If you fail the evaluation, and I will demote you to worker, do you understand?”
“Yes, I do.” Jake replied.
“And don’t expect Bastian or Crys to be the ones evaluating you, Jake. You’ve gotten away with too much already. Now, you answer to me. Are we clear?”
“Yes, perfectly clear.” Jake responded, lowering his head.
“Good. You’re dismissed, for now.” Dani told him. “Get out before I decide I’m being too nice.”

Jake didn’t say another word, nor did he stop to think about it, he simply stood up and left the cabin as fast as he could without running. As he closed the door behind him and stepped outside he saw Sean walking over probably wanting to know what he said. However, before Sean had the chance to say a word to him, Jake punched him in the face, knocking him down to the floor. Jake crouched down and stared at Sean with and angry look in his eyes as he spoke. “I covered for you, this time, because your brother begged me. Don’t expect me to ever do it again.”

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[Flashback – Fire Temple, little over a year ago]

“Go back to sleep.” Jake heard a whisper behind his back and grimaced: Crys knew he was awake, and without a doubt she knew why.
He was sitting on the edge of the bed, hiding his face in his hands, trying to erase the memories that flooded his dreams, as well as the anger they carried; and only the Gods knew just how angry he still was. Crys had been asleep, but obviously she wouldn’t be for long after he sat up and turned his back. He should have stayed down, then at least she would let him pretend to be sleeping and the silence would linger.
“I can’t… I’m not…” He sighed, stopping himself before he made the mistake of lying to her. “I just don’t want to.”
“You shouldn’t do this, Jake.” She replied, suppressing a yawn. “It will only end badly. You know it, I know it… But suit yourself, I won’t argue with you again.”
“You don’t understand.” He muttered out. “You can’t understand…”
“I’m not just saying this: I really won’t argue with you. You know what my opinion is, and it hasn’t changed, but I won’t ask you not to go.” She sighed. “We both know you won’t listen, because you never once listened, and sooner or later we’ll just be back where we started.”

Jake simply shook his head, face still hidden in his hands. “I might never come back.”
“You never did come back. Not really.” She retorted. “If you want to stay here and pretend your mind isn’t elsewhere… I’m not one to complain.” She said, hugging him from behind and resting her chin on his shoulder. “I’m also not stupid, and I know you way too well to actually believe you can keep this up for much longer.”
“Are you happy here, Crys? I mean really happy?” He asked her, lifting his head and looking at the stars through the stone window of the fire temple.
Crys sighed softly. “I’m not unhappy.”
“That’s not what I asked.” He replied.
“I’ve been happier, but, all things considered: Yes, I am. I have a small piece of family left, I have a small shadow of what my clan once was, and as much as I hate the sand and the dry heat… The desert has been good to us in the past couple of years. I’m not entirely happy, but, as is, I feel that I can be one day. That’s more than enough for me right now.” Crys replied in a whisper, finally releasing the yawn she had held back moments before.
“Go back to sleep, you’re tired.” Jake told her.
“I’ll just stay awake a little bit longer.” She mumbled. “Besides… You’ll leave as soon as I fall asleep.”
“I will.” Jake confirmed with a sigh. “I have to.”
“Fine, but… Jake…” She mumbled, yawning again.
“Yes?” He asked still staring blankly at some point outside the window.
“Don’t come back unless you’re staying.”


[Reality – Newhaven Castle, present time]

The light of one lit candle reflected on the surface of a golden locket causing it to sparkle before Jake’s blue eyes; a lonely golden light in a dark room; the same room Jake had barely used the last time he stayed there. It was more of a storage than a room then since he was always away from the castle for one reason or another.

This had been Jake’s nightly ritual for the past year and half: Drowning in his memories and hoping for exhaustion to lull him to sleep. It wasn’t always effective, but just enough to get him by. Insomnia had been a real problem in the past couple of years, but one he had learned to handle. Annie had given him herbs for it, but he tried not to depend on them and only used them as a last resort. This wasn’t the time to turn to those methods, though, so he did his best to just lay back in bed until he just couldn’t manage to keep his eyes open anymore.

Closing his fist around the locket, Jake let his mind wander from the past to the present, although that wasn’t any less bothersome. The conversation with that strange woman from Blackpond was still tormenting him, even if he would never admit it. He didn’t know what she wanted, he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to know, but whatever it was… It couldn’t end well. He sighed, staring at the ceiling. “Who are you?” He mumbled to himself. “What are you trying to pull?” Aside from the fact she seemed delighted with the possibility of toying with him, he couldn’t know what was on that woman’s mind… It was unsettling, and that to say the least.

Finally, he felt himself yawn, exhaustion finally beginning to get the best of him. The fight had been great for that as well. Jake was a indeed a bit rusty, he hadn’t given himself time to train in a little while, and it showed, but… Bruises, and aches aside: It had been a good one, and if there was one living person he wouldn’t mind losing a fight to, that person would have to be Mageria; which, of course, didn’t mean he wouldn't try to beat her if the chance presented itself in the future. A little smirk began to show on his face unconsciously as he closed his eyes. He wouldn’t dare admit it, not even to himself, but it was actually nice to be back after all.

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

[Desert – Crimson Shadows’ Camp]

Crys listened to Theron, all the while thinking that he hadn’t really told her a damn thing. It was frustrating, to say the least, but she didn’t really have the time to waste trying to figure out what exactly the man was seeking with the healers. She knew that, whatever it was, she could help him get it, but he didn’t say what it was so she didn’t offer to go with him. If he wanted help he’d ask for it… And she would consider it his problem until told otherwise. However, one thing he said bothered her: He said he would force the war to end and that… That was something that she couldn’t agree with, not for any reason. Yet, she didn’t say anything about it and simply remained silent until he stood to retire for the night. Then she spoke, not facing him and still facing the warmth of the fire. “If you believe that giving me the truth of what you’re doing will jeopardize anything, then you and I might have different definitions of trust, old friend. As is, I also believe we have different definitions of progress and how to obtain it.” She sighed. “I always believed that the day would come when Valcrest would either save itself or self-destruct… I still believe that the day will come, and when it does… Whatever happens will happen, despite anyone’s plans.” She stated, absently.

As Theron said good night the only response she gave the man was: “Call me Crys.”

For next couple of hours, Crys sat by the fire, thinking of things that happened in the past five years and things that would surely become more and more complicated in the next few days. It had been a stressful day, and it would probably be the first of many. Finally standing, she led herself towards the Fire Temple, thinking of things she needed to take care of the next day. Only then she realized something: Ali was nowhere around in the camp.
Turning back towards the encampment she found some assassins of her group and questioned them. One of the actives had seen Ali follow Trevor out of the encampment, obviously he just assumed she had been sent out with him on his assignment, none of them knew that Ali was ordered to stand down; only Evin knew that. “Crap!” Crys muttered under her breath. “Listen, as soon as any of you spot Evin around camp in the morning, let him know I need to speak with him.” She told them, knowing that they would probably spot the man before she did. She needed to ask his opinions on this, besides, she wasn’t sure how well they could keep the Pack from figuring out their plans. It was possible that they would have to rethink things a little bit.

A while ago they had agreed on spreading out and making it look like every assassin in their group was working on their own. Crys had stayed put in the desert, hoping Sean would believe she had given up, or maybe simply see it as a possibility. It was frustrating, but she knew that if he ever knew for a fact that they were recruiting he would unleash the Pack on them with full force. Surely, he would find out eventually, but she hoped they would be strong enough to resist by the time it happened. At the moment they weren’t, but it didn’t matter… Whenever Sean found out Theron was back, he would do anything to affect the man… Going after them would be the first thing on the list. They needed to prepare for that.

As for Ali: Crys would have to deal with her when she returned. Until then, all she could do was hope she didn’t get herself into any kind of trouble with the Pack.

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

Dastan stood most of the night watching the flames engulf the body of his friend, waiting for the time to scatter his ashes to the wind. For a rare moment his expression was completely serious as he watched the man be consumed by the fire. They had never had as many deaths in the clan as they did lately. Dastan would be lying if he said that it didn’t bother him to see this many good men killed for so little, but he also knew this was being done to push them into a betrayal, and he wouldn’t let the Pack have their way, even if it meant pushing back and starting a war.

“You don’t have to stay here all night, you know. We can have someone else keep watch.” Indrani spoke beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder.
“I want to stay.” He replied, not looking at her. “I saw Evin approach you earlier. Was he harassing you in any way? Because if that’s the case, then…”
“No. It was nothing really.” She told him. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Was it about that stupid tent again?” He mumbled.
“No.” She chuckled. “Just drop it, okay?”
“Was he hitting on you then?” He asked, opening a little smirk. “Because, if you ask me, I’d say that fellow really needs a good woman.”
Indrani responded by punching Dastan in the arm with full force. “No! What the hell is wrong with you?”
Dastan chuckled, rubbing his arm where she hit him. “Well… Why else would he want to talk to you? It’s not like you two were ever friendly with each other. I’m suspicious now… Maybe I should go have a talk with this guy. I will have no one messing with my little sister.” He stated, faking an angry expression.
“By the Gods, Dastan, shut up.” She muttered.
He laughed. “Alright, alright… I’ll leave you alone, I promise.”
“Are you really staying here all night?” She asked him.
Dastan sat down on a boulder next to the pyre and nodded. “I’m staying.” He stated, still watching the flames. “I will personally see to it that his remains are handled properly. I owe it to his family.”
Indrani sighed. “Alright, just… Have someone wake me if you feel the need to rest. I'll stay in your place.” She told him, before walking away to her tent.

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

[Outside of Newhaven]

Luckas was a little bit confused as well as curious and, in that state he simply allowed this strange young woman to drag him around the encampment in what could only be described as some weird dance routine. Finally, she dropped him by this man she called Alex. Once dropped on the ground Luke simply laid back and let out a small giggle, before looking up at this girl with a little bit more care than last time. She was definitely interesting in the sense of not boring and possibly dangerous, but not interesting in the sense of being someone he could attempt to mess with. She didn’t strike him as someone he could frighten and it was easy to see that her mind was just as broken as it would ever be. Lovely in a way and strangely fascinating in another, but nothing he could ever work with. He watched her for a good while, the dumb smile on his face completely separated from the sharp look in his eyes. There were a lot of eyes on him now, and to actually go by unnoticed was out of the question, but he didn't really care; he was suddenly not bored anymore.

At last he turned his attention to the man he had been ‘offered’ to. He laughed out, still lying flat on his back, as he turned his eyes at the man. “Is she, like, your pet, Alex?” He asked curiously, purposely referring to the girl who brought him there as if she wasn’t present. “I had a cat once; he used to bring me dead birdies and rats… A lovely little freak, he was. Of course he had the nasty habit of trying to sink his claws into me at every given chance… I eventually got fed up with him.” He stated absently. “Oh, I’m sorry… How rude of me…” He said, holding out one hand. “… I’m Luckas. You can call me Luke if you rather.” He told him, in an extremely friendly tone as if they were both meeting at a party or another social occasion of the sorts.

The setting changes from newhaven to The Desert

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Allison Blake

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The Day of Creation simply prolonged the party the Crimson were already having on account of their loss. It was rather sad, yet comic, that they saw no difference between both occasions; it was just another party to them. There was music, dancing, and laughing, but above all else there was drinking. There was so much of it, in fact, that Ali had to find somewhere where people weren't falling over and slurring their words all around, and so she walked to the training area with her bow to practice a little.

It was still painful to shoot, and Ali found that her accurracy wasn't what it used to, or should be, anymore. An injury to the hand could permanently keep an archer from ever firing a bow again. Luckily for her, Sean didn't do the job right and it was possible that her hand would regain full movement in the future. She just wasn't sure when that would happen, that if it actually did.

[Flashback - Small village in the plains, approximately 11 years ago]

Ali was sitting in the grass watching her brother target practice. She always enjoyed watching Alex train. He didn't even seem aware of anything other than the target; From the moment he nocked the arrow until it reached the target it was like he was in a distant place inside his mind. She wondered how he managed to focus like that and still be aware of his surroundings because, even though she was careful not to make a sound, he knew very well that she was watching. That much become clear when he stopped, halfway through pulling another arrow from the quiver he carried at his waist, and smiled. "Allison, why are you so quiet? I don't think I've ever seen you spend this much time without talking."
Ali tilted her head to one side and smiled cheerfully at her brother. "I didn't want to disturb you."

"You don't want to disturb me?"Alex retrieved and put his arrow back in the quiver before walking over and crouching in front of his little sister. He looked at her with a suspicious look on his face, then pointed a finger at her and asked abruptly. "Who are you and what have you done to my annoying little sister?"
Ali giggled softly and slapped his hand away from her face. "Shut up, silly."
Alex shook his head, sitting down on the grass next to her. "Now, now... That's not a nice thing for a young lady to say, Allison." He told her in a sarcastic tone.
"When will you teach me to shoot like you?" Ali asked, laying back on the grass and focusing in trying to find interesting shapes in the clouds.
"I already told you... Father doesn't want you to be an archer. It's dangerous." Alex stated.
"He doesn't have to know." She argued. "Please."
"What? Ali... No. He's right, it's too dangerous. We can be attacked at any minute, and..."
"And I want to help protect the village, like you and father. Why can't I do that?"
Alex sighed softly. "Listen to me, sis: You can do anything you want. Anything. I just think that you deserve a better life."


[Reality - Desert, present time]

Taking a long deep breath, she gripped the bow just tightly enough to be firm and yet without tension, her left hand relaxed as she held it. With the left side of her body facing the target, she aligned her feet and parted them at shoulder width, maintaining a relaxed posture as she faced the target sideways and pulled an arrow from her quiver. After examining the arrow for a bit with a frown, it wasn't of the best quality, but it was the best she could manage around these parts, she nocked it.

[Flashback - Wolfpack encampment, aproximately 8 years ago]

"I can't"

"Yes you can. Hold it!"

The pain was invading Ali's body slowly as she held the bow drawn. The arrow pointed at Crys. She was not to release it until she moved aside, but she had been there for what it felt like hours and Crys hadn't moved a step; she had simply stood there with her arms crossed over her chest, like a damned statue. "I can't stand it."

"Fine then: Release. You'll kill me and be executed for treason." Crys stated simply. "Everybody wins." She added, sarcastically.

Ali didn't respond. She had a feeling that the more she complained, the longer she would have to hold, and the effort she was being forced to make to simply keep the bow string hooked in her fingers was almost too much to bear.

Finaly, after what felt like an eternity, Crys moved aside, exposing the target. Ali released the arrow and fell to her knees, exhaustion setting in. She could hear Crys walking around her, she hadn't said anything yet, and that couldn't be good.

"Not bad..." Crys stated. "But you missed the center of the target. So, get yourself on your feet, and we'll try this again."

Ali didn't move. Her back and shoulders where hurting badly. "I can't take anymore." She knew she shouldn't have said that the moment it came out of her mouth, she knew Crys hated whining; this would cost her.

Crys kneeled beside her, the tone in her voice was soft, and dangerously cold. "I'll decide what you can, or cannot, take. Now get on your feet. Or I'll make sure you don't stand for a very long time."

Ali stood, slowly, and faced Crys with a look of pure hatred. "One day... I swear... I'll slit your throat while you sleep."
Crys laughed. "If you ever manage to become that skilled I'll gladly die. Now: Let's try again, and this time you better make the shot perfect."


[Reality - Desert, present time]

Another deep breath. She placed her index finger just above the nock and her middle and ring fingers just below it, hooking the string firmly with those three fingers, she raised her bow to shoulder height and began to draw the string until it gently touched her nose and chin.

[Flashback - Wolfpack encampment, approximately 6 years ago]

Ali was leaving the training area with her bow at her back when she heard someone whistle behind her. She turned to find a tall man with dark-grey hair leaning by the leader's cabin and looking at her with an interested look in his eyes. She held the man's gaze and asked, in a less than polite tone: "What do you want?"
"You're Allison, right?" He asked, seemingly unfazed by the aggressiveness in her tone. "Crystal's recruit?"
"Yes. And who are you?" Ali asked in return.
"Is that your bow?" He asked, ignoring her question.
"It is." Ali answered, now turning away and beginning to walk back to the recruits' dormitories. She heard the man following her, but didn't turn to look, deciding to simply ignore him.
"You stole it, right? It can't be yours, it's too big for you." He stated.
Ali suddenly stopped, and turned to the man with a look of pure hatred. "I'm not a thief!" She exclaimed. "What do you want from me? Leave me the hell alone."
"It's too big for you." He repeated. "However, you're what, fifteen? You might still grow enough to use it. How tall was the previous owner?"
Ali gave the man an intrigued look. "He wasn't all that much taller than I am now. And I'm fourteen." She mumbled.
"Fourteen? Even better." He said, opening a smile. "Whose was it?"
"My bother's." She replied. "He crafted it himself."
"Did he, now?" The man asked, seeming even more ineterested. "That's some fine craftsmanship. Your brother was an artist." He held out his hand. "Can I have a look?"
"I'd rather not." Ali replied, with a slightly apologetic look. She didn't mean to be rude, she just didn't trust this man quite yet.
"That's alright." He stated. "Can I see your arrows instead?"
Ali nodded in agreement, handing him her quiver.
He pulled an arrow out of the small leather quiver and examined it carefully, seeming displeased with what he saw. "Did you make these yourself?"
"I did, why?" Ali asked, wondering if she should be offended by his tone.
"They're crap. These feathers are different sizes, from different types of birds even, and I bet you don't even know what kind of wood this is." He stated. "You can't make arrows out of just anything." He tossed the quiver back at her and reached behind his back to hi own quiver, from where he pulled an arrow of his own. "You want to make your arrow shafts out of cedar, pine, or birch, they all have different qualities and you have to try them and see which one you like best. Cherry is not bad either, but hard to find around these parts and you don't want to stray too far from camp." He explained. "Goose feathers are what I consider the best, but some use turkey feathers and claim they are just as effective. They need to be the exact same size. Tail feathers are better for this." He explained, putting his own arrow away. "Tell me, kid: How seriously do you plan on taking this? You're four years into your basic training, you're likely to be graduating soon, if you actually plan on calling yourself an archer, I suggest you learn these things, and fast."
"How seriously do I take this?" Ali asked, raising an eyebrow. "I will learn these things and I'll be damned if I'm not the best archer this clan has ever seen when I'm done."
The man opened a satisfied grin. "Dani's right, you do have potential." He said absently. "You'll need work though, lots and lots of work. Are you sure your up for it?"
"Absolutely." She stated, without a hint of hesitation.
"You understand this doesn't count as official training? It's extra work, and a lot of it." He asked.
"I don't care." She answered.
The man nodded in agreement, for the first time a look of approval crossed his features as he extended his hand towards her one more time. "Eldric Fletcher." He stated finally. "I am the best archer this clan has ever seen, but I guarantee you'll be better when I'm through with you."


[Reality - Desert, present time]

Ali took one more deep breath as she held the bow drawn; keeping her injured hand in the 'hooking' position in itself was painful, but holding the weight of the extended string without releasing it prematurely was agony. She endured it though, carefully taking aim before letting the string gently slide out of her hold, releasing the arrow on its way towards the target. It landed gently in its center, however, slightly off the intended course. Ali mentally cursed as she lowered the bow; her draw hand had shivered during the release and altered the arrow's course.

"That took forever. I thought you people were trained to kill quickly." Dastan's voice spoke behind her.
Ali didn't turn, she simply pulled another arrow and repeated the process, this time taking no longer than a second to go through it. "Sometimes it's good to do things slowly. If you do something often enough for it to become mechanical, you eventually forget what the process feels like." She paused before pulling another arrow and adding: "You sound strangely sober."
"My old man had three rules to live by: Never bet what you can't afford to lose; Never turn your back on a friend; Never drink when you're upset." Dastan answered.
"Oh, so you being sober is a bad thing?" Ali asked, releasing another arrow into the target. "And why are you upset?"
"Your friend, Sean, sent yet another messenger this morning. He says he will launch an attack on us if I don't surrender you people to him by sundown."
"I see." Ali mumbled. "And what did you answer?"
"You really need to ask me that?" He said. "Never turn your back on a friend." He repeated.
"Aren't the Crimson your friends too Dastan? Do you think they can endure this attack? The Pack may not be what it once was, but it's still extremely powerful. It would be a massacre even if they didn't greatly outnumber your people." She turned to him and smiled. "Look, I don't want you to turn on us, but you should think of them first."
"It's really not that simple." He replied. "The crew likes you people. They even like Evin, except for Indrani, she kinda hates him, but you get my point. They won't accept what's best for them, I have to consider that too."
Ali chuckled. "See, that's why I can't be a leader; I can't bring myself to think that way."
"And how do you think?" He asked.
"I think that this isn't your fight. Whatever happened to not getting involved?" Ali asked, walking to retrieve her arrows on the target, examining them one by one for damage before putting them away in the quiver.
"We were always involved. We just pretended not to be." Dastan stated. "Not even we can pretend anymore."

Ali sighed softly. "I guess everyone is rethinking things nowadays." It was true. So many things had happened in the past years, hell, in the past two days. Things that had forced her to question everything: Her loyalties, her life, who she once was and who she hoped to become... Past and present were so mixed together now, it was too hard to know what was reality and what was a simple memory... And now, more than ever, the future was uncertain.

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

-Scene written between Sickness and me... Ages ago-

Billy wandered through the desert and by chance or fate depending on what one might believe.
Happened on what he could only guess was the camp of the Crimson Shadows.
He took a moment to survey the various comings and goings of the people in the camp.
The cooks ever busied with prepping the days next meal.
Some cutting meat, others working with huge black pots of scalding hot water.
Once he grew satisfied with one particular scene being played out he moved around the very outer perimeter of the camp.
Slowly creeping closer and closer watching every movement with the eyes of a hawk.

He worked very hard at not being spotted, and although Annie said the people in the Crimson Shadows would be friendly.
Billy was in no mood or shape for yet another fight with a group like the pack.
His leg had gotten a chance to get a bit of sand in the wound which was not only a touch painful but aggravating to say the very least.
Had it been anyone else it might've dampened their mood but Billy was never one to show weakness even in his personality.
And anger over pain is deffinetly a weakness.
Slowly he crept ever slower toward the back side of the camp looking for some sign of the general demeanor.

Indrani had been training young recruits most of the morning, which surprisingly had put her in a pretty good mood. The progress had been great and it had taken her mind off the problems they've been having. She had many discussions with Dastan lately, all about the same thing: The assassins. As much as Indrani liked them, and she did, they were losing many of their people and getting pulled into a war that wasn't theirs to fight. She thought maybe it was time they started to look out for their own a little more. It didn't matter anyway, Dastan had the final say, all she could do was make sure the mercenaries were well-trained and mentally prepared. That was her job, and she was good at it.

Walking back from the training area, carrying her scythe over her shoulder, she looked around and immediately noticed an unfamiliar face amongst the mercenaries. This guy wouldn't actually stand out to her that much, wasn't for that fact that she knew all the names and faces in that camp. She stopped to watch the guy for a moment or two, before walking up to him. "Hey, you... You're trespassing." She told him. "Are you lost, by any chance?"

Billy faced her more than a bit startled.
He, for whatever reason didn't notice her presence until she spoke and then he snapped into reality quickly.
He then said in answer to her question.
"Lost? No love I'm no lost.
Trespassing aye ta be sure but deffinetly not lost.
Truth be told I'm looking for a place what ta be hiding out from those pack lads for a bit.
Maybe put in some work, have a drink or several, kill some time, and more pack members given half the chance.
T'was a wee lass what gave me a bit of healing that directed me out this way.
Said ya folks would accept people of me sort pretty quick and keep the pack from putting another hole in me leg."

BIlly then shook his hair from his face and smiled.
"So love maybe ya can help me ta no be trespassing anymore so much as getting applied for a spot with you lot.
I'm handy with a blade, quick on me feet, and have bad jokes a plenty ta be telling ta anyone what is fool enough ta be listening."
He then extended his hand and said with a half smile.
"Where are me manners?
Me name is Billy ta me friends tis a pleasure ta be meeting ya love.
That is provided ya are no going ta be putting a blade in me."

Indrani looked at this outsider intently before even considering what to say. He looked like a messed up fool, but she had lived with the Crimson Shadows her whole life; more than enough to know that appearances didn't really mean that much. The fact he mentioned a run-in with the Wolves and the healers made his story just plausible enough for her. "Well... Billy is it? Follow me." She said, walking past him towards the encampment. "You should consider getting a drink of something non-alcoholic from time to time and wear lighter clothing if you plan on staying here. Otherwise you'll probably drop flat on your back before the sun is even at its highest." She told him, with a little smile. "We always have use for another set of hands and... We have more than enough fools to entertain if you really want to put yourself through it. Careful with the girls when they're drunk, some of them tend to get a little too friendly and won't want to hear a 'no'. I'm never drunk, remember that."

Once they reach the center of the encampment, she pointed at one larger tent. "Food and drink that way. This is the living area, south from here are training grounds, my tent and the temple. You'll need permission to enter the temple, but feel free to explore the training area. Come near my tent and I'll behead you on an instinct without even taking a second look at your face." Then she smiled pleasantly and added. "Any questions?"

Billy answered her last question quickly and with a smile.
"Aye I've got me share of questions though the first one just might be what's ya name love?
The second would be, there's such a thing as non alcoholic drink?
And the third...those lasses what do no take "no" for an answer where might they be?"
He then chuckled and responded
"Of course I'm just pulling ya leg love.
Ya do no behead people for that now do ya?"
He then scratched his head with the tip of his dagger.
"Guess I had more questions than I thought eh."

He started to look around the camp but his gaze still fell back on her.
Shaking his hair from his face he said.
"So if I'm going ta be sneaking into your tent I'll be needing ta ply ya with water or something ta the like first then?"
He snapped his fingers and laughed.
"Just like a lass ta want me ta get ya sober first."

"Indrani." She stated simply. "I'd say it's nice meeting you, but it's a little early to tell." She said, looking at him with a raised eyebrow. "Eh, it's up to you whether you drink water or not, but you might consider it. If you don't you'll pass out from the heat and probably wake up to find someone stuffing your pants with hot sand. Or some other similar stupidity." She snorted a little chuckle and added. "And oh... They'll find you. Just wait for it." She said.

She moved her scythe from her shoulder And leaned the lower blade on the ground, the one on the top still going over her shoulder. "You don't want to sneak into my tent... That would be terrible for your health, you know." She said in a very calm tone, opening a smile and adding. "Although, if you are good enough with those blades of yours to actually impress me... Who knows, you might get invited." She said. "It's not at all easy though, I should warn you."

Billy tossed a dagger end over end into the air catching it by the handle.
"Me skill with me daggers none can question love.
You'll just have ta be coming around some time what when I'm throwing them.
Guess I'll be looking for the lad or lass what leads this place eh?
Or maybe that drink along with those lasses.
As for filling me pockets with sand t'would be the first time anyone filled me pockets with anything."
He the laughed and walked off tossing the dagger end over end singing.
"Don't hit your mother in the head with a shovel.
It'll leave a dull impression on her mind."

Indrani watched Billy walk away with a somewhat intrigued look on her face. Finally she shook her head and mumbled. "The types of people who show up around here... It's just impressive." With that she followed the sound of music into the celebration that was happening. While she usually prefer to keep to herself, Creation Day, out of all days, was a different story. It was her favorite day since she was a little girl.

Walking amongst the small crowd of mercenaries and assassins, she spotted Crys in the middle of the party. That was an odd sight. Crys usually avoided this sort of event like the plague, however: There she was, allowing herself to be pulled into dancing around to a music that was already out of rhythym due to the level of alcohol the musicians had in them. Indrani couldn't help but watch that scene with curious eyes. In three years it was the one time she'd seen Crys do anything other than converse with others in secluded corners or play that flute she seemed unable to separate from; even on the date of Creation, she had never truly broken out of that 'assassin leader' posture of hers, at least not as far as Indrani could recall. It was comforting and yet bothersome to see what was underneath; it made her wonder what had caused such a change.

After a while she realized she had stared for long enough to catch the attention of the blind woman, and soon enough Crys was walking in her direction. She stopped in front of her and cracked open a smile. "Beautiful day, is it not?" She greeted.
"A beautiful day, indeed." Indrani replied, all of a sudden feeling slightly nervous. She didn't remember ever exchanging this many words with Crys. She had even spoken more with Evin than with her, if she counted the times she had yelled at the man as 'speaking'.
Crys chuckled. "Do I disturb you in some way? She asked. "You seem nervous, and I can't quite understand why." She stated. It sounded as if Crys found it absolutely normal for her to be nervous, which only seemed to make it worse.
"N-no... I'm fine, really." She mumbled in response. Did she just stammer? She had never stammered before in her life.
Crys widened her smile. "I can tell you're perfectly fine, even so, you wouldn't be the first person to be nervous around an empath. People tend to be constantly afraid of what I might find out about them. You, for instance, are probably worried I'll be able to know that you don't want us here."
That statement caused Indrani to let out a small chuckle. "Oh, well... Fair enough." She stated. "I really don't. As much as I like you people, I think that the last thing we need right now is more trouble."

"You don't like me." Crys stated simply. "You're just too polite to say so. Don't worry though, I highly doubt you'll hurt my feelings with that." She sighed. "Truth is, we're not so different, you and I. I bet you've been pushing yourself your whole life, wanting to prove you can do this despite what others might think, what your parents might think... And now that you actually managed to gain their respect and their trust, you're terrified out of your mind thinking that maybe you're not as strong as you thought you were. Maybe, just maybe, you can't actually do this; you can't protect them."
Indrani was frozen where she stood. The truth in those words had managed to put her in a state of absolute shock. She wanted to say something, but she simply couldn't find the words.
"You want us gone because if there's no conflict you will never have to know for sure." Crys added. "I'm sympathetic, I truly am. Especially because that voice in your head is absolutely right: you're not strong enough, you can't protect them and the more you try to do so, the more and more you'll fail. The sensation is something similar to sinking into quicksand. The more you struggle, the faster you sink."

Indrani was very close to truly being furious now, her hands were gripping the shaft of her scythe so tightly she could barely feel them. She could still hear the music and laughing of the party, but the sounds seemed so distant now, as if they were echoes in the back of her mind. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder and realized that Crys was leading her away from the party.
"Come on, walk with me." Crys said, calmly. "I know this isn't what you want to hear. You'd much rather pretend there is some way to stop this, but take my word for it: there isn't. The sooner you accept this, the better."
"So what, should I just quit? Nothing I do matters. That's what you're saying." Indrani finally spoke.
"That's not what I said. I'm trying to explain something I came to understand a little bit too late; Being a Leader means you'll have to live with the choices no one else wants to make, those choices will inevitably lead to deaths, and you'll have those deaths on your hands and on your conscience for as long as you live. Everything will be your fault, and no matter how many times you tell yourself that things couldn't be helped, there is no amount of reasoning that will make you feel better. And if, by any chance, after everything is said and done, there are still people willing to follow you to death... It only makes everything feel worse, because you can't help but think that's exactly what they will be forced to do." She smiled gently and concluded. "What makes a great Leader, the way I see it, is going through all of that and still be willing to wake up the next day just to go through it again."
"You surely think highly of yourself, don't you?" Indrani said, slightly amused.
Crys laughed in response. "I'm flattered if you actually think I was talking about myself." she said, closing her eyes as a rare breeze flew by. "It's snowing everywhere, but here. Isn't that funny?" She said, absently.

"Why are you suddenly so... Relaxed?" Indrani asked finally, watching her curiously.
"Because... Right now, I don't have a specific reason not to be. And I'm very much aware of the fact that I should enjoy it while it lasts." She answered simply.

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

[White Shadows encampment]

Annie chuckled slightly at the name Evin called her by. Her mother always mentioned him as being a spoiled, immature, brat. If she said so, it was most likely that he was one, or at least that he acted that way with her, but Annie had never really had a problem with him. Which immediately made her like him... After all, lately she'd had nothing but problems, with everyone. "Theron... I think he left already. I'm not entirely sure though. And, I advised him to go to Blackpond first, but he never told me where he was going. We didn't talk much, to be honest. My mother left a letter for him and I simply delievered it. I think that told him about whatever he came here looking for. One of the girls told me the Elf he was with mentioned they came here for something we had. Although, I don't know what it is and I obviously don't have it." She shrugged. "It was all a bit strange, in my opinion."

She raised one eyebrow when Evin spoke of Katelyn. Not only for the way he spoke of the whole thing, but also because he asked to see the girl. "Chance is not what I would call it exactly, Evin." She told him, in a tone that made clear that she knew what was behind 'the unfortunate event' he had referred to, but she made no further comments on the fact, she didn't think they would help the situation, so they were simply useless. "She's fine though, so I don't see a problem with that. Why don't you wait here for a minute and I'll go find her?" She said standing up. "And oh, please, help yourself to some tea, I don't mind." She said playfully, as she walked out of the tent.

Annie found Katelyn in one of the gardens, after being directed there by a passing healer who had spotted her there. The girl was pacing around in the grass, absently humming a song to herself. She smiled when she saw Annie walking over. "I remember coming here when I was little. There were always flowers in these gardens. I hope one day they'll be full of flowers again."
Annie nodded. "They will. I'll make sure of that." She stated. "Where's your brother?" She asked.
"Alistair distracted him. Sean is very much interested in finding out where your mother wandered off to and why." She said with a little shrug. "I don't really understand why he's so interested, but he is."
Annie chuckled. "Oh, well... I wish him luck with that."
"Really? No one ever wishes Sean luck. They usually wish that he'll die a painful death." Katie replied, with a little smirk.
"What do you wish?" Annie asked, curiously.
"I wish that he'll just... Find peace, somehow." She replied, with a little sigh.
"That's a very good wish." Annie stated. "So... Evin Bana is here. He asked to see you."
"Why?" Katie asked a little bit surprised to hear that.
"I'm not sure. You don't have to talk to him though, if you don't want to. I can tell him you already left." She offered.
"No, it's alright." Kate said. "I want to know what he wants. It's just... Sean already caught me talking to Ali, and..."
"Don't worry about Sean." Annie told her. "Come with me."

Walking Katie towards her tent, she caught sight of Alistair talking with Sean and made a signal to him behind the assassin's back, so that he would keep the conversation going for as long as possible. She then nodded towards the tent and smiled at the girl. "I'm not holding your hand, you know? Go in. I'll be right outside."
Kate nodded in response as she wandered into the tent, staring at her feet as she did so, and found a place to sit. She was never what anyone would describe as a shy person, but she wasn't sure what this was really about, and it just felt incredibly awkward to be there; so much she didn't even think of anything she could say, she simply sat there, eyes wandering everywhere as to avoid looking at Evin. This was really, really, awkward.

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

[Blackpond]

“You find who ya looking for?”

Jake was a little startled by Sham's voice. His mind was miles away in the past by the time she reached him. He took the time to rub his eyes, pretending it was due to exhaustion and not the tears that he had unconsciously let slip, before turning around and walking a few steps away from the line of graves. "Yeah, I found him." He stated. "He confirms what the guy from the Inn told us. According to what he knows, the King was found dead in his bed, apparently poisoned, and the city Commander, Hastings, was stabbed to death." He shook his head. "Get this: One of the maids told him that the Kings curtains were made from the same fabric the White Shadows use to make their robes; they were missing. Do you remember the cloak our visitor was wearing? That... Red cloak? I recognized the fabrics. Now I know where it came from. Fun stuff." Jake said sarcastically. "Aside from that, he wasn't all that helpful, information-wise. It was an emotional little reunion though." He said with an amused grin. "How about you? Seen anything interesting around the city?"

As he asked that, he started walking towards the exit of the cemetery, his eyes looking towards the street ahead. As they reached the gates, however, he stopped noticing the unusual movement of a small armed crowd heading towards the castle, ahead of that crowd; a familiar individual in black armor. "Is that...?" He squinted trying to get a better look at the moving figure. "That's Dominic. What's he doing with the rebels?" He asked, rushing towards the street to get a better look. People were retreating into their homes at first sight of the group, knowing that this wasn't going to end very well. Jake thought for a second, two at most, before he concluded that there would be a heck of a commotion, and that was just the perfect opportunity. He wasn't going to waste it. "Change of plans." He stated simply, following after the group of rebels from a short distance.

Once the group reached the castle, the Guard was already prepared for battle. Anyone with a small bit of brains could tell that the whole thing was suicidal. It was brave, sure, however, being brave never saved someone from being stabbed to death or locked in a dungeon; being smart, maybe, but not brave. That was something Jake learned early in life: being a coward can save you sometimes.

Once the rebels began their attack, Jake turned invisible, grateful that the snow had stopped falling and was only on the ground. In the middle of that mess it wouldn't be difficult at all to mask his footprints. Making his way through the confusion he spotted another familiar figure. He couldn't help a chill from going down his spine at the sight of Lamya. She was moving, almost gracefully, amongst the fighters stabbing anyone that crossed her line of sight; be it a rebel, or a guard. It didn't seem to matter to her. Some of them actually seemed to stop to stare at her as if they couldn't believe their eyes... Unfortunately for them, that was the last thing they would ever see. Jake himself had stopped for a little longer than he should and was forced to duck under a blade one of the rebels was swinging around not very skillfully, when it almost hit his face. He finally snapped out of the trance and moved on amongst the fighters. Somehow the rebels managed to break through the gates and into the courtyard, but Jake doubted they would make it any further than that.

In the middle of the commotion he spotted Dominic fighting two guards with considerable ease. The man stood out amongst the rebels since he was a far more skilled fighter, Jake just couldn't consider him to be a smart person for the little he'd seen of him so far. Getting mixed up in the conflict like this was just plain stupid, and Jake couldn't understand what would lead anyone to such a decision. At some moment Jake noticed one of the guards was about to sneak up on the man. It didn't matter how stupid Jake thought Dominic was, he instinctively pulled his attacker by the back of his uniform and stuck him with a needle to the back of the neck, he then tossed the unconscious man on Dominic as if to show what almost happened to him. He knew that if someone, anyone, had been paying attention; his presence had already been noticed so he didn't waste any more time from then on and made his way inside the castle through a servant's entrance left unnatended.

Jake knew he'd probably get caught by doing this, he almost had been last time he tried and he didn't even get close to his intended destination. Still, he was going to try and reach the King's chambers again. If not for any reason, he wanted to see the room where Rory had died. This castle didn't have as many servant passages as the Newhaven castle did, they were more strategic, and didn't cover the more important areas. One would have actually roam the hallways to reach the King's chambers. Jake walked the passages until he reached the correct area of the Castle. He made it closer than last time, a lot of the Guard had been moved to hold the castle's defenses, that was probably why. The hall that lead to the room, however, was still highly guarded. There were five guards on the hallway alone, and a guard's station on the end of the hall. He needed to clear that hall, or he'd never reach the doorway.

Walking back the way he came, he found a passage tha led to the library, the archivist was there, and two or three people that seemed to work there. Mentally cursing at what he was about to do... Jake dicretely picked an oil lamp from one of the tables and smashed it against one of the book shelves, causing it to catch fire. Once the first person in the room noticed the flames, Jake pulled four smoke bombs and set them off one after the other, filling the whole room with smoke, making the small fire he created to seem a lot worse than it actually was. Wasn't that enough, he grabbed one of the librarians, and slit the man's throat open. It was stupid, and messy, and Jake wouldn't have done it usually, but it was more than enough to start a panic and summon the Guard to the area. As the first guards entered, Jake left and made his way back towards the King's room, now left guarded by only two men. Walking over to one of them, he grabbed the man, dosing him with poison, and making him invisible. When the other Guard pulled his sword, Jake tossed the dead body onto it, and threw a throwing knife at the distracted man, killing him as well. He didn't bother to hide the bodies, he had split seconds before the guards realized the commotion had been a simple distraction and came looking for him.

Not bothering to be quiet either, he kicked down the door...

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

[Newhaven]

Mageria was working her way towards the Archives when an itching sensation between her shoulder-blades let her know that someone was following her. It was a sense that had saved her life a time or two before, and so she listened to it today. The odd thing was, she didn't sense a 'hunting' quality to the following, which meant that it was probably one of the kids; which meant that she had to respond calmly.

Head tilted to the side, she stopped suddenly and spun on the ball of her foot, "Don't you know better. . ." She couldn't stop the slight twitch that resulted from seeing that it was Luckas following her, but it was nothing like the instant urge to kill him that she used to have. Maybe the kid was wearing the edge off of the urge. "To stalk the Captain?" she finished with a raised eyebrow.

Looking Luckas up and down, she couldn't help a small sigh. "Do I even want to know why you're wandering around in a Guard's uniform?" Then she noticed that he was still itching at his chest. "Did you ever get that looked at? No, of course you didn't. Come on." With one hand she grabbed his shoulder and basically marched the young man in the direction of the Infirmary. Due to the hour and the fact that there were no patients at the moment, there was no one else in there, so Mageria grabbed a rough blanket and tossed it at Luckas, before heading into the store room and rummaging around.
"Here. Get out of those soaked cloths, dry off and wrap up in that. Your wound needs cleaning again." There was the sound of clunking and scuffing before she came back out with her hands full.

Mageria's reaction was amusing to Luke. Apparently she was expecting someone else, or at least she wasn't expecting him, to be following her. The amusement turned into a slight sense of shock, since he was also expecting something different from a scolding and a forced trip to the infirmary. He didn't even manage to attempt a reaction before being grabbed by the shoulder and taken to the empty ward.

"You know Captain, you're a lot more fun when you want to kill me." He stated, grabbing the blanket she tossed at him, waiting for her to leave the room before getting out of the soaked uniforms and drying off, retrieving a soaked note and the journal he had been carrying in its pockets before tossing them carelessly on the floor. "You know, you people take snowball fights a little too seriously around here. I got slaughtered." He mentioned. "Which is kind of a bother, now that I think of it; I don't actually have a change of clothes. Not that these are mine anyway." He said absently, wrapping the blanket tightly around himself and sitting on one of the empty beds, looking around the infirmary and whistling to himself.

He had taken the effort to hide the journal under the bed, right below the spot where he was seated, but left the note on top of the bed, in plain sight. It was soaked and blurry, but still readable. When Mageria walked out from the store room, he simply pointed at it. "Jake left this, not with me of course, but oh well..." He gave a light shrug, showing no real interest in the contents of the note.

"You know Captain, you're a lot more fun when you want to kill me."

Mageria arched one eyebrow and snorted softly. “So sorry to ruin your day.” She turned away and grabbed a bottle and a rag, cracking it open and pouring out a small portion the the sharp smelling liquid inside. “I could stab you, if that would make you feel better. Although this is likely to feel about the same way. Hold still please.” With that she neatly sliced the wet bandages off and started gently but firmly cleaning out the infected claw marks. She had used this stuff on herself and knew it stung like hell, but it would kill just about any infection.

“And it’s not . . . completely a game. Back during the last siege, too many people were hurt because they didn’t know how to follow instructions, didn’t know how to get away from someone coming after them, couldn’t figure out that they didn’t have any chance fighting against a superior force.” Mageria said absently as she continued to clean the wounds. Infection was a dangerous thing and she wanted to make sure that she got everything clean before re-bandaging. “I couldn’t just force everybody into training, no one would cooperate and the Council wouldn’t cough up the money. And I couldn’t do what I . . . There was nothing I could do to change their minds. But make it a game, and people are lining up for it. So I’ve got some of my retired Guards teaching basic moves to people who are interested, hopefully it will mean fewer casualties next time. If there is a next time. Let that dry a moment.”

Mageria pulled the note from the bed and read through it quickly before sighing heavily.

Captain.

Sorry I have to leave with a note, again. I'm trying not to make a habit out of it. I thought that you'd have a little bit too much on your mind at this point and decided not to bother you with this at least until morning.

I have an acquaintance in Blackpond I was reluctant to contact; I didn't really want to get him into too much trouble, but I came across someone in the city today and that made me reconsider. It should be simple enough to talk to him and come back, but I'm taking Sham with me just in case something unexpected happens. Best case scenario I find out if those prisoners are really alive in the dungeons somewhere. Worst case scenario I'm wasting my time. I'll see which one it is when we get there.

Take care of yourself.

Jake


“Why do I know that he’s going to be getting in far more trouble than he’s telling me about?” She shrugged. “Oh well. Hopefully Sham can get him out of whatever it is that he’s about to stumble into.” Mageria slanted a sharp look at Luckas before she started smearing a think paste on the claw marks. “We never did get to finish our talk earlier. Just what were you doing that you got close enough to the thing that left these?” A trick of the light highlighted the claw marks across the left side of her face, mute evidence that she had gotten just as close three years ago.

Luckas grinned widely when Mageria mentioned that she could stab him. "Oh, you could stab me, strangle me, smother me with a pillow... Or simply let this wound get infected and kill me. The question is... Would you? I mean, despite my, uh, resemblance to someone who did do a LOT of terrible things, and I mean really A LOT, I haven't actually done anything. At least not that you know of." He paused holding back a groan as he felt his chest begin to sting. "So then the question here isn't whether or not you can kill me, but whether or not you would kill me simply because you can." He said tilting his head and staring at her as if he expected the answer to be written somewhere in her expression. His eyes sparkled for a bit, but didn't change from their usual dark color, confirming what he already knew; whatever was going through the woman's mind was simply out of his reach. Finally he looked away pretending to find something incredibly interesting in the ceiling above as he thought of the whole snowball tournament. "Oh, everything is a game Captain, some people simply aren't aware that they're playing, or what the rules are, but it's all just a game nonetheless. And those Council people seem like just my type." He stated, turning his gaze back at her, his smile a little bit more evil than before. "I would absolutely love the opportunity to permanently change their minds sometime. Think about it."

Luke frowned slightly when the conversation subject changed to how he got those wounds. "Well, if you're going to ask me things, I'm going to ask you things too. Sounds fair now, doesn't it?" He stopped to think of what exactly happened that day. "Well, I was minding my own business at that time actually, hunting... Rabbits, mind you. I'm a lousy fighter, but I'm a decent hunter. Anyway, I thought I heard something, and then I definitely saw something moving in the shadows. I don't think it wanted to be noticed, because next thing I know I'm on the ground with my chest nearly sliced open. The thing stood over me then, and... I looked into its eyes, only lasted about a split second, but it was enough to catch a glimpse of some memories. Like I said, almost all of it involved you. At this point I realized I could use my enlightenment on it. I commanded it to stop and ran as fast as I could." He paused for a second. "There's one more thing, but first I ask you a question: The man who died yesterday, who was he?"

Mageria glanced up as she worked and shrugged. “I don’t usually kill people just because they resemble someone else. Its just a special case with you and your brother. That being said, I don’t hate you enough to let you die of an infected wound like this. I’ve seen that happen before and it’s a horribly painful way to go. I don’t think you’d enjoy the sensation of your chest rotting off.”

She was quiet for a while before she spoke back up. “Don’t worry about the Council, I took care of them just fine on my own.” A brief smile quirked the side of her face as she remembered a night three years ago. She and a couple of her more ‘adventurous’ Guards had spent the night climbing into the bedroom windows of certain Council members; dodging a couple of guard dogs, a few private mercenaries, a thief or two, and in a memorable moment two ‘professional ladies’ who were ‘consulting’ with one of the Council ‘privately’. The men who had been with her during that trip had wanted to bribe the women to pass along some of the more intimate details of their work, but had settled for sketching out the positions they had got to watch through the window while they were waiting. It had been an interesting night.

Mageria pointed one finger at Luckas before continuing her work. “And don’t do anything that I might have to deal with. I’d hate to have to do something permanent before I’ve made up my mind about having to kill you.”

“Why the hell would it still be focused on me?” Mageria’s brow furrowed as she thought. “Surely it’s got something better to do instead of focus on me after what, three years now? We only fought the one time and I certainly didn’t win.” She sat back on her heels before picking up the tools around her and going to put them on the table. She had just grabbed a roll of bandage when Luckas spoke up with his last question. She had managed to forget for a moment that Grim had died in her arms yesterday, now it came crashing back down around her. Leaning against the table, Mageria bowed her head as a series of memories washed over her,

Grim laughing at her when she tried to cook something . . . and failed miserably.

Grim waking up battered and bloody after she got done patching him back together after a fight.

Grim, sharing a glass of wine during a cold winter night.

She flinched a little bit before she slammed a lid down on her reactions, her expression smoothing out and the only evidence of her distress showing in the lightning of her eyes. She never could control that indicator, it was a surefire way of figuring out what she was really feeling.

Taking a deep breath, Mageria turned back around and started to wrap the bandage securely around Luckas’s chest, first placing a pad down over the slices. She was silent for a long moment before speaking. “That was Grim Pondus. Former Black Knight and Captain of the Salamanders. And a very good friend of mine.” She finished tying off the bandage and sat back on the bed across from the young man. “Now, why is it you can command that Beast thing, but not me?”

"How much hate would it take? I mean, just wondering what I'd have to do to spare myself of situations like this in the future." Luckas asked with a little grin. "Although, not as unpleasant or awkward as it would be with the healers. Most of them hate me just enough to make bandaging feel a little bit like torture." He said absently.

When she pointed at him with a warning, Luke chuckled. "Well, that's not fair Captain. Why should you have all the fun? I promise I'll behave as much as possible though, if it helps." He said with a smile, trying, but failing to look innocent. "After all, I wouldn't want to get in trouble."

Luke was silent after that, letting his mind go over the details of what had happened in his encounter with the beast; nothing in those memories gave him an answer of why it was so fixated on Mageria and, while usually something like this would make Luckas curious, or even amused, this particular fact made him uneasy. He couldn't say he'd be even a little bit sad if that thing was to kill her, but if that happened he might never get the answers he wanted. Not to mention it would be quite a waste. Luke wasn't fond of waste.

He didn't speak until after she answered his question, to which he automatically responded with: "I'm sorry." He wasn't sorry and didn't bother to fake it in his tone, but still he felt compelled to say it. "And that, I don't know for sure." He stated, in response to her question; absently scratching over the bandages the moment they were placed. "Lena told me that telepathic abilities are difficult to predict, even for people who have spent their lives studying them. See, each mind works differently so, while there might be hundreds, if not thousands, of telepaths out there, it is unlikely that two telepathic abilities would ever manifest in the same way. That said, I can guess that in some level your mind has learned to protect itself. Which is odd, to say the least, considering you have absolutely no enlightened ability, even less a telepathic ability of any sort. Needless to say, I'm eager to find out more." He stated, with a little smirk. "And I can't exactly command the beast, per say. I can command the human mind that is still alive within. And while he still has some influence over the beast's actions, my guess is that he is getting weaker by the minute. Which leads to my next question: Who is this Daniel Zimmerman?"

“How much hate would it take?” Briefly Mageria smiled, but it was bitter and bleak as the coldest winter night. “Something along the lines of what your brother did to me.” Her eyes slowly shaded to black, something that they had almost never done before. “Even” she stopped and took a moment before she started again. “. . . . even my worst enemy I’m inclined to just kill.” A soulless smile played over her lips. “But it would take a lot to push me to the edge like that.”

Slowly she calmed down, pushing the messy stew of emotions back down where it belonged. Even without an Enlightenment, she had enough influence that things would get very ugly if she let her emotions rule her actions. That was something that she had to be aware of at all times. Sometimes she wished she could go back to the days when it was just her, only her own actions to consider, but those days were long gone.

“Stop scratching at that, you’ll keep tearing it open.” she warned Luckas absently, her mind on other things. “Lovely, that mean’s you’ll be staying around then, won’t it?” Mageria got up and started putting away her tools. “And if you’ve read that journal I dropped, then you know who Daniel Zimmerman is. Or was. Which reminds me, I need that back. I put a lot of hard work into it and I’d rather not lose it.”

Luckas watched Mageria intently and with interest, noticing the shift in the color of her eyes. He said nothing about it though and simply responded to her words. "Hum, I see... But you can't actually kill your worst enemy, not really." He said with a smile, not elaborating on what exactly that was supposed to mean. He then sighed, stopping himself before reaching for the bandages again, and leaning back, crossing his arms behind his head. "I will be staying around. I haven't been in Newhaven in a long time, I forgot how fun this place can be." He replied. "And that book doesn't really answer my question... But then, I'm just asking out of curiosity. I'll give it back, don't worry. I'm not a thief." He stated simply, again not explaining when he planned on giving it back.

Luckas then hesitated, going silent for a moment before asking another question, now looking at the ceiling and trying to pretend the question was innocent. "Say... How well did you sleep last night, Captain?"

Mageria hesitated and shrugged. "Nightmares, of course. Would you expect any less?" She sighed. "They seem to be following a theme lately." She stated it simply and left it at that. "Why do you ask, Luckas? You don't seem the type to worry about another person's health like that. No offense."

Luke laughed out at the words 'no offense'. "You're too polite, considering the circumstances." He nodded, still smiling. "And I do worry about your health, Captain. Perhaps not for what you would call 'the right reasons', but I do." He sat up straight again, and nodded. "The reason I ask is because I haven't been sleeping well myself. And while I can't always remember my dreams exactly, since I got here... Well... It's gotten worse." He stated, showing off his left forearm that still had the reddish marking of the word 'stop' scratched on it. "I've also been seeing and hearing things, even while awake, ever since I looked into that thing's mind. It's bothersome. Especially because it all seems to have something to do with you." He scratched the back of his head and sighed. "I guess I'm trying to say that... I want to help you, when time comes for that."

He was silent for a little while after that statement, then he opened up a playful grin and added: "And, do I get a change of clothes? Or should I wander the castle naked until I find some I can snatch? I don't mind doing that at all, it just occurs to me that it may come off as inappropriate." He stated with a little shrug.

Mageria lifted one eyebrow. "That would be worrisome. The seeing and hearing things part. I remember when it happened to me, only it was my own personal demons, not something I was sharing with anyone else. I can sympathize." Going to a cabinet she pulled it open and chose a set of clothing that looked as if it would fit the boy. She tossed them at him and leaned against the wall. "If this is the same Beast that I faced three years ago, finally come back for some reason, then there's not a lot we can do, Luckas. It can be killed, but only at an enormous cost. Always in the past, it's wiped out the entirety of the Black Guard and Knights that faced it. All of them. I've had three years to plan." A hard look crossed her face. "I won't lead my people to a useless death, Luckas. And as much as you remind me of your brother, I won't lead you to a pointless death either." She jerked her chin at the pile of cloths. "Go ahead and get dressed. And let me know if your wound keeps itching. I'll take another look at it." With a nod she pushed off the wall and walked out, giving Luckas the privacy to change into the new cloths.

Luke watched the doorway for a while after Mageria walked off, finally he got up and began to get dressed. "I wasn't asking your permission, Captain." He mumbled.

The setting changes from the-desert to Valcrest

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Annie Turner Character Portrait: Allison Blake Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher Character Portrait: Ari Lupir

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[Healer's Camp - Sunrise]

The night was dead silent, and throughout the plains not a sound was heard, aside from the occasional coughing and moaning of the ill. Some of the exhausted healers attempted to stay awake through the night and tend to the needs of patients, while others got their very much deserved rest. Annie had stayed awake herself so that she could relieve as many healers as possible; Alistair had stayed awake to help, although he kept saying that he was just keeping her company. Whatever reasons he had, she was grateful to have him back even if for a few days. She was also glad to have someone to talk that didn’t see her simply as the leader of the Shadows. It was bothersome sometimes to think she had so very little friends although she had the loyalty of so many people. It was an odd feeling, at best.

“Why did you do that?” Alistair asked, absently as he sat back on the rock he had been sitting on moments ago. “It was nothing serious, just a nightmare.” He added, referring to the sick child he had gone to check up on. His eyes flashing gold as he stared to the small fire they had managed to keep alive for warmth.
“Why did I do what? And stop trying to sense my emotions or I’ll hurt you.” Annie mumbled in response. Of course, she knew exactly what Alistair meant.
“You gave Sean a blessing, even after he threatened you. Why would you do such a thing?” He asked. “And I really can’t help it sometimes, you know that.”
“This will sound stupid, but… I like Sean. I think that if he was given some guidance when he was younger none of this would have happened. So, in a way, it was Dani’s fault.”
Alistair laughed softly. “Oh, please… Say that in front of your mother, I just want to see the look on her face when she hears it.” He said, with a chuckle. “Let’s just say that’s true, does it excuse what he’s doing now? He’s not a child anymore; he’s responsible for other people’s lives.”
“I never said it excuses anything. I’m saying that I don’t hate him. That’s all I’m saying.” She shrugged.
“My concern is with what you’re not saying, Annie. Come on now, I’ve known you forever. I can tell when you’re hiding something and I don’t need my enlightenment for that.” He pushed.
“It’s nothing, Al, really.” She mumbled, standing up to get some tea. “Better if you don’t know anyway.”
Alistair went silent after that, but only for a moment. “Oh, I see… You know.”
“What?” She asked, turning to face him.
“You know.” He repeated, his eyes locked on hers as if they finished the sentence for him.
“I do.” She replied. “And no, I didn’t tell him anything although I was tempted to do it.”
“You can never tell him, who knows what he would do.” Alistair told her in a severe tone.
Annie didn’t answer, a slight bit of guilt crossing her expression.
“Annie, what did you do?” He asked.
“It’s better if you don’t know.” She repeated.

Alistair sighed, but didn’t insist on the matter. He knew how this was difficult for her. “You should get some rest, it’s almost morning. I can take care of things for a couple of hours.” He offered.
Annie chuckled in response. “Honestly Al, you really don’t miss it?” She asked him.
Alistair sighed. “I was very happy in my time here, Annie. I will always love this place and the people who live here. I just can’t handle the stress of this life anymore.” He gave a little shrug then smiled at her. “I’ll always be your friend though. You know that.”
Annie smiled back at the man, for a moment feeling more like the cheerful kid she was three years ago. “I’m not tired, really.” She said simply, in response to his offer. Besides, it’s nice to be able to sit in the silence for a while.”
As she finished that statement a mercenary came running towards them at full speed, tripping over his own feet and struggling to catch a breath. Once he stopped before her he breathed in deep and screamed in excitement “Annie! Annie! You won’t believe this!” The man screamed through the silence. “Look!” He said, grabbing Annie by the shoulders and turning her towards a dark figure that was carelessly strolling into the encampment. As the first rays of sunlight reached the small encampment they revealed the familiar face of a woman, her blue eyes sparkling as she opened a smile to the young leader of the White Shadows.

Annie blinked, unable to trust her eyes at first. “Mom?” she mumbled to herself, before actually being sure that it was mother she was seeing underneath the dark cloak, it was an odd sight after; after all, she had always seen her in the white robes of the healers. Even in the day she left them three years ago she wore light white clothing. As she walked closer Annie could tell she was tired, and different somehow, but she seemed perfectly alright. Finally, Annie walked a straight line to the woman and wrapped her arms around her in a tight hug.

Lena chuckled slightly, returning her daughter’s embrace as she looked over the girl’s shoulder to the man named Alistair. “Well, hello, there Mr. There’s-no-way-in-hell-you-can-make-me-go-back…” She said, a slightly arrogant smile playing on her lips. “It’s not at all surprising to see you here, although I must say it took you long enough.”
Alistair snorted softly to the comment. “Shut up, old woman.” He muttered in response.
She laughed out. “I’m glad, it seems that the time you spent away did you a lot of good, boy.” She told him.
“I’m sorry I can’t say the same for you. You look like crap.” He told her.

“Yes, well… I have been walking for a very long time. I have not been sleeping all that well and food sources are scarce in the mountains, so… Yes, I do look like crap. I’ll look healthier in a day or so.” She said, absent minded. “Now…” She smiled wide, grabbing Annie by the shoulders and gently pushing her away a couple of steps so she could get a good look at the girl. “Let me have a good look at you, kiddo. You’re so grown up.” She examined the girl from head to toe with her eyes then added in a slightly severe stone. “When was the last time you’ve eaten something though? What did I tell you about not taking any breaks?”
Annie laughed. “Mom, I’m fine. Really.” She stated. “Everybody’s tired, but I am taking care of myself.”
Lena sighed. “Seems like you’ve lost a good number of healers, huh? How many are there left?” She asked, her smiled melting into a concerned expression.
“Seventy five, myself included.” Annie told her. “I reinstated those who were rescued from the dungeons, but it didn’t go very well with the elders.” She explained. “Then there were Blackpond’s angered citizens, blaming their disgraces one us. They shortened our numbers by a few dozens in the past years, but eventually they stopped.” She shrugged. “I held it together the best way I could, took allegiance from the Crimson Shadows to try and keep our borders safe, but it’s been… Challenging.”
Lena chuckled, putting one arm around the girl’s shoulders and beginning to walk with her further into the camp. “You did great, kiddo. Really, great.” She told her.

As the healers began to wake up, excited whispers began to fill the plains as they caught sight of their former leader. They all said the same thing: The White Rose had finally returned.

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[Desert – Crimson Shadows encampment, a few hours before Sunrise]

Indrani had most of the day by herself thinking about everything that had happened in the past years. Three years ago, Dastan had promised her he had plans to keep the clan safe from the Pack, he had told her he would take care of it, however their people were being killed and he was simply putting all his faith on the possibility that those assassins would help them. She couldn’t believe that they would, she doubted they cared and overall she simply didn’t trust them for a minute. However, she trusted Allison. She trusted the archer enough to be honest with her about her feelings, knowing that she could understand them almost as well as anyone else. However, there was one thing she never told Ali, or anyone else no matter how much she trusted them. And that secret was the thing constantly on her mind in the past few months.

[Flashback – Wolfpack Territory, approximately 5 years ago]

Indrani had been exploring this new place where the Crimson had been allowed to set up camp, it was alright she guessed, and she was very grateful to the assassin Leader for sharing part of their territory, but it wasn’t home for her. Taking in her surroundings and trying to memorize the paths that led in and out of their assigned territory, the eighteen year old girl found herself a bit distracted. So much that she didn’t notice the seventeen year old boy sneaking up on her. Next thing she knew, she was feeling the tip of a knife to the back of her neck.

“You’re trespassing.” The voice of a young male spoke behind her. “Who are you?”
“I’m with the Crimson Shadows.” She told him. “Your leader is letting us stay here.” She informed.
“She is?” The boy asked, seeming confused. “Well, how do I know you’re actually with the Crimson Shadows?” He asked, unsure whether or not to let her go.
Indrani slowly pulled on her necklace and rose the pendant with the mark of the Water goddess, Crest of her mother’s side of the Royal family. “Effort royalty.” She stated, a proud note showing itself in her voice as she mentioned the city’s name.

The boy laughed, lowering his blade. “Oh, my apologies, Your Highness; won’t happen again.” He said, unable to hold back the laughter and the mockery in his tone. Perhaps he should have thought it through, however, because in a split second he was being hit straight in the face by Indrani’s fist. Surprised by the act, he stumbled back, dropping his sword. When he looked up again, Indrani had a sword of her own pointed at him.

“Pick it up.” She said, nodding towards the weapon he had dropped.

A devious smile spread itself across the boy’s face as he slid his foot under the blade and kicked up, grabbing the hilt of the sword in the air. “Your wish is my command, Princess. Show me what you got.” He said, wiping a bit of blood that had dripped from his nose and taking a defensive stance.

Indrani smirked at his comment, her golden eyes examining him from head to toe as if he was one of her clan’s recruits, weighing him over. Finally she began to circle him slowly, her eyes always locked on his, somewhat taken in by how they shifted ever so slightly from green to brown as she moved. He remained still, patiently observing her movements. The silence in the clearing only disturbed by the soft sound of the girl’s footsteps, the sounds of their breaths and their heartbeats… The birds, the breeze hitting the trees, the distant howls of the wolves announcing the nightfall was nearing… All those sounds had vanished in that moment as the two teenagers stared into each other’s eyes.

And then, without notice, that peace was suddenly disturbed by the clashing of metal as Indrani’s sword collided with the Wolf’s blade with tremendous force, once, and then many times more as they moved through the clearing almost in a dance, avoiding each other’s attacks by a matter of millimeters; none of them attempting to kill the other, but simply prove themselves superior. Every time one of them managed to get the slight bit of advantage, however, the other managed to compensate somehow. At one point the Wolf managed to knock Indrani’s blade to the side and draw a dagger to slash at her face, only to discover that girl had drawn a knife of her own to defend herself from the blow. The fight went on, even; no words exchanged; no signs of exhaustion shown from either side… Night was beginning to fall and they went on… Until a distant voice broke through the clearing and through the girl’s concentration: “INDRANI!”

The flinch caused by Dastan’s voice was enough for the young assassin to get inside Indrani’s guard and elbow her in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. As she struggled to breathe he knocked the sword out f her hand. Still coughing, she tried to attack him with the knife, but he avoided the blade and managed to get a tight hold on her wrist, twisting her arm behind her back in a painful hold. Indrani struggled against the hold until she felt him wrap his other arm around her neck, pressing a dagger tightly against her throat, a subtle move and she’d be dead.

They were close enough that she could feel his heart beating fast against his chest, his voice came out in a gasp as it sounded in her ear. “Your Prince Charming, Princess?” He asked, still taunting her even after she’d shown him what she was capable of.
“Brother.” She whispered back.
“How protective is he?” He asked.
“Very. And he’s enlightened.” She answered.
“Too bad I’ll be long gone by the time he gets here, judging by the sound of his shouting.” He said. “That if he even finds the trail; there are so many of them.” He took a deep breath, exhaustion beginning to set as the adrenaline faded. “You have one chance to convince me not to kill you… One word: That’s all you get.” He told her.
Indrani didn’t even think, a smirk playing on her lips despite the fear she was feeling; the adrenaline and the excitement still talking louder than her senses. “Rematch.” She told him.
The boy chuckled softly in her ear. “You’re insane.”
“Oh, you don’t know the half it...” She replied, leaving a pause for him to give his name, sincerely hoping that he would.
“Sean.” He told her immediately. “Should I keep calling you Princess?” He asked, now in a more playful tone.
“Indrani.” She informed, wincing as she heard Dastan’s voice again; this time much closer. She barely noticed that Sean had already released her arm and was holding his dagger loosely in his hand; the blade was no longer near her skin.
“Indrani.” The assassin repeated. “If you run into another Wolf, and he decides to give you trouble, remember one word: ‘Effect’.” He told her. “Will you remember?”
“Effect.” She repeated.
“Good.” He said finally releasing her and sheathing his blade.
“Tomorrow, then?” She asked, putting away her knife and retrieving her sword from the ground.
“What?” He asked, scratching his head.
“The rematch!” She answered. “Or you think I wasn’t serious? You owe me.” She told him.
Sean laughed. “Oh, alright: Tomorrow.” He agreed. “I’ll be here.”

[Flashback – Somewhere deep in the forest, approximately 3 years ago]

“I’m trying Sean! He won’t listen to me!” Indrani shouted, frustrated.
“I thought you were the only one he listened to? What could have possibly changed?” Sean asked, his voice was still calm despite her shouting although his tone was bitter as if he knew the answer before it was ever spoken.
“Crystal.” Indrani answered, frowning deeply. “He won’t dare betray her.” She muttered. “Why the hell couldn’t you kill her properly?” She shot the question at him on an impulse, going very quiet for a moment afterwards as she noticed the painful expression that formed on his face. “I’m sorry.” She mumbled, taking a deep breath to calm herself. “I didn’t mean to say that, I…”

“Yes you did. It’s alright.” He sighed, running a hand over his eyes. “I’ll get rid of her, I’ll find a way. Until then, you…” He paused, choosing his words with care. “Be very careful around her, don’t… Don’t let her find out we know each other. She can’t know that, ever.”
“I know. I’ll be careful, I promise. No one will ever know.” She said, leaning her back against a tree staring at her feet, still unable to face her friend after what she said to him.
“Listen...” Sean started as he walked over to her and crouched down so he was in her line of sight. “I promise I’ll do everything I can to prevent a war. Everything until I have no choice. I won’t hurt a single one of your men unless I have to. I swear on my life.”
Indrani closed her eyes as Sean moved into her line of sight. She didn’t want to look at him anymore. The fact that she would have to choose between him and Dastan, if not now, in the future, was crushing her as if she was being held tightly by a huge iron fist.
“Indrani, please say something: Anything. Just give me a sign that you don’t hate me.” Sean insisted. “Tell me what you’re thinking.” He pleaded.
“Rematch.” She stated simply, her golden eyes blurred with tears as she opened them. “The next one might the last one.” She told him. “That’s all I can think of.”


[Reality – Desert, present time]

“Hey… What are you doing standing there?” Jackson’s voice sounded, curious, yet cautious as if he was worried about the sanity of his Commander.
“I’m just worried, that’s all.” Indrani answered, not encouraging any questions and beginning to walk away from the training arena and towards her home. “Please don’t disturb me unless is urgent. I’m very tired.”

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Dastan had been sitting in his bed, absently listening to the sound of the flute that came from the room in the opposite end of the hall. Crys had been cheerful earlier in the day, but now for no apparent reason she was a little depressed. Dastan knew this because the music coming the blind woman’s room was simply heart breaking stuff. The mercenary had noticed in the past three years that Crys’ music not only helped vent whatever emotion was overwhelming her at the time, but it also could influence others; if that had something to do with the assassin’s enlightenment or if it was just the music itself… That he wasn’t sure of.

The man closed his eyes, breathing in and out softly and letting the music drive him deeper into a darkness he fought against since his early teens. Although he was good at hiding it, sometimes it wore him out. “These people are not your responsibility.” It whispered to him. “They only seem to care for you because they can use you. How many times will you repay the same debt? Are you a fool?”

Dastan sat up quickly, holding his head with both hands, trying to make the dark color leave his eyes. “No!” He muttered. “Go away!”

“I am you, remember? Where do you expect me to disappear to?” The voice mocked him. “Ignore me all you like, Shaykh, but mark my words: You will watch your people die because of it.”

Dastan shuddered as the shadows faded from his eyes, from his soul, at least for the moment. “I won’t let you take me like you did my father.” He muttered. “I’ll die before you have the chance!”

On the end of the hall the music still played, soft and melancholic. It was painful, yet beautiful as something deeply desired, yet unattainable. Like a shattered dream, or a long lost love. It ached, yet he wouldn’t dare cover his ears, or leave its reach, it seemed to have a hold on his soul somehow. It made him wonder what was going through his friend’s mind. He knew Crystal for so long, but he never seemed to be able to understand her. Their friendship was mostly based off of jokes of how they could one up each other and their concerns for their respective clans. Dastan respected her in a way that was reserved for a chosen few, Indrani above them all. In return it seemed that Crys trusted him with her own life and the lives of those she cared about, which he didn’t take lightly. He couldn’t take that lightly. If it wasn’t for her help, he would have died in a hole in Blackpond; he could never repay her enough for that.

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[Flashback – Wolfpack Camp, approximately 10 years ago]

“Jake! Open the door, you can’t lock yourself in there forever!” She shouted through the door of Jake’s room. “Damn it! Jacob! Don’t make me have to call my father!” She warned, slamming her fist against the door. There was no response. “Jaaaake!” she whined, now kicking the door. “I’m not leaving, you know.” She insisted, sitting on the floor outside the door and beginning to chant softly, while slamming her back against the bedroom door: “Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake…”

“FINE!” The boy shouted from inside of the room, unlocking the door, but not opening it.
Crys stood up and entered the room to the smell of smoke. “Were you burning stuff?” She asked, frowning slightly. “Wait… You weren’t smoking, right? ‘Cause mom will kill you if you were.”
Jake snorted softly. “No.” He mumbled. “Why do you say that?”
“Say what?” Crys asked confused, tilting her head to the side slightly.
“You say ‘mom’ like she’s everyone’s mother, but you say my father when you refer to your dad.” He stated.
“Well…” Crys started, walking over to where she thought a chair would be, but not finding it.
“To the left, two steps” Jake mumbled.
“Thanks.” She said, finding the chair and sitting. “Well, he is my father! You can’t have him, I won’t share!” She exclaimed, in a playful tone. Then she shrugged. “I don’t know, suppose I’m used to the fact that my mom is like everyone’s mom in a way. Dad is like a teacher to most, but he’s only a father to me. Well… And you.”
“Me?” Jake asked, honestly surprised.
“Yeah, you.” She said. “And I don’t mind that at all, by the way.”
“I don’t…” Jake mumbled, not knowing what to say to that.
Crys laughed. “Nice try, but that’s not why I’m here.” She said. “What happened today? Lionel said you asked to see your sister’s grave and then you freaked out and ran out on him.”
“So… That’s what happened.” Jake said. “Why do you have to bother me over it?”
“I haven’t told mom about it yet. I have to, but I need to hear it from you first.” She explained.
“It was nothing, I don’t know why, I just… Panicked. I needed to get out. I have memories of that city and… I need to forget them. I need to leave them behind, Crys. Do you understand?”

“Do you trust me Jake?” Crys asked, not answering the question.
“Of course I do.” Jake replied, quickly as if he wondered what had caused her to even ask.
“You know that whatever you tell me in secret dies with me, right?” She continued.
“I do know that, why…?”
“Then tell me about Jessica.” She added, cutting in before he asked the question.
“I already told you about Jessica.” He said, his tone turning slightly angry just by the fact that she had mentioned it.
“No… You told me how she died. Tell me about her, what was she like, what stories would she tell you… Tell me about who she was and what she meant to you.” She explained.

Jake was silent for a long while, Crys could tell he was crying even though he didn’t make a sound. Finally he spoke. “Please, don’t ask me that.” He pleaded; his tone only slightly above a whisper. “Please don’t make me think of her now.”
“Why not?” Crys asked.
“Because…” Jake mumbled, now actually starting to sob. “I should have protected her… I should have been there… I promised…”
Crys sighed softly, slowly moving to sit next to him on the bed. She absently put one arm around him, hating the fact that she could feel just how badly this had wounded him. “Jakey...” She whispered. “You couldn’t have protected her, you know that, why do you keep demanding so much of yourself? Is not always up to you to save the day, you know. You can’t make yourself responsible for everyone you love. If you do… You’ll only get hurt more.”
“I’m sorry. It seems like you always have to comfort me. It’s so embarrassing” He muttered
“Well… Someone has to protect you.” She told him. “How else will you save the world?”
Jake finally let out a chuckle. “Fair enough: You can protect me then, you’re allowed.”
Crys laughed. “Yeah, well… There’s one thing no one can protect you from.”
“The Alpha.” Jake sighed.
“That’s the one.” She chuckled. “I have to go tell her what happened, and I’ll be back later. Will you be alright?”
“I’ll live.” He told her. “At least I hope so… How’s her mood today?” He asked, a hopeful tone in his voice.
Crys laughed. “Yeah, I’d keep my fingers crossed if I were you, kay?” She told him, hesitating a moment then kissing him in the cheek before getting up to leave the room.

“Wait, what was that for?” Jake’s voice called as she was already walking out of the house.

“Extra luck.” She responded, closing the door behind her.


[Reality – Desert, present time]

The music seemed to pour out of Crys’ soul, flooding the room slowly… And she was drowning in it too, suffocating, but she couldn’t bear to stop. It was a vicious circle of sorts, and one she simply couldn’t break free of. She didn’t know what had caused her to suddenly think of the past when she tried so hard not to. She struggled against those memories as if they could eventually kill her the moment she dared to let them linger for too long. And just like that, she suddenly understood why Jake never liked to think of the past. Ironic, to say the least, that this was the reason why, but she did understand it now.

[Flashback – Newhaven, approximately 6 years ago]

It was early morning by the time Crys reached the city of Newhaven; the air was only slightly cool, as if announcing that the winter was nearing and the streets were almost completely silent as the first citizens were only starting to leave their homes to start their days. The house she was seeking wasn’t hard to find; it one of the backstreets away from the noise and excitement of the market, easy to get in and out of unnoticed, a nice little spot for one to settle down. Stopping before the house she knocked on the door and patiently waited for it to open, unable to hold back a smile as Jake’s voice sounded in her ears.

“Twins, have mercy. I’ll never get rid of you, will I?” He exclaimed, a bit of laughter escaping him. “You’re violating a dozen rules right now, Crys.”
“I’m already suspended, so…” She shrugged. “Can I come in?”
“Oh, excuse me, that makes it about twenty rules.” He chuckled. “And if I said no, would that stop you?” He asked, taking her hand to pull her into the house, closing the door behind her. “Careful, there’s some stuff lying around…” He stopped talking as Crys tipped over a bag and muttered something that sounded much like the word ‘boys’. "…Yeah. There’s a chair to your right. Watch your step."

Crys found the chair and sat down, tapping her foot against the wooden floor ever so lightly. Silence lingered, except for that sound, for what seemed like a long time.
“Why were you suspended?” Jake broke the silence all of a sudden.
“I… I rather not say.” Crys mumbled.
“Oh, it’s embarrassing, isn’t it?” Jake laughed. “Tell me!”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” She said, now actually hiding her face in her hands, feeling it warm up rapidly.
“You’re blushing…” Jake taunted. “Oh, come on… If you can’t tell me, then who will you tell?”
“Oh, everybody knows. Believe me… There will be talk of this for years.”
“Alright, then I guess I’ll have to find someone to ask…” He teased. “I’m sure the folks at Inn would looove to gossip.”
“Shut up, just… Shut up. Fine.” She muttered. “Mom’s birthday party… Three days ago… I got a little tipsy.”
“Define ‘tipsy’.” Jake asked, obviously trying to hold back laughter.
“I might have… Sung a little bit, then I got sick as hell and threw up… On the cake.” She mumbled. “Don’t you dare laugh at me, Jacob!”
It was too late. Jake had already exploded into a full blown laughing fit. “I can’t believe I missed this!” He exclaimed, grasping for air. “Did you actually sing?”
“I was told I did.” She sighed. “I honestly don’t remember anything before the ‘sick as hell’ part.”
“Wow, Crys… Drunk, really?” He said, still letting out a few chuckles. “How furious was your mother?”
“Don’t remind me.” She mumbled. “I think she’ll never let this go.”
He chuckled. “Come on, you know she can’t get mad at you forever.”
“Suppose so…” She said. “Can I just hide over here for a while? I’m tired of the jokes.”
“Did you have to come as far as Newhaven to hide?” Jake asked absently.
“I had to come as far as Newhaven for my best friend.” She stated. “When will you learn, Jakey? I’ll always find you; no matter how far you run.”

[Flashback – Desert, approximately 3 years ago]

“So…” Jake scratched his head, nervously. “You… Are you okay? I mean…”
“I’ll recover.” Crys stated, facing him from where she had sat on Dastan’s bed. “Listen, I’m sorry about everything. And I do mean everything, Jake. You should have never been put in that position to begin with. And I know it wasn’t your fault.”
“No, I…” He sighed. “Your mother warned me that I would probably have to do things I’d regret. I should have listened to her.”
“I wanted to tell you not to go. I should have asked you not to go, because, I knew…” She sighed. “I know you Jake. You go in too deep, you always have, and this time… I don’t know.”
“You could have asked me not to go, but then you know I never listen, right?” He said, forcing a chuckle.
Crys shook her head, lying back on the bed as she began to feel tired. She should have never left the room to begin with, but she knew she couldn’t stand much more of doing nothing. She groaned a bit at the pain in her stomach as she tried to get comfortable.
“I’m sorry for asking this, but… What exactly happened?” Jake asked.
“Blackpond people.” Crys stated simply. “Assassins; and damn good ones I might add. There were about three of them; that I could tell, at least. Sean said there were four, but I’m not sure I can even trust him with that.” She breathed in and out slowly, still feeling pain from the blow Sean had landed on her. “I don’t know how long I crawled; it didn’t feel like long enough to me… Towards the end all I could think of was taking another breath. Just one more breath… That was the last thought I remember having. I didn’t want to die Jake. Not like that.”

Jake had sat by the side of the bed, but Crys hadn’t noticed how close he was until he laid his head down on the pillow next to hers. “Bless the Twins for making you so stubborn, I’ll never doubt them again.” He whispered, softly. “I hate that I’m never there when you need me.”
“You were there. You’re always there.” She mumbled. “Thought you might not be after all that happened, but you were still there…” Crys mumbled, starting to drift off to sleep.


Tears began to roll down from pale green eyes and Crys finally felt like she couldn’t take anymore. The music stopped abruptly as the wooden flute slipped away from her hands onto the bed. Absently she laid back and reached for the silver ring she still carried around her neck… The night it had been given to her was so lost in the past that the promises made back then were shattered and scattered to the winds. She would never get them back.

"No matter what happens. No matter what I say, or do... I'm always on your side."

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Ali had been trying to sleep without much success. Tossing and turning at the memories of all the deaths. Her parents, her brother, her little sister, Dani, Bastian, Owen… When she decided that it was useless, she finally gave up and left the small tent where she had made her home in the past three years, sheltered by the walls of one of the largest buildings Other assassins had places their tents nearby as well; it was the most quiet and secluded place. As she walked out in the open, a familiar face was there to greet her. Or better yet: almost shock her to death. She simply stood, staring at the woman who was standing there smiling at her.

“You want to poke me and make sure I’m real, don’t you?” She asked with an amused tone in her voice.
“A little bit, yeah.” Ali replied.
“Hum…” The woman mumbled. “Which begs the question: Why would you be hallucinating?” She asked, raising an eyebrow, holding the intrigued expression for a moment before snickering. “Don’t be foolish, kid. Of course I’m real.”
Ali chuckled in response. “It’s definitely you.” She smiled wide walking a few steps towards the woman and giving her a friendly hug. “Lena!” She exclaimed.
Lena chuckled. “Hush, I don’t want anyone to know I’m back just yet. I just stopped here because I needed to see you. Besides, I was in need of a break.” She added. “Sorry about you insomnia, by the way.” She smiled apologetically.
“Ah… I see.” Ali mumbled, frowning a little, but shrugging it off, she was much more curious to know why Lena would need to see her before everyone else. “Do you want to step inside for a moment?”
“I think that’ll be best.” Lena replied, motioning towards the small tent so that Ali would enter first.

Once inside, they both sat on the floor, facing each other. Lena was still smiling, which was odd to Ali; she didn’t think she’d ever seen the woman smile like that. “Say, Allison…” She started. “Do you remember when we talked about your parents? Remember I told you your mother was a friend of mine?”
“Yes. Why?” Ali asked, her smile now fading slowly.
“I never told you the whole story; and I think you, out of all people, deserves to hear it. As Leader of the White Shadows I wasn’t allowed to give you the whole truth, but now I need to because you may be the only one who can help me.”
Ali was even more confused by that statement. “The… The whole story? What do you mean by that?”
“Allison, Blackhurst was a place like no other, or so the stories say. The people who lived there were simple folk, and enlightened, all of them to the last one. In the years before the city was destroyed, a group of scholars was determined to find out more about what truths were there to the myths and if there was in fact a physical source of magic present in Valcrest. Rumors spread that they had found it. Both Blackpond and Newhaven pressured the city to give up the information, both offering protection, allegiance, and whatever else they could think of. The man who was then King of Blackhurst refused to give up the information of the power source, claiming that if it was ever to be disturbed it would bring destruction upon the land. The two other cities became impatient and so they both attacked Blackhurst, each trying to find the information they had and use for their own gain. Blackhurst was unable to withstand the advances and so it was destroyed. Files were found indicating that the source of power was in the mountains somewhere, so the next move to be made was to get rid of Effort. Blackpond and Newhaven each allied one of the southern cities, and once against each other, Brightvale and Effort were reduced to what today is about half of the Crimson Shadows. The mountains were then searched, but nothing was found there. So, for years it was put to rest… Until about twenty years ago, when one of the city rulers dug up reports of the searches and decided that the villages outside of Blackhurst territory should be investigated. In the years that followed, one by one, the villages were destroyed, its inhabitants exterminated, some by Blackpond, others by Newhaven… It all sounds completely pointless, right? All that killing and nothing was accomplished.”

Ali was motionless listening to the story, tears silently falling from her blue eyes as she relived the horror in her mind, yet again. She was silent for a long while after Lena stopped talking, shivers going down her spine. Her parents died for nothing… Her brother and sister died for nothing… Some pointless search for power, that’s what it was. “Why?” She whispered, her voice so weak it was barely audible. “Why are you telling me this now?”
“A few months before your village was attacked, your mother left something for me while I was away from camp, with a note asking me to keep it and not tell a soul. I kept it. After the attack, when I heard there were no survivors I opened the book she had left me. It was a journal of sorts… It contained pieces of tales told by her ancestors through generations, however… Some of them were missing full paragraphs. I held on to that book for years, and after I found out you had survived I made a promise to myself that when the time was right I would let you have it. So…” She pulled a small brown book from the bag she was carrying. “This is for you, Ali. I hope that, if anything, it will bring you some form of closure.”
Ali took the journal and spent some time simply staring at it, tears still falling from her eyes. She suddenly felt so small and alone, as if she was ten years old again, wandering the forest without a destination. “Lena…” She mumbled. “Will you do something for me before you go?” She whispered.
“If I can.” The woman replied.
“Give me your blessing.” Ali asked.
“I’m not the leader of the White Shadows anymore, Allison.” Lena said, opening a kind smile. “I can’t give blessings.”
“I’m not asking the leader of the Shadows, I’m asking you.” Ali stated simply. “Please.”
Lena hesitated, but she really didn’t have the courage to say no to the girl in this moment. So she moved closer to Ali and placed her hands on the sides of the girls face, looking straight into her eyes as she whispered: “May the Goddess light your path so that you may find Peace, be it in Life or in the Afterlife. And may all the Twins protect you, now and through eternity.” She recited.
Ali sighed softly, still crying in silence, but seeming much calmer than she had been thus far. “Thank you.” She told Lena.
“You’re welcome.” Lena replied, lowering her hands and landing them on Ali’s shoulders. “I know this is a lot, and I’m sorry I don’t have the time to break it to you slower, but this is very, very, important Allison. You have no idea how important it is. So, please, if while reading this you remember anything your mother might have told you… Will you write it down for me?”
“Yes, Lena.” Ali answered, still struggling through her shivers.
“Thank you.” The woman told her. “I have to go now, will you be alright?”
“I don’t know.” Ali mumbled. “But, I’ll try.”

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[Blackpond – Some moment in middle of the night]

Jake had appeared in the cell, and so he finally understood how Rick had managed to get behind him in the first place. Trying to stand, he found he had no balance so he found himself falling to his knees and vomiting in a corner of the cell. Thinking that the last thing that place needed was the smell of vomit, he blacked out, soon after.

Flashback – Desert, approximately 3 years ago]

“Why are you telling me this now?” Jake questioned Lena with the intrigued look in his eyes. The woman was difficult to read, but he had known her for long enough to be able to tell when she was hiding something. “It didn’t seem to concern you so much a year ago when I asked you to share the White Shadows’ knowledge on the subject. You said it wasn’t a priority.”
“No… I said it wasn’t a priority for you.” Lena corrected. “You had too much on your plate at that time, giving you more wouldn’t have helped anyone.” She explained, leaning her back against the large boulder that had been providing them shade. “Either way, all I’m saying is that you should keep an eye open for that damned weapon.”
“And the book I wanted to see, where is it?” Jake asked absently.
“The Captain of the Black Knights should have it still.” Lena answered with a light shrug of shoulders. “I’m sure she would let you have a look at it.”
“Captain Mageria?” Jake asked a little confused.
Lena chuckled. “Yes, Jacob. Last I heard she is still the Captain of the Black Knights.” She stated, shaking her head in amusement. “When I confirmed to her the Shadow’s identity I told her about the weapon and told her where to find the book. So I assume she has it now.”
“She knows about the dagger, then?” Jake asked. “Hum…” He mumbled, going into silent thinking, but unconsciously glancing towards the fire temple as he did so.

“Crystal is still asleep.” Lena stated simply. “And no, she won’t like this in one bit.”
“Stay out of my head.” He muttered, looking down at his feet.
“As if I needed to use my enlightenment to know this…” She retorted, with a little smirk. “I’ve known the two of you for long enough to make accurate assumptions.” She stated, turning to face Jake who was leaning on the boulder beside her. “Kid, I will be leaving as soon as night falls, and I won’t be back for a long time, that if I am back at all. I know you still blame me for a lot of things, some of which are in fact my fault, but if there’s one advice you take from me, I need this to be it: There’s never a right time for things Jake. Don’t lie to yourself thinking that you can fix everything and then make a life for yourself when you’re done, because that’s not how it works. Time will not stop for you and you will never be done.” She told him, in a severe tone. “Yes, I need you to find this dagger, yes, there is something I’m not telling you and trust me: It can and will be incredibly dangerous one day, but there’s a line between doing all you can and trying to do everything for yourself.”


”Hey, pal! You alive?”

The sound of a male voice broke through Jake’s dreams. Refusing to open his eyes, he muttered. “I’m dead. Leave me alone.”

“You’re funny, mate. Dead people can’t talk.” The voice insisted. “What’s your name?” He asked.

Jake finally opened his eyes, wondering when the hell this guy got tossed in the cell with him; he was sure there was no one there when he arrived. Looking around though, he saw no one.

“Helloo… Name. What’s your name?”

Jake looked around the cell again, even in the dark he couldn’t see anyone in the room. “Where the hell are you?” He mumbled.

“Don’t talk out loud, the guards will hear you. Just think of what you want to say.” The voice told him. “I’m two cells away from you. My name’s Viktor, with a ‘k’. What’s your name?”

Jake sat on the ground finally calming himself with the explanation. “The name’s Jake, also with a ‘k’. So you’re a telepath?”

“Telepath? You a White Shadow? Most people just say ‘mind reader’, but yeah, I’m a telepath.”

“Can you communicate with anyone you want?” Jake asked, a smile crossing his face.

“Why do I get the impression that you’re going to ask me a favor, Jake?” Viktor asked. “I can communicate with anyone if: One, they are within a certain range; or two, I can picture them in my head.”

“If I was to ask you a favor, what would that cost me?” Jake asked. “If I can picture someone in my head, would you be able to see her too?”

“Her, eh? Already missing your lady friend, mate? Make sure you picture her in detail for me, then. I’ve been here a long time.” Viktor asked, pausing for a long time and then adding. “I want out. Promise that you will take me with you if you get out. I’ll send whatever message you want.”

“She’s a lady, and a friend, but that’s it. So I don’t have the kind of details you’re looking for. Sorry to disappoint.” Jake explained, unable to hold back a bit of laughter. “I can promise to do my best, if I can get out. That’s the most I can promise.”

“Eeeeh, Yeah, alright; better than nothin’ I guess.” Viktor replied. “Picture that lady friend of yours for me then.”

Jake took a deep breath trying to clear his mind of all the thoughts that had been torturing him, and concentrating on the person he wanted to contact, forming her clear image in his mind as he did so.

“She’s quite a looker, mate. Mind introducing me when we get out? Viktor asked, hopefully. “I’ll try it in the morning, if she’s asleep it might not work.”

Jake couldn’t help, but chuckle at this guy. “I don’t mind introducing you, no, but you’ll be speaking to her before I do, so make a good impression.” He replied, amused. “And alright. Say, do you know if there are any Newhaven soldiers being held captive here?”

“Do I? You’ve just met one, friend. You’re from Newhaven?” Viktor asked.

“With the Blacks.” Jake stated simply. “Are all the captive soldiers still alive?”

“Bless the Twins, I thought everyone had forgotten us by now!” The man replied. “Yes, sir! Everyone is alive and well.”

“Great.” Jake replied, although he didn’t think it was great. It meant Blackpond did have a bargaining tool. “If you have a limit to your ability we better go back to sleep. We need to contact my partner first thing in the morning.” Jake told him.

There was no response. Jake felt an aching in the back of his head now. Free from the man’s voice, the dungeons were silent… This was no good. They had the soldiers, they were alive, and now this man probably expected to be rescued somehow. How that would ever happen… Jake had no clue. He wouldn’t be so discouraged if that wasn’t the least of their problems, the real problem would be if this so called ‘King’ of Blackpond realized what he was actually holding in his hands. Jake had no doubt the man would use in the worse possible way. “We’re all screwed.” He muttered, thinking aloud.

[Assassin’s Camp – Early morning]

Ari eyes twitched under her lids as the sun gently kissed her face. Her eyes flew open, shining bright green. She stood up slowly, stretching out all her sore and mussels and when she looked around she found a pair of breeches and a tight top. She carefully took the clothes in her hand and smiled. Laughter escaped her lips and she spun around in circles. When Ari had come to a stop she looked out and up at the sky. Seeing how far the sun has risen she pulled her clothes on, tightening her bodice. She ran her fingers through her hair quickly until she was pleased with the way it fell down her shoulders. With that she threw open the door and bolted outside, pausing as she caught the gaze of several men and women. She blushed but kept her head held high as she ran down the path and towards the house she was last night.
She reached the door the moment the sun struck it, raising her hand to knock.

Sean woke up before Sunrise, quickly washed up, and ate a piece of fruit even before he got dressed for the day. One thing he had learnt was to take a moment for himself before even getting up properly, otherwise he would never have one. At the slightest sign of movement from his house there was almost someone needing to see him for something, sometimes they wouldn't give him a full night sleep, so he took on the habit of eating before anything else in the morning, because depending on the day he wouldn't get another chance.
By the time the sun rose, Sean had eaten, dressed, made his bed and locked his bedroom shut. It was costume that the door to the Leader's home was always open during the day, so Sean made a habit of locking his personal space carefully before starting his day.

At the sound of the knock on his door, he simply stood up and walked outside, passing the girl that had knocked without so much as wishing her good-morning. "Follow me." He said simply, walking her across the camp under the curious glances of the clan, and through a path that led to a more secluded clearing, similar to the one they had been the night before, only this one was inside the perimeter of the camp. Once there, he pointed her to a wooden shed, half hidden amongst the trees. "Any weapons you have on you, you can store them in there. You won't need them yet, first I need to know a few things." He told her. "Now..." He started, taking a seat one of a few bench-shaped rocks that were placed there to form a circle, expecting her to sit as well, but not asking her to do so. "Tell me something, that has been puzzling me: Why would you approach us blurting out the name of the Commander of a clan we are at war with?" He asked, looking at the girl with interest. "Most people would want to hide their ties with any mercenary from us at all costs, we've executed people for less." He stated, wondering if Indrani had mentioned something to Ari that he should be aware of.

“Morning,” she mumbled, before sitting close enough that they could talk and far enough where she could run if need be. She was a little embarrassed that she had left the daggers in her room, possibly a costly mistake, but she would just have to live with it for now. She was just a little amused by his question that had quickly been followed by unimportant information, knowing perfectly well that they probably should have killed her but grateful that she was alive; for now.
“Before I can tell you anything I believe you would need to know how we met,” her green eyes sparkled with mischief before she continued, “Indrani and I met though my curse. I remember it well. I was wandering through the desert, why I do not recall,” Ari closed her eyes, remembering, “She came riding up over the hill and I panicked. There’s no place to hide so I changed. I became a horse and Indrani saw me and took me back to their camp. I couldn’t fight back, well I could have but I was curious. She was finishing up with her horse when my time ran up. As you heard, shifting is very, very painful. She heard me and we befriended each other.”
Ari paused, the images flashing through her head like it had happened only yesterday before continuing.
“It didn’t take long for Dastan to hear about me and,” she smirked, “I don’t trust men. So Indrani helped me escape out into the desert where there was a small oasis. Only she knew where I was and for awhile I loved contently; there was game and water and she came to talk to me almost every day. Ranting and raving about Dastan’s stupid plan. Of course the game ran low and I was forced to leave but I was able to get a message to her and she told if I ever left the desert alive and ran into the pack just say one word; that one word. ‘Effect.’ I don’t understand but I am just doing what I was told.”
Her eyes opened and she blinked them a couple times, smiling. She could tell that Sean had been listening very closely even if his face was a complete mask. She scooted closer to him, finally feeling at ease.
“I guess I was willing to say anything that would cause Stranger to hesitate. I figured I was going to die anyways so why not tell someone, even if he was planning on killing you right after you had finished speaking. Let the gods hear the whisper and give a sign, right,” Ari asked looking straight ahead at a tree, “As for why I dare mention her name, I cannot say.”
She kept the darker parts to herself, letting him mull over what she had just said, keeping her eyes fixed forward. She sighed quietly and stood, walking over to the tree she had been studying and gently resting her hand on its bark. She studied it for awhile longer before turning abruptly and looked Sean blushing slightly.
“Why, Sean, do you not trust those who surround you?”

Sean listened to the girl's story carefully. "Effect." He mouthed the word, not letting the sound escape him as he mulled over everything she had told him. That was a safe-word, and one that very few people knew, for outsiders cooperating with the clan, he had given that code to Indrani a very long time ago, he had no idea she still remembered it. He sighed softly, running the fingers of his left hand through his light brown hair. "I see, well that explains it." He said simply, not elaborating on how it explained anything.

“Why, Sean, do you not trust those who surround you?”

At the question Sean turned to face the girl, not showing shock, or anger or any other similar emotion, only more interest. "That question is a fair one, however that answer to that question is awfully complicated." He stated. "It has to do with how I became Alpha and that is a story that starts a very long time ago, with people who are no longer amongst the living. To make it very short: I had to betray the clan in a way in order to do what I believed was right. The former leader was... Loved, by most; even while they were unhappy with her, and respected by all until this day. They stood by me when I challenged her command, but today that anger they felt towards her has melted and if she wandered in demanding their loyalties she'd have it, and yet she won't, because three years ago they made a choice and that's how much she respects them." He explained, not much caring for the fact that he was just voicing his problems to this girl when he was supposed to be the one listening to her story. He needed to speak, and she was someone who hadn't known him his whole life, for some odd reason it was easier to trust her that way.

"See, that woman, Crystal... I don't know how she does it, perhaps it's because of her enlightenment, maybe it's something I am yet to learn, but she gains people's trust so easily. It takes her minutes, a few exchanges words, an act of kindness, sometimes less... It's like she casts as spell on people, in a way: She stands before them and speaks, and no matter how much they have reasons to hate her; they don't harm her, and they listen. She killed my brother, in front of the whole clan, and they forgave her. I spared her life, even when I had every right to kill her by the clan laws, by they won't forgive me for what I've done. It doesn't matter what I do, she's still the 'real Alpha' I'm just someone they follow while awaiting her return." He explained. "So, no... I cannot trust them as long as they won't trust me. It is a sad reality, but it's the way it is, whether the accept me eventually or kill me in my sleep... That's yet to be seen." He sighed. "Then there is also the possibility of Crystal's return. Which will mean my execution." He lowered his head in thought for a second, raising it again with a slightly bitter smile playing on his lips. "If that happens, feel free to join the angry mob, I won't hold it against you."

After a moment of silence the young Alpha then softened his expression slightly and added. "Those problems are my own though, and are not the reason why we've come here. So... Tell me: Why are women any more worthy of your trust than men?" His smiled turning in to a little smirk. "Has my kind offended you somehow?"

Ari was pleased that she had gotten the Alpha to open up to her, he had told her with ease and a scene of trust. She finally believed she had gained some of his trust and she smiled lightly, her eyes flashing gold.
“Women and men are the same. I trust no one but myself; and even that I doubt,” she said sharply, scuffing her boot against the ground, “they are both no better than the other, bloodthirsty and yet all trying to survive,” here she paused, thinking carefully of her words.
“Men,” she smirked, “Have hunted me. What they have tried to do and have done I will not repeat for those memories hurt me still today. What you need to know is that I have been mishandled, wronged by every man I have met and normally end up with their sword in my face.”
She let it at that, closing her eyes lightly and tilting her head back to look up into the sun. She took a deep breath and sighed.
“As for your mob,” she whispered, praying that he didn’t hear what she was about to say, “I don’t think I could stand with them, but rather in front of them.”
She hated her feelings for this man. Yes he was charming, and though she hated how he called her kid, he had taken the time to listen to her story. He seemed like he cared, like he wanted to know. Her palms itched for a fight, her mind uncomfortable with all the questions, but she needed to know more and so she would ask until her mind was put at ease.
“Shouldn’t you show a little faith in them? Who knows if there will be a mob? Besides, without them you’re really just a nobody. Just like me,” she knew she was on very shaky ground but she had seen the way his bed had looked, the way his body tensed ever so slightly as he walked through the camp. His scent had changed as well, growing darker and heavier when he was with more people. However, out here it was lighter, sweeter, and his body relaxed. She liked the man out here much more than the man who felt that he needed to show her up in front of all the people. Sean out here was stunning and beautiful, a free spirit, but inside the role of Alpha he became hard and tight, uncaring. She wanted to show him what her life had been like, the endless freedom that the forest gave. She wanted to show him that he didn’t have to be strong and proud in front of her.
“Never mind, you don’t have to answer that,” she quickly said. Better to be silent now and revive this for a later time then to dig to deep and lose her head because of it. She turned back to the tree, scrambling up it at a rapid speed before calling down to the Alpha below, “This tree is perfect for bows.”
She swung down, flipping in the air and landing on her feet, her eyes glowing silver slightly. She didn’t mean to show off, it was just the way she did things. She smiled brightly at him, for a moment forgetting she was being questioned and who she was with, wanting to show him what it was like to have fun again.
“I could fashion a couple from it if it is needed. But I wouldn’t dare touch it unless we are short, it is too beautiful to be stripped,” She looked admirably up at the tree that towered above her, the silver fading from her eyes. Then something else caught her attention. She crept forward through the trees, motioning quickly to Sean to follow. She slithered around a bush, motioning him to be quiet before ducking behind a bush. She had lead them far from the clearing and as she pulled the branches a family was exposed. Not a human family but a small heard of deer. She smiled at him, her eyes tracking the frolicking movement of the does and the proud stance of the bucks. Quietly she tapped the side of her nose before drifting away; her foot falls nonexistent as she lead him back. She spun quickly, laughing.
“Aren’t they amazing creatures,” she bounded forward embracing him before snapping back and backing away, a blush coloring her cheeks.
“Erm,” she coughed, clearly embarrassed, “Sorry, ab-about that.”
She cursed herself for her stupidity and for getting too relaxed. She wished that her childhood friend, Kirsten had been there instead of Sean. She pulled her had behind her back and looked away from her face, expecting some rebuke or mocking response, both with the dreaded word ‘child’. Her blush deepened and spread wildly across her cheeks.

Sean listened to the girl's answer to his question with care, all the while his eyes watching her movements, frowning slightly as she said she trusted no one, not even herself. Yet she caught her whispering that she would stand in front of the angry if there happen to be one. This girl was a walking contradiction it seemed; she trusted no one, yet she asked him to have faith in people. She didn't trust herself, yet she seemed to confident enough in her skill to stand before a group of elite assassins making threats: something that, however foolish, did take plenty of confidence. Caught a little off guard when she suddenly began climbing onto a tree and then down to the ground again, going on about making bows and how beautiful the tree was, he let her go on, absently following along as she led him away from the clearing and into the woods where a herd of deer was just minding their own business. Sean didn't recall ever seeing deer in that area. Perhaps it was because he was louder than he thought in his movements, or maybe he simply never cared to look around. Either way, it was a little difficult to conceal a small trace of a small threatening to break through as they turned back to training area, he was still a little lost in his head when the girl suddenly lunged towards him and embraced him. She immediately pulled back and apologized, but Sean was a little bit shocked, not to say a bit frightened with the sudden gesture. "it's... fine." He responded, although taking a step back himself.

After a slight moment during which the Alpha was silent, thinking of things that surely didn't show on his face, he spoke again. "Tell me something then... Why do you say you don't trust yourself? Does that mean you don't trust your own potential or does it mean that you don't trust your own decisions?"He asked her, walking to the shed he had indicated before and storing his weapons in there. "Do you trust yourself in a fight without using this... curse of yours?" He questioned, turning back to face the girl he went on talking as if he was simply thinking aloud and not speaking to her directly. "One of those can be improved, the other not so much, but we'll see." The he shrugged lightly. "As for men in this camp, I can't guarantee you won't have a sword to your face at one point or another, but as for the rest of it your safe. I give my word."

Breaking a twig from a branch that had fallen nearby, he used to draw a wide circle in the dirt around himself. "Let's do something while we talk, shall we? Remove me from the circle: Empty hands, no enlightenment." He crossed his arms over his chest.

Ari blushed as her nose caught the sharp scent of Sean’s fear. The contact of her body against his had sent her heart into a flurry and her senses were heightened. Her eyes tracked his movements, unwilling to look away.
“Neither, I don’t trust my heart. It is soft, and when I have feelings for someone it clouds my judgment. As for you fight,” she snickered, stepping into the circle with him, “I believe I can manage what you throw at me.”
She smiled and pulled her hair back, quickly braiding it and tying a leather strap around the bottom. She had begun to circle Sean, her eyes scanning his body for any sign of weakness. Her piercing green eyes flickered, noting his breath rate. She couldn’t find one and so she stood.
“I can’t,” she said simply, “It would be foolish of me to make the first move considering you have the advantage. So, how about this. We both fight to push each other out of the circle. That way I’m not only attacking but defending.”
She cocked her head, bracing herself and waiting for his answer.

Sean didn't move as the girl circled him, when she quickly said that she couldn't do it, and tried to change the arrangements he chuckled. "This isn't a negotiation, kid. Not all battles will give you advantage or an even chance. You can't ask a situation to adapt to you, you should find a way to adapt to it. There is a way: Find it." He told her. "Use that pretty little head of yours for thinking." He opened a slightly deviant smile and added. "Take your time to think though. Meanwhile let's address this lack of faith you have in yourself. Now, I understand that people lose their judgement on account of love, or hate, and that it is a dangerous thing. I'm very much that way, I can't help what I feel for people, when I rarely do; I can hide it very well, but I tend to let my emotions get the best of me at times. It has caused me a lot of trouble. Has it happened to you or is it simply a fear you have?"

He paused for a moment to see if she was going to make a move, as she didn't yet, he talked some more. "When I turned fifteen, my older brother knocked me unconscious and tied me to a tree by my ankles, with my hands bound behind my back. He waited for me to come to my senses and said he'd come back for me the next day. When he woke up the next morning he was hanging from the tree in my place. I was asleep in my bed. He had to cry for help, because he couldn't set himself free. I never told him how I did it." He said casually. "That was tricky, this is simple. Remove me from the circle: If you can't push me or pule me, use another method. Don't worry though, you'll get your fight if that's what you want, but first you do it my way." He said, still smiling, the look in his eyes was amused as if he was holding something back.

She approached him carefully, stepping forward and gently resting her hand on his chest.
“So, let get something straight here,” she smirked, feeling him tense up, “You try anything with rope and I will repay the offer in a matter of moments. This kid,” she whispered, bringing her body closer to his, her eyes and fingertips catching everything, “Is seventeen. She’s not afraid to fight dirty.”
She stood on her tip toes, keeping her body pressed on his. He didn’t like this, she could feel it. Whether he would run or not, she wasn’t sure, but if he struck she would take it with grace. She didn’t know how else to move him. He was bigger, stronger, and much more controlled than she was, but she could appeal to his human nature.

“Why do you want to know,” she whispered, a small smile appearing on her face. Her green eyes glimmered with hope.

Sean's smile shut tight at the distance, or lack there of, between the two of them, taking noticed that his ears and the back of his neck were warming as if they were slowly turning red. He began to pace back without even taking notice, only stopping to a halt and looking down as he realized his feet were outside the circle. "Not what I had in mind, but then, it worked." He mumbled, gripping the girl by the shoulders and gently pushing her back to a comfortable distance. "Not what I was expecting, but fine..." He muttered, obviously upset at how easy it had been for the girl to cause such a reaction on him, rubbing the back of his neck as if that would make the redness go away unnoticed. "I wanted to know, because if you're afraid of something that you think might happen, that it's an irrational fear, if it has happened before and you know might happen again, that it is only logical to be afraid." He explained. "If it's too personal, you don't have to answer though."

"So..." He started, stepping into the circle again. "Would you like to do it your way now?"

“Its rational, it has happened before,” she smiled sweetly and bounced away, “Please, after I won already. I think I could do it again.”
She took a threatening step forward and smiled before stepping a safe distance away.
“If you want to regain your honor then yes, otherwise I might laugh every time I pass you,” she smiled shifting into a crouch. Her hair dropped below her shoulders. Her eyes glowed slightly and she braced herself.

Sean laughed out. "My honor?" He choked a bit on laughter. "I'm a killer who betrayed his own clan to take command, do you really think I still have any left? Has our conversation taught you nothing aside from an easy way out of a tricky situation?" He asked, his tone a little more severe. She had done well in exploiting his weakness, but she was getting arrogant again, and he wouldn't have that. "And I also could not care less for what makes you laugh, rather I am here to teach and it seems that you still need a lesson, and badly."

Ari stood and looked at him, cocking her head slightly with a tiny frown on her face.
“I see that my words have angered you again,” she sighed and took a step back, “I was only joking. But it is a sad man that believes he has no honour. You betrayed them because you needed to save them, if you have told me correctly. You did what you saw fit to save them from their own destruction. As for your lesson, no. It’s taught me to stop, and search for my opponent’s weakness before striking, if time allows,” here she paused, her eyes already searching, “Laughter makes the best part of us shine and relieves stress. Personally, and in no way do I mean to offend you Alpha,” she bowed quickly to emphasise that she was an omega as far as he was concerned, “but I do believe you could use some laughter. I say this in the humblest way possible.”
Her green eyes flashed with silver for a moment, and she shook her head sadly. If she sounded arrogant she didn’t mean to, all she had said was based on observations, most of them which he was sure he had overlooked. She studied the ground, smiling internally as she caught the attention of something that might just help her, not win, she knew she couldn’t but stall for awhile.

Sean's eyes narrowed only slightly. "I'm a sad man, then. However, I'm alive. And doing honorable things can make that difficult sometimes. In one moment of 'honorable thinking' I failed to rid myself of a person who still haunts me. Knowing that she's alive is the one thing that frightens me still. Not because she can kill me, and she can kill me, but because she might return to this clan, and then all I've done will have been for nothing. If anything, I curse honor for what it cost me." As he said that he paced, slowly his eyes fixed on the girl as he did so, the fact that he kept telling this girl things was still bothering him, but it felt now like a distant echo in the back of his mind, if she put up a good fight, maybe he could set it all aside and take charge of her training, otherwise, he'd have to assign her to one of the Instructors. "You haven't angered me, girl. Trust me, you'll know it when I'm angry. I'm glad you've learned something, means I'm not wasting my time, and while it's cute that you concern yourself with my needs, I already told you; these problems are my own and they're not the reason why we've come here." He concluded, slowly digging the tip of his foot into the dirt as he spoke. "Tell me, don't you think some people are simply fated to never be happy?" He asked. "Maybe I'm just one of those people."

Not giving her a chance to reply, he kicked a good amount of wet dirt up in the air and in the direction of the girl's face, his fist following not far behind.

Sean struck first, kicking dirt up into her face and causing her to stumble back as he charged forward, his fist reaching for her face. Ari kicked, catching him in the side of the knee and causing him taking a couple of steps back. She advanced, moving lithely as a cat. She kicked up, catching him in the side but not being able to retreat fast enough. His hand grabbed her leg, twisting it sharply so that she had to turn or risk breaking it. He shoved her away, her foot catching on the dirt and sending her sprawling face first into the mud. She had just enough time to push herself up off the ground before he was on her again. His fists caught her sides, and she bit her lip to hold back the whimper. She feigned a strike at his face and as his hands moved to catch her wrist as she raised her leg and was able to get a good kick in at his side. He stumbled back and she backed away too. Her lip was bleeding and her side screamed in pain while he looked absolutely fine. He attacked her again, running at her with a triumphant smile on his face. She waited for the opportune moment before dealing him a roundhouse kick and he responded by getting a fierce blow into her side. She backed away, breathless, and she glared at him.
“I think you could be,” she snarled before lunging forward and pushing him back a couple of steps to where small puddle was. He lashed out at her face but she dropped and spun with a yell, hitting him in the back of his knees and causing him to slip on the ground as he tried to stand. She let him regain his footing watching with dark eyes as he grabbed a long stick. Swordplay it was to be then. He advanced, while she stood perfectly still, her hands empty. He swung at her chest and she bent back, avoiding the blow as he shifted and leaped forward. She scrambled out of the way, making a run for the other stick at the other side of the circle. He dropped his shoulder and she collided with him, flipping through the air as he tossed her over his shoulder and then turned, pushing his hand against her chest and slamming her into the ground. He raised the stick, a look of success and disappointment on his face, before swinging it down. She rolled out of the way, striking out with her leg and catching him in the stomach. She crawled back to the stick and grabbed it standing, muddy water dripping off of her face. She swung it playfully in her hands, a flash of fear spreading across her face. They began to dance around each other, striking and blocking blows, backing away before spinning to meet each other.
Ari was sweating and she sprang back as Sean’s stick had come dangerously close to hitting her stomach. She wiped the sweat from under her eye, revealing a complex and beautiful tattoo. She lunged forward, aiming a strike at his knees but then kicking out to catch him in the shoulder and push him back. Furious with her hair clinging to her face she ran her sleeve across her face. The full tattoo was revealed, not just under her eye but along her left cheek and down along her nose. Sean saw the marks and was a little taken aback but he saw his opening and he took it. He lunged forward, grabbing Ari’s hair and yanking down. She cried out and hit the earth, falling still.

[Flashback]

The man stood, towering above her. He had cheated, using her hair to drag her down to the ground. His eyes burned red-orange, locking on to hers. He was searching her memories, the sharp press of his mind on hers letting her know that was exactly what he was doing. Her body locked as the tip of his sword pressed to her throat. He twirled his wrist slightly as he didn’t find what he was looking for. The man stepped back removing his sword but keeping his foot firmly pressed into her shoulder.
“Girl,” he said as she fought to remove his presence, “what is your name?”
“Why should I tell a murderer like you,” she spat, her hands clawing at his shiny black boot. He laughed, removing his boot carefully from her shoulder, looking into her bright green eyes.
“Ari,” he whispered and she sat up, looking up into his now black eyes, “You have had a rough life. Abandoned by your father and mother, abused by those whose paths you’ve crossed. You needn’t fear me.”
Ari stopped cocking her head slightly. This man had sparked her curiosity; she wanted to know this boyish person. After all he had chased her through the woods for days now. She took his hand and pulled herself to her feet. He was taller than she was by a lot, and she had to tilt her head back to see him.
“Who are you,” she whispered, walking around him and carefully running her hand across his back.
“Kirsten,” he whispered, smirking slightly, “And as you have guessed, I am a hunter.”
She shivered as his words struck her inner being. The darkness and truth of what he said striking against her heart. Kirsten smiled lightly, hearing her breath catch before spinning and grabbing her wrists. He held her tightly, expecting her to put up a fight but she gave none. He loosened his hold, as her fingers gently twined with his.
“And what is it that you hunt,” she asked lightly, her green eyes locking onto his. He gave no response, his gaze flickering down to her lips. Ari saw his eyes move and she couldn’t help the smile that brightened her face. With a sharp and quick movement she raised her knee, striking him in the groin and causing him to double over in pain. She leapt away, springing through the trees, looking over her shoulder in worry. Her eyes burned silver, getting ready to shift when there was a sharp pull on her long hair and yanked back, her body hitting the ground.

Her eyes glimmered, wet with tears as Kirsten’s face faded from her mind’s eye and was replaced with the face of Sean. She had felt the sharp pull of his hands in her long hair, yanking her back to the ground; that was what had triggered the memory. He stood over her, waiting for her to retaliate, to fight back. She didn't move, but rather surrendered.

Sean stood waiting for the girl to stand up and keep fighting, or at the very least say something, but she didn’t move or speak; she simply lay on the floor with a look in her eyes that made clear something was troubling her inside. While it wasn’t shocking that she had troubles in her, or that she might have memories that she couldn’t let go of, he couldn’t understand what had triggered it.

Before he could say something, Donovan ran into the clearing. “Sean! Sean! There’s someone here to see you.”

“Who?” He asked, still looking at the fallen girl with a curious expression.
Donovan didn’t respond right away, which caused Sean to turn and see his little brother with a slightly panicked look in his eyes. “Who is it?” Sean repeated the question, walking towards Donovan. “Doni…”

Donovan glanced towards Ari and nodded, whispering the name in Sean’s ear, causing the Alpha to mimic his brother’s shocked expression for a split second, before concealing it and heaving a sigh. Walking back to the training area he retrieved his weapons from the wooden shed mumbling his final words to Ari before leaving the girl behind. “You did well, kid, but whatever you had going through your mind: Get rid of it.” He told her.

As Sean walked to the Leader’s cabin he realized it was probably close to noon. Time had gone by so fast for some reason, as he went inside he found his visitor in the office, staring curiously at the burn marks in one of the walls from when Evin set fire to the clan records and amused smile on her face.

“Evin was always such an impulsive creature.” She chuckled as she heard the Alpha’s footsteps. “I have to appreciate his sense of humor though… Closing the book is not as entertaining as burning it down.”
“Why are you here and where have you been?” Sean asked, ignoring the mention of Evin’s name completely.
“I’m here to give a warning Sean: Let go of the past or everything you love will be ripped apart, painfully.” The woman stated, in the calmest of tones, still examining the burn marks with her eyes.
“You came all the way here to threaten me?” Sean asked.
“No… I came here to give you a warning.” She repeated. “It’s up to you to decide what matters most; your revenge or the only important things in your life.” She replied with a shrug, finally turning to face the young man examining him with her eyes for a long moment and then shaking her head. “It surely is impressive.”
“What is so impressive, Lena?” Sean asked moving to sit behind the round table, casually putting his feet over it, and opening a smirk as he noticed the woman twitch slightly at his disrespect for the relic. It was Dani’s pride and joy: that table. It had endured everything since the creation of the clan… It was a relic. He could destroy it, but what would be the point of lashing out on a piece of furniture? He’d much rather destroy Dani’s other pride and joy instead.
“It’s impressive how you can look so much like your father and yet be absolutely nothing like him.” Lena stated. “He would be crying with shame if he saw you today.”
“Humph.” Sean mumbled. “Gladly he’s not.” He stated simply. “You… you were here when he was buried, were you not? I believe I have seen you there that day. You gave him a blessing before he died…”
“I did.” She cut him off. “I gave a lot of assassins my blessings that day. The one’s who didn’t die immediately. Some people like to believe the White Shadows communicate better with the Twins. We humor them.” She explained. “What is your point, exactly?”
“What was the last thought on his mind before he died?” Sean asked, opening a smirk.
“Your sister.” Lena answered, without as much as a flinch. “Are you sure you want to play your mind games with me, boy? I’m not a healer anymore… I can, and will, destroy you.” She said, her eyes sparkling a blue light.
Sean chuckled. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I hit a nerve?” He sighed, leaning back further in his chair. “If Crys put you up to this…”
“No one puts me up to things, Alpha. And Crystal doesn’t know I’m back yet.” The woman replied, with a severe expression on her face. “I’m not threatening you either, kid… I’m giving you a chance to save yourself. I owe it to your father to give you that chance.” She stated simply. “You’re not strong enough to lead this clan Sean, not through what is about to happen.”

Sean lowered his feet from the table and sat up straight. “What is about to happen?”

Lena smiled kindly at him. “Everything.” She said. “Just remember what I said.” She added beginning to walk through the door. “If you’ll excuse me… I would like to get to Newhaven before nightfall… I have some people there I’d like to see.”

“Well, I’m sure you can’t wait to spread the joy.” Sean muttered. He didn’t want to believe Lena, he didn’t trust her, but he couldn't take her words lightly. What if he just wasn’t strong enough after all?

The setting changes from valcrest to Newhaven

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher

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“Um, Captain? There’s . . . there’s a problem. It appears that um, Grim Pondus is in the armory.” Mageria felt a deep flare of anger. “Grim Pondus is dead,” she said flatly. “He died in my arms three days ago.”

Crys didn't exactly understand what was being said. Pondus was very much alive, she could sense his presence in the castle clearly, at the same time both Mageria and the guard she was speaking to were sure that it couldn't be so.

Mageria had left the room for a while when Crys decided to go check out what was happening, still a bit puzzled by the little she heard. However, before she took a step out of the room, before she even reached the doorway, she froze where she stood. Crys was feeling something stir dangerously in the back of her chest, something she hadn’t felt in so long; something she had never felt with such intensity before. The moment she recognized the blood chilling scream that echoed through the halls, she knew what was going to happen… She instinctively locked the door shut as the overwhelming rage shattered through her every defense, pierced through her very soul; and she screamed as well, at the top of her lungs, the little left of her mind cursing the Twins one by one, to the very last… “War.” She groaned under her breath, falling to her knees in uncontrollable shivers, her eyes burning the brightest green they ever had. If there was a hell, to Crys, this was it.

. . . .

Strong arms held her down, but the young girl fought, she screamed, and kicked, and clawed, but it was no use. He wouldn’t let her go; he wouldn’t let her fall, a constant whisper in her ears beginning to break through. “Calm yourself… Calm yourself… Calm yourself…”
Eventually she stopped fighting; there was no other choice either way. She was very quiet, very silent, for a while. “Was someone hurt this time?” She mumbled.
“Not this time.” He answered, the tight hold changing into a soft embrace. “Breathe it out.”
“D-dad… I can’t… Live… With this…” Crys managed, letting out shaky breath.
“Yes you can. Every gift given by the Twins takes a toll out of us, but not one of them is more than what we can handle… Not even this. You just need to remember not to be afraid, that no matter what happens you can never lose yourself… You will always be here, and you are stronger.”


. . . .

“I’m still here…. I’m still here…. I’m still here…” The shaky ramblings escaped Crys’ lips in whispers as she hopelessly tried to maintain some sort of notion of who she was, of her own self... It seemed that if she as much as attempted a deeper breath it would be more than she could take. She tried to find something else, someone else that she could focus on, but it was to no use; it didn’t matter who else was out there, the rage was enough to bury them all. Her mind slipping away to the darkest of her being, her own thoughts betraying her as she tried not to give in… The memories feeding the sickness… She just wasn’t strong enough.

. . . .

“Sebastian...”

It was Evin’s voice that brought to Crys’ attention what anyone with eyes would be able to tell immediately; the identity of the body lying on the floor of the Blackpond Inn. She never forgot that sound; the sound of her father’s name spoken as that of a dead man for the very first time; that, and the warmth… As she knelt down, the blood was so warm. When she touched her father’s face his skin was still so warm, his eyes were open… How long ago had he died? How many minutes too late was she? For how long had he bled on that dirty floor? Such a pitiful way to go… He deserved so much better than to end this way, killed by the hands of a coward.


. . . .

“I never knew the Shadow personally, like Evin, but if I could I would shake his hand for that.”

Crys found herself on her hands and knees now, her hands balled up in clenched fists, Sean’s voice was still ringing in her ears and she couldn’t, for the life of her, make it go away. She could hear nothing else now but his voice and her heart pounding against her chest, violently.

“One little cut… And back to hell.”

The shivers were now gone, Crys took one long and shaky breath as she planted her palms on the ground and pushed herself up. On her knees, still, she planted the sole of her right boot on the floor and pushed herself up once more, firmly planting her left foot as well. Standing very still for a moment, Crys clenched both her fists tightly; so tightly her nails broke through the soft skin of her palms and her knuckles were as white as they could, before she extended her fingers again, a strange grin plastered on her face, eyes closed although the green light of her, so called, gift was still visible underneath. Her mind now void of anything but those tormenting whispers of the past. Crys had finally stopped fighting, and allowed herself to sink into those feelings. It was something similar to drowning; that quiet moment when you realize you just can’t make it and stop fighting. You let the water take you where it wants… You surrender completely to it… and then slowly you fade into nothing. Crys was now in that moment.

Still facing the door, Crys turned around, facing the insides of the room, and slowly paced: One step, two steps, the voices still whispering, three steps, they just wouldn’t go away, another step… She stopped, abruptly, as something grazed her arm.

The poor chair never stood a chance, the moment Crys felt the touch on her forearm she turned and faced it. Gripping it tightly she lifted the piece of furniture over her head and then brought it down violently against the ground, using her boots to stomp it repeatedly, smirking slightly at the sounds and feels of the wood cracking beneath her feet; a sick twisted pleasure coming from the idea of it being Sean’s bones breaking under her force, begging for mercy only to be denied, tears in his eyes, face in the dirt, breathing in the scent of his own blood… Just like she had… Just like her…

. . . .

A hand slammed down against a wooden table and Sean’s voice sounded loudly in her ears. “How can she let him live?! After all he’s done!”
Crys sighed, not raising her eyes from her cup of tea, and not minding the fact that everyone in the cafeteria was now staring at the two. “I’m not the Alpha, Sean, yelling at me won’t make a difference, and I dare to go yell at my mother right now.” She took another sip. “She decided, the word of the Alpha is law.”
“She will listen to you, if you just…”
“I won’t say what you want me to say.” Crys replied in a firm tone. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“The Shadow killed your father, correct? It’s all over camp that he did it. And you miss your father, don’t you?” He asked.
“Yes.” She muttered.
“You miss him so much it’s like you can’t breathe, right? Like someone has a tight grip on your chest and the air just won’t get through… And if you had this man in front of you, this man who took the breath right out of your lungs and left you suffocating, would you bear to hear him breathe? Wouldn’t you want to squeeze the air out of his lungs? Wouldn’t you want to have him beg for mercy just so you could deny him? Wouldn’t you?” He growled at her. “Well, you will have your chance, when will I have mine?”
It was a split second, maybe less, Crys pulled out her Sai and stabbed the wooden table, in between Sean’s fingers. She finally raised her eyes to face him, a bright green light emanating from her usually dead gaze. “We will kill the Shadow, because he is a menace. This is not, it is NOT, revenge.” She stated. “If I have to stay as far away from the man while the others do the killing; so be it. He took my air, but my soul remains intact.”


. . . .

Crys came back to her senses to the sound of shredding fabrics. Much like when she dropped the liquor bottle, she had stepped out of her mind and was now returning to find that her body had moved without her; Screaming and groaning, one of her blades now at hand, she was shredding through something that felt like a thick item of clothing, furiously as if it had committed the highest level of offense. From that she found pillows, sheets, curtains, and anything else she could easily sink the blade into, tearing it all to shreds. Unleashing a hell that had been kept inside for way too long, the outside feelings clung to her own and mixed into a sickening rage that clawed on her insides, screamed to be let out and the more she complied the more it roared.

. . . .

“Breathe, Crystal…

“Now listen to me: You can survive this, all you have to do is fight.”

“Don’t fight it. It’ll all be over soon.”

“I think you would have done us all a huge favor if you had just decided to stay dead.

“You… Psychotic… Bitch.”

. . . .

Crys groaned, in pain, as she felt her face against the floor. She didn’t recall drinking all that much, even if she had she wasn’t alone at the time, so… Why was she on the ground? Painfully trying to move, she pressed her palms against the floor to try and push her body up, but let out a whimper and a curse under her breath as her right shoulder gave out under her weight. It was aching before, but now it seemed like it was a little bit dislocated. How did she hurt herself this way? Heaving a sigh, she rolled to her left, over her good shoulder, so she could lie on her back and push herself up. She sat up at first, trying to remember what had happened, when she rested her hand on the floor and felt a broken piece of wood next to her, the memories came back slowly; starting with what she recognized as Grim Pondus’ voice screaming, and after that, only moments of things being attacked and destroyed by her hands, feet, blades, and whatever else she could use. “Shit, what have I done?” She muttered, jumping to her feet and immediately tripping over what was once a piece of a desk. Slowly and carefully, Crys paced around the room to find that she had destroyed Mageria’s room almost completely: Chairs had been shattered and tossed on the fireplace, sheets pillows drapes, had been slashed… Reaching for the right side of her belt she missed one of Sai. Carefully searching for the weapon she found it jammed into the headboard of the bed. After pulling it out with her left hand, being careful not to add any more strain on her wounded shoulder, Crys sat down on the shredded bed, only to have collapse under her weight. “Perfect… Just… Perfect!” She muttered out, bringing her knees closer to herself and hugging them as tightly as she could; the shoulder wasn’t the only part of her body aching, she felt like she had repeatedly slammed herself against a wall, which she probably did, and she had cuts on her hands and arms. As she pointed that out to herself, she vaguely remembered using what she could only imagine was Mageria’s helm to smash the windows, she had dropped the helm; hopefully it didn’t hit anyone below…

Reaching for her face she checked herself for nicks and scratches and as her fingers felt near her left eye she noticed that there was a shard of glass lodged in its socket. “Beautiful… I’ll need help with getting this out.” She groaned. “What else?” She mumbled, standing up and patting herself with her left hand to make sure she had all of her belongings with her, she froze suddenly when she discovered that her flute wasn’t where it should be. “No. No, no, no, no…” She ran her fingers through her hair, trying to remember pulling it out of its casing. “Twins help me, no!” She whined, remembering that she had taken it out in effort to control herself, but had failed to do so… The wooden flute she loved so dearly had been carelessly tossed aside into the lit fireplace.

Crys’ left eyes stung as she began to tear up over the loss of the instrument, it had seen her through so much, it was almost like losing a piece of herself. She didn’t actually cry over it, however, she took a deep breath and concentrated through the anger and shame she felt for losing control and pinpointed the people she knew in the Castle… Both Mageria and Grim were alive, the man was no longer under the effect of his enlightenment obviously. The White Knight Captain was in the Castle somewhere, he didn’t seem all too happy… She couldn’t blame him… Ella… Crys frowned… Where was Ella? “The hell…?” She shook her head, wondering if maybe her senses were off after everything she had gone through. As she did so, her eye stung a bit more. “Time to find a medic…” She mumbled to herself.

“Well, this will be fun…” She stated. Beginning to make her way to the door, she stepped on something, and it rolled from underneath her foot, causing her land painfully on her backside. “Son of a bitch!” She exclaimed, searching around the floor carefully to find that the rolling object was in fact the bottle of rum she had brought; intact and capped. Crys shook the bottle and chuckled realizing there was still a bit of alcohol inside. She thought even Evin would agree if there was ever a moment to drink this was it. Standing up again, she removed the cap from the bottle with her teeth and took a good drink of it as she found the door. “Hey, Ria, guess what? I redecorated your room while you were out fighting your presumed-to-be-dead berserker friend… Hope you don’t mind.” She muttered under her breath. “Yup, this will truly be a delightful conversation.”

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

[Assassins’ Camp]

“She only thought of you.”

That strange man’s whispers seemed to echo inside Sean’s mind and he couldn’t, for the life of him, get rid of the words… Less than a day… that… Kid, had been with them for less than a full day, where had that come from? What the hell did it mean? and people who had been there longer would have spoken by now… Hell, he would have spoken by now. So what if she did speak? She didn’t know anything important. It didn’t matter either way. Sean was sworn by the laws of the clan to at least search for his recruit, and that’s what he would do now, after he found her he would think of what, if any, measures he would have to take to protect the clan from whoever had taken her.

Sean snapped out of his thoughts as he realized there was movement around him, but didn’t move or react until he heard a voice; he had been expecting this visit for a while now, since he heard of the mysterious woman who had gone speak to the Queen.

“Imagine the Wolfpack losing another leader Sean? That would be the fourth in a very short period of time. Don’t do anything stupid and then we will leave peacefully soon enough. Now you’ve never met me, so I don’t expect you to know who I am. I’d like to keep it that way. The only thing you need to know is that the Shadow’s Conflict is here for payment.”

Sean had been staring idly at the icy water, and remained that way even as his 'visitor' spoke, not moving a muscle and not at all startled by the sudden presence. He knew that this individual wasn't alone, but he really didn't care about that. "Death is the worse you have to offer me as a threat, friend? I sincerely doubt the Pack will mourn me when they can easily run back to Crystal." At this point he raised his eyes to the man and added. "I am expecting a messenger to return and I will be leaving the moment he does, whether you're done talking or not, so if you are here to name your price, do it quickly. Until someone does kill me, I still have more important things to do."

Vorso smirked. Sean seemed so sure that he knew about everything that was happening. He thought that he could read the minds of the Shadows Conflict, like he knew what they wanted. "How what the Conflict's best interests are? Maybe it is in our best interests to have Crystal come back to the Wolfpack. Doesn't it seem coincidental that Crystal is still living, that we didn't go straight for the vital part of her body where you would still get a chance to talk to her, but she would still die moments after? Doesn't it also seem odd that the Crimson Shadows walked right into her body and saved her?"
He walked down the slightly sloped ground towards the lake and Sean at the bottom. "You know that there is a part of the abdomen just below the stomach that can leave a wound which is several times more survivable than just a few centimeters above or below it? Funny that she was stabbed there. She still could have bleed out, but what makes it even more funny is that, again, those Crimson fools were just an hour away from her body when everything went down. So you can try to stop me with silly threats about Crystal."
He picked a rock up off the ground and through it into the icy water breaking a small hole in it. "Now, how bout a leader for a leader? Ella Page."

Sean ignored most of what the man said... None of it mattered now either way. "I was simply stating facts and I know my anatomy, thank you very much." He stated coldly. "I hardly care enough to threaten you people." When the man spoke the name of his target Sean frowned slightly. "Little Ella?" He asked, not really noticing how he had just addressed the Queen of Newhaven. Truth of the matter was, the image Sean had of her was still of the silly little recruit who had followed him to Blackpond to seal the deal that started this whole mess. He never had a thing against her then, neither did he have something against her now. He proceeded to chuckle softly. "She's not enough of a leader to be traded for Crys, but if that's what you want... "I will stab her and leave her an hour away from someone who can help." He smiled. "It's only fair."

He then dipped his hand in the icy water, breaking through a thin layer of ice as he spoke. "I know one of your people was in Newhaven recently... Were you there to ask them for my head, or did you have something else in mind for them?" Sean asked. "I'm pretty sure you people don't really need my help to kill anyone. So there must be something in it for you to have one of my assassins take down a city ruler, yet again, because there’s certainly nothing in it for us. Say, mate... What other threats can you offer me aside from Death, should I refuse to do this?"

There was silence for a few moments while Vorso thought about where he could move the conversation from there. Typically he liked to lead conversations and was interested when Sean tried to gain the edge and dictate the direction for him. "I've heard of a man named Evin who has killed several of your Second in Commands... word gets around." He nudged Sean's shoulder and laughed. "Wouldn't it be fun if he could join forces with us to take down the Wolfpack? I don't know your position with Newhaven and their Black Knights right now, but we could also join forces with them if necessary. The Wolfpack could be buried in a moment. Who knows, Crystal might even want to join in on the fun! So you could accept the offer or the entire Wolfpack could be at risk. Men, women and Children."

"Life is a gamble, isn't it mate? Nothing lasts forever." He replied simply. "Let's look at those odds, then, just for the hell of it: Evin might actually be stupid, or spiteful, enough... I give you that. The Black Knights, as they are or what's left of them now, would not go for the women and children bit, maybe if Newhaven starts them again from scratch, but to rebuild what they are probably destroying as we speak will take at least a few years, and Crystal? Forget it. She would never hurt the precious clan. Not even now after all this time." Sean sighed, removing his hand from the ice and rubbing it against his face. "Assuming the White Knights would be stupid to put their armies into this, which I doubt, you'd have them. Fine, I give you that. You'd have Newhaven and Evin... Yes, that might be quite easy for you. Which still begs the question: If you can wipe my entire clan so easily, what do you need me for? Why is it that the Wolfpack killing Ella seems far more important than he death in itself?" He glanced towards the man and chuckled again. "See, what you're doing is asking me to choose between the possibility of Newhaven coming after us, with your people and Evin, and the certainty that they will come for us if word gets around that we assassinated their Queen. It seems to me I'm screwed either way, and if that's the case... Why do it your way? That's the answer I'm looking for here, understand?"

"You could do it your own way and we can kill the Queen ourselves yes, but we did have a deal Sean. We put our asses on the line to try to kill the leader of the Wolfpack and would have succeeded if we didn't think that you, being as arrogant as you are would have wanted her alive long enough to talk to-- Sorry for making the assumption. Sadly, you decided not to finish the job anyways." Vorso finally moved in front of Sean and wiped away a fake tear mockingly. He then sat in front of Sean with his legs crossed like a kid. "So there are assassins that I can assure you have a target on our backs because you couldn't finish the job. We only expect you to do just as much for us, Sean. A leader for a leader."

Sean stared at the assassin with an annoyed expression... It was hardly a fair trade the way he saw it, but he did give his word after all. "Fine... I'll take care of it." He stated. "A dead is a deal."
As he said that a Wolf entered the clearing, a young boy who still wasn't very sure of himself, his hands a little shaky as he wondered if he was interrupting something important. Sean didn't bother to wait for the boy to stammer out words, he didn't want the outsider to hear anything anyway. "Do you have what I need?"
"Yes, but..." The young man tried to reply, but went silent at one gesture of his leader.
"Wait for me there." Sean ordered him.

The boy left in hurry, not wanting to be in the presence of that strange visitor anymore, and not wanting to know what his business was with the Alpha. Sean stood up immediately and picked up a travel bag that had been absently lying in the dirt next to him. "Like i said, I have my own affairs to tend to. I only need to know how much time I have to get this done."

Vorso opened his mouth to answer the question, but from out of the forest, one of his assassins spoke over him. "What don't you want us to know Sean?" Bevel, the final assassin in Vorso's group walked up to the two having the conversation.
Vorso didn't even give Sean a chance to come back with a witty remark. Vorso's eyes blinked a shiny neon green. He uncrossed his legs and kicked Bevel's leg out a little further, only just barely making Bevel sway off balance. Before Bevel got a chance to get his footing again, Vorso kicked his leg again, forcing Bevel's legs to cross and begin to tip over. Vorso grabbed the falling legs and spun the poor Bevel, forcing him to hit the ground hard on the stomach. With Bevel's crossed legs still being held by the ankles, Vorso stood up and placed his foot gently on the boy's crotch.
"Now B, you know not to ask questions where they shouldn't be asked. Respect that the Alpha of the Wolfpack needs to keep secrets, even from us." He pressed a little harder on Bevel's crotch and then let him go. Bevel scrambled back to his position and kept quite.
"Sorry about that. Now I'll give you as much time as you need. I don't expect an assassination attempt should take any longer to plan than a week, but we won’t come after you if you need the time. When you are ready, please contact the king and he'll inform you. Bringing a weak assassin as a messenger would be a bad idea. There are people in that castle who would kill the assassin for no reason at all. Maybe bring a few assassins. I'll let you get to work now. Hope that recruit doesn't give you too much trouble."
It only took seconds for them to get out of Sean's sight completely and another minute or so to get out of the camp completely unseen. When they were a far enough distance away, they slowed down to a walk. Bevel walked beside Vorso who was leading the group. "Do you think he believed it?" Bevel asked.
"I don't see why he wouldn't." He flashed his eyes the neon green again and laughed. They continued on their way to Blackpond.

Sean waited for the assassins to leave before he threw the travel bag over his shoulders and moved through the path that led to the little stables the assassins kept. There were no horses usually kept there, they were for visitors to use, or once they used to be. This time, however, there should be a couple of horses there. Sean had to call in a favor he’d much rather not have to collect, but desperate times called for things like this. As he reached the stables however, he immediately realized what the poor messenger was trying to tell him. He hadn’t brought only the horses, but their owner as well. Sean sighed heavily, why didn’t he know this would happen? Looking up at the woman absently mounted on a horse of a light golden color, he shook his head in annoyance. “Are you crazy to come here, Princess?”
Indrani chuckled. “You said you needed my fastest horses, and it was life or death. Well, you can’t expect me to give up my babies to some random Puppy you send to my doorstep.” She shook her head mockingly. “No, no, no… Alpha; it just doesn’t work that way with me. Where the horses go, I go.”
Sean scratched the back of his head and sighed, examining Indrani with his eyes from head to toe. “For this, it might be good to have you anyway… Could have gotten yourself an extra horse if I asked for two.”
“Do you think they grow in trees, Sean?” She raised an eyebrow. “Even if they did they’re rather scarce in the desert, you know?”
“Where’s Mirage?” He asked, noticing that Indrani’s mare was not one of the horses she brought.
“Dastan borrowed her, he went to the plains.” She said, quickly cutting Sean off before he could speak. “If you really need my help: Don’t dare ask me any questions.”
“Fine.” He muttered, turning to the messenger. “Go get Donovan, tell him we’re ready to leave.”
“Doni, huh?” Which one of the handsome Fletcher boys is riding with me, then?” She asked, giving Sean a little wink.
“I’m riding with you.” He said, approaching the horse. “What are their names?”
“Well, this is Sandy, the brown one is Rocky.” She replied, nodding towards the dark brown horse beside hers.
“Sandy and… Rocky?” Sean asked, holding back laughter. “Really?”
“Shut up, Dastan named them. He was trying to be funny.” She answered, rolling her eyes in annoyance. “What are we doing, exactly?”
“We’re on a search and rescue mission, Princess: Ari.” He stated, as Donovan arrived, looking from Indrani to Sean in confusion. Sean simply nodded as if to tell him not to ask. “Take the brown horse.” He ordered simply.
Donovan nodded in agreement and mounted, still looking confused, as Indrani shook her head at Sean, not understanding what he had just told her. “What… What are you talking about? Ari? Why?” She mumbled, honestly shocked.

Sean mounted the golden horse behind her and whispered to her. “You gave her the safe word, are you saying you didn’t send her here?”
“No! I gave her the safe word in case she got in trouble… Are you actually telling me that you took her in as a recruit?” She asked, making the horse move slowly through one of the paths that went around the encampment and not through it.
“Yes.” He said, with a light shrug. “The kid is talented, she just doesn’t seem to know the meaning of ‘team work’ quite yet. Ran ahead of her group, got caught by some people who probably have a grudge against us… So, we’re going to Newhaven to find her.” He explained.
“I know she’s talented, I wanted her to stay with us, but she couldn’t trust Dastan.” Indrani said, shrugging lightly. “I hope you are treating her fair, I would hate to have to kick your ass on her behalf.”
Sean chuckled. “I’ll treat her fair when she becomes good enough to kick my ass herself. That’s how it works around here.” He told her. “Should I remind you?”
“You’re the Alpha.” Indrani replied simply.
“Yes I am, Commander, and don’t you dare forget it.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher

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Sean dismounted the moment Indrani led them past the city gates. “You go stable the horses and meet me at the Inn.” He told her. “Doni…” He gave his brother a signal that told him to patrol the rooftops.
“What am I looking for?” Donovan asked.
“Trust me: You’ll know it when you see it. If those guys are anything like their leader they just scream ‘creepy’ wherever they go.”
Donovan chuckled as he dismounted and handed Indrani the reigns of his borrowed horse with a bow of his head and a smile, blushing slightly as his hand brushed against hers. After the boy wandered off she smiled at Sean. “Your brother is adorable. So much like you at his age.”
Sean ignored the comment completely and simply began to walk. “I’ll be at the Inn, just meet me there, alright? And watch yourself.”
“I always do, Alpha.” She chuckled as she rode away in the direction of her favorite stable.

It was raining and freezing cold, pulling the heavy cloak he was wearing closer to his body, the Alpha couldn’t help thinking about how much he’d rather be home with a hot cup of tea right now. Sean always disliked leaving the forest for more than the duration of an assassination, which of course could mean minutes or weeks, but as soon as he completed the job he was headed home. He was much like Dani in that sense; she never really liked wandering the crowded city streets, if she was ever seen in one of the clan Inns it was as a kid, a very long time ago, but rarely even then. Sean was pretty much the same.

He stopped for a moment before entering, looking up and down the street with the corner of his eyes, taking notice of Doni in the frozen rooftops… He’d have to graduate that kid when they got home and his suspension was over. Didn’t matter how stupid he had been, Don had really become a gifted assassin, and the fact that he managed to even take a shot at Crys proved it.

Finally Sean opened the door of the establishment and immediately every Wolf in the common room rose from their seat in surprise. Sean paid them no mind; he simply removed his cloak and hung it in a coat rack behind the bar, running a hand through his hair repeatedly to get rid of the excess of water that had managed to get past the thick fabric of the hood. As he did that, Sheila walked a straight line to him, smiling wide at. “Sean, love!” She exclaimed, rather loudly. “To what do we owe the honor?”

Sean smirked slightly. He knew Sheila didn’t really like him in one bit, but the fact that she could be that pleasant to anyone and still be believable is what made her so damn good at her job. Not to mention she was pretty to look at, and he didn’t mind pretending to believe her false flattering. “My business is my business...” He stated, smiling back at the woman, looking around as he did so. His eyes caught sight of Ari and internally he felt a wave of relief, but the look he gave her was the most severe he could manage, making sure that she saw him before he turned his attention to Sheila again and heaved a small sigh. “I got myself a recruit, now and… Man, what a headache.”
Sheila chuckled. “The kid’s giving you trouble, I see.”
“I doubt I’ve seen the last of it.” He replied, reaching for the woman’s face and gently touching the bruised area. “Whatever happened here?” He asked, a slight frown crossing his features. “Is there someone out there who we should have pay for this?”
Sheila smiled a slightly more honest smile this time. “You’re so protective, sweetie…” She said in her sweetest tone. “I can fend for myself however, and this is a rather personal one for me.” She moved closer and hugged him gently as she said. “I appreciate the concern though.”

That hug lasted a very long time, much longer than a normal one would, while Sheila whispered things in Sean’s ear; things she was smart enough not to say out loud even amongst other wolves. To anyone watching the two, however, it would seem as the woman was being overly affectionate with her leader and the gesture was being very much appreciated. As Sheila pulled away slowly she let her hand slide from the back of his neck all the way down his chest, playfully as she asked. “And what can I do for you in this cold dark evening, love?”

Sean laughed, but he couldn't help a slight chill down his spine at woman’s gesture. “I’ll just have a cup of hot tea and my key for now.” He smiled. “But who knows? It is a cold night.” He stated, walking past everyone in the bar and taking a seat next to a hooded woman on the furthest end. He didn’t look at the woman as he spoke in a half-annoyed tone. “If you want the best room in my establishment, you’ll have to share it with me… And pay for it. We pay our taxes to your city and that’s about as much as you’ll ever scam out of us, Your Highness." He spoke the last two words in less than a whisper. Perhaps Ella didn’t know, or didn’t care to know, how dangerous it was to announce the fact that she was the Queen in a place like this. “And don’t think we’re speaking now on account of any stupid threat you made, because you have no authority in here. This is my territory and if my recruiter had actually taken your little bitchy remarks about execution seriously you would have had your throat slit faster that you could even think of the words ‘oh, fuck!’.” He whispered, making a pause when Sheila brought him his tea, taking a small sip from it as he spoke in a calmer tone. “Now… State your business if you will… I am not here at Your Highness’ request and I have far more important business on my schedule.”

At this point the door of the Inn opened once again and a young woman walked in, her golden eyes sparkling slightly in the poor lit room as she opened a wide smile. “Lovely weather, isn’t it?” She stated as several eyes turned in her direction. Some people seemed annoyed by the total lack of sarcasm in her tone as she said that. They were probably mentally cursing the Twins for their rain, but of course most people didn’t know how to appreciate the gifts they were given in Life. They only knew how to whine about it. Indrani was never one to whine about lack of water, so she didn’t see why those people should whine about the excess of it.

She shook her head thinking that most of them wouldn’t last an hour in the desert, even less in the mountains… City folk would be city folk and nothing more. “Mead.” She stated simply as she reached the counter, she didn’t sit just yet, her eyes catching sight of Sean as she stopped by Ari, playfully poking her as she greeted. “Hello stranger! Long time no see. You know, that little assassin camp is turned upside down because of you… it’s quite an amusing thing to see.” She remarked, leaning against the counter and shooting a very discrete glance at Sean, wondering what could have possibly distracted him from scolding his recruit, before turning to the people Ari had been conversing with before she arrived. “Who are your friends?” She asked, giving a thankful nod and paying with a shiny gold piece as Sheila brought her drink.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher

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Sean listened to Ella with a raised eyebrow, honestly amused by her attitude in showing him the ring. "Assassins don't make threats, indeed." He replied. "You are not one though. No assassin would wander into a neutral zone and make promises of this sort, Lady Ella. Because actual assassins are smart enough to see the consequences of taking such stupid measures. Even your precious Instructor." Sean's tone, unlike Ella's, was absolutely calm and centered. "You are nothing but a stuck-up noble with an identity crisis... What Dani ever saw in you, I'll never understand." He said, shaking his head slightly. "Of course, if you actually plan on fulfilling such promises, I'm afraid letting you leave this room alive would be a stupidity I don't plan on committing. I've learned from my mistakes, believe it or not. So, unless you think you can execute every Pack member in the building, and trust me there are a lot more than just the ones in this room, all by yourself... You should keep your promises well shoved in the tight spot you're pulling them from. And if you insult my worker one more time, I'll see to it that you no longer have a tongue... Your Highness. That'll surely make it difficult to order your little slaves around the Castle, now won't it?" As he said all that, Sean's tone was still calm and filled with disdain. It would actually be useful to him if Ella would just snap and attack him right there in front of witnesses. It would be the perfect way to keep his word to the Shadow's Conflict and get away with it. There were enough civilians there to make it impossible to deny self-defense, even if it was the Queen. A part of him, however, wished that she didn't... It had nothing to do with the little stuck-up bitch, but Sean didn't like the thought of doing what those people wanted. Something in the back of his mind told him that there was a trap of some sort behind that request of theirs, even if he couldn't see it. As Sheila came to bring Ella her drink, she slipped the key Sean had requested into the front pocket of his shirt, she squeezed his shoulder in a supportive gesture before leaving them and he couldn't help but smile at that. He took another sip of his tea while Ella compared him to Rick and called him a pathetic shit. He could care less what she thought of him, and he just let his hand rest over the book as he pulled it towards himself, sliding it across the wooden surface. He didn't know what that was, not without opening it, and he wouldn't do it at the Inn. It took a moment for him to speak again as he looked around the place, he gave Indrani a very meaningful look and nodded towards Ari, before looking back to Ella. "I owe Blackpond a hit, Highness, care to know who they want dead?" He asked. "Now I care as much for you as you care for me, but I don't like the idea of getting the Wolfpack involved in killing another city ruler, even if I personally think we'd be doing Newhaven a favor." He drank a little more of his tea and heaved a sigh. "I will consider this, whatever this is, an act of good will, despite your manners, and offer one of my own. I can't go back on my word, but I will be here until noon tomorrow. If your White Knight Captain has an interest in stopping the order I received from being spread to every assassin in Valcrest, he can come to me, quietly, for a conversation." Sean gave a light shrug emptying his cup. "That offer expires at noon tomorrow, after that there's no turning back." With that said, Sean stood, finally taking the book from the table top. "I have other matters to attend, so unless you would like to attempt keeping your promises, or insult me some more... We're done here."

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Indrani took a sip of her drink, her eyes going through every patron, carefully. Most of them were wolves, some she'd seen before, others were more discrete, but the graduation rings gave them away. Her eyes fixed on the man Ari had introduced as Stephan, she watched him carefully before moving onto the the stranger who Ari said she had just met. The man dressed fancy, but his posture was that of someone who was used to places such as this, even if not this one in particular, and he seemed as if expecting something to happen, even if most of his attention was on his food. His eye gave away that he was enlightened, and she noticed him fiddling with something in his hand... "Hum..." She mumbled to herself, feeling a little unnerved by the man, but turning her attention to Ari and always keeping one eye in Sean's direction. "Oh, I wouldn't worry so much about that. You ran ahead of your group, yes, but you were taken, it's not like you ran off to Newhaven by yourself. It shouldn't be that serious, probably a scolding for wasting the clan's time and resources and endangering other assassins... Who's your instructor?" She asked absently. "And I rode here, silly. The Alpha needed horses." She said, rolling her eyes in annoyance. "And the idiot thought I was going to put two of my horses under his care, no sir." She stated, taking another drink. "I don't understand though. He seemed in a hurry to take you back to camp, I don't know why he's stopping to chat..." She mumbled. Watching Sean's face he didn't seem to enjoy the company of the woman he was conversing with, and then she saw something she wasn't expecting: A sign. Sean looked at her and nodded discretely towards Ari. As she saw that, Indrani turned towards Sheila and grabbed her arm as she was passing through. "Did Sean get a key from you?"
Sheila slowly released her arm from Indrani's grip as she looked at her a little startled. "Yes, he did."
Indrani heaved a sigh and muttered "Bloody idiot!" under her breath, before turning to Ari and her friend. "I don't know what Sean is doing, but he wants you out of here, and apparently he's not coming." With that said, she emptied her glass. "When you're in the Wolfpack Inn, and the Alpha wants you to leave, is best to follow his advice." She stated calmly, looking around to see if she spotted something that Sean might have seen.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher

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Donovan had stayed in one of the rooftops until the moment Sean had entered the Inn. He watched his brother through the window and saw him repeatedly run his fingers through his hair, and Doni knew what that signal meant; prepare a quick exit. So the boy came down from the roof, almost sliding down and smashing his head on the frozen ground, but managing to hang on last minute and landing clumsily on his feet. He retrieved Indrani's horses from the stables and rode his way out of the city wall, to where there was the exit of a small sewer passage. And there he waited, trying to ignore the stench.

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

Sean didn’t bother giving Ella any more words, he stood quietly where he was as she turned to leave, seemingly unfazed by the commotion of people fighting. “Watch your step on the way home, Kid.” He said, raising his voice only slightly. It might have seemed as if he was threatening Ella as he glared at the back of her head, looking quite upset, but the comment was in no way directed at her. He waited patiently for her to leave before nodding at Sheila. The woman pulled a whistle from her pocket and at the sound of it about fifteen assassins came down from the upper levels. Sean gave them a sign of hand, nothing more and they immediately attacked the invading group without mercy, pushing the fight towards the exit of the Inn.

Indrani listened to Sean’s words and immediately understood that the tunnel to the sewers contained a few traps. “Really, Alpha?” She chuckled when more Wolves were called down to help. “You can’t handle these guys without help? I’m so disappointed in you.” She had pulled two curved daggers into her hands, but she only bothered to move the moment she spotted a hunter manage to get past the Wolves towards the bar, she then got in the man’s way, slashing at his face with one of her blades. She would’ve thought he didn’t notice her except he easily dodged the hit and quickly countered. She struggled to block the hit, the guy was a little faster than she would expect for someone his size, a little faster than she thought would be normal; in fact, a little too fast.

Sean chuckled at Indrani’s comment, but his expression was serious. He had pulled both his axes and was holding them behind his back, scanning the bar. Amongst the fighting Wolves and Hunters a few civilian patrons were hiding under the tables, way too afraid to try and reach the exit, movement was difficult due to the increased number of armed people waving swords and daggers around, and someone could easily get a limb sliced off be walking in the middle of that mess. His eyes finally caught everyone, something in his instinct told him Ari would be safe with that guy she was with, even though he didn’t know who he was, and getting out wasn’t really in Sean’s plans, so he figured he’d give Indrani a hand as he caught her struggling to fight off a man who seemed to be way faster than a normal fighter should be.

The man was obviously enlightened. There was no way anyone could ever be that fast otherwise. Indrani seemed so caught up in trying not to get her head sliced off by the man’s blades that she didn’t even see where Sean had come from. Next thing she knew the guy was fighting both of them without the least of difficulty. “Where’s that ridiculous contraption of a weapon you so love to use?” Sean asked, ducking under one of the man’s swords and attempting to hit the back of his neck, finding nothing but air as he had already moved.
“Not very practical for a bar fight, love.” Indrani replied. She chuckled despite almost having a blade slash her face. Sean took notice of that, and the fact that the man was way too fast. No matter how fast, in what way, or where, they tried to hit; their blades met nothing but metal or air and this was heading nowhere. He could do this all day, but not Indrani; he needed her out.

“Hey, Princess… Take it as payment for the horses.” Indrani heard Sean say. She didn’t understand what he meant at first, but a split second later it became clear when the Hunter turned to stab him and the idiot dropped his weapons instead of trying to stop him. It was useful. As the blade went through his abdomen Sean managed to grip the man’s arm with all his might to stop him from pulling out the sword. In that moment, the man put all his attention on Sean and as he raised his second sword, pointing it downwards to run it through his chest, Indrani caught his arm a split seconf before the blade broke through Sean’s skin, with one quick motion she ran one of her daggers across his throat, slitting it open and killing him instantly. “You dumb bastard!” She exclaimed, as Sean fell to his knees, still holding on to the sword.
“Just go already.” He muttered out. “Doni is… Waiting outside...”

Sean fell to the ground along with the Hunter, trying to breathe through the pain of the stab. It wasn’t such a bad spot, if he got medical attention soon he’d live… “Hey, Sean.” Indrani called. He looked up to see her walking away. “There were two horses, so you still owe me for one.”
Sean choked a bit in laughter. “You… Mercenary bitch…” He blacked out to the sound of her chuckles.

Indrani had lost Ari and Stephan and wasn’t sure if they had made it down, but the way things were going there was little time to think and she had to assume they had, or would. As she passed Sheila behind the counter she shot the woman a glance, knowing what her real feelings were towards Sean she stated casually. “If you even think about letting him die I’ll come back and murder you. Have a nice evening.”

The setting changes from newhaven to The Desert

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar

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There was nothing that could have prepared Indrani for what she was about to see when she reached the desert. Buildings had crumbled, blood stained the sand and the stone walls of Brightvale, fire burned the dismantled tents of the small assassin camp. And there were dead bodies… Everywhere.

As she rode into the encampment Jackson came running to great her with a small bow of head, and the detailed account of everything that happened from the moment the sun went down until she arrived. He then apologized for not having done a better job of defending the clan. She couldn’t help but feel pain at those words; it wasn’t the man’s job to defend the clan, it was hers. She had no words to give him however, and so she simply nodded and kept moving in the direction of her tent. Once she reached the limits of camp, she dismounted and relieved the horses of their saddles before walking back. Every step she took closer to the encampment, more and more reality began to sink in, and Indrani couldn’t believe how stupid she had been. The Sun would rise in only a few hours, Jackson told her that Dastan was still unconscious from pushing himself too far, someone would have to light the pyre by morning.

Some time was spent speaking to those who fought and visiting the wounded. Indrani found all of the assassins accounted for and alive, except for Evin and Crystal who were both away from the encampment. The little group was somewhat gathered around an unconscious Allison and a few other injured in the Fire Temple, cursing Sean under their breaths and making plans for what to do with the Alpha when they finally managed to get their hands on him. Dastan was also there, watched closely by a few of their men as he slept through the effects of his gift, unharmed aside from a few scrapes and bruises. She sighed a bit in relief; knowing that her friends were safe was a small comfort. It wouldn’t last for long, because Dastan would wake up eventually, and she was sure he wouldn’t forgive her absence, or her disloyalty, so easily. She wasn’t sure she would ever forgive herself either, so she wouldn’t blame him.

Slowly, Indrani made her way to where the corpses were being kept and relieved the guards that were keeping watch, perching herself up on top of a boulder where she could keep her eyes on them, she stayed; waiting for the Sun to rise.

[Flashback – Crimson Shadows encampment, about 8 years ago]

“Could you stop for a moment, Indrani?” Dastan’s voice sounded faintly in the background. “Indi, stop.”
“Don’t call me that.” She stated, turning away from the training dummy she had been slashing at with her scythe and sinking the lower blade of the weapon into the sand as she faced him. “I hate it, and you know.”
“Well, I needed your attention, somehow.” He said, with a little grin. “Are you sure you’re alright, kiddo? You… Need to talk?”
“I have nothing to say.” She muttered, turning back to face the training dummy, but flinching to see her own shadow standing in its place. “Dastan, what are you doing?”
“I’m upping the challenge a bit. It’s too easy to hit something that can’t fight back.” He replied. “You’re better than that.”
“Am I?” She asked. “Did you talk to him, before he died?”
“I didn’t get the chance, but you know that he… You know…”
“I know exactly what my father thought of me, Dastan.” She sighed, staring blankly at the shadows with a disgusted expression on her face. “I just wish I’d had the courage to make him say it to my face.”
“Say what?” He asked, walking around to stand behind the shadow. “What do you think he would say?”

Indrani lowered her head and chuckled before pulling her scythe from the ground and slashing at the shadow violently as she replied. “Weak! You’re weak! Always was, always will be! There is no way you can defend this clan on your own! Pathetic little girl! You’ll never be the warrior I wanted!” As she attacked, her shadow-copy mimicked her every move with its own scythe, making a hit close to impossible, but Indrani was way too angry to really care; she could barely see what she was hitting. She also seemed to have forgotten Dastan, as he suddenly took control of the shadow and made it duck under her blade and slash upwards towards her face. She pulled back quickly and fell back on the sand, immediately jumping back to her feet and attacking with more caution this time, eyes widening as Dastan’s own shadow joined the attack from her other side and she found herself trapped in between the two shadows, struggling to defend herself from the attacks, until she managed to get herself on the other side of Dastan’s shadow, putting it between herself and her shadow-copy and making it the center of the attacks. It wasn’t long until she had Jon pinned down by the blades of two scythes; a triumphant grin spread unconsciously spread across her face. “What’re… You… Trying to do… Kill me?” She asked, almost breathless from her exhaustion.

“I’m showing you...” Dastan said, looking up from where he had sat down on the sand. “…In case you don’t believe me when I say, that you are anything but a weak little girl, sis. You may not be the warrior your father wanted for a child, but you are a Commander; not because someone says you are, but because you worked your way into becoming one. I would put this entire clan on your hands without as much as a flinch, today if it was necessary, and you would do just fine.”
“It takes more than just being a good fighter.” She argued.
“It takes more than just being a man and being alive.” Dastan retorted. “However, those are the only two things that have put me in leadership. Don’t think for a second I would be anyone’s first choice.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “We’re the only ones left, see? We’re survivors, you and I.”
She sighed, sitting next to him in the warm sand and leaning her head on his shoulder. “We’re not doing the whole marriage thing, right?” She asked. “…Because that’d be weird.”
“No, of course not…” He answered, handing her a water pouch and putting one arm comfortingly around her shoulders. “You don’t ever have to marry anyone if you don’t want to… In fact, you shouldn’t marry anyone, ever.”
Indrani choked on the water a bit, coughing it up in laughter at those words. “Oh, but who will take care of me then?”
“Don’t be stupid… I’ll always take care of you!” Dastan laughed. “Listen: Even if we both do get married, even after we have kids, and grandkids, and we’re both in our seventies, if we happen to live that far… You’ll always be my little sister. And no matter how much you are loved by others in your lifetime, I will always, always, love you more. Understand? Even if I die tomorrow, I will take care of you, and that’s a promise.”


As the first rays of sunlight swept across the land, the Crimson began to gather around the newly built pyre. As Indrani held the torch and said a prayer for their fallen brothers and sisters it felt like a dagger was slowly tearing through her heart. She could feel Dastan was standing right beside her, but she couldn’t bear to try and look at him. She could barely hear herself pray that the fires and the winds would carry their fallen safely to the Afterlife; even the sound of her own voice was too distant, drowned out by the pain of guilt. It was a sickening thing for her to stand there and speak for their dead when she was the one suppose to protect them, or at least be there to fight beside them. She had failed them, and in a way, maybe two, she had betrayed them. She couldn’t believe how stupid she had been to think Sean wouldn't use her this way. She hated herself for how much she trusted him; for how badly she still wanted to believe it wasn’t true, despite the fact that it was clear.

[Flashback – Forest, about 5 years ago]

Birds startled and flew away as the sound of laughter filled the small clearing. “You did not do that!” Indrani chuckled. “And what did he do?”
“He shouted until someone rescued him. I was suspended, but I really don’t care, it felt good!” Sean laughed looking down from a tree branch he was perched on, quietly fiddling with an unstrung bow. “Damn it, Princess… What did you do with my beautiful handy work?”
“I ran out of arrows, had to improvise.” She shrugged.
“It’s not a fighting stick!” He scolded, laughing a bit still. “Twins have mercy, if my father heard you say that…”
“Your father didn’t craft it, did he now?” She said, leaning against the trunk of the tree. “Does he even know you do?”
“No, he doesn’t even know I can shoot. I don’t plan on telling him either… Like it would matter.” He muttered. “I know what he thinks, what they all think… They think they hide it well, but I know.” He sighed. “Dani is the only one who seems to take me seriously. If it weren’t for her, I swear, I’d show them all.”
Indrani heaved a sigh. “I know what you mean. I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for Dastan I’d get no respect at all.”
“That’s ridiculous… You’re twice the leader he is, why wouldn’t they respect you?”
“I’m a woman Sean, that’s how it is in my clan. Suppose you don’t see it, you’ve had female leaders in your clan since… Forever?” She asked a little unsure.
“Actually, it’s not a law or anything, but it’s usually a woman and a man. Which is Alpha and which is Second has changed throughout generations, but it has usually been so. Supposedly one is to represent Heart and the other one Mind, to maintain balance in leadership.” Sean replied, still absently fiddling with the bow. “You’re right though, I don’t see it. Not because of how I was brought up, but because of how badly you beat me the one time I underestimated you. Why don’t you just do the same with them? Show them you’re not just a ‘Princess’, and do so in a way you’re sure they’ll understand.”
“You really think they’ll respect me if I do that?” She asked, looking up at him with a little bit of doubt. “Those guys need to feel safe putting their live on my hands. They won’t follow a weak leadership.”
“Well…” Sean started, dropping down from the tree, with a soft ‘thud’. “That is one thing you’re not. I don’t see why they shouldn’t put their lives on your hands.” He stated, taking a folded bow string from his pocket and beginning to string the bow. “I would.”
“You would?”
“Of course I would. I just wouldn’t lend you my bow.” He chuckled. “Here… Try not to ruin it, please.” He told her, returning the bow he had been working on.
Indrani took the bow with a rather big smile on her face, strapping it to her back carefully before lunging forward and giving Sean one unnecessarily tight hug. “Thanks, Sean. You are just the sweetest!”
Sean winced a bit, but chuckled.”Alright, alright… Quit being such a girl, gee…”
Indrani responded by giving her most girlish giggle, and ruffling his hair as she pulled away. “Cutie.”
“Stop that.” He laughed, pushing her away, playfully.
“Seriously Sean, you’re my best friend. If I’m not girly with you, then who else can I be girly with?”
Sean sighed, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. “Well, suppose I don’t have much of a choice, huh? I’m just permanently stuck with…” He faked a shudder. “A girl.”
“Damn right: Permanently. Don’t you dare forget it.” She agreed, beginning to walk her way south, still laughing to herself.


The fire had died down. Indrani wasn’t sure how that happened, but now she was on her knees, tears streaming down her face, fists full of sand… She was sobbing. Faces of people she knew and loved running through her mind; her people, her recruits… Their bodies were now scattered to the winds gone from the world forever. A shadow towered over her, caused by the figure of Dastan, who was still standing right there, waiting silently, probably seeking out the words to say. Finally, in less than a whisper his voice sounded; shaky, wounded, a tone that she never thought she’d hear from him.

“Please, please… Tell me you weren’t with him. Please, tell me there was some life or death situation that was urgent enough for you to leave the encampment, knowing that I was absent, knowing that I might not return until next day… Please tell me that this is something else other than what it looks like. Because I swear, I don’t know what I’ll do if you betrayed me. If you betrayed the clan, for that… WOLF. I don’t know what I’ll do to him, I don’t know I’ll do to you and I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if that’s true.”
Indrani cowered under Dastan’s gaze, she still hadn’t turned to face him, but she could feel his eyes on her and it burned. She found herself choking in uncontrollable sobs, unable to say a word , unable to catch a breath, everything was just so painful she was simply drowning in it. She was drowning for hours and right now; she honestly just wanted to die.
“Indrani, talk to me! Say something, you owe me that!” Dastan shouted at her.

It took a few minutes, and they seemed to last forever as the only sounds around the two were the low whistles of the winds and Indrani’s shaky breaths. Finally she managed to speak. “I… Swear… I never knew this would happen. I swear… If I had known…”
“Did you, or did you not, pass him information on Crystal’s people and their movements?” Dastan asked, the firm tone in his voice attempting to mask how painful this was, but she could still tell. Above everything, his voice was the most painful thing yet.
“I did.” She admitted. “I told him, every time Evin left camp, or Ali… And absolutely everything Crystal did, who she spoke to, how many times she played her music, how many times she talked to the others alone… I told him everything.” She took one more deep breath. “I wanted this to end. That’s all I wanted, I swear it shouldn’t have happened this way. He swore to me…”

“He swore to you? He swore?” Dastan hissed behind her back, infuriated. “How many times have I told you he lies?! How many times have we fought over this?” He let out a bitter laugh. “You never listened to me. Because I don’t know him like you do, right? Because you’re way too smart and way too proud to even consider the fact that someone can fool you!” He paused before continuing in a calmer and even more bitter note. “Or maybe I’m just too much of an idiot to ever know better than you.”
At this point Indrani stood and turned, her gaze locking on his. “Don’t you ever…”
“Don’t I ever what?” He cut her off. “Don’t I ever what, Indrani? Do you still expect me not to doubt you? Do you actually expect me to still believe you love me like I love you? Do you still expect any trust from me?”

“I never once intended to harm the clan, I did this… I was afraid. I didn’t want this war. I was wrong, but I never did anything to harm you, or the clan… I still… Love you...” She sobbed.
“You did this, because you didn’t trust my judgment, but you trusted Sean enough to let him fill your head with his bullshit. You loved him enough to leave the clan without a leader for him. And I guess I am too much of an idiot not to see this coming. See, I… I would trust you with anything and with everything, because I know you since birth and it never crossed my mind that you’d forget everything we’ve been through for someone you’ve known for less than six years.” Dastan stopped to breathe, running a hand over his eyes trying to hide his tears the best he could. “If I had gone to Newhaven, like I warned you that I might, there would be nothing left. And when Jackson told me you weren’t here, I swear… I might as well have let one of those Wolves rip my heart right out, because I would much rather die that way than live through this moment. I prayed to all the Twins that you would come back and tell me there was some acceptable explanation for why you were gone… I almost hoped you would lie even, but you wouldn’t look at me and I knew… I knew there was no excuse. There was no room for forgiveness…”
Indrani stood silently staring at the ground, her clenched fists still filled with sand, her body was shaking in rage and fear. She knew that Dastan could kill her, have her exiled, take her before the clan for judgment… She was a traitor, there was no denying it. None of it seemed as terrible to her than the fact that he might never forgive her, that he might never trust her again… She’d rather be killed right there. “I can’t go back, you’ll never know how badly I wish I could, but if my words still hold any meaning, I swear… My brother… I would never love anyone or anything above the clan, above you… I swear. I’ll rip his heart right out of his chest, right now, if it’ll prove it. I’ll do anything if it’ll make you believe me. Dastan, you’re my family, this is the only home I know… Nothing could ever matter more to me… Please…” She suddenly cut the distance between them and hugged him tight, whispering pleas for forgiveness, clinging to him as she held on for her life.

“Stop, Indrani, stop...” Dastan had been unable to hold back the tears when she held him, but he couldn’t bear to hear her pleading any longer. He couldn’t forgive. Not now, and possibly not ever. He grabbed Indrani firmly by the shoulders and pushed her away from him, releasing her and taking a couple of steps back before he spoke. “It’s too soon for me to decide on your fate. I’m too angry right now, to even…” He choked a bit on his words before pushing himself forward. “I will keep this from the rest of the clan, until I make that decision. If not for any other reason, to spare them the pain of what you’ve done. So, I suggest you take the mourning period to pull yourself together because those people love you and respect you and right until the moment I absolutely need to shatter those feelings, I want you to choke on them. Twins help you if they need you and you’re not there for them. Are we clear?”
Indrani simply nodded, still sobbing quietly, staring at her feet.
“Good.” He stated, turning his back on her and starting to walk away. From the corner of his eyes he could see her fall back to her knees, but he forced himself to keep walking. The Sun was bright and an unusually cool breeze swept across the camp, carrying away ash and sand. In all his life in the desert, Dastan could never remember it being this cold.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Allison Blake Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher

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[Desert – Sundown]

Crys reached the desert ruins as the chill of night air began to fill the air. A split second before her arrival, she was surrounded by her people and bombarded with unintelligible questions and explanations, only a piece of sentence making through the mix of voices as all fell silent. “… And Ali burned her bow.”
“She did what?” Crys asked raising an eyebrow. “Where is she?”
“She’s in the training field; been there all afternoon.” Trevor informed. “I don’t know. She’s been acting strange since the attack.”
“Who attacked?”
“Did you not hear a word we just said?” The man scolded.

After getting the whole story from Trevor about the attack from the Wolves and how Dastan had sent them running in the end, Crys went to the training field to find Ali and ask her what was happening. She found her friend mercilessly beating a training dummy with a wooden sword (by the sound of it). Crys stopped a few steps away and stood until Ali noticed her and stopped.
“Hey, our fearless leader is finally ho…me… What did you do to yourself?” Ali asked seeming intrigued. She was silent for a while before she burst into laughter. “Is that… Is that an eye patch!? Why are you wearing an eye patch!?”
Crys chuckled. “Yes, yes… I get it, it’s funny.” She mumbled. “I had a little accident, is all. A glass shard flew into my eye, and I need to leave this on for a couple of days.”
“See, that’s what happens when you pay Black Knights a visit.” Ali joked. “Nice horse, by the way. Indrani will be happy.” Ali stated, indicating the animal whose reins were helf firmly in Crys hand.
Crys nodded slightly. “Where is Indrani, by the way? She’s not in camp.”
“She’s not? Last I heard she was in her tent. I’m not sure, but… I get the feeling she and Dastan had a bit of a falling out. He’s been a little… Well… Depressed. I tried to talk to him, but he doesn’t want to see anyone. Said he needed to think.”
“Hum… I see…” Crys mumbled. “And what is this I hear about your bow?” She asked.
“It… It broke.” Ali mumbled. “It was old anyway… Doesn’t matter…”
“Are you going to finally craft one for yourself then?” Crys asked.
“I suppose I’ll have to.” She stated. “I’m not going to rely on swords to survive, I wouldn’t make it.” She chuckled.
Crys nodded, pulling the empty casing of her flute from her belt. “Lost it during my accident.” She informed.
“Huh…” Ali mumbled, taking the casing from her. “That sounds like one hell of an ‘accident’.” She smirked. “Are you going to tell me all about it?”
“Eventually.” Crys replied, shaking her head. “It’s a long story.”
“That’s two stories you owe me now.” Ali told her. “Don’t think I’ll forget.”
Crys chuckled. “Alright, alright.” She agreed. “We’ll have a talk later.”
“Later, alright. I also have a lot to tell you, starting with Lena showing up here… And moving on to other subjects…. Will be a long story too.”

Crys took a long deep breath, the cold night air now filling her lungs. “Will you take the horse to where the others are kept? I will see if Dastan will speak to me, and then we’ll talk. There are things we need to discuss, and decide. Where’s Evin, by the way?”
“I don’t know. I think you were the last to speak with him before he left, remember? I came back from the plains looking for him. He hasn’t been back since.”
“Oh… Right…” Crys mumbled, remembering that Evin had gone off after Theron. “I forgot about all that.”
“All what?” Ali asked.
Crys chuckled. “We’ll add that to my list of stories, alright. Right now, I still need to speak with Dastan.”

[Forest – Early evening]

Sean arrived in camp and was met with confusion from actives and recruits as they gathered around him to actually convince themselves their leader was alive and standing. It wasn’t until something small collided with him that he actually realized he was home.
“How did you manage to get yourself stabbed? Idiot!” Katie scolded, holding a tight grip around his waist that was almost unbearably painful.
Still Sean managed to let out a rather shaky laugh, wrapping his arms around her in a comforting gesture. “I’m fine, Katie… You can’t believe everything you hear, was just a scratch.”
“Don’t lie to me, you jerk!” She exclaimed, pushing him away, obviously upset with his behavior. “You can’t scare me like that! I thought…” She simply shook her head, unable to finish the sentence and simply walking away stomping her feet in anger.

Sean shook his head in amusement, but only for a moment. He would talk to Katie later, but right now he other things he needed to deal with; like finding out what the hell had happened while he was away. Franklin has told him of the attack on the Crimson, and that the accounts of the survivors were rather gruesome, he wanted to know what happened in that battle, but most importantly; he wanted to know who authorized it behind his back. All those thought, despite how concerning they were, did not compare to what Sean was trying not to think of; a promise he’d made, and had planned to keep, was now shattered to bits. Coincidently or not, it was to these thought that a voice sounded loud in the clearing, and the sound of it alone seemed froze Sean in place, slow down time itself, and pierce right through him more painfully than any sword could ever hope to do.

“YOU LYING, BACKSTABBING, MURDEROUS, PIECE OF HUMAN WASTE!!!”

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

[Flashback – Forest, four years ago]

“I want to march into that camp and bury this axe so deep in that murderer’s skull they’ll have to bury him with it!” Sean shouted, swinging his weapon and opening a gash on the trunk of a nearby apple tree. “And Dani next!”
“You will do no such thing, do you hear me?” Indrani protested, managing to stop Sean from getting past her and pushing him until his back hit the trunk of a tree.
“That lying, murderous, b… Bitch!” He blurted out the last word as if it he feared ever addressing the woman in such a way. “I trusted her! She was never going to make him pay, she knew it all along! Liar!”
Indrani stood, pinning her friend to the tree and just letting him shout his curses and insults until he finally couldn’t shout anymore. The rage and the pain in his eyes was something unlike anything she had ever seen before. She almost didn’t believe she had managed to stand in his way. Sean had stopped shouting and cursing. Now he simply stood staring at her in silence and she wasn’t sure of what to do, or if it was safe to let him go. She didn’t; afraid that he would snap again and do something stupid. instead she put both arms around his neck and pulled him into a tight hug, surprised to feel his arms wrap around her waist and pull her closer, and twice as much surprised to realize Sean was crying. She had never seen, or heard, him cry before. Minutes went by, hours perhaps, she wasn’t sure, before he finally spoke again… His tone was soft despite his anger, only slightly above a whisper. “I believed her, I believed there was justice, but there is no such thing as justice… Not for people like me. There’s nothing left for me now, the Wolfpack means nothing more than a bunch of lies. I’m dead.”
“Sean… Don’t talk this way… Please…” She pleaded. “What about your family?”
“My father doesn’t give a shit.” He muttered. “I don’t give a shit about him anymore either, Lionel will just do whatever he’s told… Katie and Don are just kids, what do they know about Life? Give it time and they’ll forget I was even there… Seems to be easy for most people… Like with my mom… They’ve already forgotten her.”
“I wouldn’t forget you.”
“How will I ever go back to that camp and breathe the same air as that monster? How can I ever look my leader in the eyes and pretend I still have any respect for her? What kind of a man will I be if I put myself through this?” He asked. “How can I keep breathing?”
“It’ll get easier in time.” She replied. “Like eating the same bad meal every day… The bitterness will fade, I promise. Just make an effort, and if you can’t… I’ll just have to take you home with me. Just promise me you won’t get yourself killed. Please… Promise you’ll breathe for me.”
“Princess…” Sean took a long breath that ended in a shaky sigh. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” He whispered. “You saved my life today.”


[Reality – Wolfpack Camp, present time]

Time stood still. Time stood still as if it had frozen the moment she yelled. The rage burning in her eyes as the memories of years of love and support filled her mind. Years of friendship that had been reduced to nothing in one single night. She still wanted to believe it wasn’t true, she still wanted to believe this was just a bad dream, but in her heart she knew the truth, and it hurt. The Wolves immediately surrounded Sean to shield him from her, drawing their weapons, some of them seemed to be already be rushing towards her when Sean finally made himself heard in the chaos.

“I said BACK OFF!” He shouted. “Back away, NOW!”

Even though they weren’t all too eager to stop shielding their wounded leader from an angered mercenary wielding a weapon longer than she was tall, they complied, not put away their blade, nor stepping too much out of the way, only enough so that the two of them were seeing eye to eye. Silence lingered for quite a bit of time Sean didn’t seem to know what to say, and Indrani didn’t care to hear it either, all her energy was focused in not being more stupid than absolutely necessary. After a long while of silence, through which the Alpha and the Commander stood gazing into each other’s eyes, Indrani rose her scythe from the ground holding horizontally at the height of her chest, the blades forming a barrier of sorts around her as she spun around. Again Sean ordered his people to stand back, even though it seemed pretty clear that he was going to get his head chopped off. However, instead of attacking the Alpha, Indrani tossed her scythe across the clearing, and it landed with one of it blades deeply buried in the door of the Leaders’ Cabin. Now unarmed, she walked a straight line to Sean, until she was standing right in front of him. “I came home to the sight of crumbled buildings, and burnt tents, and dead children… I came to help you, and when I returned home, I found very little of it left.” She stated, her voice soft, but nonetheless filled with rage and contempt. “I came home to find my very worst nightmare, and I woke up to see myself a traitor... And all because of you...” She shook her head, a bitter laugh escaping her lips. “I don’t know why, I was never known for trusting people, but I did trust you and you took my life… My family… I loved you… I don’t know why, out of all people… I guess that was my mistake.” She sighed. “I trusted you even after you’ve done, after all I know you were capable of doing… I thought there was still enough humanity left in you to stay true to our promises… That was my mistake too. I should have seen what was happening to you, even if only to save myself before it came to this.”
“Indrani, I…” Sean didn’t know what to say. “I didn’t know… I tried…”
“I don’t care for what you have to say, even if you manage to say it.” She cut him off. “There’s nothing left to be said between the two of us. I’ll never believe a word from you again.”
Sean seemed to be in a shock as Indrani spoke, as if someone had torn out a piece of him. “I’m sorry.” He finally spoke. “I didn’t mean for it to happen this way, but we both knew things weren’t going to stay peaceful forever, if you could even say they had been.”
“You promised me you wouldn’t do this unless it was necessary. Remember? You swore on your life Sean, and that’s a promise I will make sure you keep.” As she said that she punched him in the face.

Sean was way too busy ordering his people to stay put to properly defend himself, so he took the punch and the other two that followed, all the while still holding his clan back with one gesture of his hand. He was now dizzy and blood was dripping down his nose, but he didn’t even seem to notice. “Fine! Fine! You want to kill me, go right ahead! GO ON!” He shouted, spreading his arms. “Don’t you dare touch her!” He shouted over his shoulder to one of the assassins who was clearly trying to get to Indrani unnoticed. “It’s only fair, right? I did give my word… Go ahead.”

Indrani seemed to flinch for a split second, but it was only for a split second; she advanced and kicked Sean right in the stab wound in his stomach, causing him to fall onto the floor, gasping for air. She simply marched towards the leader’s cabin and retrieved her scythe, feeling the stares of the wolves on her, but not caring for them for a second. She walked back to Sean and kicked him onto to his back, placing her foot over his wound and the bottom blade of the scythe pressed against his neck. “Is this how you held her down?” She muttered. “Huh? I bet you had nightmares that were just like this… Her standing over you and taking everything back… Grasping for air… What goes around comes around, right? Everyone must pay, you taught me that.” She smiled, realizing that this was as far as she could go without getting the Wolves to react. “Don’t worry kiddies… I’m not killing the Alpha today. No, no…” She stated, glaring at Sean. “Sean, love… I’m letting you live, rest, and heal up really nice… And when you’re all nice and fit… We’re going to have our very last rematch. And don’t you dare deny me, because you owe me.” She withdrew the blade and removed her foot. “Until you are dead for real, my friend… Live with the fact that you are dead to me.” With those words, Indrani turned her back and left, leaving Sean lying in the dirt amongst the other assassins. He might have to explain this eventually, but he really didn’t care. He didn’t care that his nose was broken and his stitches had burst open… He couldn’t bring himself to care about anything at all. Even so, he reacted when Franklin pulled him up and walked him to the leader’s cabin. Sean was going to pass out and he knew it, but before he did he managed to give his second one last instruction. “Frank… Deal with Adria…”

Franklin knew what that meant… Moving their assassins without their leader’s command was treason… Adria would have to pay.



[Desert – In the Meantime]

Crys walked to the Fire Temple, carefully making her way through the first floor where an improvised infirmary was set up, not wanting to trip over anything that might be lying around, very much aware that nothing was where it used to be. She walked past the main hall and towards where the rope ladder would be hanging, not surprised at the fact that it was missing. She heaved a long sigh before finding the spot where she usually climbed up the wall to the second floor, doing so with a grimace as her body still ached considerably. She walked by her room quickly, leaving her bag and removing her boots and cloak, before walking to the opposite end of the hall in time to hear the sound of a shattering bottle. She stopped at the door and cleared her throat as to announce her presence. “How goes it?” She greeted casually. “I was wondering if you’re up for a little spar.” She teased.
It took a moment, as if he was trying to fight against it, but Dastan chuckled. “You look like you’ve had enough fun without me.”
Crys tilted her head to one side at his tone. He was drunk as it was usual... But he was tone wasn’t his usual friendly and silly tone; it was bitter and angry. She entered the room and immediately regretted not wearing shoes as she stepped over a piece of broken glass. She groaned as the shard entered the sole of her foot and lifted it so she wouldn’t step on it and push it in further. “Why always broken glass?” She muttered.
Dastan had stood from where he sat on his bed and rushed over to her, she could hear the crackling sound of his boots crushing more pieces of glass as he walked. Without any warning, the man simply put her arm around his neck and lifted her up in his arms.
“Don’t… do that…” Crys protested, frowning at Dastan for just handling her without asking permission or giving a warning.
“There’s shattered glass all over the floor.” He stated. “Even if you could see it you wouldn’t be able to walk around in here with no shoes. Quit whining.” He chuckled, dropping her rather roughly on his bed. “There, that didn’t hurt too much, now, did it?” He teased.
“Hmph.” Crys mumbled, reaching to pick the glass from the bottom of her bare foot, but being blocked by Dastan’s hand around her wrist.
“I’ll handle that.” He told her. “Where were you all this time?” He asked, carefully picking the glass from her foot, trying to work the best he could considering his sight was a bit blurry and she wouldn’t hold still. You haven’t been away this long since you people came here… Am I making you uncomfortable with this?” He added, releasing her foot.
“I was visiting a friend… And no, you don’t make me uncomfortable… No…” She said, turning her face away from him discretely.
“If you were visiting a friend, why do you look like you’ve been beaten up? And… What’s wrong?” He asked, flinching slightly at her reaction to his question. Finally he realized the problem and laughed out. “Oh, you’re ticklish!”
“Shut up, Dastan!” She scolded. “It’s not funny.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just so surprising…. I mean… It’s so girly and adorable!” He laughed out.
“First of all: I am a girl. Second of all: Are you saying men aren’t ticklish, Shaykh?” She asked, grinning and poking him on his side.
Dastan chuckled, pushing her hand away. “Knock it off! And you know what I meant. You’re always so… Composed.”
“Huh…” She mumbled. “If only you knew…” She said, shaking her head. “I’m not nearly as composed as I make myself seem, believe me.”
“Is that so? Because to me it seems like you’re always so in control… Even after… Well… It must not have been easy leaving your home.”
“My home…” She shook her head. “I only left an encampment; I brought my home with me.”
Dastan snorted softly. “I have no home.” He muttered.
“Don’t be stupid.” Crys replied, a severe tone in her voice.
“You wouldn’t understand. You… Were raised to do this. I was always the irresponsible one, it was unthinkable that I’d be responsible for another human life, even less hundreds. Our legacy… The last of Brightvale and Effort’s people…” He shook his head and stood from where he had sat beside her one the bed. “I was never a leader… I’m here because there was no one left.”
“I’m here because there was never another choice.” Crys stated. “Does it really matter though? How we got here.”

Dastan paced slowly through the room, the crunching sound of glass being crushed under his boots marking his footsteps. After a few moments he sat back next to Crys and slipped a liquor bottle into her hand. “If you want to keep me company, then keep me company.” He stated simply, before answering the question with another question. “You don’t think it matters?”
“I think that thinking about it doesn’t change the past.” She said, taking a drink from the bottle. “Do you plan on running away from all responsibility on the grounds that you weren’t meant to be here? If you do, then maybe it matters, otherwise… No.”
“I’m just so tired of this. The War, fighting for territory, fighting for food, fighting just to exist… I’m sick of fighting… I’m sick of Death. I just want… Not even Peace anymore, just some release: Just one moment when I don’t have to fear the possibility of losing everything.” He took a long gulp from his own bottle. “Have you ever thought about it? Ever thought about walking away? People turn their backs, and people give up, every day. If they can do it, why can’t we?”
Crys laughed out. “Oh, I love my little assassin clan, and I still love the Wolfpack, despite everything that happened. That said… Of course I thought about it. I still do. Jake and I…” She paused and took a long drink. “Jake and I used to joke about it all the time. We even made plans about how we were going to run away together, leave Valcrest and buy a farm.”
Dastan choked on his drink when she said that. “You and Jacob living on a farm? Twins have mercy.” He laughed.
“We knew that we would never actually do that, but it was amusing to consider it nonetheless.” She said with a small shrug, a soft chuckle escaping her in response to his reaction as she took another sip from the bottle. “I miss Jake. I wish… I wish he hadn’t left.” She admitted. “You’ll wish the same if you push Indrani out of your life.”

Dastan went silent as she said that, taking another drinking and swallowing hard as if he was pushing something down with the alcohol. Finally he whispered simply. “It’s not the same.”
“Sure it’s not. Jake is an idiot and he left me because he’s scared. Indrani is an idiot who tried to do what was best for you, an idiot who trusted someone she thought she knew.”
“You’re defending her.” He mumbled. “She was trying to turn your people over to Sean.”
“She was trying to protect her people Dastan. I don’t agree with what she did, but I can’t condemn her for it. You might not be able to forgive her, but you’ll always love her.”
“I’ll always love her, but can I trust her?” He asked; a bitter tone in his voice. “Yes, Sean used her, but she didn’t think of the clan first. She is supposed to protect them, they trust her with their lives… If they knew what she did… They would never recover.” He sighed heavily. “There.”

Crys raised an eyebrow at the last statement before she realized that Dastan had picked the glass from her foot and bandaged it while he was talking. “Thanks.” She stated, a little uncomfortable now at the fact both her legs were outstretched across his lap and he was casually resting his arms over her knees. He didn’t even seem to notice. “Look, I’m probably not the best person to give advice on what or not you should disclose to you clan, considering that hiding a secret was mostly what put me in this situation, but… I think you should give her a chance to regain your trust. I think… She’s not a bad person, she doesn’t mean any harm, she was simply afraid. Fear can make people do the stupidest things.”
“She didn’t just betray the clan though, she betrayed me… That hurt me so deep… I just wanted to die…” He stopped himself, as if he didn’t believe he was actually admitting to such feelings. “Indrani is the only family I have left, I have never cared as much for anyone or anything, I would do unthinkable, unspeakable, things for her… I would give up anything to make her happy, or keep her safe… I never thought she would do this to me.” He heaved a shaky breath, and emptied his bottle in one large gulp, throwing the bottle across the room where it smashed against the stone wall. Crys realized he had probably been walking around the room and drinking all day. She wondered how he even managed to stand, even less carry her, in that state.

“Dastan…” She called, when he stood from the bed and she heard him fiddle with glass bottles probably looking for one that was full. “Didn’t you have a rule about not drinking upset?” She asked him.
“Screw it.” He muttered, almost under his breath, but still loud enough to hear.
Crys waited before he sat next to her again and snatched the bottle out of his hands, throwing it full against the wall. “You’ve had enough.”
“Are you nuts?” Dastan asked her.
“If you want to take a swing at me for that, go ahead.” She stated calmly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Otherwise, I’d say you’re done.”

Dastan flinched and, for a second or two, he actually considered it. Eventually though, he admitted defeat and sat down. “I don’t want to die like my father.” He mumbled.
“What does that mean?” Crys asked.

Dastan didn’t answer however. He yawned, and without the least bit of warning laid his head on Crys’ lap and fell asleep on her… Literally. Heaving a sigh, and not wanting to risk stepping down from the bed and into anymore glass, Crys simply leaned against the wall and pulled a blanket over the sleeping mercenary. He probably wouldn’t wake up until late morning.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Jake Turner

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[Desert – Early morning]

“Why are you meeting him?”

Dastan lost the little balance the alcohol hadn’t taken, when two hands forcefully pushed him forward. He simply groaned in anger with his face down in the sand before pushing himself up and continuing to stumble his way across the encampment. Ever since the morning after the Wolves attacked the camp Dastan had been straight up ignoring Indrani as if she was a ghost and even now, it was no different; he continued to walk as if she wasn’t there.
“You’re being a baby!” Indrani shouted, following after him. “DASTAN!” She finally lost her patience right then and there; it was one thing if he didn’t want to talk to her because he was angry, but this concerned her as well, and she wasn’t going to let it go. She stood for a moment, fists clenched at her sides; hesitating to anger him further. Eventually she decided that the silence had to end, for better or for worse. She ran after him at full speed, and jumped at him, clinging to his neck and knocking them both to the ground. “You asshole! Talk to me! I have the right to know!” She shouted, rolling off of him and sitting up in the sand. “I know you won’t forgive me, fine! You haven’t removed me from my position as commander though, so I have the right to know why you are meeting with the Alpha in our territory!”

“Why do you figure, genius? I want to discuss a truce.” Dastan muttered, pushing himself up again and stumbling forward as he continued to walk. “I trust you will not be here when he arrives.”
“Do you?” She asked, jumping to her feet and starting to walk after him.
“What?” He mumbled.
“Do you trust me?”
Dastan stopped walking and heaved a sigh. “Don’t push it, Indrani.”
“You could have ordered me to leave. You still can.” She stated. “I’ve told them what I’ve done.”
“They forgave you, I haven’t. Not yet.”
“You aren’t sure Sean is really responsible. I know you wouldn’t meet him otherwise. Are you afraid I might forgive him if you tell me the truth?” She asked him, placing one hand gently on his shoulder.
“It doesn’t matter if he’s responsible. It doesn’t change the fact that you weren’t here.” He argued.
“I know that. You didn’t answer my question, Dastan; are you afraid I’ll forgive him?”
Dastan simply shook his head. “Your personal life is none of my business, Commander.”
“Don’t do that!” She pushed him.
“What do you want me to say?” Dastan asked, turning to face her. “That I am afraid I’ll lose you? It’s too late for that! It’s way too late!”
“I want you to understand… I’m not going anywhere. I’m not letting you push me out of your life. I don’t know what is going on with you lately, but I’m not going to let you go through it alone.”
Dastan sighed softly and turned to walk away. “There’s nothing you can do for me.” He answered coldly.

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

[Desert, close to noon]

Jake opened his eyes and groaned wondering how the hell he managed to remain mounted in his sleep. Shadow was trotting calmly and slowly into the desert sands as Jake pushed himself to sit upright on the saddle, his back aching from the unusual sleeping position. Shadow whinnied and snorted as if to acknowledge that his rider had awoken and Jake gently patted the horse’s neck in greeting. “Good morning to you too, buddy.” He stated sleepily.

It had taken Jake longer than he would like to reach the desert. First of all, he had to make nice with his horse; Shadow wasn’t happy at all to be left behind for a month. The only reason the horse hadn’t been sold yet, was because he was too angry and no one wanted to take him. The result of this was that Jake had to walk great part of the way, because Shadow would refuse to let him mount. It took him a day later than expected to get there, but on the bright side… The trip was surprisingly quiet and uneventful, despite the fact he had decided to cross the forest; it was strangely quiet, but he didn’t make much of it until he reached the desert and was immediately surrounded by six mercenaries pointing their weapons at him.
“State your business.” One of them ordered.
“I’m here to visit a couple of friends… What’s… what’s with all the tension? Where’s Jackson?”
The Crimson who had spoken turned to another and whispered, probably asking him to call Jackson, before turning back to Jake. “You know Jackson?”
“I came here with the former wolves, three years ago. A couple of years ago I left. Are they not here anymore?” Jake asked, honestly confused.
The Crimson simply exchanged looks as if not sure what to say to this stranger; he seemed to know the assassins, but they weren’t sure. It was at that moment that a familiar voice greeted. “Well, hello there handsome! Thought I’d never see you again! And look what you carried home with you!”
Jake raised his eyebrow for a moment as the mercenary leader approached him in such a peculiar manner, but then he realized he was speaking to the horse, and snorted a laugh. “I take it she was very pissed, huh?”
Dastan shook his head and waved his men away. “Pissed doesn’t begin to describe it. Is that why you brought Shadow? Is he a Peace offering?”
“I retrieved Shadow they day after I left. I thought that she’d like that…” He said, dismounting and leading the horse along as he walked after Dastan. “What is going on around here? Felt like I was entering the forest. Come to think of it… It was unusually quiet there today.”
“We’ve been at war with the Wolves lately; been a month since they launched an attack on us. I was not present at the time, neither was Indrani, Crys, or Evin… Allison and Jackson had to hold everyone together and… Had I not been as close as the healers’ camp, well… They could have slaughtered everyone.” Dastan explained, casually, as he led Jake to where the assassins were camped. “Crys isn’t here.” He stated; a serious tone in his voice as they stopped by the group of tents and the nearby assassins began to whisper amongst themselves as they recognized Jake. “She left about a week ago, Ali went with her… She mentioned going to see a friend… Didn’t say when she’d be back.”
“What about Evin?” Jake asked, trying to hide his relief at the fact Crys wasn’t there. He wanted to see her, yes, but he couldn’t deny he was nervous about it.
“No one has seen him in over a month. People were wondering out loud if he got himself killed or took off for good, but Crys wasn’t worried about it. She said he’ll turn up eventually.” Dastan replied. “So… What brings you back? Something must have happened for you to turn up like this.”
“I came to see Crys.” Jake stated. “Not that it’s your business.”
“It is my business. This is my camp, and Crys is my friend. Besides you didn’t seem to show any interest in seeing her in the past two years. So, why now?”
“None of your business.” Jake muttered. “It’s none of your business.”
“You had a sister once, no?” Dastan asked casually.
“Yes. Not that it’s relevant.” Jake replied, leaning against Shadow and giving Dastan an agered look.
“Well, Crys is like a little sister to me. So, if you’ve had a sister, I’m assuming you will understand my urge to break all of your bones for what you did to her. Now, know that I control myself, because I know she still cares for you, but if you do it a second time… I will hunt you down just for that.” Dastan replied, opening a friendly smile and adding: “Have a nice day.”
Jake shook his head and sighed, but didn’t bother trying to explain anything to the man, he didn’t owe him anything.

“Sorry, I’m afraid I got him angry before you got here.” A voice sounded behind him. “Not that I disagree with him though. You were quite an asshole, and everyone talked about it for months. Which, coming to think of it, only got Crys far more pissed at you… Sorry.”
“That’s nice Indrani. Very nice.” He chuckled. “Thank you.”
“Do you want to let Shadow run around with the other horses a bit, or are you already leaving?” She asked, walking around him so that they were face to face.
“I suppose we both need a rest, so… I’m leaving in a couple of hours.” Jake replied. “I suppose if I let him run loose, worst case scenario he won’t want to leave with me.”
“I don’t think you should worry much, he’s obviously fond of you.” She said with a little nod, beginning to walk Jake away from the camp to where the other horses were.
“It’s really not that obvious to me.” Jake chuckled. “So… Sean?”
“What?” Indrani asked, her eyes narrowing a bit.
“That is what you and Dastan have been fighting about, yes? You said you made him angry, and I don’t see any other reason why he would be angry at you.”
She sighed. “Well, yes.”
“I warned you about him, didn’t I?” Jake said shaking his head. “What happened?”
“The night the Wolves attacked, I wasn’t here because Sean needed help. He says he didn’t order the attack, and… I don’t know if I believe him or not. He was with me while it happened, but… He could have given the order at any time before leaving the camp. Dastan is going to discuss a truce, but I don’t know what he believes is the truth. We don’t about it, we can’t talk about it… He is still so angry at me.”
“Huh… Well, I don’t know what to say. It’s very like Sean to make sure everyone is away before attacking… Especially Crys and Dastan… I don’t put it past him. What did Crys have to say?”
“Just about the same thing you just did. I just… I don’t know… Something doesn’t seem right about the whole thing…” She said with a shrug, helping Jake remove Shadow’s saddle and headgear. “See? He’s a good boy.” She stated, stroking the horse’s neck. “There you go, sweetie.” She smiled at the horse. “Sean is not a bad man, Jake.”
“Yes, he is.” Jake replied, lovingly running his fingers through the Shadow’s mane and patting his bare back as if encouraging him to wander off. “He could be a good man, but he isn’t. See, you shouldn’t see people for what they could be; you have to see them for what they are. So, yes… Sean is a bad man. You need to accept the fact that, despite who he was and could have been, this is who he is now.”
“Really?” Indrani asked, leaning against a boulder casually. “Do you have no faith in people at all?”
“Some people can change, and some are just hopeless, I learned that the hard way.”
“What about you, then? Can you change?”
Jake chuckled softly. “I’m… Trying… At the moment…” He shrugged slightly. “I’d like to say I can change, or that I have changed, but… I honestly can’t know that for sure.” He dug the tip of his boot into the sand and smiled softly. “Bastian Rivers used to say that people act in patterns, and those patterns never truly change; he believed every person is doomed to repeat the same behaviors over and over. When it seems like we’ve changed, in reality that is just a different manifestation of the same behavioral patterns, causing the illusion of change.”
“Sebastian Rivers was a strange, strange, man.” Indrani giggled.
“Have you met him?” Jake asked. “You are right, but have you?”
“Once, while we were stationed in the forest, he came by looking for Crys… Apparently she was in trouble. Was after a party, I think.”
“Ah… I remember that…” Jake snickered. “Too bad I missed that party.”
“So you don’t think people truly change?” Indrani asked, going back to the subject they unconsciously wandered into.
“No, I don’t. If we could truly change, what would make us who we are? If we could change things so deeply rooted within our personalities… How would we ever know ourselves, or one another, in any level? These patterns are what make us recognizable as individuals, and not all of them are bad.”
“Alright, you’ve known me a while… What are my patterns?”
Jake chuckled. “I don’t want to do that…”
“Come on, you think I’ll be offended? Tell me.”
“You have the constant need to prove your worth. Not even to others, but to yourself, because you never believe you are capable, or strong, enough. And you are terrified of failing the people you care about. Since you are constantly trying to prove your worth, you also have problems with asking for help, which leads to acting behind people’s backs, believing that if you show them weakness you’ll let them down. That makes them feel like you don’t trust them, when in reality you just don’t trust yourself enough. You and Sean bonded over this feeling of not being worthy, I assume. That’s a side of him I’ve come to know pretty well in the past.” Jake said all of that in one breath, his eyes fixed on Shadow as he happily trotted alongside Mirage; it was the happiest he’d seen him in a long while and he considered just leaving him there, even for a bit. He sure did deserve to run free with other horses after being left with strangers for a month. After realizing Indrani had gone silent for a bit he snickered, glancing at her with the corner of his eyes. “I’m sorry… Was that too honest?”
“What about you, Jake? What is your pattern?” She asked, ignoring his question.
“I thought that was obvious.” He stated, turning to face her. “I give up on things I care about, because then I don’t risk losing them. I haven’t known this all along, but… Even now that I know it, it doesn’t stop me from constantly doing it. All I need is to find an excuse, and it doesn’t matter that I know this either, because when the situation presents itself… It won’t seem like that’s what I’m doing. It’ll seem like the right thing to do. My brain will trick me into it.” Jake stated with a little shrug. “That’s why we are so doomed to repeating the same mistakes over and over… We don’t realize we’re doing it, it’s just… A part of who we are. As a race, that’s what we have been doing since the beginning of times.”
“So you are saying there’s no way you will ever make things work with Crys. I mean, if that’s the truth… Then you’ll just eventually leave her again, because you can’t help it.”
Jake shook his head, a sigh escaping him. “Probably, but I’m hoping not. That’s the thing with these habits… We don’t notice them, but others do… So we’re doomed to make the same mistakes over and over… Unless there’s someone there to stop us…”
“And, as a race, who is going to stop us? The Gods?”
Jake looked up at the sky for brief moment, a smirk crossing his features as he replied. “As a race… That’s where we are truly doomed. Because humanity, as a race, will never truly change.”

Indrani was going to say something else, but was interrupted when one of the assassins came running towards the two of them; Jake only the man by name, but the man seemed to know who he was well enough. “Jake… We just heard some unsettling news… About your aunt.”
Jake’s frowned slightly as he looked at the man. “Is Lena back?”
“She came back about a month ago, did you not see her?” The assassin asked him.
“I… I’ve been out of circulation this past month… In the dungeons of Blackpond… What about Lena?”
“Jake… Word from our contacts is… The White Rose… She died this past night.”

It was in a lightning fast move that Jake grabbed the man by the front of his shirt with shivering hands as he growled. “That’s not true.”
“The White Shadows say it is.” The man whispered softly, not seeming to mind Jake’s gesture right then; it was visible that he was in pain. “I’m sorry.”
“No… No… No…” Jake mumbled, pushing the assassin back and turning to walk in the direction of the plains without another word. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be true… He had walked good distance by himself when he felt something very strong push into his back and he stumbled forward before turning around in anger to see that Shadow had followed him. The horse had been properly saddled, and pinned to the saddle was a little note from Indrani that read: ’You’re doing it again.’

Jake snorted out in annoyance staring at the horse; his face still showing clear anger for a few moments before he forced a deep breath and his eyes softened only slightly. “You stubborn beast…” He stated, playfully patting the horse’s neck as he mounted. “I would have come back for you.”

The setting changes from the-desert to Valcrest

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Annie Turner Character Portrait: Allison Blake Character Portrait: Ess Character Portrait: Samantha 'Johnson' Character Portrait: Alina "Suferinta" Mare Character Portrait: Alisa "Temeti" Mare

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[Forest]

The forest was silent as the woman walked, not even the birds seemed to bother with singing in her path. Everything was just absolutely silent... Too silent in fact. The forest was never, ever, completely silent unless something was off. It was in that moment that Crys felt a familiar presence, someone unexpected heading right towards her in a very non-friendly manner. A split second of time was all she had to avoid the woman jumping on her with a blade at hand, but it was more than enough time to avoid the attack, letting the attacker pass her by and, grabbing the wrist of her wielding hand, pushing her face first onto a tree. “Indrani!” She muttered. “What are you doing here?”
Indrani dropped the dagger at the mention of her name, letting her body relax as she recognized Crys’ voice. “I noticed someone sneaking around... Thought you were a wolf.”
Crys sighed, releasing the woman and picking up her weapon. “That’s not what I asked.” She said, offering the dagger back to Indrani with a frown. “Why are you in the forest? What do you think you’re doing?”
“Something tells me you already know that, don’t you?” Indrani muttered out, turning abruptly and snatching the dagger from Crys, sheathing it a little too violently. “You better not try and get in my way.”
“You’re watching the camp.... Watching him... I already said; I won’t let you do it.” Crys retorted pushing the woman back against the tree and quietly placing her free hand on the hilt of her sword in a threatening gesture. “Sean’s death will bring you nothing but more trouble. Go home to your brother before you do something you’ll regret.”
“Go to hell, Crys. This is none of your damn business. It’s between me and him.”
“In what perfect world is anything just between two people, Indrani? Sean is the Alpha of the Wolfpack, or at least they believe him to be... Kill him, and what do you suppose they’ll do? They go after the Crimson.”
“I’m not with the Crimson anymore. I resigned.”
“Do you think they care!? Best case scenario Dastan will have to hunt you down himself to prove he had nothing to do with this... What a pathetic and stupid way to honor your family!”
Indrani pushed against Crys violently at the words, but contained herself after a moment, not wanting this to escalate further than it already had. “One to talk... You.” She hissed. “Your mother is remembered as a liar and a traitor... Your father, responsible for the biggest massacre in the Pack’s history... Sean did this... And you protect him.”
“I’m not protecting him.” Crys stated simply. “The thing is, Commander, it’s easier to be here seeking revenge, instead of being where you are actually needed, facing the consequences of your actions. In the end you may be remembered as a traitor, but it beats living as one. I think it’s time for you to grow up and choose the path you want to travel, because that’s not a choice you get to make twice.” Pulling away from Indrani Crys heaved a sigh. “Three years ago you and Dastan were talking about rebuilding, saving what had been lost; a future for your clan that was different from your past. You helped Sean because you believed it was best for your people, it was a mistake but it was an honest one. This isn’t. Simple as that.”
“He sent people after Evin in the desert, you know. I saw them leave... He’s not going to just eventually leave you alone Crys.”
“Evin will be fine, he’s a grown man, even though it’s easy to forget that sometimes... And I am aware of the threat Sean poses. I don’t see how any of that is your business though.” With a dismissive shrug Crys backed further away from the woman slowly beginning to walk back down her path towards Newhaven. “Choose whatever path you will, but... I won’t let you kill Sean.” She called over her shoulder. “And you won’t like it if I feel forced to get in your way.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

[White Shadows Camp]

“Annie, are you listening to me?” A woman’s voice sounded vaguely familiar in the back of Annie’s mind, as if trying hopelessly to break through a thick wall of confusing thoughts.
“I’m sorry, Dana. What was that?”
“Another one just arrived... Similar symptoms as Isaac and the other two.” Dana informed. “Should we consider this an..”
“Don’t say it.”
“...Epidemic?” The woman finished, her voice fading and disappearing as soon as the word was out.
Annie sighed softly, looking at the woman, who was only a year or so older than her, and not knowing what to tell her. “I’m not calling it anything, not yet, and you shouldn’t either. No matter what is causing this, spreading panic throughout the land won’t help those affected by it. Just remember to watch yourself, and others, for possible symptoms.”
“Of course.” The woman agreed. “Oh, Pondus is awake. I was told you wanted to speak to him as soon as he was conscious. And... Alistair wants to see you too.”
“How is he?” Annie asked, rubbing the spot right between her eyes; a severe frown crossing her expression.
“No fever or other signs of infection. His burns should heal fine, and he’s a bit... Impatient.”
“When isn’t he impatient?” She sighed. “I’ll go see him first, otherwise he’ll just decide to get out of bed and track me down.”
“Sounds like something he would do.” The woman smiled. “Just... Remember, he’s under a lot of medication.”
“Lovely, a doped empath.” Annie chuckled beginning to walk towards the tent Alistair had been resting in. “Make sure to rest every couple of hours, alright?” She told the woman as they parted ways, receiving a slightly weary and highly concerned look in return. It was clear she was still thinking about this supposed ‘epidemic’, and Annie knew it was only a matter of time until others were worried as well... Until the rumors spread... She had little time to find out what the truth of it was.

As Annie reached the tent where Alistair had been left to rest she caught him lying on a sleeping mat staring rather too cheerfully at the ceiling. Suppressing the urge to giggle she entered and sat beside him, waiting patiently for him to notice her.

“Heeey... How are you doing kid?” Alistair asked, not turning to face her. “Are you good? Did you sleep?”

“I’m good Al, you’re the one who got burnt.” Annie chuckled, brown eyes glancing over the bandaged burns on the right side of the man’s chest.

“Yes, but I’m loaded on pain medication... I feel awesome.” He laughed, turning to face Annie as his goofy smile shut down slowly. “The problem though, is that this is all I feel right now. I can’t... Sense anyone... I don’t feel anything aside from a bit of giddiness from the medication and mild concern over the fact that this is all I feel.”

Annie took a few moments to understand what exactly her friend was saying, and when she did all she could manage was to stare at him with absolute shock in her eyes.

Alistair sighed softly and smiled, seemingly amused by the expression on her face. “Your mother always used to say that if there is one thing nice she loved about the universe, is its sense of irony... You wouldn’t believe how much time I’ve spent wishing this would go away.”

“That’s impossible... You’re saying your...” Ali mumbled, still unable to fully process the information.

“My enlightenment is gone, yes.” Alistair stated. “I feel nothing. I don’t know how it’s possible, but it’s true.”

“This is... So much more serious than I originally suspected... I...” Annie sighed. “When this spreads, Al... Do you understand?”

Alistair pushed himself up to sit, not minding the bit of pain that broke through the numbness of the medication. “Lena knew, didn’t she? This is what she was trying to stop...”

Annie nodded to confirm the man’s statement.“I need to decode that journal she left me, but... I really don’t understand what kind of code it is... It’s like... There has to be something there... She didn’t find the answer, but I’m sure she was close to one.”

“What kind of code is it?” Alistair asked, running a hand through his hair and trying to focus. “Numbers, letters, symbols...?”

“Numbers... It’s not a difficult code exactly... it’s a series of three numbers to form each word; first number represents the page number, the second a particular line, and the third a particular word, of a book.”

“Sounds simple enough...”

“Alistair... Do you have any idea how many books we have in this place?” Annie muttered. “How the hell am I supposed to figure out which one?”

“Well, she left it to you... It’d have to be a book you know well, or that holds some special meaning, that should narrow it down, shouldn’t it?”

“Hmm...” Annie mumbled. “I suppose.”

Silence lingered for a few moments as Annie seemed to go into thinking about what her mother had left her in that coded journal, concern marking her features at the possibilities. After a few moments of watching his friend Alistair broke the silence, speaking softly. “So, how are you?” He asked, a bit of concern in his eyes. “I’m afraid you’re really going to have to tell me this time.”

“I’m tired... And a bit scared, to be honest. I haven’t been leader for that long Al... This is what I have to deal with... And I don’t know...”

“Everyone starts not knowing, Annie. Knowing takes time.” Alistair said, trying to reassure her with a smile.

“We don’t have time, that’s the problem.” Annie mumbled, rubbing her temples as she felt a sudden stab of pain. “I’m feeling it too.” She told him.

“What about your gift, still working as usual?” Alistar asked the look of concern not leaving his eyes. “We need to warn someone in the cities about this.”

“As far as I know, my gift is as it always has been.” She sighed. “We can go to Newhaven with this and I’m sure they will at least hear us, but Blackpond? I don’t trust them with this information... Not their King... What they could do with this information, I mean... One word of this out in the open, and it’s certain chaos. Valcrest would not stand.”

“Never thought I’d miss Rory... Or that bastard Hastings... At least back then we knew what we were dealing with.” Alistair muttered, shaking his head. “I can go to Newhaven if you want, I’m fine to travel, even with the burns, I don’t mind.”

“No, Al. I have other plans. There is a ball, it will be held in Blackpond in two days’ time... To celebrate my mother’s death. I was invited, and I am going. I would like it if you could come with me.”

“A party to celebrate your mother’s death, and you are going?” Alistair asked, unable to mask the annoyance in his tone. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“I haven’t been in the Castle since I was very young, I’d like to see it, for starters.” Annie smiled innocently at him. “Besides, despite the fact that this offends me in a number of different ways, I feel mother would be amused by the idea... And I am curious as to who else will be there as well. It’s not a big deal that they do this, you know. It doesn’t matter.”

“It’s disrespectful. Disrespectful and wrong!” Alistair exclaimed. “They have no right! Does Jake know about this?”

“I don’t know, Jake is with the Blacks again.” Annie replied, reaching for the man’s shoulder to calm him. “If he knows he’ll be there, one more reason why I should go... Less likely he’ll be stupid about this if I am there.”

“That is true.” Alistair said, calming himself. “If you want me to, then I will go with you. Someone should watch your back anyway and Isaac...”

“Isaac is not someone I would risk bringing to something like this.” Annie chuckled. “Don’t worry though, Al... We’ll find a way to help him. You’ll see.” She smiled, gently pushing him back on the mat. “Until then, mister... You rest. You’ll need your strength if you want to dance at the party.”

Alistair chuckled softly. “Of course. Have you eaten yet today, kid? You look like you’re getting smaller.”

Annie sighed and gave a little shrug. “I feel smaller too, in a way. Don’t worry though, I won’t forget to take care of myself, If anything I’ve learned that much.”

Alistair nodded and laid back down with a muffled groan. “Good.”

Annie smiled, seeing how tired her friend still was despite his efforts to convince her he was fine. It was concerning to see Alistair this way, and it was troubling to hear that his magic seemed to have gone. Whatever that meant it couldn’t be good news. “Good.” She agreed. “I will leave you to your rest now, but I will be back later.” She told him, getting on her feet and bowing slightly in a parting gesture. “May the Goddess bless you always, brother.”

“And you, sister.” The man replied in a whisper.

Leaving Alistair to rest Annie left the tent and and crossed the encampment in a quick steady pace to her own tent, by the time she reached it the pain on her temples had reached a worrying level, it ached so badly she felt to her knees unable to stand, and then... as quickly as it came, it faded. The girl took a long shaky breath, sitting down and hiding her face in her hands for a long moment before raising her head and starting to get back on her feet. As she did, her eyes caught the book Sean had left her and she picked it up, browsing through it for a moment. “...Greater minds...” She mumbled, sighing and heading out of the tent with the book in her hands. “Twins help us...”

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

[The Manor]

“Ezekiel Raphael Boren...” Sam whispered the name as she held both her sword and his, both blades pressed to the man’s throat, her green eyes narrowing dangerously, although with a spark of amusement underneath. “...Shame on you for letting me win.” She scolded, dropping the man’s blade to the floor and lowering hers. “Now, pick that up.” She commanded with a grin.

Ezekiel stood, eyes glancing to the sword at his feet and to the woman before him as if in doubt.

“Afraid to take your eyes off of me old man?” Sam teased playfully poking him in the arm with the sharp end of her blade. The woman already bore a few bruises on her face and neck from the first round of their little spar, but she didn’t seem to care about the marks. “You have a lovely name Zeke, have I ever mentioned? Your mother must have had high hopes for you... Ezekiel... Raphael... The first name means ‘strength of god” and the second means ‘god has healed’, Ezekiel was the name of War’s second child and Raphael is said to be the name of Peace’s youngest son... Who is said to have fathered the first king of Blackhurst... It is a noble name. You have been touched by the Gods at birth... Twice, my friend... By War and Peace respectively. So fitting to your personality also; a man who shatters things and then picks all the pieces and puts them back together...So brutal, yet so gentle, you are...”

“You read too much Milady.” Ezekiel snorted. “Into books and people alike.”

“Perhaps that is true.” Sam laughed softly. “Come on now, take your weapon, I won’t cheat.” She stated a sweet, innocent, smile spreading across her lips as she crossed her arms behind her back. “And no holding back this time, it’s not fair.”

Zeke snickered, an incredulous look in his eyes as he stared at his Mistress. “You will if I taught you well enough.” He retorted, slipping the tip of his boot under the hilt of the fallen sword and kicking it up to catch it in mid air, quickly moving through the short distance between him and Sam with a forceful strike that the woman successfully dodged, however only slightly, countering almost immediately. “If I didn’t know better, hun, I’d think you’re trying to kill me.” She snickered.
“Oh?” Zeke laughed. “And what was the first thing I’ve taught you, girl?”

[Flashback - Newhaven, approximately 15 years in the past]

“No, daddy please... I’m sorry... I swear... Please don’t hurt me....”

“Liar! You’re a liar! Lying... bitch! I’ll show you not to defy me again!” The man spat, his hand wrapped tightly around a heavy leather belt as he repeatedly struck his daughter in the back and legs; the girl cowering in the corner, arms shielding her face and neck from the man’s fury, her pleading fading into soft whimpers and silent sobs. Her mind fading into a void, a hollow part of her self where there was no such thing as pain or fear... A dark, empty, bottomless pit within her soul; and there she stayed until she heard the heavy sound of the door closing. The numbness fading and bringing back the pain, the fear, the hate, and everything else, back to surface all at once. Sam couldn’t understand why he hated her, why he wanted to hurt her... What had she done wrong? “You... Are... Supposed... To protect me.” The girl muttered, still curled up in her corner on the floor, afraid to move and feel all the pain she had managed to ignore thus far.

“I’m supposed to guard you, actually...” The man replied from the opposite corner of the room. “And either way. I am still bound to you father, Little Miss.” He spoke softly, pushing away from the wall he had been leaning against and starting to pace towards the curled up teenager. “Come on, now... you can’t stay there forever.” He stated, picking the girl by the waist and dropping her on top of her bed before she managed to utter a word of protest. “Lie down on your stomach, let me see those marks.” He commanded.

“Why... Does he hate me?” She whispered, the sound muffled as she buried her face on the pillow.

“Your brother should have been the gift bearer, Little Miss... Not a girl... Your father, he fears what you’ll become.” The man answered, his voice nearly void of any sentiment as he spoke. “There are myths you see... They speak that fathers will bear the gift of granting enlightenment, one at every generation, until there comes a daughter... And shall be the vessel through the Goddess will return and lead the Brotherhood to its final battle to purge the Land. The final battle, Milady. Our victory, but also our end... That is what your father fears, because his heart is weak and cowardly.”

“I didn’t ask for this.”

“This is what you are, however, you can lay here and cry... You can cower in the corner in the hopes your father will eventually stop seeing you as a threat... Or you can become that threat. Do you understand me, girl? If you enter a man’s heart, take the shadows that lurk inside and make them your own, you will own that man... And with that power you can either make him stronger, or destroy him completely.” He retorted, examining the bloody gashes the heavy buckle of the belt had made and beginning to clean them with a cloth dosed in whatever alcoholic substance he carried in his flask. “Aim to hold your father’s heart in your hands, don’t think about what you’ll do with it for now... It doesn’t matter whether you crush it or release it... Once you hold it, he will never be able to hurt you again.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Sam asked, trying, but failing to turn and face them man as he was holding her down. “Don’t you serve my father?”

“I serve the Brotherhood. I am... Bound... To your father. There is a difference, Milady. One you will learn soon enough. The books are all in the library, the myths... The prophecies... Learn them, and you’ll control the shadows.”


Sam’s eyes widened slightly as she stood blocking another one of the man’s attacks letting him push against her blade and then lowering her sword abruptly; Zeke’s blade lunging towards her face and opening a superficial cut on her left cheek before the man could stop himself. Dropping her sword to the ground Sam snorted and recited. “Trust no one in this life girl... Not even me... Especially not me...”

Zeke sheathed his blade, a look of concern crossing his expression. “What is it? Are you in pain?”

“You slashed my face, what do you think?” Sam asked, raising an eyebrow at the man.

Ezekiel shook his head. “You dropped your weapon. What happened?” He insisted, instinctively reaching towards the wound and wincing as she grabbed his wrist.

“I just had a sudden headache, but it’s gone now.” Sam answered, smiling at the man. “See what I mean? You are a brutally kind man, Ezekiel.” She said, gently moving her hold from the man’s wrist to his hand, giving it a soft and affectionate squeeze before releasing. “Don’t worry about me, love... It takes more than just a little illness to knock me down. I will live to see the fireworks.”

“Still...” Ezekiel protested, seeming a bit the distracted by the woman’s sudden gesture of affection. “...Have you been taking your elixir?”

“Every morning Zeke, still... I won’t be immune to symptoms for long. I’ll just have to hide well enough.” She stated, her eyes curious a t the man’s expression. “Our victory means our end, we both knew that the time would come.” She reminded him, with a smile. “We are done for the day, I’d say... I should go to the medics to get rid of this dent you made on my face... Twins forbid I should let it scar.”

..................................................

[Blackpond]

Luckas kept quiet watching as two sisters interacted with each other as if they were alone, his eyes wandering towards Amber’s ‘borrowed’ face to catch her absolute amusement knowing very well that it meant they would stick with their new found friends for yet a little while longer. “See now what you did?” He scolded the ‘boy’. “Now we owe them a new toy.”

Amber snickered softly. “What? It was lying on the floor... No one was playing with it!” She protested. “Besides... I just got us a day in the town with two pretty girls... You should be thanking me for that... We know you’re not charming enough to pull that off by yourself.” She teased, nudging Luckas and winking.
“Huh... Is that so? I think you’d be surprised... Brother, by what I can pull off by myself.” Luke retorted raising an eyebrow defiantly. “Nonetheless, you owe the pretty girls a plaything... Be a gentleman, for once.”
“Oh, I am a man of word... I will replace the toy for a better one if I can find it... Besides, I will throw you a gift...” Amber replied turning towards the sisters. “Would you favor explosive or toxic things? I will not share my recipes, but I can make you something of your preferences.”

Luckas sighed. “Well, yes... I know you are enjoying your flirting now... Wyatt... But I was actually heading into the city. So if you and the girls don’t mind... I’d like to move on.” He said, an amused look in his eyes as he took a playful bow to the ladies before beginning to move towards the entrance of the city. “I will enjoy the company for as long as it remains interesting... We shall see how long that will be.”

==============================================

[Newhaven]

Allison lost track of Essence at some point in the city. Newhaven had changed from the last time she had gone there, not enough that she would get lost, but apparently enough that she could lose someone else on the streets.Taking a deep breath she let her eyes run through the faces of the people around her, searching for the woman however unsure if her appearance had changed. In the end she was able to track Essence down by the sound of her steps and a glimpse of her clothing as she entered an alleyway. Starting to follow she stopped when she heard voices, walking around one of the buildings she managed to climb her way to the roof, crouching where she could keep an eye of what was happening and drawing her bow. She nocked an arrow and drew the string, keeping the readied shot pointed at the man who was threatening a panicked girl. Ali kept her shot aimed at the man and watched with utter amusement while Ess handled the situation, and she handled it rather nicely too. Ali was about to ease the tension on the bow string when the man made a move to attack behind Ess’ back. As he did so Ali let out a loud whistle that echoed through the alley and drew attention even of a few passing dogs, and the moment the man turned instinctively towards the source of the noise, two things happened at the same time; Ali sent the arrow flying straight into the man’s left eye, at the exact same time as Ess turned and stabbed her dagger through the back of his neck. Ali put her bow away, hanging from the roof’s edge and dropping gracefully to the grime-covered floor, snorting a laugh. “...And they say you never see an assassin’s strike coming... He saw it alright.” She snickered softly. “Guess you weren’t kidding around when you said you’d get into trouble, huh?” She smiled looking up from the dead man.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Allison Blake

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[Raven’s Nest - After the birthday party, late night]

“What’s wrong?” Crys asked, a bit of amusement in her tone. She had settled down in Jake’s sleeping mat and was calmly waiting while he awkwardly sat staring at her.
“Well, it’s a bit... You know... not a lot of room...” Jake mumbled, scratching the back of his head.
“Seriously, Jacob?” She chuckled. “Don’t be such a scaredy cat, I said I’d help you get to sleep, didn’t I?”
“I guess, it’s just... Last time we had to share a room you slept on the floor.” Jake pointed out.
“I am on the floor, Jakey.” Crys retorted, smiling sweetly at him. “Practically anyway.”
“No, you know what I mean, Crys... Don’t mock me...” Jake muttered, rolling his eyes.
“I’m not mocking you... It just amuses me when you’re all awkward like that for absolutely no reason.” She chuckled softly. “Look, I understand, but that was months ago, a lot has happened since then.” She answered with a straighter tone this time. “And I’m telling you it’s okay.”
Jake scooted closer to Crys, reluctantly laying down and resting his head on her stomach, his feet were almost sticking out of the tent this way, but he didn’t mind. “Is this okay?” He mumbled.
“It’s perfectly fine.” She reassured him, slowly reaching out and running her fingers through his hair in a soothing manner. “Just close your eyes now.”
“I don’t feel... Sleepy...” Jake sighed.
“Then we’ll talk. Just keep your eyes closed and relax, okay? Don’t worry about sleep right now.” She told him.
“Okay.” Jake agreed, closing his eyes and taking a long deep breath, making sure he was comfortable despite the fact his tent was clearly not meant to accommodate two; it was supposed to be a temporary home after all. “What do we talk about?”
“How come I’ve never heard you sing, hm?” Crys questioned, her fingertips trailing along the back of Jake’s neck playfully. “The children seemed quite excited.”
“I don’t know... I sing for them because they ask.” Jake shrugged slightly. “It’s not something I do behind your back or anything.”
“Well, maybe I should ask sometime.” She replied simply. “One of these days.”
“Maybe... In the future.” Jake snickered softly. “Tell me, how have you been doing these past weeks? I know this is affecting you as much as everyone else, no matter how well you hide it.”
“I’ve been having some pretty serious mood swings lately. Being around people is just exhausting most days. Tonight was not so bad though, surprisingly. Haven’t been sleeping too well either. I do sleep, but I wake up tired and sometimes... Nightmares of some sort. I can’t usually remember.”
Jake sighed softly, his fingers instinctively finding and trailing a thin line of scar tissue on the left side of Crys’ abdomen.
“It’s still there.” She whispered. “It’s not going to fade.”
“I know that.” Jake answered. “I don’t want it to. I like it. I mean... I’d rather it had never happened, any of it, I know you were hurt for a very long time. You think I don’t know how much this really affected you, but I do, Crys. I know you a lot better than you give me credit for sometimes. I just think that it’s precisely for that reason that you need to remember, no matter what: you stared Death right in the eyes and you came back. One day, however far in the future that day may be, you’ll be able to tell our children that if you fight hard enough you can beat the shit out of Lady Death herself and come back from the dead in a bolt of lightning. You’ll have that scar to prove you did it.”
“Should I omit the part where I got knocked down on my ass and nearly died a second time?”
“Eh, we can save that part for when they’re older.” Jake laughed softly. “You know what I mean though.”
“I know what you mean.” She agreed.
“We’re fighters, you and I. We’ll survive this, whatever it is. Our kids will believe in miracles.”
“You’re drunk... and sleepy...” Crys pointed out with a chuckle. “And you’re not making sense.”
“Probably, but what does anyway? Sense is overrated.” Jake mumbled. “I’m sorry about Sheila, by the way. I swear I didn’t invite her...”
“Oh, please... She doesn’t worry me, she just has a habit of pissing me off whenever she sees me.” Crys answered in a not very convincing tone of carelessness.
“She likes to piss you off... I can’t really blame her.” Jake pointed out. “Most people are actually foolish enough to think you’re not easy to anger... It makes it a challenge.”
“That’s not why she likes to piss me off and you know that, but fine... She’s your friend, so I’ll just do my best to not stab her anymore. And I’ll have you know that I have a wonderful temper Jacob... My level of tolerance is almost never-ending... Thankfully... For your sake.”
“Well, I like pissing you off too sometimes... A little bit...” Jake chuckled.
“That reminds me, when did you go get that cloak from the brothel?” Crys questioned.
“The next morning after I left the Inn.” Jake replied with shrug. “You said I shouldn’t have left it.”
“You said you’d tell me what happened that night, remember?” She pointed out. “With the man you killed.”
“Joffrey.” Jake sighed. “He was someone from Ess’ past, he was at the Ball with Ebony, and I had been trying to track him down since. I beat him to death... I mean I really... I really did a number on him... His face was smashed beyond recognition.”
“I see.” Crys sighed. “And did that make you feel better?”
“Yes... No... Yes and no. I knew I was going to kill the guy, but I planned on doing a cleaner job of it. I won’t say I completely lost it, because I could have done worse to him... I thought about it, I’ll admit, but still...”
“You didn’t go there as an assassin Jake. Don’t judge yourself based on how you would have done this if the guy was just a target. When something is personal, it’s personal.”
“I guess so.”
“You’re a good brother, Jacob. And a good man. You shouldn’t judge yourself so harshly; no wonder you don’t sleep.”
“Trust me, Crys... My conscience is not what keeps me awake at night... My conscience has long given up on me, unlike everyone else whose advice I stubbornly ignore.”
[Morning]

Jacob groaned as he awoke to the sound of Irvin calling from outside his tent, his head was aching a bit from the alcohol, but still he felt a lot better than he did most mornings. He woke exactly where he’d fallen asleep the night before, in the middle of a conversation he couldn’t fully remember anymore. Crys was still sound asleep, fingers still loosely gripping a few strands of his hair. Jake didn’t move until Irvin called a second time, at which point he sighed and forced himself to get up, covering Crys with a nice fluffy blanket that he rarely ever used himself.
“Go back to sleep, it’s early.” She mumbled sleepily.
“I promised Irvin I’d take him into the forest for training, and he’s already outside waiting for me, but you go back to sleep... The Crimson are probably still passed out around the camp.”
“I’ll be gone when you get back probably.” Crys sighed, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “How’d you sleep?”
“Actually, I slept pretty well for once.” Jake smiled. “You’re a better snuggle-buddy than Kaya.” He played.
“Wow, you know how to flatter a woman, Jacob.” Crys chuckled.
“Oy, Killer... What’re you doing in there?” Irvin called out again.
“He’ll be out in a minute, Irv.” Crys replied with a chuckle. “The kid’s anxious, what are you two doing today?”
“He never wants to train, except when I decide to sleep in... damn kid...” Jake snorted. “Nothing much, just some stealth training. I’d really rather stay with you, but you know... Promises... I need to stop doing that.”
Crys shook her head, amused. “Twins forbid you ever go back on your word, J-Bear.”
“Ugh, no... Don’t call me that... It’s just... Weird.”
“Oh, so only Luckas is allowed to call you that? Interesting...”
“No he’s not, and no it isn’t... Jacob Bear is what Ess calls the teddy bear I gave her. Did she not tell you about that?”
“Surprising as it may be, Jakey... Your sister and I have spent very little time talking about you; we are both very interesting people.”
“Don’t I know that? I’m glad you two get along so well.”
“You poor naive little man.” Crys teased, settling back down in her fluffy blanket. “You should go, I’m going to try and sleep some more.”
“Fiiine... I’ll go train if you really want me to.” Jake retorted in a playful whine, leaning over to kiss her cheek.
“Nooo, porcupine.” Crys protested with a giggle.
“Oh, deal with it.” Jake laughed. “Listen, you better not let Sean hurt you this time. I’d hate to have to go through the hassle of hunting him down... Although, I won’t feel so badly about smashing his skull with my fists if it comes to that.”
“Oh, don’t worry Jakey... It might not even get that far.”
“No? I’m surprised to hear that.”
“I guess we’ll see when I get there. Either way, I’ll be fine, don’t you worry, okay? Now go train.”

As Jake finally left the tent Irvin greeted him with an odd expression on his face. “Sorry, Killer I didn’t mean to interrupt your business or anything.” The boy started, a tone of laughter escaping in between his words.
“My business?” Jake questioned. “And what’s so funny?”
“There’s a... A tiny little braid in your hair, like over here.” Irvin pointed out, now fully laughing as Jake worked to undo the braid.
“Damn it Crys!” Jake shouted. “I’m still not cutting it short!”
Irvin shook his head as laughter sounded coming from the tent and started to walk after Jake as the man wandered off. “This is very strange right now.” The boy said, watching Jake as they walked.
“What is?” Jake asked. “Please do tell.”
“You... You’re actually in a good mood today. I’m almost starting to think you won’t kick my ass.”
“I will always kick your ass, kid. That doesn’t depend on my mood, it depends on your skill and let’s face it...” Jake smirked.
“Whatever.” Irvin muttered, rolling his eyes.
“Alright, Kid, just go ahead towards that clearing we used for training last time and I’ll catch up with you... I just want to talk to Matthew before I leave, alright?”
“Alright, you’re the boss.” Irvin agreed.

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

“I don’t know Jake, are you sure about this?” Matthew asked, a look of concern crossing his expression. “It’s a pretty serious decision to be making like this.”
“That’s a good question, man... A Really good question.” Jake sighed, shaking his head, his eyes fixating in the direction of his tent, wondering if Crys had woken up yet. “How sure can someone be about something like this? If you ask if I think it’s necessary, then yes; absolutely.”
“Listen here, you know I don’t like to pry in anyone’s private affairs, but don’t think no one’s noticed a pattern in your behavior, my friend. Even back when you first joined the Knights, Captain knew you were escaping. Now things are looking up for you again, and the first thing you do is run off to do this?”
“Matthew... I appreciate the concern, I do, and trust me I know what this looks like, but that’s not what I’m doing. It’s really not.”
“You are aware that if you are caught, even if you live...”
“I can’t ever come back to this camp. I’ll be a wanted man to the end of my days. My children’s children will be wanted to the end of their days... Yes I know. Trust, no one knows this better than me, but I’m not going to get caught. I have every intention of coming home. Don’t think you’ll see a day when you’ll all be rid of me.” He chuckled. “The only reason I’m even telling you this is so someone knows what happened if for some eventuality I don’t make it back. I don’t want my sister to think this is me walking away from anything, but then I don’t want her or anyone else to know about this unless it’s completely necessary... I just can’t leave things the way they are and time is going by fast... It has to be now.”
“I can’t say I fully agree with that, Jake, but I understand. Just watch your back out there, man.”

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

Luckas woke up with a groan, feeling too warm and shoving Stalker away from him. “Ugh... Too much fluff...” He whined sleepily, snorting in a bit of annoyance as the wolf’s wet nose poked at his face and neck persistently not to let him go back to sleep. “Fiiine.” Luckas muttered out finally. “I’m awake.” Sitting up he shoved Stalker aside, the wolf whining playfully and giving Luckas one more nudge before running out of the tent. Luckas went on to look for his boots and spotted a crumpled up piece of paper, with clear signs of having been toyed with by the wolf; evidenced by the fact it was wet with drool when Luckas picked it up, but it was still readable. “Squirrels...” Luckas mumbled to himself, somewhat questioningly, scratching the back of his head. “Not my favorite, but alright.” He snickered, finding his boots and getting out of the tent sitting by the fire pit to put them on. Stalker was nowhere to be found and Luckas vaguely wondered what the wolf was up to that couldn’t wait for him. He was just about to wander off after the wolf, or Ess, or some squirrels maybe, when he saw Jake approach the camp, carrying a traveling bag and, Luckas assumed, all his weapons. “Morning sunshine!” Luke greeted in an overly sweet tone opening a clearly fake smile as he stared up at the man. “Did you take a good nap, hmm? Feeling more calm today?” He shut his smile and snorted loudly as he stood to leave. “Lady’s not here.”
“Good morning, Luckas.” Jake mumbled in response, calmly ignoring the man’s mockery. “I know she’s not here... I want to talk to you.”
Luckas halted as he was about to walk away, staring at Jake with a bit confusion in his eyes. “Did you just say ‘talk’? We don’t do the talking thing, J-Bear... That’s what’s so beautiful about our relationship, you know? We communicate with each other through hateful insults and minor injuries.”
“I don’t have time for this crap, Maggot.” Jake muttered out, stopping himself for a bit and taking a breath. “The woman who was with you at the Ball in Blackpond, who is she to you?”
Luckas’ eyes seemed to darken beyond their usual at Jake’s question. “What’s it to you?” He questioned.
“She looks dangerous... Dangerous beyond your level of skill... And that’s fine for you, if that’s what you want, but Ess worries about you, and if it becomes dangerous for her... I’ll be forced to get involved... I don’t like to get involved in things I know nothing about, so you can tell me, or I’ll find out.”
Luckas heaved a long sigh. “Alright, I’m going to be serious for a moment here, and pay attention because I’m only saying this once: She is none of your concern. She’s off limits to you and if I hear or even suspect that you’ve been sniffing where you’re not supposed to I’ll start crossing some lines of my own. Are we understood, J-Bear? Now... Was that all?”
“No, there’s one more thing.... When are you planning on leaving?” Jake asked, not seeming too fazed by the threats.
“I haven’t made plans, exactly, why?” Luckas muttered, clearly still annoyed with the questioning.
“I have something I need to take care of, it may be a good idea for you to stick around until I get back.”
“Me sticking around is... a good idea...?” Luckas mumbled snorting a bit of laughter. “Are you still drunk?”
Jake sighed softly. “Look... Shortly after I was kicked out of the Wolfpack Crys’ father came to see me and made me promise I’d always look out for her. When I said I wasn’t sure if that I was the best person to be asking that he said that probably not, but at least she’d let me. This isn’t very different... You’re the last person I’d ask to stick around, but Darren won’t be here and she’ll let you.”
“How long will you be gone for?”
“If all goes well, a day or two. If not... Well... You’ll hear about it.”
“What, don’t tell me you’re off to get yourself killed? Bad Jakey Bear... You know that’s a really big no-no.” Luckas mocked sweetly. “Don’t make any messes I might have to clean up after, boy.” He warned playfully, in a half-assed imitation of Lena.
“I’m not planning on getting myself killed and I know how to take care of my own messes, thank you very much... If I do make a mess with this, I don’t plan on bringing it back with me though. That would be stupid of me.” Jake groaned at himself for a moment. “Just stick around while I’m away and don’t mention this to Ess and I’ll... Owe you one.”
“Heh... You must really want this. Fine, I’ll try. I can’t make any promises though. I have a life of my own.”
“Riight... One that involves that Sam woman...” Jake snorted. “Do your best, yes?”
“How do you know her name?” Luckas asked, coldly. “I never told you her name, how do you know her name?”
“She’s been in camp, Luckas.” Jake stated simply.
“She came here months ago... The Blackpond Ball was months ago and you’re only just bringing this up now. Don’t insult my intelligence.”
“I asked Ess about her. I figured she would have at least seen her at the ball. Don’t worry, she only told me about the conversation they had basically. Nothing you might have told her... If you told her anything, that is. None of my business, at least not yet.” Jake shrugged, turning his back to Luckas and casually walking off. “See you when I see you, Vermin.”
Luckas glared at Jake as he left until the man disappeared amongst the tree, his attention eventually drawn to Stalker as the wolf returned proudly with a dead squirrel in his mouth. “Squirrels.” Luckas mumbled. “Huh.”

==================================================

[Desert - Middle of the afternoon]

The travel from the Raven’s Nest was calm, there wasn’t much conversation, but everyone seemed to be in a good enough mood. The forest was quiet as the Wolves had all retreated into their encampment. Crys seemed to become more and more aware of that silence as the time passed, and soon not even Dastan’s most foolish attempts were able to distract her from what she was about to go into. Ali wanted to go to the White Shadows, but agreed to follow the Crimson back to the desert first and wait there for her. She was unsure of what exactly Crys was meeting Sean for, if they were going to fight or talk; Crys seemed to not know the answer herself, but whatever happened between them would greatly influence the future of the Wolfpack as well as their own just-recently organized little faction. The silence in the forest was tense and filled with uncertainty; as was everywhere else in Valcrest lately. The road was a reminder of all the worries that had put aside the night before. The real world had not stopped for them.

Their arrival in the desert was met by Indrani, the woman walking past them all to greet Shadow, giving the horse a long inspecting gaze. “He needs new shoes, these are quite worn.” She half scolded, giving the horse a few affectionate pats, before greeting her brother with a hug.
“Yes, I know, Jake already told me about it. I plan on having him taken care of when we get to Blackpond. Been thinking, about getting him some armor as well. He was an army horse once after all.
“That’s not a bad idea.” Indrani agreed, briefly, stumbling slightly as Dastan leaned against her. “The party was good, I see.” She played.
“It was... It was fun.” Dastan agreed with a chuckle. “Think... Maybe I need some sleep now though...” He mumbled, rubbing his eyes as he walked ahead of the group towards the fire temple. Indrani watched with a bit of amusement as he stumbled a bit on his way. “Was there any booze left for the other guests at that party?” She questioned, turning to face Crys and Ali once again.
Ali glanced over Indrani’s shoulder at Dastan, the man had stopped walking about halfway to the temple. “He hasn’t had anything to drink since last night.” She pointed out. “And he was perfectly lucid a minute ago.”
Indrani frowned at Ali’s words, looking over her shoulder at where Dastan was standing as though he’d been frozen in place. “What...?” She mumbled under her breath, whatever sentence she planned on starting lost itself completely as all light seemed to slowly fade from the world around them.
“What the hell is this?” Ali muttered, squinting as she looked up trying to locate the sun, finding it had been covered by a mantle of shadows.
“indrani... You need to start moving your people into the temple... Right now.” Crys advised, grabbing Ali by the arm. “You, find a vantage point with a clear shot of Dastan.”
“What?” Ali protested. “It’s pitch black, how am I supposed to get a clear shot at anything?”
“Use your other senses, find him. If we can’t bring him down one way... This is what needs to be done, do you understand me?” Crys asked the question, but didn’t wait for an answer and simply pushed her in the direction she needed to go.

Ali ran, without hesitation without thinking of anything other than finding the spot, this large rock that stood just outside the camping area. The top of that rock gave a perfect view of the camp, or it would if it was possible to see anything in the absolute darkness that had enveloped the world. She still didn’t know how she would find Dastan in the confusion that ensued, and she tried as much as possible to ignore the familiar voices of the mercenaries as their screams began to echo in the dark. She tried to push away the thought of what horrible fates they might be suffering and focus on her task, but it was undeniably difficult even with her training, to hear past the screams and sounds of breaking bodies. It was an insane notion to think that even if she could find Dastan that way, that she would make the shot when she couldn’t know if there was something shielding the man from her. It was flawed plan in the very least, but Ali did as she was told and positioned herself on top of the the rock, and prepared to shoot.

“The fireworks!” Jackson shouted in the dark. Indrani couldn’t find the man at first, but she understood what he meant. It was a sound idea. “Jacks, take everyone into the temple, they should be safe as long as they’re not out in the open. I’ll take care of it.”
“I can’t let you do this by yourself, girl, are you mad!?” The man argued, grabbing her arm to try and hold her. “I’ll go.”
“No time to argue, it’s an order!” Indrani shouted, escaping Jackson’s hold and giving the man one forceful shove in the right direction before running at full speed to the tent that held the rest of the fireworks the boys had created. It wouldn’t last long, but setting them off would provide some form of visibility in the camp, it was a fighting chance if there ever was one. As she heard the first scream, Indrani halted, recognizing the voice of the man who scream, he had gone to the party with Dastan the day before. “Twins help us.” She muttered, forcing herself to move forward as there was nothing she could do for the man, as much as it hurt to admit it. It was more important to stop this, whatever it was, before too many were hurt or killed.

A few steps away from the tent Indrani felt something latch on to her arm, it felt like human hands, however they were cold and smooth like metal, claw-like ‘fingertips’ beginning to sink into her flesh as though trying to tear it from her bones slowly. Indrani screamed at the pain, unable to break free of the shadow’s grasp. That was when something very solid and very human collided with her forcefully, knocking her down on the sand, but at the same time causing the shadow to fade; the pain subsided, but Indrani could feel warm blood trickle down her arm from the puncture wound left by its ‘claws’. “Move.” Crys’ voice commanded sternly. “Indrani, get up... Go... MOVE! NOW!” She urged. Indrani forced herself to move, still a bit shake by the impact, but remembering what she was about to do. As she started to move away from Crys she could hear the metal of the woman sword occasionally colliding with something solid and the realization hit her that the woman was trying to fight her way to Dastan. Not wasting the time to decide on whether she thought that was insane, brilliant or both, she started to work on setting off the fireworks. There were enough inside the tent for the explosions to last a few solid minutes and hopefully that would be all they needed. Hopefully.

It was an odd feeling, but not one Crys was unfamiliar with entirely, the shadows. They were living beings, but they were not alive, they couldn’t be affected by her enlightenment, nor could she be affected by their existence. Whenever she felt she needed to explain what it felt to be an empath she compared the human existence to a voice, what she endured on a daily basis was to her, now, constant whispers, blank noise. Unless she chose to focus on a voice she would know it’s there, but would be unable to make out the words. Death created a sudden silence where that voice used to be, as if cut off mid-sentence never to be heard again. It caused an impact, a momentary shock, but only for a few moments. The first thing she felt before she was told the sky had gone black, was Dastan’s voice starting to fade. Which she thought was impossible, because she knew for a fact her friend was still standing there alive. It was then that she realized that that absence she felt were the shadows themselves as though they were living representations of death itself; that feeling, that silence, increasing more and more accompanied by the scream of those unfortunate enough not to take cover, or foolish enough to attempt a confrontation. You can’t harm something that feels no pain, you can’t kill something that is not truly living... And you can’t save yourself from darkness; because darkness is everywhere. There was an advantage to this, to the silence, to the absence, to the vacuum; Crys could feel it. She could feel its presence as something cold and empty crawling its way up her spine a presence apart from humanity, and now she understood why Dastan had been so persistent that they trained together the past three years. “You clever boy.” She whispered, drawing her weapons. “You’re not going to die today.”

Ali nocked an arrow and waited, wincing slightly at the fireworks that began to shoot into the air and explode in flashes of light, bringing occasional clarity to the confusion, revealing silhouettes of men and women trying to fight off the shadows and getting the worse of it, mercenaries dropping like flies in the blood soaked sand. Their screams echoing through the air and silencing at the cold hands of Death. Ali found Dastan and she watched, she waited even though if it was entirely up to her she would have taken the shot. As much as Dastan was her friend and the thought brought her a great deal of discomfort, Ali couldn’t help but feel like his life wasn’t actually worth all of this. In the flashes caused by the fireworks she watched as Crys and Indrani worked their way past the shadow creatures trying to reach Dastan. Indrani had been injured in a few places, but Crys was somehow untouched.

Ali’s eyes were hurting from the constant change from dark to light to dark again, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to focus on what was happening, the whole scene blurring together into one confusing mess and then... as abruptly as it had begun... It all came to a stop. As light slowly returned to Valcrest both Indrani and Dastan were fallen in the crimson-stained sand. Time seemed to stop for a long silent moment before the encampment descended into chaos once more. The people who had made it into the temple and taken covered were now stepping outside to sight of their slain brothers and sisters and understandably they fell into despair. Crys had dropped her weapons and was trying to stop Indrani from bleeding out from a serious puncture wound in her abdomen. Ali had already ran towards the two in the time it took her to realize that it, whatever it had been, was over and she immediately started helping Crys by applying pressure to Indrani’s bleed. Meanwhile, Jackson was shouting like a maniac at no one in particular trying to get people to go back into the temple, but it was clear no one was listening. Crys stepped away from Ali and Indrani for a few moments to help Jackson put some order to the chaos. Together they organized groups: one to set up the infirmary inside the temple and another to search for survivors amongst the fallen mercenaries. Having something to do seemed to calm everyone’s spirits for some time and with Jackson’s help they moved Indrani to the temple, leaving Dastan in the sand. In the time Jackson and Crys took to see that Indrani was stabilized and leave her in Ali’s care no one had moved the man; not even to see if he was still alive. “Dastan made me promise that if something like this happened I wouldn’t let him live to see it.” Jackson muttered. “Is that what I’m supposed to do now, Red?”
“No.” Crys answered, approaching her friend and confirming that he was simply unconscious. “What happened here was... It wasn’t all him, if it was even him. It couldn’t have been. He’s not this powerful. To summon one shadow alone and control it takes a lot out of him... this was the work of at least ten of them. My suggestion would be to lock him up, so he doesn’t do anything stupid when he wakes up, and send someone to the White Shadows. Have Annie take a look at him, at the damage done, maybe she’ll be able to tell you more. Not to mention, Indrani will need a healer. She lost a lot of blood.”
“He’ll hate me, both of us, for letting him wake up to this.” Jackson sighed “I suppose it makes sense though...”
“If it turns out he did this, if he is that unstable, and there’s no other way... I’ll take care of it for you. You shouldn’t have to do this.” Crys offered.
“I appreciate it Red, but... He’s my brother, my leader... If you were in my place, would you let anyone else do this?”
Crys nodded in agreement to Jackson words, he was right; she wouldn’t. It doesn’t mean she would be right in her decision, but there was no use in arguing this matter. “I understand. I’ll delay my return to Blackpond and come back here one more time after my business in the forest is done. Lowell and Ali were to return to Newhaven, but ask them to stay here until then. I might decide I need them elsewhere.” As Crys spoke she gathered her sword, fallen during the commotion. “I would stay, but I need to go deal with Sean once and for all... I refuse to drag this out any longer.”
“You’re going like this? You have blood on your clothes, and your hands.” Jackson pointed out.
“Good.” Crys muttered, wiping the blood and sand the had clung to her sword before sheathing it. “Looking like a bloody psychopath will probably work in my favor.”

Most people liked to think of darkness as absence of light, and shadows as manifestations of darkness. Maybe in a way that wasn’t entirely wrong, but for Dastan as of his early teens; shadow was an element of its on... darkness was a living breathing part of his being in a way. A part of him that he didn’t always know how to manage. The incidents had been few, and far in the past, but as of late the mercenary had started to realize that the past is never truly dead.

”I think he’s waking up... Jackson! He’s waking up!”

Dastan groaned faintly, his eyes still closed. He felt an intense pain on his head as if something was stabbing right through it. It took him a few moments to realized he was bound in chains and when he finally did, he tried to remember why. Immediately he regretted trying as it all came back to him; the darkness... The light... And every moment of the chaos that followed. He couldn’t do anything to stop, try as he might. It wasn’t like the other times. It was a blackout. The memories didn’t fade away; they remained. “Why.” He mumbled, opening one eyes to the blurred image of Jackson sitting opposite to him. “Why... Am I still alive? I thought... I made clear what you should do if this happened.”
“I know.” Jackson answered.
“Why?” THe man repeated.
“We called Annie to come see you... We’re waiting.” Jackson retorted, not answering his question.
“Jack...” Dastan protested.
“We’re waiting.” The man cut him off. “Indrani made me promise.”
“She’s alive?” Dastan lifted his head and opened both eyes to stare at his friend. He remembered way too clearly the shadow’s blade stabbing through his sister, it was the very last thing he remembered, and he was absolutely sure until that moment that she had been killed.
“Barely.” Jackson muttered. “Ali is tending to her wounds the best she can, but until the healers arrive we can’t be sure she’ll pull through.”
“She’s out of commission, so am I... You have to do it now, Jackson...”
“The Crimson Shadows... Are no more... Dastan” Jackson mumbled, somewhat to himself. “What orders you’ve given me and the chain of command no longer matter... Whatever happens next is between you, me, your sister and about a dozen terrified mercenaries. I’m not about to put that decision on their shoulders, but I sure as hell ain’t making it myself until I hear it from the healers.”
“It won’t matter!” Dastan shouted. “What they have to say... Doesn’t matter... This... Is how it has to happen!”
“Don’t!” Jackson shouted back at him, taking a deep breath which barely calmed the tone of his voice. “Don’t ask me... Don’t beg me to do this... It’s hard enough as it is without your pleas on my conscience... We lost.... EVERYTHING.... today because of you. Don’t ask me for anything. Just don’t. We’re waiting.”
“How many?” Dastan asked coldly.
“I lost count.” Jackson snorted. “There are few mercenaries left... Civilian casualties weren’t so severe... We hid them in the temple, most of them were safe, but not all of them made it. The skies... Went dark... We couldn’t see... There was barely a chance of putting up a fight. Only Crys and Indrani managed... To do something.”
“Crys... Is she here?”
“She had to go meet Sean and get this situation of their settled for good. She wasn’t hurt though; Indrani got to you before she could stop her... I don’t know why she thought she could do this on her own... That stupid kid... Crys told Ali to find high ground and shoot you down if they couldn’t... I don’t understand how she could have made the shot in that confusion.”
“I don’t understand why that wasn’t the first thing they tried... Why get close... why waste time...”
“They wanted to save you.”
“They should have saved THEM! They should have stopped this!” Dastan shouted, struggling violently against his restraints, eventually giving up and dropping down to the floor with a groan. “This isn’t mercy.” He muttered.

“He awoke.” Jackson announced, entering the makeshift infirmary. “How is she holding up?”
“Pretty sure fever’s setting in.” Ali informed, calmly checking the bandaged wound on Indrani’s abdomen, she passed out again a few minutes ago, thankfully. I’m not a healer and I don’t care much for people’s feverish rambles. Who’s with him?”
“One of your guys... Uhm... Lyle... Clyde... Clayton... I don’t know...”
“Lowell?” Ali smirked.
“Same difference.” Jackson shrugged. “You know Shaykh... He cursed everyone for not killing him and then just... stopped responding. I offered him water but he refused to drink... I think he’s just... Done, you know. Can you blame him? Look at what he’s done.”
“Yeah, Jackson... I looked... I’ve been looking at it for a while now.” Ali muttered at him. “He can’t do this. You can’t let him do this.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t exactly disagree with him.” Jackson stated coldly.
“That’s bullshit... He’s your best friend. You know he would never willingly do this.”
“You don’t know... The history... Did Dastan ever tell you about his father?” Jackson asked, not waiting for Ali to respond, knowing very well what her answer would be. “When Dastan was to be born, his father tried to kill him in the womb... Tried to kill his mother... Shouting to the winds that the baby was cursed and all sorts of other nonsense... Indrani’s father had to kill the man to save his pregnant wife... Dastan’s mother died giving birth to him... Vikram, his brother, would not let all the rumors and whispers get in his head, but ever since he died Dastan struggled to keep control... And then... Lila...”
“Lila?”
“Dastan never talks about her anymore, he doesn’t like to think about it, and he wouldn’t want me telling anyone, but screw it... Lila was his fiancee, but... While he was imprisoned in Blackpond, and everyone thought he had died, she left with another man, a traveler, followed him out of Valcrest to the south. He never saw her again. He didn’t take that very well, the fact that she hadn’t waited... He never... well... You know him... He’s been a ‘one night only’ kinda guy ever since. The poor girl tore his heart to pieces and probably still thinks he died in a dungeon somewhere. Tragic.”
“I had no idea.” Ali mumbled, shaking her head. “Dastan always seemed so... unaffected, you know? And after the party he was in such a great mood too.”
“The guys mentioned he had been doing better than they had seen him in months, but... It takes a toll on a person’s sanity, what he went through. He was alone in the dungeons for a very long time in the dark, with no other company but the voices in his head. The first months he was back, after he discovered Lila was gone, we thought he wouldn’t recover... He had been like that lately, before the party, drinking more than his usual, sleeping his days away... He’s been ill for months now...”
“If he’s ill, then we need to try to help him, right?”
“Of course, but... Maybe we just can’t... Help him... Blondie. And if that’s the case, then we can’t let this happen again.” Jackson replied, rubbing his eyes wearily. “It might not matter whether or not we can’t help him either... We can’t undo what he’s done. This will always haunt him one way or another.”

[The Forest - About an hour later]

Crys arrived at the meeting place and was actually surprised at the fact that Sean wasn’t there. She knew she was late, so she expected he would be there already, instead she found Ryan waiting for her. “Hello, Crystal.” The man greeted coldly.
“Ryan... Where’s your Alpha?” Crys asked, not really in the mood for chit chat at this point.
“Sean... Isn’t coming.” Ryan stated simply. “I’ll explain why if you’ll just come with me to camp.”
“That’s not what we agreed on, Ryan.” Crys frowned.
“I know, I’m really sorry, but I don’t think we should discuss this here. I promise this is not a trick in anyway, just come with me.”
Crys hesitated, something was definitely wrong and yet, it did seem to her like Ryan was being sincere. “Fine. Lead the way.” She agreed. "This better not be some sort of ruse, because trust me; today is not the day to piss me off."
"Well, by the looks of you I'd say someone else beat me to it." Ryan retorted.
"Right... This..." Crys mumbled. "Let's just say you really don't want to piss me off today."
Ryan sighed wearily. "Well, I'm afraid I can't promise you that."

The setting changes from valcrest to Raven's Nest

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Evin Bana Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Annie Turner Character Portrait: Allison Blake Character Portrait: Ess Character Portrait: Darren Hearst

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[Raven's Nest]

Luckas wasn’t sure what had happened, but he knew that, whatever the cause, when all light vanishes from the world that can’t possibly be a good sign. The darkness spread quickly, bringing forth a moment of stunned silence followed by noise and confusion. Luke himself was standing very still in the same spot, not wanting to get in the way of anything or anyone in the pitch black encampment. After a few moments though he simply started to move, seemingly without direction until he spotted sudden flashes of light and began to follow. He could hear Stalker walking a few steps ahead of him and continued to calmly walk after the wolf, stopping only when he heard the voices of Jason and Lily discussing prayer. He stood quietly listening to their whispers until suddenly the Sun came back to life once again. Luckas closed his eyes initially as if the light stung them a sudden memory whispering in the back of his mind causing and his eyes to snap open as if he forgot for a second where he was. “ If you spend enough time in the dark, it doesn’t matter whether or not you find the light, because in the end all the light will do is blind you.” When he seemed sure enough that he was in fact still in the Nest and not elsewhere Luckas mumbled a response to Ess’ questioning on Jake’s whereabouts. “J-Bear went out early in the morning with the Whiny Kid. He stopped by while you were out running, but he didn’t stick around.” He half smiled scratching behind Stalker’s ears. “Good job with the whole praying thing by the way. Looks like it worked.”

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

[Healer's Camp]

Minutes had gone by since the sun returned to Valcrest, however its appearance had done nothing to ease people’s fears. Throughout the White Shadows encampment frightened whispers and hushed prayers were still being uttered from patients and healers alike, but on the surface at least there was still some form of order. Annie didn’t quite believe the wrath of the Gods was causing all the problems, but something wasn’t right; that much she knew for sure. Lena had taught Annie to respect the myths for what they represented and not dwell unnecessarily on any notion of truths or lies. It was unhealthy and foolish, she would say, to claim yourself certain of things that were uncertain by nature. So Annie didn’t fear uncertainty, nor did she fear the Gods; or even nature, which left her with considerably little to fear in Life. What she did fear in that particular moment was something that felt as certain as it felt unnatural: Something was killing otherwise perfectly healthy people. That was infinitely more frightening to her than all the land falling into a dark abyss for a few minutes. This was her reality. So she didn’t care what God they prayed to, she needed the Healers to at least hold themselves together while this happened.

She had somewhat commanded Darren to go check on the younger patients while Alistair calmed their parents, something she kind of felt bad for; the guy was not one of her people and she shouldn’t be bossing him around, but she knew she had little time if she wanted to stop any form of panic before it even started, so she made sure to seek out the more impressionable of her healers and calm them down the best she could and they in turn helped in calming the apprentices and the majority of the patients. Anyone watching her handle the situation would be impressed at her leadership skills, but Annie knew well that it was pride that kept most of those healers; great majority of which were at least five years older than her, from falling apart when Annie herself seemed so collected. She didn’t mind; their pride served her purpose.

When things seemed finally quiet again Annie took a long deep breath, finding Alistair still conversing with some upset parents who wanted access to their children right away. It would be way too much people in the sick ward if all the youngsters were allowed their parents, so Alistair was trying. as a compromise, to make arrangements to move the minors someplace more isolated where the parents wouldn’t be a disruption to other patients, but that would take some time to accomplish and that caused some level of unrest. As she waited for her friend to finish trying to appease the angered men and women, Annie was suddenly approached by a Crimson Shadow who had somehow made his way into camp in a hurry and barely noticed, making his way straight to her and stopping to catch his breath so that he could speak. “Miss Annie... I need you to come with me to the desert... There’s a... Situation...” He managed to blurt out.
“A situation?” Annie questioned, finding a flask of water and offering it to the distressed mercenary. “What sort of situation would require my presence this urgently?”
“Dastan.” The man stated, accepting the water and taking a long drink.
“What about Dastan?” Annie asked, seeming a bit confused. “Is he injured?”

The Crimson Shadow didn’t speak his answer, he simply averted his gaze to the sky above their heads and then back down to meet the girl’s eyes, the expression on his face was mournful and pained and it told a story more tragic than any words would ever express. Annie sighed heavily, grasping the man’s shoulder in a gesture of support. “How many injured?” She asked.
“There are... A few... Some gravely injured, Indrani was stabbed clean through the abdomen, Ali was tending to her the best she could, but she won’t survive much longer without further care. I was asked to bring you specifically, though, because of him.”
“I see.” Annie mumbled. “I don’t know what I can do for Dastan, but I’ll go.”
“Good, that’s good...” The man replied. “I’ll run ahead and let them know you’re coming, that should calm people down some.” The mercenary half smiled, returning the empty water flask to Annie. “Much appreciated, Miss.”

As the Crimson Shadow wandered off a healer approached Annie, the woman taking a moment of pause to glance at the mercenary as he walked away before addressing Annie. “Someone’s asking for you, he says he has urgent news from the Wolves for you, regarding their Alpha. The man doesn’t look very well, perhaps something bad happened there.”
Annie frowned slightly, she didn’t know why someone would come bring her news regarding the Wolfpack. She looked questioningly at the healer and the woman pointed out the person in question. Annie recognized Evin and was a bit more confused at why the man would be coming to her with this. “Do me a favor, Elora. Go fetch my medicine pack in my tent and bring it to Darren, tell him to please meet me in the southern exit of camp. I’ll be there in a minute.” Annie didn’t wait around for the woman to respond and began walking towards Evin where he stood waiting, waving at the man in a silent greeting as she approached as if to skip the conversational pleasantries. “You’ve chosen a terrible moment to stop by for a chat, Evin.” She stated, gesturing for the man to walk with her as she paced towards the exit. “Something has happened in the Crimson camp that requires my immediate attention, so... If this is something that might take us more than a few minutes I suggest you travel with me. If not then I ask that you speak quickly. Now, what urgent news do you have to give me?”

Evin stood around for a few minutes while waiting for Annie to arrive. He hadn't been to the White Shadows' camp in a long time and judging by the number of people there, things were worse than he expected. Besides the several people who were still panicking over the momentary loss of light, there were several people who looked severely ill all around him. Every single one of them looked similar to what Lena had looked like the last time her and Evin had ever spoken.
Evin was completely caught off guard when Annie spoke to him. He'd been looking away and spun around to meet her gaze. It might have been stress, but even she had seen better days.
“Yes. The urgent news.” Evin stopped. He hadn't actually said it aloud yet. He'd thought about it the entire trip but it hadn't quite sunk in until that moment. “Sean is dead. Drowned in the lake.” He paused again. Let the moment sink in for both of them. “I may have hated the man, but if there are any respects you've to pay, I thought you might want to know... sorry for the timing.”
Evin looked around again. He saw all the death around him. People suffering far worse than he was. “That isn't the real reason I came here though. Your mother knew things. The last time I spoke to her, I knew that she knew more than she would ever tell me. She might not have been an assassin anymore, but she told me through her evasiveness that there was far more to Valcrest than there is to be seen. I just need some answers. Let's walk and talk.”

Annie faltered in her step once, stopping for a split second at news of Sean’s death and then continuing to walk. She flinched once again at Evin’s questioning of what her mother had been doing; at least she wasn’t the only one wondering about that. She walked in silence for a few seconds after that before finally responding. “If the Wolves wish me to give the Alpha a blessing before the burial I’m sure they’ll send for me.” She stated simply, not making any further comments on the matter of Sean. “As for answers, my mother left me with none. I mean, she left me with something, but it has yet to answer any questions. It’s a journal, but it is encrypted and I have been trying to figure it out, but I haven’t had much success with it. The fact the she left this for me leads me to think that the key is in something personal of hers, but I can’t figure out what. I thought it might be a book, but I’m starting to doubt that assumption.” The girl shrugged slightly. “Other than that, I don’t know how I could help you. She didn’t even tell me where she was going when she left and she evaded any questions asked about her time away. Alistair spoke with her a few months before she came back, she sought him out in the farm where he’d been living just outside of Valcrest borders. She told him nothing then either, just encouraged him to come back.”

The world was casted into darkness, interrupting with a creepy sense of poetic timing, on the conversation Darren and Annie were having on the topic of murdering his father and what that would mean for him. He just couldn’t relate Asher to that title of ‘Father’ any longer; it was more like a worn out analogy that created a numbing feeling in his gut. The ominous stripping of light was, strangely, a pleasant distraction to his thoughts, and while others seemed frightened by the sudden turn of event, Darren was intrigued and only somewhat uneasy. It was different, unlike the others who were cursing the Gods or fearful for the end of all things; Darren didn’t even wonder or doubt that the light wouldn’t return. What made him uneasy about the whole thing was the possibility that this wasn’t some twisted cycle in nature. Over the course of the past few months, he had met more incredible individuals than he could have possibly ever imagined; as if the stories from those pages he sucked in like a sponge were now coming to life. It would be a marvel if indeed there were those out there cable of such powerful gifts, when combined, could shatter the reality they all thought they knew.


Darren had subconsciously reached out and squeezed Annie’s hand before leaving her side. “Whatever You need, Annie...of course.” Was Darren’s only response when he was advised where he would be best made of some use. He would have rather stayed by her side, but there was no time to dwell or argue, as the state of unrest among the Shadows needed to be kept under control.

Remembering where the baby fox was lying, Darren scooped down, enveloping his arms around the kit before calling Sora to his side. Those two would come in handy, he knew, especially with the children. He proved himself correct, when some of the younger children couldn’t or wouldn’t focus on a story or song Darren was attempting to use in distraction, so he would take turns with the baby fox, placing him sweetly on their laps to pet as it slept.

Even in the torchlight, Sora was hard to spot, but she remained ever so watchful at the entrance as if to block any admittance without her approval. When the light had returned, a few of the children sat up in bed in delight, calling out to the wolf, who happily complied by nuzzling and licking the faces of the weaker ones and curling up in the cots of some of the older kids. Before long Darren and Sora had made their rounds, Sora the ever so popular one as always; watchful and nurturing like those kids were her own pups. Darren’s masked companion; the children’s vengeful protector.

Darren smiled leaving both Sora and the kit fox with the kids, happy that not a single one of them feared the wild animal. He remembered how some of the parents were rather uncomfortable at first with the presence of such a wild beast, not believing it could be so tamed. In many ways there were right, but they only saw what was upon the surface until Sora alerted some of the healers one night. She just wouldn’t stop barking and howling, dancing circles around the men and women until they followed, only to find one of the children was having a seizure. It was then they discovered, not only did Sora understand the kids were sick, but she somehow could sense when they would have a fit. That in itself, because of Darren’s history with seizures, made him feel even safer around his furry friend.

Darren quietly went to exit, leaving Sora to lull the rest of the children to sleep, accidentally bumping into one of the healers. “Pardon..” He whispered, flashing a familiar charming smile at the woman he remembered as Elora.

Elora smiled, holding out a rather large medicine bag which Darren recognized as Annie’s, receiving it with a quirk of an eyebrow. “What is it, Elora?”

“Annie says you are to meet her at the southern exit, now. Take this to her.” The woman whispered back, draping the leather strap along his shoulder. “Don’t keep her waiting.” She sighed, letting Darren pass by her only to replace his presence with her own. Darren didn’t even think to question why he was requested, only too happy to help, but he knew if they were leaving the camp, he would need to gather some supplies for wherever they were heading.

After acquiring some rations and water flasks, he waited patiently by the exit, fidgeting with his hat. “No Sora, you are suppose to stay.” He muttered under his breath when the wolf came trotting after him to lay at his feet. “Stubborn wolf..”

Evin knew it already. Annie wasn't going to be an enormous amount of help, but any piece of information that she could provide was more useful than none. What was useful information was determined by how much a single person knew. All Evin wanted to do is be the person who knew the most. “Okay. Is there anything else? Small details of any sorts that could be useful? Did Lena ever mention anything that may be useful?”

Annie rubbed her temples as she walked, taking the time to think carefully on a possible answer she might have to give. "Well, I don't know what you might consider useful, Evin. Are you looking for something specific? The last week or so my mother was alive she spent in the archives, I saw her maybe once or twice then. The month prior to that she was away from camp. She met with a few people, but I'm not sure I know them all. The Captain of the White Knights was one, Mageria... She was going to Blackpond, but she turned around for some reason, that drew my attention. She never got along with any Blackpond officials, even less with their old King, but she never avoided the city before. More than that, I really can't say."

As they drew closer to the exit Annie fastened her pace just a bit until they reached Darren, not wanting to keep him waiting longer than needed and greeting him with an apologetic smile. “I take it the children weren’t too much of a challenge for the two of you.” She played, leaning down to pet Sora briefly before taking her pack off Darrens hands and continuing to walk towards the desert with visible urgency in her step, trusting that the two men would follow. “Darren, if you don’t mind me bossing you just a bit more, the Crimson have asked for my help and I might need some assistance. I didn’t want to bring another healer with me because... Of what just happened here.” She paused for a moment before elaborating a bit more. “Things are tense enough as it is and I don’t want any rumors before I see for myself what happened. I’m not sure what the two of you know about Dastan and his enlightenment, so I don’t know what I’m allowed to say... For what I understand though, he lost control of it and there was a considerable number of casualties.” She informed, now addressing Evin as well. “The man who came to call me didn’t say it, but I know that they called for me directly because they want me to examine Dastan and tell them whether he’s still dangerous before they... Decide his fate.” She mumbled the last words with a bit of annoyance at being asked to determine whether or not a friend should be put down like a wounded animal, it wasn’t alright with her, but as a healer she was forced to give an honest answer and not interfere with the Crimson and their laws. She shook her head after a few moments of silent contemplation, and chuckled. “I’m sorry, I have terrible manners... Evin, Darren... Darren, Evin... Have you two met already? I mean, you have plenty of common acquaintances after all.”

Darren gave Annie a playful wink. “Oh, you flatter. You know full well those kids could care less if I’m there. It’s always, ‘Where’s Sora?’..or ‘When’s Sora coming back?’..or ‘..Mr. Darren..can I have Sora? I promise to take good care of her.’.” Darren chuckled. “I’m happy she brings them some sort of comfort. Kind of like a drug, but without the loopy and disconnected feeling.”

Darren fell into step just behind Annie and their traveling companion, nodding along to the woman's words on coming along. “Whatever you need, Annie.” His smile fell, listening to the bits Annie explained in their destination and burning purpose he felt when he had to take longer strides to keep in even pace with her. Tipping his hat, he politely nodded towards Evin. “Yea...I believe we sorta met back in Blackpond at that Ball...brief as that was.” Darren quirked a brow, squinting in the sunlight as his eyes examined the man curiously, noting how worn Evin appeared, thinking that he looked like Darren sometimes felt. “Guy...you don’t look too good..no offense. You need anything?” He asked, unhooking a flask from his side and offering the water to Evin.

“So..this might be a really stupid question...but I need to ask it. Do we know what happened? I understand we don’t want wild rumors running rampant and superstition taking hold if there is a rational explanation to all of this..but..” Darren cleared his throat, tilting his hat back so that he could look between his company clearly, without obstruction. “...Are we under attack? I mean...is it possible someone or someones are responsible? I’m not one to believe the Gods had anything to do with it..”

It was interesting. What deterred a tough as nails woman like Lena from visiting Blackpond. It was something that was worth keeping close to the forefront of his mind. Another thing worth keeping in his mind was the fact that Lena had been going through the archives in the last few weeks of her life. In terms of the wealth of knowledge, the White Shadows archives held so much, that forgotten gems still hadn't been found. Even Lena herself wouldn't have been able to read through the entirety of the archives. However, whatever she needed to know were in those archives. Lena wouldn't have wasted so much time otherwise.
As they reached the exit, a familiar face. He didn't remember the face or even where they had met, but Evin knew they'd seen each other before. Annie continued to talk, not to him this time, so he didn't really pay attention. When she mentioned Dastan, Evin perked up. A skip in his step that he didn't have before. He hadn't seen the man in such a long time. Not since the Ball, but it had been even longer since they'd had a proper conversation. Annie's way of speech was much like her mothers, very evasive. Evin understood what must have happened and the Sun going out added up to something disastrous.
When Annie looked at Evin and expressed how the Crimsons wanted to know what to do with him, it felt like he had been hit. He'd missed a step and stumbled. When he caught himself he wondered: was Annie giving him an invitation to do what she knew she couldn't do? The thought hurt Evin. Dastan had taken him and the other abandoned Wolves.
Then reality sunk in. It wasn't her place to ask of that of someone who wasn't a member of the Crimsons. If Annie was asking for anything, it would have been protection.
Then finally, a name. Darren tipped his hat to him and then went on. Speaking of the illness, but what Evin held onto was the offer of help that was directed at him.
“I need answers... kid” he said in a jabbing tone as to notate the fact that the young guy could not even take the time to use the name that he had just been told by Annie. “Unless you have any of them, I'm afraid there's nothing you can give me. What we have here is not normal. Lena was the first one to get it and it didn't spread on until long after her death. It isn't being spread like any other illness like your everyday cold. In fact, I'd almost say that it doesn't spread at all, but that it is attacking us all at once.” He turned to Annie. “I'm going to say that it is safe to assume that you don't know what it was that kept Lena away from Blackpond. The books that she liked to read, however, I imagine you could give me a general idea of what those were. More importantly, the stuff she read just before leaving for the South and the books she read right before her death.”

Annie was silent through most of the talking, but she had listened to Darren and Evin and was carefully considering both lines of questioning. “You knew my mother Evin.” She spoke up finally. “She had the infuriating habit of never giving straight answers. She believed, I think, that she did us a disservice by giving us answers when we wanted them instead of letting us discover them when we truly needed them... She never left people with nothing, however. I don’t see why death would change that about her. I’m convinced that in some way she told everyone what she was thinking, and that it’s simple. If you want access to the archives, you have it. She had been reading everything and anything regarding the Myths, the Twins, and enlightenment and so have I in the past six months. As for Blackpond...” Annie paused, stopping for a split second and resuming her walk. “I could speculate, but I don’t know. The King and his assassins didn’t scare her, however, it was around that time that Jake discovered that the Shadow’s dagger was in the city, it might have had to do with that... Or maybe something else entirely. There’s plenty happening in Blackpond. Jake would know some of it. Have you two not spoken at all since he left the desert?” She questioned curiously.

Falling into a second moment of silence the girl walked with her head down, as if awaiting the moment when the grassy soil of the plains would begin to change into the bare wasteland of Valcrest desert, she eventually shook her head and spoke up rather abruptly, addressing Darren’s questioning. “A powerful enough enlightened could cause an eclipse, if that’s what you mean, either someone with the gift of Illusion or... Someone with the gift of shadow manipulation.” She fell silent again, finally heaving a sigh. “I think the Crimson Shadows suspect Dastan of doing this, but I’m not sure if he could have. If this wasn’t a natural phenomenon, and Dastan wasn’t the cause, I would consider the possibility that this was in some way an attack directed at the Crimson Shadows. It would be something clever, no? To wipe out a clan and successfully frame their own leader.” She shrugged calmly. “I won’t know until I see the damage.”

“Hmm..” Darren pondered how Evin described how the illness was spreading like wildfire but it wasn’t as if it were contagious. The plaguing questions of how and why the sickness was affecting enlightened seemed as if they would never be answered. “..Would be so much easier if we knew the source...the trigger..” Darren muttered to himself, thinking out loud and not paying attention to the fact his thoughts were now in the open as he rambled a bit incoherently All those times he watched Annie reread the same myths over and over again, trying to sort out some kind of clue, he was in awe that there seemed to be no real lead to what could be causing it all. “..It’s like there’s something in the food..” He snorted at himself. “..So much easier to understand if I had something tangible to put my hands on…” Darren sighed, kicking a stray rock from his path, glancing over to Annie once again.

“Do..you think there’s a way for me..to help? To see? Or does that cross some boundaries? I know it’s risky...it takes a lot out of me...but maybe something of your Mom’s?” Darren removed his hat to ruffle up his hair before placing it back on his head. He was beginning to frustrate himself, grasping for straws, so to speak, with no real direction. “I did decide...that when Mom goes to the ruins...to whatever is left of her town..I’m going with her. Maybe it will be like..” Darren grunted and shrugged, thinking of Ess’ dagger and the array of images that flooded his mind that seemed to stretch back across centuries. It still didn’t make a lot of sense to him.

“I don’t get it. Why would Dastan’s own people blame him for causing the eclipse? Why would Dastan…” Darren fell silent shaking his head, knowing not to finish that sentence. If Dastan was even responsible, it was something he wouldn’t do on purpose. He was a leader and Darren had seen bits here and there in his brief encounters, how important his friends and Crimson alike, appeared to him. “..If there is the possibility that a person could be strong enough to manipulate the eclipse and cause that amount of damage...who is to say someone..in theory..couldn’t be responsible for the sickness? I dunno...seems like something of that magnitude...would kill someone. Nevermind...that doesn’t make sense…” Darren brushed off his own thoughts feeling a bit silly for voicing his mind so freely.

Evin didn't care too much about how the eclipse happened. He kept out of the conversation regarding that. What Darren had said—how he could help—did make Evin perk up, however. Although Darren didn't make much sense as his mind was jumbled it seemed. What he seemed to grasp was that he had some sort of enlightenment that might be useful for Evin, but he was afraid that it may be against the rules to do so. It seemed that Darren might be able to invade the privacy of the dead somehow.
“Darren, Annie; you two are young so I don't expect you to understand this just yet, but I've learned something in my time. There comes a point in your life where you are given a choice to give up something worth a million times more than an order or rule. I did it for a woman. You could do it for the lives of tens of thousands.” He let that sit in Darren's mind and he walked a little faster to walk at level with Annie. He spoke in a hushed tone. “Now Lena's Journal, really think about it. Is there anything special that she ever said to you or maybe even Jake while you were around? Did she maybe leave the key with Alistair or possibly leave some secret on her old ring? Is it some sort of reference to a myth or medical term?” And then, he said aloud. “And being a White Shadow, what do you know about this illness that I may not know?”

Once again Annie was silent for quite a while, giving a pause long enough to lead one to believe she had nothing left to say, her eyes already searching the path ahead for the red flags that marked the entrance of the Crimson Shadows’ camp. She didn’t know if it was worse to think of what may lie ahead or to keep her mind in the topic of conversation. Nothing was particularly pleasant. “Tens of thousands, ourselves, and pretty much everyone we care about.” She stated simply, not turning to face Evin, but clearly addressing the man with a tone of annoyance in her voice. “Everyone here is old enough to understand that much, so I’d consider any reminders to be... Unnecessary, don’t you think? Regardless, how my mother’s belongings or memories are handled, and by whom, is not something I’m willing to allow you to have any say in.” She glanced at the man briefly, her annoyance turning into a discreet tone of warning.

The girl heaved a sigh and her tone softened as she answered his question of what she could tell of the illness. “What we know is that whatever this is it only affects enlightened, we’ve ruled out any form of poisoning and we don’t believe it is contagious, or even spreading; as you said so yourself. We believe every enlightened in Valcrest is already afflicted and it’s a matter of time until symptoms start to manifest in those not experiencing them yet. We have no clue why some people develop symptoms sooner than others, the casualties were... diverse...” Annie shook her head. “You know, my mother always made sure I studied, made sure I knew as much if not more than the other healers did; even though most of the senior healers thought it unnecessary due to my enlightenment. She’d say that there is no way to properly fix something that’s broken if you have no understanding of how it works. If this afflicts enlightened and it is connected to the magic itself, as most already assume it does, no medicine will fix it... Because in thousands of years of study, dating back to the first scholars of Blackhurst, we still have no clue how enlightenment works. The myths offer so many inconsistencies that they probably outnumber the stars in the sky. I believe that my mother’s incessant digging at the mythology books has to do with that. I believe she did not find an answer herself, but there may be something incredibly valuable in her research... In that bloody journal... And I’m certain that she believed someone is, if not responsible; if that would even be possible, at least attempting to insure that this will kill us all. I see no reason why she would encrypt something that would, in theory, never be seen by anyone else other than myself unless she was worried someone would succeed in taking it from me. That is everything I know and some of my assumptions... And as you can see it’s not much.”

Walking a few more steps in silence Annie allowed herself to consider Darren’s offer of help, it was valid, but at this moment it was indeed risky to try it. She turned her head to watch him as if trying to visually assess his well-being before addressing it. “I’d rather you not take any risks, wouldn’t want to lose my favorite helper after all, but... If you want to, I will find something I know my mother had with her in her time away from Valcrest and maybe you can see some of what she was doing then. I think that might be helpful.”

Darren quirked a brow at Evin, slightly confused at his words, but not responding. Evin, like many, was trying to get a grip on what was happening, Darren sense a bit of a cocky attitude he both admired and disliked at the same time. To be fair, the man didn’t know all the facts and Darren wasn’t sure he even made much sense to him, but that hadn’t been the point. He wasn’t completely wrong either. Turning his attention back to listen to Annie, he was a bit surprised to catch some annoyance in her voice but couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t for the fact she was upset, but the idea of the woman being severely pissed off, stole his thoughts as he wondered if he could actually picture such a thing. Could be interesting or frightening, depending.

Darren hadn’t heard all that Evin was saying, but he caught most of what Annie responded with, unsure why the man thought it best to whisper some things around him. It was clear by Annie’s response, she didn’t feel her words were something to hide from Darren. The particular topic at hand was already something Darren was aware of, but he couldn’t help but wonder if he was suppose to hang back.

“... I see no reason why she would encrypt something that would, in theory, never be seen by anyone else other than myself unless she was worried someone would succeed in taking it from me”

“...Just like my Grandmother’s Journal...stolen when her town was burned to ashes..” Darren muttered, nodding to himself, agreeing that one couldn’t be too careful; after all he did steal his own father’s journal, encrypted but that wasn’t exactly the same thing.

Darren smiled slightly at Annie when she considered his offer to help. “..Whatever..you need...I promise to be careful..” He suddenly signaled to Sora to scout ahead, sweeping his hands in a clapping motion forward, the wolf taking off until she was out of sight.

Annie seemed bitter towards Evin. No matter. He didn't need Annie to like him. All he needed was for her to cooperate with him. If the leverage Evin had wasn't so big, he'd might have been worried, but in the end, Annie and Evin wanted the same thing and that was what made the whole thing worth it.

[The Desert]

They began to approach the Crimson's camp. There was no greeting. Instead, there was blank stares and shaking citizens about. People crying and people consoling those who could not be consoled. Evin looked at one group of people. They surrounded a dead man. Some of the Crimson Shadows tried to get the citizens to move away from the bod so that they could move it, but the citizens refused.
Evin only noticed that he was holding his breath when he felt faint. He swallowed a large quantity of air and composed his tattered body. “These are people who party when they're hungover. I can't believe it. Annie, tell me what you need and I'll get it for you. It's the least I could do after annoying you for the past few hours.”

Annie didn’t seem as affected by the desolate state of the desert inhabitants as one should be, she had seen enough of hopeless stares in the past months and she had expected to see it all again now. The girl took a long deep breath, her brown eyes scanning the encampment as if trying to decide where help was needed most. She heard Evin’s comment and nodded as though she acknowledged the fact he had addressed her, but wasn’t paying attention to his words. As they walked further into the encampment, she took notice that several dead were still scattered around the encampment, most surrounded by distraught loved ones, and as Annie walked past a group of such civilians, she gently grasped the wrist of a mercenary who was trying, as gently as possible, to physically remove a woman who was knelt down and clinging to a deceased man’s arm. The gesture causing the man to immediately stop what he was doing. “Don’t force this.” She whispered. “Just start building the funeral pyre and they will come to you when they are ready.” The man seemed reluctant, but silently agreed and moved away, calling his few remaining brethren to start the pyre. Annie counted, by the red sashes or capes she could spot amongst the people, less than ten Crimson Shadows in the encampment. Even assuming a few of them were in the temple or inside some of the tents that remained intact, that was in no way a good sign.

The sudden change in the mercenaries’ attitude from aimless and confused to somewhat organized caught the man’s attention and Jackson eventually appeared to greet the new arrivals, even if only with simple nod of head. “The injure are all inside the temple.” He informed Annie. “So is Dastan; we locked him up in his room for the time being. Not that he seems to care about leaving.”
“How great are your losses?” Annie questioned.
“There are about twelve Crimson Shadows left alive, counting Dastan, Indrani and myself; so that number may decrease soon. Not to mention that three of those twelve are merely pups barely fit to swing a sword properly. Indrani had only recently assigned them trainers... Which... Are now all dead, so...” The man fell into a devastated silence, unable to find anything else to say.
Annie heaved a long sigh, sadness spreading across her dark eyes as she reached for Jackson’s arm in a sympathetic gesture. “I’m so sorry, Jackson. I have no words.”
“Dastan made me promise, right when he started to feel the sickness, that if something of this sort were to happen I would make sure he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. I already broke my promise and he may not... Forgive me, but... I don’t want to do this. I just need you to tell me that this is not what it seems, and that I don’t need to do this. Do you understand?”
Annie nodded that she understood, but she made Jackson no promises. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to see Indrani first, I was told she was gravely injured?”
“Yes, that’s true. Ali is tending to her, but she’s no healer and Indrani lost a considerable amount of blood. There are other injured of course, but nothing else nearly as life threatening.” he informed, starting to lead the small group towards the temple.
Once again Annie nodded her understanding as she followed Jackson. “If it’s not to much to ask, Jackson, could you tell me what exactly happened?”

Jackson shook his head as though he refused to answer, but he eventually did. “The Sun died, the skies darkened, shadows rose from the ground and just began to tear people apart. There was a lot of crying and a lot of screaming, we were rushing to get people into the temple hoping it would protect them, but not knowing even that much for sure. I wasn’t near Dastan when it happened, I didn’t see it happen, but Ali said he started to act strangely, slurring his words; and I know what you’re thinking, but he had been perfectly fine during the trip from forest... He walked about halfway towards the temple and his knees gave out... Last anyone saw him before it all started he was kneeling in the sand clutching his head as though it hurt. He was out cold when the shadows faded, pale as though life had been drained from him, but he was still breathing. I carried him into the temple by myself and eventually one of Crys’ assassins helped me, none of our own would go near him, even if he was helpless.” Jackson stopped as they reached the door of the temple, running his fingers through his dirty blonde hair and trying to hide a guilty expression. “I should go... Help prepare the funerals... It will take time to burn all those bodies.” He snorted. “I can’t see that kid like this...” He muttered a bit under his breath.

Annie suppressed a frustrated groan as Jackson walked away. The Crimson Shadows were nice folk, they had taken in her people when the Blackpond army forced them out of the desert, they had taken Crys and the other exiled Wolves into their camp... They were simple, friendly, people, and still for some reason this had to happen to them. “I have brought everything I need.” She answered Evin as though time hadn’t passed since his offer of help. “Assuming that you can handle stitches and bandages though, an extra set of hands would be more than welcome. It sounds like Indrani will need my full attention.”

Blood -spatter soaked into the dirt and sand, clumping in many areas, few pools remaining. Luck would have it that Darren, distracted with the despair and wails drowning all of his attention, stepped in one of the puddles, momentarily losing balance as his foot slid out from him, but quickly recovered. Two men pass not far from him, carrying a fallen Crimson, the face Darren barely recognizing as one of the men he shared a drink with only just last night. His heart sank at the sight while he reached down to his wrists, tightening the fit of his gloves to make sure they were in no danger from slipping off as his palms began to sweat. The man’s eyes glistened, momentarily losing focus on what he should be doing, never actually seeing the aftermath of a battlefield, except in his visions or his dreams.

A flash of fur, blurring past his left peripheral and a shout of protest, alerted Darren to Sora’s presence. The wolf was trying to get past a woman who was blocking her path to the temple, shouting and flailing her arms trying to scare the beast back. “Scavenger! Back! Smell of blood draws them near..You can not have them!”

Darren groaned, muttering under his breath to Annie that he would catch up in a minute as he carefully approached, noticing how Sora was dodging the woman’s attempts at striking her, the wolf’s teeth baring in defense. “Miss? My apologies..the wolf means no harm...she’s only following..”

“The scent! Well she can’t have our wounded or dead.” The woman spat in annoyance.

Darren held up his hands to show there was nothing in them as he approached, moving between the wolf and the woman. “..She’s with me. I promise..she is well fed and is not here for any of you…” Darren half smiled. “I tried to leave her behind..but you see..she’s not a pet I can't make her do anything she doesn’t wish to. She’s quite the free spirit. Please..we are only here to help. Look, she’s friendly.” Darren knelt down beside Sora, gently petting her side, the wolf sitting on her haunches, wagging her tail slowly. He heard a voice from behind him, another familiar face from the night before. He turned to see it had been one of the musicians, although now he was missing most of his left arm. Makeshift bandages were tightly binding his wounds but they were dripping with blood. Darren was in awe the man wasn’t in shock, still managing to stand on his feet. “Whoa now, Buddie. Sit down...we need to cauterize that wound now. You, Miss.What is your name?” He asked the woman who was still eyeing Sora distrustingly.

“Kenya..” She muttered,

“Perfect. I’m Darren..and the wolf is Sora. Now Kenya...I’m going to need your help for a second…”

Sora moved to Darren’s side as they eased the one armed man to the ground, put a hunk of kindling in his mouth to bite down on while Darren prepared the wound. He had handed one of his weapons: an Ax, to Kenya who held the metal in a near by fire for a few moments until it was hot and ready. Sora laid on top of the wounded man while Darren pinned back his shoulders, Kenya pushing the hot metal against flesh for what seemed like forever, the man screaming between gritted teeth and wood. After the seared flesh was cleaned and properly dressed, Sora took off after the others into the temple, Darren following close after and reaching Annie not long after she arrived to Indrani. Opening his pack, he began ripping and tearing strips of cloth to create more bandages.

“I'll be glad to help.” Evin said as Darren wandered off.
Evin looked for a way to take his mind off of what was around him. Death, despite being his job, was the Twin that made the least sense to Evin. Why he had to kill and why exactly Death was considered a gift to us when even the Twins themselves, when facing their own finality, rebelled. It was an odd thing to imagine, that the Twins couldn't even live to face mortality.
But that was enough thought of death. There had been too much of it too close to home in his life lately. It was time to put his mind at ease for just a moment. “So you and Darren are good friends it seems? You care a lot for him, I can tell and you seem very trusting of him. How long have you known him.”

Annie entered the temple and immediately spotted Indrani, the woman was unconscious and sweating profusely due to what Annie could identify as dangerously high fever. Ali was sitting by Indrani, holding a wet washcloth to the woman’s forehead in a somewhat feeble attempt to lower her temperature. She looked at up at Annie with a bit of annoyance in her eyes that was not exactly directed at her. “Took you long enough.” She mumbled.
“Oh, well, you know... Distractions along the way. My apologies.” Annie half smiled as she knelt by Indrani. “How long has she been feverish?”
“Hours, I think. She was in and out of consciousness, but she hasn't opened her eyes for a while now.” Ali informed. “I assume that’s not good.”
“None of this is good, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing either. If her temperature comes down again she should eventually wake up, unless it’s too late.” She explained, taking a thorough look at Allison as she spoke and frowning slightly; she looked pale and shaky herself. “You’re in pain again, aren't you? Go rest, I got this.”
“Rest won’t make the pain go away, Annie; you know this. I’m not going anywhere.” Ali argued.
“It might not make the pain go away, but you still need it.” Annie stated severely. “When was the last time you even had a drink of water?”
“I’m fine.” Ali muttered, not very convincingly, but moving away to sit closer to the walls, leaning against the stone and closing her eyes for a bit.
Annie shook her head, but didn’t argue any more knowing it was probably no use, turning her attention to Indrani, checking the woman’s wound and pulling supplies out of her kit as she answered Evin’s questions on Darren, giving the boy an amused glance before casually answering the questions as though he wasn’t standing right there. “I met Darren for the first time during the ball, briefly. So I suppose it’s been, what, six months or so. I trust him quite a bit, yes. He’s not yet tried to murder me, nor asked me any questions I wasn’t willing to answer, and he’s been a dear friend. Sora too.” She smiled, calmly changing Indrani’s bandages for ones that seemed to have been soaked in some herbal extract. The medicine would hopefully be enough to keep any infection under control.

Darren was accumulating new rags for bandages, draping them along his shoulder, only half listening as Annie spoke. His eyes were fluctuating between Indrani, Annie, Ali, Evin, and the other wounded scattered within the temple, taking in every detail he would in a matter of a few moments. The place needed more light, one of the first things he noticed, and after giving a sly wink in Annie’s direction he gathered a couple torches and several candles.

“..Should I start the tea? I’m sure while I make my rounds, I may find others fevering..” Darren asked Annie gently. “..Strip the root and seep before adding the honey and cinnamon.” He recited to himself, remembering that those ingredients were not just to take away the bitter taste, but also aided in healing headaches.

Darren relieved himself of his hat and rested it on the back of a nearby chair, along with some of the fresh bandages he’d torn, in case more were needed. He also positioned a clean basin of water beside Annie’s medicine bag before excusing himself once again to quickly assess the other wounded. Some were very lucky, alive with a few broken bones and minor cuts and abrasions; many were missing limbs, appendages and had lost a lot of blood but it did appear they would live, with the Twins' blessing. Darren had paused beside a young man, just old enough to carry a sword, the swelling around his neck and shoulder catching his eye.

“Brave, young man...how you feeling? I want you to squeeze my hand as hard as you can...good...now the other..” Darren kept a friendly smile, as the boy advised him that his name was Andrew and that his head was throbbing because he was tossed like a rag doll into stone. There was little blood, the area tender and also with the strange swelling along the kid’s shoulder, Darren had a feeling it was something inside of Andrew that was hurt or damaged that he could not see. Raising a candle before the boy’s eye, just as he had seen Annie do many times before, he instructed Andrew to look into the light and follow it. Both the boy’s eyes were bloodshot, his left pupil blown out to indicate internal trauma.

Darren kept his smile, giving Andrew some water before wandering back over to Annie to whisper the status of the other injured; importantly the young boy, awaiting instructions. Meanwhile, Sora had wandered off somewhere out of sight but from her occasional whines and frustrated barks it wasn’t hard to tell she waiting at the base of the wall that lead to where Dastan was currently being kept. If only the wolf had thumbs, maybe she would climb the wall. Or maybe not.

Annie snickered while she watched Evin drag Ali away. The young woman didn’t fight the man’s hold and simply allowed him to drag her away with annoyed expression on her face. Her smiled faltered slightly as she turned her attention to the boy Darren had informed her of, knowing that his condition was more serious than she would like. “That sounds serious.” She muttered, taking a few moments to organize her thoughts before making a decision. “Indrani shouldn’t need anymore care unless she wakes up; which probably won't be so soon, so I’m going upstairs to take a look at Dastan. I’d like you to keep monitoring that boy, keep him calm and talking, and warn me if his situation changes while I’m up there; if his pain worsens or he starts to show signs of confusion, or lose consciousness, I need to know right away.”

The setting changes from ravens-nest to Newhaven

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Annie Turner Character Portrait: Allison Blake

0.00 INK

[Blackpond - Some time ago]

Jake assumed it would take a bit more waiting to find the guy; mostly because he’d be forced to lay low for a while to treat his wounded stump, or maybe he’d be just too scared to go out after what happened to Ebony, but even with the bit of wait involved in tracking him down, Joffrey was out in the open a lot sooner than Jake had expected, which was a good thing; his time was too precious nowadays to spend so much of it waiting on this guy. Jake had made sure to leave a description with every single one of his contacts before he left Blackpond the day the party ended, and now, only five days later, he had gotten word of the man’s whereabouts. It was about time they had a little chat.

Jake smiled under the hood of his cloak as he watched the man wander out of the shady looking establishment he had entered a few hours prior, stumbling a bit in a drunken haze and seeming quite pleased with himself. The night was warmer than most previous nights; a sign that spring was on the rise, but the thin and constant rain brought a bit of a chill to the air nonetheless. The rain also made it harder for Jake to hide from his target, but his enlightenment was only a tool, he knew very well to stay out of sight without it and even if he didn’t; the man seemed too distracted to notice even the most obvious stalker.

Slowly Jake followed the man named Joffrey through the alleyways of Blackpond as he seemed to be going to a specific location. Soon enough the man stopped at another establishment; this time Jake gave it about half a minute and entered after him. The place was much like a dimly lit bar, the air inside was warm and smelled pleasantly sweet, like flowers and vanilla mixed in with cigarette smoke, and it didn’t take Jake much more than a quick look around to know exactly where he was. “Of course...” He mumbled under his breath, pulling back his hood and heaving an annoyed sigh as he watched the man quickly make his way upstairs with a pretty brunette. Slowly he approached the bar, ordered a drink, tossed some extra coin at the barkeep and asked a few questions, soon enough he was heading up the stairs himself pacing a straight path to a particular door, and quietly cracking it open, just enough to peek inside and see the man with his back to the door, kneeling on the bed as he clumsily struggled to undo his pants with his one hand. Jake opened the door a bit further, now making himself visible to the semi-naked brunette on the bed. Holding out one golden coin in between his index and middle fingers, he rose them to his lips in a silencing gesture; Joffrey too distracted to notice the faint nod the woman gave in return.

Jake slowly sneaked into the room, slightly amused at the man still fiddling with his pants and growing more and more annoyed. He removed his cloak, holding it in his left hand as he pulled a dagger with his right. Calmly he approached Joffrey, quickly wrapping his arm around the man’s neck, pressing the tip of the dagger to his throat. “Do you know, Joffrey, how common it is for a man to be killed with his pants down? I know enough assassins to know it’s pretty damn common... Gladly I was in no mood to wait for you to give the lady something to laugh at.” He whispered to the man, extending his cape to the half naked woman, who immediately jumped off the bed; clearly not wanting any part in whatever was about to happen. She covered herself with the cloak seemingly just for Jake’s benefit as she didn’t seem to care one bit about being exposed. “Has he paid for your services yet, miss?”
“Not to me, he hasn’t.” She responded with a shrug.
Jake nodded, pulling a small coin pouch from his belt. “Does the door lock from the outside?” He asked, holding onto the gold.
“The key is in the hole, over there.” She said, indicating the door behind Jake.
“Take the key and lock the door when you leave.” He instructed, tossing the pouch onto her hands. “I’d like to be alone with my buddy here.”
The woman giggled taking the gold and immediately going for the door. “Whatever works for you, love.” She stated, closing the door after herself and locking it shut.

Jake didn’t mind the woman’s teasing and simply shook his head a bit amused, searching and finding no hidden weapons on the man before putting his own dagger away.
“What do you want man?” Joffrey asked, turning to face him. “It’s clearly not money, and if it was just to kill me, you would have done it by now, so... What?”

Jake sighed softly, staring silently into the man’s green eyes and noting that he didn’t seem to be that much older than Ess; feeling his stomach starting to twist and turn in disgust thinking back on the things he’d said to her in Blackpond. Without a word to the man in response to his questions Jake punched him hard in the gut, causing him to fall back onto the bed clutching his stomach and gasping for air. “Breathe.” He muttered. “Enjoy the fact that you can... At least for now.”

“I... Don’t... Even... Know you...” Joffrey gasped, breaking into a coughing fit.

“It doesn’t matter, buddy... I know you.” Jake stated. “The company one keeps tends to say more than enough about who they are. And your choice of company doesn’t speak too highly of your character.”

“What the... What’re you talking about, man?” Joffrey questioned, sitting up with a groan, looking up at Jake in a bit of a confused daze.

“Ebony... Jasper... What was the other guy called... Vincent?” Jake listed. “What do you suppose they say of your character, pal?”

Joffrey sighed. “Oh, I see...” He smirked. “Am I to disappear now too?”

“First you give me answers, then we’ll see.” Jake muttered.

“As much as I would love to buy myself some time.... I don’t see what I could say that you wouldn’t already have gotten out of Jasper... I’m assuming you didn’t end him quickly.” As Jake didn’t answer a look of understanding spread across Joffrey’s green eyes. “Oh, I see... That wasn’t you... That’s quite clever... What a clever little whore... How many is she screwing for the sake of wiping us out? Or were you not aware there were others?”

Jake snorted, his face contorting with rage, both at his words and the fact he knew damn well who had gone after Jasper. “You better mind your words, friend.”

“Oh, I’m sorry... Does she have you thinking you’re special? They’re very good at making guys feel special, you know.”

Jake didn’t say anything else, he just snapped and punched the man; violently and repeatedly, until it seemed as though he was slipping out of consciousness, at which point Jake managed to will himself to stop, pushing Joffrey from the bed onto the the floor. “I said MIND YOUR DAMN WORDS, you piece of shit. Speak of my sister that way again and you’ll lose more limbs.”
“Sister?” Joffrey spat, wiping some blood on the back of his hand. “Is that what you kids are calling it these days?” He muttered, still somewhat cowering as if expecting more blows. “She’s got a brother, yes, but I know you’re not him.”

Jake flinched at the man’s words, curiosity calming his temper, at least for a moment, as he knelt beside Joffrey, pulling a small dagger from his ankle. Gripping the man by his hair, Jake pulled his head back so Joffrey was forced to look at him, pressing the tip of the dagger to the corner of his left eye, his tone perfectly calm as he questioned. “Pray tell... How would you know that? He’s dead.”

“He’s not... Least he wasn’t back in the day... I’ve seen him once with Jasper... He was with one of the red people.”

Jake flinched slightly at Joffrey’s words, not only for the mention of the same ‘red people’ Irvin’s brother had mentioned, but also for all the implications of Ian being seen alive and in their company. For a moment he wondered if he could find and murder the guy before Ess found out about his involvement, but then he decided it wouldn’t be fair to keep this from her especially after everything he was already keeping from her.

Some amount of shock must have showed in his expression because Joffrey chuckled seeming amused by his reaction. “ Yeeah... Stand up guy, ain’t he?” He asked, trying a bit carelessly to struggle against Jake’s hold with no success. “Everyone should have a brother like that.”

Jake pulled the knife away from Joffrey’s eye, sheathing it, but kept his hold on the man. “I’m her brother.” He muttered out. “Who are these red people you speak of?”

“They stopped by once in a while, everyone was always scared shitless of them, but I never knew who they were. I never bothered to ask any questions, wasn’t my business.”

“I see.... And what exactly was your business then?” Jake questioned crossing his arms as though challenging the man to try and get past him somehow.

“Quality control.” Joffrey muttered in response. “Hey... Someone’s gotta make sure the product’s worth the price before you put it on the market, you know? And when your customers are different people with different tastes.... It takes some... Thorough.... Extensive... Repetitive... Testing. You know what I mean, bud?”

Joffrey’s voice was sounding faintly in Jake’s ears behind the loud and persistent ringing of pure rage. He felt his skin, his veins, his bones, his heart, burning from the inside out as though hell itself was trying to fight its way out, but on the outside he was steel. On the outside he was impenetrable steel; cold and unbreakable steel staring down at a pathetic and insignificant shit of a man. “Stand up.” He commanded, his tone remarkably steady. Joffrey didn’t move at first, but Jake didn’t repeat himself. The silence lingered, broken only by painful grunts as the older man started to push himself to his feet. Joffrey was almost as tall as Jake, but not quite, it took him some effort to stand straight after the blows he’d been dealt already, and to anyone else it would probably be easy to spare such a miserable life, the man’s blood was barely worth spilling.

“Now what?” Joffrey muttered, his tone was aggressive, but to Jake it sounded like the yelps of a tiny little mutt cowering in a corner and trying to act tough.

The question actually caused Jake to hesitate a moment and he stood there staring at Joffrey as though trying to find an answer, but after a while it became clear he was trying, and failing, to keep from laughing hysterically at the man. He turned his back to Joffrey, not seeming to mind what he might do, and continued to laugh uncontrollably as he stripped himself clean of his weapons, one by one; except for the little golden dagger, he tossed them in pile of leather-coated metal in a corner of the room.

The only weapons left in him were his needles, and the sword Bastian Rivers had given him, the golden dagger was carefully set aside. He held the sheathed weapon in his hand as he turned to face Joffrey, sick amusement crossing his expression as he stared into the man’s eyes. “Now what, you ask...” Jake coughed through another small fit of laughter, shaking his head. He pulled the sword from the sheath, the metal shining perfect and unblemished as though it was new as it caught the faint flicker of candlelight. “You must have felt like such a big man, back then, right?” He asked, pointing the sharp steel of the sword to Joffrey’s face in a somewhat playful manner, swaying the blade so that it alternated between the man’s left and right eye. “Answer the question, Joffrey. Did you think you were a man, back then, because of the things you did, huh?”

“Yes.” The man muttered.

“Yes...” Jake repeated after the man. “...but you’re not a man, are you, Joffrey? A man doesn’t stand before Death and asks ‘what now?’ like a pathetic little puppy, does he?”

“No. He doesn’t.” Joffrey replied, closing his eyes as if he couldn’t stand to watch the sharp metal dance before them for another second.

“No... You’re not a man, Joffrey. I don’t blame you for that though. That... I’ll excuse you for. I get it... You probably didn’t have a father to teach you... Your mommy didn’t pay you much attention or something... So you were taught by those who were available to you. I’m lucky, because my father wasn’t around much, see... but I had my sister... I had my sisters... I had girls in my life who were ten times the man you thought you were. Who would stand in front of Death and fight to their very last breath without cowering like a little bitch... And later on I found a tutor and he was... A great man... Joffrey... He was. He gave me this sword here....” Jake snorted another laugh as he smacked Joffrey in the cheek with the flat surface of the metal. “Look at it.” He commanded coldly, waiting for Joffrey to open his eyes before speaking further. “He gave me this sword so I’d remember... Always... Who I am. So I not lose myself again... and... When you feel Lady Death’s touch for the first time... In that moment before you leave this life forever... Remember to thank him a thousand times for that.” Jake warned the man, abruptly withdrawing the blade and burying it in its leather sheath. “Because if not for him, I would make it a point to show you how easily I could make you into a little bitch before I finally let you die in a pool of your own piss. As it is though...” He calmly set the sword aside with the golden dagger, apart from the other weapons piled on the floor, and hid his right hand behind his back. “... I feel I should at least give you the chance to die like the man you weren’t all your life. Strike me.”

Jake’s expression had changed from its former, nearly manic, amusement, and was back to a severe and emotionless glare. He watched Joffrey’s eyes move frantically, locating the locked door, all the blades on the floor, the window, and realizing that everything involved getting past the enraged assassin standing right in front of him. Finally the man gathered whatever was left of his strength to take a clumsy left-handed swing at Jake’s face, which was easily dodged. Jake didn’t strike back he simply waited for Joffrey to try and hit him, again, again, and again, to no effect. Finally the man screamed out in frustration and half-stumbled, half-bent forward, charging at Jake in an attempted tackle, succeeding to push Jake back against the wall, but not knocking off his balance in the slightest. Jake responded by gripping Joffrey’s hair and kneeing him hard on the face, the man crying out as his nose cracked with the impact. “Get up.” Jake muttered at Joffrey. “Get up, you pathetic piece of shit!” He looked down at the man and waited for him to fight, for him to try and save himself, but apparently not even Joffrey seemed to think his life was worth fighting for anymore. Jake felt sick at the sight of that man, at the thought of how many good, worthy, people he had seen die while he was allowed to breathe. He knew that ending his life wouldn’t make up for any other, nor would it erase the despicable things he’d done, but he didn’t really care either; this wasn’t about that.

More than enough time passed and Joffrey remained on the ground, lying on his side and curled up into a ball in protection of his broken nose as if that counted for something. Jake kicked him hard on his back and the pain forced the man to straighten up somewhat. “Get up.” Jake repeated.

Joffrey obeyed this time, slowly pushing to stand and again trying to punch Jake with his left hand. Jake dodged him easily, but this time he countered with a punch of his own, knocking the man down again. Jake patiently waited for Joffrey to stand once again, and only one more time after that before he allowed his idea of a fair fight to fully escalate into a brutal beating, his fists slamming into Joffrey’s skull until the man had stopped moving, stopped breathing... Eventually everything just stopped and faded into an empty stillness. Jake was then left staring at what used to be a human face now barely recognizable as such. He snorted, as he was now able to hear the rain falling on the roof of the building once again. At least he wouldn’t have to meet Crys with blood still on his hands.


[Present Time - Otium 14, close to sundown]

Jacob sighed heavily at his own thoughts. He clenched and unclenched his fists, faintly remembering Deidra’s curious prodding as to what he had done when he arrived at the Nest the following day. He hadn’t even noticed the state of his knuckles until the woman decided he needed bandages. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember now what excuse he had given Dee at the time, but it was far from relevant now. Ess knew he’d gone after Joffrey. She knew what had become of him. Although the circumstances of his death were not a part of that discussion. He felt guilty for what he’d done. For losing control. Everything he’d done and put himself through over the years and in the end he was no different from the angry boy that ruined Irvin’s family. The kid was his responsibility now; and he was failing him as well.

“He’ll come around,” Annie had told him once he explained to her how he and the boy had a falling out. He left Irvin in the White Shadows camp, with a bruised eye from their altercation, and decided he wasn’t ready to finish that discussion just yet. Instead he had asked Annie to keep an eye on the boy once she returned. Jake didn’t know if Irvin would come around and a part of him wish he wouldn’t. Maybe the kid would be better if he just forgot Jake and the horrible past they shared. Sean was dead. There was nothing of that story left unburied. “The kid’s sister is still out there though,” Jake muttered to himself. If she was even still alive. They took her because they wanted her for something though. Jake knew the odds were she was still out there. He mumbled under his breath at his thoughts, patting Shadow as they rode along the forest paths.

In truth, what Jake wanted was to go back to the Nest and talk to Ess about this. Crys had been the one to convince him that the attack on the Crimson was something Newhaven should be made aware of. Jake disagreed; or at least he disagreed that he should be responsible for bringing the news, but he didn’t argue. So there he was: riding towards the city gates.

“We’re almost there, bud. Just bear with me,” Jake responded when Shadow seemed to grow more and more uneasy. The horse was tired, Jake was tired as well, but once they reached the city he would made sure he got his rest. He’d earned it.

The Sun was lowering by the time Jake reached Newhaven’s gates. He wasn’t too surprised to find them closed. Dismounting, he led Shadows by the reins as he approached the guards. “I need to deliver a message to the Castle.”
“We have our orders, no one is allowed in or out of the city until further notice. And we’ve had more than our share of trouble today, so if you don’t turn around now I’ll...”
“I came all the from the desert, buddy; I’m tired and I don’t have time for threats or bullshit. I’m a Black Knight; you’ll let me in. If you raise your sword to me I will make you eat it.” Jake could easily sneak into the city on his own, but sneaking Shadow in through any secret passage was an impossibility.
“Can you prove what you say?”
“How dense are you? Of course I can’t. You can of course call for my Captain and ask her, but you’ll be wasting her time as well.”
The guard seemed doubtful, but before he could agree or refuse a voice called from atop the wall. “Oy, let the pretty boy through; he’s one of us.”
Jake grinned at the voice, glancing in the direction of the woman who shouted. “Soph,” he greeted. “Where’s your sidekick?”

The gates opened and Jake passed the guards without paying them another ounce of attention, Sophie came down from the wall to join him as he walked across the city streets. “Bran went to the Nest, did you not see him there?”

“I must have missed him,” Jake shrugged, not making much of the information. “Since when does the Black Guard man the walls, Soph?”
“We don’t, knucklehead. I was waiting for you. If you missed Bran, I assume you weren’t informed that Captain sent for you then. That’s not why you’re here?”
“Captain sent for me personally? When? I left the Nest a day or so ago, I’ve been in the desert.”
“Yeah, seems like we just missed you entirely,” Sophie smiled, nudging Jake playfully. “Happy birthday, by the way. I hear the party was quite impressive. Sorry we couldn’t attend.”
Jake snorted a laugh. He’d forgotten the party completely by now; it was another lifetime. “It was quite the party.”
“Listen Jake, there’s something else I need to talk to you while you’re here... Remember you asked Bran and I to stick around Ess’ former residence? I have some information to share.”
“Oh? Well, if people have been chasing me around for over a day, maybe I should go see what Captain needs from me. Can we talk afterwards?”
“Sure thing, pretty boy. So how’s Matthew treating you lot without the Cap’n there?”
Jake chuckled. “As you’d expect. If Bran’s not careful he’ll get himself caught in never ending training drills and you won’t see him again.”
“Oh, I don’t think Matty would dare...” Sophie smirked. “He’d have to compensate me, you know.”
“I’d love to hear that conversation.” Jake sighed as they neared the castle. “How’s her mood lately?”
“What’d you think? The Queen is... You know... She was fond of the girl, Jake. This hasn’t been a good year.”
Jake nodded. Sophie gave him half sentences at best, but it was really all that was needed. “Well, I don’t think my visit will be helping with that,” he told her, smiling sheepishly. “Would you take Shadow to the stables for me and make sure he doesn’t bite anyone in the face while I go find the Captain? I promised apples if he behaves, but he’s a bit grumpy today.”
“Sure, but you know... I don’t think the horse quite understands the concept of bribery.”
Jake snorted. “You’d be surprised.”

Sophie led Shadow to the stables and, much like Jake had warned, the horse was less than pleased with the idea. It took some doing, and further promises of treats, for the animal to settle under the care of the stable workers. By the time she reached the castle Jake and Mageria were conversing behind locked doors and the hallway outside the Captain’s office was occupied by a small group of guards. The men were standing around awkwardly shooting apprehensive glances at the door.

“What are you...?” The woman’s question was cut short by the voices on the other side of the door. They weren’t loud enough to be intelligible, but they were unmistakably angry. “Bloody Twins.” Jake was a hot head sometimes, that wasn’t much of a secret, but Mageria was one person the man had never rose his voice to before. Sophie hesitated, but eventually curiosity spoke louder and she came closer to the door to try and listen to what was happening.

“...Dangerous!” Jake was shouting. “How long was he alive in the dungeons? Alive! And now he’s free! Twins curse this stupid city and its politics!”

“Are you through? For what it’s worth, we don’t exactly disagree on this, but there still needs to be some semblance of order in this ‘stupid city’, if we are to keep it from falling apart completely. If you recall, this is what the Black Knights are supposed to do.”

“I also recall eliminating threats to be somewhere in the job description, Captain. Keeping that man alive, even if he were the real King, is a mistake. In fact, anything that comes from the mouth of any of those people is a bloody mistake. I remember being quite vocal about that the very day I came back to the castle. After Lamya paid us her visit. Had it been my blade on her instead of Sham’s we would have one less worry.”

“You may also want to remember how I accepted you back without a moment’s hesitation, Jake, because I trust you. I also assumed that you in turn trusted me. If those circumstances have at some point changed I ask that you’d be so kind as to inform me.”

There was a moment of silence that felt disturbingly long. “Of course not,” Jake answered, his tone seeming to calm just a bit. “He is under my authority once outside the castle walls, and that means you trust me to decide if and when he becomes a threat and to deal with that scenario as I see fit?”

“I think you made very clear what you see fit, haven’t you? But I see no reason why I shouldn’t trust you with this. Do you?”

“I could think of a couple, to be honest.”

“We’ll just have to take our chances then, won’t we?”

Sophie stepped away from the door and shrugged at the guards staring at her as if expecting gossip; eavesdropping was one thing, spreading it around was another. A couple minutes more passed before the door opened and Jake exited the room. The young Knight glanced from Sophie to the other guards with suspicion, but didn’t make comments on them hanging around the door, he forced a smile to one of them men. “Could you find Dominic for me and tell him I’ll be taking his... charge... off his hands within the hour. I’ll find him.”
The man nodded his agreement and wandered off as quickly as he could. The other guards took the opportunity to disperse as well before anyone could question them being there. Sophie chuckled and nodded down the hall. “You look like you might need a drink or two... Come on... Let’s discuss that information I have to give you.”

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

What Allison remembered most about the moments leading up to the actual attack were small details: how the air was always cooler near the water, how the earth’s scent was stronger there than anywhere else, how the occasional fallen leaf would cause the smooth surface of the lake to ripple in tiny waves that seemed to go on forever. That was her favorite spot, that lake; her special place. Her village was the closest to the river and being near water made her feel more at home in the forest before a time when she finally did feel truly at home. One way or another, sooner or later, Ali would return to the lake. Everyone in camp knew to find her there. Being predictable could be a huge mistake for an assassin, but then again; this was home.

She remembered the smile still playing on her lips, amusement leftover from whatever the conversation had been between her Vilen. Wow, hong long since she last thought about that guy, or Gloria? Felt like a lot longer than simply four years. The other girl; the one who went missing, Ali couldn’t even remember her name anymore. One moment there, gone the next; that could have been her too

She remembered the first blow; she knew it was coming, but was too late to react. A fist struck the side of her face with full force, her attacker intent on knocking her down. Ali ignored the pain and willed herself to react, drawing the first blade she could reach for; a throwing knife and slashing in the man’s direction without even looking. The blade cut him, but he barely seemed to mind it at all, continuously attacking her with bare hands. She managed to avoid his fists somehow, but to Ali it was clearer than ever that she was in over her head with this fight. She knew who her attacker was, she knew he had killed Bastian and Ali herself was barely a full assassin; she knew she didn’t really stand a chance.

The man kicked up dirt, a small cloud lingering in the air between them, specks of it flying into her eyes and blurring her vision. Ali heard the familiar sound of steel sliding off a leather sheath and it caused an involuntary shiver down her spine. She drew one of her daggers with her free hand as she threw the bloodied throwing knife at him, drawing her second dagger and lunging at her attacker. She might not survive this, but she sure as hell would fight. Her first dagger met only metal, but the second found flesh; barely. All she managed to achieve was a superficial cut to the man’s arm. He pushed away and kicked her high, hitting her on the chest. Ali heard something crack and figured he’d broken a few ribs; least of her concerns at this point. She took the opportunity given by her lack of response to what would be debilitating pain, and used that moment to jab one of her daggers to the man’s leg. This time she caused some damage, blood poured into her hands and if Ali had time for such things she would have smiled, but that was when she saw the ring. The ring of a Wolf in her attacker’s hand. She yelled at him, she knew that much, but the words had long escaped her memory. She did remember how it enraged her, how the betrayal stung even if by this man she had never really met.

The fight escalated to confusion: anger on her part, urgency on his due to the serious bleed on his leg. Ali attacked with absolutely no regard for her own life, she just wanted to hurt him somehow for what he had done. For those he had hurt. She wasn’t going to be able to keep this up much longer, her enlightenment was exhausting her and she simply lacked the skill. She almost flinched when she felt the man’s hand grabbing her wrists to push her away, not knowing if he dropped his sword on his own or had lost it in the confusion somehow, the flinch didn’t last and Ali pushed against the man’s hold, the tip of one of her daggers having found the man’s left eye. For a few moments everything seemed slowed down as The Shadow tried to push the young assassin away, Ali focusing all the fight she had left in her to the one act of burying the dagger into the man’s skull. Nothing else mattered. It could all be over right there, if only she was strong enough...

In hindsight, in her mind’s eye, Ali could see the exact moment when the thought crossed that killer’s mind to do what he did. It played to her in slow motion, the change in his expression that came with the decision. In that moment, fighting for life and Twins only know what else, the signs went unnoticed and Ali was caught completely off guard when Perry spat in her face. That momentary flinch was more than enough to tip the scale back in the man’s favor. When Ali recovered from her momentary lapse she was already looking down at the blade running clean through her abdomen. Her own blades had slipped from her grasp and fallen to the floor. The killer was already drawing his dagger and about to finish her off when he suddenly halted.

Someone was coming.

Ali was very aware now that she was lying on the floor. It was raining, or had rained, the ground was muddy. She could smell the blood mixed with wet soil, she could feel it in the back of her throat, she could taste it. The pain had returned, but it would probably leave her soon.

No more pain. And maybe she’d see her family again. Maybe. Maybe Death was a good thing.

Maybe.

No.

No. No. No.

Ali felt her fingers clench around a fist full of dirt. She coughed up the blood that had been filling her mouth. She struggled to breathe. She found herself praying to every single Twin regardless of belief, she could hear her own voice screaming in the back of her mind that this couldn’t be the end. It was a shock to find herself having these thoughts. She wanted to live. Needed to for reasons she didn’t quite understand. If she made it out of this, by every God in Valcrest, she’d figure it out somehow.


[Desert - Otium 14th, Sundown]

“What are you thinking about?”

Dastan’s voice brought Allison back to the present. The sky outside the temple window was orange and the sun was about to descent on the horizon. Once it was gone there were only be the pyre left to light the area; if it was lit by then, that is.

“The Shadow. I hadn’t thought about him in a very long time.” Ali half smiled, watching the unlit pyre. “He did me a service in a way; when he almost killed me. That was the moment I realized I still had something to live for. That I wasn’t alone in the world no matter what I told myself. I felt guilty, angry, and whatever else you may think of... Because I was alive and they were gone. Our house was on fire and my brother had a choice between saving me or our little sister. I would have burned trying to make such a choice, but not Alex... My brother was a hero.”

“He chose you over your sister.” Dastan mumbled.

“She was just a baby, barely a year old. The village was on fire and filled with soldiers, or whoever they were... She stood no chance. I had a chance. I see that now. Back then I didn’t, of course. I fought him all the way out of the house, he was carrying me over his shoulder and I could see the flames swallow it whole. I knew she was dead by then, but I could still hear her screaming in my head and I hated him for it... I told him so...”

“And he died.”

“He died. He died because he was standing in place telling me to run and I wouldn’t listen. I felt guilty for that too. I didn’t deserve to live if my brother was dead. He was so much better than me... A lot of people died that day who were better than me.”

“It’s not the same thing as this.”

“No, no it’s not. See, my brother chose to save me and at some point I had to choose to accept that and live. Dani Rivers chose to spare a Wolf Hunter and take him home... She had to live with the deaths caused by that choice; they both had. It’s a difficult thing to live with the consequences of choice... But you didn’t choose this. You didn’t cause this. Everyone knows that now. Sitting here and clinging to what you feared would happen as if it was real; that’s the choice you’re making. Unlike me at the time my village burned, you’re not a child Dastan; it should be clear to you what happened. Your anger would serve a better purpose if aimed at those who are truly culpable here.” Ali silenced for a few seconds, eyes still fixed on the orange rays of sunlight. “I remember when Sean knocked Crys to the ground and she was lying there bleeding and I wonder, if I hadn’t been there, if anyone else would have stopped him. What would have...”

“You’re a ray of sunshine today aren’t you Blondie?” Dastan groaned as he got on his feet. he had been sitting on the stone ground for a very long time. “I thought all this talk of Death was supposed to get a reaction out of me, but there’s something else... What’s the matter?”

“Night is falling.” Ali stated, ignoring his implied question. “The pyre should be lit soon.”

“Jackson can light the pyre.”

“Jackson has done more than enough for you, don’t you think?”

“I will go if you tell me.” Dastan insisted.

Ali shook her head, hands gripping the window frame with excessive force as she leaned against it. “Lena is dead, Katelyn... Ella... I liked Ella. She was just a kid like me when we brought her to the Pack; orphaned, confused... She’s walking dead now. Valcrest eats good people alive and spits out empty shells... And we’re always fighting so hard to save it... What kind of dysfunctional are we exactly? How much more can we take?” She inhaled a deep shuddering breath, falling silent.

Dastan sighed walking up to his friend and enveloping the woman in a tight hug. “Alright, now you’ve managed to scare me,” he said, resting his chin on her shoulder and following her gaze to the darkening skies. “Tell me what’s going on.

“I’m dying, Dastan.” Ali mumbled. “That’s what’s going on.”

“We’re all dying.” Dastan mumbled. “We’re all sick.”

“Yes, we’re all dying, but... This, illness, or whatever it is, has been causing me a lot of pain; physical agony, and it’s only been getting worse. Annie told me some time ago that the sickness is attacking my nervous system and that’s apparently not a very good thing.”

“Wh-... How long?”

“Months at best; if the medication continues to work effectively. I’ll probably be incapacitated a while before I... I... It’s... Not a pleasant death.”

Dastan didn’t seem to know what else to say. It was one thing to know everyone was sick, everyone was dying, it was a whole other thing to hear something this real. “Have you told anyone about this?”

“What would be the point of that?” Ali sighed softly. “I don’t want them to know. I especially don’t Crys and Jake to know. They don’t need this in their heads right now.”

“After how she lost her mother, you don’t think you should let Crys know what’s happening to you?”

Ali chuckled. “She knows I’m sick, enlightened are dropping dead every day... I’m pretty sure it won’t be that much of a surprise. I just don’t want them to think of it until it’s absolutely necessary.”

“We still have months to figure this out... Maybe...”

“Don’t. That’s what Annie keeps saying, and I let her because she can’t be discouraged right now, but... Realistically speaking, I don’t have that long.” Ali shook her head. “Night is falling,” she repeated.

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

The scene was eerily familiar. To those who had followed the chain of events for the past five years there was a certain cruelty to the ways history repeats itself: the lingering sense of loss, the locked door of the Alpha’s cabin, and the white clad figure being allowed through the door. The week following Katelyn’s burial happened almost exactly as the days that followed Bastian’s death. And if Lena’s presence had done something to pull Dani out of her depression, maybe there was some miracle her daughter could perform this time around as well. Annie very much doubted it would be as simple as that, but she could feel the hopeful thought lingering in the mind of every Wolf she passed.

In all honesty the girl couldn’t understand, out of all people, why Sean would call for her now. It had been stressed to her the significance of his request, seeing as he hadn’t spoke to absolutely anyone once his sister’s body had been laid to rest, but she was given the choice to refuse. “I won’t blame you if you say no,” Donovan had told her. His tone, however, was pleading. It was not as if Annie would have denied anyone, even her worst enemy, in a similar situation. There was no question as to what her answer would be.

The cabin door was pulled open violently to let her in, as if it had been slammed shut so hard it had stuck that way for days. From the doorway it could be felt that the insides of the wooden house were unhealthily stuffy and the darkness was almost tangible as if it were in itself a sentient being; a monster lingering in the air around them, hiding behind Sean’s eyes. That house had become the living embodiment of a shattered soul.

In the time it took Annie to walk past the threshold Sean had already retreated further into the dark, mumbling a request that she shut the door after herself. She did as he asked her, carefully stepping further into the cabin and over broken bits of furniture. Sean sat by the table, on a little stool, leaving the only intact chair for her. “I didn’t think you’d actually come.” He muttered. “I think that was stupid of me really... You healers never turn down a desperate cry for help. That’s what my life is, in its essence... An act of desperation if there ever was one.” He snorted bitterly in what could have been an attempt at laughter. “I’m sorry, I’m being awfully rude, aren’t I? Please sit. I’d offer you some tea or something but... I’m afraid I’m all out.”

Annie sat down across from Sean, she could barely make out his expression in the the dark. “Why did you call me, if you thought I wouldn’t come?”
“I remembered something... Something your mother said to me when I last saw her. I didn’t give it much attention then, but...” Sean trailed off for a moment as if trying to gather his thoughts. “I asked her what was on my father’s mind when he died and she said ‘your sister’. I thought, you know, I thought she meant Katie, but now I see... I see... It couldn’t have been, right? The last thing you see when you die, you know that well... It’s always a regret. It wouldn’t have been Katie. He was always there for her. You though... He failed you.”

“Failed me?” Annie shook her head, leaning forward and against the wooden table. “No one failed me, Sean. I had a wonderful family growing up. My mother gave me everything. This... The truth of this was not sought because I felt something was lacking in my life. Some truths just need to be spoken a lot more than they need to be heard. I didn’t do this for me..”

Sean shook his head silently for a few moments before leaning forward and pressing his forehead against the tabletop. “You did all this for her?”

“I knew my mother well, Sean. I’m one of maybe four people who would ever be able to honestly say that. She kept his ring all those years. For months after he died. If she didn’t, on some level at least, want me to know, she would have gotten rid of it. If he didn’t mean anything to her anymore, she would have gotten rid of it. I honestly believe that the longer you live the more you accumulate regrets. I know I have mine and I’ve not really lived that long. If there is one bit of closure I could provide for her... Why not?”

Sean pulled himself up, sitting up straight to face Annie. “You’re going to tell me that you honestly don’t resent them, not even a bit? It doesn’t even bother you that you never knew him. That you had a brother you never knew... What kind of fucked up are you that these things just bounce right off of you? What do you spike your morning tea with that nothing seems to even touch you?”

“Is that how you see me then?” Annie snorted bitterly. “Am I more fucked than you because I don’t sit around in my own filth feeling sorry for myself? Yes, I wish I had known my father. Yes, I still think back to day Lionel died. I remember very clearly seeing him dead on the ground. I remember how meaningless his death felt to me just then. I remember, Sean, and I’m never going to forget that for as I long as I live. It will haunt me to the end of my days to know that I saw my brother dead and it meant nothing. At least I can tell myself I didn’t know. Can you?”

Sean pressed his palms against the table as if he meant to stand up, but changed his mind. “It wasn’t like that.” He muttered.

“I don’t care how it was. You asked me a question, I’m answering it.” Annie sighed, leaning back in her seat. “As I said, Sean; I had a family growing up. I had, and have, my own brothers and sisters, I was very much loved from the moment I was put in this world, and I was happy at almost every step of the way here...” Sean made a sound as if to interrupt, but at this point Annie slammed the palm of her hand against the table; the sound echoing a lot louder than expected and causing the man to actually cower in his seat and fall back into silence. “Not done talking, Sean.” She spoke softly. “I love Doni, and I love you... I love Katelyn and her death hurt me more than I could possibly get across that thick stupid skull of yours. I’m willing to accept that pain, just like I’m willing to accept the pain of having to sit here and look at the sad... pathetic... shattered man you’ve turned yourself into. What I will not do is erase everything that was good, simple, and pure in my life in favor of some made up past that I could never have lived. If our father believed that he failed me, then that was between him and his conscience, because all things considered; my mother was right and I was better off. Are we clear on that now, brother?”

“That’s fair, I suppose.” Sean answered. “You believe in fate, don’t you?”

“To a certain point, yes.”

“I keep thinking, it had to have been her... that day, coming across those intruders... It wouldn’t have been anyone else. I told her once that one way or another we all pay for our actions, for our mistakes... When it’s your time to pay; it’s your time to pay. Now it’s my time to pay.”

“And just like that... Her death means nothing more than punishment for your crimes...” Annie forced out a laugh. “You are such a child, Sean. A stupid, spoiled, little brat. I don’t know if you’re unwilling or just unable to take anything out of life other than anger and self-pity. Unwilling to learn even now... Maybe you’re right... You’re just hopeless.”


[Desert - Otium 14th, Night]

“Waking up to the sight of a crying healer has to be the worst possible sign...” Indrani spoke, weakly.

Annie startled at the woman’s voice, casually wiping the tears trailing down her face and snorting a laugh. “Don’t flatter yourself now.”

“Ow... Now that hurt.” Indrani chuckled briefly, her laughter ending in a painful groan. “Seriously now, are you alright?”

Annie smiled and shrugged. Indrani didn’t know Sean had died yet and she had been reluctant to tell her. The fever had subsided and the woman was in much better health, but she was far from fully recovered and more upsetting news beyond what had happened to her own kin might be the thing to change that situation. “It’s been a long couple of days, nothing more.”

“Things are not looking up for enlightened people, are they? Dastan has been unwell for quite a while, and he’s not the only one I’ve noticed.”

“No, they are not.” Annie admitted, offering Indrani some tea.

Indrani sighed as though she wanted to refuse, but drank. Despite having had more tea in a day than she had in a lifetime, she couldn’t deny that it helped. “How long until I can... Get out of here... Rejoin the living.”

“At least another week... You had a hole through your body and lost a gallon of blood.”

“A week is too long...” Indrani complained.

“Ideally it’s four, but I know you wouldn’t do that. So it’s a week or I’ll have you restrained.”

“Fine, a week it is.” Indrani muttered. “Where’s the pretty boy?” she asked, looking around the infirmary. “You know, the one that hovers around you like a puppy dog?”

Annie laughed out. “Don’t say that. I don’t know where Darren’s gone, probably out helping your boys. Things have been quiet around here for a little while... and I was supposed to be sleeping still.”

“Ah, so he does not hover while you sleep then?” Indrani smirked. “I’d like to sit up, if that’s alright, I’m getting a bit uncomfortable.”

Annie nodded in agreement, helping the woman up slowly. “I’m not into that, no,” she answered the question.

“Oh, so you’re into him.” Indrani chuckled, drinking some more tea and raising an eyebrow.

“I didn’t... Say... That.” Annie mumbled, nervously glancing at the doorway. “Are you hungry? I’m hungry...”

“Alright, alright.” Indrani laughed. “I am a little bit hungry, yes.”

“Night has fallen.” Annie pointed out, suddenly taking notice of the darkness outside the temple. “It’s possible the pyre has been lit by now.”

“It has to be lit before the sunrise, so the Gods will see the light from the beyond...” Indrani explained. “Dastan is supposed to light it and stand by it until the ashes scatter... One of us at least, but I can’t be there.”

“You won’t make it... If you can stand you wouldn’t be able to walk that far in your state. I’m sorry.”

“Then he’ll have to do it. He needs come down or... There’ll be nowhere there to see them off...”

Annie gripped Indrani’s shoulder in a comforting gesture, but before she could say something to the woman they both heard the sound of boots landing in stone in the back of the temple. Dastan came strolling out to the makeshift infirmary as though he hadn’t been refusing to leave his room for the past two days. “Ladies...” He mumbled, passing them both and exiting the temple.

A few minutes later Ali turned up and Indrani looked at her in awe as though she’d had just taught a pig how to fly. “What did you say to him?” She mumbled.

Ali simply shrugged and forced a smile as she continued walking towards the exit, but Annie could tell the young archer’s eyes were red as though she’d been crying. “Hey,” she called after Ali.

“I’m fine.” She answered. “Get some more sleep or I’ll tell Darren on you. You were barely out for a full hour.”

Annie glared at the woman as she crossed the doorway, mumbling something about not needing a caretaker before starting to fix herself and Indrani something warm to eat.

The setting changes from newhaven to Assassin's Camp

Setting

Characters Present

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

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[Wolfpack Camp, Otium 16 - Afternoon]

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

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

“He’s a kid!”

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

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

“We should call Crystal back.”

“She’s not coming back, Lawrence!”

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

Doni,

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

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

What the Pack needs is a willing sacrifice


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Raven’s Nest, Otium 16 - Afternoon]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-----------

[White Shadows Encampment, Otium 16 - early evening]

“Annie...”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry. That must be difficult.”

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

“I remember my brothers now.”

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

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

“And that’s all you remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

-------

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Emily... What...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Blackpond Inn, Otium 17th - Morning]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m cleaning it up.” Nick sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5 months ago]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'The future is uncertain...'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Otium 17 - Afternoon]

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

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

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

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

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

“I did.”

“Is that true?”

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

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

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

“I see...”

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

“Uh... I...” Ike mumbled.

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

“I guess... I...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boss?” Nick mumbled.

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

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

“Good.” Crys smiled.

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

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

[Three weeks ago]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop.” Jake muttered.

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

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

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

She didn’t have to ask twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then close your eyes.” Crys argued.

Jake sighed. “Crys... Just...”

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

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

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

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

“Last time we spoke... You said...”

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

“Oh...” Jake mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I always take you seriously.”

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I know, I’m sorry about that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Otium 17 - Early Evening]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Raven’s Nest, Otium 13 - Night]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essence laughed. “Oh really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[The Manor, Otium 18 - Early morning]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very.” Luckas muttered.

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

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

“Love ya too, Lukey.”

“Tell me something.”

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

“No... Amber... I have a question!”

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

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

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

“Yes, I want to know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you and Sammy are...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Desert, Otium 18 - Early Morning]

”Why do we wear red, little brother?”

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

“What was that?”

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

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


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

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

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

”I’m not ready.” Dastan muttered.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yessir.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we going after them?” Andrew asked.

“I am.” Dastan replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing.” Indrani muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“Dastan, I... Doesn’t matter...”

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t say that! Don’t...”

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

“Dastan...”

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

“I... I promise.”

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

---------

[Desert, Otium 18 - Afternoon]

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

“What do you want here, Wolf?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hopefully not.” Donovan shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see.” Donovan smirked.

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

“I do. Thank you, Shaykh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Princess,

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

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

I knew I loved you then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell, Princess.

-Sean


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

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

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

The setting changes from assassins-camp to Raven's Nest

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Evin Bana Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Thomas Sidin Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Annie Turner

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[Raven's Nest - Otium 18, late afternoon]

Luckas sighed, holding back a laugh. They had been doing this for a while now; Lily had found him the moment he arrived in the Nest and been following him around ever since, chasing him for a bit then standing in front of him, staring for a few seconds, then yawning vigorously. After some time of making the girl chase him down for this; with no explanation as to why whatsoever, Luckas finally stopped trying to get away and just sat down by the oak, compliant, watching as she stared at him for long periods of time and then let out another exaggerated yawn, Stalker joining the girl in her yawning and eventually just curling up beside Luckas and taking a nap. Finally, Lily threw her arms up in the air in clear frustration and stormed off. Luckas was intrigued, so he jumped to his feet and went off after her.

Lily hadn’t gone far, she was standing beside an amused looking Jason, arms crossed and a severe expression that was a clear imitation of the one Jess would give the children at bedtime. “It doesn’t work!”

“There’s nothing wrong with the test, Lily.” The boy responded as if not wanting to explain anything more than that.

“Nuh-uh!” Lily protested. “I did just like you said and it didn’t work at all.”

“Okay...” Luckas snorted a laugh. “What is going here? What was that all about with the yawning and why are you two arguing?”

“It’s an empathy test,” Jason explained.

“An empathy tes-...” Luckas cut himself off, a look of understanding spreading across his features slowly. “I see.” Luke sighed, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. “Well, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with the test, Miss Lily... It just means I didn’t pass.”

The girl shook her head stubbornly. “That’s not right. Because you’re not mean so you should pass!” She argued.

Luke arched an eyebrow at the girl. “Is this an empathy test or a meanness test, hm?” He questioned playfully. “Listen, kid, it doesn’t mean I don’t have any empathy. I just have... a lot less of it than most people. So your test wouldn’t work on me because tests are made for regular people. You understand? Either way, not having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean a person is bad. It means it’s easier for them to do bad things because they wouldn’t feel bad about them.”

“But I think you have lots of empathy! You do nice things all the time.” Lily argued. “You tell us stories, and you help Jess with Danny even if you don’t really have to... And you make Miss Ess smile all the time... and stuff...”

Luckas snickered. “Do I? Huuh...” He mumbled, scratching his head playfully as though he hadn’t actually noticed these things before. “Weeeird.” Noting the girl’s confused expression Luckas sighed crouching down to her level. “Listen, Little Miss, I’m nice to you because I like you, yes? I like Miss Ess... and Jess is just very, very, bossy, you know? It’s easy being good to people you like. Good people are good even when it’s not easy. That’s something I can’t do.”

Lily frowned a bit as she thought about Luke’s words, making a face as if she had tasted something bitter. “Are you saying that to be good you have to be nice to people even if you don’t like them?”

Luckas laughed at the girl’s expression. “Nah, Miss Lily, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that good people don’t do bad things to people just because they don’t like them, or because they can. They would feel bad if they did.” He asked, standing up straight and waiting for her to nod in response before starting to walk back the way he came, purposely keeping his pace relaxed, knowing that the questioning wasn’t quite over yet.

“So you’ve done bad things to people just ‘cause you didn’t like them?” Lily asked, following after Luckas.

“Sometimes. More often than that because I could.”

“Why?”

“Why not?” Luckas retorted, his tone almost bitter, yet he halted and glanced at the girl with the corner of his eye, softening his next words. “That’s what empathy’s for, Miss Lily. It tells you why not.”

“Mister Luckas... Why do some people don’t have empathy then?” The girl asked.

Luckas shrugged casually and resumed walking. “I don’t think anyone knows, Miss Lily. Some people say that you are either born with empathy or not. Others think that people learn empathy from their parents when they’re still babies and that if something really bad happens then, or if they have no one to teach them, they never learn. Nobody knows which is true, though.”

“My Mommy and my Da taught me then!” Lily stated proudly. “You didn’t have a mommy to teach you?”

Luckas snorted slightly. “Not really.”

“Is she in Heaven like my mommy?”

“No,” Luckas mumbled. “No, she’s... She’s alive, but... She wasn’t a very good mommy. See, she didn’t want to take care of me or my brother; so she gave us away to some bad people.”

“Like the bad people taking children away now?”

Luckas frowned deeply but kept his tone relaxed. “You heard about that, huh?”

“We hear lots of things. Jess says we’re not supposed to, but...”

“I see,” Luckas smirked, a little bit amused. He stopped walking as he reached his spot by the oak and was greeted by Stalker lazily getting up from his nap to lick his hand. Luke scratched behind the wolf’s ears and sighed, unable to lie to the girl; even about this. “Yes, those people were something like that.”

“How could she do that?” Lily asked, clinging to Stalker as if he was a giant teddy bear and peeking at Luckas from behind a cover of black fluff.

“She had no empathy; not for us anyway.” Luke shrugged, sitting down by the tree and forcing a smile that was rather unconvincing. “You shouldn’t worry about that, it was a very long time ago.”

“Well, you know what? You have lots more empathy than she did.” Lily stated firmly. “So you didn’t need her to teach you anyways.”

Luckas shook his head but agreed with the girl, not wanting to extend that conversation any more than necessary. “I suppose you’re right Miss Lily.” Luke went silent for a little while before smiling wickedly at the girl. “You know what, I could really use some tea right now. Should we have some tea, Miss Lily?”

Lily’s eyes lit up in excitement as she vigorously nodded. “Okay! Wait here, I’ll be right back!” She exclaimed, running off towards the Captain’s cabin.

Luckas watched the girl wander off, his expression darkening considerably now that she couldn’t see him anymore; a reddish hue lingering underneath the dark of his eyes.

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

[Raven's Nest - Otium 18, early evening]

Luckas’ spirits had lifted considerably while having ‘tea’ with miss Lily. For the most part, he had let the girl talk his ears off about all the new people gracing the Nest with their presence and how she had tried to sneak a look at the Queen but was caught by Jess before she could manage a peek. Luckas’ interest in Ella or Jake’s prisoners was barely existent and his only addition to the conversation at this point was to stress the fact Lily should absolutely not go near any prisoners under any circumstance. The girl rolled her eyes at him but agreed. After a while, Jess came by to break up their play date and Lily gathered her things in a hurry to join the other kids for supper, telling Luckas he could keep the shiny paper crown she’d given him to wear. It was a nice looking piece of sparkly paper, and Luke held on to it, even though he didn’t quite see himself as a crown-wearing kind of guy.

It didn’t strike him as odd that he hadn’t seen Ess since he arrived in the Nest, or the amount of drills the Ravens had been running lately. He knew better than anyone that all hell was going to break loose soon enough. It only made sense that the camp be this busy. While usually Luckas would have made it a point to find her, even if just to see what she was doing, this time, he decided to just wait by the oak and enjoy a quiet moment. Those plans were almost immediately thwarted by a loud sneeze and an annoyed whine.

“Hey, Tala...” Luckas sighed. “I know, I forgot to change, I smell wrong. Just deal with it, alright? I had a rough couple of days, I just want some quiet.”

Tala let out a short bark, and continued sniffing and prodding Luckas, whining in protest to his scent and when it became clear to the wolf that the man wasn’t going to anything about his ‘condition’, she took action herself, persistently rubbing her fur against the man’s clothes face and hair.

“Ugh, Tala, no, stop it,” Luckas complained, shoving the wolf aside and getting up on his feet. “Fine, for fuck's sake, I’ll go wash up.” He muttered, retrieving a clean set of clothes and the boots Ess had given him from his travel bag and starting towards the river. “I’m not one of your pups, you know? Just because you stopped trying to bite my face off doesn’t mean I have to listen to you.”

Tala barked in response, following after Luckas and still sniffing at his heels.

“Knock it off,” Luckas mumbled, glaring at the wolf. “You couldn’t just cut me a little slack for once, could ya? Noooo... ” He continued to mutter at the wolf under his breath as they reached a more secluded area in the outskirts of the camp. He nudged Stalker, the wolf tracking ahead to make sure there was no one currently at the water pool. It was unlikely, but seeing as some of the women in the camp often bathed there he’d rather not risk it. The wolf’s short howl told Luckas that the area was clear and the man continued on, annoyance still clear in his voice as he mumbled to himself. “As if I didn’t have enough to worry about... No one would even notice if you didn’t make such a big deal every time... bloody wolf...”

Luckas was quick to strip naked and get in the pool, feeling a bit of shock from the cold water as he sunk in and exhaling sharply as it subsided. The idea of bathing in the Nest was unappealing to him for several reasons, but most of all because if anyone so much as glimpsed the mark on the back of his shoulder he would be done for. “Do you have any idea, the risk you’re making me take? Hm? Maybe you are still trying to kill me.” He muttered at Tala, resting both arms on the edge of the pool and glaring at the wolf. Tala responded with a snort, inching closer and taking a whiff of Luke’s hair before licking his nose, seeming satisfied that he was clean. “Yeah, yeah, I’m watching you.” He chuckled as the wolf wandered off, most likely to find Ess.

When Luckas returned to the Nest, once again thinking of just going back to the Oak and relaxing. Once again, his plan was immediately thwarted when he spotted Clayton stalking this man along the camp, the boy looking very determined and scared out of his mind at the same time. It took Luckas half a glance to know that man was far from the innocent victim he was making himself out to be. Luckas gestured for Stalker to hide and the wolf immediately disappeared in the woods. Luke then walked straight to Clayton and grabbed the boy by the collar of his shirt. “What, if I may ask, do you think you’re doing?” He snapped.

Clayton winced, eyes widening at being caught. “Uh, I...”

Luckas pulled the boy further away so that he was now standing between him and the stranger. “You don’t go around shoving your hands into people’s pockets like that! Who’s been teaching you this stuff?”

“Irvin did, but...”

“Irvin is an idiot. Which is not surprising considering the idiot in charge of his training.” Luckas snorted, softening his tone a bit when he realized Clayton was just about to start crying on him. “Listen to me, Clay; you do not prey on people blindly like this. Just because they look distracted it doesn’t mean they are. And if they’re pretending to be, you have to ask yourself...” He glanced at the man. “...Why?” He let go of Clayton’s shirt. “If you want to practice, practice on the guard. You’re not ready for this, do you understand?”

Clayton nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“Okay. Now go find Jess, go on. You should be going to bed by now.”

“Okay, I will. Thank you, Mister Luckas.” Clayton smiled, peeking at the stranger for a bit and waving. “Bye Mister Creepy Man!”

Luckas snorted a chuckle as the boy ran off. “So... Mister Creepy Man...” Luke muttered, now taking a good look at the stranger and immediately recognizing his face. “Mind telling me what your plan was with the kid? Because there're only two kinds of people I know who would willingly lead a child to reach into their pockets, but seeing as you’re Captain’s friend I’ll be kind enough to assume you are neither.”

Evin hadn't left his commandeered hut since he'd arrived. Keeping his eye on Ella was his top priority. However, in the Nest, he keep know that there was a certain level of safety. He could leave the cabin for a short while and while most of the previous Black Guards didn't know him, Evin knew them all too well. He'd tasked some of the better guards to protect the hut before leaving the cabin's sight. It would give him a chance to take a look around the camp and to keep up with the goings on around camp.
He'd only just left when he heard soft shuffles scuttling behind him. Evin didn't indicate at all that he knew he was being followed but continued on with a little more caution. He slowly circled around himself, taking note of his tracks on the ground as he walked by them. It was a kid. A younger one, at that. Evin relaxed. He led the kid on a wild chase through the camp until eventually finding a rather secluded place to stop. Rather irritated, he took his shoe off, shaking it as if there was a rock inside. When he felt rummaging through his pocket, he gently chucked his shoe over his head.
“Ouch!” The kid yelped.
“I don't know what you look like. Make sure you keep it that way, kid. Drop the string behind me. You can keep the copper pieces.” Evin said with a stern tone.
The kid scuttled off again, but not before he heard him shout, back a farewell to Evin. Am I really that old?
Then a younger man walked up to him. He looked no older than twenty with deep-set black eyes and black hair which seemed to partly cover his face.
“I have a hard time presuming that you walk around this camp and don't at least know my name. I'm Evin. Now that you know my name, you can use it.”

Luckas crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Evin with an eyebrow raised. “I know your name, sir. Mister Bana. Mister Evin. Mister Ev... J-Bear has some other names for you, I could use one of those as well.” He shrugged lightly. “So, yes, I can use your name. There’s a great many deal of things I can do, in fact. Just because I can, though, doesn’t mean I will.”

Luke unfolded his arms and ran his fingers through his hair, noting it was still damp from his impromptu bath. His smoothed his locks and picked the shiny paper crown miss Lily had let him keep earlier from his pocket. Unfolding the hat and placing it over his head. “There was one person I sometimes... Sometimes... Called by name,” he said, casually. “Sometimes I called her Lena. Most times I just called her Evil Bitch. We had a complicated relationship, but in my defense, she didn’t seem to mind that. She did mind what you called her, though. She didn’t say it but she minded, and you knew that she minded... Yet you did it anyway.” Luke’s eyes narrowed at Evin and sparkled red for a moment before his posture relaxed. Once again he shrugged at the man. “You did it because you knew that she minded and I think, hey far from me to judge, but you know... At the same time, you’re one to talk when it comes to how people address you. Mister Assassin Man.” Luckas’ face scrunched up for a moment as he thought over the name. “Nah... Mister Frowny Man? Mister Frowny Assassin Man? Mister Crankypants? Hmmm... I’m a bit off my game today, but no worries... I’ll find one that suits you soon enough.”

Eyes glossed over as Evin listened to this man drone on. He wasn’t even sure what the black-haired little brat was saying, but Evin indulged him the opportunity to continue talking. Evin wouldn’t have liked to say it, but he felt above this sort of condescending conversation from total strangers. He replied with the only thing that seemed dignified the conversation, “okay”and he moved on his way, towards what seemed to be the smell of some freshly cooked rabbit.

“I’m glad you agree,” Luckas said as he continued wandering off after Evin, eyeing him as though trying to make out what kind of person he was. After a few steps he whispered under his breath, it was a soft command, simple, one that might go unnoticed to someone naturally prone to tripping over their own feet, which was what Evin ended up doing. He caught himself, but Luke didn’t mean to cause a fall, only slow him down. He used the man’s misstep to run ahead of him and get in his face, looking into his eyes and catching a glimpse of the freshest memories on his mind. “You seem preoccupied, Mister Grumpy Man... You worried about Little Ella? Is she still not done playing puppet to that idiot? I told her I could help her, but she said ‘no’. No. ‘Cause of the kid I guess.” Luke smiled. “Always took her for a wimp, but even I have to admit that’s commendable. I don’t think anyone would fault her for wanting an easy way out in this case.”

Evin jumped to life at the mention of Ella. He grabbed Luckas by his shirt and pushed him backward. Luckas’ breath escaped him as he was violently backed into a tree. A dagger pressed against his throat with another one flashing from a hidden pocket in Evin’s coat to hold what seemed to be Luckas’ dominant hand against the tree. Any struggle would likely end with either Luckas’ throat cut or his hand pinned to the tree behind him, or both. “What’s your game with Ella? Who are you? What do you want from her?” He said through a stiff jaw. “And it’s Evin.”

Luke didn’t seem to care much for being roughed up. That was really a daily occurrence, or almost, at this point. He let out a small chuckle at the man’s response. “What could I possibly want from her? I did her a favor. Someone needed to explain what this was. She thought she was still alive. Understanding takes away the fear, or so I hoped.” Luke gave a half shrug, careful not to move too much. “I was just curious, if you don’t want to tell me how she’s doing, that’s fine by me.”

Evin let up his death grip on Luckas. He backed away a few steps and allowed him to compose himself in whatever way comforted him. Evin still felt in control and with a dagger in his hand, he could rest assured that should this strange fellow try to attack, that he wouldn’t have the jump on Evin. Luckas hadn’t revealed anything about himself, yet. Evin could respect that on a certain level. It took one man to fear someone who had a dagger to his throat and didn’t flinch but Evin wasn’t that man. Someone who could look at Death--or the perceived threat of Death--and not for a moment worry of what may come of it deserved respect. In fact, someone of that composure almost demanded it. Sean may have decided to address it and Perry, he knew, must have feared it. Evin was even thinking about it right now but this stranger in front of him seemed to be familiar enough with it to hold it with little regard.
“I wouldn’t know how Ella’s doing. It’s rather difficult to speak with someone who can’t speak with you. How you managed to speak to her would be a mystery. I’m a smart man. I have my suspicions.”
Evin put away one of his daggers, pivoting it through his fingers without a thought before tucking it away through a seem that almost seemed to disappear when his hand came back in view. “You still haven’t told me who you are.”

“Eh, my name is Luckas. Just Luckas.” Luke gave a long moment of thought to the question he was just asked and then shrugged yet again. “That doesn’t quite answer your question, but... Who I am is an awfully convoluted mess I’m sure you have no time or patience to figure out, sir.” He calmly stretched, trying to work some stiffness out of his body, his eyes not leaving Evin though he really wasn’t worried. “And I’m a telepath. I talked to her that way, but I doubt he’ll let me do it again. He’s really annoying for a dead man. I mean, I could enter their mind, sure, but that doesn’t mean he’ll let her talk. He’s in control for the most part.” Luke grinned, mostly at himself, not voicing what thought prompted the shift in his expression just yet. “You know, Jakey-Bear doesn’t seem to like you much; what I’ve seen of his thoughts before I got bored with it at least, but... You are a smart man. A crankypants, but smart. I’m sure if you look, you could find a way to talk to her. I’d be rather bored if I was stuck with that idiot and waiting for death. Little Ella should definitely appreciate the visit.”

Evin didn’t like riddles. He didn’t like the idea that people would beat around the bush when they knew the answer to his problems. Evin wasn’t even sure what the problem was. Luckas did. He knew the problem, the answer, and likely the means to by which to accomplish every task that would be faced in looking for the answers. Did Luckas want to tell Evin any of this? No. Not by any direct means, that is. He looked down into the dirt and shuffled his feet. “You must’ve been telling the truth when you said you know Lena,” Evin muttered mostly to himself. Looking back towards Luckas, he said, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Luckas blinked, seeming momentarily confused at Evin’s statement. “Okay, maybe you’re not as smart as I thought. I’ll draw you a little picture then.” He snorted, gesturing with his right hand to a point right behind Evin. “Easy, champ,” he mumbled, carrying on speaking as though there’d been no interruption and not giving another thought to the large black wolf that was now sniffing at Evin’s boots. “The necromancer responsible for Little Ella’s state is in control of her... well... their... consciousness. It’s a bit of a collective mind type thing, I guess. So even if a telepath can enter her, their, mind... There’s no guarantee to speak with her. That’s one issue there. The second issue would be that even if I could talk to her I couldn’t form a link between her mind and yours so that the two of you could speak. That said, there is someone I know who can and for what I heard he’s somewhere in this camp. The man’s name is Simon. I don’t know what interest he’d have in helping you communicate, but he could.” Luckas shrugged. “Like I said, though, you’ll have to look around. I don’t know where he is.” Luke snorted a chuckle as he watched Stalker poking his nose at the assassin for a few more seconds before coming to his side and sitting, he scratched behind the wolf’s ears in silent praise. “I think, maybe you’ll find him easier if you look for the giant white wolf Jakey Bear had following their asses around camp. I guess the purpose of that would be keeping the mad king from... I don’t know... Drooling on someone. The man is pretty much a potato at this point, I figure. If you find him, tell him I said hello.”

A telepath that could link communications. Evin had never heard of a telepath that could do that. He knew Lena couldn’t do that. She never revealed it to Evin if she did. But what would Evin gain from linking his mind to Ella’s? Was there a purpose to it all? Could he do anything to free her from her death grip? Probably not. Evin’s eyelids stiffened slightly. He retracted his lips into his mouth and looked away from Luckas for a moment. Letting out a heavy sigh, Evin looked back at Luckas and the wolf. “A potato and a white wolf. Sounds like it will be easy enough to find. Thanks.” Evin turned around to walk away. Despite not looking at Luckas, he made sure to be hyper aware of his surroundings as he wandered off. As he was about to pass behind a tree, he turned around. Luckas wasn’t there anymore. He wasn’t far. “You may have been helpful to me, but I swear: Some memories aren’t meant to be explored. If you cross me, I won’t be kind.”

Luckas snorted a laugh at Evin’s threat, poking his head from behind a tree just long enough to issue a reply. “Buddy, I have better things to do with my life, but... if you think that little threat would stop me doing anything, you clearly don’t know who you’re dealing with. Besides; don’t thank me, I’m not doing this for you.”

That said, Luke ‘disappeared’ behind the trees once again, glancing at Stalker as he started to finally head back to the oak. “Hate to agree with Lena on anything, but he is a bit of a self-entitled brat, isn’t he?”

================================

[White Shadows Camp - Otium 16, late night]

It took Annie a good while and some considerable effort to calm down Emily. She had to administer a tranquilizer to get the girl to settle down and after a few moments of uncontrollable sobbing she’d fallen asleep. Once the girl had calmed and was asleep, Alistair peered into the room to check on what was happening. Finding an uncharacteristically agitated Annie pacing around the tent like a beast in a cage. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“I don’t know what to tell that kid, Alistair. What can I tell him, really?" Annie blurted out, ignoring his question entirely.

“You’re not allowed to repeat anything you’re told, but what you’ve seen...” Alistair trailed off, watching Annie closely as the younger healer paced back and forth in front of him. “I know she might not want her brother to know the details, but it might be easier to make him understand the situation if you’re a little blunt.”

Annie stopped walking and turned to face Alistair. “We’ve dealt with cases like this before, but Emily is complicated. I can’t know what she would want, I can’t just ask her what she wants without...” She snorted a laugh. “Mom would know how to handle this better, I’m no telepath, I don’t know how mental damage like this actually works. As if Luckas wasn’t bad enough,” she muttered, rubbing her eyes. “Telling Irvin about things she doesn’t remember seems... Wrong.”

“From an ethical standpoint, maybe, but it’ll be easier on them both if he’s prepared for what will happen when she does begin to remember everything. Because it will eventually come back.”

Annie heaved a lengthy sigh, her eyes trailing from Alistair to the sleeping girl. “I suppose you’re right. Her memory is coming back faster than I expected and she’s not taking well to the idea of remembering.”

“I could talk to him if you want. I know this won’t be easy to say.” Alistair offered.

“No, Al, she’s my apprentice, I’m responsible for her. Besides...” Annie trailed off, her voice fading into a pained silence.

“You’re the only one who’s seen the state she was in.” Alistair finished her sentence with a nod. “I know.”

“Keep an eye on her for me, have someone come get me the moment she wakes up. Do not leave her alone, not for a second, Al.”

“Yes, Your Worshipness.”

Annie laughed at the man’s teasing. “Shut up.”

“Ah, see? Pretty boy over there is not the only one who knows how to make you smile.” Alistair chuckled.

“Aaaw, Al... Don’t tell me you’re jealous of Darren, now? You’ll always be my favorite big brother.”

“Normally I’d argue I’m your only brother, but that’s not quite true anymore is it?” Alistair quipped.

Annie laughed again, this time more softly, her expression more contemplative than amused as she wrapped her arms around Alistair. “You know, I’m happy you came back. You didn’t have to, but I’m glad you did.”

“Eh, anything for you shorty.” Alistair smiled, patting the top of Annie’s head.

“I’ve told you to never to call me that, Al,” Annie complained, breaking the hug and give him a forceful shove. “Way to ruin the moment, jerkface.”

“Heh, sorry, kiddo.” Alistair shrugged. “You know me, I can’t handle all this emotional stuff.”

“Mhm,” Annie mumbled, giving her brother a playful look of disbelief. “Just keep an eye on the kid for me,” she instructed. “I kept Irvin waiting long enough and I’m sure he’s worried sick.”

-------

Annie traced her steps back to where she left Irvin. The boy hadn’t moved a muscle from where he was standing, his eyes empty and focused at some random patch of grass at his feet. This was already shaping up to be a difficult conversation, but he looked so utterly lost it was actually painful. She sighed softly, walking towards him and placing her hand on his shoulder to draw his attention. “Irvin? Can you come with me please?”

Irvin nodded in agreement and Annie led him to her tent. Once inside, she sat him down and made some tea, giving the both some time to gather their thoughts. She pushed a full cup into the boy’s hands and sat across from him. “Emily is going to be okay, Irvin. She was just a little bit rattled. I gave her something to calm her nerves, she’s sleeping now.”

“This is my fault. It’s all my fault. I’ve been so focused on... Worthless shit... I didn’t even look for her. I just left her with him. Stupid of me to think he’d be able to care for anyone.”

“Your brother?”

“Did she talk about him?”

“Not really, Irvin. Emily’s memory is... Not the most reliable right now. When she first got here, she couldn’t even tell me her name. She still has no recollection of where she’s been in the past months or how she got here.”

“Jake and I ran into Alan; my brother, at the Blackpond Ball. He said he sold Emily off to pay a gambling debt. That he hadn’t seen her in months. I never should have left her with him. Even if she ended up in the dungeons with me she would have been safer.”

“You don’t know that,” Annie reassured. “You couldn’t have known any of this. It’s not your fault.”

“How long has she been here?” Irvin asked, staring at his cup of tea and wincing at the realization his tea was now frozen solid.

“Emily arrived here while I was in Blackpond for the Ball. When I came back, I was informed of her situation by the healers I left in charge in my absence. She was confused and terrified. I had to drug her in order to conduct just a simple physical examination and it took days to get her to speak to anyone. In hindsight, she’s made incredible progress in the weeks she’s been with us.”

“Was she hurt? How did she lose her memory?”

Annie’s head lowered and she stared at her untouched tea for a few moment before answering. “Her memory was tempered with. I’m not sure how exactly, but her memories were blocked, locked away. She wasn’t hurt when she got here, but... All signs indicate that she had been hurt, a lot, wherever she was.” She took a sip from her tea and heaved a deep breath. “Emily had bruises in several stages of healing, scarred lashes, healed fractures... She showed signs of severe abuse.”

Irvin grimaced, taking a long deep breath as he concentrated in reheating his frozen tea for few seconds, taking a short sip of the, now warm, liquid. “Abuse?” He questioned. “What kind of... Was she...” He shook his head, trying to find words that didn’t seem as horrible. “Did they?”

“Yes.”

Irvin dropped his cup of tea, a choked sound escaping his throat as he stared at his hands. The confirmation sending a stabbing, agonizing, pain through his heart. He never asked Jake what had happened to Alan, but if he was still alive; he wouldn’t be for much longer. “She doesn’t remember any of it?”

“Not yet. She will.” Annie sighed. “Like I said, her memories are blocked. It’s possible that the trauma is what’s keeping them from coming back fully. Emily herself says she’s afraid to remember and that fear is hindering her recovery, but... The mind heals, Irvin. Those memories; those events, they won’t be locked away forever. They will come back eventually.”

Irvin hid his face in his hands for a few moments, his voice coming out muffled. “Is that why she reacted that way? She said... She said I was dead...”

“She was probably told that you were. Sometimes where there are gaps in a memory the mind will try to fill in the blanks; treat statements as fact.” Annie reached for Irvin’s shoulder in an attempt to comfort the boy. “I know this is difficult to hear. All of it. But Emily is healing, she’s been adjusting well here and, once she wakes up and the fog starts to lift from her mind, she’ll be happy to see you.”

Irvin sighed. “You think so? I don’t want... I don’t want to makes things worse for her. If me being here, if seeing me, is hurtful in any way I can just...”

“You’re her family. She needs you. You being here is not going to make anything worse, I promise.”

“I abandoned her. I let this happen. What if she hates me? I can’t...” Irvin shook his head, unable to properly finish his thought.

“You’re alive. You’re here now. She’s not going to hate you.” Annie smiled at Irvin. “Who knows, maybe you’ll both heal a lot faster together.”

As if on cue, a healer called out to Annie and entered the tent. “I’m sorry to intrude Annie, but Alistair asked me to warn you.”

“Emily woke up?”

“She’s on her way over, I don’t think he’ll be able to stop her.”

Annie chuckled. “If she’s well enough to get past Alistair, that’s a good sign in my opinion. Thank you, Elora.”

The woman was barely out of the tent when Emily stormed in, she still looked shaky, but a lot more lucid than she had been in quite a while. Irvin jumped to his feet at the sight of his sister and the girl stood for a long moment staring at him before rushing in his direction and wrapping her arms around him in a tight embrace. “You’re real,” she spoke, choked laughter escaping amidst her words. “You’re real... You’re really here...”

Irvin was momentarily at a loss for words, returning his sister’s embrace and watching the girl sob against him for nearly a full minute before he managed a word. “You remember me?”

Emily nodded. “Mhm... I... I’m still a little confused, but... I remember when you left and Alan said the guard had caught up with you. He said...” She shook her head. “I should have known he was lying. I’m so sorry.”

“No. No, no, no... Ems, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have left you. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Irvin, I don’t care that you left.” Emily broke their hug and looked up at her brother with a wide smile. “I’m just happy you’re alive.” The girl then frowned as she finally stopped to get a good look at his face. “What happened? Did someone hit you?”

“What? Oh...” Irvin reached for his bruised cheek and snorted a laugh. “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”

Emily’s eyes narrowed for a moment in a severe glare, but she continued to smile at her older brother, pulling Irvin by the hand. “Come on, let’s go get something to eat, I want to know where you’ve been the past year.”

Irvin shot Annie a slightly panicked look at Emily’s sudden excitement, but let himself be dragged along anyway, seeming as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

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

[White Shadows Camp - Otium 19, early morning]

“I still think it’s funny... You’ve been with the Ravens all this time, Annie’s cousin was training you, you’re pals with Darren and no one realized your missing sister was right here all this time.” Emily sighed, giving Irvin an amused smirk as he helped her change a patient’s bandages; noticing that he was looking quite queasy from the process. “I can’t help but think that me telling everyone my brother was dead might have gotten in the way a bit.”

“That’s not your fault, Ems.”

“I know.” She shrugged. “There, all done, sir.” She smiled at the injured mercenary and led Irvin out of the examination tent.

“Any more gruesome head injuries before breakfast?” Irvin asked, frowning at his sister. “I swear that guy’s brain was showing.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Emily laughed. “It was a nasty wound, but if his brain was exposed he would be a potato right now. Not to mention it’d be smelling a lot worse.”

“You know what? Forget breakfast.” Irvin shuddered.

“Wuss,” Emily teased, bumping against her brother as they walked towards the center of the camp. “Well, I’m hungry and it’s gonna be a busy day. They’re all busy days.”

“You really like it here, huh?”

“I do. It’s good... Helping people. And I’m good at it. Annie said I can be a fantastic healer if I want to.”

The pair walked up to one of the tents were some healers were having tea and picking at an assortment of bread, fruit, and cheese. Emily smiled and greeted them by name before helping herself to some fresh fruit.

“I’m glad,” Irvin said, helping himself to a roll and biting into it.

“Oh?”

“Mhm. You seem at home here. That’s good. That’s... The closest any one of us has gotten to one.”

“What about you?” Emily asked, looking at Irvin with concern. “You’re clearly not cut out to be a healer.”

Irvin laughed. “No... No... We know what I’m good at, though, don’t we?” He smirked.

“Iiiirv...” Emily scolded.

Irvin snickered. “I don’t know, sis. The Ravens were good to me, but I don’t think I can go back now. Not... Anymore... So I guess for now I hang around here? At least I get to spend time with you. Even if that means dealing with exposed brains now and again.”

“Aaaw, you’d do that for me? That’s so sweet.” Emily smiled. “Just don’t slow me down. And don’t puke anywhere, I’m not cleaning it up.”

“Love you too, Ems.” Irvin rolled his eyes at her, finishing his breakfast roll and shrugging. “And I won’t make any promises on the puking thing.”

=====================================

[The Desert - Otium 19, midday]

Indrani’s eyes followed the horse’s every move with an intensity reserved for a lioness guarding her cubs. She could remember as though it was only yesterday, the day she took Mirage from her previous owner; a scrawny, mistreated, ugly thing. One look at that poor excuse for what should have been a majestic animal and no one thought she’d ever amount to anything. “It’d be kinder to put the poor thing to rest,” that had been Jackson’s say in the matter. Indrani wasn’t having it. It wasn’t something she would’ve argued with normally; prolonging an animal’s suffering for your own selfish pride was wrong and she knew that, but she could tell Mirage was different. There was something in the mare’s eyes that told Indrani she wasn’t ready to give up just yet and she was more than determined to see her through.

It worked out in the end. Not without a lot of time and effort from the both of them, but it worked out. The horse’s faded sickly coat was no less gray, but it had grown shiny and speckled in white, her mane long and silky, her body had filled up with muscle and fat. Mirage wasn’t what one would consider a prized specimen by usual standards, but she was healthy, strong, and the fastest mare in all of Valcrest without question. Indrani’s pride and joy.

A soft, near-inaudible, whistle blew past the woman’s lips, causing the horse’s ears to twitch ever so slightly. Mirage turned and trotted towards the fence to Indrani, the woman smiling softly as she stared into the animal’s dark eyes. “There she is...” Indrani whispered, chuckles escaping her as Mirage nuzzled her hair and neck. “Someone’s been a stubborn girl, I hear. Hmm?” she smiled, calmly waiting for the mare to finish her ‘greeting’ before pressing her forehead to the the animal’s and letting out a soft sigh. “Things got a bit too frightening for you, I reckon. I don’t blame you, girly, I was pretty scared too...”

“What are you doing up and about? You’re supposed to be on bed rest; Annie’s going to kill you if she finds out.”

“I’m fine. It barely hurts as long as I’m careful.” Indrani snorted, turning to face Allison as the assassin calmly leaned against the fence beside her. “How come you’re still here?”

“Well, you still have injured people who need helping and I’m in no hurry to go back to Newhaven.” Ali shrugged. “I honestly don’t think I’m very useful there anyway. Crys just wants me away from Blackpond.”

“That may be her way of protecting you, but I doubt she’d place you where you’re not needed,” Indrani spoke, calmly petting Mirage between the ears.

“Eh, it doesn’t matter.” Ali shrugged.

“No? I’d think you’d want to be more involved with your clan’s activities. It’s not like you to be this... Apathetic... Are you alright?”

Ali snorted a laugh as Mirage started to sniff and prod her hair with her nose. “I’m alright, I’m just... Really tired, I guess.”

Indrani calmly caught Ali’s hand midway to petting the horse and forced it down. “Wait,” she told her, smiling at the questioning look the archer shot her. “Horses are very sensitive animals, you know. They enjoy giving and receiving affection, but... They can’t do both simultaneously. If Mirage is being affectionate with you, if she’s giving, the way to show affection in return is to be still and receive.” She released Ali’s hand and smiled. “I think this is one of my favorite things about horses. They experience every moment, however small, with all of their focus; the whole of their beings. It’s a lesson for humanity, really... To honor the one you’re with by simply allowing them to love you.”

Ali stood there silent at Indrani’s words. They made sense, in a way. Everyone she knew, at one point or another, pushed their loved ones away out of love itself. For protection, out of guilt, fear of the future, or the past, she wasn’t sure. What sounded like such a simple thing the way Indrani said it, really wasn’t. To just allow yourself to be loved for the duration of a single moment. “We make such a great team, you and me...” Ali smiled. “I’m apathetic, you’re melancholic... Neither of us is quite like they should be right now. Which, begs the question; how are you doing?” She asked, calmly waiting for Mirage to turn her muzzle away from her ear and petting the horse’s neck. “Jackson was a bit worried yesterday.”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Indrani muttered.

“Listen, I’m not going to pretend I’m sad Sean died. I can’t. And I honestly don’t think he’s even worth your grief, but... You’re my friend. And if you need to talk, I’m here to listen. At least, I’m here right now.”

“I was stupid. I can’t stop thinking about how stupid I was. I can’t stop thinking that if I’d seen things for what they were right from the start, none of this had to happen.” Indrani sighed, slouching into the fence and letting out a groan. “I know that’s not true. Or at least the truth is not as simple as that, but... He was my friend. I still wanted to save him even after all the little ways he managed to hurt me. Even now that he’s gone. A part of me still thinks that if I could reach out to him... I could fix this. And I can’t. I couldn’t help Sean, I can’t help Dastan... I can barely stand even less help my clan now... I’m...”

“You’re not useless, Indi, you’re just broken. Trust me, because I’ve been; a lot, this doesn’t last forever. Right now, though, maybe it’s time for you to just be still. To just live the moment and allow yourself to feel this. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Indrani shook her head. “I just... I’m so tired of failing the people who need me.”

“You’re the only one who thinks you’ve failed, Indrani.”

Indrani let out a bitter laugh. “No, no I’m not.” She tugged on the pendant hanging from her neck, the sigil of Effort. “My people believed in honor, in loyalty, you die if you must, but you never betray your duties. Not once. Not for any reason, but I...”

Ali shook her head, utter amusement in her expression. “You can’t change the things you’ve done and punishing yourself for them now helps no one; not yourself or your clan.”

“Dastan shouldn’t have put their lives in my hands after everything.”

“Your brother is a lot of things. A lot of them. But he’s not stupid, Indrani. If he left the Crimson under your leadership is because he trusts you more than he trusts himself right now. If you want to honor anything, honor that trust.”

“You do realize I acted against your people while you were with us, right?”

“That doesn’t matter. Even if you hadn’t, we weren’t going to just sit here and move on with our lives. Things were going to turn ugly one way or another, sooner or later, and if anything; I understand you wanting to shield your people from it.” She sighed. “Just don’t ever bring this up with Evin, okay? You might invoke his wrath and then who knows what’ll happen.”

Indrani laughed. “Oh no, we wouldn’t want that. We have enough explosions around here as is.”

“I hear Annie almost lost her patience with Dastan and his firework experiments before Jake’s birthday.”

“I wasn’t exactly happy about them myself, but he was excited about something for a change. He hasn’t quite been himself since...” She silenced for a moment. “I don’t think he’ll ever be the same again now, but... You know...”

“I know. I don’t think any of us will, though. The past three years have been...” Ali cut herself off, a pained groan escaping her as she doubled over, leaning into the fence and clinging to the wood with both hands.

“Ali, are you alright? What...?”

“I’m fine,” Ali mumbled, letting out a sharp breath. “It’s alright, it... It already passed.”

Indrani was unconvinced, staring at her friend with concern in her eyes. “How long have you been having symptoms like this?”

“Indi, I’m fine, really. Don’t worry about it. We’re all sick, it’s nothing new at this point.” She slowly steadied herself, forcing a few deeper breaths.

Indrani shook her head. “This was not ‘nothing’, Ali. Wh-...” She stopped talking, the realization suddenly hitting her. “This is why you stayed behind, isn’t it? This is why you just let Crys push you to Newhaven... There’s no way you would just accept sitting on the sidelines five months ago, but now...”

“Indrani, let it go,” Ali warned, glaring at the commander. “Just... Let it go.”

“When do you plan on telling them?”

“Telling them what?” Ali muttered. “What do you suggest I tell them exactly? ‘Oh, hey, my nervous system is slowly going to shit and injecting me with unbearable, excruciating, pain to a point where soon enough I’ll be complete and utterly useless until I finally drop dead’; is that what I should tell them? Because I don’t know... It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. I don’t want to waste what’s left of my time trying to endure everyone’s pity or, Twins forbid, guilt over the fact they can’t help me. They can’t help me, Indi. What could I possibly say to make that any easier?”

“Maybe they can’t save you, Allison, but they are your friends; your family, these are the people who love you. If you’re in pain, if you’re afraid, they’re the only ones who can help you.”

Ali snorted softly, pushing away from the fence. “I don’t want that kind of help.” Her eyes softened for a moment as she watched the horses running about inside the fence. “I just want to feel like myself for as long as I still can. I know it’s selfish, but right now I feel like I have that right. So, please, just... Let it go.”

==================

[Newhaven - Otium 19, early afternoon]

Ryan had argued against Donovan’s decision. He didn’t see a point in reclaiming the Inn considering the state Newhaven was currently in. They would need to start recruiting as soon as possible; sure, but the way things were in the city, prioritizing this now felt to him like a waste of energy. The Alpha felt differently, however, and in this case, the Alpha had spoken. And so Ryan entered the establishment, alone, hauling a bag of sand over his shoulder. The commotion that had taken place at the bar had ended by now, but about a dozen rebels remained, some of them still suffering the effects of their celebrations.

“Huh. I might not even need this,” Ryan mused, dropping the bag of sand, the fabric splitting open and spreading its contents to the floor at his feet. He walked to one of the men who was sprawled on the ground amongst empty bottles and broken chairs, crouching to the man’s level and slapping him hard across the face. The man groaned in pain and looked up at Ryan in confusion, muttering at him to ‘piss off’. Ryan slapped him again; harder, and the man seemed to wake up fully this time.

“WHAT is your issue, mate!?”

“Your sorry ass on my floor is my issue. So why don’t you and your pals drag yourselves out before I decide to take matters into my own hands?”

“Your floor? Pffft... Haven’t you heard buddy? We own this city now.”

“I was hoping I’d get some kind of smartass response like that,” Ryan smirked. “Gives me a good excuse to do this...” He grabbed the intoxicated man by the collar and landed a punch to his jaw so forceful his head was knocked back into the floorboards with the impact. Ryan then proceeded to drag the unconscious man out the door of the bar.

Once he stepped back into the Inn, all of the other; far less intoxicated, rebels were standing at attention with weapons in hand. “Oh, fellows, that’s not a good idea,” he smirked. “Do you know where you are right now? This is a neutral zone for my clan, you’re disrespecting that.”

The only one of the men who seemed to be actually fully sober took a step towards Ryan, scoffing at his words. “Listen here, little pup, we took over this city; all of it. The Wolfpack doesn’t hold the same amount of influence it once did and you’re outnumbered, so I suggest you walk out of here with your tail between your legs.”

Ryan sighed softly. “No blades, Ryan... We shouldn’t be killing off civilians, Ryan... That’s not the impression we want to make right now, Ryan...” He mumbled, pulling two fighting sticks sheathed at his back. “I’d advise against what you’re about to do, pal,” he warned. When the rebel ignored the warning and charged at him, Ryan very calmly dodged his attacks as if they were nothing, striking at his hands to make him drop his blades. Once the first of the men was unarmed, the others, in a moment of sheer stupidity, decided to charge Ryan as a group. There were only ten of them, and out of those ten, only two were fully sober. The Wolf could easily handle them on his own, but he wasn’t going to waste any more time than necessary.

Ryan’s eyes irradiated a golden light as the sand he had previously spilled on the floor started to move and split into eight identical piles, each pile rising from the ground and forming into an exact clone of Ryan; from the tip of his boots to the fighting sticks in his hands. With the clones weighing in heavily in his favor, the ensuing confrontation took no more than a couple of minutes to be resolved and ended in a pile of groaning wounded rebels who Ryan’s clones proceeded to drag outside the Inn without the least bit of care.

Ryan sheathed his weapons and took a quick look around the upper floors, the basement and the tunnels underneath the bar to make sure there were no unwanted guests left. Once certain that the place was cleared he walked outside, finding Sheila standing in front of establishment watching with an amused expression as the clones dragged the semi-conscious men out of the bar.

“Heh, wonder how much those White Knights would be willing to pay us to clean up the castle for them,” she mused.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Ryan answered. “Donovan says, and I agree, that we’ve let ourselves get roped into their problems one too many times. We’re here to deliver a message and leave; nothing more.”

“Yes, well, with how often we need to keep rebuilding this place, we could use the extra income.”

Ryan chuckled. “Oh, relax, if it’s not on fire we can manage it. I’ll come by later and give you a hand cleaning up.”

“Oh, come on now, I’m sure the Alpha’s Second has better things to do than help me clean. I can handle it by myself.”

“Eh, I just have to haul this trash back to its source. Shouldn’t take too long,” Ryan said with a shrug. “I’ll help while Donovan is tending to his side of things.”

“Eh... Shouldn’t you back him up on this?”

Ryan snorted a laugh, idly poking one of the unconscious men with his foot. “I was ordered not to.”

“And I thought Sean was an idiot... That boy’s not going to survive a full year at this rate.”

“Who knows, maybe the kid’s on to something.” Ryan shrugged. “All I can say is the kid’s being really intense about asserting ourselves in this situation.”

“Don’t get me wrong, sweetie, it’s not a bad idea, I just feel his execution is a bit risky,” Sheila responded with a shrug. “The way things have been, we lose another Alpha and that’s it for the Pack.”

“You don’t need to tell me that, and trust me; I’ve made that point repeatedly, but the kid’s stubborn. Says he shouldn’t need a bodyguard just go in for a chat.”

“The only reason Sean survived a chat with that woman in the first place is that they were both too banged up from their own stupidity to have a go at each other.” Sheila pointed out.

“Well, we had no time to break her legs beforehand, so I guess Doni will have to be a little more tactful and a little less... Fletcher...” Ryan snickered. “Regardless, I know what I have to do.”

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

The doors of the throne room slammed open with the thundering sound of cracking wood. A thin layer of smoke permeating the air and temporarily concealing the figures crossing the threshold. Ryan and his clones walked through the fog and dropped the unconscious rebels in front of the throne, much to the dismay of a group of twenty heavily armed dumbfounded men. “Which of you nimrods is responsible for this trash littering our Inn?” he questioned.

“Your Inn?” A man responded from his position on the throne. That enough would be grounds for execution, Ryan figured, but at this point, it didn’t matter. The man wasn’t that tall and didn’t seem that much older than their new Alpha. He stood from the throne, his chest puffed out in a ridiculous display of cockiness. Ryan had to at least acknowledge the fact these people weren’t stupid. They were competent enough to take over the city up to and including the castle. Still, if that was their leader; they wouldn’t hold it for long. “I was under the impression the Pack had abandoned their bar. Again. You people aren’t quite what you used to be.”

“What do you think you know, you pipsqueak, of what we are or used to be?” Ryan questioned, amused at the man’s words. “I’m here to deliver a message; stay out. We allow you to exist and fight your little rebellion because we don’t care. Give us reason enough to care and we’ll shut it down. Simple as that.”

“Shut us down? You and what army?” The man opened his arms wide and looked around. “There used to be one here, but they didn’t manage to shut us down.” He sighed, shaking his head in amusement. “I see that you mean well, though, mate. You’re carrying fighting sticks, bringing our men back alive... In your position, I see that you had no obligation to do that. I can appreciate that. So don’t worry, we’re not going to give you any more trouble. You have my word.”

Ryan sighed. “That’s good enough, kid, but for the record; you defeated half of an army that was already stretched too thin and poorly managed due to their Captains trying to run this dump of a town, which; good luck with that by the way. The fact that you’re considering yourself victorious right now is a great indicator that you didn’t really think this all the way through. I give you a month to hold this place and I’m being generous.” He smirked at the rebel leader, his eyes glowing as his sand golems collapsed back into useless piles. “At least the moron who usurped our leadership managed to hold it for three and a half years.”

“Come back in five. We’ll be sitting right here.”

Ryan snorted a laugh on his way out of the room. “Sure buddy. Sorry about the mess, by the way. Let’s just call it even.”

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

Newhaven Castle was nothing but a shadow of its former self. One could be fooled into believing the place was struck by a tornado if not for the sounds of fighting still echoing some of the empty halls. All but one section of the castle had been secured by the rebels, but they hadn’t done the best job of setting up security as of yet. Their successful assault looked like one hell of a stroke of luck to Donovan and one that was bound to be short-lived unless they managed to put someone in charge who understood the art of war a lot better than this. Sneaking his way past the intruders had been easy, even in the sections where there was a higher concentration of them. Anyone not in Guards uniform was assumed to be on their side and Donovan was able to simply stroll past their defenses unscathed.

Once the young Alpha reached the upper floors, however, things changed rather abruptly. The third floor of the Castle was silent compared to the rest, pieces of furniture and doors pulled from their hinges were piled in order to barricade the halls, leaving only one narrow path available. “Clever,” he whispered, “very, clever.”

“Isn’t it?”

Donovan didn’t have the time to turn around and check the source of the sudden voice in his ear, the split second he had available was used to dodge an expertly aimed blow to the side of his head, the sound of the wooden baton connecting with the stone wall beside him rang painfully in his ears. If it had actually hit him, he would have been out cold instantly.

The boy spun around, grabbing his bow and using it to block the next flurry of blows aimed at his body. He could now barely make out the form of a woman clad in black leather armor as his attacker and assumed she was part of Mageria’s Guard. “Hey... Hi... Excuse... Me...” he started, barely dodging a blow aimed right at his face. “Can you... Not... Please...” He sighed, dropping the bow at his feet and raising his hands, eyes closed as he braced for an impact that never came.

“Oy, boy, are you dumb? Did I get your head at some point there?” She taunted.

Doni opened his eyes to the sight of one the batons held still less than an inch from his face. “My sister made this bow for me before she died, I’d rather damage my face than use it for a fighting staff any longer.” He muttered.

“You’re a bit too quick on your feet for a rebel.” She pointed out, lightly poking him between the eyes with the baton.

Before he knew it, something coiled around Donovan’s neck restraining his movements as another woman spoke behind him. “Don’t fight like no rebel either.”

Donovan briefly attempted to glance at this new person restraining him from behind but felt the pressure tighten around his neck at his movement, so he kept his eyes on his first opponent instead. “You don’t fight like some prissy Knight either...” He retorted, tilting his head to the side so he could look past the weapon blocking his vision. “Although I have the feeling you held back a little. Not sure if I’m grateful or offended,” he added with a playful smile. “So, Miss...? Is your captain around? I’d like a word with her if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Oh? So you’re dropping in for a bit of chatter, are you? Suuure... The middle of a rebellion sounds like the best time to be doin’ that.”

“This isn’t the middle of a rebellion, technically speaking. As superior as you are in skill, the rebellion outnumbers you greatly and for what I hear of your Captain I don’t see her going all out on those idiots considering that in the end of the day they’re still civilians. What is the point of vowing to protect the people and then putting them down for daring to dethrone a dead Queen? I’m assuming the reason you took so easy on me is that you planned to restrain me without using lethal force, but since doing so with every rebel currently roaming the castle is a foolish endeavor at best, your Captain will be forced to either make peace with the fact you can’t hold this place, or... Well... Make an even bloodier mess of this whole thing and then make peace with the fact you can’t hold this place.”

Donovan felt the pressure tighten around his neck just a bit. “You’re too much of a talker for someone’s who’s here uninvited.”

“Sophie; that’s your name right?” Donovan questioned, still unable to see the woman standing behind him. “I’m Donovan Fletcher.”

“Suppose you’re not going to explain how you know my name, Donovan Fletcher?”

“Not unless you make me, but... We’d both be wasting our times and we both have better things we need to be doing. I just want a word with your Captain, and I’ll leave.”

Sophie seemed to be looking to her companion for direction now as the baton-wielding blonde give a small shrug and she responded by pushing Donovan forward towards the end of the hall. After a few steps, he halted. “My bow...”

“I’ve got it.”

Doni relaxed at that and allowed himself to be dragged along.

“Fletcher?” Sophie questioned. “As in...?”

“Sean was my brother,” Donovan answered.

“Was?”

Donovan shrugged in response.

“Ah. My sentiments.”

Donovan chuckled. “It’s commendable that you’d say that considering the shit he pulled on your squad, miss...?” He snickered when she still refused to give her name. “Come on, you know my name now. And I’m going to keep asking.”

“It’d be a bit hard to ask questions with a broken jaw, pretty boy; just a fair warning,” she said, pausing for a moment. “And it’s Sham; not ‘miss’. I really ain’t no prissy knight.”

“Noted.”

Sham walked ahead of the other two as they turned a corner, Sophie held Donovan back as she entered a room at the end of the hall. After a couple of minutes, she poked her head out and gestured for them to follow her inside. Sophie unraveled the object from around Donovan’s neck and he saw that it was a whip. “Little early in our relationship to be bringing out the whips, don’t you think?”

Sophie snickered. “Precious. I definitely never heard that one before.”

“I try.” Doni shrugged.

The room they entered was completely void of any furniture save for a table and two chairs. On the table was a map of the castle and a half bottle of rum, a weak flame flickering in the fireplace was the only source of light, casting odd shadows on the bare walls. Sitting in one of the chairs was a blonde man Donovan immediately recognized as Captain Thomas and across from him a woman with graying red hair he concluded to be Mageria Talsheir.

Sham briefly whispered to Mageria, placing Donovan’s bow in her hands. The captain shot the young Alpha a long inspecting gaze, her expression stern for a moment before letting slip a small trace of amusement. “When I told Crystal Rivers I was sorry she lost her mother, I actually meant it. I don’t know what to say to you.”

Donovan smiled at the woman. “That’s alright, Captain. I’m not exactly here to exchange pleasantries.”

“Why are you, here?” Thomas spoke up. “Not to be rude or anything, kid, but in case you haven’t noticed, we have a bit of a situation. Not the best time for a diplomatic chat, if that is in fact what you’re after.”

“Yes and no.” Donovan shrugged. “I’ll be quick; we have just cleared our Inn of your rebellion. I’m assuming that whichever way this goes it’ll be over soon, so we are taking the extra care to warn both sides that regardless of who wins, Newhaven would do well to continue respecting our boundaries.”

“You’ve come all the way here, infiltrated the castle, so you could stand face to face with both Knight Captains and tell them to wipe their feet before standing on your threshold?” Mageria asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Pretty much.”

Mageria tilted her head to the side, her eyes piercing through Donovan like daggers for a split second, despite the amused smirk playing on her lips. “Add a couple of innocent hostages and I can see the resemblance.”

Donovan chuckled at the woman’s response. “I guess that’s a fair assessment,” he agreed. “The case is, and I think we can both agree at least on that, if both our people knew their boundaries a little bit better, neither my clan or your city would be in the state they are in right now,”

“I don’t exactly see how we could have ignored an explosion in our throne room, any more than you could have ignored the bounty on your heads.”

“Maybe not, but we could both have acted smarter and maybe, just maybe, my clan ridding your city of a psychopathic killer posing as a royal might have turned out to be a good thing.”

“Hold on, what?” Thomas interrupted, glaring at Mageria with an expression mixed between shock and outrage.

“It’s a very long story, Tom.” The woman answered, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “To cut it short, the King was being impersonated by a killer and that was the man the Wolfpack killed. Of course, none of it could ever be officially proved, so we just allowed the public to assume the Wolves responsible had been executed.”

“And we don’t know what actually happened to King Stephen?”

“The only man who could answer that question was buried under his name, so unfortunately no one will ever know.”

“Why was I never informed of this?” Thomas demanded, heaving an exasperated sigh and seeming to lack the energy to be properly enraged by being kept in the dark.

“Honestly? Krander had just gone off Twins know where, you hadn’t been appointed Captain yet at the time this all happened, and after it was dealt with no one wanted to ever bring it up again.”

Thomas looked from Mageria to Sham and Sophie; neither seeming surprised in the slightest with the information. Sham gave a slight shrug as her eyes met Thomas’. “Jake was there,” she told him. “That boy gets a bit too chatty with a few drinks in ‘im. Most of the Blacks know the story by now.”

Donovan shrugged at the two Knight’s exchange. “Nonetheless, I’m not here to bring up history. Well, at least not after this.” Slowly, the boy reached into his coat, very aware of the fact Sham had her eyes on him all the while they’d been talking. He pulled out a small leather bound book. “Something like this has never left our camp, Captain, I expect you to appreciate that,” he said, offering the book to Mageria. “As you know, Evin Bana set fire to the clan records before the exile, but, Sean got his hands on a few files and hid them elsewhere before that happened. I’m still uncovering all his hiding places, but I found this in one of them. It concerns you.”

Mageria placed Donovan’s bow on the table, leaning against it and placing herself between the young assassin and the weapon as she took the file from his hands. “Concerns me how?”

“Just consider it a show of good faith,” Donovan told her, not answering the question. “I said all I’ve come here to say and you have more pressing matters to attend so if I may have that back,” he nodded at his bow, “I’ll be out of your way.”

Mageria stored the little bound book safely in her pocket and pushed herself away from the table, taking the bow and offering it to Donovan, still keeping a firm hold on the object when the Wolf tried to take it from her hands. The Captain’s eyes lingering on the two rings on his left-hand finger. “You know, I was wondering why your new Alpha would send a teenager to meet two Knight Captains in the middle of a rebellion.”

Donovan smiled, holding the woman’s gaze. “He didn’t.”

“Your brother must have been desperate to appoint you as Second.”

“Oh, Sean? He would never do that. In fact, my brother never appointed a Second-in-Command before he died. And see, where there is no Alpha, and there is no Second... The clan votes.” He smirked. “I’m not the first teenager appointed Alpha in our history, Captain, it shouldn’t seem like such a shock. Trust, I’m far more prepared for the job than your Queen was when she left our camp.”

Donovan stumbled back a step when Mageria abruptly released her hold on the bow. He snorted as he noticed the woman’s expression. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. I actually liked Ella quite a bit. It saddens me that she felt my brother’s life was worth risking her own.” He calmly inspected the bow in his hands, checking if there had been any damage during his short fight with the baton-wielding knight earlier. The wood seemed unscathed, and Donovan let relief wash over him for a brief moment.

“How old was she? Kate.” Mageria asked.

Donovan flinched at the mention of his sister’s name. “Seventeen. We were twins, Katie was four minutes older than me.” His gaze seemed to darken as he looked at Mageria, sheathing the bow at his back. “If you’d like to know how she died, you can ask your friend Evin when you next see him. I’m sure he’ll be able to tell you the story better than I could.” Donovan paused as an explosion was heard on the lower floor. He snickered under his breath and continued speaking as though it never happened. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Captain, I think I’ve already overstayed my welcome.” He unceremoniously turned his back on the Captain of the Black Knights and waved over his shoulder. “No need to show me the way out, I can manage.”

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

When Donovan reached the courtyard Ryan was waiting, the man holding a handkerchief to his nose and seeming quite exhausted. “You overworked yourself, I told you to be more careful,” Doni scolded.

“I know, I’m sorry,” Ryan mumbled starting them on their way into the city. “I told Sheila I’d stop by and help with the clean up, is that alright?”

“I’ll help her. You’re going to get some rest. This clan has seen enough dead Seconds to last us a century.”

“We shouldn’t both be away from camp this long,” Ryan argued. “You should head back.”

“No. We’re both resting here and you can head back tomorrow. I’m going to stop by Blackpond.”

Ryan stopped walking and turned to Donovan “Blackpond? But...” His eyes widened for a moment. “By yourself? Are you insane?”

“Are you really going to keep asking that every time I do something reckless? Because it’s going to get exhausting really fast.”

“Doni, you’re pushing your luck. Not a lot of people know who you are yet, but that’ll change soon.”

“You worry way too much, buddy.” Donovan smiled, pushing Ryan to continue walking. “Let’s face it; if Crystal Rivers wanted me dead we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

============================

[Blackpond Inn - Otium 19 early evening]

“No... No, no, no... You guys aren’t listening, are you? STOP. NOW.”

The sound of metal clashing gradually fell into silence at Crys’ words. The recruits falling still like statues under the assassin’s blind stare. It had literally been the first time they had heard the woman raise her voice and, considering how these sessions had been when she was calm, they were understandably wary of what was about to take place.

“You’re training to use real blades and not play swords.” Crys spoke, her tone softer now that room was silent. “Hugo, Marc; front and center,” she commanded.

The two recruits shuffled forward side by side, looks of utter fright plastered on their faces. The tallest and strongest of the two wincing slightly when Crys unsheathed her sword and pointed it at his face.

“Do you see this, Hugo?” She questioned. “Does it look like a toy?”

“Yes... I mean, no... It’s not a toy.” The man answered.

“If you were fighting someone wielding a blade, the way you were fighting just now, you would have lost a limb or worse.” She scolded, resheathing the blade and taking a pair of training swords from the rack. “I’m going to tell you all one last time, this...” She struck at his left-hand blade. “...Is your sword and this...” She struck at his right-hand blade. “...Is your shield. And vice-versa. You attack and defend. At the same time. All of the time. Not one or the other; both. One slip, one opening, one missed opportunity, and it’s OVER. Are we clear or do I have to personally instill the fear of death into each and every one of you!?”

Marc opened his mouth to answer and was immediately cut off by a strike across the face. The man nearly spun in place with the force of the blow and stood swaying in place. Crys sighed. “That was a rhetorical question, smartass. Now tell me, did that hurt?”

“Yes,” Marc answered doubling over and spitting a few drops of blood onto the ground.

“Good. You should be glad. Because you know what? Death doesn’t hurt. Death is slowly fading into nothing until nothing is all you feel, nothing is all you are and nothing is all there is. And if that thought is in any way pleasant to any of you, be so kind as to pack up and leave. I’m not wasting my time on anyone with a fucking death wish.”

Silence lingered for little over a minute, the group of recruits careful to not as much as shuffle in place for as long as it lasted. “Good. Now get back to it. And get it right this time!”

“Whoa, Red, any more of that you’ll be instilling the fear of Death on the Lady herself.”

Crys let a smirk briefly cross her features at the voice calling from the top of the stairs, her eyes remained stern however as she addressed her recruits. “Continue the exercise until I get back and if I as much as suspect any of you to be slacking I’ll break your damn ribs.”

Once satisfied that her people were committed enough to their task, Crys left them to it and climbed the stairs up to the back of the Inn, finding Dastan seated at the kitchen table. “What are you doing here?” She asked, smiling at her friend. “And who let you in?”

“Your little Guard Ginger let me in. He warned me not to disturb your training, but I had to take a little peek. Hope that’s alright.”

Crys chuckled, finding the chair across from Dastan and taking a seat herself. “That’s fine, I... Eh... They’re making progress, and I wish I could praise them for it, but they’re just not ready for what’s out there.” She sighed, standing up again and beginning to rummage the stove in order to make herself some tea. “And I say that like I even know for sure what it means, but I don’t. I don’t know what we’re up against. How am I supposed to...”

“Breathe, Red,” Dastan spoke up. The noise coming from the bar almost drowning out the sound of his voice. The place was packed with people and filled with cheerful conversation. No one coming in would suspect there was a very miserable group of assassin recruits working tirelessly in the basement below.

“I am.” Crys muttered. “I do.” She left the tea kettle on the stove to heat and sat back down. “You didn’t answer my question, though; why are you here?”

“Eh... I thought I could hang around here for a few days if that’s alright with you.” Dastan answered. “I had to leave. I just... I had to. And suppose I should go offer my assistance to the Ravens soon, but...” He trailed off in a sigh. “I think I need more time.”

Crys reached for Dastan’s arm and gave him a reassuring pat. “Of course. You can stay as long as you like. Just don’t get into our stock, I’m running a business here.”

Dastan chuckled. “Don’t you worry about that, Red. I wouldn’t want to ruin your fine establishment,” the mercenary assured her, taking out his flask and taking a long swig from it.

Crys snorted a laugh at her friend, getting up to fetch the warm water from the stove and fixing herself a cup of tea. “In all seriousness, Dastan; how are you?”

“That’s a complicated question to be asking right now, Red. I’m.. Better, but that doesn’t change much. It doesn’t bring back the dead. Doesn’t change the facts. Certainly doesn’t give me any answers.” He took another swig and put the flask away, resting his arms on the table laying his head down. “I can’t let this go unpunished, so I had to leave. Even if I could ask the clan to fight my battles with me, they’re in no condition to do it. Indi and Jackson will take care of them while I’m gone. However long that turns out to be.”

“You do plan on going back, though, don’t you?” Crys questioned, sipping her tea.

“Sure. One way or another, everyone should go home one day, Red.”

“That sounds far from reassuring, I hope you know.”

Dastan chuckled. “Just trying to be realistic, Red. We don’t know what the future holds and all of that.”

Crys sighed. “Yeah, all of that.” She agreed, sipping her tea in silence until the cup was empty. “Well, you ask Nicky for a key to a vacant room when you feel like getting settled. It’s late and I’m tired, so I’m going to try and get some sleep.” She stood up and put the tea cup away before heading for the door.

“Alright.” Dastan agreed. “Oh, wait, Red...” He called after her. “Aren’tcha gonna relieve your recruits downstairs?”

Crys snickered. “I told them to repeat the exercise until I get back. If they’re still at it in the morning I’ll know I scared them enough.”

“I dread to think of how you could possibly scare them any further.” Dastan teased.

“Hopefully for them, we’ll never have to find out,” she answered, waving over her shoulder as she walked out of the kitchen.

==============================

[Raven's Nest - Otium 20, mid afternoon]

“Keith...I just got word from Kyle...It's time.” Matthew pronounced his last words with a certain kind of ferocity that seemed to grab Keith’s attention. The man looked at his superior with a mix of relief and contempt, a satisfied grin spreading across his face.

“What about the Captain…?” Keith asked, standing a bit taller now, Matthew having his complete attention, fully aware of what the man was talking about.

“We are to carry on as if she can not be there. I do need you to go to the city and personally retrieve Sophie and Bran. No ravens, no discussing what this is about. Everyone will be briefed before we leave and not a moment sooner. Everyone is now on strict routine exercises and curfew for the next few days, until further notice. If anyone complains or is insubordinate, they are given latrine duties and will be cut from any consideration for the mission. Am I making myself clear?”

“Yes, Sir. Crystal clear.”

“Oh, before you leave..send Jacob my way will you?” Matthew firmly patted Keith on the shoulder as he nodded and trotted off to find Jake.

Jake was sitting by his campfire, shirtless and barefoot, a metal pot hanging over the flames emitting some nauseating fumes. The man seemed completely unaffected by the smoke, as toxic as it might have seemed, and was occupied with stitching a tear through one of the leather sheaths that usually held his needles; a wooden box containing several of said metal needles open on the floor between his feet and a series of vials were scattered across the ground surrounding him, some empty and others already sealed and filled with poisonous substances, and he was half-humming half-mumbling words to a song under his breath as he worked. Once finished stitching up the tear on the leather, Jake strapped the empty sheath to his left forearm as tightly as possible, examining yet again to make sure it was right, before removing it and starting to carefully pick needles from the pot with the aid of a pair of tweezers, placing them on the sheath one by one.

It was during this process that a loud cough alerted Jake to another person’s presence and he lifted his head to see Keith approaching him in a bit of a hurried pace. “Need anything?” He questioned, pulling the pot from the fire, which caused the smoke to slowly dissipate, clearing the air just a bit.

“What the hell are you doing Jacob?” Keith asked, seeming to forget why he was even there for just a split second before shaking his head and regaining focus. “Matthew wants to see you.”

“Well, you didn’t think I just bought these at a smithy did you?” Jake retorted, nodding along to the information that Matthew wanted to see him while finishing his task, quickly attaching the sheath to his arm once more. “Where are you off to?”

“I’m going to stop by the city,” Keith answered simply. “You go and talk to Matthew as soon as you can, it’s important.”

“Hm.” Jake mumbled to himself watching Keith wander off again in a hurry. It didn’t take much to notice something was up and so he hurried to finish replenishing his other sheaths, and fixing up the hidden blades in his boots that had been taken out for a new coat of poison as well. He hurriedly cleaned up the area to make sure nothing possibly
harmful had been left where someone could stumble upon it and went off to find Matthew, finding him in the training area. “Matt! You need me for something?”

Matthew had his back to Jacob when he approached, momentarily distracted barking orders at a group of men and women who were sparring. Rubbing his head in frustration he growled. “No! No, no no. Again. Do it again, until you all get it right. Not one of you, ALL OF YOU. You’ve been lazy and we can’t afford laziness. Zane, that goes double for you. There’s no time to rest, GET BACK TO IT!” Matt sighed, muttering about letting Jason set some of the Guard on fire to get them properly motivated and turned to face Jake. He coughed, his face scrunching up as he detected an awkward odor coming from the man.

“Jake..what the hell did you bathe in today? That won’t last, will it? I’m putting you in charge of something..and discretion and stealth are going to be a necessity. You up for leading about a dozen of us?” Matt reached into his pocket, not really elaborating much more, and handed Jake a small scroll that would normally be fitting a raven and closed the man’s fingers around it tight.
“Do not give this to anyone and read it once you reach Blackpond, specifically to Crystal Rivers. We are going to need all the help we can get on this one. Captain’s orders. Afterwards..burn it and do not discuss anything with anyone, understood? No one is to be trusted except a select few. When you get back, I’m going to call a meeting..maybe in a day or so and I’ll explain more. Until then..” Matt lifted his head, glancing around to make sure no one was within earshot, most of his company occupied with relentless drills behind him, clearly unhappy with the physical stress.

“Until then...you talk to no one, especially Essence. I know she’s like a sister to you, but I need you to wait, ok? If you want to be the one..just wait..” He trailed off turning his back towards Jacob to watch the men.

Jake was confused, but only for a moment, nodding along to Matthew’s words and hurrying back to clear his camp and wash up before the trip. Whatever was in that letter sounded urgent.

==============================

[Blackpond Inn - Otium 20, early evening]

Donovan smiled as he reached the door of the Inn. It was early in the evening, but the place already had a small group of patrons chatting away and drinking at one of the tables. As he stepped inside he was approached by a tall man in his early forties who barred his entrance. “I’m sorry, but I must ask that you surrender your weapons. House rules.”

“Seriously?” Donovan chuckled, looking towards the redheaded man behind the bar. “Seriously, Nicholas?”

“Boss’ orders, Little Fletcher; no tough guys with weapons,” Nick replied.

“I’m not giving you my bow,” Donovan warned.

“Just the quiver will suffice,” the man replied, watching Donovan carefully as he rid himself of his daggers and handed over his quiver. “Thank you, sir, enjoy your evening.”

Donovan snorted a laugh. “Seriously, Crystal...” He mumbled under his breath. “So, where is your boss, Nicky? Is she in?”

“She’s in the office. Second floor, take a right, last door at the end of the hall. Knock before you enter.”

Donovan followed Nicholas’ direction and climbed up the stairs to the second floor, walked to the last door on the right of the stairs and knocked.

“Come in.” Crys answered from within the room.

Doni opened the door and walked in, closing the door after himself and looking around the office. “Nice place you got here,” he stated. The inside of the office was simple. Just Crys’ desk, her chair a couple of more chair across from hers and a mostly empty bookshelf. The rest of the room was empty space, filled with random bits of gear. It was clearly in the process of being fixed up to the assassin’s liking, but it already seemed comfortable enough. “Mind if I sit?”

Crys smiled at the young Alpha and motioned to the chair right across from her. “Please. And what do I owe a visit this soon, Alpha?”

Donovan placed a book on the desk. “You left this when we last saw each other. Your father’s journal? I thought you’d really want it, but you left without taking it.”

Crys reached out, her hand freezing as it touched the leather cover of the book, a soft sigh escaping her lips. “I did.” She snorted, and took the book from the desk, safe keeping it in one of the drawers. “I’ll have to find someone to read this with me at some point.” She smiled and leaned back in her seat, her focus now entirely on Donovan. “That’s not the only reason you’re here, though, is it?”

Donovan smiled. “No, no it isn’t. I think it’s time we have a little discussion about this place.”

“Oh?” Crys smirked. “What about this place?”

“You know what I’m talking about, Crys. You appropriated this establishment, but it still belongs to the Wolfpack.”

“I don’t think so.” Crys stated. “Your brother made a deal with Blackpond to have this Inn rebuilt. My death was part of that deal. To my understanding, if anyone holds any rights over something paid for with my blood, that someone is me. I was very sincere in my offer for cooperation, Doni, but there won’t be a negotiation here. I’m not leaving.”

Donovan sighed. “I was expecting you’d say that.” The boy ran his fingers through his hair. It was one thing to stand in front of the Knights of Newhaven and keep his cool, but the possibility of this turning into an argument was something else entirely. “I know you understand my reservations regarding your people occupying this building. Jake, Evin... Allison... I don’t want to see them step a foot near the Pack’s territory in any way under any circumstance. And Twins know; as loyal as they are to you, you can’t keep them under control.”

“Their problem was with Sean, Doni. I don’t see a reason why they would want anything to do with the Wolfpack now, but... If it makes you feel better, I can restrict access to the tunnels. It’ll take some time, but it can be done.”

“I would appreciate it if you could do that.” Donovan agreed. “It may be paranoia on my part, but I just honestly don’t want any more catastrophes where they can be avoided and the company you keep, Crys... They’re walking catastrophes. Every single one of them.”

Crys snorted a laugh. “That’s why I like them so much. What is life without a dozen weekly catastrophes?”

Donovan leaned back in his seat for a moment and stretched, letting out a tired groan. “I don’t know, but I’d very much like to find out.”

===============================

[Blackpond Inn - Otium 21, early morning]

Jake arrived in Blackpond early in the morning. The city streets were still mostly void of life awaiting the first rays of sunlight. By the time he reached the door of the Inn those rays were already reflecting on the glass windows of the establishment, pushing through the cracks on the wood, announcing the start of a new day. Just as Jake reached for the door it unexpectedly flung open and a glossy eyed mercenary stared at him for almost a full minute as though trying to see him through a deep fog.

“Jake!” Dastan exclaimed, opening a wide smile, pulling him inside by the shirt. “How’s it going buddy!?”

“I’m... Okay... What are you doing here, Dastan?” Jake questioned, a bit confused to see the Crimson leader there and concluding he must have gotten into the stock at some point last night to be swaying in place like that. “Is Crys around?”

“I’m just... Hanging ‘round for a bit. I was helping the little ginger run the bar last night... This burly fella thought he could drink me under the table, but I show...ed... him...” Dastan hiccuped the end of his sentence and laughed at himself before pretty much falling over onto a chair. “I think I need to sit.” He muttered under his breath. “Uh... I think Red was still sleeping. Least I didn’t see ‘er yet today. Pretty sure she wouldn’t mind you going up, so... Go on up... I’m... gonna wait for the room to stop spinning and... Then I’mmagotobed.” He announced, plopping his head down against the table top.

Jake snickered, closing and bolting the front door before making his way upstairs. He walked over to Crys’ room and gave a soft knock before pushing the door open. He took a quick glance into the room and saw that it was empty. “Hm,” he mumbled, shutting the door and heading for the office door instead. Once again he knocked and cracked the door open, seeing Crys sitting behind her desk, fast asleep with head resting on a small pile of papers. Jake entered the room and approached the desk, looking at the documents spread out around the sleeping assassin and seeing just series of marks indented into the parchment, like codes. He reached out and touched the surface of one of the sheets of paper and smiled, feeling the markings on his fingertips. It was a similar code to the ones Pack used, but adapted. “Clever girl.”

Jake sat in the chair across from Crys and slowly ran his fingers through her hair. “Heeey,” he whispered. “Wake up, sleepy head.”

Crys stirred at the sound of Jake’s voice, a lazy smile crossing her features as she reached out and caught his hand. “What’re you doing here, stupid?” She mumbled, heaving a sigh and pushing herself upright in her seat. “This is not a comfortable sleeping position.”

“No it isn’t,” Jake agreed, gently squeezing her hand. “I’d love to say I’m just visiting, but actually Matthew sent me.”

“Oh?” Crys asked, seeming a bit more awake now. “Is everything alright?”

“I’m not sure. I have a letter I’m supposed to read to you, it’s... All I know at this point.”

“Alright then,” Crys yawned, letting go of Jake’s hand and lifting her arms over her head in a lazy stretch. “I need some tea and something to eat, so if you can read it to me in the kitchen I’d appreciate it.” She smiled, standing up and walking past Jake out of the room.

Jake chuckled, following her outside and down the stairs. “So, how long has Dastan been staying here?”

“A couple of days. I think he’s just... I don’t know what he’s doing, but I’m just letting him. He’s been a help to Nicky and he actually managed to make people buy him drinks so he’s earning us money.”

“Whatever helps the guy heal, I guess.” Jake shook his head and they walked past the bar to the kitchen and he saw Dastan past out where he’d left him.

Once in the kitchen, Jake sat down at the table and watched as Crys started to heat up water for tea and rummage through the pantry. “So? What does your letter say?” She asked, placing a loaf of bread, some cheese and jerky on the table.

“Oh, let’s see...” Jake pulled the letter from his bag and read it aloud:

Miss. Rivers,

We have located potential hostiles within the city of Blackpond and what we believe to be a secret holding ground for captives; specifically children. We have gathered confirmation per an inside source and need to act soon if we are to retrieve that person alive as well as the other’s being held against their will. This is connected to Asher as we found he is a major supplier of ‘cattle’ to this group, however he will not be found in the city as far as we know. We may have stumbled onto more than a brushfire. We believe the reason why no one has reported seeing something this large is because it is mostly held underground, beneath the city and we have only just discovered access points. Sightings of the symbol have been reported in numerous locations, specifically at access points to these tunnels, although it is unclear how to get to them. We believe there are powerful enlightened who are protecting these locations so you are to expect the worst and prepare for the unexpected. This should be voluntary only because of the danger it involves. There is little time to waste and an immediate response is needed only in reinforcements. Do not travel together. Paranoia is not overrated here as we believe we could be being watched. We must assume these lives have little time and request the utmost haste.

Mr Turner will be leading this Raid, Captain’s recommendation. We are trusting you to assist and in selecting the best team possible to make this a success.

Be safe.

-M-


Crys froze while pouring herself a cup of tea and cursed loudly when the liquid overflowed and spilled onto her hand. “Fuck... Damn it!”

Jake jumped to his feet and took the kettle from her hands. “Careful, love.”

“I’m okay,” she sighed. “This is just... Shit...”

“Apparently, I’m leading a raid.” Jake snorted. “That is... Shit...”

Crys laughed at his response, shaking her head. “I can’t go. I mean, if you’re leading this thing, it’s... Not a good idea.”

“Definitely not. I mean, I won’t be able to keep Ess from getting involved and if you’re there too... I just can’t.”

“Okay. So, other than myself, who would I trust with your life?” She questioned, going back to table and taking a seat.

“Are we going by those standards? Because that immediately rules out Evin.”

Crys snorted. “I could send Nicky and I could offer you five more. Let’s see... Irena, Randall, Stuart, Michelle and... Peter, he’s not as experienced as the others, but his enlightenment could be very useful.”

“You heard Matty, though; they need to volunteer. It’s a risky mission.”

“He also said ‘children’. Trust me, they’ll jump at the opportunity to nail these bastards.” Crys sighed, parting the bread and offering Jake a piece. “You need to eat better.” She scolded, taking a piece for herself and biting into it.

“I eat.” Jake argued, biting his piece of bread and chewing on it slowly as he mulled over his thoughts. “Hmmph... how soon can you bring your people over?”

“Don’t travel together, he said. Four days to get everyone ready, we’ll take different routes and meet you there. You... Take Dastan with you when you go back. Once he’s lucid enough he’ll want to take part in this.”

“Uh... I... Are you sure? He looks pretty out of it right now and I don’t mean the fact that he’s wasted.”

“Trust me.”

Jake sighed, pouring himself some tea. “I always do.”