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Shadows of The Forgotten

Raven's Nest

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a part of Shadows of The Forgotten, by Blackbird26.

Camp of the former Black Guard.

RolePlayGateway holds sovereignty over Raven's Nest, giving them the ability to make limited changes.

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Raven's Nest

Camp of the former Black Guard.

Minimap

Raven's Nest is a part of Valcrest.

10 Characters Here

Luckas [19] "There's nothing to fear... Except maybe reality." *snickers*
Mageria Talsheir [17] Black Knight Captain. Things are so much more complicated than they seem.
Jake Turner [12] "There is no truth, only perception."
Crystal Rivers [8] "Sometimes, there is no such thing as justice... This might be one of those times."
Dastan [7] Crimson Shadow Leader: "There's nothing a good party can't cure." *winks* "Am I right or am I right?"
Sham (No Last Name) [7] Black Knight. There's no point in worrying about it, until there is.
Annie Turner [4] Leader of the White Shadows: "Peace is the most pleasant illusion"
Evin Bana [2] "It takes the better man to end a grudge -- I'm not that better man."
Indrani Nayar [2] Crimson Shadow Commander: *sigh* "I'm not cleaning that up"
Thomas Sidin [1] White Knight Captain. You look like you could use a friend.

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Character Portrait: Luckas
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[Otium 14th, morning]

“Oy, Fiery-Kid... What’s your name again?” Luckas called, approaching Jason as he sat with a book by the river.
“Fiery-kid?” The boy repeated, not seeming very amused and not taking his attention away from the book. “It’s Jason.”
“Well, my apologies, sir.. I so happen to be terrible with names. I’m not too good in the head, you know?” Luckas snickered. “Have you seen Stalker? I haven’t seen him yet this morning.”
“Aiden had most of the wolves with him, but that was a while ago. Can’t remember if Stalker was with them either. Usually he wouldn’t be.” Jason responded, shrugging slightly.

“No, not usually.” Luckas agreed, sitting by a rock a bit away from Jason and peeking at the cover of the book the boy had. “Sun and Moon, huh? Interesting?”
“Very much.” Jason mumbled.
“I admit I don’t know much about them.”
“Moon is my favorite Twin, she was the protector of thieves, the Black Knights were created as her champions. She’s underrated in Newhaven, I believe.” Jason explained. “Sun is always more popular.”
“As are the White Knights, no?” Luckas pointed out with a nod. “That’s why they’re better together though, right? One side takes up all the attention so that the other can act more freely.”
“I suppose, but must not be easy to live in someone’s shadow. The songs and poems in this book, talk much about loneliness. For instance here... ‘Lady of the Shadows, high up in the sky...Lighting up her darkness with the silver tears she cried.’ It’s a myth that there is a star in the sky for every tear shed in the world since the beginning of times."
“I doubt there are that many stars up there kid.” Luckas retorted with a snicker. “That’s very poetic though, I have to say. Can I borrow that book sometime?”
“I’d rather not. Captain Krander gave me this book before he left Newhaven. I don’t want to lose it, but... I can make you a copy if you want.”
“I’d appreciate that, if you can take the time.” Luckas smiled, standing up from the rock and taking a couple of steps away before halting as the boy called to him.
“Hey, Luckas... Uhm...” Jason started, closing the book and letting it rest on his lap as he stared up at Luckas. “Is it true you snapped and killed some people in Newhaven... and Captain had to go get you?”
Luke twitched slightly, but calmly returned to his rock and sat down. “That’s true, yes. Was not a good day.”
“Are you sorry?” Jason questioned.
“I regret it... In some ways... but if I ‘feel’ sorry for it? No, I don’t. I don’t remember it. Only what I was told afterwards. It’s like a dream you know was very life like, but you have no memory of.” Luke shrugged, watching the boy’s expression. “Why are you asking me this?”
“I heard a firestarter died in the White Shadows camp a while back... And that more and more enlightened people are getting sick.” Jason sighed. “Jess said we shouldn’t worry, that the Guard won’t let anything bad happen to us, but...”
“You should worry, Kid.” Luckas stated simply. “Not panic, because panicking is bad for you, but it would be a lie to say you shouldn’t worry.” Luckas silently stared at the boy for a few moments and then chuckled, shaking his head. “Kid... You and I are nothing alike. Me losing control and you losing control are two very different things. I’m not the one you should take advice from on this.”
“Captain’s not here.” The boy muttered. “No one else knows what to say, they don’t want to upset me... They just say it’ll be okay.”
“Are you afraid to die?” Luckas asked simply.
“I’m afraid to hurt people.” Jason answered.
“That’s not what I asked, Jason.” Luckas insisted.
“Yes, I am. Of course I am, but... Not as much as I’m afraid of hurting someone here.”
“Okay... What if I promise you something?” Luckas asked, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, staring the boy in the eyes. “If it comes to that... I will kill you before you hurt anyone in this camp. Does that make you feel any better?”
Jason held Luckas’ gaze in silence for a few seconds before raising his book once again and hiding behind it. “A little bit.”

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

[A few hours later]

Luckas was just coming back into camp after wandering off into the woods for a quiet walk when someone called his attention.
“Hey, you!”
Luke turned to look at the woman holding the baby, but then proceeded to look around as though he expected that to be meant for someone else. It wasn’t.
“Yes, you. Get over here.”
Luckas frowned, seeming a bit concerned with the woman’s tone. He didn’t have a habit of chatting people up and aside from Ess and some of the kids, no one really ever called to him; even less in that tone of scolding that woman was using on him now. He wasn’t sure whether to be worried he might be in trouble or to be angry at her treatment. Regardless, he answered her call and entered the Captain's cabin after her. “Jess, is it? Can I help you with something?” He muttered.
“Did you tell Jason that...” Jess lowered her voice, and glanced around to make sure none of the children were nearby at the moment. “...That you would kill him if he ever became a danger to the rest of us?”
Luckas sighed, now he understood her tone with him. “I didn’t tell him, I promised.”
“You plan on keeping that promise then, I reckon?” The woman questioned.
“I don’t make empty promises.” Luckas shrugged.
“I see... Hmm...” She mumbled. “...Hold Daniel for me a moment?” She didn’t wait for an answer and calmly pushed the baby into Luckas’ arms, using her free hands to sort through and fold a batch of clean clothes, not seeming to mind or notice how incredibly awkward Luckas was, holding the kid at arms’ length as though he was about to explode. “Why would you do something like that?”
“Someone had to.” Luke replied matter of factly, still looking a bit panicked for having to hold a baby, not wanting to hold Daniel close to himself, and yet seemingly afraid he would drop him somehow. “He’s a really smart kid, he knows what is happening, what happened to other fire starters because of this sickness. He knows what kind of damage he could inflict if he lost control... As thoughtful as that may be, saying things will be okay doesn’t take the worry away.”
“And a death sentence does?” Jess questioned. “I’m not sure I follow your logic, Mr. Luckas.”
“No, you wouldn’t. Mine is the logic of a dangerous man. Do you think I would spend as much time here as I do if I didn’t know there are about twenty people in this camp ready to strike me down if I ever posed a real threat? One or two of which could actually do it if needed. It doesn’t feel like a death sentence for the kid, it feels like a safety net. It’s something we don’t want to need, but it’s nice to know it’s there.” He snorted, watching as Daniel giggled, seeming quite content in being held out in the air as he was. “Could you please take your baby back now?”
Jess chuckled. “Just hang in there until I’m done with this , will you? You’re doing fine.”
Luckas muttered under his breath, but complied. “Who else knows about this? Should I expect any more conversations like this in the future?”
“No, he only told me. I don’t see a reason why anyone else needs to know, at least for the time being. I’m sure Aiden for once wouldn’t take this as calmly as me. Neither would Jake and Matthew.”
“Of course.... Beast Boy would very much enjoy an excuse to get rid of me.” Luckas muttered, rolling his eyes. “None of his business anyway.”
“It is a little his business if you make a death pact with one of the children, Luckas.”
“That wasn’t a death pact... A death pact is something entirely different, I’ll have you know.” Luke protested. “Are you done yet? My arms are getting tired.”
Jess chuckled. “If you held him properly, they wouldn’t be. If you want to keep holding him like he’s a powder keg then just deal with it.”
“You know, you’re very persistent that I hold your child even though you called me in here to discuss why I promised to kill a kid. Isn’t that a bit irresponsible?”
“Not at all. You’re great with the children, Luckas. In fact, you’re being a better babysitter than Jake, I might hire you permanently.” She played. “Daniel seems to like you.”
“I’m not doing this again.” Luckas stated firmly.
Jess snorted a laugh. “You’ve been saying that lot lately and yet, the children are expecting you tell them a story tonight.”
“Stories can hardly hurt anyone.” Luckas replied.
Jess smiled, pausing her work as if to consider Luke’s words, then walking to him and adjusting Daniel correctly in his arms. “Excuses can,” she told him. “You’ve spent a lot of time here and I am yet to see you harm anyone. These kids are fond of you, Miss Lily seems to think you’re something really special. I’ve learned to trust their judgment. Maybe you should try to do the same.”
Luckas snorted, his entire body tense as the little boy rested against his chest without a care in the world. “You... You’re not telling Lady about this, are you?” He mumbled.
“We’ll see,” Jess smiled, continuing with her chores.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Ess Character Portrait: Dastan
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#, as written by Essence
~Otium 15 -Morning~

Essence couldn’t sleep. It could have been she was not looking forward to the possibility of nightmares, unable to keep them at bay even with Luckas at her side. Or, perhaps it was the small amount of dread she was feeling at the thought of Luckas leaving again to go do whatever it is he does. It was a normal feeling to have him around and she had gotten use to it, probably more than she should have. He was always there, wasn’t he? This wouldn’t make much of a difference but even so, she still had to keep reminding herself.

When she heard him stir, her eyes slowly opened to stare back at him. Luckas seemed perhaps slightly surprised to see her awake or maybe just at the fact her stare was somewhat intense but without much meaning. Without a word she quietly sat up and reached beneath her pillow to retrieve her journal, tearing out two drawings she had managed to complete when Luckas was not around and handed them to him. One was of the Redhead that Darren had seen during his trials with Ess’ curious dagger. Her son had actually helped her get the eyes just right so that she wouldn’t wear through the paper with all her constant corrections. The eyes, the lips, and the hair she colored all red even though she honestly wasn’t sure what colored eyes the woman had. She found it fitting however, especially with how much blood was apparently shed in reference to the mysterious woman.

’Wouldn’t it be ironic...’ Ess’ internal voice shut as she was distracted with Luckas’ fixation on the second drawing she had created. He had said, the night Ess found out Darren was her son, that if she were to draw him something he would carry it around with him everywhere. If he meant it or not at the time, she had a feeling there was truth to it and decided after the night she had finished his tattoo, she would bestow another small gift. The black and white drawing was purposely smudged along the border, cascading shadows all around a dense forest that surrounded a faded path. Further forward, at the beginning of the path was a silhouette of a woman with curly red hair but her face was hidden; her posture slanted downwards giving a bit of a lonely or sad hint to her form. Behind her, the ground was stained red which encased a darker figure all in black; the face also hidden. It was entirely different to her normal style, where she would put so much emphasis on the faces, where now it was all in the figure’s surroundings. The path behind the woman was strewn with dead bodies that which trailed off the page, descending back down that path both figures traveled.

Ess released a bottled sigh, a small smile tracing her lips as she stared up at her friend. Still she was silent as a grave once again before laying back down, waiting for Luckas to leave before she went off on her morning run.

~~~~~~
Blackpond

It had been painful for Olivia, which was easy to see by the resentful glare in her eyes, to allow Deidra into the shop that morning. Several of the regulars that visited to pick up their orders early on that morning, had commented on the tiny doll that was sitting with the others on a display by the window. Olivia of course took full credit for it, which really didn’t bother Deidra until she ordered her to make larger versions of the model in five different sizes and all to be completed in two days time. At least this time she was given the blessing of scissors and didn’t have to tear, fold and double seam the dress in order to hide the ragged material. She had to look on the bright side, which was her slight amusement. Her mark and who she really was, was right there in the open for all to see but not one person noticed the black feathers in the design. Who was to say many would make that kind of connection even if they did.

Marcus had made it a point to stop by that afternoon to collect any daily earnings and was quite pleased with the day’s coin. Olivia of course was rewarded by some of her own, and a gentler embrace than the one Deidra had witnessed from yesterday. That was the only time she let her eyes wander from her work. Usually she listened to her surroundings and payed close attention to when the men in red would show themselves. Guards in standard armor were posted outside the doors, keeping watch to who went in and out any entrance. Twice that day, the shifts rotated always leaving a two minute window of distraction as their attentions were lured elsewhere. Usually, it was Olivia and Dee that occupied the shop except when customers visited. No one in particular seemed to catch her interest and no one attempted to talk to her. Still, after about an hour of quiet, when the door opened and the bell chimed, her attention was stolen away from the twisted displays of affection Marcus and Olivia were partaking in. Dee accidentally stabbed the tip of her thumb with a needle, as she noticed how Marcus pulled away from Olivia to leave but paused, his eyes lingering over Deidra.

Luckas really didn’t have it in him to put up with much crap. He only stopped by Blackpond to get something to drink, but he hadn’t even managed that much. Amber had found him within minutes of stepping foot in the city and she seemed dangerously excited about a surprise she said she had for him. Amber’s surprises were never anything pleasant, but there was usually no way to avoid or escape them. “It was a very long walk, Amber, can’t this wait?” he muttered as the over-excited psychopath dragged him across the near deserted streets.
“It cannot wait; absolutely not. Trust me, Lukey, you’ll thank me.” She smiled.
“Think back a moment to all the times you said I’d thank you, Amber... Have I ever?”
“No. You’re quite an ungrateful douchebag, but I forgive you.”
“You tried to set my ears on fire and I’m a douchebag?” Luckas muttered, growling as Amber only giggled and quickened her step.

Amber released Luke a few steps away from one of the brotherhood’s establishments and that didn’t do Luke’s temper much good. He had not visited that part of town since he and Ess had taken care of her Squealer brother. “Why are you dragging me here?”
“You’ll seee...” Amber sang happily. “Just go into the basement of that building over there and I’ll meet you in a couple of minutes. I need to pick up a package.”
Luckas would love to just say no and wander off, but saying no to Amber was a dangerous thing to do, even for him. So he nodded his compliance and lazily strolled in the direction of the building she had indicated. “Why is it that nine out of ten times I step foot in this city I end up in a goddamn basement?” He complained under his breath.

Amber snickered at Luckas’ grumpy protesting and made her way towards the tailor shop, barging in through the doors quite audibly. “Hello, my lovelies!” She greeted, looking from Marcus to Olivia with a wicked grin, and then winking not at all discreetly at Deidra as she playfully circled Marcus as if he was cornered prey. “Marcus, sweetie, how ‘bout those lessons I said I’d give you, hmm? If my mood improves just a bit more I might free up some time for you later tonight.” She smirked. “If you’re sure that’s what you really want of course, at your own risk. Don’t come crying to me later if it ends up being too much for you. I don’t take kindly to whiners.” She playfully, if not a bit roughly, smacked the man’s behind before turning her attention from him, her eyes lingering on Dee, her expression changing to a childish amusement. “I can see that you lot are not particularly busy at the moment, so if you kids don’t mind... I’m going to borrow the new girl for a few minutes... We kind of bonded a little bit the other day and I promised her a little present.”

Marcus chuckled at Amber’s entrance, shrugging at her comment of freeing up some time for him possibly later on. The words alone were enough to intrigue and frighten anyone who halfway knew what kind of strange individual Amber was, but Marcus found it amusing. He knew it was a risk but it would be worse to not indulge her, especially as a superior.

“What, no hat today?” He snickered. “You have my attention. Although that would depend if I have any chores. Mustn’t disappoint or ignore the others.” Marcus smiled so the tips of his teeth were showing. “Perhaps if I ask nicely.”

Olivia’s face went expressionless at Amber’s arrival and her antics with Marcus. It was obvious she was bottling up some sort of emotion by the way her skin paled and went clammy. Her fingers were constantly closing into a fist and straightening, a habit she couldn’t hide if she tried as it was something she did without her notice most times.

“Why does she get to take a break?” Olivia muttered to herself, snorting in annoyance at the word ‘present.’ Marcus reached out to Olivia and firmly gripped her shoulder, applying pressure along certain points that made the woman cringe and groan, forcing her to sit in a chair at her desk.

“Liv...no one is speaking to you..” Marcus grunted, folding his arms across his chest in a disbelieving pout. “Amber..you said you weren’t going to steal this one. Was that just the other day? I know what ‘borrow’ can mean to you when you say such things..”

“No hat yet, but the day is young; I might still find myself one. And Marcus, love, what’d I just say about whining?” Amber scolded playfully, leaning against Olivia’s desk with her back turned to the woman. “Don’t fret... I’ll bring her back in a bit...Although I absolutely could, I have no intention of permanently moving your girl. It’s not my place to decide where work is needed after all.” The girl smiled sweetly. “I just need help surprising a friend and he’s, uh... nitpicky... with his companies. And I promised him a surprise, I’d hate it for him to be disappointed.”

Amber’s blue eyes once again fixated on Deidra for a few moments, slowly trailing to the display with the tiny dolls. A snort escaped the girl, containing traces of laughter as she shook her head, not speaking whatever was on her mind. “Of course, I’m being polite,” she added, “I could just order you all around and be a total bitch, but I prefer to leave such unpleasant behaviors to the likes of Zeke.”

Casually, Amber pulled a long black handkerchief from her pocket and offered it to Deidra. “I assume these knuckle heads allowed you to see where you were going when they brought you in, but I’m not that trusty, so if you don’t mind wearing this over your eyes, hun... I don’t want to keep my friend waiting.”

Deidra tried to keep her eyes to her needlework, yet they kept straying to Amber and Marcus. She swore she saw the man flinch when the woman entered; not to mention his fists clenching some when she smacked his backside. Dee wondered if he wanted to reciprocate the gesture with his own but it was clear he was holding back. Still, she found it somewhat entertaining to see Marcus act like he was walking on eggshells. The two were casual about it, but it was obvious to Dee, now especially, who outranked who.

A hint of a smirk passed over Deidra’s lips, trying to mask her enjoyment when Olivia was put in her place. The woman remained silent, slowly placing the sleeve of her dress she was embroidering, onto a small table. She was compliant to her instructions and as she reached for the handkerchief, her hands began to shake. Dee knew she had to expect whatever degrading surprises Marcus may have in store for her, but for a split second she actually believed he was her biggest worry. Between Olivia’s unexpected visit last night and Amber’s eerie invitation, Dee wondered how much she would put up with, resisting the urge to fight back.

Taking a deep breath she frowned, tying the handkerchief into a blindfold over her eyes. Even though she could no longer see, she swore she could feel Olivia’s piercing eyes burning holes through the black material. Dee rubbed her fingers together, massaging the muscles and working to steady her tremors while internally preparing herself to keep her reactions to a minimum. Whatever they did to her, she would make sure to not give them the satisfaction of a struggle.

Amber smiled in silent approval as Dee made use of her improvised blindfold. “Alright, let’s get going!” She exclaimed cheerfully, slowly placing one hand on Dee’s shoulder to guide her into the underground of the shop, waving at Marcus and Olivia over her shoulder. “Later, my pretties.”

Amber slowly led Deidra through the tunnels underneath the city, her steps never faltering as if she had the path completely memorized; and she did. “So, Dee Dee... Having fun already? Is Liv being a resentful bitch?” She chuckled as if reviewing nostalgic memories in her mind. “I won’t say that you can trust me, because, well... You can’t and I sure as hell don’t trust you either, but... You don’t need to worry. I’m almost positive you’ll enjoy this.” She stopped Dee suddenly, if the woman wasn’t blindfolded she still wouldn’t be able to see anything in the pitch black passage they had taken. “Now, you remember what I said, right? This is for you to enjoy alone. If anyone else is able to see or hear what happens next, well, my friend there... don’t think he won’t be able to tell; it’s not a risk you’ll want to take, believe me. So if there’s someone hiding, no matter how well, inside that clever little head of yours, it’d be in everyone’s best interest that they make themselves gone for half an hour. Now, you wait here a minute and don’t wander off, you might bump into something unpleasant if you do.”

Luckas had taken a seat in one of two rusted metal chairs in the basement he was directed to. There was no light and he hadn’t bothered to light a torch just for himself. The absolute darkness seemed to whisper things into the back of his mind; echoes of memories he’d rather keep completely buried. He didn’t want to be there alone and as the minutes passed he wondered if that was exactly Amber’s intent. Of course that was foolish on his part; making him sit in a dark room was too simple for Amber. Her mind was almost incapable of simple thoughts. After a while Luckas heard movement. He thought he heard Amber whisper to someone who didn’t reply; not that he could hear them at least. When the girl entered, she entered alone at first, snickering in the dark. “Ugh, so depressing in here. Why wouldn’t you light a torch?”
“I’m tired Amber... What is it you wanted to show me?” Luckas mumbled, ignoring her questions and glaring as she lit a couple of torches.
“Hang on, I’ll show you.” She laughed. “So eager, gee.”

Before Luckas could verbally express his annoyance Amber pulled someone into the room. At first all Luckas could tell was that it was a blindfolded woman. It was only when she stepped into the faint circle of torchlight that Luckas recognized Dee. He glared at Amber with an intensity that was almost terrifying even to someone like her. “What the fuck is this?” He mouthed at her, not wanting the blindfolded Deidra to hear his voice.
Amber shrugged, playfully. “What? It’s your surprise. I thought you’d like it.” She snickered at the look of hatred Luke gave her in return. “It’s my gift to you, sweetie. Do with it as you please; nothing is an option too. You have thirty minutes. Could use them to your benefit or just... stand there in silence. That’s up to you.” That said, she exited the room, almost skipping her way out the door. Luckas heard it slam and lock behind her. The only way out was through the tunnels, but; he didn’t know his way down there as well as Amber. Luke felt his stomach twist into knots as he paced around the room like a trapped animal; which quite frankly he was in that particular moment, trying to make a decision.

Deidra’s neck and shoulders tensed considerably when Amber rested her hand on her to lead her downstairs. They descended the steps two at a time, but Dee didn’t realize this except to notice they reached the bottom quicker than she expected. ’Ten steps from the stairs and right,’ Dee began to recite in her head as they continued through several corridors. Extending her fingers outwards, without moving her arm, Deidra let the air pass through her fingers to feel if there were any temperature changes or shifts in the air to indicate an exit. For the most part, it was cool and dank like a basement, quite similar to when she first awoke in that dark room.

‘Twenty five from right and one, two...’ Dee’s thoughts were temporarily interrupted at Amber striking up a conversation. It was as if they were old friends, the way she gossiped a bit, mentioning Olivia. Deidra only responded with a sarcastic snort. ‘Resentful bitch’, was quite the understatement. That woman had it out for her.

The woman led Dee left, the air seeming to warm a few degrees as she tried to keep her internal count and memorize their path traveled. Tiny beads of sweat spotted the handkerchief, her heart skipping a beat when Amber reminded her that this surprise of hers was for Dee only. She may have screamed it she hadn’t suddenly become so nauseous, Deidra actually swallowing and biting back the bile that touched her tongue. Was this a game? It almost sounded like Amber was joking but at the same time there was an underlining warning in her words that made Deidra want to flee. Did she mean the telepath that interrogated her in the beginning? How could she know otherwise? Amber did address Deidra by her nickname that she never voiced aloud but who is to say she didn’t find that out from the one who had visited her thoughts. Not knowing if she had been discovered or if she was just overthinking it all, either way, made her fearful for who she was meeting so secretly. Just in case, Dee concentrated to create a weak, mental block in her mind. It was strong enough to know it was there, but weak enough to be knocked down by any who tried. A simple message to Kyle if he decided to check on her unexpectedly.

Deidra didn’t chance peeking from behind the blindfold when Amber left her alone a minute, but she did reach out towards the walls to steady herself, mentally cursing herself for losing track of the last turn so she was only partially aware of how far she had gone. After she was led inside and left alone with her ‘surprise’, she waited for him to speak, but instead she was met with silence and pacing. This not knowing and awkward waiting was eating at Deidra to the point where she didn’t know if she would rather find out or not what was to befall her. Finally, unable to stand it, she cleared her throat, whispering out towards her company. “Is..there something I can help you with? Hello?”

Luckas was very, very, unsure of what to do just then. The smartest would probably be to do nothing, but he could tell that he wasn’t the only one who was growing more and more anxious with the silence. Half an hour of this would be too much for both of them. He didn’t understand what Amber was planning with this, if it was all just another way to torment him or if she wanted to see if he knew Deidra was there. He didn’t, obviously. He stopped behind Dee and reached as if to remove the blindfold, but stopped himself, walking away to one of the chairs and dragging it across the room in the woman’s direction, placing it behind her and lightly nudging her with it as an indication for her to sit down. He walked away from her and sat on the other chair, keeping a good distance in between them. He had no idea how the woman would react or what assumptions she would make at the sight of him. He could of course alter her memory if absolutely needed, but Luckas would rather not put himself in a position to hurt Dee. The woman had never been anything less than kind and he knew very well how much Ess liked her. “Take that off.” he whispered the words, not trying to disguise his voice exactly, but hoping that she hadn’t immediately recognized it either. To be honest he wasn’t sure how often he’d spoken to or in front of her, but it was possibly not enough for her to identify him by a whisper.

Dee was slightly startled by the nudge but got the hint, running her fingers over the back of the chair to find the seat before sitting down. Fidgeting the the hem of her sleeve she began reciting, once again, what she remembered of her blinded directions, using that focus to keep herself calm. When the silence was broken she seemed to straighten, her hands hesitating between the blindfold and her sleeve. Dee was honestly unsure what the man meant and assuming the worst she responded by shrugging her arm out of her sleeve.

If someone else was there they’d be able to see that Luckas was even more pale than it ever seemed possible when he noticed Dee’s response to his request. He wondered what the hell Amber had told her this was about. “No. The blindfold.” He corrected quickly, still somehow keeping his tone at a mere whisper. He really wanted to know whose dumb idea this was. even though he suggested to Mageria she infiltrate one of her people, this was nowhere near what he’d call a smart way to go about it. If he could act purely on instinct he’d be yelling at the woman and everyone who might possibly be involved in this for how unbelievably reckless it was.

Deidra froze, several seconds passing before the words registered in her brain and she slowly pulled her sleeve back over her arm. Her eyes were still shut when she slid the material down past her nose and off her chin. She deliberately turned her head in the direction she felt the warmth of the torch from and opened her eyes to squint in the firelight. Dee pinched herself, making it appear that she were holding back tears but really she was trying to make herself cry.

“Why am I here then?” She whispered back, letting her gaze trail to the floor and towards the man. The second she saw his face, her demeanor glitched. Deidra’s expression spasmed between several emotions before shifting to a blank stare. ‘Holy...I’m probably going to die now, right?’ She thought, staring as if she were waiting to answer herself. A frustrated sigh escaped her and although she still spoke in a whisper, one could catch a hint of bitterness that lingered in the silence that followed. “Why am...I here?” Of all the thoughts flooding her mind, that question still seemed the most legitimate thing to say, part of her hoping there was still something to salvage here. Nothing she prepared herself for was even remotely close to the surprise she had been given. ‘Still not sure if I’m enjoying this or not...yet...’ She snorted, silently admitting to herself that the thought was at least amusing. That woman sure did have a strange sense of humor, which brought Dee back to her first conversation with Amber and what price she paid to be where she is now. Realizing she had been staring, she squirmed a bit in her seat, absently massaging her jaw as the subtle ache was enough to remind her of the bruise that had almost disappeared. Dee knew if she did, by some miracle, ever make it back to the Nest, she would never hear the end of it from Keith and what she put others through; especially Matthew.

Luckas leaned forward running both hands through his hair in frustration, a cold laugh escaping him at Dee’s question. “You’re asking me, Deidra? I should be asking you why you’re here. What do you expect to accomplish here, like this? Whose stupid idea was this?” Luke sat up straight to look at Dee, his expression twisted as if something bitter had been shoved down his throat. “The only reason you’re not dead right now is that apparently Amber is more interested in making me squirm than keeping this place spy-free. She knows who you are, where you’ve come from... I wouldn’t doubt she knows what you had for breakfast ten fucking years ago. One word out of her mouth about who you are and there’d be nothing left to bury.” Luckas silenced, shaking his head and laughing once more. “I thought this day couldn’t get more stressful.” He muttered.

Dee opened a sarcastic smile and shrugged. “What am I expecting? I am expecting to die, honestly. I don’t expect to walk away from this. If you’re smart you’ll be thinking the same. The truth, they already know, which is they found me with Asher’s lacky and Marcus took a fancy for me, so here I am.” Deidra’s eyes narrowed as she leaned back in her chair. “Tala...freaking knew…” She muttered just under her breath, slowly shaking her head in disappointment wondering if Ess knew about Luckas. “What’s your game here, huh?” Dee inquired, crossing her legs casually.

Luckas leaned back in his seat, his eyes narrowing as he caught Deidra’s words on Tala, but he made no comment. “I’m not that smart apparently.” Luke smiled, but his eyes were cold as black ice. “And Lady laughed at me when I said you were scary...” Luke fidgeted a bit, his eyes fixating on the ground, the tip of his boot tapping against a symbol carved roughly onto the floor amongst specks of blood as though someone had clawed at the stone for hours on end to put it there. “I’m curious... You ever think about having kids, Dee? Back when you were married? In a point of your life where sitting in a place like this with a guy like me wasn’t a part of your foreseeable future? You seem like you’d be a good mom...” Luke’s expression softened a bit and the bitter smile disappeared from his features. “Take a look around you. This was the world as I knew it for the first years of my life. Or did you honestly think this just started happening now? I’m not here playing a game, Deidra. I’m here with a very particular intent. I have plans that don’t involve my life ending where it began. So I’m going to ask you nicely that, should you manage to not get yourself killed, that you not tell anyone about this. And I mean no one. If you can’t sincerely promise that, then I’m afraid I’ll have to make some tough decisions. ”

Deidra’s attention gradually followed the sound of Luckas’ boot tapping against the floor. She couldn’t make it out, but there appeared to be some crude design scratched into the surface. Dee wasn’t expecting Luckas’ next question, clear surprise painted upon her face before her expression twisted as though she had eaten something sour. The comment that she would be a good mother, honestly confused her. She shifted once again in her chair, staring back up at Luckas, eyebrows raised. The man’s words stirred up memories of what she had done before Eric in order to survive. At the time, the concept of kids frightened her because that only meant a prison for them as well. With Eric, they had discussed it but put it off because Deidra wanted to give back to the guard and take arms with the others. When Eric had died, she felt her chance had been stolen from her.

“I was never in a position to really settle down. If I couldn’t properly care and give my full attention to an offspring, then I felt it was cruel to be that selfish in trying to raise a child; especially in this world.” Dee let out another sigh. “I don’t understand. Why ask me to keep quiet when you can just kill me? If you are with them, why not expose me?” She chewed on the inside of her cheek in frustration, unsure still if this was really all some game or trick of sorts. “You..should really be the one to tell ‘Lady’, no? Assuming no one knows about you, except for our excitable friend there. If we do somewhat share similar intents, then I can keep quiet just as you will of my identity. Together we can share the risks of discovery as we make decisions that will blacken our souls in order to reach our...individual goals. What price are you willing to pay? Will Lady be paying it for you?”

“Sure I could kill you, Dee. I could have done it without showing you my face. Alternatively I could simply wipe any memory of this encounter from your mind... Or replace it with whatever unpleasantness you were expecting this to be. I don’t want to. It’s not often I get the chance to not do something I don’t want to do around here, sooo... I took a chance on you.”Luke snorted in a bit of annoyance. “A good mom puts the children first, even if hypothetical children. It sounds like the logical course of action, doesn’t it; to protect one’s offspring? I mean even wild beasts have that instinct. My mom, on the other hand, did not. She put me and my brother here, well, not here; but a place much like here, and walked away without a second thought. These people made me what I am, Deidra. I’m not opposed to destroying them, but I’m here for something else first. So I’d say we’re not on opposing sides, but our short term goals may be conflicting, which is why I’ve kept my activities to myself with very rare exceptions. Lady knows most of what happened to me, she knows what I’m after, but she doesn’t know where I go and who I associate with exactly while I’m away and it’s not a good idea that she finds out just yet. That’s how I protect her... It’s the best way I can. There’s only one living person who knows exactly what I’m doing, who I’ve confided in because she couldn’t tell anyone if she wants to. Not unless something... Permanent happens to me.” Luckas ran his fingers through his hair and heaved a long sigh. “Who have you met so far aside from Amber and that boot-licker Marcus? Maybe I can tell you a few things.”

Deidra stood rather abruptly as if she had an epiphany but was more out of a kind of excitement from Luckas’ story. It was confirmation, even if she was not completely trusting of her company, she continued to listen. “See...your experience is essentially why I am here, Luckas.” Dee whispered, a kind smile touching her eyes. “That and Asher.” She crossed her arms, hunching over the back of the metal chair. “Lady doesn’t know I’m here either. She’d feel responsible but really, I can’t lie and say a huge part of why I am isn’t because of her. In a way. What can you tell me? Indeed...what can I ask? How much can really be said without spoiling our personal agendas, hm? I am starting to understand who answers to who here. I’ve met three men in red, a few guards, Marcus, Olivia, Amber...and..someone named Amara. I’ve heard names whispered too.”

Dee relaxed her neck, letting her head hang forward so her hair covered her eyes. “We are underground, yes? How far under the city does this thing go? Other people are locked away down here but where? Lets not forget the question worth its weight in gold. Were you aware that these people are arms deep in Asher’s trade? Do you know what kinds of supplies besides people, were split into three caravans? One was intercepted for Newhaven, another left Valcrest all together, and the third I caught a ride on to here. Obviously I know, but I guess I am curious how far your knowledge stretches here.”

Luckas actually startled when Deidra stood up, unconsciously pushing his chair back as if he suddenly expected a heavy metal chair to be flying towards his face for some reason. He actually laughed at himself for the thought before his expression changed into silent contemplation. “Well then, you better not die Deidra... Because if you do Lady will have all these new guilty feelings I’ll eventually have to deal with and honestly... There are only so much of those I can take.” The words could have been taken as a jest, but Luckas was dead serious. It was more than enough that Ess had to feel responsible for all the horrible crap that had already happened so far. Not to mention the horrible crap he knew would inevitably happen. “As for what I can tell you... I’m not sure. I’m not actually stationed in Blackpond and I take little part in the business conducted in the city. I can’t even find my way through the underground to save myself if needed. I do know the tunnels are way deep, they were magically constructed and are magically secured; how exactly I’m not sure. I do know that teleporting is used on a regular basis so there are rooms with no other way in or out which makes them basically unreachable seeing as even a teleporter would not be able to invade without knowing their exact location. I know this because Amber has told me what happens if there are miscalculations in the teleportation process. If I had something or someone I wouldn’t want discovered I’d keep them there.” Luke stared down at his feet for a moment, frowning at his own shoes and promptly taking them off, pulling a different pair of boots from his bag in order to change. “I wasn’t officially informed about any shipment, nor would I, but Amber was blabbing about ‘splodies’ on the way here which, I admit, made me all the more wary when she said she had a surprise for me.”

Luke snorted, a spiteful expression crossing his face. “Don’t worry too much about Marcus and Olivia, you may have noticed they are small. Amara on the other hand, she was a woman in blue, no? Watch yourself around those women. They have passive magic; mind reading, healing, minor illusions, but what is said and done in their presence goes straight to the leader. They’re the personification of pure evil, and coming from me that ought to tell you something. If you slip for a split second and it catches their eye, you’re done. Amber is the only one who isn’t afraid of them and that should tell you something as well. That said, it’s very likely she’ll protect you. She’s the last person who would ever betray the organization, I’m not sure why yet, but she plays by her own rules so as long as there’s some fun to be had at your expense or mine with this she’s a possible asset. I mean, if she had reported half the things she’s seen me do...” Luckas snorted in half amusement. “There’s a dark skinned man, he’s Marcus’ superior, have you seen him? His name is Ezekiel. He was Amber’s handler when she wore Grey. I’m not sure what that entails exactly, but she hates him with a fury. As long as Marcus is under his command whatever his interests are it’s Amber’s interest to frustrate him. If his interest right now is you, trust that she’ll get in his way as much as she can. That said, if you are ever in a room with Ezekiel, make yourself as invisible as you can, he’s not someone whose attentions you want in any way. Trust me, I’ve had the man breathing down my neck for months now, it’s not pleasant.”

Luckas stopped talking and for a few moments he watched Dee as if attempting to make a decision, his expression was something between doubtful and wary. “What I’m here to find out is not how they operate, Dee, but... What their goal is. I’ve been doing this for months, I’ve gotten close to some very important people but I can’t figure that out. Why they’re suddenly acting so openly when they have been acting in the background for.. I’d guess centuries but possibly more? It’s not about the money. It’s not just raising an army. There’s something they want. Are you aware of the eclipse that occurred some time ago? Before I left the Nest I heard news that it might have been caused to cover an attack on the Crimson Shadows. Decimated was the word Jake used. It was meant to make it seem like their leader caused the anomaly, but the White Shadows ruled out the possibility that he could have done it. I haven’t seen anyone capable of that, but there’s a lot I haven’t seen... I know the attack came from here. I don’t know why though. I don’t know what it accomplishes. None of it makes sense.”

Deidra growled low, kicking at some random debris at her feet. “I won’t have nearly enough time to find out just how deep these tunnels go..Curse the Twins.” Turning her back to Luckas, Dee was at a loss at the mention of magically constructed tunnels, but she smiled when Luckas talked about ‘miscalculations in teleporting’. Did she even know of anyone with such a talent before? How would they be able to get through the walls otherwise? If they did bring them down, who is to say the tunnels wouldn’t collapse. More problems were arising than solutions, a painful swell of doubt aching in her chest. Still, she wouldn’t give up just yet.

Dee spun back around, grabbed the metal chair and hiked up her dress so that she could sit backwards, her arms hanging limp over the back as she leaned forward. “Olivia and Marcus are dangerous enough. They are just as much a part of the game as the women in blue.” Cocking her head inquisitively, Dee smiled at Luckas. “Ezekiel? Is that the same as Zeke? I’ve heard his name mentioned by many, not just here. Is he...your superior as well? Hmm, good to know what will keep Amber entertained..in case it comes to that. I think there’s going to be an issue with keeping out of Olivia’s way. Would there be serious punishment for stealing from superiors or harming someone within the same rank?”

Deidra rubbed at her eyes, “Power...money and numbers, make it easier for that goal..whatever it is..wait..” She froze, slowly her deep brown eyes widened, remembering that Kyle only told her that there was an Eclipse but when she had talked to him, there wasn’t any other news. “D..Dastan? He’s alive then?” She asked meekly, taking several breaths before she continued. “You...know it was them who did this? Do you know for sure? Who else do you know for sure they have attacked? You said for centuries they’ve been..working to stay unnoticed but now you call them reckless. Maybe even the best kept secrets just have a way of surfacing. Do you know anything about war strategies, Luckas? If you want little to no resistance then you take out whomever is a threat, no? You wait patiently for a weak moment to take out an enemy and it seems like that is what happened to ..Dastan and his people. Perhaps they were trying to destroy them in numbers and credibility, but again it is speculation. There has to be something that connects all this destruction…”

Luckas shook his head while listening to Dee, head low as he put her words into consideration. “Marcus and Olivia are small, Deidra; trust me. It’s not just the tunnel’s depth that you won’t have the time to see, but I’ve been here a while. As far as the game goes they have no clue they are even playing it. Marcus is arrogant, greedy, that makes him easy to manipulate. Olivia... I’ve not met her, but I do know she ranks way too low for her life to matter should it come to that. Not unless someone has a genuine fondness for her, enough to want to protect her; as it was the case with Amber. I wouldn’t count on that from Marcus. You’re new and frightened; that’s how she sees you, so she would want to have you believe otherwise, but she knows very well she’s disposable. No one cares if a Grey worker dies as long as the work is still done. As much as crossing anyone in any other position, as they are all above yours, could get you killed if caught. They don’t even need a reason to kill you either though. Amber does it for kicks, so could Marcus, or me...” Luke grimaced at his own words. That was not the kind of game he liked to play at all.

Luke snorted, listening in for any movement outside, a disdainful smile crossing his expression at the mention of Zeke. “Ah, yes, dear old Zeke. No, he’s not really my superior. As far as ranks go, we’re equals. So is Amber. Ranks are not everything though. The nature of Zeke’s duties makes him almost vital to the operation. If I were to harm him I’d need a much better reason than ‘he keeps insisting I’m a traitor’.” Luckas smirked, seeming amused. After all, he was exactly that. “Even Amber can’t touch him and there’s very little Amber can’t or won’t do.”

Luckas silenced for a moment when the subject changed to the Crimson Shadows, maybe it was not the smartest thing to reveal that much to Dee now, but it was already done. No point in trying to take it back. “The leader of the Crimson is alive. Although I’d assume, considering the situation, that he’s not very thrilled with that fact.” Luke stood and stretched with a weary groan. “I have no confirmation this originated here, but let me tell you; they could do it and make it look easy. Besides, the Crimson were driven away from the desert once. The Wolfpack took them in at the time, but they wouldn’t do so now. Not after...” He snorted, once again hesitating. “Their Alpha was found dead. It is said that he drowned in the lake in their encampment... There were no signs of a struggle, they are... Considering the possibility of a suicide, but there are those less willing to believe that. This one, I’m not sure of. It could be a coincidence, or it could be related.”

Deidra nodded along to Luckas’ words, quietly contemplating every angle she could think of in that moment. Of course Olivia knew she is disposable; that was why she felt the need to threaten Dee last night. Dee had the potential to replace Olivia for work and for Marcus’ own comforts. Olivia seemed to enjoy the attention she received from the man, no matter how harsh, because attention was better than none at all to her. It meant there was still a reason to keep her around. Dee could use this to her advantage but had to be cautious something this simple didn’t take her life before the end game. How much would she really be able to find out?Even Luckas, whose position was higher than herself in access to the ongoings around them, was still in the dark to their ultimate goal it seemed; but that wasn’t why Dee was there. Truth be told, that would be an added bonus, but Matt didn’t send Dee here expecting her to discover that.

Dee cringed at the all too familiar notion of others taking lives for granted and treating people as meaningless except for their own amusement. The way Luckas talked about ‘killing for kicks’ was something Dee had witnessed before, so it was no surprise that people thought and acted that way. What made Dee so sick to her stomach was how widespread and out of control such actions had become. That was why she felt she was here, because on so many levels, this kind of thinking needed to stop; or at least maybe interrupt that flow of power these people were abusing. “Arrogance is weakness because it makes people comfortable.” Dee muttered half to herself as she continued to ponder over her situation. Arrogance was something she could definitely exploit. “So we make sure they remain comfortable...for now..”

Deidra had prepared herself for the most unpleasant of things she may encounter, to the best of her ability, but she still couldn’t deny the twinge of pain in her gut at the mention of Dastan. She hadn’t been lying when she had said to him that she may have not jumped to volunteer for this if she had met him first. The idea made her feel selfish and weak, but she knew she couldn’t beat herself up for feeling she may not have to sacrifice herself. Wasn’t it only human to want to survive? Deidra thought she had accepted she would die here, but now that she was hearing about the attack on the Crimsons and how thankfully Dastan was still alive, she wanted to escape. Dee wanted to be at too many places at once, and the distraction would become a problem if she couldn’t bring her thoughts in line. Perhaps she could make some changes to her plans but then again, would it botch her quest and get more than just herself killed in the long run?

“I’ll keep your secret, Luckas.” Deidra turned, rightly nervous when she went to look Luckas in the eye. She managed to hold his gaze, to affirm that she was being truthful in her word. Besides, what would she really gain from telling such a secret? Nothing useful to her at least.



~~~~~~~
~Otium 16-Early Afternoon~

Essence had made the journey in silence to the Crimson Shadows camp with a few of her Raven companions and a wagon of supplies. Matthew had been generous in sending all that they could, including a letter with Mageria’s seal that Ess carried in her satchel meant for Dastan’s eyes only. She had no idea what it said but she knew it was important and probably the expected sympathies and reassurances of the Ravens if the Crimson needed anything. A few of the men and women that traveled with her, were asked to stay on in the Crimson camp as needed with any and all assistance, while Keith was there as a messenger, hoping to take back any news pertinent to Matthew before the end of the day. Some things just couldn’t be trusted to a bird messenger.

When they arrived, Ess slid down off of Shockwave, Tala and Beo bolting what appeared to be out of nowhere and flanking either side of Essence as she pulled down her hood. All of the Raven’s were cloaked in black, each one adorned with ebony feathers, where even some of the horses complimented their riders. Ess had traveled in disguise, but once one of the Crimson approached, who the others addressed as ‘Jackson’, the woman let her wrinkled features and greying hair fade back to her normal porcelain doll-like features.

“Sorry we’re late..” Keith grunted, extending his hand to meet Jackson’s in a firm handshake, “..Matt kept adding more to the wagon. I thought it might buckle at the rate he was going.” The man forced a smile, motioning for the other men to continue onwards with the supplies.

“Late? We didn’t even know you were coming.”Jackson quirked a brow.

Ess shook her head, “Another example of our raven’s not getting through. I’m telling you Keith, we are missing some. Makes you wonder what is happening to them.”

Keith nodded, “Probably why Matt is asking us to carry most messages ourselves.”

“How is Dastan? Will he see us?”

Jackson’s eyes were red, dark bags swollen beneath his sad gaze as he smiled, “I didn’t catch your name…”

“This is Jake’s sis, Jackson. Essence.”

Jackson nodded, “Of course...Darren’s your son, right? You just missed him. He left with Annie this morning.”
“Darren was here?” Ess asked quite intrigued by the information.

“Great help that kid was. Good guy...Can’t really believe he’s your kid though. You don’t look old enough..”

Ess let her eyes fall, the comment saddening her as a clear reminder of her past and how old she was when she had given birth to Darren, but she shrugged. “I’ll take that as a compliment…”

“More wolves?” Someone called from behind Jackson, causing Ess to giggle and yell back, pointing to Tala proudly. “She’s the mamma...and the others are her pups.”

“...Pups? What, did she breed with a bear?” The blond haired man trotted up beside Jackson, pausing and stepping back a few paces as if unsure if they were as friendly as Sora and Kaya.

“Beo? He does look like a mini bear, doesn’t he?” She laughed.

“Yes, yes, they are adorable and scary..man eating squishes.” Keith joked, his amusement touching his eyes but his expression was serious. “We really do need to see Dastan..if he’s..up to visitors. Please..”

“...Whatever it is, you may just have to tell me Keith. Indrani is bedridden and Dastan..I’m not sure if he’s up for visitors..”

“I can’t do this.” Indrani protested, trying to sit up on the makeshift cot.

Dastan snorted. “Jackson can be a Commander. He can be just as good at it as you if not better; but he... can’t... lead. I need you to do this.”

“I can’t even get out of this bed right now.” She scoffed. “We have a leader, you’re our leader.”

“Not anymore. Not now. I can’t be. Not for this.” He objected.

“If we have to fight this, then we’ll fight it. All of us.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Indrani. We’re reduced to nothing. All that is left are civilians... Men women and children unfit to wield a weapon... We are NOT an army. We came together to preserve something of our past, of our homes. Going into war preserves nothing. The Crimson’s place is here, with them, for them. And I can’t...” He took a deep breath, looking away from his sister. “You and Jackson won’t be affected by this. Whatever happens, you’ll make it through it, as for me...”

“You’re not going to die!” Indrani shouted, glaring at her brother as if he was misbehaving.

“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t... That’s not the point. The point is that right now I’m dying, just like every other enlightened in Valcrest. And I can’t be sitting here, waiting for the healers to find an answer or the Ravens to find a culprit... I can’t tell myself it’s not personal or that it’s not my business, not anymore. At the same time, I can’t involve the clan in this. Someone has to look out for them, and it can’t be me. Not now.”

“And it can be me?” Indrani laughed.

“You’ve taken care of me, you can handle them. I mean, they don’t drink as much for starters.”

Indrani laughed, poorly disguising a whimper at the pain it caused her. “At least your sense of humor is back.” She snorted.

“Yeah, well... I’m going to need it the way things are going.” He sighed, kissing her forehead before taking his leave from the temple. “Take good care of yourself, sis.”

Dastan exited the temple, squinting at the sunlight. He hadn’t gone outside since the pyre had gone out the night before and he hadn’t seen the light of day since this whole mess started. He didn’t seem to notice or care that he wasn’t wearing a shirt, or shoes. His hands and face were caked with sand and ash... He was sober and angry. He didn’t want to be either, but there was no helping that. Nothing was going to help that. Not any time soon. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but it didn’t matter. Dastan spotted the visitors at a distance and flinched. He could easily walk away, not deal with any of it, hide; again... He sighed, wiping his hands on his trousers and running them through his hair as he started to walk in their direction.

“Jack, I thought I told you to get some sleep.” He muttered, stopping beside the man.

Jackson snorted. “Find me someone to run this camp and I will.” He smiled at Keith. “Well, there you have him.”

“Y’know, if someone’s gonna ‘have me’, no offense pal, but you wouldn’t be my first choice.” Dastan told Keith, playfully winking at Ess and forcing a half-smile at her. “Long time no see, birthday girl.” He glanced at the wagon of supplies and his smile shut, a sigh escaping his lips. “I see news travel... It’s, what, the second time Newhaven boys have sent us aid.” He snickered. “The second time they send me a pretty redhead too. Although you are yet to kick my ass, Miss Talon.” He smirked. “We ought to remedy that someday.”

Ess opened a generously, sweet smile when Dastan approached, her eyes lingering briefly over his bare chest. “Hey, handsome…” She let her eyes drift over the man, finally finding his gaze and her smile faded. There was no pity in her gaze, only the curious desire to know what the man was thinking. “It seems like you’re the one in need of a cloak now, no?” Her tone was lighthearted, gentle but firm as she stepped forward and placed a hand on the man’s arm. “I thought we were friends Dastan. You know there is no need for formalities..or do I indeed need to kick your ass in order for you to call me Ess?”

Keith quirked a brow, “Are you surprised we came, Shaykh?”

“Friends help each other,” Ess insisted, “especially when they don’t ask for it.” Ess shook her head. “The idea of sparring with you though is a bit... intimidating, I will admit...I hear you are an admirable opponent.”

Wrapping her arm through Dastan’s, she began to walk with Keith, leading the dirty mercenary along as they spoke. “How is your sister? I am sorry I wasn’t here sooner with the rest of my family. I..hear she likes horses? Maybe when she’s feeling better she can meet Shockwave.”

Once they had walked a little ways, Ess turned towards Keith and eyed him intently, “I don’t know how long you plan on staying before reporting back to Matt, but shouldn’t you make your rounds?” Ess’ brows furrowed and she glanced back towards the others in a hinting fashion, Keith gathering her meaning rather quickly.

“I’ll stop back before I make my leave, Shaykh.”

Ess sighed, reaching into her satchel, half noticing Tala and Beo wandering off after Keith to explore as she retrieved the sealed letter and handed it to Dastan. “I don’t know what is in there..above my head and all..but I do know it was meant for your eyes only...and Matt said to burn it afterwards. He said it was important that only you read it..that it had to do with you.” Ess shrugged, giving the man’s arm a squeeze, still clinging to him as she looked over the area, thinking how she had never been to the desert before. “Perhaps it has to do with the argument Keith and Matthew were having before we left. They don’t know I heard, but still it wasn’t enough to know exactly what they were talking about, except..”

A bit of sand stirred within a breeze, Ess squinting to protect her eyes, turning her back to the wind so that she was now facing Dastan and released his arm. “Do...do you believe sometimes the few need to be sacrificed in order to save the many? That’s what they were arguing over; about if it’s a personal choice to self sacrifice that it’s ok but if others choose for them..it’s not right.”

Dastan seemed confused when Ess mentioned he needed a cloak, staring down at himself and then looking back at her with a shrug. “There was blood on my shirt... I had to get rid of it.” He smirked. “And apparently I threw my shoes at Jackson when he was trying to... ‘convince’ me to leave the temple yesterday. I have no idea where they ended up really. Out the window, maybe.” The man shook his head, half smiling at her again. “It’s not as much a formality to call someone by surname here as it is a... Show of respect, so to speak.” He smirked. “But if you kick my ass hard enough I’ll call you anything you like.”

Dastan snorted at Keith’s question. “I’m not surprised you’ve come, just at how quickly you’ve come. Jake is not back from Newhaven yet, or he wouldn’t be by the time you left your camp, so... I assume one of Crys’ boys brought you the news then.”

The mercenary allowed himself to be dragged along, seeming a bit unsteady in his steps, at first just nodding along to Ess’ words until she handed him the letter. Dastan stared at it for a few moments and decided to open it later, looking up at her and speaking with yet another shrug. “Indrani is... Well... She’ll recover. I think she’s just frustrated for having to stay in bed. Not like she has a choice.” He scratched the back of his head, looking around as if not wanting to be overheard. “The horses got spooked during the... Commotion... The boys haven’t found them all yet, but... There’s not really many places to go. I just haven’t told her about it. And I haven’t told her about the Alpha’s death. I’m assuming you heard about that too? With everything that happened, everything he’s done...” He shook his head. “I don’t care how or why the man died, but I doubt Indrani would see it the same way.” He looked over the sealed letter with a frown, thinking over her question to him. “Choice is relative. Think of what or how many you’d be willing to sacrifice for, say, your son, or your brother. You’d do that for them, without a second thought, but if it was up to them, would that be their choice? Are you choosing for them in that situation? And at times if we’re standing too close to something, we’re not able to make the best choices; even for ourselves. Yesterday I would’ve gladly sacrificed just to not be a living reminder of what happened here. And if it was entirely up to me... Well, I’m not the best to making decisions right now. I had that pointed out to me a few times.” He paused for a few moments, before continuing. “I think in the end sacrifice can never be right or wrong, only necessary or... not.”

Essence laughed, playfully winking at her friend, “..You are tempting..however I am a Lady, and a Lady resists temptation.” She quirked a brow, glancing away from Dastan and eying her wolves in the distance, “You have always been respectful, handsome. Even beneath our ‘colorful’ comments to one another, it was there. Something rare from my experience..” Ess brought her full attention to the mercenary, letting her violet gaze focus on his deep browns, “You..know..Tala is an excellent tracker. Beo is still learning but he follows his mamma’s lead and I’m sure if there are saddles with the horse’s scent or something around that has their smell...Tala could find them. If It helps. I want to help..”

Any trace of a smile or amusement fell when Dastan talked about sacrifice and what Ess would do for her son or brother in order for them to survive. She felt slightly insulted at the insinuation of what she would do for them and at the same time, was it not true? “You do have a point on choice being relative..like if I was told that in order for Darren to live, I had to murder an entire village of women and children...I wouldn’t; I couldn’t. I would not sacrifice your life for mine. But if someone told me today, that there was a way for me to sacrifice my own life for my village that was burned down when I was a child, and they would live...I would do it in a second. The few...for the many. I understand that.” She bit down on her bottom lip, her fingers finding a few loose curls and wrapping the strands tightly around her knuckles as she pondered the idea.

“Keith was upset because he doesn’t believe in leaving any one of us at the Nest behind, especially if it can be helped. I’m not sure who or what exactly he was talking about but he brought up the fact that the Captain would at least exhaust all options before even considering leaving one of her people behind. I think...I think what I love the most about my ‘brothers and sisters’ is that even with all the darkness we all have suffered through in our own personal trials, together we hold onto that spark of hope that no one should be sacrificed and that all can be saved.” Essence sighed, turning her gaze away from her friend, her voice falling to a whisper, “Even if it’s not always true...I believe if more people tried...if more people didn’t just stand by...that we would have a chance at change.” Looking back up at the mercenary she was reminded of a conversation she had had long ago with Jacob, her eyes squinting once again from the dust and watering when some specs accumulated along her lashes. “Sometimes, those who have the power to create change, stand by and do nothing. Sometimes by doing nothing, they are just as detrimental to others as those who commit the atrocities…”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qMUOPK65sY


“Allison was telling me just yesterday, how she hated the fact her brother had to die so that she could live. That she resented that sacrifice, but at one point she had to choose to accept it and live. It reminded me of my mother. My mother, she died when I was born. So, obviously, I never knew her. Indrani’s parents were the only parents I knew, but my brothers knew our mother and they suffered her loss. One day I asked one of them if he would rather I hadn’t been born so that she could still be alive. He slapped me across the face, on her behalf; he said, and told me she would never forgive either one of us for thinking such a thing. She would be alive, but she would have lost a piece of her heart. ‘Would you bring her back to life only to suffer, brother?’, he asked me. I was a boy still, the concept of something being worse than Death itself was lost on me until then... I didn’t understand how giving up my life for someone could possibly be hurting them... It’s a tough lesson for a child to learn.”

Dastan began to walk towards the place the horses were kept. “If your friends can help us track down our strays, I won’t refuse them. “ He stretched his arms over his head and groaned, laughing under his breath. “Sleeping on rocks... I do not recommend.” Dastan ran his left hand over his hair once again, mumbling that he needed a bath... his fingers trailed the scar on the back of his head and he frowned, stopping in his tracks to look at Essence. “Deidra.... Have you... Have you heard from her since the party?” He asked, resuming his walk in a slower pace, half distracted by his thought. “I remember... She had me quite worried about whatever she was about to go do. She sounded a bit... Scared.” Dastan frowned for a moment as if remembering something that happened mere days ago took him effort. “Your boy, Matthew, called her away, for a job; she said, and... I don’t know...” He shook his head. “She gave me one of those ‘in case I don’t come back’ goodbyes... Didn’t give me a good feeling at all.”

Dastan stopped walking when they reached the makeshift stables, the few horses that had returned or been retrieved were loose within the confines of a large circular pen. Dastan approached the fence and leaned against it. One of the remaining Crimson was inside with the animals and ran over to them. “Shaykh.” He greeted, bowing his head slightly. “We’re still missing Rocky and Buttons and...” The man sighed. “Mirage, she... Still refuses to eat.”

Dastan sighed softly. “Bring the saddles and harnesses that belong to the missing horses, please, Lance. I’ll have a look at her as soon as I can.”

The mercenary nodded his agreement and wandered off to fetch the equipment.

Essence watched Dastan as he spoke, absently walking with him when he moved and mirroring his stance as he leaned against the fence at the stables. It was almost like a dance, her eyes never leaving his face as she studied the slightest mannerisms in his expression as he talked of personal matters, to the slight change when one of his people approached. Internally she was taking notes. It was a habit how she memorized him but it was not for the same reasons she normally studied people, even though that was part of it. Ess wanted to remember him and the many faces she had already seen in her few encounters with the man. As she mulled over his words, letting them sink in, Ess thought she saw something familiar in her friend’s eyes that reminded her of herself.

“I’m sorry…” she paused, “..I feel like sometimes tragedy and loss is what connects me to others; what draws me in, but I guess that isn’t such a bad thing. My mother...she died when I was born too. My father...he died trying to protect me when my village was burned to the ground and I was sold into a brothel at seven years old. The blood I was covered in at the ball...was from my ‘Mistress’.” Ess sighed, folding her arms across her chest, a devilish smile touching her eyes. “The Squealer...er…” she laughed, “..my blood brother, apparently harbored a grudge against me for things I had no control over. He blamed me for my mother’s death and felt I was favored above him because I looked like her. Ian believed I should have died and our mother live. He was partially responsible for my time in the brothel and he ended up working for the people behind the sword and eye symbol, who worked with Darren’s father as well. There’s evidence those people were responsible for my village and possibly others. I thought Ian..was dead...but I found him...and burned him alive so he could feel a fraction of what the people of my village felt.” Ess was nonchalant about how she tortured Ian, so much it was kind of sad. “I peeled flesh off his face so he would know how betrayal felt..having pieces of one’s self stripped away, layer by layer….”

Unfolding her arms she gripped the rails of the fence, propping herself so she could cross her ankles when she leaned, moving the conversation away from Ian. “Loss hurts, no matter the circumstance, but I do know my father loved me so much that he was willing to die in order for me to live. I can’t begrudge him for that when I understand that every time I look at Jake or Darren..well anyone I’ve come to care for. I know they wouldn’t want me to die for them and I wouldn’t choose to if there was another option, but sometimes I am a bit...eh reckless.”

Ess’ smile softened at the mention of Deidra, “Oh, you think the reason she gave you a kiss was because she might not come back? That was probably just an excuse.” A thoughtful and slightly worried demeanor took hold of her, causing her to slouch in her posture. “..What did she say to you? All I know is Matt said she was off doing a favor for someone and asked him not to tell anyone about it..and that she should be back in a couple weeks if...all goes well. I haven’t seen her since the party. I’m a bit worried too.”

Placing two fingers between her lips, Ess released a high pitched whistle that made her own ears ring, distant barks her response as the wolves made their way towards her and Dastan. “Mirage...I like that name. You know..if you don’t have any luck with that one eating, can always ask Aiden. Beast Speakers come in handy sometimes, I tell ya.” She snickered, “Rocky and..um..Buttons...ha..is it? That is actually quite adorable. Is there a Tulip?”

“Why Tulip?” Dastan asked, chuckling at Ess’ comment on the horse’s name. “Buttons... I think one of the kids named her. After Rocky and Sandy, I retired from naming horses, on my sister’s request.” Dastan heaved a weary sigh, shaking his head and jumping over the fence. He nodded towards the gate and opened it for Ess to pass. “See the pale grey one over there? That’s Mirage. Indrani rescued her from a merchant about three years ago, ugliest thing we’d ever seen... skin and bone, she was. Jackson wanted to put her down, but my sister is stubborn and she wouldn’t have it. Indrani nursed her back to health and beyond. She’s the fastest horse we have. Could beat Shadow in a race easily. Unfortunately, she is also terribly spoiled and I think she’s just feeling Indrani’s absence.”

He walked along the fence, approaching the grey mare. “Isn’t that right, you big stubborn baby? Hm?” He taunted. Mirage reacted to Dastan’s call, shaking her head and slowly approaching the man. “There she is.” He smiled, running his palm along the horse’s neck, slowly leading her towards the feeders as he answered Ess about Deidra. “It’s not because she gave me a kiss. I know I was perfectly charming. It was very much deserved.” He snorted, faking annoyance for a moment before his tone turned serious. “No, she was worried. She mentioned having volunteered for something and I don’t know, she got all serious after Matt called her up. Plus she literally said ‘in case I don’t see you’ and ‘I would have regretted otherwise’.” Dastan frowned, noting that Mirage persistently ignored the oats that were placed right before her.”Come on now, baby girl, eat your food...” He whispered. “I’m going to be in so much trouble if you get sick.” He shrugged. “Either way, I was just wondering if you’d heard anything. She did say she wanted to see me again... I’m not one to disappoint a lady.”

Ess smiled down at Beo and Tala as they approached, muttering commands for them to stay behind the fence, not wanting to upset Mirage and stress her out more than she already was. Ess went to turn to see where Shockwave was, about ready to head out on their search when she heard a whinny, a flurry of white trailing out of the corner of her eyes and by the time she found the stallion, Ess had spun around in almost a full circle, just to catch the horse leaping over the fence and prancing around happily. It seemed like he was dancing around in circles as a display before the other horses.

“Pfft...Show off…” Ess snorted, “Well Dastan...let us just hope Deidra knows what she is doing and is safe..whatever she is up to. Twins have mercy on her enemies if she is not otherwise..”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Early Next Day: Otium 17th, Blackpond


Deidra groaned, turning a bit too quickly and banging her head against the stone wall. “Damnation by all that is unholy…” When she tried to sit she fell off her pathetic excuse for a bed, cursing some more.

’Dee? Sorry to wake you..’

’Shut up Kyle. This was the first moments peace I’ve had in two days.’

’You knew this was going to be far from easy, Deidra..’

’ Yea? You try staying up for over a day just to finish sewing dresses for an unreasonable quota made by an envious, psychotic bitch who wakes up early just to torment the few moments of sleep I get. And don’t tell me to not worry about Oliva, like others have because obviously I need to figure out how to dissolve the issue that is crazy so I can live long enough to find out what is down those stupid tunnels!’

There was an uncomfortable silence that passed for several minutes, Dee gently rubbing the side of her head to dull the throbbing ache. As things became clearer and her crankiness subsided, Dee’s heart sank, twanged by a hint of guilt. ‘I’m sorry Kyle...’

‘No, Dee Dee, I should have let you be, but I was very worried about you. You shut me out and it was driving me nuts. I should know better than to talk to you like I know better..especially because I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through.’

Dee shook her head, crawling to her knees to stand and quickly glance around her room to ensure she was alone. Pulling her bed away from the wall, she settled in the dirt and lit a candle. The wax was almost spent, but it emitted just enough light to shadow the outline of the maze she had started and the map of the area above ground.

’Alright Kyle, can you see this? Each x I marked is where I’ve found the symbol so far. They aren’t in obvious places. Mostly in the arcs in the doorway, hidden behind the torches. Those were felt engraved into the wood, which is similar in the establishments that keep a lot of foot traffic. Other locations, the marks are faded and in places people wouldn’t normally look.

Kyle was silent, listening intently to Deidra as she talked, explaining more and more the little details she thought weren’t important but could somehow become of great value later on. He took the time to sketch down what Dee had drawn in the dirt, indicating to her it was ok to smear what she had of a map so far, the woman pushing her bed back into position. Kyle started to list off the names Dee provided with the assumed chain of command those names held.

’But..wait Deidra, if you technically haven’t had face to face contact with this Zeke fellow, how do you know..’
’Trust me Kyle..just trust me.’

’Dee. You know you can’t trust anybo-’

’ You’re doing it again, Kyle. Telling me what I already know. But it makes sense, based on what I’ve encountered and what Ess told Matt, remember?’[i] Dee sighed. [i]’Listen, I need to get a bit of sleep before the grind begins in a couple hours. I need to be on my toes. I’ll talk to you later, ok?’

Kyle didn’t even have time to protest and his friend was already gone. If he left the outskirts of Blackpond now, he would be able to make it back around this time the next night. He had barely enough leeway to see Matthew, give his report and return back. He dreaded being gone long in case Dee needed him and the distance made it impossible to protect her, the little that he could.

~That Morning~

Deidra was seconds from opening the door to her room to be escorted upstairs to the shop when she was surprised to hear a gentle rapping. When she didn’t respond to the knock, the door opened, Marcus slipping inside, closing it most of the way behind him. Stretching, he leaned casually against the wall, purposely blocking the exit. Marcus smiled down at Dee in such a manner to make her skin crawl and cause her to step back, bumping into her cot. She didn’t hear anything the man said when she recoiled from him as he drew near. Deidra’s ears started to ring, her skin prickling as she broke out into a cold sweat from his hot breath upon her neck and she couldn’t help her reaction when she shoved him back, attempting to escape out the door.

Marcus had pinned her face down against the wall, the partially opened door to her left. The man probably interpreted Dee’s hesitation as submission and that is what it ended up turning into, but her initial thought was of how easily she could take the man down and escape. Instead, she focused on her purpose there, resisting her instincts to break the man’s pelvic bone and crush his throat.

Deidra complied when he told her not to scream, turning her cries inward when it seemed to go on forever. She prayed to the Twins Kyle couldn’t hear her, hoping he was too far, but she knew that was only a delusion. Again her hearing faded as if she went deaf, her body going numb defensively blocking out the attack. The moment she thought it was over, Marcus turned her to face him whispering in what the man believed to be in an act of affection, “We aren’t leaving here until we’ve both been satisfied.”

Dee closed her eyes, trails of tears staining her cheeks and when she opened them again in the direction of the door she so wanted to smack Marcus’ head against, she found herself staring into the familiar, cold eyes of Oliva. The woman had been watching, a cruel sneer curling her lips. For a moment, Dee was afraid, but more than anything she was outraged. She hated the way the woman watched and resented Dee for an act that was clearly against her will. She hated the way her body betrayed her soul in that moment and she despised how much she wanted to fight back but couldn’t. The only thing she had to look forward to was getting rid of Olivia before she could do the same to Deidra. At least now she no longer pitied the woman. There would be no guilt, no sympathy for whatever end lay in wait for her special friend.


~~~~~~~
~Later That Night~

“What are you doing!? Stop!” Deidra pleaded when Seth grabbed a fistfull of hair and begain dragging her down the stairs from the shop into an unfamiliar room below. He shoved her inside, closing the door behind him, nodding to the figures behind Dee. It took the woman a second to focus on the others around her; Olivia bruised and bleeding on the floor, still managing a glare outwardly towards Deidra and Marcus towering over the women firmly gripping a switch in both hands.

“You don’t believe me? Get someone to read my mind! I’m telling the tr-” Olivia was cut off when Marcus brought the switch down across the woman’s face, cutting open her right cheek.

“The evidence is clear and we don’t need to bother the others for such a trivial matter, right? I can take care of this.” Marcus turned his attention towards Deidra, kneeling down in front of her as Seth spoke.

“Her room is clear. We didn’t find anything on her.” Seth grunted, his eyes flickering between Olivia and Deidra, a subtle uneasiness fleeting beneath his expression.

“Deidra..” Marcus began, “..did you see Olivia stealing any coin?” He tilted his head to the side, reaching out and gently caressing Dee’s cheek.

Deidra cringed, avoiding the man’s eyes at first, and shrugged. “I dunno. Not exactly.” She stiffened, Marcus gripping the woman’s shoulder, lifting her chin with the switch to look into her eyes.

“The truth now. If I find out you’re lying..or you helped her..” Marcus dug his fingers into Dee’s arm, tapping the sides of her face with the switch. “Huh? Did you see her stealing from us?”

Dee was grateful for the pinching, her eyes swelling with tears just at the right moment and she began to shake. “I saw that first day, you treated her with some of her own...but…” Deidra’s eyes danced from Marcus to Olivia, the woman glaring daggers into her. Dee began to sob, an empathetic look of worry and concern for the woman as she continued. “Olivia..I’m so sorry…” Dee turned back towards Marcus and nodded. “..She said she would kill me if I told. I was only trying to stay alive.”

“No! No, she’s lying! She must have taken it! Why would I betray you Marcus?”

“When, Olivia?” He turned and stood, moving back away from Dee. “When has she ever been left alone above surface?”

Olivia began to sob, her pleading never ceasing as Marcus extended the switch across the woman’s back over and over again. The more the woman pleaded, the harder he thrashed her, kicking her when she tried to roll away. Marcus paused to catch his breath, keeping his back to Deidra and Seth, “Deidra, you can go back upstairs to watch the shop now. Seth, you can take her.”

Seth mumbled a compliant response to the command and yanked Deidra to her feet. Dee appeared startled by the display, a disgusted expression filling her eyes as she stared at Marcus. When he continued the beating on Olivia, her stare trailed down, a spiteful smile spreading across her lips as she made eye contact with the woman and winked before turning to leave.

When Seth and Dee reached the bottom of the stairs, she turned towards the guard, quirking a brow. “Now..don’t you forget what I did for you back there.” The man’s normally annoyed demeanor towards Dee was now one of relief, a brief smile passing from his eyes as he reached into his pouch to retrieve an apple, handing it to her. “You better hide that. Save it for later.”

Dee went upstairs, going through the motions of picking up the mess from the commotion and closing up shop. She tucked the apple away in the back of a desk drawer while she cleaned a few spots of blood off the floor. Deidra had been scrubbing the spot for about a half an hour when the door opened and Marcus passed through the shop, not even stopping as he exited the building. Dee thought she caught him mumbling a complaint of sorts and the mention of Zeke before he disappeared for the night. Dee never saw what happened to Olivia’s body, but she assumed she wouldn’t be a bother anymore.

As before, she knew she couldn’t trust anyone in there, but now she had something over the guard, Seth. Dee had caught him stealing from the desk earlier that day and approached him later on with a proposition. In truth, the man could have taken care of Dee and denied any accusations, but he was amused at the idea of getting rid of Olivia. It was the perfect opportunity, as Dee had convinced the guard that Olivia was planting suspicion in Marcus’ ear against Seth. Even though it wasn’t exactly true, they successfully were able to plant the blame of the theft on the woman, mutually benefitting them both. At least for a little while.

Several Days Later


Deidra first heard the cries in her sleep. When she tried to wake, she only fell deeper from consciousness, unable to rise from her slumber. Morning came, and there was only silence, except that it was the most deafening sound in her mind.

Dee had been moved to Olivia’s old room which was attached to the tailor shop. Accomodations in her new dwelling came with both pros and cons. Physically, it was quite a distance from the tunnels but at the same time security was easier to get around; it was just riskier. Each day she would travel further and further in the direction Deidra was convinced she heard the whimpers, but all she was met with was that eerie silence.

She waited for the guard shift changeover before sprinting down a new corridor she had yet to explore. The walls felt different there; warmer and yet softer than the normal cold stone she was becoming accustomed to. Dee knew she had to get back before she was missed but then her hand seemed to fall away from the wall, the woman losing balance and tripping into the space she couldn’t see but felt. No sooner than she had regained her footing, the woman came to another wall, only this one was made of wood. She felt around as if testing to see if it were a door but she couldn’t find an edge or door handle. That was when she caught faint sobs coming from the other side of the wall. Dee leaned in, pressing her ear firmly against the solid wood and the sound stopped. It didn’t matter that it was pitch black down there and she couldn’t see a damn thing, but the woman still turned and stared at the spot her ear had resided at. “I can hear you..” She whispered, not wanting her voice to carry down the halls but hoping she could still be heard.

“I caan heear yooou..”

Dee startled, stepping back a few steps before rushing the wall and clinging to its smooth surface. The voice was distant and yet it sent chill down her spine. She thought it sounded similar to a young girl but it was hard to tell. “...Are you alright?”

There was a pause and when the disembodied voice echoed again, it carried a tune, a hint of amusement hidden behind the playful mockery. ”Are..YOU...alright?” The voice continued to sing, the words unknown to Deidra but meaningless as her arms went limp and she stared in a lifeless daze at the wall, slightly swaying to the song.

Deidra! What is going on? Don’t listen...Dee...Deidra!? Kyle’s voice was frantic in her mind and yet it seemed so far away in it’s incessant warning. And then, his voice was cut out completely and Dee was knocked back into coherent thought by a blinding light followed by shouting as she was knocked to the floor and dragged down the corridors by powerful hands.

“How the hell did this happen, Grace!? Where were you?”

“I told you, she’s willful and getting stronger. You didn’t want to believe me when I tried to tell you her voice carries.”

“Impossible..we reinforced the walls…”

“Obviously that didn’t hold. All due respect, perhaps we should have just let her have her fun and see what she would do.”

“She’s not ready…”

“Right, right...only when Mistress says..”

Deidra groaned, trying to open her eyes and only catching glimpses of blue and black before she was pushed up the stairs and tossed on top of a desk. She was disorientated, her head was pounding and Deidra wasn’t sure who was yelling louder at the moment as the voices melded together. It felt like an icepick jabbing at the base of her neck and along her temples.

“What happened…” Dee whispered, immediately pretending to remember less than she did. The switch was her answer, snapping like a whip across the right side of her face. A young brunette with blonde highlights dressed in all black, lowered herself to eye level with Dee. The look was terrifying, dark and cold. Deidra assumed it was the one addressed as Grace but before she could think anything more, the woman stepped aside for the Lady in blue.

“I will ask the questions here..” Amara’s face came into focus and a fit of panic gripped Dee, a tight squeeze crushing her heart making it hard to breathe. She wasn’t even allowed to answer, the woman in blue already pulling at her mind for the answers she seeked. Dee’s thoughts were in fragments, Kyle having already worked her cognizance to match her apparent disorientation and memory loss. Hopefully his handiwork would go unnoticed. For a moment after Deidra was released, Amara’s eyes were fixated for so long on her that she thought the woman was going to kill her. Instead Amara cursed, turning away from Dee as she moved to descend back down the stairs below.

“I’ll reinforce the barrier..just...make it clear to our new arrival how it is in her best interest to stay away from there completely.”

~~~~
Several Days Later

‘Dee Dee, you’re insane. Why must you push yourself; push your luck? This is your life we are talking about here..’ Kyle pleaded to Dee to stay in her room but the woman was far too stubborn to listen to him as she descended the stairs.

‘It’s been a few days since all that..things have calmed down, Kyle. Why don’t you tell me what happened, since you took away some of my memories..’

‘I could just given them back, Dee. I didn’t take them, they are just blocked.’

‘You know that’s too risky, Kyle...’

‘..Right, right...Well...we call it the Siren’s Call. It’s a form of telepathy, the source mainly in the form of song. It’s dangerous because the Siren doesn’t need to use a direct command to hypnotize its target, enslaving their mind to their own. I’ve only heard of a couple people having this gift and all from books. You had absolutely no control over yourself Dee. Almost like a dream where you understand what’s going on but powerless to prevent it and yet you want to do whatever it is they make you do. It stems from the myth of Mind and Heart’s first child.l’

‘The one that went batshit crazy and was sent to hell?’ Dee snorted, purposely avoiding the same dark hallway and taking another turn to explore, her nose scrunching up at a faint odor of decay and waste. It reminded her of the room she first woke up in. ‘ You were able to interrupt it though, Kyle, right? Or was that because of Grace?’

‘ Probably both, actually...besides a firm smack to the face, it can take a lot more to break someone of their haze; or so I read. In the myth...the sobs or cries of the child were the first indications of her gift, a subtle tactic in drawing in her targets.’

‘Aw, shit..’

‘..when the girl got older, for reasons I’m unsure of, she tried to control humans. Everything from their thoughts to their actions and it drove her mad. You can imagine what a huge threat that would be to Valcrest..’

‘..You think she went insane because maybe she had..that..oh what is it called…;

“Affinity. Yea...quite possible, course hard to tell. I honestly haven’t read that story since I was a kid. I don’t even know where one can find that except maybe the White Shadows.’

‘ She sounded really young though Kyle...Kyle?’

The man was silent for a while before allowing his thoughts to reach Deidra. ‘ Dee, how are you doing?’

‘No, Kyle. We aren’t doing this. Not now.’

‘..I shouldn’t have let you go, Deidra. I can’t stop thinking about it...’

‘Stop it Kyle. I don’t want to talk about Marcus. I’m still alive, aren’t I?’

Kyle held back his thoughts from Deidra, trying to tear his mind away from the constant memory of Dee’s whimpers and wails and how powerless he was. He was only good enough to sit by and witness it and if he left her because he couldn’t handle it it would be like abandoning her, but witnessing it and her knowing he did wasn’t too much better. Every day Marcus came for Dee and every day she let it happen, when all either of them wanted was for Dee to fight back. Keith wasn’t talking to Kyle as of late and he couldn’t honestly blame him. Maybe something like this was uncalled for; maybe there was another way.

‘...You won’t be in here much longer, Dee. We will be coming to get you out soon.’

‘ Already? But, there’s so much still to...’

’ ENOUGH, DEE. This is insanity! Self destructive and for what!?’

Silence lingered, Kyle beginning to feel poorly for his outburst. ‘ Dee Dee?’

‘ For them...’

‘ What? Who Dee?’

‘ Kyle..they’re here. I can hear them. The others...captives..’ Dee was pressing her ear against the stone wall, just like when she encountered the strange voice, only this time she could hear multiple voices. She felt a breeze at her feet, squatting down towards a space between the floor and the wall which allowed airflow. From there she could hear others pleading for help..to be let out. She had no way of knowing how long they had been there or if this were the exact room she had been held herself. All Deidra knew is that she had no idea how to get them out. There were no doors, no windows and from her experience the only way in and out was by some sort of teleportation. If only it wasn’t so dark and she could see, but she was no better than a mole rat.

‘ I don’t even know where to begin...’

‘Begin by surviving, Dee. Get back upstairs before Marcus or someone else comes looking for you..’

Dee was suddenly blinded by a bright light, as if several doors had opened, sunlight beaming down into the tunnels and flooding them. It burned her eyes, Deidra cowering in an attempt to shield herself and when the light faded she found herself in a room with one of the women in blue and a tall, dark skinned man she presumed to be Zeke. He stared at her as if he was seeing right through Deidra, the man’s voice lost to her as if she had suddenly become deaf. her eyes widened in a frantic panic when she realized she couldn’t hear anything, not even Kyle. He was gone; she couldn’t even feel him in the back of her mind as she crumpled into a heap upon the dirt floor. When the man’s eyes focused and met hers, Dee dropped the fearful act, a defiant smile pursing her lips as she was struck hard across the face, one of her teeth coming loose. Dee wiped at the bit of blood at her chin and spat the tooth at the man and shrugged.
A loud buzzing sound filled her ears as the man smiled back, kneeling down in front of Deidra, his lips moving but the woman still unable to hear what he said. Finally the buzzing faded, a chilling and smug voice echoed against the walls. “So..you think you’re strong, hmm? Let’s see just how strong..”

“...You don’t want us to kill her, Zeke?”

“No...I want whomever was listening to hear her scream...find out what she knows/ who is listening and then get rid of her. No more fuck ups, Marcus...make sure this gets done right.”

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  1. Just testing this

    by Blackbird26

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#, as written by Essence
(somehow i broke the site)

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Annie Turner Character Portrait: Evin Bana Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name) Character Portrait: Thomas Sidin
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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.”