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Shadows of The Forgotten

Valcrest

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a part of Shadows of The Forgotten, by Blackbird26.

The Land of Valcrest

Blackbird26 holds sovereignty over Valcrest, giving them the ability to make limited changes.

1,965 readers have been here.

Setting

Default Location for Shadows of The Forgotten

Groups in This Location:

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Valcrest

The Land of Valcrest

Minimap

Valcrest is a part of Shadows of The Forgotten.

7 Places in Valcrest:

14 Characters Here

Ess [17] Not many can resist her charms, deny her loyalty. Trying to outrun her violet stare, will only hypnotize one into her arms for eternity.
Vane Ross [10]
Veronica Zein [8] White Knight. See, analyse, conquer.
Alina "Suferinta" Mare [6] "What is there to be said? Nothing? Begone."
Phantom/Spirit [6] "Try to kill me, just try. You'll never get the chance."
Alisa "Temeti" Mare [6] "Pain... s-sister?"
Darren Hearst [6] "A Friend is just another version of yourself."
Kirsten Somare [5] "Fear death? Because you just met him."
Stephan Kalir [4] Don't fret, my bite is worse then my bark
Isyer Tiaem [3] "You wanna know how I got this eye?" *grins*

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Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Sham (No Last Name)
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Mageria found an unnoticed corner of the ballroom, out of the fighting and containing a small banquet table. Sham cleared it with a sweep of one arm and Mageria gently laid out the body of her Queen, reaching down to straighten a lock of hair. Everything seemed to be very far away and she felt so very....cold. She could hear and see everything with a clarity that she had never achieved before, although it all seemed to be very far away. It was as if she was freezing from the outside in, icy shards reaching inwards to dull the pain. In a few minutes, she didn't feel anything at all.


Just..... Cold.


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 It was as if the woman in front of her had been replaced by a living statue carved of ice and she half expected front to form on her as she breathed.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

Setting

6 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Ella Page Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Evin Bana Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Lamya Character Portrait: Alexander
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The death of a Queen or King once stood for something. It was the end of an era. The end of an era of treachery, pain, agony was the ones most remembered. Then there were the golden eras of joy, wealth and posterity. The least common of the eras remembered were those consisting of normalcy. That was mostly what Ella would be forgotten for. No matter where she did end up going after death, there were no real changes made under her rule. Most scholars would probably say that her ideology was that if she did nothing to change the world, she could do nothing to screw it up. The real problem was inexperience. It was as if she was placed in the middle of a chess game without knowing the mechanics of the pieces. The relations between nobles, the country and their cities were like these mechanics. This was the reality of being someone who didn’t grow up in the environment that would have allowed her to learn these mechanics. It wasn’t her fault. If anything, it was her mother and father for creating these circumstances for her. How were they supposed to know what was to become of their daughter in the years to come. It was a simple mitigation—maybe an evasion.
“Wake up girly!”
Ella tried to open her eyes to see where the voice was coming from. At first, with a calm temperament, but quickly it changed to a franticly fruitless effort. She then tried to move her arms to see what was wrong with her eyes. Those weren’t working either. In fact, it was almost as if she didn’t even have any arms. This strange and surreal feeling followed through across her entire body… or lack thereof a body. Laughing echoed through the corridors of open space.
“Death couldn’t even experience this without killing herself. It wasn’t until Death’s son searched for immortality that this experience could be documented. When I heard about him showing up a couple years back at the siege of Newhaven, I decided that I could give it a try. From what I can tell, it seems like the process worked out pretty well.”
“What in the Hell…” Ella exclaimed.
“No, not hell. You know, it is surprising how well Death’s son was able to describe this place. ‘It is the void in which voids are created. Living within this void, one discovers that which not even the sprit can be found. Rather, it is the birthplace of empirical logic as we know it. It creates the supernatural in which the natural comes from. True darkness only lightens up when the spirit interferes…’ What a brilliant place.”
Ella didn’t understand what this voice was saying, all she could think was “Who are you?”
Somehow, Ella could tell that the voice was smiling. “I’m Lazurus, the new owner of your body. Only reason you’re here is because of the other life you possess. That marking on your hand was supposed to do it, but I messed that one up. Good thing too, because I don’t think I’d be here right now if I you didn’t have that extra life.”
“Extra life? What is this? Why do you seek immortality?”
“I don’t seek immortality,” Lazurus quickly said. “Immortality comes at a price. You lose your humanity when you seek immortality, much like the son of Death did. He was described as a demon in the last 200 years of his life. What I seek is much simpler. I just seek a life long enough to break down the constructs of society enough for anarchy to take over. How much easier could that be than doing so it as Queen?”
There was a moment where Ella didn’t know how to feel about this, but quickly, she started to figure it all out. Ella tried to be mad, but she couldn’t even do that. It was just like when she tried to move her hand; it was as if the emotion didn’t exist.
“Ah! Relax there Girly. Good to take note that you may have a hot temper. Now tell me more or face an eternity of excruciating pain.” Ella didn’t know where it came from, but a pain rang through her non-existent body as if she was being torn apart. It was worse than the pain she felt when she’d stabbed herself. There was no way that she was going to ever deal with that pain for the rest of her life… or whatever exactly she was feeling.
“Ok, I’ll tell you anything you want to know about me.” Ella screamed in a frantic huff.
She spoke for what felt like an eternity about herself. Any question that Lazurus had, she would answer. He waited until he got a profile big enough to be able to properly portray Ella. To her, this was a bigger defeat than her death was. Unable to emote about it, she went immediately to a thought that had been lingering on since she ‘woke up’. “What do you mean by my extra life?” She asked, but it seemed like Lazurus was gone.

The first thing that could have been noticed was that Ella’s wound had disappeared. The only thing that remained as a reminder was a scar. A scar right around where her pancreas would meet her stomach, just below her ribs. It was a pretty damaging spot to have a cut as it probably hit right through her renal artery. This would have been what caused her to bleed out so fast.
The next indicator was that her eyes started to flicker. It could be seen that her eyes were moving underneath her eyelids, but it grew into a full flutter of the eyelids, at which point, despite being slightly stiff, Ella rolled out of the arms of the person holding her and onto the floor. She slowly got onto her feet, ignoring any reaction she might have got from those around her. It was only moments after she got up that she looked at who was holding her. Mageria… We are going to have a problem with this. Lazurus thought to himself.
You sure are. Ella replied.

-----

To Rita, the whole night had become exactly what she pictured it would be. Although she didn’t have that good of a sense of time, she would guess that by this time, it was probably the earlier hours in the morning. If the sun hadn’t already risen, it would be rising in the next few hours.
For her, she wanted this whole thing to end. Maybe Lamya was telling the truth and maybe this guy she was fighting was actually who she said he was. Maybe this would be the beginning of a long needed reformation of Blackpond. The end of this fight may not only mark the end of a really shitty party, but it could also possibly mark the end of everything she was fighting to end. The idea was just too alluring to let it go.
Rita blocked, parried and dodged her way through a defensive technique that she believed would work to her advantage. She was going to tire out the man, who looked really warn out to begin with. He was a hardened fighter, but he couldn’t fight forever. It was easier to take the defensive than to be the aggressor. This technique didn’t seem to work this this man though. There was an issue here. An important detail in this man’s fighting style that seemed uncharacteristic of someone who looked as beat up as he did. He seemed to hesitate, which meant that he wasn’t using up his energy. Was that what he wanted her to think, that he was hesitating? It was likely that he was waiting for her to realize that and then try to take advantage of that.
In a book supposedly written by War, it said that war was deceptive.
Rita decided to take the risk. She went on the aggressive and right away, she knew that there wasn’t any deception. Two quick blows knocked him back with an unexpected surprise flowing over his face. She then cut his sword arm. He dropped his sword, but without hesitation, he tackled her. It was a gut reaction. He was on top of her and her sword slid across the floor. She didn’t have anything to defend herself but her body. She tried to throw a punch. It was ineffective as he just blocked it with his good arm and then placed his bad arm over her neck, pushing down with his bodyweight and blocking her windpipe. There was nothing she could do but flail her arms for a few seconds. It took all the energy that she had to focus and relax enough to flip Alexander off him. As she tried to get up, he grabbed at her ankle and she fell back on the floor, head smacking against the floor with an audible crack.
The world turned completely black for a moment. She could see nothing and there was a loud ringing in her ear, she even felt as though there was a lack of any smell. Quickly, her sight began to come back, but it was grey. When things were clear enough, she noticed that Alexander was on top of her again. This time, there was a dagger staring her right in the eyes. Despite her inability to think strait, her instinct to live kicked in. She grabbed onto his wrist as the dagger dropped down. With what strength she had remaining she tried her best to avoid the tip from cutting through her already damaged head.
The man shook his head and moved his mouth, but only an obscured mumble could be heard through the ringing. Her sight cleared up a little more as she started winning the fight for her life. Color started coming back and she started to feel the blood running out of her head from where she hit the floor so hard.
Finally, it was far enough away that she could expend energy somewhere else and not be afraid of losing control of this knife fight. She used her knee to kick into his crotch. It was enough to make the man keel over and drop the dagger. Rita grabbed the dagger and finished the job. One quick stab to the heart and then another and another. All until she was conscious enough to realize what she was doing.
It all suddenly started to feel like an outer body experience. As she was overlooking the battlefield and able to see things that she hadn’t seen before.
She then realized what she was actually seeing. For the entire time she had fought with Alexander from the moment that he knocked her to the ground and her head hit the floor until then, she was looking at the battle as if she was a third person. It was surprising to her that she actually missed the fact that she was seeing things from a different angle, but in the moment of a battle, any the distracted are the dead. Especially when it comes to such a struggle to hold onto one’s life.
Rita took a moment to watch herself from the outside. She could see the cut on her forehead. It looked pretty bad. Then she moved to look down at herself and Alexander from above. She wasn’t done her job yet. Rita would be able to examine this new point of view at a different time.
She looked down as she waded through the personal belongings of Alexander’s coat. In his coat pocket, there was a book. She moved her vision in to focus purely on the book. It took her a moment to adjust to this new view. She could no longer see herself, only her hands. Learning how to move parts of her body which she is not even connected to would be a challenge, especially when she couldn’t see her body. She fumbled with the book until she looked at the final page with writing in it. It was a journal. In the final page, it was Alexander’s last account. She read the entirety of that page to see exactly what his motives were. By the end, she made the shocking realization.
Her view moved out so she could no longer see the words on the pages. She was looking at herself. Her eyes whited out as if she were a drowned body. In that moment, looking at herself, she could describe her exact emotion, even if she was a complete outside observer. In one word, she would call it droopy. Every single wrinkle and line seemed to want to fall from her face in this unbelievable sadness. Then, behind her, she caught Lamya’s gaze and that frown tensed up into a scowl.
She moved her view so that she would get the perfect view of what she was about to do and then she turned around. “You bitch!” She yelled loud enough for the entire ballroom to hear her. She picked up her sword and walked right up to her. She didn’t get close enough to be able to use the sword on her, but she got close enough to say, “you knew,” without anyone hearing.
“What of it?” Lamya asked.
“You are so fucking lucky. You wasted my energy from that fight. You fucking knew.”
Rita just turned around, this time sword pointing directly at her intendie. Heyden. Pointing it directly at his throat, he could tell that his moments were numbered. A woman in her state was not to be reasoned with. She would do what she wanted. “Let me out!” She said.
“Bevel can do it for you m’lady.”
“Bevel, let me out!” She yelled again, running up to him and pointing the sword at his throat.
He didn’t say anything to her. He just smiled as if to say, “as you wish,” and then his eyes brightened. A swift gust of wind appeared out of nowhere. Quickly the pressure in the room grew and everything felt heavy. In the next moment, his eyes stopped, but the pressure continued, then with a whooshing noise, the high pressure air formed in a single point and literally cut through the ice and then through the metal door. It was an incredible sight. The natural light finally let itself into the room. The sun was beginning to rise.
Rita’s expression didn’t change in any of this time. It didn’t even falter as she plunged the blade slowly into Bevel’s windpipe. It was only enough that he would eventually choke to death. It was going to be slow and painful. None of the Conflict moved against her as she walked out the castle doors.

-----

Lamya let out a loud yell to the cheering crowd as they all walked out the door. “Be sure to give the guards at the doors your weapons before leaving. Valcrest needs protecting after all.”

-----

Simon had given up on the fighting that had been going on. Once Rita got involved, the use of the Conflict was no longer really needed. What concerned Simon more was the whereabouts of Luckas and Rick. First off, Rick wasn’t to be trusted around anyone, but neither was Luckas, from the little he was able to gather from him. With the situation in the room dying down as the doors opened to let people out, there was a quick calming of everyone’s mind in the room. Tension that was once there was gone… or fleeing the scene and it allowed Simon to work harder on the things that needed work.
Luckas was there somewhere. If he could concentrate enough, he would be able to find him through reading the outer limits of his mind. With Rick, it wouldn’t be that easy. With the change in his patterns, he would have to rediscover the things that made Rick’s mind tick. It was an arduous task, but one that needed doing. If he could actually see where Rick was in the room, it might make things easier.
Where is Rick? Simon asked through the channels for the Conflict. There was no response.
Frustrated, Rick stepped out towards the door himself. There was only going to be one way to find Rick, and that was to personally confront him where ever he found him. The sooner, the better because he was practically useless in the frame of mind that he was in at the moment. Simon needed to catch Rick before someone else, such as Luckas, caught him so he could do his best to allow Rick as normal a life as he could possibly give him with his corrective mind work.
Let’s see all the good we accomplished today. Lamya’s voice suddenly stirred to meet Simon’s thoughts.
The commander is gone, Rick’s gone insane, Ella’s dead, relations with the Wolfpack have probably been sullied and Rita has left. Another of the Conflict said.
And what of Lazurus? Another bellowed.
There was a moment of silence. No one was sure if Lazurus had managed to do his job, but then, an unexpected voice came through. What the hell is going on?
As you can hear, Lazurus’ voice echoed in the hollowness of Simon’s mind, with the voice of Ella speaking to you, I’ve managed to plant the seed.
Good. Now we have a choice that must be made. Lamya said.
Before the conversation could go on any further, Simon spoke up. What of Rick? Where has he gone?
That isn’t priority at this moment Simon. We are more concerned about our next target. Lamya replied.
Mageria or Crystal? Vorso spoke up, knowing that the job would be appointed to him and his team. Not sure. Both of them could get in the way of our accomplishing what needs accomplishing. I’ll sit on it for a couple of months. Let things pan out and see where things take me.
Simon scoffed, as no one else seems to care, I’ll be after Rick. Think of it as an attempt to preserve the chain of command.
The chain of— Vorso said before Simon cut all his communications off with the Conflict. This would be the last time that they would use Simon’s form of communication for a while.

-----

“The chain of command?” Vorso slyly remarked under his breath.
Vorso grabbed a glass from the table that hadn’t been ruined by the fighting. He took a sip from the glass so that there was exactly a third of the drink as there was in the glass before. He placed it back onto the table and then started walking off into the heart of the castle.
He knew that there was some truth to what Simon had just said. The Conflict’s chain of command was in shambles. Lamya was only first in command by title as she really did nothing that could be described as organized. This left Rick in charge of organizing things for the most part. Since he’d gone insane, he could no longer attend to his duties the way he was supposed to. Lazurus was an interesting story. The man who was alive, but dead at the same time. The second that he was done with Ella’s body or he could no longer control Ella’s body, he would himself be dead. That left only one person in the chain of command that was in his way of taking the role of active leader of the Shadow’s Conflict: Simon.
Vorso stopped when he reached a small dining room it wasn’t in any way lavish. It was more or less used by the slaves who had been commissioned to work for the King. It had a table and a couple of chairs. Only big enough to hold about six or seven people, five if one wanted to be comfortable. That was what made this room perfect for Vorso’s needs.
Four men walked into the room. The four men were the elemental users of the Conflict. The one’s that Vorso had power over.
“We will keep an eye on Mageria, but for now, we have more pressing matters. Simon needs to be eliminated.”

-----

Evin looked around the room. He wasn’t sure what had just happened. The woman who was just in the fight against the man who had instigated the biggest conflict in the ballroom was angry enough to force the party to end. On top of it all, the crowds were rushing to get out of the room as quickly as possible. Only about five people could fit through the doors at a time and with the crowds all bunching up right there, it could take minutes to actually get out of the castle. Evin decided instead to sit back.
If there was one thing that he knew for certain, he knew that Jake would also wish to sit back. Jake was observant and what better time to observe people than when they leave a place. Usually, people feel less like they’re being watched when they are leaving a place, or at least, that was how Evin always felt when he left places.
Evin was just about to speak aloud when he was interrupted. “Not quite the party that I was expecting, Evin.” Jen sarcastically remarked as she approached him.
“It might not have been, but it sure was my kind of party.” Evin said.
“You must be insane.”
“More unafraid.”
Jen laughed. “To me, they’re the same thing.”
“Fine then. Call me crazy, but then I’ll call you crazy for being unafraid of the blissfully ignorant life you’ve been living.” Evin retorted.
“It wasn’t by choice!”
“Are you afraid of it?”
Jen paused for a moment. The only reason Evin could imagine her doing so was to look for a witty comeback to what he’d just said. With a sigh of defeat she said, “fair enough.”
Evin looked into Jen’s eyes for a moment. The two crystalline spheres flashed in and out as her eyelids closed and opened. It was a special ballet. A ballet where only the truest of onlookers would know exactly what the performers were trying to say. Soon, the crystal grew even clearer and they sparkled leaving Evin in wonderment and then consciousness. “Don’t worry.” He wiped the tears away. “I know what I have to do to solve everything.”
“Will you ever be able to solve yourself?”
Evin scratched his head. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll never be able to settle down if you don’t settle down. The only way you will ever keep me safe is if you stop protecting me.”
“There’s no truth to that.”
“Just hold me, Evin.”
Evin did exactly that. He grabbed her by the waist and pulled her close until they were united as one. Nothing could break that bond between them. Jen rested her head on his shoulder and she just let her emotions fly. All Evin knew to do was to rub her back and let her deal with the rest herself. Relations were never his strong suit.
“Jake. I know you’re there and I know that you want this to end just as much as I do.” Evin’s voice started to tremble. “He’s tried to hurt people we love and now he’s killed a queen. I’m going right to the camp after I’m through here.” Evin wasn’t finished, but he felt a cough coming.
He grabbed for the tissue he’d been using for his cough, which had been coming and going since he met up with Jen. Covering his mouth with the cloth, he let go. The pain from this cough was above a normal pain. He didn’t let anything show, but he sure didn’t like the feeling. When he uncovered his mouth, the cloth revealed something troubling. Blood. He looked at it for a moment, but then put it back into his pocket.
“It all ends in the next couple of days. Whether you are involved or not, Jake, it will end. If you join me, the odds will be better in our favor though.” Evin stopped talking. It was all he needed to say.
Evin stayed with Jen for as long as she needed. When she was done, he set off for the Wolf camp.

Setting

2 Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

1 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir
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Mageria leaned further over the neck of her horse, goading it on faster. She knew that whatever happened, but that didn't stop her from needing to be there, needing to be there for her people. She knew where the ambush should have taken place, but what she didn't know was what happened. She rode, heart in her mouth, wind lashing her hair in her face.Beneath her, her horse labored with heavily, panting with heavy effort.

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It was worse than she expected. She could see where the tree had fallen as planned and she could trace what probably happened, based on the marks on the ground. Here groups of people had fought, some to the death and some being captured. Here a horse had been cut free from the carriage and run towards another fight. Here Keira........ Keira had fallen, her ribbons dragged through the mud. Some were torn and tattered and blood stained. There ...... Somebody must have died and been animated by the necromancer, based on the burn spots. Her fire caster had been under orders to hold back and attack only if somebody had been taken; they all judged it better to leave nothing to mourn than to be a danger to the ones around them.

Mageria pulled up slightly, just enough to look around. She wanted to stop, wanted to mourn, wanted to find anybody who was left alive. But there was no sign that the necromancer had been taken, and so she spurred her horse on, hoping against hope that she would be in time.

Knowing that she would not.

Setting

3 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Samantha 'Johnson' Character Portrait: Sean Fletcher
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As soon they arrived back at the Manor from the Ball Sam retreated into her study saying she had much to think about, her tone clearly disencouraging questions. Luckas frowned watching her walk up the stairs; he wanted to follow, but Amber was already dragging him towards the kitchen by the shirt. “Come Lukey, you haven’t eaten anything at the party... Which is good, because I poisoned some of it for kicks...”

Luckas let himself be led to a dining table and not too long after Amber and himself were sitting with Lizzy and Adam amongst empty bowls of stew, passing around their second bottle of some strong liquor that Amber was purposely passing to Lizzy a bit more frequently than the others, making the woman even more talkative than usual, Amber seeming to get a bit of a kick from Adam’s annoyed glances as she went on about their assignment in Newhaven and then on about past assignments, until they reached the topic of how and when they all received their imprint.

“I don’t remember my childhood.” The woman stated with a simple shrug. “Adam and I were imprinted at age thirteen, that’s as far as I can go back. It’s a common side effect; memory loss, but I don’t mind... I doubt there was anything important there to remember.” She concluded, taking another shot and grimacing slightly. “You’re all just trying to get me drunk aren’t you?” She giggled.

A small wave of chuckles escaped Amber, her features now changed to ones of a brown haired girl of about sixteen. “Yes, Lizzy, dear. We’re all just waiting to take advantage of you, ain’t that right?” She asked, nudging the tall blond man that was seated next to her.
Lizzy giggled softly. “Don’t listen to her, Addy, sweetie... She’s just messing with you.” She passed the bottle and the shot glass to Adam and the man mumbled something under his breath before pouring a shot and drinking it.
“Adam! That so rude!” Amber replied as if she had heard Adam’s words, letting a very convincing shocked expression cross her delicate features, followed closely by a delighted giggle. “Bad, bad, Adam... Do you kiss your sister with that mouth of yours?” He teased, snatching the bottle from Adam and drinking a large gulp straight from it, passing it along to Luckas. “How about you, hmm... Lukey, hun... A little birdie tells me you were imprinted as a young puppy, isn’t that so?”

“Three or four years old.” Luckas replied, passing the bottle along to Lizzy untouched. “Odd though, I thought only two people were aware of that... One of them being the Mistress herself... So, should I just assume Zeke is a bit of a gossiper?”
Amber arched an eyebrow amused. “Oh, wow, busted...” She snickered. “Yes, Lukey... She told me all about you. All girls like to talk about their boys, you know.” She smirked.
“Fair enough... So, how do you know her?” Luckas asked, a slightly intrigued look in his eyes. “I thought that was a rare privilege.”
“Well, I’m a rescue puppy, like you. Actually, about four years ago I was wearing grey and being kicked around the halls.” Amber grinned. “Luckily... I kicked back hard enough to catch someone’s attention.”
“Mhm... Amber was offered an imprint by the Mistress herself, even though she was only a Lesser... That’s not something that happens very often... It was quite a shock for some people.” Lizzy stated
“I’m sorry, but I believe no other Lesser has ever been granted an imprint before. I am THAT special.” Amber corrected. “It was a bit of a surprise, won’t lie... Three Prospects were kicking me around and such... I got sick of taking it quietly, so I jumped on one of them, bit his ear right off. Of course I paid the price, thought they were going to beat me to death, but I woke up in the sick ward and she was there. I’m not one for loyalties, but I’m just about sane enough to appreciate when someone saves my life... And how easily they could’ve taken it away at certain moments... I surely broke enough rules to make my death justifiable, and yet here I am.” She smirked
“Alright, let me ask you something then, since you are such an expert on rule-breaking...” Luckas asked, this time accepting the bottle as it reached his hands. “...What would be the punishment for killing a Prospect?”
“For you?” Lizzy asked, a hint of choked laughter escaping her. Amber kicked her hard under the table and glared at her as though she had said something she clearly shouldn’t have, even though Luckas couldn’t really see what it was.
Amber took a moment to reflect on the questions before answering. “Well, for you there’s one important thing to consider; never, EVER, use your red-eye-touchy thingy to kill another within the Brotherhood. Using your imprint in some other way shouldn’t be too much of a violation, but that would depend on the Rank of the Prospect and the odds of him actually getting imprinted, if he’s pure and has a good record of service he’s a good candidate to imprinting and so he’s a greater asset to the Order; greater consequences for killing him.”
“Huh... That’s... Awfully helpful.” Luckas mumbled, a bit taken aback by how well Amber knew the hierarchy and rules of the Order.
“Gotta know the rules to break the rules, hun.” She smiled.
“When it comes down to rule breaking Amber surely takes the crown, Lizzy snickered nodding knowingly. Think... I’m good and drunk as it is...” She giggled softly, standing from her chair and immediately stumbling onto the floor at the first couple of steps, laughing silly. Adam sighed in annoyance and picked up his sister, groaning something that sounded vaguely with ‘goodnight’ as he carried her away over his left shoulder. Luckas chuckled as he watched the annoyed expression on the man’s face. “That guy’s patience never ends does it?”
“Not when it comes to Lizzy, no... You wouldn’t want to piss him off though, I’ve done that; I know. Always mind the quiet ones, Lukey... Always... Trust me.”
“Trust you?” Luckas snickered. “Never.”
“Suit yourself.” She chuckled.
“Hey, Amber... Now that it’s just you and me here...” Luckas mumbled, taking a swig straight from the bottle and sliding it across the table to her. “What is the deal with Zeke? I mean... He... You know what I mean, right? What’s his story?”
“Hm... Zeke... I don’t know whether or not to pity that man... Most days though I just want to rip his heart out.”
“Oh? I didn’t know you disliked him this much... You seem to somewhat respect him.” Luckas asked, a bit intrigued by the girl’s reaction.
“I do respect him, but that doesn’t make me hate him any less. Zeke was... My handler... I’m sure you still remember things enough to know what that means.” Amber responded, shrugging as though the fact was unimportant.
“Alright, so why would you pity him then, if you just said you hate him?” Luke questioned, waiting for Amber to pass the bottle along to him, noticing how she had simply kept drinking instead.
“I already said a bit too much, but oh well...” Amber smirked. “Zeke is Sammy’s little lapdog. He’d do anything to get her praise and her attention, and she knows that. The guy lives to serve her, and nothing more. That’s just pitiful, but then you can’t say he didn’t choose it.” Amber shrugged. “Neither one of them will talk about it, but rumor has it Zeke was the one who offed the old man.”
“Sam’s father?” Luke leaned back in his seat, staring up at the ceiling. “You know... I remember him... Well, his voice... He was always shouting at her... Sick son of a bitch... He was lucky to die before I got to him.”
“Aaaw, listen to you all protective and stuff...” Amber giggled, finally passing the bottle back to Luckas with only a bit left at the bottom. “You... Need to watch yourself around Zeke though... I know he’s just trying to find a way to get rid of you. He won’t hurt you were Sammy can see it, but he’ll try to harm you in anyway he can.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Luke stated, finishing off the bottle of liquor. “Now, if you’ll excuse me... I need to go tend to my rule breaking.” He said, a smirk crossing his features as he started to walk out of the kitchen; halting as a sudden thought hit him. “Hey, Amber, remember you owe me a favor?”

[Next Morning]

Luckas was leaning casually against the windowsill of the library, his expression empty as he looked down on the servants in grey clothing as they dug a grave in the back of the property. He had kept away from the commotion, acted as though he didn’t care to know what was happening in the house that morning, and carried on with his usual routine. Only when Adam didn’t show up for what was to be their first training session had he bothered to go around and ask what the problem was. The death of a Prospect was never something to draw this much attention; they weren’t very important overall, but this guy for what Luke heard was pretty close to getting a brand, Zeke was personally handling his basic training, and the manner through which the young man met his end was, until this moment, something unseen amongst the Brotherhood’s ranks.

“I’m impressed.” Zeke’s voice echoed through the empty room, amongst the rows of dusty books; a menacing sharpness to it, enough to make any other man in Luckas position flinch at the sound of the heavy doors closing. Luckas didn’t move a muscle, he held still as a statue, almost enough to convince Zeke that he wasn’t listening. Almost. “I know you did this. I’m not sure how, but I know... I can almost feel it... How pleased you are with yourself right now.”

Silence lingered following Ezekiel’s words, Luckas let a faint hint of a smirk cross his features as if to get it out of his system before he was forced to look the other man in the eyes. “I’m not sure what you’re accusing me of exactly, Zeke, but it doesn’t matter... If you could prove it you wouldn’t have come to me with it.”
“Gavin wouldn’t have killed himself that way... The man wasn’t capable of that level of remorse... It makes no sense.” Zeke muttered out. “Look at me, kid; why did you do this?”
Luckas couldn’t help a slightly mocking snicker from escaping past his lips at Zeke’s words. “I didn’t do anything. What are you suggesting, hm? That I commanded him to hang himself? I think Sam would be able to tell if I had outright attacked the man, so you have no reason to think I would try that... After all, it was made perfectly clear to me that any lethal use of my abilities against anyone inside this house is strictly prohibited.” Heaving a long deep breath Luckas turned to face Zeke, leaning against the open window almost as if daring the angered man to reach out and push him over. “I did not command him to take his own life, if that is your accusation.”
“Maybe not, boy, but... You did it somehow.”
“You know... There was a caretaker, in the orphanage where I was taken after, you know, I was left in a stinky dark basement to die, well... The man had it in for me. Every little thing that happened out of the ordinary was my fault. Alright, maybe he was somewhat justified in his paranoia, but often he punished me for things I had nothing to do with... A lot of the other kids got away with things too, because kids are quick learners and it wasn’t exactly difficult to figure out that all it took was to point a finger at the weird boy. Well, about a year after me and my brother got out... I found him... Broke into his home... And punished him for everything he did and didn’t do, just like he’d done with me. It was a concept that grew on me in time; why bother waiting for people to do things they are bound to do eventually when you can punish them now, right? It saves a lot of time.”
Zeke’s eyes lit up in yellow momentarily before returning to their dark green a silent wave of understanding and rage passing through his dark features. “Where is the Lesser girl, Luckas?”
“Who, now?”
“The girl that Gavin wrote about in his suicide letter, Luckas... The little girl he wrote a lengthy and painfully detailed confession about raping and murdering and burying in the woods in little tiny pieces... The kid whose face he claimed was haunting him to a point where he could no longer bear the guilt. THAT Lesser girl. Where is she?”
“For what you just said... Buried in the woods, supposedly in little tiny pieces.” Luckas shrugged dismissively. “Are you accusing me of killing her too now?”
“He never killed the girl, you planted those memories in his mind, didn’t you? You planted them well enough to convince him they were real, made them persistent enough to break him into insanity... You are clever, boy, but you don’t fool me.”
Luckas smiled calmly at Ezekiel’s claims; they were absolutely accurate, of course. “Funny, I thought you said your little pet was not capable of such levels of remorse. That I know of, my imprint is in no way related to empathic abilities of any kind so I don’t see how I could instill any kind of emotion on anyone. Even less one I’m so... Sooooo... So very unfamiliar with. The fact remains, reality remains, the same; he killed himself because he chose to.” Luckas stated, his eyes were finally beginning to show the childish joy he was experiencing from what he had pulled off, it was a very clear statement of his involvement in the whole thing, almost just as clear as the confession Zeke knew he would never actually get. As he pushed himself away from the window and started to walk past the older Branded a wicked satisfied grin started to spread across his face; almost as if he was saying out loud what he was thinking. He did it, but there was no way in hell Zeke would ever prove it, Sam wouldn’t just take his word for it, he had already gotten away with it completely.
“You smug... little... traitor... piece of shit...” Ezekiel growled turning to glare at Luckas’ back as the young man passed him by towards the door, grabbing him by the back of his shirt and pulling him back with all his strength, causing him to fall to the floor.
Luckas felt himself be dragged backwards forcefully enough that he lost his balance and fell right on his ass. It barely bothered him. Zeke wanted to hurt him, he knew it, but he could barely be bothered to do anything but smile cheerfully up at the furious man. He was absolutely ecstatic and the man’s rage only made him feel more pleased with himself. “Now, now... Easy there man... You don’t really want to kill me, now... Do you?”

The following moments were an absolute blur. All Luckas could really do was protect his head from Zeke as he snapped at him and started to pour down furious blows to his torso. He wasn’t sure how long the man was at it before someone bursted through the library doors. Luke could catch a glimpse of Adam struggling to pull Zeke away from him. He could hear Sam was shouting things, but her voice was drowned out by the sound of laughter. Luckas had a vague awareness of the fact the laughter was his own, but he couldn’t really feel himself laughing... Or will himself to stop... When all went silent he wondered momentarily if he had managed to stop laughing or if he was slipping out of consciousness. The answer came to him within seconds as everything disappeared into a comforting darkness.

It was a while later when Luckas woke up in the sick ward... Again. The same lady in blue who tended to his stab wound was there, seeming very annoyed for seeing him again so soon, wordlessly wrapping tight bandages around his torso. She was just about done when Sam entered; she didn’t make a sound and Luckas couldn’t see her where she stood, but he could feel her presence in the air. “How much trouble am I in?” He mumbled, not trying to turn and face the woman, oddly enough deciding against disrupting the healer’s work. Silence lingered until the woman in blue seemed satisfied with her work, at which point she left closing the door behind her.

Once the door was closed Sam locked it, her green eyes were cold steel piercing right through Luckas as she stared at him in silence. Luckas didn’t hold her gaze for more than a few seconds, pretending to search around the room for his shirt. After a few moments Sam moved from the doorway to a chair near the bed. “Luckas... What the hell is your problem? What am I to do with you, huh?”
“What would you like to do with me... Mistress?” He whispered softly, turning to look her in the eyes.
“Don’t give me that.” She protested.
“If you’re calling me Luckas, then I have the right to be formal too, don’t I?” He asked, a fake polite tone in his voice.
“Fine, you got me... I know why I’m angry... Why are you?” Sam asked, looking at him with interest.
“I’m not angry.” Luckas shrugged, wincing a bit at the pain. “Except for the fact that you don’t let the blue woman heal me fully.”
“Your fractured ribs are all mended, you’ll be fine in a few days... Don’t be a baby.” Sam sighed. “What the hell happened in that library, Luckas?”
“Zeke accused me of killing his puppy and then beat the shit out of me.” Luckas stated, finding his shirt and slowly and painfully starting to slip it on. “I’m pretty sure he already told you all about it.”
“Ezekiel is being held in the dungeons at the moment. The only question is for how long and whether or not you should join him.” Sam stated calmly, staring at him as though awaiting an answer.
“I think those decisions are yours to make, aren’t they Mistress?” He responded, groaning as his head went through the collar of the shirt. “What do you want from me?”
“Lukey... Please stop... This is serious. Zeke’s accusations are serious ones. Especially the accusation that you smuggled a servant girl out of the Manor.”
“I don’t know about any Lesser girl, Sammy!” Luke retorted.
“Zeke sent her to get you when we were leaving for the party and the last anyone saw her was last night.” Sam stated calmly. “Granted, it could be that Gavin killed her as he claimed in his suicide letter... I don’t put it past him at all... I do have to admit that the timing though... It’s just suspicious.”
“I didn’t smuggle anyone out of the Manor, Sammy, I swear.” Luckas stated. “I was in my room the whole night last night. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.”
“I was in my study all night, I had some things to reflect on... Fine, Lukey, I believe you.” She nodded, leaning back on her seat. “You didn’t tell me why you are angry though.”
“I said... I’m not angry.” Luckas retorted, looking away from her for a moment. “Lizzy told me what she was doing in Newhaven. The Council member she went there to silence... I recognized the voices of a few Councilmen when I accessed the city Warlord’s memories... You kept things from me, Sammy.”
“Yes, yes, I did keep things from you... My father’s businesses in Newhaven are... A mess we’re still trying to clean up; that’s why I sent Lizzy and Adam there to see the head of their Council... And remind him to keep quiet.” She paused, heaving a long sigh. “My father was making me build him an army to sell to the man in charge of the City at the time, Lukey... That’s why when I gave you and Matthew the imprint, your abilities were a bit more... Dangerous... Than it would be prudent. I was trying to give my father what he wanted, but I had never imprinted before. In doing this, Father exposed us greatly, several of the Councilmen were aware of their deal, once my father was eliminated I had to make sure they remained silent; some of them needed to be neutralized over the years... It’s possible George Bennett will be next.” She smiled. “No, you can’t go after him yourself... I don’t want you near Newhaven right now.”
“Fair enough.” Luckas agreed, not making any comments on the explanations Sam had given him about her father’s plans. “Tell me something though, Sammy... How did your father die exactly?”
“Well, Lukey... He was punched... In the throat... With a dagger... That’s how he died exactly.” Sam answered, her tone not making clear if she was serious or not. Slowly she rose from her seat and opened up a smile. “Take it easy Lukey... I Have to go deal some punishments now, but I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Sure Sammy.” Luckas chuckled. “Have fun with the punishing.”


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

[Wolfpack Camp - One day after the Ball, early afternoon]

It was close to noon when Sean arrived at the Wolf’s camp after the party, soon enough he was surrounded by several assassins telling him of things that had happened while he was away. He really didn’t want to, but he listened to them all before finally managing to get some time to himself to organize his thoughts; once he had it though, he really didn’t know what to do with it as nothing he had to think about really made sense. The next day was spent mostly in the confines of his bedroom, cabin doors closed for the first time in a very long time, keeping track of the encampment and its movement through Franklin’s telepathic reports, not answering anyone’s calls. It was only when his sister knocked on the door that he answered, opening the door wordlessly to let her in and sitting on his bed to watch her close the door behind her and settling down a basket onto the office table. “Are you losing it, Sean?” She asked simply, sitting by the table. “I’m just wondering, you know... If you you’re going to maybe start running around naked wearing your pants as a hat... Or something...”
“Whoa, I lock my door for half a day and suddenly I’m naked wearing a pants-hat?” Sean laughed, shaking his head. “where do you get stuff like this from, huh?”
“Oh, I’m weird.” Katie smiled. “But I make you laugh at least. Here...” She started, pointing to the basket. “I brought you food... And booze... Everyone already thinks you’re getting drunk anyway.”
“Oh, well... Since my reputation is already ruined...” He chuckled, moving to sit by the table with his sister. “I’m not losing it, I think... I’m just reevaluating some things.” He mumbled, running his fingers through his hair and sighing. “Everything is just... Falling apart, Kate... And I’m not so sure I can do this anymore.”
Katelyn sighed, staring at her brother intently for a moment before pulling the bottle of liquor from the basket and pushing it towards him. “Sean... Tell me about mom.”
“Tell you about mom?” Sean mumbled, opening the bottle and taking a large gulp. “You are a lot like her, actually. She was way too kind, incredibly stubborn, and particularly talented in making me feel guilty for my wrongdoings... I don’t think I ever heard her raise her voice except for the night she died.”
“You still blame yourself, don’t you? You’re just never going to let this go...” Kate sighed, taking the bottle from his hands and taking a sip, coughing slightly as the alcohol burned its way down.
“If I hadn’t been there she would have fought him.” Sean stated simply, taking another swig.
“It probably wouldn’t have mattered. All the others fought him too... It didn’t save them.” Katie argued. “She wanted to protect you, why is it so hard for you to just accept that?”
Sean slammed his open palm on the table, nearly knocking over the bottle of alcohol and startling the girl. “I didn’t want her to protect me, I wanted her to fight! Even if it didn’t save her! She deserved a chance to fight! She didn’t have to die that way!” Sean sighed softly, lowering his head until his forehead was pressed against the wooden table. “Can we not talk about this anymore? I’t pointless.”
Katie sighed, taking another sip from the liquor bottle and reaching out to run her fingers through her brother’s hair in a soothing manner. “Sean, what would you do protect me?”
“What...” Sean turned his head so he could look up at his sister. “Kate... You know I’d do anything for you. I can’t stand the thought of you hurt. Why are you asking me this?”
“So that maybe you understand Sean... I think you need to, you know, forgive her, and move on from this... All this rage you’re holding inside is keeping you from seeing things clearly.” She sighed. “Listen, brother... Everything is falling apart, but so what? It’s not the first time things fall apart, it won’t be the last, and I know you... All the things you’ve done, Sean, they may have been questionable or just outright atrocious, but no one can deny the fact that no one else could have pulled off what you have. It took an insane amount of courage and discipline to take down an Alpha. Whatever is going on now, you’re going to find a way to get through it. You’re a fighter Sean, I know you didn't come this far to give up.”
Sean nodded slowly, taking in his sister’s words. Of course, Katie had a point; he’d gone too far to just give up now. He had sacrificed too much for that. “Kate... I need you to leave...”
“You want to be alone some more?” Kate asked, ruffling up his hair and leaning back in her seat.
Sean nodded, sitting up straight and facing his sister. “No. I meant I need you to leave the camp.” He stated. “You’re right, about mom and... I don’t know how or why just yet, but I’m sure things are going to get ugly soon and when it does... I need to fight, I can’t... I don’t want you to get hurt because of this.”
“I understand, Sean. I really do. That said... I’m not going anywhere. I’m not a child, and if things are going to get as ugly as you say, it doesn’t matter where I am. I won’t be safer with the healers than I would be with my family.” SHe took another sip from the bottle and smirked. “Besides, if I leave, who’s going to take care of you?”
“Hmmmph...” Sean mumbled. “Maybe I should take a wife then. Would that ease your conscience, sis?”
Katie shot him a playful glare. “No. It would not. Any woman crazy enough to marry you would probably just be cause for more concern.”
“Fair enough.” Sean laughed. “Fair enough, sis.” He fell silent for a moment, looking around the empty cabin. “What time is it now?”
“A couple of hours past noon. Why?” Katie asked.
“Do me a favor... Tell Franklin to make it so the children are all gathered at the diner at sundown for story time before bed and give the Actives and Instructors the night off.”
“Okay. I’ll tell him. Are we celebrating something?” She questioned, raising an eyebrow at him.
“Nah... I’m just letting them enjoy an evening before we start making some arrangements.”

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Ess
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#, as written by Essence
The road towards Newhaven, just after the ball..

Essence didn’t make it in time. She had only taken ten minutes to change into something suitable and leave Tala in the care of Aiden before she rode after Mageria. Still, she cursed herself when she saw the bodies scattered along the ground; that she should have been with the ambush party. Would she have made a difference? Would her life be forfeit now too? Perhaps it was a Twin’s blessing in disguise. Nevertheless, Essence didn’t know what kind of help she would be at this point and all she found herself doing was staring at the remains of those who had slowly become apart of her life. She would have kept going after the Captain. Ess really would have, if it wasn’t for two distractions. Just as she caught a glimpse of movement upon the ground of a fallen Guard, Ess heard the encroaching speed of horsemen coming up behind her and she immediately turned and slapped Shockwave on his hind quarters and sent him whinnying down the road before dashing into the foliage in wait.

The first two riders were a blur and didn’t even slow their pace as they rode hard through and around the carnage leaving hoof prints embedded into one of men’s face followed by a sickening pop that sounded louder in Ess’ mind than it really was. If it wasn’t for their brightly colored cloaks, she may not have gathered much other details of their persona, their faces hidden from view. Almost a blood red color to match the trampled flesh upon the ground. They didn’t even pause or glance around as they passed. It struck her odd as it slowly dawned on her; the memory Luckas had given her from Jasper revealing to her that her brother Ian was still alive. A curious detail lingered in her mind where in the background when Jasper lay bleeding upon the ground from his sword wound, she saw Ian mount his horse, speaking feverishly to a man dressed in red. Was there a connection? Maybe red is quite the fashion now in Blackpond? She doubted it, but what she couldn’t doubt or shake, is what kind of person doesn’t even so much as stop to look in shock or awe at the bloodied corpses. Not even to stop and loot the bodies. What kind of people indeed.

When she was sure no one else was around she crossed the road quickly to the other side and came upon the only person she found still alive from the ordeal, but she couldn’t understand how or why. Her eyes widened in shock as she recognized the man as John, their first meeting reminding her of a lesson she only had to teach the man only once of never putting his hands upon her without permission. Her heart sank as she realized the poor man was missing the lower half of his body. The shock must have dulled his senses because he didn’t seem to recognize Essence, instead he began yelling promises of war and vengeance and Ess quickly covered his mouth to silence.

“John...It’s me….you idiot! What….shh...hold on, I’m going to stop the bleeding..”

“Talon?” He whispered. “I’m fine...just need help standing is all...can’t feel my legs…”

Essence gasped slowly shaking her head, “John, I think...it’s best you don’t move..”

The man looked confused and tried to sit up and that’s when he either finally realized his missing legs or finally let reality sink in and began groaning and sobbing. “Talon...Kill me…”

“What? No! It’s not over yet..” She muttered moving away to retrieve her flint to start a fire. The man was shaking now and Ess was thinking only of cauterizing his terrible wounds.

“No..” He pleaded. “Even if...I don’t….I can’t...be ..” With a bit of strength he reached out and grabbed Ess’ arm. “I won’t be me...please…”

Essence was the one shaking now, her hand moving to rest over John’s which gripped her arm. She could see his suffering and she knew he wouldn’t be the same or continue doing what he loved if he did live. Letting out a long breath she nodded, tears threatening to leave her eyes but never falling. Ess quickly, without giving any more time to argue with herself, unsheathed her dagger as she leaned over the man, pressing her forehead against his in a silent farewell but also so he wouldn’t see the blade as she forced it into his side, between his ribs, hitting a major artery and piercing his lungs. In a matter of seconds he was gone, and she held him until his final breath gave way. Slowly Essence stood and took a final look around before she began gathering those she could, determine to bury the remains with some ounce of respect as the fallen left this world.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Raven’s Nest: Two night Post Ball

Essence had moved the punching bag to her Oak Tree, finding it much more convenient to beat the hell out of it at all hours, when she needed to; of course now she would properly wrap her hands to prevent a repeat of before. She didn’t sleep in over a day and half, but instead kept herself busy with chores around the camp and her training. Ess had asked Aiden to do her a minor favor, and at first he looked at her like she was completely bonkers. There she sat in a home made chair of thick branches, arms tied behind her back along with her legs firmly along the legs of the chair. The first time, it took her mere seconds to wiggle out, using her enlightenment to change her wrist size to slip out of the knots. Once again, she had Aiden tie her up, pressuring and teasing the man to make sure they were tight this time. “It’s ok if you cut off some blood there Aiden... Now leave me..”

“What? What if you need help...” Aiden began to protest but winced at the glare she shot him and nodded. “Ok, ok... Gotcha.” Yet before he left, he made sure to place her within heat range of her camp fire just in case she planned on being there for a while.

Essence spent about a half an hour wiggling and stretching and sucking in her breaths, trying to find a weak point. She must of looked ridiculous, but it put a mysterious smile on her face as she was adamant on not being helpless in such a situation. Ess squeezed her knees together and tried to tighten the rope there, giving a bit of slack along her back. Relaxing with a nod, she pushed herself to her feet, angling the chair forward across her back, testing her range of mobility and was quite pleased with her balance as she settled back on all four legs.

The ropes pinched along her flesh, but for the most part she was comfortable and sat quietly for some time in her thoughts, a peaceful smile manifesting along her lips. Staring into the fire she went over the other day when Luckas had left the camp, and all the hurtful things he had fired out at her. Yes much of it hurt, but she knew he was trying to push her away; make her hate him. He was pretty close to succeeding and would have if it wasn’t a tactic she would use. Ess had the feeling her parting words had quite the lasting effect upon him, and the thought of it made her smile triumphantly; mostly because what she said was all true. She had realized Luke must had discovered the truth when she had her chance meeting with Sam at the Ball. Still, she was left wondering if he would ever come back. She hoped and had faith, but if he didn’t, well, she would search his stubborn ass out. With a deep breath she closed her eyes, listening to all the sounds around her as she felt the heat of the fire dwindle as it fed off it’s fuel, the flames many but tiny below the rock wall that encompassed it. Tala began to stir at her feet, yet Ess heard nothing. Her smile widened as she remained quiet, eyes still closed.

Luckas hadn't slept too well the past couple of days, his body still ached from where Zeke had hit him and his mind was still a blurry mess from time to time, but his little flashes of Lena’s memories had become less frequent. Ever since the altercation between him and Ezekiel Luckas had made sure to stay quiet, withdrawing into either his room or the library for most of that night and the following morning instead of vanishing in the woods as was his usual; a behavior which drew a certain level of attention causing Sam to repeatedly push him into leaving his room, into breathing fresh air, when all he really wanted was to be left alone. He eventually caved and went outside... And what happened was exactly what he didn't want to happen: He just started walking, and he didn't stop walking until he had made his way back to the camp. He wasn't even sure how long it had taken him to walk the distance, he honestly didn't remember a second of the walk; it was all a blur.

Luckas had told himself he didn't want to see Ess again, that he didn't need to, that he needed to focus on his goal, that he couldn't afford any weakness now. Still, there he was. So it couldn't possibly be what he wanted, right? Either that or something was wrong with his head... Or maybe it was just both... Yeah, probably both. The fact of the matter was, he walked himself straight to the encampment and spent a good bit of time trying to avoid his usual stalking spot. Of course eventually he gave in and sneaked his way to the shadows of the oak tree. He stood for a bit of time, trying to make sense of what he was seeing and avoid being seen. After a while he couldn't help his curiosity and made his presence known, walking in the direction of the camp fire, breaking the silence with. "Now that's quite a sight."

Essence held back a chuckle when she heard the familiar voice, instead keeping defiantly quiet, opening one eye to confirm what her ears were telling her and to note the dagger and sword by the fire. She squirmed and shuffled in her seat as if she was frustrated and the chair moved a couple inches in Luckas’ direction before she relaxed again. Keeping her smile she turned towards Tala, opening both eyes fully. “You hear that Tala? Hmm... strange...I thought I heard something...hmm..no matter...” Tala took one look at Luckas and turned right around, nestling back beside the fire, the wolf’s back end pointed in his direction as she snubbed him as well.

Luckas tilted his head curiously as both Tala and Ess decided to give him a silent treatment of sorts. He didn't like being ignored, he never did, but this time he wasn't going to act like a kid and scream for attention, he wasn't going to give her that, so... He simply shrugged, and sat on the floor by the fire and held still, staring curiously at her. If she wanted to ignore him, then fine, he'd just sit there and be ignored. He'd sit there until she decided to speak or try to move him out. Period.

Ess went back to fiddling with the ropes, again causing the chair to hop closer towards Luckas and where he now sat. If she got any closer, she would knock right into him; not that she cared but it would just prove to be annoying. She felt the rope burn accumulating along her ankles as she pushed to stretch and loosen it, muttering to herself how Aiden didn’t tie it tight enough. Again she was able to angle herself on her feet, balancing on the tips of her boots, to slowly move away from Luckas so that she was facing him, but on the other side of the fire pit. Her gaze seemed to go right through him, as her smile faded. Bending her knees as much as she was allowed, she pushed herself up into the air a bit, landing hard on her back along the ground and the stones from the dying fire, breaking the legs off the chair. With a groan she wiggled her legs free, the rope still hanging onto her calves and ankles as she rocked herself to her feet, standing straight, arms still tied behind her back. Ess figured that should of weakened the chair, as she shook a few curls from her eyes, still partially attached to the wooden contraption which was now not as comfortable.

This time she looked dead into Luckas’ face and smiled an eerie smile as she bent her legs again and began running towards him. If he was smart he would of seen it coming when she made a straight path to him, using the force in motion she pushed once again into the air, flipping forward so that her back was aimed where Luckas was sitting, hoping this final collision would set her free.

Luckas saw it coming, he really did, and he knew that he could get out of the way if he wanted, but all he did really was move so that the impact was slightly less painful on his already beaten ribs and protected his face with his forearms, a groan and a whimper escaping him upon impact... Followed by a very loud and all the more painful fit of laughter; starting with a small snicker and growing louder and louder until it reached the level of full hysterical laughter.

Tala was barking humorously at the sight, not moving from her spot, as Ess groaned from the impact and slowly dragged herself off a laughing Luckas. Sitting up she pulled off the bits of wood, sliding the rope off her limbs. Rubbing her wrists sympathetically she muttered out mockingly, “Why didn’t you move Luckas? And..I’M the stubborn idiot?” She scoffed lightly shaking her head. “What the hell do you want Luckas? I thought you didn’t want to see me, but here you are. You here to call me a whore some more?” A malicious sneer curled her lips as she dragged out her next sentence, “Or....you here to treat me like a whore?”

Luckas laughed out for a couple of full minutes still; it ached to do so, but he really couldn't help himself. He tried to get up, but felt he couldn't yet and just fell back laughing more, almost rolling around in laughter. This went on for some time until he managed to completely stop, sighing softly as he spoke. "What does it matter why I didn't move? If you didn't want to hit me you shouldn't have tried. And I technically did not call you a whore... I said it's easier for you to be a whore, but I didn't say you are one." He groaned as he sat up, grabbing his ribs and grimacing slightly. "And I tend to treat whores very well, not that is any of your business."

Ess chuckled, “Of course I wanted to hit you, and apparently it didn’t matter to try to prevent it. Interesting..” Essence went to stand and grimaced at the freshly made bruises she felt along her back and arms. “You basically said I was, talking about reverting back to the beginning...and I highly doubt your hands count as whores...although that is rather personal and I would not know how often you call upon them.” Ess couldn’t contain her giggles at that, not caring for a moment at the pain it caused along her sides. Pushing to gain composure she sighed, “Why are you here Luckas? Is it because you found your ghost?”

"I see nothing interesting about it." Luckas stated simply, with a little shrug. "You heard what you wanted to hear then, but I won't get into explaining my stupidities right now, and Lady... If I can make people do whatever I want then there's absolutely no reason to get my hands dirty, now is there?" He smirked a little, leaning back into his hands trying to see if that would hurt a bit less; it didn't. "I don't know why I'm here, suppose I have nothing better to do with my free time." He muttered, sincerely angry at himself for being in this situation. "Does that matter?"

Ess felt a sharp ache in her chest as she kept her expression amused when she was anything but. “I feel sorry for you if that’s the case with most things in your life...course you would never have had to force me...but perhaps that’ll change” She muttered a bit mockingly. “If I don’t matter where you have nothing better to do than to bug me, then piss off Luckas. I don’t need any more of your bullshit. Make up your mind. You want to be my friend or not? Don’t come around and evade my questions of concern if you don’t want it. I think I deserve some respect if you want some in return.”

"Again, you're making assumptions. I said I CAN do one thing and I DON'T HAVE TO do another, and that doesn't say for sure whether I do them or not. Because it’s really none of your concern either way." Luckas muttered out. "But fine, you pity me, I think that's already been established, thank you." He snorted out in annoyance beginning to slowly pull himself to his feet with a groan. "I know I'm as bit slow when feelings are concerned, but ignoring me completely and then slamming a chair into me doesn't quite express concern, Essence. I think even a more sensitive individual would be a little confused there. As for respect... Admittedly, if you had respected my one request and left me the hell alone, a lot of things wouldn't have been said that day and we wouldn't be repeating them to each other like a couple of idiots right now." He stated, rubbing along his ribs, still feeling the aching to be bothersome. "And why do I get the annoying feeling that you ask me these questions expecting a particular answer? Because when I try to be honest... Which is my way of being respectful, by the way... You brush my answer off as a lie or excuse, or whatever... I'm really tired of trying to understand what the hell you take me for exactly... If you think I'm a liar or just plain stupid, but fine... I'll just repeat my answer: I honestly don't know why I've come exactly. I was walking, I walked this far... I do that. Does that matter?" He shrugged slightly as he said that and turned around as if to leave. "You want me to go though, fine. All you have to do is say so." He stated, beginning to walk back the way he came.

Ess felt the pain of her anger growing within her, pressing to keep it at bay. “You...focus on a few questions and ignore the others...FINE...It’s my fault for caring that day. It’s my fault for you being a total asshole! FIIINE!” Essence stood and bowed with a sarcastic flare, smiling sweet as she turned on her heels, muttering obscenities when she began walking away from her camp fire. She never wanted him to go in the first place, and deep down didn’t want him to go now, but at the same time she couldn’t stand his company. He had gotten under her skin and she was sure he knew it, and wasn’t about to show him how far he had gotten. “Do what you want Luckas. Why should what I say make a difference.” Her voice was soft as she spoke, the last of her words escaped in a shaky breath. She was done trying to speak, feeling Luke put assumptions of his own out there, getting no where in this conversation.

Luckas stopped at the words, shaking his head as if trying to stop himself, but eventually turning around. "No, no, no!" He muttered walking after her. "Don't start with the 'fines' and 'you're rights', and the 'do what you want Luckas'!" He growled. "I'm trying! But you just won't help me! You know what? You WERE WRONG! You were wrong! Because you should have given me space instead of feeling the need to treat me like a child and telling me what I feel and what I need to do with myself! Are you so stubborn that you can't realize that not letting me walk away in that moment was the wrong thing to do? Now, you say you don't want to change me, that you don't expect anything of me, but you don't respect my choices and when I'm visibly not making any sense you start following after me with questions when all I want to do is be alone. So now I'M the asshole because you wanted me to speak my mind in a moment when I had nothing there for you to see! I DO NOT LIE! I won't act kind to you just to spare your feelings and I WILL NOT apologize, because I meant what I said. Every damn word, even though I can say I wish I had been allowed to keep to myself in that moment. I tried!" He took a deep breath and added. "If, or when, I act kind I will mean it, if, or whenever, I give whatever answers you want from me they will be true... But don't insult me by turning this around on me and don't treat me like a child Essence. Now tell me: Do YOU want me to leave?"

Ess growled turning abruptly and pacing towards Luckas, the fury in her gaze creating a dark shadow around her eyes as they glowed. “You want my help?! I wasn’t trying to treat you like a child! I was trying to be your friend! You made the decision to ACT like a child! I never said you were a liar...I never said you were stupid! You are one to talk about assumptions, and for one sticking words in my mouth! If it appears I do not respect your choices, then FOR THAT I am sorry, but I also meant every word I said. I didn’t ask you to spare my feelings! NEVER HAVE I ASKED THAT!” Essence began shaking where she stood, a low throaty growl, whispered her next thought. “Don’t...call me Essence....Luckas...and No...I never want you to leave...but if you want to I won’t try to stop you this time.”

"That's nice to know." Luckas stated simply. "And no, you never said I was a liar, or stupid, but I must be, right? If apparently what I say and do can just be brushed off as the silly ramblings of a selfish brat too frightened of his feelings to know what he's talking about. No, you never asked me to spare your feelings, but you did mention at least once that I had hurt you. And I don't care what words you used: That is what you sounded like to me." He heaved a long sigh, once again rubbing along his bruised torso as he spoke, a little more softly. "You want to be my friend, Lady, that's fine. Just try to understand that friendship may not mean the same to me as it means to you. It clearly does not because I will leave the moment you ask me to, whether I think you mean it or not, I will let you be stupid all you want because you have that right, and if you ask something of me and can't give me reason I will simply do it. So think, next time you tell me to piss off, if you really want that."

“Fine...agree to disagree then..because I don’t agree...at all with most of what you’ve said. Muttering back and forth is obviously not going to get us far today, so what now? Am I allowed to speak, or ask questions? Or are you just gonna get mad at me?” With a deep sigh she turned away to throw a few more logs onto the fire. “Maybe I don’t understand all that is going on with you, but you don’t understand me either. Not completely.”

Essence sat down upon the log before the fire, kicking the bits of broken chair onto the hot coals. Tala lightly put her head upon Ess’ lap, looking cute as she stared up at her friend. “You know...Luckas....Tala’s gonna have puppies...”

Luckas snorted a laugh. "Stubborn woman." He mumbled, although seeming a little more amused than angry. "I was never mad, you'll know it when I'm mad." He stated, sitting on the floor close to the fire, letting out a rather loud grunt and muttering under his breath. "Stupid son of a bitch." He heaved a little sigh, running his fingers through his hair and staring at the fire pit. "Of course you're allowed to speak, silly Lady. I'll try to give you answers if I can and you know... I doubt I will ever understand you... Not completely."

At the mention of puppies Luke raised an eyebrow and turned his gaze from the fire to look at the wolf. "Really? Huh... Guess I should give Beast Boy a congratulation then... I sure hope they take after their mom though." He smirked for a moment before his expression turned a bit more serious as he eyed Tala. “Did she heal up okay? She seems fine...” He mumbled, answering his own question. “Whatever happened to the guy that slashed her at the party, did he get away?”

Essence giggled at Luckas’ comment, not helping a very much needed smile. Tala turned towards Luke with a curious look, a questioning sound vibrating off the wolf; it wasn’t a growl or a bark but somewhere in between. “Oh, Tala I know you have eyes for Puppy...gonna have huge hybrids I think...gonna be very pretty..” Ess sang gently, patting her friend on the head. She continued to pet Tala, the act keeping her smile which was now a mask for the array of thoughts passing through her mind. Essence gathered up all the reasons she already had, which were more than enough to rid Joffrey of this world, but almost taking out her best friend was simply icing on the cake. “With any luck, the man bled out or died from his wounds..” She spoke, her tone careless as if she was not giving the topic another thought when in all actuality she was trying to contemplate where she would start searching for the vermin. With another sigh, Ess turned back to Luke. “My dear Luckas, if you ever want to talk about what happened to you, I’ll listen. I am not here to judge, I just want to help. With that said, I did hear some things and I’d rather hear it from you. ...Did you even find what you were looking for?”

"Puppy? Puppy, puppies?" Luckas couldn't help a small giggle. "They'll be big and scary... Awesome." He looked at Tala with a little nod. "Yeah, Tala, I apologize for the Beast Boy joke... You obviously have done better than that ugly mutt." He stated with a little nod, going silent while Ess spoke; leaning back onto his elbows and looking up at the sky as he replied. "Talking about anything else would help the most right now." He stated. "With that said, I'd very much like to know what you heard and who you've heard it from. And... I think I found considerably more than what I was looking for. I'm not sure if that is a good or a bad thing yet... Time will tell, I guess."

“Rumors Luckas...that’s why I ask. Everyone was talking about it when I came back into camp....heard some people died....” Essence sighed, shaking her head slowly. “Guess I don’t have to ask if you realized I wasn’t lying about your...Ghost. I know you found her because so did I. Or..she found me.” Turning her head back to Tala, Ess avoided looking at Luckas, not sure what she expected to hear. Again she stood, her back towards Luckas as she approached the punching bag dangling from the Oak and lazily began tapping at it with her fists. Perhaps it was to distract the uncomfortable feeling in her gut or the anger that still lingered, her limbs shaking from the power of the emotion; whatever it was her punches flew from limp, sluggish blows to a fluid one two motion.

"Yes, yes... People died. Lena died... I died, only I was still breathing, and walking, and killing it seems..." He ran one hand through his hair, back and forth a couple of times. "Sam, yes, I know... But it's complicated... I don't want to to talk about her." He went silent, staring at the punching bag almost as if in a trance. "I saw my whole life pass before my eyes, like they say happens when you die... Only I didn't die... I woke up..." He mumbled. "It's still a bit... Blurry... And it's been days... It's true though... Some things... I wish I didn't know, but then I would never know that if I didn't know... You know?"

Essence paused in mid swing to respond before releasing another flurry of punches. “...So it’s back to that conversation we had at my house...if it’s better to know...what it can do to a person and if we can survive it all...if it is really worth it.....” Panting Ess backed away and nodded at Luke’s words, not wanting to talk about Sam. “Fair enough Luckas, I won’t try to make you do anything, that’s not the type of person I want you to think I am...because I’m not...” Reaching for her braid she began fiddling with the end curls, pulling them between her fingers. “...So....Lena gave you what she promised then...and now she’s dead....is that connected? If people are dying for this knowledge Luckas, whatever it is....it has to be worth it.”

"Worth what?" Luke muttered, a little anger breaking through his voice, he didn't want to talk about Lena either. "I don't seem worth anything the way I see it." He laid further back until there was just no point in pretending he wasn't lying down. He crossed his arms under his head and breathed in and out slowly. "Yes, Lena gave me what she promised... I still have a promise or two to keep though." He closed his eyes as if he was going to fall asleep, but went on speaking. "This is the kind of thing that can break or save a person... So which is it?" He muttered. "I'd like it if I could take it all back. I really would. Maybe that makes me a coward, I don't care... Once the door's open though... It can't be closed again." He chuckled softly. "If only I could make myself forget, but nooo... I'm a freaking telepath!" He exclaimed, the chuckle turning into a little giggle.

Ess’ brows furrowed, glancing sharply at Luckas. “Guess that’s up to you...my Dear Luckas. I don’t always think I’m worth much either...but here I am, pushing through it all one way or another and making my life mean something..instead of nothing. Then it wouldn’t matter to anyone if I was alive or not, but it does...even if I don’t always see it. We can give up or keep going. Wanting to give up doesn’t make one a coward..it brings us to that place where we make a choice...You’re allowed to deal with the pain however you need to, but do you honestly see no good out of it all? Would you honestly make yourself forget everything?” Ess sighed, turning back to the punching bag, unleashing another round. "I don't care if you don't understand it Luckas, but I'm...not going anywhere...and I don't break promises.."

"Like I said... I have promises left to keep... After I'm done with that, I can think of the rest. That's what I need to do right now." Luke replied, opening one eye to glance at Ess as she beat up the punching bag. "I just... Can't do both right now." He sighed softly, turning his gaze up at the sky and opening his other eye. "And yes, I would honestly want to forget, it's the closest to taking it all back as I'd ever get... If I could even get that, but this... I don't expect you to understand. Funny though, now I know what I do to people in a way... Should it make me sorry on some level? Because it really doesn't..." He glanced back to her and watched quietly for another moment, before asking. "Are you still angry?"

Ess paused for a quick second when Luckas mentioned wanting to take it all back, taking in a deep breath she continued, her fists moving a bit faster and fiercer before she suddenly spun in a roundhouse, kicking the bag hard, once again sending another advance of her knuckles causing them to crack slightly. “I understand as much as you’ve given me to understand...and with that...I understand regret plenty....but dwelling on what is past and can’t be controlled will just drive us insane. And yes, I know I can’t always take my own ‘words of wisdom’, just relaying from experience is all.....” Ess stopped again, turning to stare hard at Luckas, “Did I say I forgive you? No? Then YES I am still pissed...doesn’t mean I’m not your friend though...and doesn’t mean I don’t also have other shit on my mind I’d rather not discuss either as well you know..” She turned away from Luckas as she continued, “...Found out...apparently my old Mistress, the one I thought was dead...” Ess took a deep breath, squeezing her eyes shut, working to keep her tone calm. A malicious and satisfied grin crossed her lips at the memory of how hard she scrubbed her skin to get Ebony’s blood stains out of her flesh. “..She didn’t just take away my ability to have kids...she took away my son...” Essence crossed her arms, opening her eyes before she glanced over her shoulder at Luckas, whispering softly, “Turns out he’s not dead either..”

"I don't recall asking for forgiveness... So I wasn't expecting you to give it. I will keep it in mind, though. That said, I am relieved that at least I have a pissed off friend to count on, even if it means ending up with a cracked rib or two." He closed his eyes again, letting out a long yawn, but opening them again and beginning to push himself off the floor. Once standing, Luckas was silent for a moment or two as if trying to retrieve a very distant memory, which admittedly he was; only it wasn’t his own memory. “Ebony, wasn’t it? That’s why I think poison is a stupid way to kill a person...” He shook his head a bit. “Never heard of a blade not doing what it was supposed to, as you so expertly demonstrated at the party.” Again Luckas paused as if going through something in his mind. “So... You have a kid almost as old as me, like... 16, 17... And you want to find him?” The question was followed by yet another silent pause. “Well... Valcrest is a rather small place, shouldn’t be an impossible thing.”

Essence slapped her forehead rather comically when Luckas mentioned her ‘son’ would be only a couple years younger than himself. She did indeed want to find him; to know him, but she was admittedly scared of who she would find and if he even wanted anything to do with her or if he cared. The thought reminded her again in the satisfaction she relished in still for the removal of Ebony’s other eye and her last pitiful moments of her disgusting existence. Ess glanced at Luckas after he mentioned her ‘demonstration at the party’, hinting that he had been watching her. It was infuriating and flattering all at the same time. Her voice faded some as she spoke. “Of course I want to find him, if he is even still in Valcrest. Maybe I have already and just don’t know it. Even if it ends badly, it’s a second chance and I would rather die than throw that away without ever knowing.” Scrunching up her face in thought, she quirked a brow up into the evening sky. “He would have just turned 17....almost a man....” Shaking her head, snapping her attention back to the punching bag she simply stared at it. “He probably thinks I abandoned him, when it was anything but and he deserves to know my story.”

Luckas shook his head again, only this time as if he was arguing with a voice that no one else could hear; whatever it was, he made no comment of it as he spoke. “If you’re lucky he’s got your eyes, that’d make it easy, no?” He asked, a little amused smirk crossing his features. “I will keep a lookout for suspiciously familiar teenage boys then.” The statement was followed by yet another small pause, which was then followed by a small sigh as he added. “And no child wants to believe they’ve been abandoned, Lady... No matter how many times they’re told so.”

Ess thought about Luckas’ words, wondering softly to herself what this boy’s name would be, what he would indeed look like and if he’d have her eyes or some form of them. She prayed he didn’t take after his father and feared meeting him and staring into those same soulless brown eyes. “Exactly Luckas, which is why he shouldn’t be left wondering the worst. In this case, the truth may be sad, but will prove to be not as hurtful as the lies and ignorance.”

Luckas simply nodded his agreement, with no further comments on the subject, looking up at the night sky once again, this time wondering how long he’d been gone without warning. "I should go, wasn't planning on coming here, and definitely wasn't planning on spending the night either." He stretched his body with a little painful grunt. "Seeing you is... Delightful, as always Lady." He chuckled, placing one hand over his aching ribs, unconsciously tracking back in the conversation a bit. "And yes, I know you understand regret, but I'm not talking of simple regret... Like I said... I don't expect you to understand... Even when I eventually feel that I can explain." He gave her a half smile before turning to walk away. "Don't beat that thing too much now, Lady, I might get jealous."

There was no holding back the smile that took over her face; it wasn’t just her lips but her eyes softened, tiny creases appearing around the corners when she chuckled at Luckas’ words. She motioned as if she was going to speak but held her tongue, giving a nod, watching Luckas disappear into the darkness. With a whisper she finally spoke, “I wasn’t talking about simple regret either, Lukey...”

Blackpond Underground

A single candle was all the was needed to brighten the small room as a slouched figure scribbled furiously into the binding of a barely used journal. The room was pretty much empty except for a chair, table and a surprisingly large, feather down bed. Isolation was a blessing and a gift, especially in the burrows below the city of Blackpond. Of course, it wasn’t something that had come easily but the man refused no as an answer, especially after his ledger went missing. His associates, as one may call them, had threatened to take their business elsewhere but the man had seen right through their empty lies. One way or another, he had his fingers weaved into every major import and export organization in Valcrest; an achievement that had taken almost his entire life to accomplish. Not to mention he had made an example of one young man for questioning his sanity by displaying his broken, dismembered body in the fountain square; the blond man’s head impaled on a pike in the center of the fountain spray causing the water to darken a deep crimson. It served it’s purpose, but it wasn’t meant as more than that for most of those he had business dealings with. He knew that would only be a pathetic display to some and those stronger willed individuals were won by results alone. For the first time in a long time, he was worried.

A quiet, almost inaudible knock came from the door behind him causing a surprisingly violent reaction from the man who stood up abruptly and threw his chair into the wall. As if that was a signal to enter, the brave man on the other side of the door slowly opened the door and slipped inside.

“Asher..Is this a bad time?”

The older man sighed, ruffling his fingers through his hair as if to bring him back to the present moment. “It’s a bad time if you have no good news for me. Did you or did you not find my son, David?” Asher whispered coldly.

David was silent, staring down at the broken pieces of wood that was once a chair and shook his head. “How do you even know it was your son who stole your-”

Asher whipped around and threw the small table in David’s direction, causing the candle to topple and smother out. David dodged the oncoming flying furniture as they were encased in darkness. “Unless YOU had something to do with it, David, there’s absolutely no one else who would know the extreme importance of that journal. There’s no other explanation. Darren had to have something to do with it.”

There was silence for a few moments and then the candle was re-lit and light returned into the shadows. David was holding the candle in his hand, the light flickering wildly as he trembled, waiting for the worst but yet Asher remained still. “I..your son.....eh...Darren made a clean break after he left the city, but..”

“Go on you fool...”

“I hear he was seen a few nights ago. One of your contacts reported he had returned to the city with two men.”

Asher quirked a brow. “Who are they?”

“Presumably the same men he left with from here originally. But there’s something else. He ran into Ebony..or one could say she ran into him.”

Asher’s eyes narrowed and a muffled curse could be heard breaking into the eerie silence. “Does he know?”

“It’s unclear of what he knows exactly, but you’ll be glad to hear the Crone is dead. Stabbed to death at some curious party in the Castle.”

Asher relaxed slightly and nodded, absently rubbing his chin. “Yes..that is rather pleasant news amidst your failed words. I have to assume though, that he knows and if and when he de-codes that journal..”

“How do you know he’ll break the code?” David asked.

“Because you idiot, he’s my son. He’s bound to figure it out. But just in case, I have...changed some of our plans on when the next shipments shall be ready. Hopefully that will throw things off. Did you send the ravens out yet?”

David smiled, “It was done two nights ago and we already have responses back from Newhaven and Blackpond.”

“Good, good. But no word from...?”

“Well...actually...you’ve been summoned.”

Asher growled, muttering more obscenities, showing his extreme dissatisfaction with being ‘summoned’ by anyone, but he had know it was due to happen any day now if he sent out the messages or not. He knew any change in plans would not be all too pleasing to hear to some, and again, there was only one customer he feared to upset especially after the long years of service and dealings they have had with one another. “When...? ”

“They are outside the gates waiting right now to escort you..So much for feeling safer in this place than out there...” David whispered in a bit of a “I told you so” attitude.

“They?”

“Two men in red..They said,” David spoke a name but it was twisted up in his clumsy pronunciation and after a few attempts he simply stated, “...that ‘Dark Skinned Man’, wants to see you...”

Asher began picking up his things and throwing what few possession he brought with him into a knapsack and nodded towards the door a bit hurriedly. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place!? Well then, man, hurry up! Go tell them I’m on my way out now...we can’t keep my best client waiting..”.

Setting

5 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Ess Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Annie Turner
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[White Shadows Camp, 10 days after the Castle Ball]

“No. Absolutely not.” Annie stated, her dark eyes glaring at Alistair in anger. “This is not an option.”
“This is our ONLY option, Annie. His body can’t take much more, it’s going to shut down. Slowing down the process is not doing him any good.” Alistair argued, his tone calm as he held the girl’s gaze. “We can’t save Isaac, Annie. There is just not enough time to find an answer, and we don’t even know if an answer would lead to a cure. We don’t even know what this actually is. Maybe there aren’t any answers; maybe this is just... what it is.”
“There is an answer. If my mother was searching for it, it’s there somewhere. I know that. Maybe we’re just not asking the right questions.” Annie mumbled in response, looking away from her friend and heaving a weary sigh. There was cold wind blowing across the plains that morning; it was still dark, but the sky was clear and once the Sun began to rise its light would flood the ruins and the white tents of the encampment. A bright sunny day it would be, but to the healers it was bound to feel hopelessly dark. “How much longer could we keep him under sedatives?”
“Maybe another week, at best, but... At this point it is unlikely he would ever wake up. I know Lena was against doing things like this, and until recently I would have agreed with her, but this is too much. It’s not right to keep doing this to him, we are the only family he still has in this world, we owe him... Something, anything, better than this.”
“I love Isaac too, Al. You know that, but... If we do this, then what are we? Who are we? Who am I if everything I believe in, everything I’ve lived for, means nothing in a moment like this? What does this make me?”
“Human, Annie. Painfully and undeniably human. This moment, and every time you look back on it until the day you die, will only ever serve the purpose of reminding you that no matter what God you follow, no matter what you believe or how hard you try... You are only human. You’ll always want to bend the world to your will, but you can’t. Your soul is a trap set to make you fail, and it’s also the one thing in this world that you can never fully escape. You were the one who taught me that, remember? Accepting fate also means accepting that sometimes we are small, powerless and insignificant, it also means accepting impossible choices and the inevitability of living with them.” Alistair heaved a long sigh, wrapping one arm around Annie and pulling her into a hug in an attempt to comfort the girl. “Listen, I know that right now you wish more than anything that this wasn’t in your hands, but denying it won’t change anything. We fought for him, as hard as we could, but now it’s time to let him go.”

Annie was silent as Alistair spoke, for the first time his ability to remain perfectly calm in these situations wasn’t helping her cope, she felt exhausted just standing there and thinking of the possibilities. She leaned into Alistair and closed her eyes for a moment, she wanted to scream, but all she managed was a choked sob. Alistair had a point and she knew it, if there was any chance to save Isaac he would be the first to look for it, but the truth was that they were far from an answer and their friend was on the last of his strength. “I don’t think I can do this.” She whispered finally, pulling away from the hug and noting the several tear stains left on Alistair’s shirt. She didn’t realized she had been crying until just then.
“I haven’t ask you to do it, I’ve asked you to let me.” Alistair said, a sad smile crossing his features as he stared at her. “It should be me, don’t you think?”
“Al... I... Are you sure? He’s your best friend.” Annie asked, her tone concerned as she looked from Alistair to the entrance of the small tent where Isaac had be left to rest.
“As sure as someone can be about something like this.” Alistair retorted simply. “If we’re going to go through with this, Annie, we should do it while most of the camp is still asleep.” He warned.
“Alright, just... Give me a moment.” She mumbled, going past Alistair and into the tent.

Isaac was lying motionless in a sleeping mat, he seemed to be sound asleep, but a closer look showed that he was breathing with some difficulty as though he was in pain, a reddish glow appearing random intervals underneath his closed lids. He was clearly suffering despite his unconscious state and in the past day it had gotten considerably worse. Annie kneeled beside Isaac breathing deep as she watched her friend sleep for a few seconds in silence before finally speaking to him. “I don’t know if you can hear me, in some way, maybe you can but I’ll never know, right? I know that you would probably say it doesn’t matter, that this is more for me than it is for you; we see it every day. I honestly wish I could be stronger for you, my friend, that I didn’t feel the need to do this, because I know that if you can hear me it’ll probably just hurt you more. I am so... So sorry...” She paused, letting out a shaky breath before speaking again. “You are a good man, Isaac, you are... a wonderful friend. I don’t know what I would have done these past couple of years if you hadn’t been here to help me. And now here we are... After everything, this is the only help I can offer you...” With a shaky hand she covered the man’s eyes, closing hers as she mumbled a prayer under her breath. “...May you find peace in your next life, brother... And know that you are not forgotten.”

As Annie left the tent she let Alistair pass her by, not turning around to watch him enter, or waiting to see him exit. She walked away until the sun started to rise, streaks of golden orange coloring the sky as light began spread across the plains. It wasn’t long before the camp was filled with sounds of people getting ready for the day... It wasn’t much longer until all sound faded into a devastated silence.

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

[Flashback - The woods outside of Blackpond, 10 years ago]

“You’ll never make it back in time... You shouldn’t go by yourself... You’re going to pick a bar fight aren’t you?...” Dastan was mumbling under his breath, his tone somewhere between annoyed and amused as he recited Indrani’s words on his way home. He was supposed to have been back the night before, but he did in fact have too much at the city Inn and he did in fact get himself into a fight; which was visible by a very noticeable bruise on the left side of his face, and he knew he was bound to hear a very big ‘I told you so’ when he reached the desert. It was not a big deal though; he was sure Indrani had done just fine in his absence.

The night breeze was cool and soft in the forest, the sky was clear and the moonlight was sneaking in through the branches of the trees above. The forest was as quiet as a forest could be and Dastan was pleased to think that his journey home would be a peaceful one. Little did he know that he wasn’t really alone in the forest that night. Not minding where he was going, Dastan eventually stumbled upon an encampment of Blackpond soldiers that seemed to be ready to ambush some Newhaven men near a little village just ahead. And before he knew it he found himself with swords pointed at him from every direction. They questioned him, but he refused to answer them and it was at some point during their questions and their beatings that Dastan felt his mind starting to slip away into a complete void. He tried to fight that feeling, he tried to stop the darkness from coming to life, but when he felt a blade starting to slide across his neck he let go for the sake of keeping his life.

Next thing he knew he was waking up, a groan escaping his lips as he tried in vain to push himself up from the floor; his body too weak to respond, his eyes only half open to the sight of red coloring the earth around him, dead soldiers lying motionless, some of them in truly gruesome ways, the sickening smell of death rising from the blood stained ground. He could feel the pain from the beatings and the weakness of overusing his enlightenment, but he couldn’t remember what had happened. He knew what had happened, but he had absolutely no memory of it.

. . . . . . . . . .

[Flashback - The Desert, 13 years ago]

“Cheer up little brother! You don’t seem like you’re having fun, it’s a party!”

A loud and cheerful voice sounded in Dastan’s ears, accompanied by a firm pat on the back that nearly made him drop the bowl of stew he’d been silently staring at. Mumbling a curse under his breath he lifted his head to face his older brother. “Yes, Vikram, it’s my birthday, I know there’s a party.” He responded, starting to idly dig into his dinner, his dark eyes glancing at a group of people chatting and dancing by one of the many fires lit around the encampment; their shadows flickering as they danced along the sand and the surface of the rocks around them. “It happened again this morning... Right before sunrise... It’s been four years of living with this curse and I’m not getting any stronger... I’m not getting any closer to controlling this...”
“You’re thinking too much, little brother.” Vikram argued. “All this tension is doing you no good. And what have I told you, huh? There is no such thing as curses... You are not cursed, kid.”
“Then I am sick. Either way, something is not right with me.” Dastan argued, quickly glancing at his brother before turning his eyes back to the dancing shadows, taking a bite of his cold food.
“That’s bullshit. It’s complete and total bullshit, you hear me?” Vikram argued. “Even if it wasn’t, let’s say you are cursed, or sick, or whatever you want to call it. Have you hurt anyone?”
“No.” Dastan muttered.
“No. Have you suffered any episodes at all aside from the random whispers you’ve been hearing?” Vikram insisted.
“No, but...”
“No. You’re fine, brother.” The older boy assured him. “If you believe you are fated, then why not at least enjoy life while your sanity still seems intact instead of just sitting by yourself and worrying about the past and the future? If your days are counted, that’s one more reason to make the most of them, right?” Vikram nudged his younger brother, nearly knocking the plate of food from his lap. “Am I right or am I right? Huh? Huh?”
“Knock it off.” Dastan muttered, snorting a bit of a chuckle under his breath. “Yes, you’re right... I guess... I just don’t like the thought of ending up like him.”
“Dastan, you weren’t there. I mean, you were, but you were less than just a baby. All you know is what people whispered behind your back. You can’t let this dictate the course of your life. It’s not healthy. For anyone. Alright? Now... I’m ordering you to go have some fun on your birthday.”
“You’re ordering me?” Dastan laughed. “Are you kidding?”
“No, little brother, I’m not.”
“Vik, really... I just want to have my dinner and go to bed.”
“You turn sixteen today. You’re a man... It’s about time you start enjoying some of the benefits of being a man.” Vikram stated knowingly, nudging Dastan yet again and nodding towards a group of girls. “You’ve been eyeing Lila for months now, why don’t you talk to her?”
“I’m terrible with girls, that’s why. You know that. I’ll say something stupid and she’ll reject me.” Dastan muttered, chewing more of his food and muttering things under his breath.
“Well, that’s your worst mistake there. Don’t be afraid. It doesn’t matter if you say something stupid or not; you’re the clan leader’s brother and you’re almost as good looking as he is; half your work is done. As long as you are confident and respectful you’ll do fine. If she rejects you just remember to stay confident; don’t let it shake you and don’t be offended. Never be offended with a girl for saying no to you. She has every right to say no to you. If she doesn’t think you’re worth her time it’s your job to prove otherwise, only jerks act like they deserve a girl’s attention simply for being there. Do you understand?”
“I guess... Basically don’t be a jerk.” Dastan stated, nodding. “Seems simple enough.”
“It’s harder than it looks sometimes. It’s tough to be rejected, it’s frustrating, and believe me; you’ll hate it. Most guys react badly even if they don’t mean to and that’s what most girls expect to see. That’s why it matters so much to be different. Even if you get a ‘no thank you’ from a girl, if you take it the right way you may still have a chance to change her mind later. So don’t aim for a yes, just go for a smile. Go up to her, say something flattering and ask her to dance with you.”
Dastan flinched for a second, staring at the girl as though he was considering the idea, but eventually the boy shook his head. “Another night, maybe.”
Vikram sighed softly. “Brother, listen to me; there is no other night. This is the only night there is, and that’s the way it has to be... If you don’t live your life right now, one day you’ll wake up and it’ll have passed you by.”
“You’re drunk.” Dastan pointed out as though that one fact disproved every good point his brother had made.
“Yessir, I am... And a happy drunk. Better than being sober and sulking like some people.” He chuckled softly, ruffling Dastan’s hair. “I’ve given you my advice, little brother... It is yours to do with as you wish...”


[The Desert, 11 days after the Castle Ball]

“Shaykh.”

Dastan opened his eyes at the call, taking a few moments to make out Jackson’s voice. “What is it?” He mumbled, rubbing his eyes as he sat up. “What time is it?” He groaned, the clarity beginning to bother his eyes.
“A couple of hours past noon.” Jackson replied, handing Dastan a flask of water. “Alistair is here to see you, he says it’s important.”
“Hmph.” Dastan mumbled, drinking half the water in one large gulp. “How long was I out this time, what day is it?”
“It’s been over a full day, and you really don’t look so good.” Jackson replied, for a moment his tone was a perfect impression of Indrani’s in its severity. “You’ve been overdoing it lately, even by your standards. The others are starting to talk.”
“I have drank much more than this before.” Dastan argued, his sight beginning to clear, as his eyes got used to the light flooding the temple.
“Not by yourself. No one has seen you in camp in over four days.” Jackson sighed. “Listen, I know you’re depressed about Indrani leaving and what happened between you two... It’s understandable... No one will blame you for missing her, but you need to make an effort.”
“I’m not depressed, Jackson, I’m... My head is a bit messed up right now, that’s all. I thought it would be better to sort it out myself, without everyone constantly watching me.” Dastan sighed, scratching the back of his head.
“How’s that working out for you, boss?” Jackson asked, arching an eyebrow at Dastan.
“Fantastic.” Dastan muttered. “Didn’t you say Alistair wanted to see me?”
“He’s waiting downstairs. There’s some food there for you as well. I’ll tell him you’ll be right down; try not to fall asleep again while putting on shoes.” Jackson replied, leaving Dastan alone in the room.
“Once. That happened once.” Dastan muttered in response. “I had been awake for three days for heavens sake.” Looking around the room Dastan eventually found his boots and a clean shirt to wear, making his way to the ground level of the temple, where Alistair was waiting for him. The former healer didn’t look too well himself, he looked as though he hadn’t slept in days. “You look like shit.”
“You’d know a thing or two about that wouldn’t you?” Alistair retorted, briefly standing from the stone bench he’d been sitting on, sitting back down as Dastan sat across from him. Jackson had left each man a bowl of stew and half a loaf of bread, Alistair having finished off his food while waiting for Dastan; only a empty bowl left at his side.
Dastan didn’t respond, first picking up the bowl and digging into the food in silence until he was halfway through the bowl of stew. “Alright...” He started, pulling apart a piece of bread and stuffing it into his mouth as he spoke. “What brings you, friend? Jackson said it was important.”
“How are you feeling?” Alistair asked simply, his eyes examining the mercenary as if trying to evaluate his state of mind.
“That’s what was so important? I’m alright, I guess. I’ve been sleeping a bit more than usual, but according to general opinion that’s just depression.”
“Mhm... Do you remember what we talked about when we last saw each other?”
“You said you’d keep that conversation between us.” Dastan pointed out, setting his bowl down and glaring at Alistair.
“And I have, despite not being required to; I’m not sworn to secrecy anymore.” Alistair smiled calmly at Dastan. “It’s not just you though. I take you heard about Isaac?”
“Yes... I heard he had some sort of episode, is he alright?”Dastan asked, continuing to munch on the bread.
“He’s dead.” Alistair replied shortly. “So I guess he is alright now in a way.”
Oh... I’m sorry to hear that, I know you two were close... How’s Annie taking it?”
“Not too well. No one is taking it well, Isaac was very well liked.” Alistair sighed softly, rubbing his eyes and glancing around the main hall of the temple in silence. “Weren’t you planning to rebuild this place?”
“We had plans to do renovations, yes, before those outlanders invaded our territory. We had some major setbacks since then.” Dastan answered. “What does Isaac have to do with me?”
“It’s not just Isaac, Dastan; it’s everyone. Every enlightened in Valcrest is or will be experiencing debilitating symptoms.”
“Is or will be? So you’re saying everyone will inevitably fall ill in some way?”
“No. I’m saying that every enlightened in Valcrest will inevitably start showing symptoms of an illness. For what I gather everyone is already ill; even if they don’t feel it yet. It has been going on for a while now... Lena was the first to feel it, that’s why she left in search of answers.”
“I take it she didn’t find any.” Dastan questioned, finishing his bread and brushing a few crumbs that had fallen on his clothes.
“No.” Alistair shrugged. “We’re trying to pick up her research, Annie has been trying obsessively to decode her notes, but not much progress has been made so far. I’ve come to tell you this for two reasons; first because I thought you needed to know that what is happening to you is most likely due to this unknown illness, but also because once this becomes public, and it will soon, people will begin to panic and most likely try to leave Valcrest in order to escape the sickness.”
“Will that work?
“I doubt it. I suggest you secure your encampment as best as you can. Once people realize how bad the situation really is... Things are going to snap out of control.”
“I see, but... These hallucinations of mine... The voices... I always had them since I was a kid. Lena said they were a part of my enlightenment somehow.” Dastan questioned. “I just thought....”
“The spit personality effect is a common occurrence with summoning abilities like yours; a part of your mind is projected onto the shadow golem and disassociates from the rest of your consciousness. It’s not debilitating and perfectly manageable as long as you take your precautions; you’ve been nothing but cautious for the past ten years, so I’m pretty sure that these blackout episodes you’ve been having are a clear sign of illness.” Alistair explained. “I know that what happened to your father seems to suggest otherwise, Dastan, but you have always been perfectly capable of controlling this.”
Dastan sighed deeply, hiding his face in his hands for a moment before looking up at Alistair again, rubbing his temples as he muttered.“Not anymore though, right? It’s going to keep getting worse and there’s nothing I can do. Just like what happened with Isaac.”
“Probably, yes.” Alistair replied. “Dastan, don’t do anything stupid. You have time.”
“How much time? You don’t really know, do you? I don’t want to wait until I hurt someone, so what are my options really?” Dastan shook his head, a frustrated groan escaping him.
“You haven’t hurt anyone yet. You need to make someone aware of your situation, someone you trust, so they can help you. Trying to manage this alone will only make things worse.”
“I guess.” Dastan agreed, standing up with a groan. “Suppose I should warn the other enlightened in the clan; I’ll gather them all tonight and give them the news.”
“If anyone starts showing symptoms, you have them come to us, we may not have an idea how to stop this yet, but we have ways to make the condition more manageable. In some cases at least; didn’t do Isaac any good.”
“Way to be optimistic man.” Dastan chuckled. “Alright though, I’ll tell my people that if they start feeling sick they should look you up. Hopefully Annie makes some progress on those notes, and soon.”

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

[Raven’s Nest - 12 days after the Castle Ball]

Jake had a slightly frustrating afternoon with Irvin... Trying to teach the kid to fight wasn’t as easy as he thought it’d be. He was smart, and was good at stopping Jake’s attempts at going invisible, unfortunately he was unable to do that and keep his guard up as well. When trying to correct the boy Jake quickly discovered that he’d have to teach the kid a lesson in humility first, make him understand that this was not something he could cheat his way through. The training session ended with Irv walking out on him; something Jake would have to punish him for the next day.

As he thought about the training session, Jake had set up a small camouflaged tent, a little further away from camp, but still close enough to hear if there was something out of ordinary going on. The tent was something Ali had gotten for him after he repeatedly avoided the question of where he’d been sleeping. She didn’t insist on the question and didn’t say that she obviously knew he just hadn’t bothered with a place of his own... She simply pushed the tent on him. Ever since that he’d been moving his little camp, unable to find a spot that pleased him, but this seemed to be a very good place to settle down, finally.

Once done with the work he dragged his bags and set up his sleeping mat inside staring idly at the bag that contained his most personal valuables, the journal book Ess had tossed on him inside of it as well; he hadn’t really read it, he wanted to, but wasn’t sure if he really should... It was just one more doubt in the back of his mind. Lifting his head, Jake was sure he heard something outside... Something too subtle to be one of the Guard or another friend paying a visit.

As quietly as he could he stepped outside and looked around, not seeing anyone. As he turned around, however, he slammed into something, or someone, the sound of a familiar giggle immediately causing his every muscle to tense and his eyes to narrow as he looked down at Luckas.

“Shame on you Jakey... Whatever happened to those reflexes of yours, huh?”
“You little.... Piece of... Son of...” Jake muttered out, pulling Luckas onto his feet by the front of his shirt. “You knew! You knew and you knew she was here!!!”
Luckas chuckled. “Oh, you silly boy... I thought I had told you! You mean you didn’t understand who I was talking about? Seriously?” He asked, faking a shocked expression and pushing Jake’s hand away from his clothes. “Careful, there... These are new.” He scolded.
Jake’s face contorted in an angered expression as he pulled the little golden dagger Luckas had used to threaten him. He pointed the dagger at the other man’s face. “You talked to Crys... What was that about?”
“Crys... Crys...” Luckas mumbled, tapping his own cheek with his fingertips as if trying to remember the name. “Pretty redhead... Sweet personality... Blind as a bat?” He asked raising an eyebrow. “Oh, she rescued me when I found myself a little short on coin. Remind me to repay her at some point.”
“Stay the hell away from her, or I swear... By all the Twins... I’ll...”
“Kill me?” Luckas sighed, rolling his eyes impatiently. “Haven’t we gone through this one already? I mean... How many times are you going to nearly beat me senseless and then change your mind and foolishly turn your back on me? Not that I’m complaining... I enjoy your little hissy fits, they’re kind of adorable, but not very productive.”
“I mean it!” Jake muttered. “Stay away from her... Both of them...”
“Ah... Now we seem to have a problem, Jakey... See, like I said... Crys is pretty and she has a lovely personality, but not quite my type... I was never one to enjoy the company of empaths for too long. As for the other part of this ‘them’ you refer to... I’m sorry, but no.” He snickered. “Well... Except I’m not really sorry.”
“What’s in it for you?” Jake asked, his tone a little more calm, although his grip on the dagger had tightened considerably.
“That’s a good question... And I’d tell you... Except that’s really none of your damn business. Hell, I can’t barely give a proper answer to myself... And it’s pretty much in my interest to know don’t you think? I’d like to kill her, maybe... but I’m not sure I’d like it if she was dead... Kind of a problem, wouldn’t you agree?” Luckas asked, as if seriously expecting some form of advice on whether or not to kill. “I mean... Killing someone is a big decision, you know... It’s not like I can undo it if I don’t like the results... Hmm... Decisions... Decisions...”
Jake’s hand was firmly gripping the dagger, now pressed to Luckas’ throat, his anger slowly rising at Luke’s words; he couldn’t stop thinking about how easy it would be to just slit his throat right there... And it would. Luckas didn’t really seem to mind, or acknowledge the blade.

Tala, almost appearing like a faded projection of Ess’ soul, had been watching as she trotted forward, ears perked on alert. The back of her fur was spiked along her neck and shoulder blades, a soft grunt like growl revealing her presence, Ess only steps behind her. Arms crossed across her chest, Ess’ fingertips tapped lightly along the hilt of her sword, tilting her head curiously as she came to a stop. She was quiet for a few moments, standing so she could see into both the men’s eyes; Jake’s intense with a threatening glare and Luckas’ somewhat comical and maybe even mocking. Clearing her throat, Ess spoke slow and unhindered to make sure both the boys heard her. “Jake, I thought you wanted to ….uh Play? Didn’t think you would get started without me....” A small smile touched her face, quirking a brow at Luckas. “..You jealous you weren’t invited, Luckas?” As her eyes scanned over the two, her violet orbs widened in simple amazement when she noticed the small, golden dagger that was pressed against Luckas’ throat. Not that she didn’t notice the threatening pose Jake was in, but the object itself caused her to fall back into silence. Slowly she unfolded her arms, her smile closing as she rested one hand gently upon Jake’s shoulder, the other reaching out towards the dagger. Ess wanted to hold it, to prove to herself it was the same from memory. “...I can’t believe how...tiny the blade is....” She snickered. “I remember how that would hang from your belt, and how conspicuous it was then.....” Her tone softened. “I can’t believe...you still have it...” Her fingers rested lightly upon Jake’s hand.

Ess wasn’t sure what exactly was going on between the two men, yet her focus momentarily had left the situation and more on the object before her, the only thing keeping her in the moment was the gentle growl coming from her wolf, expressing her dissatisfaction with the situation.

Jake couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit of disappointment at the interruption, but then... It was probably better off, for the moment at least. Besides, if he did kill Luckas, this wasn’t the blade to use. He’d never taken a life with that blade, and something told him it wasn’t the time to start. Slowly, he lowered the little dagger, eyes shining in an ice cold glare as he stared at Luckas for yet a few moments before turning his attention to Ess and opening a soft smile towards her. “Of course I kept this... I always keep everything. Besides...” He chuckled. “Best gift ever.” He said, nodding along to his words as he offered her the hilt of the tiny knife.

Once the blade was away from his skin Luckas crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared from Jake to Ess with a severe look in his eyes; mimicking a child being ignored by all of the adults in the room. “Excuse me...” He called. “Yes, I am. I am very jealous. I mean... How dare you... HOW DARE YOU play with others behind my back? I thought we had something special! I mean... Were you just leading me on all this time? That’s just cruel. It’s a cruel thing to do Jake, and I’m hurt right now!”

Jake had calmed himself considerably by Ess’ presence alone, but he was not amused in the slightest and he turned to Luckas abruptly as if he was going to take a swing at him, although he simply glared at the man and muttered. “By all the Gods in the Afterlife... Shut that stupid mouth of yours before I lose it completely!”

Ess’ smile faded some as she turned over the blade in her hand, her thoughts interrupted by an annoyed Luckas running his mouth at her. Out of spite, she lazily turned her gaze towards Luke, brows narrowing in pure perplexion. “What.....is....your drama, Luckas? First off...” Her voice went from confused to matter of fact like. “....Jake and I were going to train.....and second....” Ess sighed shaking the dagger at Luckas, using it to point between him and Jake as she spoke. “You think I’m going to have fire fun without you? If you haven’t noticed or listened to anything I’ve told you, then you are most obviously ignoring the fact that Jake is like my brother..and you and I....” Ess paused giving a sweet smile and small wink. “...Our...definition of play is not quite the same as Jake’s and I’s. I mean..who else can I trust to hide the bodies with.” She couldn’t hold back a series of giggles at her own words. Ess may have been upset and annoyed with the knowledge that Luckas held and the connection she had to Jake; how he knew and kept it to himself, but that was only at first. Now she simply smiled, finding Luckas’ reaction kind of adorable, making her think back on a previous conversation. “I know....I know....You don’t like sharing, My Dear Luckas....” Ess handed back the golden dagger to Jake and lightly patted his arm. “Quiet, relax, I don’t understand what all the tension is about...” Her mind wandered back to the dagger for a moment, remembering how she had given it to Jake for his birthday and that was the same time he had given her ‘Jacob Bear’. It was kind of ironic how she never celebrated her birthday since that day, not even sure when it should have been anyhow. Still, every year she wrote to Jake in her journal, quietly celebrating his birthday even when she believed he was gone. Ess even went as far as baking cinnamon cookies, but never eating them, remembering it was something Jake had liked when he was young.

Luckas listened to Ess in silence and with the same serious look plastered on his face, although he felt the strongest urge to laugh he’d ever felt once he caught the expression on Jake’s face at her words. Finally he tilted his head to the side, closing one eye as he seemed to go into deep thought, after a moment or two he heaved a ridiculously exaggerated sigh and replied. “Fine... I suppose I can forgive the two of you.” He declared, nodding slightly and opening a little playful grin. “And well... See... Lady... Jake is cranky because I was just calmly explaining to him that I’m not going away and he can’t make me. I don’t think he believes me, but maybe Beast Boy can tell him.”

Jake simply stood, glaring at Luckas in anger still, his expression shifting discretely to one of revulsion at some of Ess’ words, but he made himself keep quiet about it, for the time being at least. Quietly he finally made himself look away from Luckas to put the little dagger away in its sheath, after which he stated. “I’m not cranky. I hate you, and I want you gone. Not just from my presence, but from existence, because honestly the simple fact that you breathe makes me sick to my stomach.”
“Oh, come on... You’re being a little over-dramatic now, don’t you think?” Luckas raised an eyebrow at Jake. “I don’t think the situation calls for something like this...”
“You killed my aunt and you took her memories!” Jake exclaimed. “You don’t even want to know what I think this situations calls for.”
Luckas sighed. “I did not... DID NOT... Kill Lena. Most definitely, I did NOT take her memories.” He stated, giving a little shrug. “She was weak and she pushed herself and I don’t have a clue of how I ended up with her memories at all.”
“I don’t believe you.” Jake stated simply. “You never really made it a point of hiding the fact you wanted to kill her.”
“I wanted to be able to kill her, yes. I never hid that, that’s true. And I did attack her, that is also true, but... If she was in her perfect health she wouldn’t have died... That... Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” Luckas grinned as he asked the question. “So tell me something, if you want me to admit I killed Lena... Did you kill Dani Rivers?”

Jake lowered his head, a small bitter chuckle escaping him as he ran one hand through his hair. “You... Have got some nerve...” He muttered. “I’ll give you that. With that said... Luckas...” Jake lifted his head to glare at Luckas with a look of absolute hatred in his eyes. “If you dare speak her name again... Even if it kills me, I will crush you. Are we clear? You have no right to even speak that woman’s name.”
Luckas seemed rather unfazed by Jake’s anger, even though he realized that he was being absolutely serious in his threat. He simply gave a shrug and continued. “Fine. I won’t speak her name.” He replied. “Did you tell her that story though?” He turned to Ess with a curious look. “Did Jakey tell you that he... Uh... Killed his girlfriend’s mom?”

Tala had planted herself between the two men, sitting idly upon her haunches and panting heavily as she stared from one to the next. Essence quirked a brow, her expression seemingly amused, which wasn’t a total facade because she found Luckas’ reaction still somewhat adorable, but this mention of him ‘forgiving’ her sent the urge to smack him behind his head. She remained still however, shaking her head. “Sure...well long as I’m forgiven I guess..” She muttered sarcastically, her eyes falling to Tala at the mention of Aiden, a soft sigh escaping her when the color in her eyes faded some in a momentary saddened look. When the two began bickering back and forth, any trace of Essence’s amusement was clearly gone. Her gaze flickered between the two, her hands resting absently upon her hips before she turned back to Tala, the wolf no longer panting but ears perked curiously as she was staring back at Ess, awaiting her to speak. “I think...they are both being a bit overly dramatic, don’t you Tala?” She whispered sweetly. “..Don’t they seem like an old arranged, married couple or something?”

Rolling her eyes as it continued she spaced out, still staring at the wolf, contemplating the words that were being spoken. Ess didn’t know much about Lena or what exactly had occurred with the circumstances surrounding her death as Luke never wanted to really speak of it, so Ess had not pressured him. Now she was wondering if it had to do with Luckas trying to recover his past or whatever their ‘renegotiation’ had been that she remembered being mentioned back in the bell tower in Newhaven the night she first met Lena. Ideas swam around in Ess’ mind, not quite sure what was going on, a part of her sympathizing with Jake for his obvious grief in losing the woman she figured out was of relation. Ess’ lips parted as if to speak but was not finding a point to join the conversation until Luckas retorted Jake’s words mentioning ‘Dani Rivers.’ Blinking in confusion, Ess looked up at Jake, mentally disliking how much taller he was now than her and how it would take some getting use to. “..Rivers....? As in...Crystal Rivers?....Crys?....Was she your ‘friend’ you told me about in the wolf pack?” Her expression was solemn, actually saddened by the words spoken, not liking how it seemed she was being dragged into their bickering and forced to look at past events, someone else’s memories with a sheer lack of facts and pure ignorance. “Luckas...what the hell is wrong with you? And...YOU?” She motioned between Luckas and Jake as she spoke. “I don’t understand what personal vendettas you two have with each other and I don’t appreciate being tossed into the mix like this. Am I suppose to turn on each of you or one of you? Ugh...” Ess’ brows narrowed, her lips pursed in annoyance. “Well...there will be no killing of either of you while I’m around...unless it’s by me!” She barked, partially joking but getting her point across. “I have no problems having a civil conversation or debate or whatever but you two need to relax while I’m around or I’ll kick both your asses.” Glancing back down at Tala, the wolf was wagging her tail in agreement, adding a happy bark. “Honestly...I would love to hear more about this Rivers and Lena..but I will not push the conversations on either of you...it’s not my business...nor will I judge either of you, as I would be just a hypocrite, no?”

“Whoa, gee...” Luckas mumbled, idly scratching the back of his head. “I don’t get why you people are so tense, seriously...” His tone was slightly confused even though he was obviously, once again, playing the whole thing off as a joke. “I thought we were being civil, I mean... I have no broken ribs and I can breathe... It’s pretty much the friendliest conversation we’ve had.” He said with a little shrug. “There wouldn’t even be much of a problem really, if Jake would just admit that he is a whiny little hypocrite.”
“Shut the hell up!” Jake cut him off, but instead of giving in to his impulses and jumping at Luckas he turned around and walked a few steps away.
Luckas sighed and went on as if there had been no interruption. “Whiny little hypocrite, who thinks he’s oh so much better than me even though, in reality, he’s done pretty much the same shit all his life... And this is just another example, really. I mean sure... I accidentally killed Lena and I may have attacked a few healers, but hey... I was out of my mind, literally, what’s your excuse for killing the Alpha and half a dozen other assassins, Jake? You had orders?”

Jake sighed softly, trying for the sake of not turning this into the worst possible situation, to breathe away some of his rage. As he leaned against a nearby tree he shook his head, his tone still a bit shaky as he spoke but considerably more composed. “We are nothing alike, Luckas. I had orders, yes... To execute traitors and Dani’s death... As you well know, was out of my hands the moment she neglected to tell me she was ill. And even so, unlike you, I paid for what I’ve done. I don’t make excuses for myself, or hide to get away with... Shit, as you put it. So, really, you can use any bit of my memories to try and compare the two of us, if that’s what you want... It won’t change the fact that you are what you are... and if I was anything like you, you would not be standing right now.”
Luckas snickered. “If that’s so... Then how come you are? I mean... I am like me, but still, I haven’t killed you have I? I could have. I think the line you try to place between you and me is remorse, but your remorse is selfish... It’s barely remorse and more like... Self-pity. I mean, you killed all those people, but really... You paid? And they didn’t? Funny how I’m the psycho and I respect life more than you.”

Jake raised an eyebrow at Luckas. “Would you like me to remind you of the reason you gave me when you could have taken my life?”
“I remember it, thank you, but that’s precisely my point.” Luckas muttered, a little bit of annoyance showing in his voice.
“I don’t see that as being the same thing, but I’d rather not get into this right now...” Jake replied, taking another forceful breath to calm his temper. “And you are twisting my words if you think I felt one bit of remorse for killing people who betrayed their own oaths... Some for coin, others for some stupid notion that saving their pathetic lives was worth the deaths of their family. I have no respect for those lives whatsoever, and I never claimed to. As for Dani, like I said; I paid. I’m still paying. I might never be done paying. And this is the kind of thing you would know nothing of... See... I made a choice I felt was wrong, and since I actually have something called a conscience, I am going to have to live with it. Because, you know, for some people killing someone they don’t want dead is actually a serious matter.” Jake fell silent for a moment after that, feeling as if he might as well be trying to lecture the tree behind Luckas and it would be more effective, and deciding he was done with the pointless debating. “Dani Rivers was Crys’ mother. She was the Alpha of the Wolfpack for a little over twenty five years and, at her own request, I poisoned her. Was supposed to be a failed attempt at killing her, but she was sick, and she didn’t tell me, so the nearly fatal poison became extremely fatal and she died three hours after I had already left. I was in Newhaven when she died.” He explained, turning his attention to Ess. “And yes, Crys was my friend. Not so sure about now though.” He sighed softly and nodded towards Luckas. “As for him... I don’t know what is it with the two of you and I’m not sure I want to know... I’ll just tell you what I told everyone else; I’ll try, but I can’t promise anything, Ess. You are family to me, and Twins only know how much I respect the Captain, but I honestly can see a day when I’ll just hate this guy more.”

“Hmph..” Ess began in response to Luckas’ comment on no broken ribs. “...True...I haven’t broken any furniture over your head today...” Ess nodded towards Jake as she continued. “...and I haven’t kicked you in the face, ...so all in all we seem to be doing pretty good.” Ess laughed, shaking her head at Luckas calling Jake ‘whiny’, wondering if he thought the same of her sometimes. She simply glared at Luckas when he said that, showing her non approval for the comment, and still she kept quiet as the men spoke. The glare remained upon her face when she heard mention of Luckas’ opportune time to kill Jake and some coded reason for not doing it. It took much strength to keep her mouth shut, not wanting to interrupt Jake as he continued.

Ess marveled at Jake’s restraint, as she fully expected mockery or outrage when Luckas spoke of pity, remorse, or respect of life...especially with the obvious distaste for Luckas in general. Ess looked over into Luckas’ black orbs and thought she recognized a hint of honest interest in Jake’s response as he spoke and she did wonder if Luckas understood all he was saying, even if he had not experienced it. Yes experience was a big part in learning, but Ess was almost in tears as she listened to Jake recall what had occurred, trying to explain as best as possible the difficult decision he had made. Never had Ess experienced such a choice and she felt her heart drop at the idea: Killing someone you did not wish to see dead. Looking between the two, silent as Jake spoke, she didn’t fully realize how she had approached Jake, and was standing by his side. Shaking her head slowly, her eyes glistened with the threat of tears, her own mind wondering if she would ever be faced with the choice and if she did, she couldn’t think of what reason that may ever possibly send her over the edge, to force her hand against her heart. It would have to be something dreaded to change her heart; but going against it, she felt she would rather die herself.

When Jake turned to address her, she found herself leaning against him, her head along his arm. “....Do you still care for Crys? Have you talked to her? I think you should...” Ess’ eyes were still sad but she smiled when Jake mentioned her as family, lightly squeezing his arm. “I’m not trying to change either of you, so if you two dislike one another, that is not my business. Just try to remember if it’s worth it in the end.” Taking a deep breath she stepped back from Jake, her eyes falling back to Tala as she continued.

“I was taught as a child that I was soulless...there was nothing to me..no substance...no reason to think I was special...I was a puppet for someone else to use.....eventually I was given reasons to think for myself. I discovered the truth about myself little by little, learning what was right and wrong...remembering some of what was lost that also aided me into the right direction. ..Most of it was a darker direction...but I still feel it was right..all the same....hate was something I needed...something that could destroy me if I didn’t release it and face it...something that made me stronger. Now I walk the line that separates the night and day...not partial to any particular side...but more a companion, one who understands both the light and the darkness and decides for herself what is best for her. Don’t get me wrong...I won’t let hate rule me..especially when I’ve seen what else life holds that fuels our strengths and our reasons for living. So, please believe me when I say I understand ‘Hate’, but again, make sure it’s worth it.”

Violet orbs flashed in a subtle strobe like motion, even resembling how lightning stretched across a darkened sky, as her own words reminded her of her brother. It was different though, as she wanted him dead. His actions had changed her heart, and his betrayal deserved nothing less than what was to come. Ess didn’t voice what she was thinking, but simply looked up at Luke with a mischievous smile, a soft rosy glow appearing at her cheeks.

Luckas was really actually silent for the first time that night, and the serious expression on his face wasn’t a playful one. He was paying close attention to the things being said, trying to ignore just a tiny bit of genuine jealousy he was feeling. If he was perfectly honest, he didn’t really see Jake as threat, more like an annoyance, and he really had no interest in seeing him dead and overall it just seemed like too much work to get rid of an annoyance. Not worth the trouble. When Ess finished speaking and he caught her expression it reminded him of what Zeke had told him about her brother; it made him mentally question whether he should let her know he’d seen him as he doubted he could talk her out of hunting him down.

Jake had flinched slightly at Ess’ questions about Crys, at first not quite answering and simply nodding as a response. He couldn’t help but feel amusement as she went on talking, not for her words in itself but for how they suddenly made him feel like he was a six year old who didn’t know any better all over again. When she finished speaking he answered the questions, giving a little shrug. “I’ve tried talking to Crys, but she’s really angry at me... And she’s awfully stubborn...” He smirked. “You know the type. Even if she does forgive me, it’s not going to happen so soon. And might involve some violence, depending on circumstances... Not everyone can control their temper as well as you can.” He teased.

Luckas stifled a laugh at the comment. “Wouldn’t that make the world a lovely place...” He played, still half lost in his own thoughts, before letting the seriousness in his expression disappear completely. “Well, Lady... Not that I don’t enjoy the tension and aggressiveness we got going here... Because I do enjoy some aggressiveness... But if you want I can go take a walk and come back later. I don’t think I have anything I’d be willing to discuss in front of the kids.” He said, nodding towards Jake.

Essence sighed, giving Jake a playful push. “I know who Crys is, silly and yes I think I do know the stubborn type.” She chuckled. “If she’s anywhere near as angry as I was then I’m sure she may even surpass my temper, and maybe you need another good ass kicking. Best advice I can give, is to just not give up. Giving up is almost the same as not caring. And...if you want I can have a chat with her, not to try to sway her per say, but maybe to help you understand better.” Ess shrugged. “Hey...some people have it coming...and you’re one to talk about tempers, Jakey. Besides.” Ess smirked, glancing over at Luckas. “I don’t have a quick temper...I just have a quick reaction to bullshit..” Her eyes lit up when she caught Luckas’ comment, slowly approaching him while glancing over her shoulder back at Jake. “Oh, I got a great Idea! See, right there is something you two actually agreed on...and what if I end up being your ‘common ground?’” Ess giggled, her face scrunching up in amusement. “...No? Too soon?”

Clearing her throat, Ess nodded to Luckas about going for a walk, noting and tucking away in her mind how he didn’t respond to any of which Jake had explained earlier and wondered, oddly enough, if he was ‘ok’. She wasn’t exactly sure what he was thinking about at the moment and decided he probably needed time for himself anyways. “I’m gonna have dinner in a couple hours if you want some Luckas, you know I’ll expect you later anywho.” Ess winked slowly at Luckas, smiling when Tala trotted over towards him, unexpectedly nuzzling his hand with her nose. “Aww...think Tala wants to stalk you.”

Jake sighed scratching the back of his head as he muttered. “I think it’s safe to say she’d be a bit angrier than you... So... I’m not going to turn down any type of help. I sure as hell need it, and I’m sure she’d talk to you.” He snickered. “You two can bond over my stupidity.” He joked.

Luckas snickered. “Oooh, can I play? I can write a book on Jake’s stupidity.” He said, rolling his eyes as Jake glared at him again. “Oh, yeah... I’m not allowed to bond with the blind one... Fine then.” He agreed, frowning at him. “Party pooper.” He laughed, nodding at Ess as she told him she expected him later. “Sure Lady... You know I never eat unless you feed me, right?” He joked, nodding at Tala and starting to walk off. “Come on, Tala... I haven’t stalked the Captain in a while...” He told the wolf, absolutely sure it wouldn’t be as easy to go by unnoticed with a very pregnant wolf following after him.

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Mageria Talsheir Character Portrait: Darren Hearst Character Portrait: Thomas Sidin
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-Before Luckas goes and talks with Ella –

Mageria sat serenely in the Council chamber, smiling at the men who shuffled in. There was more than one who stared at her in disgust and disbelief. There was also more than a hint of rage in her smile. One by one they all sat down.

Adolf, one of the senior Councilmen was the one who sat forward and cleared his throat. “Cap….ahem. Lady Mageria. You have been exiled and stripped of your rank. Why is it that you now see fit to sit here, with us?” He waved one hand at the rest of the Council. Mageria had always liked Adolf, which was why she kept her tone respectful. “With all due respect to the Council. I left because the Queen asked me to, not because I was exiled. The Black Knights cannot be exiled. They may only be executed, and that by one of their own rank. It is in the laws set down long ago. She nodded over to Thomas, who sat across from her. “The White Knights have seen fit to welcome us back, during this time of troubles.” She smiled sweetly at the men, watching as they all shifted slightly in their seats. She had never really managed a sweet smile.

After that, ground rules of a sort were laid out. They had sent a fast messenger to the White Shadows, waiting for a telepath to answer the question of what had happened to the Queen. Mageria knew, as so she made as many plans as she could for when they would be forced to imprison the necromancer for the duration of the pregnancy.

-Later-
Thomas scowled at Mageria. “You could have been slightly more diplomatic with them.”
Mageria shrugged and started polishing a nick out of a practice sword. “Diplomacy is your thing. You smile, people trust you. I smile, they start looking for something to hide behind. I’ve never really understood it.”

Thomas rubbed his forehead, feeling the pulse of a migraine that never seemed to go away anymore. “That’s because you don’t smile. You bare your teeth, like you’re about to rip their throats out.”

“I do not!” Mageria exclaimed in slightly shocked and hurt tones.

“Mageria,” Thomas sighed. “You are a woman, in charge of what is well known to be a bloodthirsty amoral much of killers. You yourself confessed to killing the former Captain of the Black Knights, a man who actually earned the reputation that you now enjoy. And you wonder why people are uneasy?”

Mageria looked up and cocked an eyebrow. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

Thomas sighed. “Yes, actually. Things would be better if you weren’t around for a little bit. I can handle things here, I need you to be out of sight for a little bit. Go talk to your people, get them ready for what’s to come. Because it’s going to be hell.”
---------

Luckas was more careful than what was his usual going into he Raven's Nest that morning. He was aware that what he did in the castle had caused some trouble and so he made sure to not run into absolutely anyone on his way in. Of course he couldn't avoid Mageria, in fact he had gone there with every intention of running into her, but he felt it was best to not talk to anyone else before they spoke. So he found the woman, and lurked around her, patiently waiting until he managed to finally catch her alone. He didn't bother pretending the woman didn't know he was there, if she didn't it would be the first time. "Lovely day isn't it, Captain?" He greeted, stepping out from his hiding spot amongst the trees and looking around as if wondering if there was someone else lurking there besides himself. "Feels like we may be having some sunny days ahead, finally."

Mageria had been sitting next to the stream sharpening her sword when Luckas showed up. She had known he was there, of course. She would have known either way, but here in a place where she knew every sound and animal call, it wasn't even difficult. She didn't glance up, didn't pause; just kept pulling the whetstone along the edge of the blade.

"Luckas."

She didn't know why he had come, but given that he was trying so hard to be causal, it wasn't for any good reason.

"I'm thinking of calling you StormCrow. Every time you show up, things seem to go sideways. Why is that?"

"Oh?" Luckas asked, arching an eyebrow and staring at Mageria with an intrigued look in his eyes for a moment before letting a chuckle escape him. "Well, I wonder what reason you would ever have to call me, Captain. Not to mention that, as you probably know, I'm never too far away... I really wouldn't mind though; It's a neat name. Very ominous-sounding." He mused, chuckling some more under his breath. "As you are probably wondering... I'm here, instead of being in the area of the camp I usually prefer to roam, for a particular reason Captain. Ever since Lena's death I've been experiencing some... Episodes... I have these annoying little visions from time to time, and I suddenly know things I was not supposed to know; that only she knew. It's not conscious, I either have random flashes or I suddenly find myself knowing answers to questions I've never bothered to ask before. It's actually pretty useful, aside from being uncomfortable and confusing. Now, for instance, I know that the 'medicine' Lena's pet gave you with the intent to save your life was nothing more than a very powerful sedative mixed with some well chosen hallucinogenics... Opens doors in secluded areas of your mind so you can go inside. That's all it does; once inside you're on your own. None of the people they tried it on before ever awoke. You shouldn't have either. Considering every test ever performed with both my brother's victims and mine, surviving was an impossibility. So the question, this annoying, persistent, question in the back of my head... Remains... How did you do it?" The question hadn't really changed from the last time they had conversed, but the tone behind it was entirely different from the amused curiosity Luckas had always displayed when wondering about the matter; his tone was serious, almost uncharacteristically serious. If there had been an important motive behind his questioning before, it had suddenly become very apparent. If there hadn't been; then something had changed. "I need to know Captain, and if you can't really tell me, then I need to see."

Mageria's hands never slowed, her posture never changed, but there was a sudden tension in the air around her. Her gaze turned inwards for a moment, remembering.

Almost.... almost she could hear a whisper of a voice again.

"Well, if there was noting but some powerful halucenagens, then what happened in my mind wouldn't make much sense, would it? Just the ravings of a mind trying to turn itself inside out. And if nobody else survivned, why did I? Maybe your brother just didn't have a chance to finish what he started. Maybe he just did a bad job on me. And if not, Luckas, why in the name of the Twins do you think I would let you into my head?" Her voice was trying very hard to be causal, but failed slightly. "Your brother didn't manage to drive me to suicide, but I very much doubt that you would be so sloppy."

"For fucks sake." Luckas muttered under his breath, starting to feel a bit of annoyance. "It seems like even though you shared a one-sided telepathic link with my brother for a few moments before you bashed his head in, you still don't get how this works... Here's a few facts then, just for your benefit... Fact one: It is impossible to do this halfway, there is no way of doing a poor job of it, it's something that either is or isn't and in your case it sure as hell was. Fact two: The mind always tries to repair itself one way or another. Usually our consciousness gets in the way, rational thinking gets in the way... Because all it does is focus of the pain. And the pain screams at us to just give in.. And it screams... And screams... And SCREAMS... Until we finally do what it wants, shutting that off is the mind's best chance to heal; hence the sedatives. And hallucinations are simple projections of the things that dwell inside the very places my brother was oh so famous for attacking within his victims' minds. The hallucinogenics, as I said, open the doors to those dark corners where no one likes to go and exposes the problems. Lena was a lot of things, but she was never stupid; the concept was sound, in theory it should have worked, but it simply couldn't have because it just... never... bloody... did. Something was missing. Whatever it was, you seem to have found it and there is no amount of maybes that will erase that fact. So there: It is what it is, Captain. Your mind holds the key; salvation always comes with a fucking price."

Luckas went silent for a moment, taking his time to take a couple of breaths and maintain his tone as calm as he could. "Remember that last time we spoke of this I said that maybe we could help each other... That was just a friendly offer back then, now things have changed. So believe me, because you know I don't lie: You're going to need my help soon enough. As is though, you can either give me what I want, or you'll eventually be forced to kill me, because I'm not going to stop trying. It's as simple as that and you know it. You know that there's a great possibility that my answers fit some of your questions as well. You know that if my goal was to drive you insane or make you suicidal there are many ways I could do that just as easily by using the people around you instead of standing here and asking for permission. You also know that I may be many things as well, Captain, and insane may just be one of those things, but I'm not stupid either."

"I'll need your help Luckas? With what; the fact that I still have nightmares so real that I'll wake up with a sword in my hand? That I once had to start locking myself in my room because I kept waking up wandering the halls fully armed with no clue how I got there? The fact that I sometimes think I'm wading through rivers of blood while everybody I know or love floats past me and I know, I know deep down in the very core of my soul that it's my fault?" Mageria's hands still hasn't hesitated throughout her questions, but the tension in the air around her had become almost unbearable. She brought her sword up and slowly examined the edge of her blade, looking for nicks. Light shivered along the edge, evidence that her hands had started shaking. "Besides which, we've already established that you can't get in my mind. Some sort of mental scar tissue left behind by your dear brother."

"Or maybe you mean something else. What is it you've been doing, Luckas? What trouble have you been stirring up when you leave here?"

Luckas sighed softly, keeping silent for a long while as though he was thinking of words to say when in fact he was attempting to hold in the fit of laughter that inevitably escaped him so violently his knees gave in causing him to fall over. "Oh, excuse me Captain, I couldn't help myself, it's just..." He choked on his words and coughed for a few moments, waiting until he could breath normally before moving on. "I know what that's like, well, sort of... And yes, it's unpleasant, more so for you sentimental types than for someone like me, but... No, I can't help you with that. Well, in theory maybe I could, but I wouldn't consider that a solution to your problem. No... Forget that, we don't want to do that." He chuckled softly, shaking his thoughts away and moving onto more pressing matters. "That's all I will say; you will need my help. You'll know what for when it's time, unless of course you kill me, then you probably will never know. That'd be a shame, but that's just life."

Slowly Luckas stood up straight, wiping some dirt from his clothes as he mumbled. "Your nightmares seem real because you make it so, Captain. All those little things you believe you're to blame for... Well, you are because in your mind, for some stupid reason, at some point you decided to be. Blaming these things on the dead boy is a rather pathetic attitude the way I see it. If you choose to feed your inner demons you have only yourself to blame when they eventually bite your head off." He smirked. "What I'm saying is... You've always been fucked up in the head... You just didn't know it yet. Now you do; you can do something about it or you can sit in a corner when no one is watching and wallow in self-pity, it's not my business which one you go for and I honestly don't care. I have my own fucked up head to worry about and a list of things I'd like to get done before it eventually explodes, soo... Yes, that's true; I can't go into your mind if I try, but that's because you really, really, don't want me to. If you were to let me, then I could. And we would never have to speak of this again, which, believe me, is something I really look forward to. Probably more than you."

Mageria finally sheathed her sword, standing up and turning around. "You're right Luckas. I'm fucked up in the head, quite possibly more than anybody around here realizes." She smiled bitterly. "But you've got me all figured out, don't you? Too bad that you can't see what's right in front of your face. Because if you could, you'd know why I survived." She strapped her sword to her belt in an absent gesture while she talked. "I hope you enjoyed this little chat, Luckas. Because it's as close as you are ever going to get to the inside of my head, ever again." With that she turned and walked back towards the main body of Raven camp, gliding smoothly through the underbrush.

Luckas shook his head, steadily pacing after Mageria as she walked away. "It was not my intention to even try to figure you out, Captain and I never pretended to give enough of shit to go through the trouble, but fine... If you're through talking about yourself, let me ask you something else then, just out of curiosity; after you killed Matthew, what did they do with his body? Did they bury him somewhere or is he still rotting down there where you left him? Do you even know?"

Mageria glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "Normally we bury the bodies of prisoners in a cemetery we had set aside for them. Even the condemned deserve a place of remembrance. But after that fight there were too many bodies to bury while the wounded still had to be tended, so they were cremated on a mass pyre and their names were inscribed on the wall."

"Their names..." Luckas muttered under his breath, a hint of disgust crossing his voice. "Fine." He stated simply. "One other reason I've come was to say that I had a chat with poor Little Ella. She finally understands that she's going to have to die, even if she can overpower the necromancer and regain control. Apparently she couldn't figure that one out on her own; as I suspected intelligence isn't much of a requirement to rule a city. At least she has the chance to make her peace with it now. Isn't it a sad day for Valcrest when the only one thoughtful enough to bother with these little details is the psychopath?"

Mageria sighed softly. "I wasn't sure that she could hear anything I would have said and there was no point in speaking to the necromancer. So, thank you for that. Of course, in order to have talked with her, you would have had to have gotten past my people who were guarding the room she was locked in. Given that you still want something from me, I'm guessing that you didn't do anything permanent to them, because you know what I would do to you in return. So. Was there any reason for your conversation and you telling me about it?"

"Don't think my reluctance to harm your people has something to do with this, Captain, or that it'll stop me if one of them... I'm going to assume you'll know who I mean... Gets on my bad side... But your boys at the castle, they just took a little nap. The other dude who walked in on me wasn't as lucky, but that was self-defense." Luckas shrugged simply at the questioning. "I don't know if there was a reason for our conversation, Captain, depends on what you'd consider a valid reason. I did offer to kill her, permanently, but she didn't take up on the offer; probably because of the kid, but then... What kind of life is it going to have anyway? If mommy, uncle, and grandpa are anything to go by... well... Best of luck to the little bugger. And I just thought you'd like to know... That she's not suffering as much as she could be. That's... comforting... I think? Common courtesy is something that hasn't yet died on me, Captain... You did warn me I was being sought after by someone after all; I appreciated that. I think you probably shouldn't have told her you killed Matt though... Sammy really, really, wanted to find us both alive. And she can be a pretty dangerous person when she doesn't get what she wants. Like me, but with less restraints. She didn't say anything, but when she asked me who did it and I said I didn't know, well... She wasn't happy."

Mageria shrugged. "Well, I thought it was better to tell her the truth than to sit there and smile at her before she found out on her own. I take it she has the family talent of getting into people's heads?" She stopped as a sudden thought occurred to her. "Does she know, what happened between your brother and I? And that you can't get in my head?" She tilted her head to the side. "Is that why you want to know what happened so desperately?"

"Family trait?" Luckas chuckled. "First, Sammy said I'm her brother, and in a way that's true, but we're not blood relatives. Second, do you not remember what I've told you Captain? I wasn't born like this... There's not a drop of enlightened blood in my entire family line as far as any known test can tell. That was why Lena spent so much time poking around my mind instead of tossing me in a dungeon cell and that's a part of the reason I need to know what happened. Sammy is enlightened, yes, but what I am, what my brother was... It's something else entirely. Like I said, she hasn't told me anything, I don't usually like to talk about Matthew and she respects that, but if I were to guess... Sammy knows what happened well enough. There's a lot of things she's not quite ready to tell me yet and if there's one thing I've learned these past weeks, however, is that my memory is an incredibly unreliable source of information. So... Maybe, I'll get back to you when I know more. Maybe, because I've already been twice as helpful to you in thirty seconds than you have been to me in months."

Mageria had turned to say something when she stopped suddenly, lips slightly parted as she reran the conversation in her head.

I wasn't born like this... There's not a drop of enlightened blood in my entire family line as far as any known test can tell.

She actually had forgotten that Luckas had told her that; but in her defense, a lot had been happening recently.

"Yes," she whispered, "they would need a lot of children for that......". She turned abruptly and strode quickly to her cabin, stepping over Puppy as he lay across the threshold and climbing the steps to her workroom. Pulling the journal from a cabinet, she started flipping through the pages, searching for a passage that she half remembered.

Luckas frowned, a look of confusion spreading across his features as he watched Mageria freeze in place and then suddenly wander off. "Wait what?" He mumbled, only catching a couple of words she had whispered. He froze for a second while the woman was already walking off, causing him to have to run for a couple of steps to catch up. Following after Mageria to the door of her cabin, Luke stopped for a moment to briefly scratch Puppy's ears before wandering inside and just hanging around there looking really confused, but deciding that he needed to know what exactly had prompted that reaction. "Captain?"

"Hmmm? Oh, sorry, come on up." Mageria's entire demeanor had changed, now that she had a problem that she could work on. She pulled out a think bundle of notes and started laying them out in chronological order. She looked up as Luckas came up the stairs and reached out to pull him over by one arm.
"Here, look at this." She gestured at a map of Valcrest, small carved stones laid out across it. "Each of these marks the place where a village was raided and destroyed over the years. The weird part was..." She started laying the notes from the journal out next to notes from her own records. "The weird part was that we never found enough bodies. An entire village destroyed and all we would find were the people who died during the fighting." She reached out and touched the journal laying to the side. "According to this, though, they were planned as, cargo raids. With people as the main target." She pushed a strand of hair back behind her ear. "But it almost seemed like children were the main target, once you shift through the ramblings of that idiot. Which didn't make any sense, because children don't make good slaves." She carefully reached out and adjusted the position of a small ring of white unmarked stones. "Except if he wasn't selling them as slaves and instead, experiments? I doubt that this, what ever it was that happened to you and your brother, worked the first time. Which means that they needed lots of children to practice on." She reached out and tapped one finger on the journal. "I hope to meet him, someday."

Luckas stood, looking over the map, his expression seeming to darken for a moment as Mageria spoke. The word 'experiments' causing an involuntary twitch in the corner of his left eye. He couldn't remember everything, but he could remember well enough to know that his 'conditioning' or whatever they liked to call it had been far from pleasant. Throughout his silence Luke's face contorted in an expression of contempt and disgust as he tried to think of how many times they had tried this before it finally worked. Sam's words about her cats crossing his mind abruptly, her casually telling him how her father had made her attempt the imprint on twelve kittens, ten of which didn't survive... He and Matt were like those cats... There had been others before, but what about now?

Luckas heaved a deep sigh, his expression slowly changing to a void as he finally spoke. "I see... Well... There are things I can share and maybe they will help you, Captain. However, I have conditions. First: I've asked this before, but I'll ask again... Don't tell anyone that I'm not enlightened; absolutely no one. What was done or not to me is no one's business but my own. Second: Any information I have to give, believe it or don't believe it... Just don't ever ask me where I got it. These are my terms." Luckas stated simply, looking up from the map to stare Mageria in the eyes. "There is plenty I'm not going to tell you, Captain. I could, but I don't want to. There are many reasons for that, but the main reason is that at this point I don't feel I can trust you to trust me." Luckas paused for a moment, turning his attention to the map once again. "Lady mentioned to me a while back that children were being taken in Blackpond. I know that the person in charge of what was done to me is dead, because I have been searching for him. I've been digging around, I haven't found much about any recent activities, to be honest, but I can tell you some things I've learned about my past and of some places you can look for more information. That is, if my terms are acceptable to you."

"Agreed," Mageria didn't even hesitate before she spoke; if anything, children were her one weak spot. To keep this abomination from happening to any other child, she would make a deal with a demon. She met Luckas's eyes, her own expression as grave as his. She took a deep breath. "Help me make sure this doesn't happen again, Luckas, and I'll do my best to let you see why I survived."

"Alright." Luckas mumbled, not seeming too pleased with having to talk about these things, but suppose it was only fair. "I was born in Blackpond. When Matthew and I were around three or four years old our father was killed and out mother sold us to these people. She was not very good at her job apparently. I'm not sure how or when we were taken from there to Newhaven, I can't remember much of anything useful from that time except for voices. When Lena caught us playing with the Warlord Xypher in the Castle, I had recognized one of those voices in his mind. More recently I discovered the man's name is Bennett. He's a councilman in Newhaven still. He has been threatened very recently to keep his mouth shut about the past and if you do get him to speak no matter what anyone does to prevent it he is going to die or simply disappear. It seems the man in charge of the experiments offered us to Newhaven as an advantage in battle, he intended to raise a small army for sell, but since my brother and I proved to be too... Uncontrollable... The Newhaven people backed out of the deal, technically the whole operation was shut down. Mathew and I were to be killed, but..." Luckas shrugged slightly. "I don't know what happened next. I know they offered Blackpond the same deal, but they were already training their own assassins and good old Rory told them to fuck off... Look how well that ended for him..." Luckas snorted a slightly amused laugh at the irony and continued. "Like I said, the man who ordered this to be done to me is dead. The new leadership... Is something else entirely, something far more dangerous, far more subtle and far more deadly. And if, IF, they are taking children to do with them what was done to me and Mathew... They're not going to sell them out this time."

Luckas stopped talking for a while, crossing his arms over his chest. His tone was completely calm as he spoke, but there was noticeable tension in his posture as if speaking of any of this would immediately cause horrible things to happen to them both. He forced a deep breath before moving on. "In the past, oh, eight years or so, they have infiltrated Newhaven, Blackpond, the Wolfpack, the Crimson, and you can be damn sure that if they haven't infiltrated this camp yet they are at least watching closely. For what I understand, they have associates in powerful positions in several locations outside of Valcrest scattered across the continent. The only place they seem to shy away from is the White Shadows' territory, but with Lena gone the Shadows can't help even if they want to. They've pretty much taken over Blackpond at this point and the King doesn't seem to notice because he doesn't care, hell if he wasn't such a good distraction they would have taken him down and replaced him for someone more controllable by now; those assassins are only alive, basically, because they've been allowed to live. If you're feeling particularly adventurous, one other thing you can do is send a few of your guys into the city and try to get them into the fighting circuit, that's the only thing I've seen them allow outsiders into, and they'd surely see some stuff. The places aren't too hard to find if you go around the more quiet parts of town, the ones even the worse types seem a bit hesitant to wander through. I have to warn you though that those places are brutal and if anyone were to get killed down there you shouldn't expect to see any leftovers. I think it's not necessary to say that enlightened people are not very welcome in these places either." Luckas frowned, watching the leather journal Mageria had showed him, thinking on what she had told him. "This man, whoever he is, must serve some great purpose to them if he's still alive. Now that they're pretty much out in the open they've been eliminating anyone who has deeply involved in their affairs, but not this guy. I take it he must be important somehow."

Mageria laughed softly. "Important. Yes, you could say that." She absently started doodling the symbol she had seen over and over in the journal. "His name is Asher. He is, among other things, a weapons merchant. He sells to anybody with a bit of coin in their pocket, playing the Cities against each other. Till recently, he was living in that underground prison city in Blackpond. His currently location is unknown."

Mageria swallowed hard and held out the scrap of paper to Luckas. "The journal is in code, but this symbol repeats over and over, in reference to "Cattle". I believe that this is when he's selling the children." She waved one hand at the map. "Like I said, I think that I've narrowed down where their base might be. I've got some people out scouting the area now." She shrugged. "But if they happen to see children in trouble there.... I doubt that there will be much left after they get done with it."

"Asher..." Luckas mumbled under his breath as he stared at the symbol Mageria had sketched on a bit of paper. Of course he should have figured it would come up, but the fact that it was on this guy's journal was what surprised him, maybe Sam was wrong about how the symbol became known; if she knew that this guy had doodling it in his personal records it was doubtful that she would have let him get away with it. "I see..." He muttered. "I've seen the symbol before. That's about as much as I have to say on the matter." He replied shortly, clearly not wanting to dwell on the subject. "If I have any information on this Asher person or his whereabouts though I'll have no problem passing it along, or possibly fetching him personally, but then... I assume you'd prefer he'd be alive and sane enough to talk, yes? So maybe I shouldn't fetch him." Luckas opened a devious smile at the thought of hunting this guy, but then it was probably a bad idea to openly go after one of the Brotherhood's associates; Zeke would surely want his head for it. "One more thing Captain... I don't think I really need to tell you this, but just to be safe I will anyway; you shouldn't, under any circumstance, tell me about any plans. Not even if for some weird reason they involve setting my pants on fire; not even to give me fair warning, just don't tell me. Trust me, it wont be good for anyone if you do."

With that final warning Luckas silenced for a moment, wondering if he should or not mention this guy's journal to Sam. On one hand she might tell him something important, on the other... It may not go well in the long run. He needed to give that some thought. "I suppose..." He started. "...That's all the information I have to give at the moment, Captain."

Mageria nodded. “I promised if you helped that I would do my best to let you see what you wanted. Since there are things that you obviously don’t want to be told about…. It should happen before I make too many other plans.” Luckas opened him mouth to say something in return, then shut it with a snap. She was giving him what he wanted, no need to make her angry again. Instead he stepped forward and did his best to smile cheerfully. “I’m glad you finally came around to my way of things, Captain. Now if you could just relax….?” Mageria nodded and let her eyes fall half closed, taking deep, even berathes. Luckas leaned forward, concentrating…. It was like searching for an island in the mist. Every time he though he had a lock on the Captain’s mind, it slipped away again.
His eyes flared black several times before he sat back. “Captain, really. You need to let me in.”
Mageria sat up and glared right back. “I’m trying. I don’t even know how this happened in the first place.”
Luckas sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Just, try not to avoid me. Think of ripples on a pond or something.”

Mageria sighed and bowed her head, focusing on finding a still center in her mind. Her breath slowed and her face grew serene. Luckas leaned forward, cautiously reaching out again. This time he got the sense of walking through a dense fog, following somebody that he could almost see. He followed them for several minutes before what felt like a gust of wind blew away the fog and left him facing Mageria. They stood together in a shadow-drenched courtyard, just a few torches struggling to lift the gloom. Across from him Mageria stood in her Black Knight armor, heavily scared and dented here and there. It might have been a trick of the shadows, but it almost looked as if there were three people standing behind her; which wasn’t possible because he hadn’t invited anybody else along.
“You know Captain, a few plants would really brighten this place up.” Luckas couldn’t suppress the remark. When the woman could choose any sort of inner landscape, this was what you felt most at home in? Mageria shrugged. “You wanted to see what happened. It wasn’t exactly a vacation.” Luckas shrugged. “Whatever. Just show me and we can get this over with.”

Mageria winced, clearly not happy with the idea, but set her jaw and inclined her head. She rippled and vanished, and the scene wavered, before snapping into focus. Twin Mageria’s stood facing each other, one crazed and drenched in blood and one dressed in a simple tunic and leggings, her he=aid pulled back in a long tail. They seemed to be speaking to each other, but the sound was distorted, as if hear from the bottom of a well. Luckas moved closer, trying to get a grasp of what was going on, but the scene wavered and blurred, washing away like watercolors in the rain.

“DAMN IT CAPTAIN!!” he roared. He was so close and the stupid woman kept pulling away what he needed.

“You’re not going to get what you want that way.” A cool and slightly amused voice caused him to turn. The person who stood behind him…. Was not Mageria. Not completely. It was as if they were part of her, but a part that was separate on its own.
“Who the fuck are you?” It was a woman, dressed in an archaic black coat. It had a deep hood that covered her face, with a long white braid flowing down from it. The woman ignored the question. “You said it yourself earlier, this whole thing was about symbolism and hidden meanings. Did you really think you would understand it without a frame of reference?”
“Who. Are. You?” Luckas was rapidly loosing what little patience he had. Again, the woman ignored him.

“You need to know what happened. Are you willing to pay the price?” There was a brief flash of teeth in the darkness of her hood and she held out a hand. “It’s the only way you’ll get what you want.”
“Fine.” Luckas snarled. He reached out and grasped her hand in return. "What's the price?"
Again there was a feral gleam of teeth in the darkness. The hand grasping his clamped down until he could feel his bones creaking.

"Pain."

There was a brief twisting of his vision and then …. Somehow he was inside Mageria’s mind in a way that he had never experienced before. She/he stood across from the her/him that stood drenched in blood. It was as if all of the guilt and rage and evil thoughts they had ever had had been ripped away and stood before them, a personification of corruption. She/he could feel the horror of facing it and at the same was drawn to it. It was terrifying, being so out of balance. Somewhere in their mind there was a scream that went on and on and on……

Their opposite laughed insanely and leapt forwards, trying to strangle them with her/his bare hands. They screamed, feeling evil burning into their skin. They fought, but it was no use, they were too evenly matched. Mageria/Luckas tossed their head wildly. “No,” Luckas could feel his lips shaping the words as well as hers. “No, this is wrong. You are me. We are….balance.” The other froze for a moment and Mageria/Luckas took their chance. Lunging forwards, they wrapped their arms around the other, feeling corruption eating into their skin, into their selves, into their core.

The realization came suddenly. In order for Mathew to force one to face their evil, he had to draw it away from the rest of a person’s mind, making one half again into an innocent, before the burdens of the world descended upon them. When one was innocent, the idea of evil seems overwhelming. The first was always the harshest, staining the soul in a way that never washed clean. After that they became easier, as one became used to the weight of evil. But as he tore away the weight of evil, he also tore away the strength that came from facing the world. Mageria/Luckas realized that, knew that in order to face the world and make any difference for the better, they would have to accept the weight of that evil again.

Mageria/Luckas accepted evil back into their souls, feeling it etch itself into their selves, feeling the weight of a lifetime of harsh choices and sins and evil all burying them under what felt like the weight of a mountain. The evil worked it’s way deeper, forcing itself into every facet of their minds, staining them with blood that would never wash away….. And Mageria/Luckas accepted it, drew it in; because without it they would never have the strength to make the world a better place. And still the weight of that evil burned and burned and burned and she/he screamed………


Darkness descended.


Luckas spun in place, searching vainly for something to hold onto in the maelstrom that Mageria’s mind had become. He reached, looking for anything he could find. The same fog that had kept him out now made it almost impossible to find a way out. A snatch of a child’s laughter drew him in one direction, he followed it and found himself standing in a sunlit glad. A small girl ran past him, red hair flying. She looked over her shoulder and Luckas could see the hint of the woman she would become someday.

“Pappa!” she cried joyfully, running through the trees. “Pappa, come look!” she ran and was swung into the arms of a tall man, who threw her into the air with a laugh. “What is it now, my Ria?” The girl twisted around to point and caught sight of Luckas, gasping in fright. The scene twisted again, Mageria standing before him. She moaned and clutched at her temples, stumbling back a few steps. She bent over, gasping for breath and coughing. She looked up, teeth bared.

“Get. Out.”

In the real world, Mageria collapsed bonelessly to the floor, eyes rolling backwards.

----Later, After Essence collapses----


Darren didn't sleep much for the next few nights, staying up late to decode what he could as he waited for news on the Captain's return. It wasn't that he didn't know Mageria's time in the city was of great importance, he was just extremely antsy to find out as much information as he could to substantiate his theories. It didn’t help that the more time he spent on the journal, the harder it was to concentrate. He began obsessing, only taking breaks to eat, until finally he finished the first section. That was when he put the book down, if one could call it that as he tucked it back into his jacket. He couldn’t part with it, but at least he was trying to focus on something else. Anything else, really. Darren knew it wasn’t good for his sanity to have gone so long without sleep, but every time he closed his eyes he saw the little redheaded girl and felt nauseous.

Darren had heard Jake was back in camp, but only after the commotion the Captain broke up, took place. He had caught Irv leaving the scene prior but didn’t get to question him on the matter. He didn’t really care at the moment why Jake almost got stabbed, chalking it up to the bits he had procured when he shook the man’s hand. ‘Jake must really like his redheads.’ Darren thought to himself, snickering at the bits he overheard as he watched Aiden wait outside the medics cabin only to be turned away by one of the women who was with Essence. He waited another moment before making his way towards the Captain’s quarters, barely containing his haste. Mageria already seemed to have her hands full but he needed to see her and collaborate on what they both were able to discover. As he approached he saw Jake leaving, jokingly bumping his shoulder into the man’s side. “What is with you pissing off redheads, hm?” He half joked, but didn’t stop to wait for an answer. Darren felt his blood pounding in his ears when he revealed the journal from his jacket and went to knock on the door. He wanted to pound his fists against the door until he cracked the wood, but to the contrary the sound he made was soft; a little too quiet perhaps and he wondered if it would be overlooked as he went to knock again.

Mageria growled to herself as she finished pulling off her soaked clothing. The temperature had been hovering around freezing the past couple days and the damn river was cold. And now..... she listened and heard a soft repeat of the noise. Somebody was knocking.

She quickly wrapped herself in an old shirt and worn pants, noticing idly that they fit a bit looser than they used to. She didn't even glance at the mirror, knowing that there was more stark white showing in her hair than there used to be. Instead she grabbed a soft old knee length robe and wrapped it around herself as she went to the door, snagging a towel to try and wring some of the water from her hair.

"Darren," Mageria only raised one eyebrow at the man standing in the doorway. Given the journal in his hands, she could guess at what brought him to her door. "Please, come in." She lead him down the few steps into her sitting area, before kneeling down in front of the fire and throwing a few logs on. She warmed her hands for a moment before sitting down. "So, tell me. What have you learned?"

Where should I start? Darren thought to himself, standing and staring idly at the fire as the Captain tended to the flames. He inhaled a deep, shaky breath as he spoke, stuttering only at first. “We..Well..ok Irv made a copy of Asher’s ledger after Jake and him procured it for me, back in Blackpond and with all that came up at the Ball...I couldn’t wait to see what you had discovered so I worked to finish what I could in your absence. I found out my birth was apart of a business deal and that I apparently have siblings whom I’ve never met. Half sisters...Something that was going on between Ebony and my father. In his journal he talks about them as if they were experiments and that most were disappointments. He..also talks about his joy when he discovered I was a boy...his first son. I ...don’t understand what happened to the others…” Darren coughed, clearing his throat. “I do have my theories though...which leads me to you to ask what you have learned. This bit I can only guess was inventory or were transactions of sorts. He was smart in never placing names to incriminate any of his business partners or his dealings per say. Everything has a bit of poetic flare to it...and instead of inspiring...it sickens me.”

Darren flipped through the pages, pointing out bits and pieces to substantiate his findings as he showed the Captain before continuing. “...There’s much more….there’s a girl...who I can only imagine if she is still alive..is now a woman..but he obsesses over her...and it reads like he ‘saves’ her from the destruction of her village...but he gives her to someone who he dislikes but benefits from...and talks about her as a ‘Crone’. I’d like to think he means Ebony..but again only hints. When she is older...he talks about a love affair of sorts with her...and then again having his only son...which has to be me. There’s pages and pages of Asher talking about a business partner who got him where he is now, and how he hints at the man’s power, is unbelievable. If you knew my father...her fears no one or anything...except this man.” Darren paused and nodded as if motioning towards a particular part on the pages before the Captain. “See anything funny about the entries? Have you noticed a symbol that repeats itself anywhere else in the journal and especially when particular business dealings are mentioned? I don’t know what it means. Then, the Cattle he refers to. I believe...it may be a euphemism for… children.” Darren’s voice disappeared as he spoke the last word, casting his eyes towards the floor as if ashamed.

Lifting his head back up so his eyes met Mageria’s he continued, “Which is why I need to know what you found out. Not to mention I know for a fact what his last entry talks about. A few years ago, my father began my lessons with...explosives, which I’d like to think i’m pretty knowledgeable of at this point. Not to sound cocky but it leads to the point that I understand what these symbols stand for.” Leaning over the ledger he pointed at the bottom of the page. “..These are the components needed to create what is desired and he talks about getting massive amounts...but for what I don’t know. That is also why I need to find out what his dealings were and how often...there may be a pattern to everything. It must have to do with the reason I turned my back on Asher. You see...he was dealing weapons of all kinds to the major cities of Valcrest...and fueling the terror for YEARS...playing each one as a pawn against one another. Makes me think of a chess game..”

Darren trailed off, shaking his black curls roughly as if trying to shake off his disgust; as if there was something on him that was not coming off. He finally fell quiet, pondering if there was anything he failed to mention. "..But that's why I left my father and his business. I refused....to deal with those who are basically war profiteers."

"Darren... There's some things that once you know, they change the way you see the world. Very rarely are they good changes." She looked at his face and sighed. "Come along, there's something you need to see."

She lead the way up the winding staircase to her conference room. A map was laid out, small carved stones marking various locations in Valcrest.

"Assume that your father was moving cargo, whatever it was, that he wasn't getting lawfully. Easy enough to assume that, given that his journal is in code. Assume that he was getting large amounts of whatever it was, which could only get gotten by raiding. Each of these, is a village that was destroyed over the years. Some of the days match up. Enough for me to be sure. The thing is, all of these," she waved her hand again, briefly touching one of the stones. "All of these, indicate somewhere where there weren't enough bodies. It was never put together before now, but it's obvious that they were raided not only for the good but for the people too. And you're right." She pulled out a scrap of paper with the symbol drawn on it. "This most likely stands for children taken.....because this isn't the first time I've seen this. And if it's what I think it is, things are possibly worse than you know."

Darren obediently followed the Captain, quietly staring at the map of Valcrest laid out before him. “This world..will never be what I expected…” He whispered, absorbing the bits the Captain was connecting with the dates that coincided with the destruction of some of the villages destroyed out west. Darren pointed to a few different markings upon the map. “..If I remember my history correctly...those are the villages of Blackhurst, correct? I heard they are mere ruins now. I have never visited out West before. So...whomever my father is working with, you think had something to do with the destruction of those villages. And from what we’ve read, it seems he profited quite handsomely on their demise.” Darren sighed, shaking his head. “Do we know why the villages were destroyed? Were they casualties of war? What would someone want with so many children?”

Darren turned away from the map, flipping through the pages of the copy of his father’s journal, trying to ignore a dull headache that was forming between his eyes. “ I knew the Great Dragon would take her soul…” Darren muttered to himself, reaching to understand what it could mean, exactly. “...I read there were never any survivors….from those villages. Is that true? Not too sure what kind of information one would get from them…” Clearing his throat he changed the subject slightly, “Captain...was there anything recently dated? Maybe supplies to be moved? I know my father’s business has not halted, even away in prison. If only we could intercept...find proof of it all…”

Mageria hesitated and reached out, touching a small circle of stones set apart from the others. These were a plain white, where the others were carved or decorated in some way. "Here. One of the things I've learned as a commander is how to follow troupe and supply movements. From what I can understand from the movements reported in the journal, their base would be somewhere in this area. Darren" Mageria's voice cracked like a whip, halting him before he could move. "You need to consider why there were stealing children. Most of them didn't end up in the slave trade, we would have noticed that. Based on information I've gotten from other sources, I think." she swallowed carefully. "I think they've been experimenting on them. These aren't going to be people who you can go up against alone. We're going to do something about this, but if you try to rush in alone, I will have you restrained. We can't afford any slip ups that would warn them. This is going to have to be perfect." She turned and rested a hip against the table. "I need you to give me your word that you won't do anything stupid."

Darren pondered the Captain’s word carefully and nodded as he thought aloud, “...Not all were found dead...and you say because it would have been noticed...not all were put into slavery of some sorts. So why…” He paused, an exasperated and frustrated sigh escaping him as he looked at the Captain, his expression showing he had the answer and that it had been probably the most obvious. “...Replenishing their ranks….whoever they are..” Darren nodded. “...I understand and agree this is bigger than what we’ve been shown and it would take great numbers...maybe even an army...to take down the heart of it all. So yes, I will not go it alone because it would be foolish. I won’t mention anything to the others, but I should just make it clear that Irvin and Jacob Turner are the only one’s who know what I’ve been up to and have a clear interest in my findings. If you prefer, I will still be silent. Perhaps it would be better if you spoke with them...or at least Jake.”

Darren tucked the journal away in his jacket, taking one last look at the map before him. “..Asher...is not a stupid man, Captain. If he was out in the southwestern area of Valcrest, he most likely will be relocating, if not already moved. He would be splitting up his resources and whatever muscle he carries. Which means..if we search the nonconventional roads...those not normally traveled...we could get lucky.” Darren stood straight, a look of compliant obedience taking hold of his form. “..With your permission, Captain...I’d like to scout the area. Perhaps I can accompany one of your people?”

Mageria took a long look at the man standing in front of her and nodded gently. "Yes, I think you can. They will leave in the morning, so be sure to sleep well tonight. Pack for a scouting trip that will last for at least two weeks. It may be less than that, but better to be prepared." She smiled a bit crookedly. "I hope you find what you're looking for, Darren. And that you still want it, when you do."

Darren pondered the Captain’s word carefully and nodded as he thought aloud, “...Not all were found dead...and you say because it would have been noticed...not all were put into slavery of some sorts. So why…” He paused, an exasperated and frustrated sigh escaping him as he looked at the Captain, his expression showing he had the answer and that it had been probably the most obvious. “...Replenishing their ranks….whoever they are..” Darren nodded. “...I understand and agree this is bigger than what we’ve been shown and it would take great numbers...maybe even an army...to take down the heart of it all. So yes, I will not go it alone because it would be foolish. I won’t mention anything to the others, but I should just make it clear that Irvin and Jacob Turner are the only one’s who know what I’ve been up to and have a clear interest in my findings. If you prefer, I will still be silent. Perhaps it would be better if you spoke with them...or at least Jake.”

Darren tucked the journal away in his jacket, taking one last look at the map before him. “..Asher...is not a stupid man, Captain. If he was out in the southwestern area of Valcrest, he most likely will be relocating, if not already moved. He would be splitting up his resources and whatever muscle he carries. Which means..if we search the non conventional roads...those not normally traveled...we could get lucky.” Darren stood straight, a look of compliant obedience taking hold of his form. “..With your permission, Captain...I’d like to scout the area. Perhaps I can accompany one of your people?”

Mageria took a long look at the man standing in front of her and nodded gently. "Yes, I think you can. They will leave in the morning, so be sure to sleep well tonight. Pack for a scouting trip that will last for at least two weeks. It may be less than that, but better to be prepared." She smiled a bit crookedly. "I hope you find what you're looking for, Darren. And that you still want it, when you do."

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Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Ess
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[Blackpond - 13 After the Castle Ball]

Five minutes later Luke was joining Ess at the bar, perfectly unscathed except for a reddish mark on his left cheek, acting as if he had stopped to chat with a friend. "Did I miss anything?" He asked absently.

Hiding a small smile, Ess heaved a sigh of relief, giving a lazy shrug. “You didn’t miss much....but perhaps I am the one missing important details, Luckas..” She muttered, a bitter annoyance in her voice. She spoke softer, lighter as she continued. “Why am I hated so but you can wander around with no apparent issues? For someone who likes to slink around in shadows and not have many remember his face, seems you are more than just an acquaintance around here, no?” Turning around in her seat she smiled, quirking a brow in her obvious curiosity. Casually, every so often her eyes swept behind Luckas and away from the bar counter, keeping an eye on movement even in its subtly, still watching for her brother.

Luckas tilted his head to the side at Ess’ questions, as he tried to figure out what wouldn’t be an incredibly foolish answer. “If I said it’s all due to my remarkable people skills, would you believe me?” He asked opening a little amused smile, but not really expecting that answer to work. “Well, they think I am someone else. And if they knew that I am not... Believe me, I wouldn’t be wandering around this freely. If one can call this freely.” He added.

She nodded slowly, eyes falling back to the door before ordering another round, pushing the shot towards Luckas. “Pretending to be someone else? Or still discovering who that ‘someone’ is?” Ess snickered, pulling back the shot. “I didn’t feel I was very obvious...I don’t think I understand why I am so conspicuous and you inconspicuous. And your ‘people skills’, as an answer, only begs more questions..” She trailed off, not continuing with those questions that lingered on her mind, instead focusing on herself and her apparent lack of trust that she stated was not an issue several times before. Her smile closed, contemplating how to give trust, one should receive it in turn. Ess sighed, shaking her head at herself, wondering if Luckas didn’t trust her. Her thoughts were interrupted when she noticed a warm, wetness tickling her lip. Casually wiping at the blood, she sniffled, turning towards the door as it opened again.

Luckas sighed ruffling his own hair as he ran his fingers through it in thought. “You know... I never lie completely... If I can help it... What people assume though, is not my responsibility.” He concluded, reaching for the drink, but simply fiddling with the glass for a moment. “So, I never said I was pretending to be someone else, I said they think I am someone else... There’s a difference, however subtle. And it’s not so much that you were obvious, it’s more that you weren’t there just a day ago... And these are people who tend to know their environment very well.” Ignoring the mention of more questions Luckas finally stopped playing with his glass and drank, registering the sound of the door opening, but not turning to look.

Essence leaned back against the counter, crossing her legs with a subtle elegant grace, adjusting her cloak so her weapons remained hidden. The woman absorbed Luckas’ words, her mind working perhaps a bit too much as she began to wonder if she fell into the category of ‘assumptions’ made of Luckas. Her eyes flickered, inspecting the man in the doorway, smiling to herself when she saw the familiar red hair and freckled skin peeking out from a grey hood that half hung across his face. Falling back into her act, she pretended to be engaged further in conversation, playfully tapping Luckas on the shoulder with a sweet giggle. One eye remained on the figure who had entered the establishment, who slowly approached the counter to her right, Luckas on her left. She inhaled quickly, her only hint that something had changed. It wasn’t hard to hear the man’s request for his ‘usual’ room key before turning and clunking noisily up the stairs. Was it for sure, her brother? Her insides were screaming to move, her expression plain and composed, letting her attention fall back completely to Luckas.

Luckas’ only motion was to silently ask for a refill, but his ears were following the footsteps of the approaching man from the moment he crossed the doorway. In the few instants he spent at the bar, Luckas shot him a passing glance, but he recognized the character from Jasper’s memories by voice alone. Once the man’s footsteps made their way up the stairs Luckas emptied his glass yet again and turned to Ess giving a casual shrug. “Now what?” He asked, a slightly eager look in his eyes as if awaiting instructions.


“Do me a favor, sweetness...” Ess whispered, tightening the hood beneath her chin. “Don’t push me to the floor.” She teased, standing slowly and sliding herself onto Luckas’ lap, her arms wrapping limp across his shoulders. Whispering slyly into his ear, she sighed. “How close do you need to get to Ian to see inside his head? I need to know what my mother looked like, exactly.” Her fingers toyed with a few locks of Luckas’ hair as she giggled, nodding towards the stairs. “I have an...idea of sorts...”

Luckas was a bit confused with Ess’ request at first until he found himself struggling against the urge to do just what she had asked him not to, his body tensing momentarily as he thought about her question. Forcing a breath in and out he cleared his throat rather awkwardly before responding. “It’s not a matter of distance, really. If I’m close enough that I can maintain eye contact, it’ll be enough. I’ve done it from pretty good distances before, hiding in a crowd and no one really noticed, just the target.” He tilted his head away from her and mumbled: “That’s distracting...”, running a hand through his hair before asking. “What your mother looks like? Is that all?”

There was something in Ess’ eyes, in the way she pulled back to gaze upon her friend. Her expression went blank before she winked playfully. “What’s distracting? Do I really make you that uncomfortable?” Absently she wiped aside a loose eyelash upon Luke’s cheek and nodded. “For now, that is all I require. I know I am suppose to look like my mother..and lets say I want to keep with the theme of ‘haunting’ my main focus. It seems to work, don’t you think so?” Without looking, she raised a hand and flagged down the bartender, ordering another round for herself and Luke before sliding off his lap. “Drink first?” She didn’t wait for him to answer, slamming back the liquor. For a split second she frowned, a sullen glimmer in her eyes quickly substituted by an amused twinkle, she turned away from her friend as if he was not even there. Ess moved along the patrons at the bar, the men smiling up at her as she passed, her fingers teasing along her shoulders in a subtle solicitation. It was an uncomfortable, yet natural maneuver she had used countless times at the brothel; especially when a patron appeared to show no interest in her and she wanted to keep up appearances.

Luckas looked at Ess with a slightly intrigued expression when she moved out of his lap and then away from him, blinking a few times in confusion as he mumbled. “I didn’t say uncomfortable, did I say uncomfortable?” He frowned slightly as he watched the woman’s gestures trying to understand what it meant without much success. “I don’t even...” He muttered. Luckas never liked being ignored, he was much like an infant that way, and right now he wasn’t sure just how annoyed he was. Finally he just went after her and tried to stay focused on why they were there in the first place. “So when do you suppose I should go into the guy’s mind anyway?” He asked, not trying to mask the slight annoyance in his tone. “Is that all you need me for, Lady?”

Essence paused, giving the impression Luckas’ stole her attention away from the other patrons and smiled a genuine sweet smile. She gradually leaned into him and whispered, “I was only trying to give you a window and not make it look like we are together, per say. If you can do this as soon as possible, that would be great.” Shaking her head, her hand traced along his forearm with a continued smile. “Of course that’s not all I need you for, sweetness.” Her tone was playful, flirtatious and yet her eyes spoke louder and of much more as if they were hinting for Luckas to just go with her act. What she was saying and physically showing to their present company were quite different things. Ess was not deaf, and did catch the annoyed tone in Luckas’ voice, her smile fading, almost losing herself from the public persona she was giving off. With a shrug, she backtracked to the bar and swallowed the idle shot just sitting upon the counter. “Can’t let it go to waste now..” She muttered to herself.

Luckas sighed, trying to shake off his annoyance, but honestly still confused. Still he tried to focus on what he could handle first and worrying about what he couldn’t understand later. He moved towards the bartender and spoke to the man in whispers for a few seconds, discreetly slipping commands in the conversation so that he told him exactly what and who was in the upper levels of the building. It was rare for him to do so, but Luckas had learned that if he spoke softly enough people would obey him without noticing. Personally though, he’d rather see them freak out over losing control, but that could be done at any other time; and in much better places. Once he knew what he needed he walked back to Ess and whispered casually to her. “I still like your real face better, Lady.” To which he added in a slightly more audible tone. “I was going to drink that. You owe me a shot.” To that statement he made his way to the stairs that led to what the bartender described simply as ‘private rooms’; not at all eager to know what one would need a private room for in this place.

Gingerly, Ess bit down on her bottom lip, sliding a free hand along her hip to her coin pouch and tossed a few gold marks upon the counter. Snapping her fingers she attracted the bar keeps’ attention, fingers clinging along the edge of the counter, she ordered Luckas another shot while waiting for his return. Glancing over her shoulder, she gave a strong impression of being bored, yawning here and there when quite to the contrary her heart was racing at the very thought of getting that bastard brother of hers alone; in addition her curiosity to what Luckas was going to do was getting the better of her. When he disappeared up the stairs, she casually followed, leaning provocatively along the railing, now ignoring any who spoke to her as she stared off, lost in thought. For a few moments Ess did indeed forget herself, her voice trailing off in a hushed hum, she sang under her breath, her words coming off as mumbles and gibberish.

When Luckas reached the second floor of the building he just came across a bunch of doors. He didn’t know which one he was supposed to be going to in order to find Ian, but at least he knew what the guy looked like, so it wasn’t so hard to just knock on random doors until he found the right one. Ian was apparently expecting someone to knock on the door because it opened quickly, and he flinched slightly at the sight of Luckas. Luke didn’t take more than a few seconds to find what he was looking for, and it seemed to have gone unnoticed, probably perceived by the man as randomly remembering his mother. At which point Luckas apologized and claimed to have knocked on the wrong door, immediately walking away and knocking on yet another random door, just to show he was in fact randomly looking for someone who wasn’t there.

Less than three minutes later he was walking down the stairs and running right into Ess. He tilted his head to one side and snickered. “Anxious, are we?” He asked, walking past her towards the bar, his gaze locking on hers and his eyes flashing a green color as he passed. The image flashing in his mind for a moment and then fading as he broke eye contact and moved towards his drink.

Ess held back a smile to her friend’s comment, letting her gaze lock temporarily with Luckas’ before her eyes closed. Squeezing her lids, she held the image, the gift of her mother within her mind. Waist long, straight wine hair outlined a narrow-waisted woman; the same dimples appearing along snow white skin stretching against the familiar contours of her lips matching almost exactly with Ess’ intense violet gaze. It was almost uncanny the identical features that she shared with her mother: Symphony Vivienne Violette. She was younger than Ess is now, fewer stress lines and darkish circles that Ess carried as of late from lack of sleep. The woman she saw had polished smooth skin, no physical scars did she bare, nor did her soul scream out from behind her glossy gaze giving a much kinder and relaxed appearance in comparison to Essence. Simply, she was beautiful. To be able to see Symphony, even through another’s memories was just another wish finally granted.

Opening her eyes, her humming had not faltered in her momentary distraction. Hesitating only a second she nodded in Luckas’ direction and turned about on the steps, slowly stepping one stair at a time towards the upper floor landing. When she reached the top, she moved across the wall into the shadows, shedding her cloak to the floor and shuffling it into the far corner only to reveal her mother’s milky white features shrouded in deep red locks. She didn’t even have a chance to knock when the door suddenly opened and her brother stepped out on her left from his room to look around and froze instantly where he stood when he met Ess’ eyes. A chilling smile teased her soft lips, her eyes a mocking kindness as she worked to capture her mother’s gaze. Gradually her smile grew sweeter, overflowing with a silent innocence when she decided to walk by him, purposely bumping his shoulder, back down the stairs and out the front door.

Luckas had his shot and yet another, not moving from where he was by the bar, but rather simply keeping his eyes and ears open to his surroundings. None of the faces around were familiar to him and that was good in theory, but not for sure. Zeke had told him about the Order keeping an eye on Ian, so he imagined someone was close to him at all times. He noticed a few blue-eyed strangers that would be his first guess, wasn’t for the fact that Zeke’s little shape-shifter pet wouldn’t have missed a chance to mess with him somehow... Which left him with the conclusion that it was probably a stranger.

He didn’t turn to look when he caught a glance of the familiar figure walking down the stairs and out of the building, but quietly placed a coin on the counter and took a few seconds to thank the barkeeper for his services before wandering outside himself.

Ian hadn’t spoken a word in his shock and disbelief. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were playing tricks on him, if his memory was off and it was just someone who reminded him of his mother, or if in fact he was now finding himself chasing a ghost. A few minutes went by before his mind cleared and he began descending those same steps, and out the door. Taking a few more steps, he paused just outside the establishment, green orbs flickering from freshly lit torchlight against the oncoming evening. A small crowd parted, composed of only four or five people which barely held his attention when he saw red hair blowing in a gentle wind across the street, an eerie lavender glow sparkling in his direction. Another, larger crowd wandered past, the figure lost from his vision, not reappearing once the patrons passed. Frantically he searched, holding back the urge to cry out in pursuit of the woman just as he caught her sprinting further down the street, clinging to the shadows.

Essence loved being the prey in her own little game of cat and mouse; little did her brother realize exactly who the predator was at this point. She let herself create some distance between herself and Ian before purposely slowing her pace for him to catch up. Ess moved further from the hustle of the city as the citizens scurried into their nooks and crannies for the evening, leaving her ‘seemingly’ alone as she darted down an alley. Inhaling deeply her heart thudded painfully in her ear almost drowning out Ian’s flutter of footsteps closing in on her, a rough hand clasping firmly upon her shoulder, whipping her around briskly. Essence gasped in a fit of giggles, the same violet eyes gleaming brightly up at her older brother, yet it was not his mother he was staring down at but an intense reflection of himself. Shaking his fiery red hair, Ian rubbed his eyes lazily, reaching a freckled hand out towards ‘himself.’ “Impossible....” He muttered aloud, gripping a firm hold around Ess’ neck.

“Possible...” She mocked back in Ian’s own voice, she continued to giggle at her brother, letting the tone fade back to her own, her facade melting back into her own unique, porcelain features; scar, curls, and all. Suddenly her smile fell away, nodding past her brother’s shoulder, “It’s quite alright...he’s not hurting me..” She whispered curiously, Ian abruptly turning his head to glance behind himself, only to find a small surprise.

Luckas began to follow a few steps after Ian, amused by how close he managed to follow the man unnoticed. He was so caught up in chasing his ghost that his mind wouldn’t focus on anything else. Luke could have lit the idiot on fire and he probably wouldn’t even smell the smoke. In all honesty, he was very tempted to do it, but figured it was probably best not to... Yet... After all, wasn’t his family reunion. By the time Ian caught up with Ess Luke was standing no further than two steps behind him and seriously holding back laughter; which escaped the moment Ess spoke to him, causing the man to turn and notice him for the first time. “He’s not very bright, Lady... You sure you two are even related?” Luke asked, still chuckling as he whispered something under his breath, letting out a more manic giggle when Ian abruptly slapped himself on the head. “He’s really not bright.” Luke added, shaking his head in faked disappointment. “Oh, well...” He sighed softly, his laughter ceasing as he turned to walk in a certain direction, only addressing the man with a command: “Be quiet and follow me.” After which he gave Ess a small grin and stated. “I’m assuming you’d like a quiet place to catch up, right?”

Luke paced slowly and carelessly as he led them through the streets towards a slightly torn apart building, and around it, to a cracked wooden door that led to the interior of what used to be a shop of some sort. Once inside he walked them down a flight of stairs and through heavy metal door, that was left open from when he’d last been there. “Yeah, it’s still a little messy in here...” He stated casually, lighting a torch to bring a little bit of light to the place, which only made the blood stains on the floor and walls more visible. “Didn’t have time to clean up since I last had a...Uh... Guest.” He said with a little shrug, pulling a chair and dusting it off slightly before taking a seat. Pointing at another chair he smiled at Ian. “Sit.”

Essence shrugged, swatting Ian’s arm aside when he fully turned to face Luckas. “I dunno sweetness...I thought the brother I had would have at least written to let me know how he was doing....” She held back a laugh, pushing through as she continued. “Course....seems to be a theme going here...people wanting me to think they or others they know are dead....curious...not that I’m heartbroken...” Ess skipped beside Luckas, pushing aside her apprehension, not leaving herself still for a moment too long to where her body would be overtaken by tremors. Part of her was excited; part of her was disgusted and wanted to walk away. As much as she wanted to drag out the moment to come, at the same time she desperately needed it all to be over but she desired answers.

The moment Ess entered the basement, she took in a deep cleansing breath noting the familiar room from Luckas’ memories of Jasper. An intense body high overcame her, her skin tingly and numb, heart racing in her ears. She smiled down at the blood stains, quirking a brow as she recognized bits of toenail, flesh, and teeth scattered about the floor. Not even looking at Ian, she sixth sensed her way to the table, bloody tools crusted over in the appearance of rust. Aware of what was going on around her, her attention lingered strongly over each piece, shaking her head to herself as each wasn’t good enough, not quite what she had in mind until the last one; a peeler of some sorts. Eyes widened in satisfaction when her fingers clung to it, gradually walking over towards the party. “Hello dear brother....been looking for me, I hear hmm? Wish I had known you were alive, could of saved both of us some trouble...” Clearing her throat, she rested a hand upon Luckas’ shoulder before moving to Ian’s side. “You can let Ian speak, after all he must be excited to see his sweet little sister...”

Luckas shrugged slightly in his seat when Ess told him to let Ian speak. He vaguely wondered if the man could tell who he was by looking at him, or by his ability somehow, but he figured that a man that would let himself be followed by a distance of only two steps probably didn’t pay all that much attention to his surroundings. Smiling slightly he fixed his eyes on the man, the black color lightening to green for a few moments, after which they turned to normal and Luke chuckled, his hold on Ian fading, only enough to let him speak, but still keeping him motionless in his seat. He chuckled, leaning back in his seat and looking up at Ess with an amused grin. “I thought my brother was fucked up, but this guy... They would’ve liked each other I think... Well... Matt would surely have liked him...” He snickered. “Suppose they’ll eventually meet... If there is such a thing...” He mumbled to himself.

“...You do look just like her....you know....except....you have Dad’s nose..” Ian whispered, still in awe. Slowly his eyes trailed Ess from head to toe, a kind gaze quickly turning to a wicked grin as he lingered along her chest moving to her face. “Nice.....tatt....” He snickered, his voice whispy and snake like. “Such a shame really....if wasn’t for that scar on your face....you might actually have been pretty...” Ian suddenly groaned, his head thrashed to the side when Ess struck him hard, using the bladed edge of the peeler she dragged it along his cheek taking with her a light layer of skin.

“Thanks bro, love you too.....” Ess spat. “I tire of pleasantries though....let’s skip over to the good shit....like why the hell did you sell out your family? Why you sold your sister, your own blood to brothel hell and why the hell after all this time you are looking for me?” For no reason at all, than the simple frustration she felt, Ess backhanded Ian, leaving a welt from her knuckles along his cheek bone, blood sticking to her fingers as it trickled down from the missing skin.

“Oh Essy....you were always in the way.....maybe Dad liked you more.....maybe it’s jealousy? “ Ian’s eyes twinkled as if he were smiling, “Maybe because it’s YOUR fault mom’s dead.....?...No? Don’t like that answer either? Hmm....well how about the money?...You pick....”

“You’re such a bullshitter...I know you came to the brothel....I know....you knew Jasper...” This time, Ess ran her fingers affectionately through her brother’s hair before tugging hard on his short strands, hard enough to pull at his flesh while she dug the peeler along his other cheek. She pressed so hard she had to stop and start over again and again to free the flesh, revealing muscle tissue beneath. Essence simply smiled when he began to scream. “Really.....and I thought I had a low tolerance for pain...kinda embarrassing me in front of my friend here....”

Luckas was watching the whole scene while literally hanging on the edge of his seat. Three or four times he nearly jumped to his feet, but did not. There was a part of him that really just wanted to cause Ian a lot of pain for things he had done and mostly for his words, but the greater part of him was too excited for what was going to happen next, like a kid watching a puppet show, or being told a really fascinating story. Even if he had his mind fully set on ripping the guy’s heart out, he wouldn’t have moved from where he sat. Finally the screaming sent him over the edge of the chair and he stumbled forward onto his knees, laughing at his own excitement before pulling himself up. “Heh... Squealers... Gotta love ‘em, they make everything more fun.” He snickered. “Although, that Jasper fellow was still talking back to me even after he was just about done, those kinds are fun too...” Luke stood, kicking a little piece of bone that was scattered over the floor... Fun times...” He stated, his eyes sparkling a discrete tone of red behind the black, not too bright, but noticeable enough to make clear that he still had some fond memories of his last guest... Although he honestly wished he could have made the man last longer.

“Tricky...tricky sis.” Ian whimpered softly, his eyes still smiling up at her as if he was undressing her to see straight into her soul. “I knew....you’d be enlightened.....maybe.” He spat, a degrading, icy tone creeping into his voice, “..Maybe...if you actually spent less time hiding your gift, you could of spent less time spreading your legs....but...maybe you wanted that all along...”

The peeler rolled out of Ess fingers in her surprise of her brother’s audacity, slowly curling into a balled up fist. Yet, instead of thrashing him like she precariously desired she started chuckling. “You’re just jealous....you never were the one between my thighs, Ian.” She sang, still giggling when her hand unsheathed her dagger, noting the excitement mixed with disgust she read from his gaze. Calmly she dragged the point of the blade along the flesh of his neck, up she traced the hairline and raised cheek bones that matched her own. One hand gripped his left shoulder, her other tightening around the hilt of her blade, playfully she sat in his lap, pausing the dagger at his right temple. “....No? A little close to home right?” A delighted sneer curled the corners of her mouth, with one swift movement her blade sliced through Ian’s ear like a knife through butter. “You disgust me....” Ess whispered sweetly into the cartilage in her hand, still smiling as he screamed again. Clearly annoyed by the whining, Ess stuffed the ear into Ian’s mouth and scooted off her brother’s lap.

“My dear Luckas....I think my brother is hungry.....it’s quite alright to ….LET him have a bite...no?”

Luke had moved to lean against one of the blood stained walls, further away from the torchlight, it was almost possible for him to blend in with the shadows there wasn’t for the occasional red color that sparkled in his eyes, on and off. At Ess’ words he pushed himself away from the stone wall and gave a soft snicker. “Quite alright indeed, Lady.” He agreed. “You heard her, man; eat up.” He chuckled. “And don’t forget to chew properly, because if not... Well that’s just not good for you, I was told. Should always chew your food right.” He nodded.

One would think, typically speaking, that watching a horrified man almost vomit as he was forced to digest his own ear, would be sickening to witness. Instead, Ess smiled, not really focused on her brother’s chewing, but more of the cold and terrorizing gaze that steamed hatred from his Iris’. To say Ess was pleased, was quite the understatement. She stood silently, tilting her head when he had begun to choke on a hard piece of cartilage and bounced in her step as she smacked the back of Ian’s head hard, knocking the piece out of his mouth. “Ok....enough...choking on yourself...” Ess snickered, holding back a fit of laughter, “...before you give me answers...is not what I had in mind.” She nodded at Luckas when he ‘released’ the man from his ‘snack’ and attentively dabbed at her brother’s lips with her sleeve, lopping at the blood.

“There now...feel better...brother?” Ess whispered softly into his other ear, gently sifting her fingers through his hair once again.

“It....was never...really about you or I, Essy.” Ian heaved, his voice almost had left him, bottom lip quivering in the realization of what he was just forced to do. “No matter...what you do to me, dear sister....THEY will do far worse...” Again his eyes softened, a crooked smile escaping him through bloodied teeth, and bits of flesh hanging off his cheeks.

Using the hilt of her dagger, Ess lifted Ian’s chin to stare straight into his eyes. “..Glad to know...I never meant anything to you....even though you did once to me.” With a sigh she slid onto the empty chair Luke had been occupying, crossing her legs in a dainty fashion. “Now...I can keep feeding you pieces of yourself all night....it will get boring...but this is easy compared to how it could go unless you start giving me some answers..” Still calm, she cracked on her knuckles waiting patiently for her brother to answer her. When he didn’t she sawed off the other ear and proceeded to his fingers, all ending in the same crude fashion of watching intently as he swallowed bits of bone and flesh.

“GO AHEAD!” Ian screamed. “Kill me...it makes no difference, my life...it’s what they wanted!...I couldn’t tell you who they are if I wanted to!”

Ess sighed, her brows furrowing in slight disappointment when she was about to castrate her own brother, the tip of the blade lingered on his thigh. “Can’t? or Won’t?...” Turning over to Luckas, she wiped the blade off on Ian’s shoulder. “Luckas, what do you think? Is he lying? Or is it something...deeper...?”

Luckas flinched slightly in his corner, he hadn’t quite realized he had whatever answers Ian couldn’t give, although not enough of them to do anything about it, which was the point of the whole thing, and suddenly he was torn between whatever the man might actually know and what he wanted Ess to know... Or rather what he didn’t want her to find out. Finally he decided to actually see what, if anything, the guy actually knew before thinking about it any further. When he took one step forward and looked into Ian’s eyes he found that the guy had really no memory of anything aside the one thing that was most convenient for them to let Ess know and while he was tempted to wipe that memory out, he didn’t think that would be fair. When his eyes returned to black and he could see his surroundings again he gave a little annoyed sigh before addressing the man. “You know what I saw... I’d tell if I were you.”

Crossing her arms, Ess quirked a brow at the deep resentment she was reading in her brother’s eyes when he looked at Luckas. It was almost filled with as much hatred as it was when he turned back to her. “Leave.....me attached.....and I’ll tell you what I know...” Ian negotiated.

“Ha...I don’t think you realize your position, Brother...” Ess shook her head. “Tell me then...and we’ll...call this...my one courtesy to you....”

Instead of answering Ess’ questions, Ian began asking some of his own. “Essy....did Dad ever tell you about how mom loved to write? ...Those songs she sang...she wrote them all down in....a journal...”

There was a long silence before more laughter erupted from her lips. “What the hell are you talking about...by the Twins, what does this have to do with me? As you so plainly stated and reminded me, Mom is gone because I was born....so I’m not very familiar with her. All I know is what Dad sang to us as kids...You remember, don’t you?”

Ian sighed, “I remember some....yes...but they don’t mean much of anything to anyone, apparently....but this..Journal....I tried to get it from Dad the night you were taken, and naturally he refused....” Ian gagged, coughing a moment before continuing. “He hid it, but not all too well...and well....there are pages torn from it...something Dad didn’t want found...the people I gave said journal to, think you would know.”

“This...is all over a JOURNAL?!” Ess screamed out in frustration. “Really?.....really.....” She searched her memories, not recalling anything that would make her think of such an item, only how her father would sing to her. A deep ache thudded inside her chest and belly at the memory of her father. “It’s your fault he’s dead.....” She spat.... “It’s your fault I was sold into slavery....and all for a stupid book?!”

“No! Not just the book Essy....what it contains....the fact that you are NOTHING and how I’m just infected with Mom’s....’disease’ but show no symptoms....not like you......”

Gripping the dagger firmly, Ess impaled the blade into Ian’s thigh with a burst of fury. “You are so blinded by hate and jealousy, you look at life backwards. You are the one who is NOTHING, not I.” Ian shrieked in pain, tears flowing down his cheeks that stung the exposed muscle from the missing skin. “...And Mom’s songs....didn’t mean NOTHING....all I believe in...I learned from them....so it’s a pity your life lessons were filled with only hate, and twisted fantasies.”
Ess retracted the blade, sliding her finger along the sharp metal she let Ian’s blood coat her finger and approached the far wall so Ian could see. In an angry haste she drew a symbol, in blood, of a sword running through an eye. It was the symbol she was told to keep an eye out for from the Captain. “Ian!....Have you seen this before?”

Her brother groaned, his skin now paler than Ess’ from loss of blood that accumulated in pools at his feet. “I’ve seen it.....”

“Where!? What is it?”

Ian chuckled and spat blood through his teeth. “Use your eyes girl....it’s everywhere! You just have to know where to look...”

Ess was shaking. She wanted to pluck out Ian’s eyes and feed them to him, but then he wouldn’t be able to witness his own demise to the fullest and she felt he needed all his senses for what was next. “Luckas....would you like to give our friend...an oil bath? I did make you a promise, sweetness...” Ess was done. She knew from the bits of information and lack there of, this must of been all connected somehow and she wanted to speak with Ali and the Captain. She had some theories, but nothing concrete and felt she would keep certain things to herself. Ess had several thoughts flood her mind and knew she would be back to this place soon; she needed more information, and from what Luckas had mentioned on how powerful people ran most of the businesses around her, she wondered if it was all connected to her past and the despicable repetition of child slavery that she knew was still rampant in the city.

Luckas took a few moments to respond to Ess, his eyes fixed on the bloody symbol as if it put him in a trance for a moment.Eventually though, he shook his head slightly and chuckled. “Oh, I don’t know about that Lady. I don’t think I had enough to drink for that... Plus, your dear brother is most definitely not my type.” He played, moving around the room until he found a small barrel full of lamp oil, which he absently picked up before pacing his way to Ian and grinning at the man. “I’ll make an exception for you though, because... Family...” He stated, casually flipping the barrel over and pouring its contents over the man’s head, tossing the empty barrel aside and turning to Ess with a grin. “Your party Lady... You light the candles.” He stated.

Essence’s features softened as she gave a genuine smile over at Luckas, ignoring the spitting and gagging of lamp oil that Ian was currently doused in. “Why thank you for the honor, my friend.”

“Stupid bitch.....who do you think you’re dealing with!? The ones you need to fear are the ones you can’t see...” Ian muttered, flinching at the stinging from his eyes and open wounds as the oil seeped inside.

Ess reached for the burning torch and smiled as she leaned into her brother. “Thanks for the tip bro..” Her cheek hovered beside Ian’s face, bringing her voice down a few decibels to barely audible levels. “I do remember one thing, that probably won’t mean too much to you, brother...Our father....he was enlightened too....he just kept it to himself....” Essence backed away to arms length, giggling at the wide eyed look Ian gave her as she repositioned herself next to Luckas. “..I feel like sending a message, Luckas...it wouldn’t be very safe to light a fire inside...so...we can let him go....” Ess reached her free hand to find Luckas’ arm and gave it a slight squeeze, the torch fire flickering wildly and spreading like water when she touched it to Ian’s fingerless hand.

Luckas smiled wide, watching the fire spread, as he released Ian from his hold, giggling softly as the man knocked over the chair and started to run out the door. Luckas never quite understood why people ran when they were set on fire; it wasn’t the right thing to do, it didn’t help, but it seemed to be people’s first instincts even so. He shook his head in amusement as he cheerfully followed after the screaming, burning, man, surprised that he managed to find his way out of the building and out to the city streets. People’s reactions were entertaining to Luckas, most of them were horrified, of course, but some here and there seemed amused. Either way, no effort was made to aid the man, who continued to run and scream horribly until he eventually fell. In Blackpond, Luke knew that no one would bother to try and find out how this happened, and the ones who cared to know already knew everything they needed. “Lovely.” Luckas whispered, a grin crossing his expression.

Essence sheathed her dagger at her hip, skipping comically after her chaotic brother and an entertained Luckas, her features shifting to her blond disguise before she exited the building and slinked along the shadows. She watched in silence as citizens either screamed in terror or laughed mockingly at Ian’s fate, gradually going silent. Ess’ smile faded when he fell to his knees and eventually on his face, a nauseating smoke billowing up from the corpse. It was like a beacon of light for all to see against the darkness. “...Goodbye Ian..” Ess whispered, turning away from the sight once she was sure he was dead, assuming Luckas was on her heels without even looking. “May Lady Death carry you deep into the abyss of an eternity of torment...” Her destitute expression was disconcerting after the eventful evening. She shook her golden hair over her face to hide the few stray tears that managed to fall past her chin. In her satisfaction, she couldn’t ignore the feeling of loss; at losing her brother all over again and the illusion of what was good, resting in ashes in the city streets of BlackPond.

Luckas wandered off after Ess, first pacing slowly as he let his mind wander off to what would happen after this, letting her walk a few steps ahead of him as he did so. When he snapped out of it however, he ran a bit ahead to catch up with her, bouncing a little bit, cheerfully, as he approached, whistling a nice little melody before giving Ess a curious look. “Lady... Why so serious? You look like you need to cheer up a bit... Do you need to me to cheer you up?”

The road faded from view even when Ess continued forward, her focus no longer on holding her disguise. Auburn dye seemed to cascade down in streaks, smothering the sun-kissed highlights of her hair, the tone of her skin flushed from her mixed emotions. It was in that moment her thoughts dwelled heavily upon her father; the first man to truly ever love her unconditionally and perhaps the one she compared all other men to in one way or another. Typical, she felt but with one difference; she knew that her Dad was a fighter, a survivor and would not ever be disgraced by the sacrifices she has made throughout her life.

~~~Twenty six years ago~~~

“Essy, Sweetie...go to your room.....” Dirk whispered to his daughter, blue eyes locked tightly on the figure in his doorway. The three year old Ess stared up at her father curiously, tiny dimples like pits in her smile as she shook her head defiantly, tight curls layered just below her ear lobes flowing freely in all directions. With a soft whine she ran to her dad and clung to his hand, “Da....”

“No Essy....” Dirks eyes flickered a deep blue, bright flecks of amber glittering for a mere second when he turned to look down at his daughter. “..You know..you can hear just fine from your room....” He snickered, letting Ess’ hand go when she fell silent and simply walked to her room and closed the door where she sat, pressing her ear against the hard oak. She could easily hear the stranger’s footsteps as he entered, the sound of a chair dragging and scooting across the floor for where he made himself comfortable. Shivering a bit in her nervousness, even though the voices were low, she could feel the anger beneath their meaning and it frightened her.

“Mr. Talon....we’ve been looking for you for quite some time since you left the campaign. Thought you’d of come back some time ago...”

“You know full well why I didn’t, Cole...their mother had just died...I’m all they have left....”

“...But are they really worth the price on your head?....I could easily tell the Captain where you are...”

“Oh...you could tell him....but that would be far too easy and not as fun, aye?” Dirk stated low yet clearly in a ‘matter of fact’ way. “You...owe me Cole....You’d be dead, if it weren’t for my wife...”

Cole sighed, nodding with a slight smile, “...Only a deaf and blind man would have resisted that wife of yours.....the way that voice...”

“..Shut up Cole...I don’t want the girl to hear....and besides there was much more to Symphony than her enlightenment...”

“But how did she do it....Dirk? They tore out their own eyes....”

“What...did I say...Cole....” Dirk growled, followed by a loud bang as he slammed Cole’s head against the table. “Think it’s time you leave....” The sound of the front door creaked open but only a single pair of footsteps echoed, a snake like slither across the wooden floor soon trailing behind with several more doors closing and silence.

“Essy....you awake?” Dirk peeked inside his daughter’s room, playfully pushing her aside with the door. “..You hungry, sweetness? You can take a nap while I make you a snack, hmm?” Essence pushed herself to her feet and clung onto her father’s leg, “Mmmhmm..uh...Da?”

Dirk playfully pulled on Ess’ curls, gently straightening and releasing to let them bounce back to their natural shape. “Yes M’love?”

“You..leaving....?

The man’s body stiffened a moment before kneeling down to meet his daughter’s gaze, “I’ll never leave you Essence, because I love you...” In a tight bear hug he pulled his daughter into his arms and lifted her as he stood, shuffling over to her bed to lay her down.

Ess snuggled her father, burying her face against his chest to breathe in the familiar scent of pine, and sap; her favorite was how the smoke from burning firewood clung to his clothes and hair. “Da...?...Will you sing me mommy’s song?”

~~~

Essence cleared her throat, noticing Luckas’ eyes on her curiously and forced a smile. “You seem quite happy sweetness...so I am too.” She trailed off humming absently, a warm resonating tune started off as a mumble and increased in pitch.

...And the only time that she...touches...ground.....
is when that little bird....dies....


Luckas raised an eyebrow playfully and chuckled. “Happy is too much of a word Lady.” He said absently, giving a little shrug of his shoulders. “I’d say I’m momentarily amused. Life is that, is it not? Moments?” He asked, running a few steps ahead of her and turning so that he was pacing backwards. “But since you claim to share my amusement, let me rephrase the question a little: Would you like me to go back with you, or is it alright if I stay in the city? I have... uh... Some cleaning I need to tend to.”

“Ah, CLEANING....” She teased. “Like the CLEANING you performed after Jasper?” Ess shrugged, not buying his words for one second but didn’t care enough at the moment to pry. “I always want you around Luckas, but if you got more secret stuff to do...probably with that Zeke fellow...or whatever...that’s fine. Go make nice.” They had reached the spot outside of BlackPond where Shockwave grazed happily, Ess pausing by the horse’s side, leaning lazily against him. “A friend of sorts I presume.” Turning back around to face Luckas, the familiar sweet smile curled her lips, violet eyes glowing brightly. For the first time ever, Ess shyly turned her gaze from Luckas’ dark orbs. “Thank you my dear Luckas, for today..for being apart of my..’moments.’.”

Luckas chuckled slightly. “Now... I wouldn’t call it secret stuff really... I do have a score to settle with a certain bookkeeper... How else will he learn to keep his hands to himself, hm?” He played. “After all, I’m momentarily amused, but I’ll be bored pretty soon. Especially if I’ll be staying here all by my lone self.” He ran his fingers through his hair and went silent for a few moments obviously trying to pick his words with care. “You’re almost right, actually, Lady... Except that I would call that man anything but a friend, and I never make nice... With anyone... And definitely not with him, but... I have answers of my own to find, you know?” He stated. “I would hate it if you left here thinking I’ve been seeing other friends behind your back, I mean... I’m just not that kind of guy.” He stated, trying his best to act offended at the possibility of having other friends. “Whether you need to cheer up or not, I took something from the squealer I thought you’d want...” He tilted his head back for a second to look at the sky before lowering his gaze again and adding. “You’ll have to look in my eyes if you wanna see it though.”

Ess’ head snapped up at attention, her brows came together in a puzzled expression, as she moved away from her horse and stood before Luckas. Gradually her eyes casually scanned her friend, snickering when her hand reached for Luckas, fingers once again slinking through his hair where she paused to ruffle up a few locs. She let her eyes lock with his, the rest of the world melting away.

In the beginning, as usual, there was only darkness. As if her eyes had been closed, suddenly opening, rays of fading light; reds, oranges, pinks, and yellows streamed along the horizon. Leafless trees bending from a howling wind against the setting sun, gave the surrounding buildings a lingering glow as street torches were lit for the oncoming evening.

“Ian...it’s your turn to clear the table son...” A man’s voice called from inside. “And shut that window, you’re letting the heat out.”

Ian sighed, giving the window a forceful shove, locking it tight. Moving towards the kitchen table, he began piling the dirty plates together, pausing to stare over towards the mantle. There, Ess’’ father was massaging his wife’s shoulders from where she sat before him, rocking slightly in her chair. Symphony was humming quietly, resting her hands upon her enlarged belly, cheeks glowing a rosy hue against her snow white skin. Dirk was running his fingers through her long, burgundy strands, humming softly in unison. Symphony’s eyes slowly closed as her lips parted in song:


Sweet...Sweet child...see me.....
Tiny..white dove..
Destined to be free....
Winds carry you above...
Speckled in crimson blood...

Sweet....sweet love...hear my song...
Burn with desire...
Never settle for the wrong...
Toss regrets into the fire...
Their ashes blinding those who conspire...

There was a pause, Symphony opening her lavender gaze to look into Dirks deep blues and for a moment it was like all else was forgotten. Dirk leaned forward, kissing Symphony’s forehead as he slid his hand over hers and they gasped, muttering simultaneously. “...You can feel the heart beat...” They both laughed, as Symphony continued to sing, her husband’s tenor grace reverberating off the walls when he joined in.

Sweet...sweet baby...
Open your eyes....
Beauty of the soul, little lady...
Real love... that never dies...
Drink deeply the life, draining the skies..

“Ma...how do you know it’s a girl?” Ian muttered out, Dirk chuckling at his son’s apparent perplexed expression.

Symphony turned to look upon Ian, a kind smile overtaking her expression. It was like Ess was there, looking straight into her mother’s own eyes...her eyes. The voice that answered, was unexpected, compared to the soprano-alto that sang seconds ago; now higher pitched with an accent, her vowels dragged out in a subtle lisp. “...Because son....she told me..”


Essence beamed brightly, tears shimmering like stars, aching to fall, yet she held them back, gasping a bit, her vision going dark. As reality slowly trickled back into focus, Luckas’ black eyes already faded from their mimicked violet, Ess found herself stretching out for the image of her mother as it disappeared. She didn’t even notice how her hand hovered just beside Luckas’ cheek, her ears ringing with her mother’s words. “I can feel it......she will be the light in darkness...she will love...she will hate....she will suffer....but still her fire will burn..”

As Luckas’ eyes faded back to his usual black there was something slightly different in his gaze, so much in fact he could feel it in the form of a slight shiver working its way up his spine. He wasn’t sure what that shiver was, or what feeling was behind it really, it wasn’t unpleasant just... Odd. Slowly, he took a step back, his cheek brushing against Ess’ hand as he turned his face away from her, his eyes lowering to the ground as he whispered. “Like I said... Moments.”

Ess was like a magnet. With every step he moved away, she stepped with him, in sync. Grinning ear to ear she slinked her arm, intertwining it with Luckas’ and squeezed. “I’ll give you that, sweetness....but I must say...I’ve never had so many ‘moments’ until I ran into you my dear Luckas.” Politely she pulled away and turned back to Shockwave, absently running her fingers through his mane; giggling when her horse nudged her shoulder almost knocking her back. “...Ok Luckas, I owe you...for much and since I feel Thank You is weak at this point...” Ess peeked out at her friend from her peripheral and winked. “Make sure you give my ‘respects’ to the bookie when you go back.” Clearing her throat she hoisted herself up onto her horse’s back and waved, “See you when I see you hun...hopefully sooner than later....Don’t we have some training to get to?” She pulled on the reins lightly so that she was facing Luckas, quirking an eyebrow.

Luckas forced a smile, still a bit shaken from whatever odd feeling he was having and nodded slightly as he mumbled. “You don’t owe me... I don’t do favors, remember?” He lifted his gaze from the spot he had been staring at intently and looked up at Ess, a grin threatening to break through his faked smile as she mentioned the bookie, his comment however went in a completely different direction than whatever he had in mind for the poor idiot. “You know Lady, the squealer had a point; there’s people you don’t want to be messing with.” He stated, a slight grimace crossing his features as if he was being forced to swallow something bitter. “I doubt you’ll just take my word for it, because that’d be unusually reasonable and boring of you, but still... I’m just saying... Because then I get to say ‘I told you so’ later, and I always wanted to do that.” He said with a playful smirk. “And don’t worry, Lady... I haven’t forgotten about training... Chances are you’ll be seeing me sooner than you think... And probably later than you’d like, but oh well...” He chuckled, turning around and starting to calmly walk into the city once again.

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Ess Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Darren Hearst
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#, as written by Essence
“Honest opinion, here. Do you think the gift is too much?”

Darren quirked a brow, glancing between both boxes, each brow alternating for each direction he looked. Motioning towards the right he pointed. “I think that would be a bit...much, Aiden..but then again it’s not just from you.”

“You think she won’t like them?” Aiden sighed, looking between the boxes.

“No...that’s not what I meant. She will like them. She likes..pretty things and I know you will get…Quite the reaction from her. I just think you should have stuck with the first one and let it be at that.”

“You think I should give up.” He stated simply, his voice flat.

“I...well…” Darren adjusted his hat, half covering his face before tipping it away from his eyes. “Honestly...I think you come on strong. I think you are just scaring her away.”

Aiden stared at the larger box for some time before shrugging. “She was just really prou-.”

“I know. I know you’re thinking behind it. You are trying to give her something that was lost. I’m just saying..it comes off strong..”

“But Deidre is the one who made it for her...Darren, you really think-?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters.”

“No..it doesn’t…” Darren smirked. “No offense Aiden...but I think I know my mother better than you do..”


Six Months Ago...Raven’s Nest


Darren was rolling several small pieces of parchment together and tying it with twine to a Raven’s leg, whispering words of encouragement to the bird before releasing it. He chuckled at himself, watching the creature circle several times before flying off in the direction of the White Shadows. Now it was off to go wake up his Uncle Jakey.

-Annie-

I haven’t given myself too many moments to sit quietly and think for the past few days since I left. I returned to discover my Mother is still very much alive and here, taken under the Captain’s wing. She was someone I had met at the Ball...someone Jake knew as a child...the same redhead I saw flash behind my eyes when I encountered a dark eyed stranger in the wilderness. Luckas. It was like a fabled creature one would be unsure of if it was mischievous and curious or if it was hell bent on something more sinister. It was just the way he hid in the shadows and I couldn’t be sure if he was following me. Turns out, he is someone very special to my Mother. I’m afraid for her, truthfully. He seems like a complicated fellow but I kind of like the guy.

Words will not express my utter despair and joy that is swirling beneath my feet. She is beautiful, strong, and wise except when she looks inwardly. She tries to so hard to not hide herself, but I guess that is not easy when that was all she ever knew for so long. She almost reminds me...when I look into her eyes, of something fragile that was shattered to pieces more than once and somehow pieced back together. The atrocities she has endured because of those people...because of my Father..I am heartbroken. I have never been one to hate. I have never wanted to kill someone so bad in my life..and It scares me. I don’t want my Mother to have to see my Father ever again. He twisted her mind so far, I don’t know if she could handle the encounter. I want to protect her, to take this burden from her. I told her that every woman deserves a man who makes her forget her heart was ever broken and that if she feels that way around Luckas then she can’t hide from it. She just hugged me and said when she looks into my eyes, I help her forget the pain. Nice dodge Mom. She just deserves so much and yet I see her spiraling down a dark path. Maybe it’s unfair of me. She’s not all dark and dreary. Her smile is contagious and so is her laugh. It’s crazy how much she secretly fears everyone around her, but they are drawn to her like a moth to the flame. It’s true. You meet her and you can’t help but love her and want to protect her.

-D-


Present Time


“Darren?”

The boy blinked. “What? Sorry.”

“Again?” Aiden snickered.

“What? No..well yea...but no I was just thinking about..”

“..Something besides the leader of the White Shadows?”

“Aiden, you said Deidre was apart of the last scouting party that went out. You mentioned her being upset..you were as well about your friend..What happened?” Darren placed a hand on the man’s shoulder for a moment before pulling back respectively.”

“...the place was rigged with traps. It was...an unfortunate lapse of his attention to his surroundings.”

“Aiden..Do I look like the Captain? I didn’t ask for a report..”

“He was ripped in half...ok?” Aiden scowled. “ He just...something exploded..so she said. They of course...no one from the wagon escaped but from what I hear..the Captain only got...a few things, minor useful things..out of them. Well besides the wagon full of explosives. We think they were meant for Newhaven.”

“But nothing..else?” Darren swallowed, remembering the cages and human remains discovered at the abandoned camp.

“...Thankfully...no...but at the same time…”

“Captain believes there are more wagons…and that my Father messed up. He messed up bad. We are hoping…”

“That it will start a cascade effect.” Aiden finished. “..You and I are going out with the next rotation.”

“I hope we find something...soon…But...Aiden…? What did the Captain do with all those explosives?”

Aiden snickered and shook his head. “You know I don’t know that...for sure...just that they are being dispersed...appropriately.”



Six Months Ago...Raven’s Nest

Essence couldn’t have been asleep more than an hour when she stirred, her form slowly rising to a sit up position. Her face was covered by massive amounts of thick curls, her head drooping forward along with her shoulders making her appear she would lay back down along her pile of pillows. Crawling out of her blanket, she rolled to her right onto her knees so that she was positioned quite close to Luckas, her head gradually turning from left to right in a continuous searching motion only to pause and move in the opposite direction. Violet eyes peeked out past her curls in tiny slits, dull and almost faded in color like the green gown she’d always wear for bed. They appeared worn and distant. In one fluid motion she rose to her feet with such ease, someone might as well have picked her up in the effortless way she moved. Yet, when she stood her form swayed slightly as she stepped outside of her tent and began circling both her tent and the Oak it was positioned against. From her side, steady along with each step, Tala heeled, whining softly up at her. The wolf tried several times to use her snout to deter Ess from her path, trying to lead her back into the tent, but Ess always spun as if she were dancing, still lost in her trance like search.

The familiar brown fog rolled in, thicker this time, so much that Ess felt almost suffocated until a warm breeze brushed across her face. Stepping forward, her eyes narrowed as she tried to see through the fog, searching all around her until the distant giggles reached her ears and began to follow blindly ahead. “Jakey, I’m going to find you..I always do. Can’t we play another game?” Ess spoke not even very loud, but her voice echoed and rolled as the fog parted and there before her stood the great oak. She didn’t see the boy standing at her left, but merely felt he was there and turned, unsurprised to see those sweet blue eyes smiling up at her. As before, when he spoke, the voice did not match the visage of the small boy, but mimicked that of the adult version. “Ess, stay back. You can’t stop it. You can’t change what you know will happen.” The boy’s smile faded, his hand finding hers and giving a firm squeeze, he leaned back in an attempt to lead Ess away. Instead, Ess lead the boy forward, tightening her grip on his hand as well, not wanting to let him go. He didn’t struggle, only sighed as he kept in step at her side.

Luckas woke up when he felt movement, mentally protesting a bit as he realized it hadn’t been very long since he’d fallen asleep, only opening his eyes when he noticed that he wasn’t hearing the usual sounds of the woman and wolf breathing in their sleep. He sat up with his sight still a bit blurry and confirmed that he was in fact alone inside the tent. “Lady?” He mumbled, scratching his head a bit in confusion before letting out an annoyed sigh and making his way out of the tent.

The Nest was always just quiet enough at night to be peaceful, it almost created the illusion of vulnerability, when in reality the place was nothing but. In that silence it wasn’t difficult to hear the sounds of a woman walking and the occasional whines of a wolf following her closely. Even if he couldn’t, Ess hadn’t wandered very far, although she seemed to him as if she was wandering around aimlessly. Luckas tilted his head to face her as he stood watching for a moment before following after her as well.

After another lap around the oak, Ess paused, her eyes closing a moment before she knelt down to Tala’s level. Placing her hands upon the wolf’s shoulder blades along her back, she rested her head against Tala’s and smiled slightly before pulling away and standing back on her feet. Again her body swayed, the whites of her eyes appearing as her eyelids parted, turning around to face the tree.

Ess stopped when she saw the Oak, standing with a curious strength, the fog changing to smoke that swarmed and enveloped the mass before her. Protectively she pulled the boy behind her and let go of his hand. “Stay, Jakey...”

“No, Ess. You stay. Just let him burn...” The boy protested.

Ess turned around and knelt before the boy and pulled him into a gentle hug. “I won’t let either of you die, Jake.” She whispered before standing and turning back just as the flames started to spread. The figure wasn’t clear at first, trapped against the tree; a shadow with glowing, grey eyes staring back at her.


Ess was on the move again, this time circling the fire pit in front of her tent, the flames settled and soft which gave the appearance they were dying. This time when she stopped, her eyes widened, still dull and lifeless except for the reflection of light dancing in her pupils.

Luckas was watching Ess at first with a mix of curiosity and amusement. It was somewhat clear that she wasn’t seeing a thing of her surroundings, even though she seemed to be seeing something, once realizing that it wasn’t hard to reach the conclusion that the woman was dreaming; sleepwalking. Luckas had heard before that one should never wake a sleepwalker, and at this point he wish he had bothered to ask a healer if that was actually a fact or not. He wasn’t sure if it was best to try and wake the woman or just let her wander and try to keep her out of trouble. He didn’t have to think much on that fact however; the decision pretty much made itself when Ess started heading towards the lit fire.

“Lady, Lady, Lady...” Luckas started calling after her as he followed, trying to get her attention, but still a bit reluctant to just grab her and shake her awake.

“Ess, Ess, Ess...” The boy called, grabbing her hand once again. “What are you doing?”

Essence shook the hand loose and snarled. “Stop it. My life is not your decision, Jake. Every time I come here, you tell me the same thing over and over: The hardest ones to love, are the ones who need it the most. And now you want me to just turn my back?” The woman pushed at the boy and ran forward towards the Oak, feeling the warmth of the flames around her feet as she worked to free the figure before her. The shadow faded as the fire grew hotter, her eyes focusing on Jake’s blue eyes as the darkness appeared by his side, slowly coming into focus. Ess managed a smile through the fear that crept inside and it wasn’t for the victory in her stubbornness or the fact that she was indeed sacrificing herself for something she cared deeply for; it was for the very aspect of the dream she was able to change, however slight.


Tala growled, leaping forward she bit into Ess’ hand, trying to pull her back. Essence simply growled back as if she were mocking the wolf, and pried the mouth off her hand, revealing minor teeth marks and a bit of blood. Ess wasn’t even fazed, instead stepping up onto the short rock wall that bordered the flames, one foot after another forward into the fire.

Luckas groaned as his attempts to get Ess’ attention failed and even Tala’s efforts didn’t even seem to faze her. He didn’t have much left to do but one thing, and he didn’t waste much more time with thinking about whether it was a smart thing to do; he grabbed Ess by the waist and used all his weight to pull her away from the fire pit. “Come on Lady, this is not how you play with fire... Wake up! Wake up.”

A perfect overlap of illusion and reality; dream and awake melded together as the figure focused in her mind. She awoke staring into those same eyes, the grey darkening to their proverbial black as her own brightened into their traditional, violet glow. Pure bewilderment entranced her gaze, her hands finding Luckas’ arms around her waist and naturally left them resting there. Ess’ thoughts were of her dream and who she had saved from the fire and as she looked away from Luckas to take in her surroundings, an ironic laugh awkwardly resounded at her friend. Who was saving who? As it dawned on her, her lips parted in a luscious smile. This awkwardness was nothing like when Aiden had picked her up into his arms; she didn’t want him that close. Luckas, on the other hand was different entirely. “Why is it, whenever fire is the subject of interest, you are somehow involved?” She whispered faintly.

Luckas sighed somewhat relieved, but not in one bit amused by the whole situation; an annoyed expression on his face as he stared at Ess, still holding onto her as if to make sure she wasn’t wandering off again. “What’s so funny, Lady? If this is your idea of a joke, I’ll have you know I’m not very amused. In fact this is the less amused I’ve been around fire ever.” Raising an eyebrow curiously he added. “And if this is not a joke, then... What was it?” He asked, looking around as if trying to find some explanation lurking around.

Ess’ smile was thoughtful as she spoke, whispering into Luckas’ ear. “Irony...is what I find so amusing, my Dear Luckas. The irony of my nightmare; the irony on how I could almost control the entirety; the irony of how this was another example of how my dreams are coming to a reality.” She paused quirking a brow. “..At least in a way...but I wonder If I still am dreaming, and if I am, I think I’d like to hold onto it for just a little while longer.” Ess carried a certain kind of charm in her words, almost a tantalizing, teasing sweetness as she pushed to avoid exactly what had just occurred. She did all she could to hide her embarrassment, instead shying her gaze away coyly. “Besides, if this is what I need to do to be this close to you, then maybe I should go back to sleep.” Ess giggled, her fingers gingerly squeezing Luckas’ arm.

Luckas winced internally as he became very aware of how he’d been clinging to Ess as if she would vanish otherwise, but outwardly he just nodded his head slightly, pushing his annoyance with himself and the whole situation out of the way the best he could. “Remember that I said it’s not true that you can’t die in your dreams, Lady? That’s certainly not amusing.” He mumbled, pulling her a couple of more steps away from the fire pit before releasing his hold on her waist. “Besides... You are already closer than anyone else. There’s no need to jump into any fires now.” He added; a playful smirk breaking through his seriousness as he spoke. “So what was about this nightmare that you found so ironic exactly?” He asked casually, reaching for her hand; the one Tala had bitten, and raising it to eye level to check on it. “You should wash this bite, you know... Not that it is serious, but enough to break skin...” He pondered, brushing off a bit of blood with his thumb and giving a light shrug.

A shiver traveled from her waist and along her arms when Luckas moved away. Forcing herself to hold onto her sweet smile, it barely faltering, her mind focused on the chill upon her skin from where it was warm a moment ago. “I’m always happy for the reminder that my death would not be very amusing, Luckas. It wasn’t meant to be...”Her tone softened just below a whisper as she listened to Luckas speak. “I always remember what you say..” Still she smiled as her eyes flickered from her friend’s eyes to her hand, unaware until that moment that she was bleeding and that the skin felt slightly itchy; surprisingly she wasn’t in any pain. “Huh...Did you bite me to wake me up, Luckas?” She teased, purposely skipping over his question on her nightmare. Ess instead thinking long and hard if she wanted to answer and how exactly to answer, unsure exactly of what it all meant. The silver lining of her irises flashed as she muttered a bit of her answer. “...Each time I witness the dream, another irony is realized; something comes true; my subconscious forces me to realize what I thought was buried beneath the fear.”

Luckas stared at Ess with an eyebrow raised curiously. “Did I bite you? Of course not, Lady. If I was to bite you I’d make sure you’re awake...” He snickered. “I definitely would not bite your hand.” He added playfully, with a little grin. “No, this was Tala’s doing. She was very concerned for you as well.” He let his gaze wander from the oak tree to the fire pit and then back to Ess as he heaved a small sigh. “The dream with the burning tree again?” He asked; a subtle look of concern in his eyes as he recalled the bits and pieces he’d picked of the dream on previous occasions. “But you have not... Gotten out of bed like this before, have you?” He frowned slightly, going into thought for a moment, opening his mouth as if to speak again, but changing his mind. After a moment of silence he looked at her hand again and gave a half smile. “Do you have clean bandages or am I going to have to go steal from the medics?” He chuckled. “Or I could tear a piece of my shirt for bandages, I’ve seen guys do that and it always looks somewhat heroic... Although, this is my only shirt at the moment.”

Ess lips came together in a comical, pouty pose; the look of disappointment in her eyes was unclear if it was honest and true or a harmless jest. Her eyebrows rose curiously, still holding her pouty look, “Ooh? I wonder what I would have to do to get bitten then..” She pondered, not really expecting an answer. Turning her gaze downward, she retracted her hand from Luckas and let Tala sniff at the minor wounds, her smile returning. “Good girl, as always..” Ess giggled when the wolf began to lap at her hand in a careful, nurturing manner. Nodding to Luckas’ question about the burning oak, she sighed. “What does an Oak tree represent, Luckas?” Glancing back up she continued, “Strength...and what does it mean to me? It reminds me of innocence, as well as strength and how it all began with something so small it almost went unnoticed before one day surprising the world with it’s magnificence.” She looked back down at the wolf, her other hand gently patting the wolf along her snout. “And...in my dream...the tree doesn’t burn. It attracts me, calls to me more and more now and in the beginning the boy was faceless. Now, the boy is revealed to be Jake, as I remember him...with a...” Ess shrugged, “Minor difference....and the figure who I always work to save, has also always been faceless...” Ess trailed off, thinking Until tonight. “Looks like, at the same time I was protecting this shadow of mine, you were protecting me. Another example of the Irony I speak of.” She finished, not quite mentioning the figure had been Luckas, but not denying it either. Ess also kept to herself, the familiar repetitive message that was always spoken in those dreams, afraid of coming off as foolish or maybe seeing things that aren’t really there. Wouldn’t be the first time. “..And no, My Dear Luckas...I’ve not acted out my dreams, per se before...although...” Ess sighed, “I have been sleep walking...ending up in the most random places.”

Tilting her head to the side, Ess held back a laugh, the dimples at her cheeks appearing like tiny pits when her smile broadened. Looking around, as if lost she shrugged, “Medics have the supplies, if you really feel it’s necessary..” Pulling her hand back from the wolf’s nursing, she snickered causing herself to cough in her amusement. “Heroic huh? You secretly want to be my hero now or just a case to case basis?” Essence turned, sending a sly wink in Luckas’ direction.

“Hmm...” Luckas mumbled as he listened to Ess speak of her dream, he could almost swear some words of her story were spoken only inside her mind and he almost wished it was within his abilities to listen in, but he didn’t ask any more questions. “Ironic indeed...” He scratched the back of his head, giving her a curious look as she mentioned having walked in her sleep before, not seeming all too glad to hear that. “I can’t always be here to rescue you, Lady... May I suggest you tie yourself to the oak or something? Just in case?” He played, smiling although his concern was genuine; he really couldn’t be there at all times, although he couldn’t deny that he’d very much like to. “Good girl, Tala.” He whispered under his breath, glancing down at the wolf with an appreciative smile. “I’ll go get those bandages then, Lady... Be back in a minute.” He said, turning to walk away, but stopping to answer her final question. “And it’s not really my intention to be a hero or a Knight-in-shining-armor in any way, Lady. I’m not cut out for that kind of stuff... I’m much more comfortable with just being your shadow. If that’s alright with you.” He smiled over his shoulder as he started to wander off to snatch some supplies.

Essence doubled over in a fit of giggles, “Oooh..first it’s biting..now it’s tying me up?” Smiling she shrugged, standing back up straight so that her curls bounced along her shoulders, cascading down her back. “Not sure if tying me up will actually work..or how i’d do it myself..” She muttered knowingly, rolling her eyes. As Luckas wandered off in search of medical supplies, Ess’ smile widened so far she thought her face would crack, noting the way Luckas mentioned he’d rather be her shadow. “Smarter than you let on...” She breathed quietly to herself. Resting her hand along her chest, beside her heart, she glanced down at her tattoo and then back over at the Oak to the spot Luckas was usually found. Violet eyes burned, sparkling deep in thought, “My...shadow...”

A Few Days later…


“Psst....Aiden...you awake?” She whispered, a bit of urgency and childish excitement in her voice that squeaked when she remembered she was trying not to wake the others. A tired groan suddenly sounded like the loudest thing ever especially when the air was oddly silent; not even the sounds of insects echoing in dawns light.

“Ess..?” Aiden rubbed at his eyes and slowly sat up, quirking a brow at the woman’s wide smile masking a look of worry that laid beneath her eyes. “What’s wrong?...Wha..?”

Ess covered Aiden’s mouth with her hand which brought him to silence. “It’s time...get your stuff..” The redhead stood, turned and walked back out of the cabin without mentioning what she meant exactly but by Aiden’s hurried footsteps it was obvious he knew. Tala had begun a difficult labor early on in the night and something seemed off in the struggle the wolf was having with the first whelp and many still to come. With the wolf’s age, Ess had been afraid for her furry friend and was doing all she could not to think about it so not to add more stress to Tala’s situation.

The kennel Aiden had built was quite large with a separate, dry bedded area of hay, sheltered for weather accompanied by an enclosed grassy area of three or four yards, fenced in with a gated door that was now open. Shaded beneath the foliage, it was almost hidden and made to look like a den, to which Tala seemed to find instant comfort. Puppy was unusually protective of the den and even though was a gentle and patient soul most times, actually bared his teeth when Ess and Aiden approached. The Beast Speaker lowered his head in a submissive gesture, kneeling until he was actually on his side. Puppy nudged Aiden with a sort of approval before the man stood once again, moving to Tala. Others in the camp were stirring now, curious to the sudden excitement during the night, but Puppy wouldn’t let anyone else besides maybe the Captain, get close.

Tala’s belly seized and shivered amidst her heaving panting as more time passed, Aiden working feverishly to ensure Tala’s comfort and attempting to help breech the first welp. It felt like forever but when the first pup escaped it’s confines, Tala was a natural, brushing Aiden aside to cut the umbilical cord and tear the amniotic sac. Furiously she worked to clean the pup off but was soon accompanied by another and then another. Ess and Aiden had no choice but to jump in and assist, desperate to protect each one, cleaning them off enough so that Tala could finish after each one was freed from their tiny prisons.

“One...three...” Ess began counting as she stared at the freckled array of colored pups appearing before her; Tala helping the blind and deaf children to their first meal. Most latched on for milk with no further assistance but there were two who seemed to struggle. One, the last to be born; the runt, was a deep, sheer black. The other was grey with white trim around it’s paws and along it’s belly. At first they fell upon one another trying to find their mother’s milk and as the black one finally latched on, the other slowed and grew quiet.

“Seven....seven pups....My, My Tala you do have your hands full.” Aiden beamed, washing his hands in a basin of water. Tala looked at the immobile pup and began lapping at the tiny body and Aiden grew quiet, a saddened cloudiness taking over his eyes.
“..Six....” Ess whispered softly, slowly reaching for the pup. It wasn’t breathing and even though they tried all they could for the little soul, he was already too far gone. The soft grunts and squeals similar to a pig were drowned out by Tala’s mournful whine. She stared at Ess who was still holding her cub. Something passed between the two in an unspoken understanding, the wolf clearly feeling sorrow for the loss but quickly turning back to tend to her other cubs.

“I’m going to bury him..” Ess sighed, wiping a few tears. It didn’t take long of course to dig a hole big enough for the tiny creature, which she did just beneath her Oak tree. Another silent prayer and the act was done. Six cubs survived, which was better than anyone could expect but something changed in Tala’s eyes. Most didn’t notice it, except those who knew the feeling of losing a child. Some didn’t think the wolf would really notice or remember. She’s just an animal.. They whispered but never did they dare do so around Aiden because he knew different and so did Ess. It did matter and she did remember, but life goes on..

~~~
Two weeks passed so quickly, Essence spending so much of her time with Tala and the pups that she was there when they first opened their eyes.

“They will all have blue eyes at first but most will change as time passes.” Aiden had explained to her one day as Ess sat beside the tiny grave now scattered with budding Irises. As time went on and the pups were able to see and hear, they were quickly becoming harder to keep up with. Thank goodness for the children who never tired of following the pups around as they stumbled and rolled on all fours. They were surprisingly agile and a bit larger than expected by the time a month went by.

When the pups reached two months old, Aiden swore they looked the size of three months. They had also managed to meet everyone in the camp who in turn always kept an eye out to ensure they didn’t leave the perimeter. There was the biggest of the lot, a male, who resembled a tiny brown bear, with golden brown eyes. The largest female was all white with one blue eye and one golden. Then there was the one that most resembled Puppy; a male with pointed ears and a longer snout and reddish, rust, grey-like fur, but with Tala’s sapphire blue eyes. The second female was splattered with whites, browns, and blacks so that her face took on the appearance of wearing a mask; leaving white around the snout and mouth and piercing yellow/golden eyes. The third male with slate grey fur, frosted blackish ends, had the appearance of a thick mane, giving the illusion he was as large as his older brother. There was no ignoring the calculated, golden-amber stare that followed any who would cross it’s path. Finally, there was the smallest but still quite large, male of the pack. The runt. He was black as night and leaner than the others but still just as strong if not quicker. Ess couldn’t help but love the deep browns of his eyes and his annoying, persistent curiosity for all things.

Both the black and bear-like cubs were probably her favorites, if one could get her to admit to such. They were also the best of pals as they were always wrestling and sleeping together. It was poetic to Ess because it appeared that the strongest and the weakest of the pack were equals and ignored all ranks and thus were stronger together. They tended to sneak up on the others and pounce the females but the white one would always get the best of them in the end. She was stubborn and a force to be reckoned with when ticked off. One day she chased her pesky brothers into their den where they refused to leave until next sunrise. The masked female was more carefree and she didn’t bother with her brothers most days but spent more time tackling their mother with a determined need for attention. The other two males; the rust colored and the dark grey one, were mostly fascinated with the company of the Guard and it’s Captain. If they weren’t constantly trying to partake in the training spars, there were sideline, barking and howling mockeries at the losers. Most times if Ess needed to find them, they were either hanging out with the children or wrestling with Puppy. Some days it was a wonder who was babysitting who.

With the pack eating solid foods already and their ever budding curiosities, Ess felt it wasn’t too early to start training the little fluffballs. Besides, they were already making it quite obvious who was who in hierarchy within their ranks, even if only in ‘title’ as they all played together as equals. Not to mention how they were already accompanying Tala and Ess on hunts, even if they were still too young to hunt themselves. The intelligence was awe inspiring and the possibilities were endless of what kind of wolves these cubs would become.

“Why does Luckas get a furry friend? Can I have one too?” Darren had playfully complained to Ess one morning while rolling around with a few of the pups, letting one attach to his ear and tug on it hard. “Ow! No you can’t drag me..” He laughed.

Essence chuckled. “It doesn’t work like that, exactly. If one chooses you and you are ready to take on the responsibility, then yes. You have my blessing.” Quietly she stared at the small spectacle and smiled at the little wolf cub, thinking the mischievous girl drew a bit of blood on Darren. “Maybe you’ve already been claimed by our little masked crusader right there.” She partially joked, laughing again when the cub stared between them and began barking in this high pitched noise, as if she were chirping like a bird. Spinning a circles a few times she dashed over to the Oak, bounced off the trunk and leapt on top of Darren to land clumsily against his chest. Darren groaned, taking a sharp breath. She had taken the wind right out of him.

“She does that a lot.” Darren mumbled sitting up.

“What, kick your ass?” Ess laughed hard.

Darren scowled trying to hold back a laugh. “No...well yes...but no that’s not what I meant. She seems to sing or talk quite a bit I’ve noticed. Reminds me of a songbird..which I guess is weird because she’s not a bird..she’s a wolf. Aren’t you fluffball?”

The pup adjusted herself when Darren sat up, placing her paws on his shoulders, her cold nose pressed against his in silent understanding before covering his face in kisses.

“Oh, now you’re quiet.” He complained, ruffling up the pups fur. “You need a name besides masked crusader. Mom apparently can’t figure out what to name all of you..”

“What’s wrong with my name for her?” Ess teased, the pup turning to bark up at her in protest. “Ok ok..So give her a name then. You can take her with you when you go to sleep. Bond with her some more and maybe she’ll follow you around like Stalker does Luckas.”

“..Stalker….really?” Darren quirked a brow at the choice of name. “Guess it makes sense…” He paused, scooping up the pup into his arms and nuzzled the furry face. “How..about Sora..” He looked back up at his Mother. “It means songbird.”

Essence leaned over her son and kissed the top of his head. “I think it’s perfect..”

Darren smiled, staring thoughtfully at Sora for a moment before turning back to Essence. “Mom...when do they start to howl?”

Ess kneeled beside Darren, several of the pups rolling around in play still. “Well...Sora here already does howl. We were doing it together yesterday. Watch..” Ess whispered, leaning into the pup as she began to howl softly at her. Sora sat back on her haunches, tilting her head curiously, her ears flopping a bit in her curiosity, front paws tap dancing in the dirt in excitement.

Darren laughed, joining in with Essence and Sora responded by tilting back her little head and letting out the tiniest, squeakiest howl that went on for almost a minute. Darren and Ess stopped their chorus to chuckle, a couple of the other wolves pausing in their play to stare curiously at them. Tala stood up, wagging her tail a moment at Ess expectantly and the woman nodded. “Sound the alarm Tala…”
Tala began her beautiful, mournful howl soon followed by Sora which lasted a few moments before the other pups attempted themselves. Ess and Darren sat for the longest time in silence, as if hypnotized and didn’t even notice Aiden and a few others from the camp that had hurried over in haste at Tala’s call. Once they saw the pack ‘singing’ together, they also sat and stared until their chorus ended. All except two of the females: A white puffball and Sora, who continued to sing an enchanting tale known only to them. Well and maybe Aiden.

~~~~~
About A Month Later..

“Jemma...I’m so sorry...” She whispered, wandering in the direction of the river, further from Luckas but closer to camp. Keeping her head low, she kept her eyes towards the ground as she passed a few people, happy that they barely paused to notice her presence. At first, that is. Ess was so focused on the memory of her friend she didn’t pay much attention to where she was going and actually looped through and around the heart of the camp twice before she was noticed and someone spoke up.

“..Uh, Sweetie...you alright?” A man’s voice asked. Ess ignored the question, oblivious it was even directed at her. ‘Sweetie’ was definitely not a nickname she carried in the camp, so it had passed in one ear and out the other.

“...Hey...are you lost? You seem, lost..” Another voice rang, causing Ess to look up to search for perhaps someone that didn’t belong in camp, but recognized her fellow brothers and sisters of the Guard only. A look of confusion crossed her features but she pressed on, not giving it much thought otherwise. She felt tired, as was expected and she feared if she sat down she would indeed fall asleep. Since that was against sound advice, Ess kept on her feet, absently overhearing mumbles behind her.

“Who....where....Does the Captain know? Shouldn’t someone find out? You do it if you’re so concerned.” That was when she felt a hand rest upon her shoulder, instantly shrugging it off. Don’t touch me..” She muttered, turning to face Deidre, a concerning and sad smile crossing her lips.

“Hey there...something I can help you with, Darlin’?” The woman kindly asked. Gradually her eyes widened and her smile faded to a slacked jaw in a surprised shock when she locked eyes with Ess as she responded. “What is it Dee? Do I look like I need your help? What is everyone’s issue...” She groaned glancing around to notice a few others were standing around her, staring. “What do I have to do to be left alone!?” Essence snarled, turning to push between a couple guys so she could ‘escape’.

“Was that...?”

“I don’t know...”

“Should we get the Captain?”

“Captain is away right now...may not be that extreme...”

“Should I get Aid-”

“No...I wouldn’t....”
~~

“There’s no fish.” Irvin mumbled, an annoyed tone in his voice. “You want me to sit here like an idiot holding a stick, and there is no fish. You’re just messing with my head aren’t you?”
Jake chuckled in response and gave the boy a careless shrug. “Maybe. I already told you, you need to learn to be more patient... Whether you accomplish that by catching a fish or holding a stick like an idiot is actually pretty irrelevant. Pick one and make your peace with the task instead of whining about it.”

Irvin snorted in annoyance, but didn’t complain again, staring intently at the waters of the river as if wanting to see for himself. Jake watched him almost just as intently, but his behavior was much more relaxed than Irvin’s as he sat by the water. He had thought anyone would very much enjoy sitting by the river holding a stick after several days of just sparring, but it seemed the kid wasn’t convinced this was all there was to it. That was probably a good thing, some level of paranoia always proves useful in the end. When Irvin finally stopped huffing and muttering under his breath, Jake thought he heard sounds coming from the center of the camp, and he let his attention be caught by them. It wasn’t exactly a commotion, but more like a growing sense of confusion. “I’ll be right back... Stay here.” He told Irvin as he jumped to his feet and started to walk towards the camp. Upon reaching the center he caught bits and pieces of conversations here and there, attentions focused on this little blond girl who Jake had never seen around camp. The girl didn’t seem to be older than eight years old and at first Jake was, much like everyone else, wondering how she’d gotten there and if she was lost or in need of assistance, it was only after a few moments that he noticed how she seemed confused by people’s reactions, asking to be left alone, then he noticed her eyes and the scene immediately made sense to him... To a point at least. He did understand that Ess had changed and was unaware of it, but he didn’t understand why.

Jake remained standing where he was until he caught the attention of the woman who had been hanging around the blond child despite her annoyed protests and signaled her with a nod of his head, after which she proceeded to slowly push the rest of the Guard members back to their normal duties. As she did so, Jake made his way towards Ess and gently placed a hand on her shoulder, just firm enough to make clear he wasn’t going to let her brush him off, starting to walk her towards his camp as he spoke. “They’re confused because you don’t look like yourself right now, Ess.” He explained simply. “Why are you wandering around as a little girl? Is something wrong?” He didn’t ask who the girl was just yet, even if he was almost certain she was someone; the only times he’d seen Ess change without noticing, she changed into people she knew. For now he just planned to lead her somewhere quiet.

Instinctually Ess tried to shrug off the hand that was lightly gripping her shoulder, but only attempted it once, immediately recognizing her friend by auditory and visual confirmation. She lifted a brow at him, her curious look of confusion fading to one of disbelief, staring for a moment as if Jake was clearly joking. Ess let a minute or so pass before she responded, letting the words sink in. “I didn’t though...What?”

All around the camp there were buckets of water that hung from hooks outside of each cabin for the men and women during their work day and even a few scattered upon the ground for Puppy, Tala and their offspring as they roamed. Ess hadn’t been paying attention to where she was going, the tip of her foot colliding with a wooden bucket of water causing ripples to multiply and disappear below. Leaning towards the reflection her expression was not one of shock like someone may expect, instead her eyes softened and she kneeled down, gripping the edges of the bucket firmly as she focused on the image of her departed friend, Jemma; straight blond hair, sun kissed skin, a tiny button nose and even a few freckles along her cheeks. Slender fingers reached out towards the mirror image, skimming the surface of the water as she tried to grasp what was only an illusion and clearly not there. Ess forced a sad smile, reddish tears streaming down silently before she covered her face in her hands and standing to continue along with Jake. “I’m so sorry...” She whispered. “I let you die....over and over..again.....I let you die...So pretty...such a waste...” It wasn’t clear exactly if her words were directed at just the memory or the failed exercise as well but as she walked, all other sounds went silent and all she could hear was Jemma calling out her name. Ess’ hands snapped away from her face and over her ears, snarling in frustration, knowing she wasn’t really hearing her friend; at least she didn’t believe she was. It was almost like an echo.

“I called for him... .over and over....It didn’t matter that I knew he wouldn’t come...It didn’t matter that he was dead...I still called to him when Jasper....” Ess’ voice cracked through a heavy sob, fighting to catch a breath. “Da.....Daaa....” Ess whispered to herself, shaking a bit when she realized she was no longer in the center of camp near all those people. She turned away from Jake absently noting a rustle in the bushes a little ways off but fell back into her silence.

Jake was silent as he watched Ess as they walked, catching bits and pieces of her words, but not exactly making much sense of anything. He understood that girl was dead and he caught a mention of Jasper, which meant that this wasn’t something recent, but the man’s involvement was not in any way a good sign. Upon reaching his camp Jake went over to a bucket of water by his tent and got some into a metal cup. Ever since the days had started to get warmer Irvin had gotten into the habit of freezing the water solid in the morning, even though the ice melted quite quickly the water kept cool for a few hours still. He couldn’t deny it was a smart idea, but he had warned the kid that if word got around camp of what he could do he’d never be left alone, especially when summer came around. The still partially frosty water made the metal cup cold enough in Jake’s hands to make his fingers ache slightly, but he didn’t quite mind it and brought the water to Ess, pushing the cup onto her hands. “Here, drink.” He stated, watching his friend with concern in his eyes and wondering if it would be a good idea to try and get her to talk about whatever was troubling her. Words escaped him though, and before he could finish his thinking he was already asking questions. “Who are you? I mean, you know, who was she?” He paused for a moment as if trying to keep himself from speaking further, his next words coming out in a whisper, although they seemed somehow more audible. “Why are you sorry?”

Ess stared off, spacing out into the trees, not noticing the cup in her hand until the cold tingles began to spread along her fingertips. A subtle groan echoed from her, her free hand falling to her stomach as it twisted in another wave of nausea. Slowly she took a sip and then placed the cup down atop a rock, still not wanting to sit. “I didn’t forget what I was told...just don’t think I can keep anything down..right now...ok?” Ess muttered in defeat, resting her cooled fingers along the back of her neck, her eyes closing in response as it sent a pleasant feeling down her back. When Jake began his mini array of questions her eyes snapped back open, her gaze falling back to her feet. “Her name...was Jemma, Jacob. She was my best friend....my only friend...and she died because of me...” Ess quickly turned, hiding her face as a quick fit of dry heaves passed over her, more painful than the last but only because nothing came up. When she thought it was over she stood back up straight and sighed. “What happened to her...what happened to me...” She turned to face Jake, looking up at him warily. “I’d rather suffer through that a thousand times...if I knew it wouldn’t have been for ‘Nothing’.”

Jake sighed softly, holding back not to push Ess to continue sipping the water, she didn’t seem well to him at all, and he was starting to form suspicions in his head as to why that was... Why were these memories coming back to trouble her now all of a sudden? A small frown crossed his features but he willed it away as he nodded at her answers. “Look, I don’t have all the information here, but then I don’t I really need it to know that what happened to her, to you, was in no way your fault. It was their fault, you know that. No matter what anybody says, you were innocent, Ess.” Jake went silent for a moment or two before he started again with the questions, taking a seat on a log near his fire pit, eyes always fixed on his friend. “Why is this troubling you now? I mean, it’s been a long time, something must have happened to bring it up.” He didn’t ask what he really wanted to ask, he didn’t think he could do that in a non-confrontational way when he could see that Ess was clearly physically ill, instead he just waited to see what she would choose to tell him.

Again, Ess cradled her face in her hands, silent sobs shaking her. “It was my idea to escape..how could we escape? Stupid...Didn’t pay to have friends...” Gently she massaged both her temples, opening and closing her eyes to focus more on the water sitting idle before her than the memories still running rampant through her mind. Ess felt like she was still on repeat so she reached for the glass once again and forced down a few more sips of water. Heaving a sigh, she wiped at her tears accumulating along her jaw, simply nodding up at Jake as he spoke. “I know...I know...I feel like...I’m facing certain things..for the first time, Jacob...Do you understand? It’s because I failed and maybe I’ll get to try again..” She muttered, trying to explain to a point but her mind was still fuzzy so it didn’t come out quite clear. It was as if more than one thought was jumbled together when she spoke. That, and she felt like she shouldn’t tell Jake what she had been up to and that apprehension showed as she shyly looked away from her friend. Technically she really wasn’t suppose to talk about it. “You know...you remind me...of my father a bit, Jakey.” A sad smile appeared again as she thought how it wasn’t just similarities in appearance but also the mentality of her father and it was quite fitting if she was honest with herself; Jake being family and all, in a way. Ess was afraid slightly of hearing Jake’s disapproval and probably more. She didn’t think he’d listen. “I’ll be ok, Jakey....it’ll pass...Like most things tend to.”

Jake ran a hand through his hair, still watching Ess with concern although relieved to see her drink more of the water. He noticed how she didn’t really answer his questioning as to what had happened, but the hints were there, subtle but there. Jake frowned only slightly when she mentioned trying again, but his expression softened when she mentioned her father, the remark catching him a bit off guard. Jake stood, quietly making his way to Ess and wrapping one arm around her in a gentle embrace. “Alright now, brace yourself... I’m going to tell you a couple more things you probably already know...” He stated firmly. “Your friend, well, we don’t know how long she would have lived if you hadn’t befriended her, or suggested you try to escape, but we do know that in the time the two of you were friends, that girl had someone in her life who cared about her, someone to remind her that she mattered. If there’s something I’ve learned is that sometimes just not being alone is everything. Maybe having a longer life, without any support, in that place, would have been worse. I don’t know, but you shouldn’t blame yourself because it was simply an impossible situation.” He paused for a moment and then added with a small sigh. “Look, I know you’re up to something you’re not exactly telling me. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but just ask yourself if you really think it’s the best idea to let your overprotective little brother draw conclusions on his own... Especially if you plan on doing this again... You know me, whether I like it or not, I’ll always have your back.”

Ess sighed, leaning her head against Jake’s chest as he spoke. Closing her eyes she was so silent she could hear her friend’s heart beating. A familiar, sweet scent of burning pine mingled with smoked game, fresh herbs, and wild moss clung to Jake’s shirt and gradually anointed her curls. It was a gentle reminder of her own father, minus the herbs. Those who dabbled in poisons tend to smell of herbs, even more so than those who cook with them.

A subtle breeze awakened her eyes when she felt hair tickle her skin. Smiling up at Jake she noticed the deep reds had returned, and the more she relaxed (as much as she could in that moment), the more Jemma’s features melted away back into her own. “I wish...he could have met you, Jake. You would have liked him, I think...I know he’d have loved you.” She pulled away, still smiling through the occasional streak of reddish tears giving a small shrug. “I am doing better than I thought I’d do, considering the mental strain. No bleeds, right?” Quirking a brow she added, “So..You think I did for Jemma, what you’ve done for me? Could you imagine...who I would have been...if I’d never met you?” Her smile faded but she shook the idea from her mind. “It was my idea, sorta...well...it’s just...all this...is a part of my training you see. I mean, Luke did have a point....if I can deter his mind tricks, then technically I may be able to keep anyone out. Apparently, I have an advantage...” Ess trailed off noting the look she was receiving as she spoke yet she lifted her head high as if she were a bit proud of herself but fell quiet again. She knew there was no avoiding it and technically she may have been talking about it but it was Jake. He was her only family left, in a sense, besides Darren. Her problem had always been bottling up her fears when it came to Jake and no matter what she continued to think of herself she knew she needed to remember to give him a chance to be her family even if there were those moments where she knew he’d not be too happy with her decisions. She had to remember to accept his concern and that he did love her. “Jake...”

Jacob tried the best he could, but it was impossible to keep an angered spark from crossing his eyes at the mention of Luckas. He didn’t say what he was thinking though. He did understand how this could be helpful to Ess in the future, he just couldn’t bring himself to accept the idea of Luckas messing with her head for any reason. Much like everything else though, it was not his decision to make. “Alright... I see...” He mumbled softly, forcing a small cough to try and clear his voice. “And... Where, if I may ask, is Luckas right now?” He asked, noting his tone came out a bit more upset than it should and he shook his head. “Never mind... That doesn’t matter... Now at least.” He sighed scratching his chin idly as he looked over his friend. “How’re you feeling? Does your stomach hurt? Are you sleepy? Have you eaten anything today?” The small wave of questions was cut short as Jake abruptly turned his head towards the source of some noises coming from the bushes, an intrigued look crossing his eyes as he caught traces of movement.

Ess went back to nursing her glass of water, positioning herself against the rock so that she was leaning for support. “He’ll be back...I just couldn’t stand to have him around after everything that he saw...embarrassing and shameful don’t even cut it, Jake. Only reason I can stand to have you around is because you didn’t see...you don’t know. Maybe, I thought I’d do a little better than I did.” She shrugged at his array of questions. “..Everything hurts...course I’m sleepy, but Luke told me to not go to sleep for a while...and yes I ate...but that was kind of pointless since it all came back up. Ugh..and no I don’t want anything to eat...” Ess covered her mouth as if in fear she would get sick again, even though there wasn’t much in her belly. “This training thing with Luke is proving more of a challenge than I thought. I mean...I can’t even get him to attack me. I tried teasing, mocking, joking, and I even turned into Aiden. He won’t raise a finger against me...I need to find...a way to really piss him off.” Ess’ eyes glowed, a mischievous smile curling her lips as she looked back over at Jake. “And..before you tell me once again how you don’t approve of my methods...Jaakey....how can I tick off Luckas? Who is someone that gets under his skin?”

Jacob half smiled as he thought he caught a glimpse of dark fur moving amongst the bushes, but his expression turned serious again as he listened to the answers to his questions. “I don’t understand, I thought... Luckas had gone through your memories before... Hasn’t he already seen... Everything?”Heaving a small sigh, he opened up his tent only to catch a glimpse of a white blur running past dragging one of his boots. “No, damn it, bloody wolf...” He muttered out, already losing sight of the pup in the tall grass. “Third time this week.” He sighed in annoyance, going through his things for something. “So you want me to give you advice on how to piss off a psycho so that he’ll want to attack you? Why wouldn’t I approve something like that?” He asked in a sarcastic tone, resurfacing from his mess of things with a small teapot which he proceeded to fill with water and hang over the fire. “I’m making you some tea, should help with your upset stomach.” He informed, sitting at a log by the fire. “You can sit if you’re tired, I’ll keep you awake, don’t worry. An hour or so and it should be safe to get some sleep.” Jake went silent for a moment, fiddling with random locks of dark hair in the back of his head as his thought. “Hmmph... I probably shouldn’t tell you this, because I don’t like it... Not at all, buuut... I will, because I know I can’t change your mind about it anyway. Besides, I’d much like to see his face, heh...” Jake chuckled to himself for a moment, a devious look crossing his blue eyes. “You should take Lena’s appearance, and just... Be as condescending as you possibly can. That’ll push him right over, trust me.”

Ess finished off the water and set the cup down beside her. “Jake....He hasn’t seen everything....no...not everything...but plenty still.” She whispered, her voice fading away as she drifted into thought. Clearing her throat she added, “Not to mention all he saw in Jasper’s head...I just..don’t think about it...but maybe that’s my problem.” Essence was momentarily distracted by Jake’s sudden cursing and only just caught the end of Kaya’s white tail disappear in the grass. Kaya.. A small chuckle escaped, quickly cut off by a cough and minor choking fit. “Meaning Wise Child or Forgiveness” “Pretty mischievous if you ask me.” She whispered to herself remembering how the pup had been drawn to Crys during one of her visits, by the sweet melody of her flute. Still the wolf spent most of her time in camp, keeping Jake on his toes.

When she quieted, Ess thought she heard a yip and a flustered yowl echo from behind her and as she turned, she caught a brown fluff ball somersaulting out of the bushes to land beside her. The wolf pup shook his confusion off and let out a small warning howl and leapt back into the bushes with a whine as he collided into something. The foliage came alive with chaos, shifting and swirling wildly as if by some strong wind until moments later a black wolf pup rolled out of the bushes, its brother trotting proudly behind him. “Aww...look, it’s my mini Stalker...and the little bear looking pup. Probably should give him a name..”
Lifting her gaze upwards and back towards Jacob, her smile faded, a puzzled look crossing her face. A bit unsure of what Jake just said to her, she wondered if she heard right.

“Uh...Jakey...you’d be ok with me looking like Lena? Acting like Lena? Honestly..I don’t want to disrespect you by taking her form, so you sure? I...only met her twice...you’d have to help me with...some details...” Ess paused to look back down at the wolf pup, muttering over names in her head. ‘Bear...Little Bear...hmmm won’t be little for long...’ Stalker sat up on his haunches and barked at his brother, tilting his head curiously as if waiting for a response of some sort to whatever question he was asking. The pup began hopping around Stalker playfully growling as he teased his brother by always remaining just out of reach. Stalker yawned, looking bored and turned around so his back end was facing his brother and laid down. ‘BearWolf...WolfBear...’ Ess sighed, trying to remember if there were any other terms that may sound better but carry the meaning ‘Bear’, her thoughts drifting back to a story her father use to tell her when she was small, her favorite character’s name meaning bear: Beowulf. She repeated it to the pup who seemed satisfied enough with the name, barking in agreement. “Hm...Beo for short?” Her eyes softened as she watched the pup prance over to Stalker and lazily drape his large body across his brother’s back and closed his eyes.

Jake watched the pups curl up together to sleep with amusement, seemed like the little furballs were just everywhere now. It would be more than interesting to watch when they all grew to full size. Hopefully the white one would stop stealing his things though, because that was surely bothersome. And awkward when Crys had return them later. Jake couldn’t for the life of him understand why that wolf kept doing that... And he figured he just might have to talk to Aiden about it if it kept happening. Shaking his head as he took the teapot out of the fire and found two cups to pour it into he snickered. “I’m pretty sure Lena would be amused. So personally I don’t mind. You’re family just as much as she was, more so than her in a way.” He gave a small shrug, automatically adding a spoonful of honey to each cup before handing one of them out to Ess. “It’ll help your stomach settle... What kind of details do you need?”
~~~
A couple days later…

She did it for the wolf’s own good. Locking him up wouldn’t hold the small pup for long, but long enough to make her point. There was no denial. It couldn’t be helped to enjoy it, just a little bit and there couldn’t be distractions. It would be like hitting two birds with one stone.

A swift kick to Luckas’ side and it began, a plain looking but still sharp sword with freshly sharpened edges, pointed just above the man’s skull. While he was in mid response, she sent another foot into his lower back this time. The act was powerful as if she fueled by some mighty purpose and yet her smile and mocking gaze hid her eyes from view, her tone relaxed and nonchalant . “Boy. Pick it up..” She commanded, pushing with the point of her boot another sword within Luke’s reach and took a step back outside of the tent, swinging the blade so that it tore the flap of the tent clean off, morning rays of light piercing through. “Are you too weak? Or are you afraid? Do you speak Boy or are you going to stare like an idiot?” Jamming the sword into the dirt she quickly tied back her long, jet black hair before retrieving the weapon. Casually she rested it upon her shoulder, swinging it lazily as if she were growing bored.

The look on the woman’s face was a mix of amusement and annoyance, a hint of weariness in minor lines beneath her eyes. Those details were the hardest to get down because they were so subtle as well as finding clothes that the healer would have worn. Jake had helped with that, finding white robe like pants and shirt that were extremely comfortable and easy to move in. The way Lena had stood when she spoke and held herself was another thing she had help with, fooling even Jake for a bit this morning, when she showed off the finishing touches. Now the real challenge would be going on minimal experience, practice, and knowledge of how the woman fought. This was going to be fun.

“..Be as condescending as you possibly can. That’ll push him right over, trust me.”

Hopefully this would work. Enough taking it easy, even if she was anything but. No more childish toys or letting him storm off in frustration. She wasn’t sure how much of a natural instinct to protect one’s self from injury would kick in with Luckas. Sometimes it seemed he liked the pain so much more than putting in an effort. It was apparent on both sides if they were to really help one another, they were going to have to hurt one another.

Luckas woke with a sharp pain, a groan escaping him as he tried to open his eyes and make sense of what was going on exactly. “wha-...” Before he even got the chance to finish his
mumble he felt pain again; this time recognizing it as being a kick to his back.

“Boy. Pick it up..”

Luckas growled as the second hit brought him back to consciousness abruptly, his eyes flashing red momentarily at the words that reached his ears. It couldn’t be... Real... It couldn’t be... Her. Luckas pushed himself up to his hands and knees, his fingers reaching out to feel the metal of a blade lying on the floor by him. Luke felt his eyes sting as the sunlight reached them, raising his head to stare up at his attacker snorting in anger as Lena’s ghost mocked him, his hand finding the hilt of the weapon and closing a tight fist around it still on his knees inside the tent. “Go back to hell, witch... Leave me alone.” He muttered out, still unsure of whether he was actually awake or stuck in a vivid dream. He felt awake, his body hurt from the blows, but his disoriented mind had trouble comprehending what he was seeing before his eyes.

The Lena clone chuckled, “Hell? So you believe in Hell?” Nodding a bit, she spun dragging her sword through the dirt to kick it into a brown fog that encased Luckas in a passing sand like storm. She advanced, moving to kick out his knees, lazily holding the blade at the ready. “Is that where we are now? Perhaps I am just another ghost here to haunt you or maybe the problem doesn’t lie with me, but with your own mind.” Using the momentary cover of the dirt cloud, she sidestepped and leapt so she could be behind Luckas. Her voice echoed and seemed to come from all angles with this approach and so she continued. “You acknowledged me, so either way, now you’ve made the illusion of me, quite real. So, what do you do now, Kid?”

Luckas jumped to his feet when a brownish cloud of dirt rose from the ground and pretty much blinded him; even if only momentarily, he disliked the idea of losing sight of that woman.He wasn’t standing for long however, as he soon felt another blow hit him in the knees and throw off his balance. Luke stumbled forward not completely steadying himself as he pushed to make his way out of the tent, rushing as if he meant to run away, but stopping after just a couple of steps; his grip on the sword so tight his entire body was shaking from the tension. If he took the time to think, really think, of what was going on right there and then, it wouldn’t be so difficult to understand, but thinking in itself was difficult now. He couldn’t get his mind to settle long enough to tell himself this made no sense and so he continued to treat this ghost as a reality. “What I do, depends... You’re in my head... Are you in my head...? If you’re in my head then I am you, if not then maybe I’m dead... And this is hell... Where else would we be, you and I? Or you’ve come back from the dead just for the sake of tormenting me some more... So which way are you pushing me now? Huh? You want to make me kill you again, or just return the favor? WHAT do you want?”

The woman didn’t respond with words but with steel, purposely striking at Luckas’ sword and dragging her blade along his to straighten in a defensive stance. Taking a deep breath, sparks flew as she swung right for Luckas’ head, expecting him to duck the attack but she was already slicing downwards in a vertical maneuver that added to a flurry of merciless advances. “Stupid Boy...” She spat. “If I’m in your head and I am you...or even if I am a ghost, why are you seeing me? It isn’t a matter of what I want. THINK. Do you even have a brain in there? Maybe the only way to rid each other of this Hell, is for you to face it. Defend yourself!” Taking a leap backwards she spun, sword outstretched horizontally, moving as a windmill caught in a storm. “What’s left if you couldn’t use your ‘Talents’? Strike me down, if you can...” She snorted in playful mockery.

Luckas’ eyes widened at the woman’s actions, holding the sword in the stance he had been pushed into and awkwardly trying to keep the blade between the woman’s sword and his flesh as she struck at him. Luckas retreated some at the advances, the look in his eyes unusually frightened for a split second before his expression shut down completely. “What the hell does that matter? We’ll never know now and whose fault is that!? On my experience so far, facing hell only helps you burn faster.” He scoffed.

Lena kept Essence at bay the more and more she felt herself drifting into character. It didn’t matter how much she knew exactly about the woman for what she did know was that she was starting to get under Luckas’ skin. For a moment, she forgot herself so that she would believe she was actually Lena. The focus in keeping the glow of her violet eyes hidden was starting to dwindle so she kept up with the advances, drawing the attention to her slashing at Luckas’ shins, forcefully bringing the hilt of the sword abruptly towards his face in an attempt to knock him down. She was daring in attempting to bombard attacks she would never have been able to pull off a few months ago, pushing herself to deliver more than a few cuts and bruises upon her friend. Before there was hesitation in causing serious harm to her friend, but now she knew if he wouldn’t defend himself and let it happen, it was his own fault.

“So, whose fault is it? Mine? Yoooours?” She snickered through tight lips. “Sometimes, you have to burn to ash in order to come back as something stronger, no? I mean, look around you Luckas. You haven’t even noticed how empty the camp is.” Lena scoffed, stepping back a few paces to extend her arms as if about to present a show. It was true, the area was quiet and there was nothing around. Ess had made sure to clear the area in order to prevent any interruption, no matter what anyone heard coming from her camp; they were to stay away. It was almost eerie. Lena shrugged, “Didn’t even notice how she’s gone, did we? What would you say to her being taken, right under your nose because you were too much of a coward to raise a sword!? Where is that wolf of yours? The Captain? My Nephew? Oh, maybe I’ve overstepped and forgotten myself...don’t you only care about yourself? What a waste of time...”

Luckas’ time with Adam had paid off; and right then and there was when it was apparent just how much. Sure, he still hadn’t tried to make an advance, not yet, but he had done a decent job of not getting slashed open by the woman’s sword. His balance was thrown off here and there by trying to keep up with her attacks, but he managed to stay unharmed and standing. If he wasn’t way too angered to even realize what he was doing he might have been proud of himself. That wasn’t the case though. Even if in some level, in some part of his mind, Luckas felt that something was off even for a hallucination he couldn’t bring himself to care or question. The mere sight of Lena standing there and demanding things of him made him ill, her words were poison pushing fire through his veins and everything else simply melt away in its flames.

“You have no... Right...” The words were barely strong enough to completely break the silence, Luckas stood still as the woman stepped back from her advances his entire body shaking from head to toe at her words. He didn’t look around as she told him to, his head remained lowered so that his eyes were hidden underneath strands of sweaty hair. Inside his mind Luckas was screaming, he was shouting so many obscenities at once he could barely make out his own thoughts, he was screaming so loud his ears were ringing, his head was filled by a sharp agonizing ache, but still as he spoke his voice was so soft it would’ve gone unheard hadn’t their surroundings been so silent. “And who are you to talk, Witch? Who the fuck do you think you are? Don’t pretend you ever cared how this would end, don’t pretend you ever really wanted to help me, you... You only kept me around because I was useful... You only gave a shit while you needed me for something... Just like everyone else... Just like everyone else... Well, you know what... In the end, I’m always the coward and the monster and the fool, because, guess what; you can’t fix me, you never could... No one can... This... THIS... Is who I am. No amount of hell can change the facts.” Luke’s voice sounded soft still, but he was far from calm; he felt as though he was drowning and burning all at once, the fire spreading painfully to every part of his body, the pain so intense he barely felt himself move, raising the sword and rushing towards the woman standing before him, slashing blindly without as much as caring if the blade hit steel or flesh. All he wanted was for this to end, he didn’t care how. “Is this what you wanted!? IS IT!? THIS IS THE LAST TIME I DO ANYTHING YOU SAY! I’M DONE... LISTENING TO YOU... I’M DONE... I DON’T OWE YOU ANYTHING ANYMORE!”


To say that Essence was surprised, was an understatement. She hid it well, responding with a wide sneer and heckling laughter, her mind racing to understand the bits she was absorbing. Not knowing too much on Luckas’ and Lena’s arrangement, she had looked upon it as a mutual agreement, even if the terms were not completely known to her. Luckas’ words slowly began to sink into her and in some ways cutting deeper than expected. It didn’t matter if it was or not directly targeted at her. It didn’t matter if she herself had or had not treated Luckas as such because in that moment she began to understand a bit more that lurked inside her friend. It was something she was quite familiar with herself. Ess had actually paused, momentarily distracted on Luckas’ words when he attacked. ’Stupid.’ Essence thought to herself as she just avoided a sword to the face, yet it sliced through a few inches of her ponytail; the black loc falling into the grass, changing back to a burgundy curl. It was in the next few moments that would prove to her just how much Luckas was absorbing in their training realizing even some things she was sure she had never taught him.

Ess was trying to focus on the wonderful progress that was unraveling before her, starting to actually struggle against some of her friend’s advances. At one point their swords locked, each of them pushing against the other, trying to throw one another off balance. “Spare me, Boy...like your only reason for sticking around me was to get something out of it...even if the choice wasn’t all yours. Who says I am trying to fix you?” Shaking a few strands of hair from her eyes, Ess purposely locked hers with Luckas’, a sudden brilliant flash of violet enveloping her stare, giving herself away but her features of Lena remaining. The mini stand off was shattered, when she moved to stand down first, Luckas’ sword grinding down along her blade and slicing her forearm. Ess simply smiled, her gaze darkening. “For the record.” The woman muttered in her own tone. “I thought I was doing you a favor by not going easy on you, no?” Again she moved as if to back off but instead lept forward, knocking Luckas’ sword so it was parallel with his body, and headbutted him square between the eyes. Fluid and easy her next steps were as she brought down his wrist still holding his weapon, against her raised knee, quickly knocking it to the ground and raising her own up to his throat as if she meant to run it clear across his flesh. Ess spoke with hints of anger in her voice, as if she were giving a warning, “For the record...I am not EVERYONE else...and-”

Without warning Ess was brought to her knees as something knocked out her footing. Amusement crossed her features as they melted back to hers when she let go of the illusion, finding a black furball tightly latched to her ankle, growling dangerously up at her. To Ess’ delight, Stalker had finally managed to break or dig out of his personal prison to join the session. The wolf looked slightly confused when her features changed and relaxed his jaw a bit, sniffing at her curiously. “Good boy..” Essence whispered, releasing the sword and uttering a command in unison: “Disarm.” Stalker released Ess’ foot and cocked his head in a confused daze, his growl fading to a soft whine. It was going to take some time for him to understand but Ess was still very proud of the wolf. Gently pressing her wrist against his snout she forced his mouth to open and placed her wrist inside and repeated the command again before pulling back her arm. “Good boy.”

Luckas didn’t seem to mind the fact he had lost his sword so much, as soon as it slipped out of his hand he simply stood, only barely feeling the ache where he’d been struck in the forehead, his expression was blank for the most part as he stared at Ess, watching as Stalker growled biting at her ankle. Some amusement momentarily crossed his features as the scene reminded him vaguely of the time Tala bit him; a mix of honest surprise and gratitude momentarily breaking through his rage, his eyes softening only a bit as he looked at the pup, before his expression shut down to a completely vacant and emotionless one. Slowly Luckas started to move, picking the fallen sword from the ground and turning to walk away without another word, stopping a few steps away and sinking the blade into the dirt before resuming his walk.

Essence remained where she knelt, watching Luckas curiously in his silence before he turned to walk away. Her first reaction was annoyance but she held back, fists clenching slightly as she thought about it some more, her gaze softening finally. As Stalker moved to follow Luckas as he left, Ess reached for her forearm, making sure to put pressure on the wound. It didn’t hit a vein but it was deep enough and worth more of her attention actually than the wolf bite on her ankle. “Luckas...You did very well...Luckas...” She called after him. When he was almost out of sight she yelled after him, “I’m really getting use to watching you walk away! I bet I could pick you out of a crowd from your backside only!” Ess grunted, letting Luke disappear and went about tending to her wounds mumbling a bit to herself. “Can dish it out but can’t take it...pffft..”

Luckas wasn’t sure how long he had walked for exactly, only that he didn’t stop until it felt like hours had passed. In reality it might have only been a few minutes, he couldn’t really tell. He was aware that it was probably not fair of him to be this angry, all things considered, but he couldn’t really help it and it was just better to walk away and sit someplace quiet until it passed than to stick around and risk shouting out all of the unpleasant things going through his mind. Finding a quiet spot not too far from one of the main paths of the camp, Luckas sat by a tree, not seeming at all surprised to see Stalker jump out from one of the nearby bushes and run to pounce onto his lap with a tiny growl, biting down and persistently tugging on the cuff of his shirt in an invitation to play, eventually letting out a disappointed whine when Luckas didn’t react to his advances, nudging at his hands with his nose as if saying he’d settle for some pats and scritches instead. Luckas ignored the pup’s advances for a few more moments, lost in his thoughts, before finally giving in and idly running his fingers along the back of the wolf’s neck in a soothing manner. “Bad... Wolf...” He mumbled under his breath, amusement crossing his eyes as Stalker began to settle down, stretching across his legs and letting out a long yawn as if ready to take a nap.

“Not so fun on the other side, is it?” A voice called from the trees just beyond Luckas’ line of sight; not that he needed to see in order to know it was Jake.
“You speak as if this was my first time on the ‘other side’... Or my worst... Maybe that seems terrifying to someone like you, but me... That’s where I go to unwind... Jakey-Bear.”
“Oh, so that was you unwinding? My bad, I seemed to have mistaken it for a rage fit.” Jake chuckled, stepping out of his hiding and leaning casually against a tree opposite Luckas. “I still think she was a tad bit soft on you, Lukey, but then that’s also why my involvement in these little games of yours needs to be somewhat... Limited, right?”
“You were a lousy consultant, Jakey... Lena would have never uttered the words ‘my nephew’ to me, she would have mentioned you by name. You left that detail out, because that’s one of the many, many, things you hated about that woman... But she’s dead now, so you can’t admit to that.”
Jake snickered. “Oh, no... I forgave her... Didn’t even occur to me to mention, really. That is one unresolved issue I don’t have, pal. I hated Lena, a lot, and for some things I was right to hate her, but I did truly let it all go when she died. See, I don’t have the emotional range of a potted plant, so I was able to understand and accept some things.” He shrugged dismissively, letting his gaze wander around the tree branches over his head as if he was bored. “...But hey, shouting like a maniac and storming off are good substitutes for facing your demons and accepting them... Keep up the good work.”

“Fuck you.” Luckas muttered out, the aggressiveness in his words seeming to bring Stalker to attention as the pup lifted his head and barked in Jake’s direction in a perfect imitation of Luke’s gesture.
“Did I hit a nerve, Lukey?” Jake chuckled. “Are you going to try and stab me now too? Because that would be fantastic.”
“Don’t...” Luckas stopped himself to take a moment to breathe before he continued. “Don’t call me that.”
Jake arched an eyebrow, his expression filled with amusement as he stared down at Luckas in visibly fake confusion. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard you correctly.”
“You fucking heard me... DON’T call me that.” Luckas repeated, nudging Stalker from his lap and standing up. “Twins help you if I have to say it again.”
Jake blinked a couple of times as if trying to process what he was hearing, and then broke into a fit of mocking laughter. “Oh, my... The irony!” He exclaimed, choking in his laughter.
“Piss off.” Luckas muttered. “I mean it...”
“I don’t know, Luckas... You don’t sound like you mean it...”
“Don’t you have some Wolves to annoy, hm? A redhead to chase? Whatever else you do in your spare time? I’m really not in the mood for your crap right now. So yeah, I mean it; Piss. The hell. Off.”

Jake opened his mouth to answer but whatever he was going to say was completely lost to him the moment he felt something warm soaking his pants causing him to wince and look down to see that Stalker was casually taking care of his business at his feet. “Oh, come on!” He muttered. “Really!?”

Stalker huffed in Jake’s direction as he finished before casually trotting his way to sit next to Luckas, looking up at him as if expecting praise. Luckas held back his laughter and gave the pup a visibly forced scowl and mumbled amongst escaping chuckles. “Stalker... No... Bad... Bad puppy...”

Jake shook his head seeming unsure of whether to laugh or be angry so he walked away in silence in the direction of his tent mumbling about his ruined pants. As soon as the man was out of hearing range Luckas fell into a small giggle fit, kneeling down to pet the wolf. “Served him right for being an asshole, right?” He chuckled.

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Blackhurst- 2553 Years Ago
A clear spring day it was. The wind blasted through the fields, causing the tall grass across the plains to flatten nearly to the ground. This was the most refreshing of spring days though as there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the only reason for this beautiful breeze was due to the blessings of the great Twin, Wind. Within the types of spring days, this was one of the best of them and even in the darkest days of this brewing war, there were things that could be seen as good in the great world of Valcrest. In Blackhurst especially.
During this time of war, Blackhurst was the first stop for all the pacifists. The ruling parties of Blackhurst refused to get involved in this war, just seeing it as a poor excuse to gain an unreasonable power. These pacifists came from the remaining four great cities of this land. From the great city of Sun and Moon, Newhaven; a city very much interested in the prospect of perfection. Possibly even jealous of the ability of Blackhurst to seemingly achieve this perfection they too sought after. Then there was the city of Blackpond; proud in its military might and so ready to show it off to those they deemed weaker than them. Seen by many as a childish threat, but to those who were smart to see beyond that, an ounce of fear of being their next target was seen as healthy. And of course, Brightvale; the trade capital of the great land, Valcrest. It’s only flaw was its greed. If it could have direct control in what it had to trade, the monopoly would cause much strife in the markets, but they didn’t control the product; they were only a central point at which the product was sold. But who could forget Effort; a city so distant from its partners that the only relationship it had was with the people in the desert. Not able to properly contact with its more distant counterparts, it was sadly left in the dark to the true nature of things in Valcrest for the most part.
Duncan sat on his second floor balcony to enjoy the spring’s refreshing breeze. As usual, he was on his own. Duncan’s loneliness was that of choice. He had charisma for hours, but he thought it dishonourable to use it to ascertain a woman. In what could have been seen as utter hopelessness, he wished to find someone who could steal his heart with their own charisma. It wasn’t seen as hopeless by anyone who thought to know him, but rather a humble admittance that swooning over him would be nothing more than a feeble attempt. Duncan didn’t mind the loneliness, however. He was usually surrounded by people who deemed him to be important and a chance to sit on his balcony and enjoy some morning tea. Peace.
“Duncan! Duncan!”
So much for a peaceful Saturday morning. Duncan watched his younger brother, Malcolm running down the otherwise empty street. Running by the potted plants and screaming to his brother. Duncan huffed his way out of his masterfully crafted chair and leaned himself over to look at the cobble path that lead to his house. His brother stood under the balcony with excitement projecting from his face far beyond what it probably needed to be. “What news?” Duncan lazily asked his brother.
“Terra’s here! She’s here!” Malcolm exclaimed.
“Who?” Duncan wasn’t impressed. He didn’t know who Terra was and didn’t understand what the deal was.
“How don’t you know her name! I thought everyone knew it! I mean, she’s been in town twice before…” Malcolm continued, but Duncan had exited into his house. He could still hear his younger brother blabber away through the walls though. Sometimes Duncan wondered how Malcolm, with no sense of social cues, could possibly be his brother. He wasn’t even sure if Malcolm noticed him leave. Duncan slowly walked down the stairs and walked towards the back door where Malcolm continued to yell from. He opened the door.
“… you have to… oh there you are! Come with me!” Malcolm grabbed Duncan’s arm and tried to pull him away, but Duncan didn’t move a single foot.
“Relax a moment, Malcolm. I’m not going to run in town for some woman who I know nothing of and who likely knows nothing of me. Let me have a day of peace. I don’t get many of them and I was hoping this would be one time it could actually go well.”
“You don’t understand, Duncan!” Malcolm yelled until he remembered what his brother requested of him. “You need to come. This is a once in a lifetime chance.”
Rather smugly, Duncan retorted, “I thought you said that this has happened twice before.”
“Just come.” Malcolm said and then ran. He didn’t even look behind him to see if his older brother followed.
Duncan simply rolled his eyes and followed his brother. Not running after him, but taking his time, striding through the street as if a ghost. His steps so smooth it seemed as if he floated across the street. Others stumbled in comparison.
Even when Malcolm ran out of Duncan’s sight, he was still able to guess exactly where the commotion was by the direction that the rest of the people in town were also travelling. They were going down to the main street; towards the square.
Whoever this person was seemed to actually be a big deal. His brother wasn’t just inflating things this time. This Terra woman must have had something worth seeing, even if it was a thrice in a lifetime experience.
It only took another five minutes for him to reach the square. The crowds were huge. Hundreds of people surrounded this poor woman who he couldn’t even see. People were yelling and pushing to get a look at this woman. This was completely unlike what the people of Blackhurst. Usually, there would be a calm crowd that would wait their turn. One voice, however, suddenly boomed over the already roaring crowd.
“Everyone quiet!” Yelled the King Alec. Alec, his servants and his nobles walked from the castle, down the main road. Duncan would be there with them, but he had chosen to take the day off. The crowd had silenced instantly. The great King Alec demanded respect and there wasn’t a single person in the city that would ever deny it. It was a special kind of respect. One that none of the other Kings were able to accomplish and really, only the Boundless Fourteen were able to surpass it. “Let the young lady pass. Let the King formally welcome our guest.” Now that the crowds had settled down, Alec’s voice merely had the volume of a mannered conversation, yet it still carried itself.
Duncan only knew where the woman was walking because of the view he got of the crowds moving in unison to let her through to the king. It took her nearly a minute, even with the crowds cooperating, to get through. Still, he couldn’t see her. He had to wait for her to walk up the step.
About halfway down the main road in Blackhurst, every hundred meters, there were five steps. This went on for nearly Five kilometres until the road reached the castle. By that point, the city had been raised by 240 steps. At the foot of the castle, before you reached the castle doors, there were still 100 more steps that needed to be concurred. The crowd covered everything in Duncan’s view until the first flight of five steps.
She walked up that first step, only the back of her head could be seen.

Simply unbelievable.

Her hair was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Everyone in Valcrest had brown, black or blond hair. Terra had red hair with loose, but well defined curls which bounced with every stair step. At the top of the stairs, the rest of her back could be seen. She wore a dress which was also unlike anything anyone had worn. The dress was form fitting, showing off her form completely. It followed her curves completely until it reached about half way down her calf, at which point the dress flared slightly. When she turned around, the dress revealed its continuation of broken boundaries. The dress clearly exposed the top of part of her chest, but not enough to expose cleavage thankfully. The sleeves rested halfway down her arms, just above her elbows, which kept them up. This meant that her shoulders were completely exposed. The sleeves were just there for show. There was no practical use for it. Going following the curves down again, Duncan noticed a slit in the dress that seemed to be there intentionally. It ran up Terra’s right side practically up to her hip. No wonder every man in Blackhurst had come around to check it out. For a thrice in a lifetime experience, it sure was worth calling it a once in a lifetime one.
The King welcomed her and spoke to the entire community and she whispered into his ear. Duncan tried to read the expression on the King’s face, but the King had the best poker face of anyone he knew. He didn’t give anything away. All he did was motion his nobles to follow him and they were off with Ms. Terra. Duncan wasn’t sure what compelled him to go. Nearly twenty minutes ago, he was reluctant to even see what was going on. He’d completely forgotten why he was reluctant. He pushed through the crowds of people. Nothing was going to be an obstruction in his path. For once, his stride wasn’t as perfect as he would have wanted it to be.
When he passed through the crowds, he ran to catch up to the King and his nobles. Gracefully, he stepped into his place in the V-shaped procession and followed along into the castle.
“Glad to see you make it, Duncan.” One of the nobles behind him said. “Some of us were starting to guess you’d died.” It was a joke. Not a very good one. He got it every time he took a day to himself, but it was a joke none the less. Duncan remained silent to keep his dignity. Out of all the nobles, he was the one whose image had the farthest to fall. It wasn’t like a single joke would do it, but he kept the shield of silence because if he were to let his guard down for one moment, he could find himself plummeting fast.
They all walked into the throne room. It was special throne room that was dedicated to creating a sense of equality among the nobles. Each noble had a throne, personalized to their liking and none were any less illustrious than the other. The final throne, for the King was nothing special at all. In fact, it would appear that all of the money used to make the throne had gone into the nobles’ thrones. It was still a better chair than a towns person’s chair would be. Each chair was placed at equal distances from each other across the room. Two small pillars separating each chair allowing for a balconied seating area above the room allowing for the public to sit in on all meetings which were determined to be fit for the public’s eyes and ears. For a secretive meeting, the doors would be locked to make sure no one would get in. There were a total of thirteen chairs in all.
Duncan was the only of the nobles with any sort of intuition in this particular situation. While all the other nobles went to sit in their seat, Duncan just stood beside his. There were only thirteen chairs, but there were fourteen people in the room. “Would you care for a seat my lady?”
Terra slowly walked towards the seat. She got within a foot of him, but sharply turned around. The waft from her hair burst across Duncan’s face leaving the scent of magnolia and lilac. Duncan stood there in shock. A small chuckle could be heard, stifled under someone’s hand. Duncan didn’t even bother to check who it was. He was far too focused on the fact that she actually refused his offer.
“Just sit down and listen.” She said sternly. But Duncan didn’t listen. “Okay then sir. I might as well do it now since you are standing. I’d like to speak with the King Alec of Blackhurst alone. All of you can leave now, but don’t go far.”
Everyone left the room, but Duncan stayed fixed in his spot. He continued to look at the woman in awe. It was a woman who didn’t swoon over him. He felt speechless in her presence. Oh, and what a presence it was. She commanded that room, yet still, she still seemed unable to hold command over him. Instead, she seemed to do the opposite at the moment.
“Good sir Duncan. It is hard to have a private meeting without privacy.” Alec said.
This snapped Duncan out of his trance. He bumbled out of the room like a child too young to carry a glass of water without spilling. When out of the room, all of the nobles stood there watching him. Since that woman had entered into his life less than an hour ago, he had been far less suave than he usually was. His charisma was nearly nonexistent in her presence and it was obvious to anyone who paid attention. It was clear that every nobleman was paying attention. They all had wide grins on their faces and it was clear that they were all thinking the exact same thing. Duncan was actually falling for someone as opposed to the other way around. All Duncan could do was waiting for the first of them to say something.
“Will you all stop looking at me like schoolboys and just say what you want to say.”
One spoke up. “How… what is it like to be on the other side of attraction like the rest of us?”
“We’re all nobles. We don’t have any real issues with that.” Another one piped up.
“You can’t say that we all don’t feel the same way as Duncan does about the woman in there. She’s absolutely stunning!”
“Wait, where are you going?” One yelled at Duncan, who was now running out the castle doors. “She said to stay close.”
“I’ll be back before Terra calls us back.” He yelled as the servants shut the large door behind him.
He ran through the streets. Not the main ones, but the side streets and the shortcuts, the alleyways and the parks. He even ran right through someone’s yard. Jumping through ponds and nearly getting him soaked to the bone. It was worth it for what he was doing. When he made it to the square of the marketplace in the wealthy district, he was surprised to see that none of the shops were open. They must have still been out and about after the commotion in the city’s centre earlier that day. Did he have time to go anywhere else? Would anywhere else even be open? He stopped to think about his question.
Of course, the poorer district of the city would be open. They wouldn’t be able to even afford giving up a day on the job to see the commotion in the city. They banked on the chance that there will still people who needed to buy something even on these occasions. Duncan was going to make their assumption a reality. There was really no way to tell if he was going to make it in time.
Then he saw the horse in the stable. There was no one there to take care of the horse. The stable boy must’ve been taking time off as well. It was going to be very dishonest of him and his character to do this, but he needed that horse. Was it ever worth it to steal? He didn’t stop to think of this question. Running to the stable, he didn’t even think. He opened the door and hopped onto the horse. Coxing it with the reigns, he rushed to the poorer district.
Within minutes he was there. He had never been on a horse that could run through a city that fast. In Blackhust, the poorer district wasn’t even impoverished. It was merely the least rich of the city. These people did have to work harder to keep up with the rest of the city, but they were far better off than the middle class of any of the other cities, besides maybe Brightvale, but the people of Brightvale were known for their hard workers and it paid off in their economic status. This part of town still looked better than the poor places in Blackpond and even Newhaven. It was something that Blackhurst could be thankful for.
Another thing that he was thankful for was that the stores here were actually open. Just as he suspected. He actually hadn’t been down to this part of the city all that often, so he actually had to search for the store that he was looking for. Jumping off his horse, he walked past each of the stores looking for the right one. The Jewellery store.
“Hello there mate.” The man said, quickly catching himself when he noticed who it was. “Oh my! My good sir Duncan. What’re you looking for?”
Duncan didn’t speak at all. He was in a rush and wasn’t too interested in the small talk that accompanied the jewellery business. “I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t have a single bit of cash on me, but if you could give me your most beautiful ring in the store, I would reward by paying you three times what your entire store is worth. I promise you this.”
The man’s eyes brightened instantly. It was something that was rewarding to see. He swung around his counter and rushed to the window where the best ring was. It was a silver band with a particularly large opal. Then it appeared as he remembered something. He run to the back of the store and when he came back, he came with another silver band, but this one had a cut Kunzite stone in its center surrounded by very small quartz of different colour. He couldn’t count how many of these gems were in it, but he could tell there was somewhere around ten. It must’ve been his prized possession. He probably never intended on selling it. It was actually a thing of beauty. Maybe he intended it for someone himself.
“You don’t know how much this means to me.” Duncan said.
“Oh no. It means far more to me than you would ever imagine.”
“I will… by next week, I will have a ring that is just as good as this for you as well.”
“Thank you.” The man said. He waved Duncan off as he left his store. A tear was in his eye from utter happiness.
Duncan hopped back on his horse. The horse was obedient enough to stay exactly where he left it. It was a good horse. He again whipped down the reigns and ushered it back to the castle for him. The horse sped so fast, he couldn’t even tell if it was windy out anymore or if it was just the wind from the travel. It was something unbelievable, especially in roads like the ones he was going on. Too soon, he had to slow down a little. Crowds were beginning to gather around the city again. It was almost out of nowhere, but he had to make sure he didn’t people. He slowed to a strut. At this pace, he was going to be late. He was going to take the risk.
Again, he ripped at the reigns, but this time the horse took only a few steps. Before he even realized what was happening, he was thrown from the horse. His face hit the ground hard and he slid about a foot. He got up and composed himself as best he could. People had quickly rushed to see if he was alright, but he didn’t let anyone get close. Despite the blood running from his scrapped cheek, he insisted to people that he was alright. The horse on the other hand…
He looked behind him to check on the horse. It was still on the ground. Actually, trying to get up, but it couldn’t. The horse’s left hind leg was broken and every time it tried putting weight on it to get up, it just fell back down. He didn’t even know the name of the horses owner, let alone its name and now it was going to have to be put down. He felt bad about it, but he almost had no time for remorse. He was compelled to get back to the castle.
To his surprise, he left the horse to be dealt with by others and continued on his way to the castle. Again at a running pace, he didn’t stop for anything. When the made it to the castle, the doors of the throne room had just been closed. Duncan stopped in his tracks. Standing before the door, in complete hesitation. After all he went through, all of a sudden he was about to do something of complete disgrace to the highest of degrees. Interrupting the business of the throne room didn’t seem like a good idea, but again, his arms compelled him to open the doors. No, not open, but bust through them with excitement.
Duncan ran to the middle of the room where Terra stood. He grabbed her hand, not even knowing this woman, he grabbed her hand. He got down on his knee and presented the ring to her.
“Live your life with me Terra. I don’t know how I know, but I know that you are what I’ve been living for. Be with me; love me as I love you. You are the only woman to do this to me. I know it’s true. Just please say yes!”

Duncan's Home- A Week Later
Spring came with its ups and downs when it came to weather. One of those downs—for people at least—was the rain. On this day, it was pouring down from the skies. Of course, who didn't enjoy a good rain though. The sound it produced from trickling down the road and the patter of the rooftops. Today, there was nothing that was going to interrupt his day of Peace. Coming out of his kitchen, with a warm mug of tea in his hand, he stepping into his living room. Sitting on a chair facing his large window was Terra. He stopped and smiled before taking a quick sip of his tea while taking a step. Quickly, Duncan projected himself away from the tea as he accidentally spilt some and was afraid of getting some on his shirt.
He went to sit in the seat beside Terra. “Here you go.” Placing the tea on the small rounded table that separated the two chairs.
“You drank some didn't you?”
“No.”
“You're worse than a child.” Terra smirked and wiped Duncan's face of the tea that he didn't realize missed his mouth.
Duncan shied his head away from her. His smile was sheepish as he reached his hand to his face to wipe anything that was left. “Maybe I can make one for myself.”
“I'll do it for you.” Terra got out of her seat. “It is only fair. Since you got mine.”
Duncan didn't argue with it. He already knew better than to argue these things with her. Terra was going to do what she wanted to do. There was nothing that he could do to stop her. Thinking about it made him realize that was exactly what made her special.
The things that Terra wore these days were far more subtle, but he was still compelled to look at her as she left the room. Still, she was beyond beautiful. Even better, her hair made her unique to everyone else in the world. Not even any of the Twins had hair of her colour. When it came to the way she dressed though, it was still a little re provocative than most people did, but he thought she did it for him more than anything. Despite him never saying it, he believed that she sensed his discomfort when she did wear extremely revealing clothing. Maybe she just felt as though she didn't need to dress the way she dd anymore. Now that she had found Duncan, she was fine. That was purely speculation on Duncan's part though so he decided to forget about it.
The sound of the rain attracted his attention. The rain beating against the window was like a rhythm of disjunctive drummers. Yet, it all sounded to be going in its own, perfect rhythm. The water slid past the window slowly. There wasn't much of it on the window though. It would only hit the window every once in a while when the wind pushed it in the right direction.
Duncan took one last moment to appreciate the view before he looked back at the creaking floorboard behind him. Terra was back, but not with a tea. She was holding a sword. It was a silver blade with a white gold pommel. The blade was thicker than many usual blades. He wasn't used to seeing such a configuration. It was sharp on only one end. It started out thin at the handle then flared out at the top, curving slightly to the tip.
“I haven't had a tea in a couple of weeks, but you still can't fool me. That is not a tea.”
“Relax. I'll get you your tea in a moment. This is a wedding gift sent to us by Queen Amber of Brightvale. While she cannot make the ceremonies, she wished to send us her blessings.” Terra said.
Duncan's eyes brightened a bit and he said, “Never mind then. Let me see the blade.”
Terra walked up to him with the blade and handed it to him, taking extra precaution to avoid cutting him. It was a thing of beauty, the blade. Not something he ever wshed to use, but something that was far more a decoration anyways. On the blade, an inscription. It wasn't any language that Duncan recognized though. “What is this?” Duncan asked, pointing to the inscription.
“Oh, that's just the traditional language used to inscribe important things in Brightvale. It says 'Drained of the soul'.” Terra exclaimed.
The words were almost jarring Duncan. 'Drained of the soul'; what exactly was that supposed to mean? It wasn't even a real sentence. What was it that was being drained from the soul? Duncan then asked. “I've not yet asked you this, but I believe this to be an appropriate time. Where did you come from?”
A knocking on the door interrupted the conversation before it went any further. Terra gave the sheath to Duncan. He sheathed the sword, and started to tie the belt around his waist as he walked towards the door. When he reached the door, he wasn't quite finished tying, but the door banged again. He scurried to finish tying the belt and then promptly opened the door. Alec stood at the other end. While his face usually embodied a relaxed decorum, he instead, looked strained.
“A moment of your time?” The king simply asked.
“Yes. What seems to be the issue.”
“May the Twins have mercy. They've caught wind of your relations with Terra and are looking to take her away from you, by force if they must. They are fighting wars between each other to get to you. To be frank, they will probably be at our gates within the hour, but even that is being modest.”
“Then I will be at the gate to defend my honour.”
“No!” Terra shouted. “The Twins are beyond nature. They do not bleed like we do.”
The King spoke up. “You may be an experienced swordsman, but Terra is right. You cannot even begin to match their prowess.” He sighed. “You need to come with me. We've set up a safe house for you to stay at. It is an underground house near the stables. The only way in is through a certain sewer grate about a half kilometre away from the safe house.”
“I don't wish to be rude, but I'd rather die than to live a life in a safe house.”
“There is no choice. The council has deemed it a necessary.”
“Why was I not called to this meeting?”
“Duncan, it was to address you as an issue. I feel it to be in ill taste to speak of such things with you present. To add to it all, humiliating.”
It was settled, but Duncan didn't want to admit it. He didn't want to defy the council even if he felt as though they defied him. It may not have been fair, but sometimes things had to be sacrificed for the greater good of things. People ad to be betrayed. In the end, however, it wasn't so much of a betrayal. He was only being protected. In the end, it was probably worse for the city that he was kept hidden, but the king was not about to admit that he was going to do something detrimental to the city.
Duncan didn't say another word. He grabbed Terra's hand, giving it a kiss and then turned back to the doorway. “Wait.” Terra said. “I'll grab our coats.”
“Terra, I don't expect you to come with me.”
“I know.”

Safe House- Two Months Later
The first signs of summer started to come. It was a stuffy and humid day in the safe house. Somehow Terra continued to look good. When most women's hair would do crazy things and puff up in this sort of climate, Terra's seemed unnaturally the same.
The city was under occupation by only one of the Twins now. Every single one of the had moved onto other places, thinking they had searched every last inch of the city. They believed that both Terra and Duncan moved onto another place in Valcrest. They split to many different lands since then and still couldn't find them.
The one Twin that remained was Life. His wicked nature made him attuned to the good in the world. He naturally wanted to find the good in the world and strike it down with an evil intent. While it wasn't fair, it was what it was and this meant that Duncan and Terra continued to hide in the safe house by the stables.
Today was the day that they got their regular supplies. They hadn't rationed the last week's rations well and they were in desperate need of more food. At least Duncan was. Terra was so stoic, she refused to show any signs of weakness that even Duncan had been starting to show from living underground for just over two months. Dunan couldn't even remember what day it was. Maybe he had been down there only a month. He had no clue.
“Terra.”
“Yes, Duncan.”
“Living a life with a Twin would be much better than living the rest of your life down here. Don't you think?”
“Now why would you say that Duncan?”
“I'm serious. I can't do this. I'm going now.”
Duncan walked towards the door that lead to the sewer exit. “Do you really love me!” A guttural shout came from Terra's direction. He turned around. “Do you!?”
Terra looked like night and day from what she looked like moments before. She was slouched with a wicked look in her sobbing eyes. Her hands were tense, but not clenched, making her fingers look like dangling twigs on a dying tree in fall. Even her hair had managed to tangle in the few seconds he had turned. “Do you love me!”
Duncan jumped. He had never seen her lose her composure. Why, so suddenly did this happen to her?
“Mr. Duncan...” A timid voice said from the doorway.
Duncan didn't turn away from Terra. She was heartbreaking in the way that she tried to get herself together for the company. Without turning to the man at the door, he asked. “Are you here with supplies?”
“No, they will come within the hour. I came to inform you of what has developed at the surface. Life has challenged been at the square all day, claiming that he wishes to duel you.”
Without another word, Duncan walked to one of the walls of the room. He grabbed his sword from off a rack and walked through the door, past the messenger. He didn't stop for anything...
“Why did you even tell him?” A rumbling alto came from the corner of the room, directed towards the messenger. “My fiancee is walking towards his death right now. WHY DID YOU SAY THAT!”

Blackhurst Square- Ten Minutes Later
Duncan hadn't seen the light of ay for a long time, but even the light of day managed to escape him. The sun had just begun setting and a reddish light covered the few clouds that were on the horizon. With the escape of Sun, came the Moon. It was a waning crescent that still lit up the night well enough that there was no use for the streets to be lit with torches. The only really relieving thing about the sun going down was that there wasn't a bright sun beating down on him. It made the humidity a lot more bearable and with a slight breeze coming in from the fields, it was almost nice out.
As a strong breeze ripped through the square Duncan stood opposite the god. “I'm here to defend my honour.”
Life looked to Duncan, his expression as stone cold as his heart. “A narcissist’s virtue; honour. Respect is far more selfless in its nature, only when done correctly however. Even the narcissist, who leads a life of honour deserves respect. This is why I will respect your wish to defend your honour.”
Duncan sneered at the god. He held himself in sch high regard, but was just as weak as any other human struggling through Life. “You speak of respect as if you have an ounce of it, but you are about to fight me, not for respect of a man's honour, but because you cannot contain your manhood.”
Life's expression changed in a moment. An ounce of human emotion in something beyond humanity. Life gripped onto the dagger in his hand and drew out his second sword. A parrying sword. Something that was far more familiar to Duncan than the scimitar-style sword that Duncan was fated with. He raised his sword to ready himself for the attack, but it didn't come. The first strike wasn't going to come from Life. He was too wise for that. The call to action was left for Duncan to decide.
Duncan placed a firm grip on his sword and slowly sauntered over to Life. He didn't have a care in the world as to how he went about making his first strike. He merely circled the god once around before looking him dead in the eyes. He quickly raised his sword out to his abdominal level hoping to see the god flinch, but nothing. He dropped his guard and then walked even closer to the god until he could feel the great being's breath against his mouth. This left him in a very open position to attack as Life had a dagger which could do great amounts of damage to Duncan if he chose to attack. Maybe the god actually did have a sense of honour after all.
At breakneck speeds, Duncan chose to make his first move. He jumped backwards and swung the scimitar above his head and across Life's stomach. Life did his best to lock the attack, but with such a light sword, it cause a chance for Duncan to make a swift attack while Life recovered from the first. The attack was clean and done to near perfection, but Life's dagger allowed him a chance to block with the other hand as well.
This was all just a test. Could Life fend for himself in a sword fight. He could, but it seemed that he didn't know the finer details of sword fighting which Duncan had had a chance to perfect over several years. It was his hobby, swordplay. While he had never used it as a means of violence up until this point in his life, he enjoyed it as a sport and played for fun when he wasn't too busy.
The next set of attacks came from Life. This gave Duncan a perfect chance to see Life's offensive. For the most part, it was pretty solid. He kept a good grip as he used his sword as it was intended to be used. Duncan didn't allow any of this to get to him though. He came back with his own counter. It was a devastating attack. One blow after another, after another until his defences were ideally broken. With that, he swung his sword over his behind his back and over his head again, swinging the scimitar down into the god's skull. Life simply smiled at the pitiful attack. Without a word, Life plunged the dagger into a shocked Dunan's temple. His body went limp and he fell to the ground.
“Oh by Mother and Father; Duncan!” Terra screamed. She had just made it to the square in time to witness the murder.
That night, despite all efforts, Terra clung to her dead fiancee's body. Attempts to pull her away were futile. Not a single soul in Blackhurst slept. Some knew why there was a woman shrieking out in the distance while others were unknowing. Some just knew that the first ever murder in Blackurst took place that night.
Duncan had fought for his honour and the honour that he fought for was unfortunately Terra. There was no contract or law that forced her to merry Life, but she felt an obligation to. The wedding took place not soon after Duncan's death.

Setting

6 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Luckas Character Portrait: Crystal Rivers Character Portrait: Allison Blake Character Portrait: Dastan Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Indrani Nayar
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[Raven’s Nest - After the birthday party, late night]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Desert - Middle of the afternoon]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[The Forest - About an hour later]

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

Setting

3 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kirsten Somare Character Portrait: Phantom/Spirit Character Portrait: Stephan Kalir
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“Tell me a story.”

With a scratch and a hiss, a flicker of a flame sprung to life, illuminating the curve of a soft jaw, stubble casting shadows across the curve of a pair of lips. A smirk turned into a smile, a deep shadow cast over the face the light flickered on before fading out, casting the world back into oblivion. But only for a moment. Stephan watched as the match flew through the air, only to land in the fireplace. His steely eyes stared as the straw and dried grasses caught, curling and withering into themselves as red embers ate away at their energy, releasing it as light. But such little fuel wouldn’t sate the sickening hunger of fire and it quickly grew as it began to tear into the logs with snarls and growls. Darkness fled, terrified by the ferocity of the flames, and with it ran cold. Stephan carefully tugged up at his hood’s end, his eyes moving from the fire to the face of his victim. It was one of Sean’s petty She-Wolves and she blinked against the sudden light that filtered through the room.

Let her see, Stephan thought quietly to himself, looking around the furnished room with an almost bored expression on his face. It was no dungeon, hell, it wasn’t even a prison. It was Kirsten’s living room. Everything was red and gold; the carpet on the ground, the curtains drawn over the windows outside were satin red, much like a ladies dress as it flowed gently to the ground. He hated it. The only thing that really brought a splash of color was the pelt of a white wolf draped over the back of the couch his feet were resting on. His eyes scanned the heads on the wall. Bear, Wolf, even the full body of Kie was screaming downwards, talons outstretched and silver wings casting off a light glow. On the shelf below the bird was the statue of the black and white wolf fighting, the white one so cowardly looking, Stephan half expected the damn thing to come to life and hurl itself into the fire.

“Where am I?”

Slowly Stephan pulled his eyes from the fire, pulling his boots off of the couch and to the floor, moving slowly and deliberately to stand just above the Wolf. She’d had her fill of the room, and he let his own presence sink in as, for a brief moment, she struggled and fought against her bonds. It was really of no use and he tried to hold back a smirk as her struggle caused her wounds to reopen. Blood dripped and spread across her shirt, and pants, flowing over the blood that had crusted over the table and now threatened to drip onto Kirsten’s floor. With a sigh he placed his hand on the center of her forehead, watching as her struggles suddenly ceased, her eyes going blank.

“You’re safe for now,” he purred, pulling a chair closer to her face as he put a foot up onto it. “You only have to do one thing. Tell me a story.”

As he spoke he ran though her mind, nudging softly at memories as her time as a Wolf. Even as he did so he bumped into a different consciousness, his eyes narrowing until it identified itself as Sesh. He wasn’t a telepath, but Coercion certainly had its perks. He rummaged around in her head, looking though her memories and thoughts, pulling forward a memory of something silver, a dancing face, and strange whispers in the night. Suddenly her eyes opened wide, round orbs growing to the size of the moon before her lips began to move.

“Get out of my head, bastard!”

Stephan retreated with a small hiss, his eyes narrowing as the sudden flurry of thoughts in her head had him feeling nauseous. She’d been playing this game all week. His hand rose up and her jaw clenched, waiting for him to strike when his hand stopped.

“Is this how we treat our guests?”

A shadowed figure moved forth from the shadows, pink lips pulled back to reveal teeth bared in a familiar smile. Black eyes were slightly obstructed from the unconcealed windswept hair beneath the blood red hood. Even so his eyes still held a sense of cunning and wit as for a moment they burned red. Stephan lowered his hand, the metal claws coming from between his fingers curling and rolling to prick his palm as he stepped away. Kirsten nodded encouragingly and then tossed a meaningful glance towards the door. Stephan frowned, wanting to protest. However, he was bound by the blood moon to obey and that’s just what he did.

Kirsten took a seat in the chair, his arms gently resting along the top of the back rest as he placed his chin on the back of his folded hands.

“You poor thing. Stephan can be a bit harsh,” his hand moved to gently touch her bloodied cheek. There was no doubt she would scar from this; Stephan was a bit too fond of his claws. Scabs had formed over the three parallel slashes and as he pulled his hand away, some of the dried blood stuck to his fingers. Carefully he brushed it off as he sighed. “You know what we want, I’m very sure that you have a general idea. Won’t you tell us?”

“You’re all monsters!” she whispered with a small shudder, the clenching of her jaw causing the scabs to crack slightly.

“Monsters?! My dear little Wolf, we are only trying to find my friend. Won’t you help me find her?”

“Your friend?”

“Her name is Phantom and she has the most beautiful hair, like starlight. Surely you’ve seen her around camp.”

“No, but I’ve heard of her,” she paused, thinking for a moment before shaking her head, “I don’t think anybody has seen her except Sean and a few others.”

“So, she’s being locked away then?” Kirsten frowned, thinking about the torture she was probably facing. If he could feel her connection thought the pack boundaries then maybe he could soothe her pain, lessen it with his presence, if only slightly. His eyes flickered back toward the girl, her eyes riveted away from him toward the door. Stephan stood in the entryway, his eyes blank and empty as he carefully brought in a bucket sloshing with cool water.
“He won’t hurt you anymore. A beautiful thing like you shouldn’t have to face such treatment. Let him help you,” Kirsten nodded, watching carefully as Stephan placed the bucket on the side of the table, coming towards her flesh with a damp cloth. At first she flinched as Stephan did his best not to rip open any scabs as he tried to clear away the spatters of blood that offended Kirsten so, but slowly her body relaxed and Kirsten smiled, “See, not so bad is he?”

“I guess not,” she bit her lip, the thought also crossing her mind that Phantom, this mystery girl, was perhaps being tortured. She hadn’t been in camp since the girl had first been brought in, but she wasn’t one to put pain past Sean. “She’s a friend you claim.”

Kirsten nodded.

“And if I help you you’ll let me go?”

Again he nodded.

Quietly she let out a sigh, blowing back a strand of black hair that had fallen over her forehead, “I’ll help you. I’ll even escort you to where she’s most likely being held.”

“You would do that? For me?” Kirsten sounded aghast, his eyes blinking, threatening to smile, “Thank you! So very much!” he did his best to look over-joyed, something that he rarely was. Tears glimmered in the corner of his eyes and Stephan paused in his work. Kirsten’s eyes flashed, warning him to look away and he did, continuing to cleanse her skin.

“Please, tell me more about my dear friend Phantom.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Cold, the freezing air caressing blue skin, shaking so violently it was no wonder that her body didn’t rip apart from her muscles contracting. Her torn clothes were loose around her boney frame, her teeth chattering as her stands of hair hung limp across her cheek. Phantom lay inside the cave, her eyes closed, violently shaking. She’d escaped, she’d survived, she’d fled. And now, she was dying. Not like it mattered; not anymore.

Her breath rose in a thick swirl above her head, body trembling. Curse Kirsten. What had he done to her? She flinched, her breath catching right before her lung released the oxygen with an explosion of air. With it came blood, and lots of it. Like a fountain it sprayed from her lips, projected further by the air and spit behind it. Like a painting it coated the wall, raindrops on the ground, spattering randomly across the snow. Phantom stared at it. How curious, she thought as her fingers tried to reach the nearest spatter of her own blood, that such a thing could bring such warm color to an inhospitable world. The sight of her own blood gave her comfort rather than fear. She blinked, frosted eyelashes closing quickly once as the spots of her own blood remained in her vision, and when she opened her eyes, everything she had was now gone. The snow, the cold, the blood dripping from her mouth and oozing from the various pores of her body like black tar—all of it had vanished. She sat up and gasped.


Flashback

“Phantom, come here child.”

She stood, her little silver braids on either side of her head bouncing as she ran towards her mother. She fell into the arms of the woman, her eyes closed as arms wrapped around her body and pulled her close against her bosom. Her mother smelled of flax and lavender, her soft brown hair running all the way down to her lower back. Her eyes, bright blue shimmered with happiness as she stroked Phantom’s silver hair. She was wearing a grey dress and a white apron, her brown hair pulled back into its typical braid as her lined face smiled.

“What have you been up to, trouble maker?”

“Mamma! I’ve just been playing!”

“Oh? With who?”

“Jeremy and Sasha,” Phantom declared proudly, “I beat them at tree climbing!”

“You did? Well aren’t you a little squirrel,” she smiled again, looking up as, for a moment, Phantom’s father stopped raking the earth and came to stand beside them.

“Squirrel, eh?”

“Yes Papa!”

“Do you know what we hawks do with squirrels?” he waited till she had shook her head before turning his hands into talons, “We eat them!”

He lunged forward, grabbing hold of her as she squealed. Mother laughed too, watching as Father swung her around, pulling up Phantom’s shirt and blowing his breath across her belly as she screamed. Mother was upright, laughing as her dirty hands pressed against her hips, her body bouncing with the force of laughter. Finally Papa stopped trying to eat her and instead let her fly, running around the field with her body ridged in his arms and her arms out to the side.

“Easy now Eler, Phantom! Don’t you go hurting your back. There’s still seeds to be planted,” Mother called and her flight ended, Father putting her back gently onto the ground. He smiled and ruffled her hair as she thanked him, bouncing off to dash back to Mother. Phantom took the seeds and began, one by one, placing them into the earth that had been opened up to receive them.


“It’s me?” she thought suddenly, pinching her arm to make sure that she hadn’t been dreaming. When she opened her eyes the vision before her hadn’t changed, and her eyes brightened.

“Mom! Dad!”

She began to run, arms reaching forward and out, unable to contain her excitement as both of her parents rose from their hard work and looked directly at her. Arms outstretched she went to fall into their own open arms, only to fall face first into a pond. She rose, sputtering and shaking as her arms fell around herself.

“What the—” she thought sadly, slowly pulling herself up out of the water. The breeches and shirt she wore was soaked through, her body showing through the lightness of her shirt. She stumbled forward a couple of steps, dragging herself from the water when she saw it. Two children next to what appeared to be a massive horse.

“Have I gone mad?”



“Easy on his back side there, don’t jab your heels in.”

Phantom nodded curtly, her head bobbing as under her the horse whickered. He was black as night, his coat shimmering with the reflectiveness of a raven’s wings. Shadow’s eyes blinked as the bridal jingled, colored like chocolate and deeper than the lake nearby. The horse blinked and his tail swished. Below her a boy kept his hands on the chest of the horse, brown eyes looking upwards toward her own.

“Are you ready?”

Again she gave a little nod and the boy stepped back, giving the horse room to walk as Phantom’s legs dangled across the back, gripping with her knees—not her heels.

“Alright Shadow. Walk on.”

The horse jumped forward, leaping off of his two back legs as soon as she had finished her words, galloping forward with such a spurt of energy that she had remained exactly where she was, hovering for just a moment before crashing onto the ground.

“Phantom!! Are you alright?!” the boy called, running forward to land beside her. She gently touched her breast, massaging the tissues before giving a little nod.

“I told you to sell that horse back!”

“NO!” she cried suddenly, watching as the beast turned back and came round to gently whiff the grass beside her, “Shadow is my horse.”

“He’s too dangerous Phantom!”

“You promised to help me learn,” she cried with such a defiant voice that the boy’s angered expression grew soft. For a moment he stared at the horse whose nose was now clutched tightly between Phantom’s arms, unmoving besides the small twitch of his tail and the surprised flick of his ears. He suddenly smiled and gave a small nod.

“If that’s what you want,” he stood, holding out his hand to the eighteen year-old girl, watching as she let go of her horses face to pull herself back up. She brushed the dirt and clumps of grass from her skirt; pigtails bobbing along her skin as behind her the trees rustled.

“Are you sure you want to try again?”

“Gimme a boost,” Phantom said quickly, watching as he linked his fingers together to provide a platform for her bare foot to step on. With that she hoisted herself back up onto the horses back.


She remembered now. This was the day before the riders came. She was learning how to ride Shadow, her beloved war horse. Back then, nothing could have stopped her. She’d found a home with the boy teaching her how to ride, who gave her all the help she could ever ask for and the pendant around her neck. Her fingers wrapped around the small wood carving of the horse and as she did so, a smile carved her face. It was a reminiscing smile, one far and lost upon the face, often going unnoticed by the person who wears it. Phantom could feel it, growing faster as her heart beat in her chest. Were these just memories?


Shadow slowly walked forward, the boy at his shoulder holding the leg of the girl. Phantom was beaming and it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen before. Her different colored eyes met his grey ones and he smiled, her cheeks flushing for an instant at the touch of his fingers on her thigh.

“Go Shadow,” she whispered and clung tighter to his body as his muscles bunched and he leaped off back in the direction of the inn. She spared a glance over her shoulder and saw the boy there, standing still with a look of disappointment. She had hurt him galloping away like that, but how could she allow him to see her face. A face that was a red as a sun. Her eyes snapped forward and a moment later she was galloping away on the back of the wind.


She’d never told him. Never had got the chance to tell him exactly how she felt before he’d died the next day. With a face of determination Phantom removed herself from the trees, turning in his direction as her eyes glimmered and her cheeks became flushed.

“Estel!” she cried, walking towards the boy who suddenly turned to look at her. He looked older. Estel, the boy, had become a man in a turn. His hair had been braided and pulled back along his scalp, coming together to form a short ponytail near the top of his head. He was dressed like the inn keeper’s son; simple brown breeches and an open V shit that fluttered softly in the breeze that was stirring from the lake behind her.

“Phantom?” he responded, cocking his head as he took a couple of steps forward. She beamed, suddenly. Maybe this wasn’t a memory after all. He ran. Arms outstretched she also reached for him, her breath quick as tears began to cloud her vision and stream down each of her cheeks. If this was death may the Twins never take this away, this happiness that suddenly filled her heart and left her feet light across the ground. He grabbed her and with a twirl set her down once again.


“Jesus woman. Wake up!”

Her eyes opened and around her the world burned. Estel held her arms, his eyes panicked as he tried to lead them away. The wood crackled with flames, hot and angry they licked at her night clothes and his own. The door had been bashed down, knocked away from the hinges by the man who did not yet know his fate. What was happening? She blinked, body trembling as a moment later he was shaking her.

“Come on! Out the window!” he was pulling her towards it, eyes shimmering and flashing with the flames that swallowed up her bed, pushing everything insight to its hungry maw. With a thrust, Phantom had pushed out the glass to her window, her body franticly clawing out onto the straw patched roof. Below her the stables burned, sparks flying like light bugs through the air, smoke burning down her nose and throat, choking her body and vision. She was coughing, the heat was searing at her flesh, Estel’s hand so tight it was like a vise as his masked hand fell over her nose and mouth. For a moment she could breathe. The air was split with the sounds of people screaming, burnt to death in their tombs as beams fell and crumpled outside their doors, locking them to their deaths. Even the horses had not been spared such a fate, their straw stoking the fire until it rose far above their terrified heads before crashing down upon their backs. Mane burnt, fur was singed away in the blink of an eye, and flesh was left beyond the harsh blisters that rose like warts before bursting—it was burned and charred to darkness and death.

Phantom could have handled the smell—she’d singed her own hair and skin once before so she was no stranger to the putrid order that now seeped into her pores and wafted to fill the forefront of her skull. It was the sounds that got her to her knees. Lichen fell beside her, holding her shoulder and trying to urge her on. Nearby the sounds of animals kicking desperately at stall doors, crashing and smashing their bodies against the wood and beating their noses and chests bloody, filled the air. Pure terror rang in her skull like the shriek of an unplayed flute. However that was not the worst of it. Terror turned to pain, blistering and blackening as the fire leapt from one horse to the next, exhausting the mount to bones and cracked meat.

People were rushing to the stables, those that had managed to escape the fires, but were beaten back from the explosive heat.

“Shadow!” she screamed, Estel holding tight to her shoulder as around them the roof threatened to fall.

“We have to jump!”

“Jump?”

“Jump!” and with that Estel shoved her from the top of the roof and onto the ground below. Her arms flailed, legs kicking and wiggling as her eyes closed and her body landed with a sickening crunch.


Darkness now. Yet everything in her body ached like she had jumped from the height of a cliff. Tears ran down her cheeks. So they were memories. Nothing but the horrible memories of her life all collected into one terrifying moment. She didn’t want to remember. Life went by quick enough and she had thought she had suffered enough. Did the Twins not think so?

Her eyes fluttered as a cool breath of air touched her body. She could see herself lying there—broken and crippled off in the trees. Estel had long since gone and as she watched, she couldn’t believe her eyes.


Phantom was buried. She was deep inside the safety of the forest, surrounded by the coolness of the breeze and the greens that made up the pines and the leaved trees. Her eyes were closed, her breath shallow and ragged—hair singed and face so coated in mud. Her nose wrinkled and her body coughed softly as her eyes opened. She was surprised to find that her mouth and nose had been covered in a damp cloth, and even more surprised to find that she couldn’t move to pull the cloth from her face. She began to struggle, her eyes widening as she looked down. Her entire body, minus her head, had been buried under the earth.

“Help!” she screamed, feeling the weight of the earth sink against her lungs and crush the air from around her limp limbs. Phantom did not have to wait long. Almost as soon as her voice had stopped echoing around the air she could hear, and feel, the drumming of hooves against the ground. Closer it came till she could hear only the snort of the horse and the light tinkling of bells. Before she could get out a nervous hello she was quickly face to face with the most wild and uncivilized girl she had ever met. Perhaps only just fourteen, the girl’s brilliant green eyes stared unafraid into Phantom’s own. The girl cocked her head, hair so long that it created a curtain for both of their faces and so matted, Phantom wondered if instead of hair they were actually pieces of rope.

“Erm…can you help?” Phantom asked as the wild-girl cocked her head. Then without warning she began to pull the earth up with her fingers and nails. She moved like a dog, pulling the freshly dug earth off of her body little by little. Finally the wild-girl was able to free an arm and as time passed Phantom began to help unbury herself.

“Ari,” the wild-girl said suddenly, her eyes meeting back to Phantoms with such a rich shade of blue that Phantom, at first, thought that she had imagined that the girl had green eyes. No, not a girl-Ari. That was her name. Phantom smiled and pointed to herself.

“Phantom,” she said and a moment later the horse that Ari had been riding was pushing its muddy face into her own. She gasped and nearly fell over—the horse was stepping on her still unburied legs and Ari was quick to react as she began to whicker and make the same noise as the horse. Phantom stared. So she was crazy. That was nice.

Phantom was just about to start screaming when, even more to her amazement, the horse moved. She stared at Ari, her eyes wide as she blinked.

“You can talk to animals?”

“His name is Shadow. He says that he knows you.”

“Shadow?” she watched as the horse swiveled his ears forward at the sound of his name. So it was him. Just coated in mud. She looked at Ari, the girl who was clearly enlightened and could speak to animals.

“For the burns,” she said suddenly, picking up the earth and rubbing it on her arm. Phantom stared. So this girl had managed to save her horse and her all in the same go? Before she could say anything Ari rose, spoke a few words the horse and stood. Without another word the girl made her way back into the trees. She didn’t come back either.


End Flashbacks


Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ice. The elements had touched her all, claiming her back into the circle of energy. One thing becoming the next and Phantom was sucked deeper into the frozen wasteland. Her eyes had once again opened to the icy caves, shimmering blue and green from her breath as beside her head a small pool had formed from the heat of her lips. Around her she could see the shoes and bare feet of those surrounding her. Her eyes flickered up, wisps of steam circling above her head. Water crystalized as it left her breath, fluttering back around her as snowflakes that fell onto her flushed skin. Her hands were clutched to her chest and the first pair of eyes she met were Kirsten’s. He looked at her sadly, his dark red eyes filled with a lovers longing.

“You poor dear,” he said, watching as she quivered on the ground.

“Go away!” she snapped, “Let me die in piece, free from you and your evil!”

“Relax,” he purred, taking off his cloak. As it fluttered over her shoulders, Phantom realized that it had become transparent. It settled lightly over her shoulders and soon she found she was able to stand once again, without pain. The icy world around her had vanished and she was sitting upright in a field. All around her was the stagnant air of this word, decorated with the red colored poppies that dominated the majority of the landscape. Her eyes flashed, and Kirsten smiled, warmer now, his cheeks were flushed with color and those red-red eyes were slowly changing to brown.

“What are you?” she asked, nervously watching as his pity rose into that of a small smirk. Beside him, she finally noticed a woman with green eyes. She was holding his hand and smiling gently, holding the reins to a horse. “Ari?”

The woman nodded with a small sad smile, reaching her hand for Phantom’s. So Kirsten had completed the hunt. Ari would be dead…Phantom suddenly shook her head. Were these just memories as well? Were the Twins teasing her?

“No Phantom,” Ari said with a small sad smile that could have torn the heartstrings of any man, “You are in the Red Meadow.”

“Red Meadow?”

“It is the true crossing between the worlds. Come with us.”

“Who are you?”

“We are the dead,” Kirsten said with a wicked grin, “We are the forms of your memories.”

“Memories?” Phantom asked. Ari gave a small nod, her fingers twitching softly in a beckoning moment. She waited till Phantom took it, pulling her up from the sitting position on the ground. With the touch and a breath of air Phantom could suddenly see. The haze that had blurred the vision of the meadow had vanished and every flower was now defined in perfect detail. The stagnant dead air had been misplaced and a cool breeze stroked along her face and ruffled the strands of her silver hair. The three ahead of her no longer appeared like ghostly apparitions, white with read soulless eyes. They had regained their color. Ari’s blonde hair as gold as honey and Kirsten’s eyes so light they were a ruddy brown. Their lips were flushed and cheeks pink with life and blood. Phantom was so taken back by the sudden change and beauty that surrounded her that it took all of her strength not to cry.

“Does that mean I am dead?” Phantom asked nervously.

“You are in the Meadow. The in-between. If you want you may pass on, or you can remain here longer,” Ari explained gently, “All you have to cross over into the trees.”

“What’s behind the trees? Are the Twins waiting for me? Do they really exist? What about the old stories?”

“Hush!” Kirsten snapped, “None of the living may know what lies beyond.”

Phantom could feel him withdrawing, his eyes flashing dangerously as he looked around almost nervously. Ari had also grown a fearful expression on her face, but she stood her ground heroically. Phantom frowned slightly, her brows knitting together in confusion. Was now her time? Did she really have a choice? Her eyes turned behind her, looking back towards the grey light where she knew the ice lay in wait. Around her it became warmer; she could move her fingers and nervously she reached out to Shadow, running her finger along his jaw and nose. Could she really leave this?

That’s when she saw them.

Phantom didn’t have to say anything, both Ari and Kirsten split apart and soon she was wrapped in the warm embrace of her parents.

“Mother! Father!”

They held her tightly, smoothing over her hair and holding her tightly as she finally broke into joyful tears. Behind, Kirsten and Ari stood watching, their eyes smiling as they watched their embrace.

“Is he here too?” she asked excitedly, turning with her parents toward the trees. There she saw a face. Green eyes were laughing at her, a flash of white-blonde hair. She didn’t look back. Phantom went running towards the trees, tears running down her face and her mouth calling his name as she neared the trees. As she leapt over the bridge between grass and trees a hand clasped hers and both Estel and Phantom vanished.

Outside the wind began to die down, releasing from the confines of the cave a small giggle and a sigh. The snow ceased to pelt the skin and from the top of all the tallest points came the giggles of the unknown, celebrating the end of the snowstorm.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Ess
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#, as written by Essence
~Otium 14-Early Afternnon-Raven's Nest

“Alright, you all got one hour before the next rotation. I suggest you use this time to grab some grub or if you need to see the medics as an excuse for a little R n R.” Matthew barked his orders, finally pausing himself to drink from his canteen as another member of the guard ran over to him to advise him there was a messenger there to see him.

Essence took notice of the brief conversation from the ground, as she had happily collapsed to catch her breath when Matt brought the drill to an end. “How bout I just stay here until you wake me in an hour..” She muttered in amusement.

Matthew walked past Ess with a nod, holding back a smile. “It’s your hour, Talon.”

“That’s right.” Ess agreed, rolling onto her back and tucking her arms beneath her head for a pillow. She stared up at the treetops that blotted out the sun, beams of light appearing to rattle the leaves as the wind heaved a labored breath. Ess closed her eyes but her lids were still leaking rays of blinding light through that made her have to squint. She was relishing in the restful moment when a shadow darkened her eyelids. Ess smiled, welcoming the additional shade from the afternoon heat.

“Are you trying to get a tan down there? If you are, you’re going about it all wrong.” Bran snorted, taking a seat beside Ess. “For one, you’re hidden by the sun and two, way too many bits of clothing on. That bit of armor doesn’t help either.”

Ess opened one eye and chuckled. “Yea, the armor sucks, but it does protect my pale skin. I don’t really tan anyways. I turn pinkish and that’s it.”

Bran smiled, laying down now so that he mimicked Ess’ form. “Yea, I refuse to wear it and I’m use to it. It’ll save your life but restricts movement..so it could cost you your life at the same time. Ironic, no? Matt making you guys run drills with it on? You know, you’ll probably feel better if you took that hunk of metal off. Don’t worry, I won’t mind. Take as much off as you want.” The man gave a playful wink.

“Yea.” She sighed. “I bet you’ll help me take it off too, wouldn’t you? Classic.” Ess snorted, rolling her eyes at her new acquaintance. “I... take it you’re part of the family? I don’t recognize you though...I’m Essence, but everyone here calls me by my last name, Talon.”

Bran’s smile faded when he recognized the name, sitting up a bit awkwardly as he tried to brush past his mistake of his colorful suggestion. “Ah! Nice to finally meet.. Jake’s sister. I’m Bran. Man oh man, I’m sorry but Jake didn’t say how breathtaking his sister was. You two..don’t look related.” Bran cleared his throat, trying his sweetest and most handsome smile on Ess causing the woman to laugh.

Ess slowly sat up, shaking her head. “He didn’t? I’m sure it must have..slipped his mind.” She continued to giggle. “Nice to meet you though, Bran. Jake and I don’t share the same parents, but our bond goes beyond blood. He’d tell you the same. We are very protective of one another, as I’m sure you’ve heard...which is why I won’t tell him that you helped remove my cuirass; if you would.”

Bran just stared as if Ess were teasing, setting him up for a trap. He had heard she was a bit feisty, to say the least. “I um...probably shouldn’t..”

“Oh stop. I’ve heard good things about you, I’m not going to break your face and I promise to forget the comment on you wanting to undress me. Jake will never know. Seriously, my arms are so stiff I can barely bend them.” Ess groaned, playfully flapping her arms like a bird with broken wings.

Bran shook his head and relented making sure to only unhook and loosen the piece so she could slip out of it on her own. “Speaking of Jake, have you seen him? I’m suppose to fetch him for the Captain.”

Once Ess shrugged out of the armor she fell back against the dirt with a pleasant sigh. “No. He left the day of the eclipse and isn’t back yet. You can stay and wait for him. Please join in on the fun!”

“Ugh, endless drills...oh I dunno. I may not be able to contain myself from the excit- Ow.” He complained when Ess pinched him for his sarcasm.

“See.. look, flabby arms. You need to keep in shape.” Ess snickered, dodging a swipe and rolling to her feet.

“Oh, you are too sore to take off your armor but you can roll out of the way of danger just fine.” Bran teased, glancing over at a fellow guard member who was waving and calling to Ess and him.

“Hey! Matt’s calling a meeting! Double time.”

“Nooo, no more drills...it’s hasn’t been an hour and I still need my last meal…” Ess joked, reaching for Bran to drag him along with her. A small crowd had gathered conveniently in the mess hall, so Ess grabbed herself a plate of veggies, bread, and some wild grapes. She settled at an empty table to listen, popping the grapes in her mouth for her own amusement.

“Ooh, can I try one of those?” Bran whispered as he found a spot next to Ess. The woman smiled, holding the fruit up at the ready, indicating she was going to throw it, Bran opening his mouth, shifting side to side in preparation to catch it. He caught the first grape no problem so as everyone calmed to silence to listen to Matt speak, Essence started increasing the amount of grapes she threw at her new friend. Still, he managed to catch them with ease. It wasn’t until the words ‘slaughter’ and ‘butchered’ rang in their ears did Bran miss, the fruit bouncing off his nose and hitting Ess’ forehead.

“Hey Talon..isn’t that one of Cry’s people?” Someone whispered to her, the woman shrugging absently as she was more concerned with the message the person carried. The news of the attack on the Crimsons stole the air from the room, the pain from the revelation squeezing at Ess’ heart as she listened. “Twin’s mercy…I just saw them...” She whispered. Before she could even ask, Matthew relayed to them that Dastan was alive and that few survivors remained. It was still under investigation of who committed the atrocity, but what they did know was that Dastan wasn’t to blame.

“That’s insane…” Aiden muttered to Bran from behind, resting a reassuring hand on Ess’ shoulder. The woman counted to three and shrugged the man’s hand off of her.

“So what now Matt?” Bran asked, standing so he could see everyone in the room clearly.

“Bran, we are sending some supplies their way to offer our support where we can.” Matt nodded, his expression clearly showing a swell of pride when numerous people volunteered to go, Essence one of them. “Alright. The few I will select will be leaving tomorrow morning. Talon, I know this is personal for you so you can have a two day leave. I need you back here to continue training as soon as possible. It’s important.”

Several members of the guard groaned at the mention of drills, Matt’s expression growing irritated. “Hey..the next person to complain will be responsible for the entire company to run triplets in warmups and then you can jog to Newhaven and tell the Captain I’ve sent you there because you aren’t feeling challenged enough in your training.” The room fell silent once again, shaky coughs bouncing from one side of the room to the other. “That’s what I thought. Thirty minutes and I expect you all to meet me by the river. I’m treating you to a... midday swim.” The man smiled, his words sounding appealing and yet at the same time caused worried glances to pass between the men and women. Bran was casually attempting to sneak out of the room, clearly in plain sight. “That goes double for you Bran. So happy you could join us.”

~Just Before Sundown- Somewhere In Blackpond~

‘Deidra...Dee...Dee Dee...hey, wake up..’

Deidra groaned, consciousness a pitiful reality of the throbbing pain she felt from head to toe. She couldn’t move without feeling sick, and even trying to think through the migraine was something of a challenge. Only thing she could think was Kyle was right; a telepathic attack/interrogation would have painful side effects.

‘Thank the Twins..you’ve been out for about a day, Dee. If you can’t respond, just listen. Multiple telepaths, impressively strong because they worked together, were searching for information. What, I’m not sure, but they only met the memories I set in motion when they triggered your thoughts. It worked as I hoped and because they overwhelmed you and you didn’t fight back, like we talked about, they were lazy and just left what they found alone, seeming satisfied. Doesn’t mean the interrogation is over. Can you open your eyes? What do you see?’

Dee whimpered softly in protest but opened her eyes in tiny slits, testing the light around her. She realized she was not in total darkness but in a dimly lit, bare room containing only a small table with a lit candle and a very uncomfortable bed strewn with bits of wool and hay. She was alone in a windowless room, however there was a door. She stared at the crooked frame for some time, focusing on her surroundings to gather the strength to move. Deciding to try she lifted her head and slid one arm and leg off the low bed only to be overwhelmed with nausea, turning her head in time to vomit over the side onto the floor. Oddly enough, it tasted like what she thought the perfume she smelled earlier would. It made her gut wretch, a stabbing pain throbbing in her lower abdomen, enough so she had to check to make sure she wasn’t bleeding.

Kyle had been paying close attention to Dee’s thoughts and how she was processing the room, falling silent as he cursed himself for not encouraging her to not take this mission like his brother had. Truthfully, what she was getting herself into, frightened him and he didn’t know how long this would last or even if it would be a success. ‘Dee Dee, is the door unlocked?’

Deidra spat, trying to clear her mouth of the foul perfume taste, feeling a bit better as if she had rid herself of some vile entity, even if it was only bile. ‘What does that matter, Kyle? You want me to try to run? Dee seemed annoyed by that idea, but still she managed to stand and cautiously check the door, surprised to find the doorknob turning when she tried it. The door didn’t even squeak when she cracked it open to peek, her eyes widening when she saw a familiar figure of a blond man sitting in a chair just beside the door appearing to be asleep, head drooped forward so that his chin rested against his chest. As she stared at the man, her eyes narrowed in a subtle boiling of anger and distaste, slowly shutting the door and moving back to sit on the bed. ‘No,Kyle. I’m not leaving. A man in red is guarding my door, and I can’t see much after him except that it’s dark.

Dee was startled to silence at a voice on the other side of the door, distant; a woman’s voice apparently addressing the sleeping man in the chair.

“Marcus, you left the door unlocked? Are you trying to play with your food?” The woman laughed.

“We’ve already begun..she’s awake.” Marcus whispered, clearly not asleep, his words chilling Deidra to the core.

‘Marcus..his name is Marcus. Go dark, Kyle, I can’t have your distraction. Dee thought frantically, pushing to regain her character and who she was suppose to be.

‘Dee...be careful please. Remember, they know you up until you met Eric and the Guard..’

Deidra smiled. ‘They believe I am just a slave. Perfect.’

Amber was a curious sight to whomever she passed along the streets of Blackpond. A teenage girl carrying a bucket full of fish in one hand and wearing a dead squirrel on her head, looking as cheerful as one could be, the animal’s blood staining her brown locks and forming a red trail along the side of her face. If there was an image one would consider fitting to describe the word ‘insane’ it would be the sight of her right then. The hand that wasn’t holding the bucket was stroking the black feathers sticking out of her quiver, as though petting a small bird. After a while though, there was no one left to stare at the crazy looking girl. The part of the city she entered was completely dead, or so it seemed. “Here, birdie, birdie...” She whispered to herself with a snicker, her eyes scanning the buildings, trying to find the right one. “Where are you my pretties?” All the buildings looked empty, but one of them was not. Which one usually changed every day or two and Amber wasn’t sure which one it was today. She slowly paced through the streets, taking in the emptiness of her surroundings, expecting to catch a sign of life somewhere. That sign of life came in the form of Lizzy, stepping out of one of the buildings with a bit of a frown marking her features. The blonde woman spotted Amber and walked to her, not seeming to mind or question her appearance in one bit. “Amber, can you answer me why is it that Zeke’s pets seem to have more freedom than I do lately?”

“Because even Zeke’s pets are more cautious than you, love? I mean, you pulled a boy from the Newhaven castle and dragged him to Blackpond. And Adam, who was supposed to keep an eye on you, just nodded along and let you have your way.” Amber shrugged. “Don’t shoot me, I’m just a messenger.”
“Oh, come on... You break the rules all the time... Luckas... Zeke let’s his pets run loose... I mean, first there was, what’s-his-face, the suicidal one, and now Marcus... Zeke was supposed to be supervising him, but where is he?”
“Marcus is alone with a subject?” Amber questioned, a somewhat serious note in her voice.
“No, not a subject... She’s just a worker, I think. Zeke left him with her and went back to the Manor to report.”
Amber grinned widely at Lizzy. “Unsupervised Marcus, you say? Are you going back home? Here, can you take my fish? Just leave it in my room. Thanks, love.” She spoke, pushing the bucket of fish into Lizzy’s hand. “I’m already a bit late to report back, but this is sooo worth it.”
“What... Why...” Lizzy started to question, but inevitably just shrugged and took the bucket. “Disgusting.” She muttered, shaking her head and starting to walk her way out of Blackpond.

Amber almost skipped her way to the building Lizzy had come from, opening the door and closing it with an unnecessarily loud slam. “Maaarcuuus.... Mommy’s home.” She chanted, walking into a somewhat long hallway full of doors; some of them made of sturdy wood, others made of metal, the girls brushing her fingers through each door as she passed them in the dark, until she reached the man. “Well, hello handsome... Whatcha doing? Lizzy said you’ve got yourself a little friend? Is she pretty? Can I have a look?” It was not a request. Amber was just pretending it was as if daring Marcus to deny her, because she knew he would want to. She wanted him to as well.

Marcus was leaning back in his chair, trying to watch Lizzy walk away, his eyes trailing over her curves and backside. When the door shut he balanced back down onto all four legs and stood, not quieting his steps as he approached the door to Dee’s room and simply listened. He was contemplating opening the door or not when he heard Amber’s voice ring out, the walls shaking some in the vibration from her slamming the door. Rolling his eyes he sighed, crossing his arms and leaning back against the door. To be truthful, Marcus didn’t mind Amber that much, but she did have a knack for disturbing his plans or making his life harder just for her sheer amusement. It was frustrating at times, but he really didn’t have much say in these things as a Prospect.

“I am waiting for Zeke to come back; well him or Celia, whichever.” Marcus sighed. “Are you going to take this one away from me too, like last time? What kind of deal would I have to make for you to leave this one alone?” The man smiled, casually stepping aside so that when he opened the door, his back was holding it ajar, propped along the doorway. “We found her with David, but no Asher. We brought back some new..toys I’m sure would suit your fancy. Something with an..explosive punch, right up your alley. I’m surprised you’re not back home.”

Amber shook her head at Marcus when he mentioned where he’d found his ‘cargo’ and what else they had brought back with them. “Well, sweetie, pestering your master is not my only mission in life you know... Actually, it would surprise you even more to learn how much work I can get done in one day. I did some spying, some cleaning, some hunting, some fishing.... Got myself a pretty new hat, as you can see, all in a day’s work. Granted I should have been home hours ago, but in life sometimes you need to stop and smell the roses. Wouldn’t you say so, love? Don’t you worry though, I won’t be stealing your toy this time... I just want to look at the new face... See if I can place it by any chance... Those sloppy little telepaths the Mistress keeps have been wrong once before, and it wouldn’t be nice for either you or Zeke if that were to happen again. These are dangerous times to be making mistakes, don’t you know?” Amber grinned as though the idea excited her. “Her moods have been less and less forgiving lately; hasn’t Lizzy told you?”

“Yes, yes, you’re very accomplished..figure why you don’t seem to ever feel the wrath of our Mistress. I have heard..about the..inconveniences.” Marcus quirked a brow at Amber’s dead squirrel on her head, noticing it more now that she stepped further into the light. “Why the squirrel? Why not a raccoon or a rabbit? I do like the fluffy tail on that one though.” He nodded playfully, gesturing for Amber to enter the room. “I never heard of the girls being wrong before...but I agree, I don’t want to be on the Mistress’ bad side and you say you won’t steal this one?” Marcus watched Amber curiously, his tone slightly disbelieving as he turned his attention to the girl. “Celia said we may have use for her..”

Dee had retracted towards the corner of the room when the door creaked open, cowering on the floor, burying her face in her knees, arms over her ears as if to protect herself. She was trying to channel her fear, using it to shake her up but without downplaying her as of no use. When the figure stepped into the room, she slowly looked up to meet their gaze, a disgusted expression filling her eyes as she tried to retract further but was trapped in her tiny prison.

Amber chuckled softly at Marcus’ comment on her not suffering wrath. “Oh, sweetie... I’m a very loyal pet where it counts. Don’t ever think I’d cross any ‘wrath-worthy’ limits. I’ve earned the freedoms I’ve been granted and I don’t bitch and moan about my duties and boundaries like a whiny little twat, as some people tend to... More notably your... uh... Mentor. Something for you to think about, hun: maybe you’ve been licking the wrong pair of boots.” She leaned forward and whispered wickedly at Marcus. “Oh... The things I could teach you... Mmhm.” She giggled loudly, calmly pushing Marcus away from the open door. “Tell you what, love...” She smirked, picking the dead squirrel off her head and placing it on his. “You hold on to my hat as collateral and give me and the lady some privacy... Five little minutes, mkay? If we somehow vanish into thin air then I’ll let you keep it.” She winked, walking past him into the room and closing the door. “Five little minutes!” She repeated with a snicker.

Once inside Amber calmly paced around the room for a bit before sitting on the floor right before the cowering figure of a woman, pulling a flask of water from her bag and placing it on the floor beside the woman’s foot. “Come now, don’t hide... Let me see that pretty face.” She spoke softly.

Marcus grimaced when Amber put the dead squirrel on his head, noting the fact it had a distinct rotting odor, as if it was in the sun too long. It did appear in one piece however, so he humored the girl and adjusted the squirrel on a slant so the tail hung down the back like a ponytail. “I think it looks better on you, but alright. Fair enough; five minutes. And then you can tell me about some of these ‘things’ you could teach me, hmm?” He winked, letting himself get pushed aside so the door shut behind Amber. The moment it shut he casually hung the squirrel over the back of his chair, wiping at a bit of blood from his forehead. He tried to press his ear against the door to listen, but any words were muffled and distant, purposely done that way to keep the sound inside the building and from drawing unwanted attention.

Deidra lowered her eyes towards the flask placed next to her, her brown orbs reflecting a thirst she didn’t honestly realize she felt until that moment. Her voice was hoarse when she spoke, her tongue rough inside her mouth like paper so that her words weren’t understandable. Clearing her throat she tried again. “Please...don’t kill me..” Her eyes didn’t leave the flask as she slowly sat up, one arm reaching out towards the water but hesitating as if she were expecting to be punished for taking it. Finally her eyes trailed up towards the girl before her, her other arm falling away from her face to reveal herself as asked.

Amber smiled, genuine kindness crossing her eyes for a split second. “Sweetie, death’s the least of your worries, trust me. I mean you no harm though.” She picked up the flask and took a quick drink before offering it again. “You can drink, it’s fine.” She said, reassuringly. “Your head must still be aching some, huh? Telepaths can be real meanies sometimes. I know.” Amber sighed softly, running her fingers through her hair, the bloody remains from the dead squirrel staining her fingers. “I’ve been where you are. It’s not a good place to be. No matter where they put you to work at some point someone’s gonna want to hurt you because they can. To be fair though, that’s how it is mostly everywhere, isn’t it? They just have more opportunities here.” She snorted, using her stained finger to draw little stick figures on the floor. “That’s a lovely scar you have... Maybe I should get me one of those... What’d you think?”

Dee didn’t let up playing the fear card, but once the girl did drink from the flask she snatched it, guzzling enough water to cause her to cough, some returning out her nose. Wiping at her chin, she took the next sip slower, swishing the water around her cheeks before swallowing. “Is that why my head hurts? I don’t understand..” Deidra took another sip, keeping her eyes now on the girl in front of her, spacing out on the blood that Amber was playing in from the dead squirrel. “If you’ve been where I am...how did you get to where you are? Seems like doing what I am told doesn’t get me very far..” Dee hid her face again when her scar was pointed out, shaking her head slowly. “From my knowledge, you can get one of these same scars from having a husband..seems to be what men are good at after all.” She muttered a bit bitterly, her voice shaking at her own words as she actually remembered the night the man cut her.
“Telepaths, yeah... Security measures... Paranoia... Blah, blah... It’s all very boring, if you ask me. Don’t worry about it. If there was a problem you’d be dead by now.” Amber mumbled in a tone of absolute boredom. “Husband... Eh... That seems like too much of a hassle... And then I’d have to kill him afterwards... I don’t do the commitment thing, you know?” She snickered, drawing tiny arrows through her bloody stick figures and staring appreciatively at her own work for a little while before raising her head to stare at the woman. “Tell me, where is this husband of yours? I doubt anyone would leave a pretty thing like you... So I figure he must have answered Lady Death’s call...” She leaned closer to the woman and whispered. “I like you... Do you really want to know what I did to get here? Hmm? Are you sure you want to know? Knowledge is a dangerous thing.” She pulled away, giving her some space. “What is your name?” She questioned. “You’re smarter than you let on. You’re not really as afraid of me as you want me to believe, I can tell. I’ve incited enough fear by now. You’re not entirely unafraid however, and that’s smart. Fear is smart. It’s the only thing that’s still real in a place like this.”

“My marriage wasn’t really by choice if you get my meaning, and yes the man is dead.” Deidra rolled her eyes mumbling a bit more, “Not that his death helped my situation..” Dee held her breath as if contemplating if she really wanted the girl to answer her question; if she would. She had to admit, the girl had a point, but she was still curious and maybe it would give her some insight on how someone who claimed to have been where Dee was, could now work with people who did the same to others. It was always something that amazed her. “Honestly, the blood thing is more gross to me, than scary. I’ve seen my fair share of reddish work done, I guess, but can’t say I’ve done it all myself. Except my husband..well LATE husband.” Deidra’s last few words may have been a twist on the the truth, but for the most part she was being pretty honest with the woman; surprising as that was, she had to remember to keep her guard up. No one here, not even the other girls like herself she had heard sobbing in the darkness, were to be trusted.

“You didn’t tell me your name.” Amber stated simply. “Nor told me whether or not you’d like me to answer your question. I’ll assume that you don’t, and I’ll call you something... Hmm... How ‘bout Steve? Can I call you Steve? Always liked saying that name: Steeeeve.” The girl arched an eyebrow at the mention of the ‘blood thing’, looking down at her hand as though she only now noticed what her ‘red paint’ actually was. “Hmm... Do you not like the color red? I happen to like it quite a bit, but I also don’t mind other colors... Purple is a good color, black... Green... I don’t like blue that much. If I could I’d change my eye color.” She randomly reached out and trailed a line of red along the woman’s nose. “hmm... It doesn’t look bad on you.”

“To be fair, I don’t ask questions unless I want to know the answer, but if you need me to be specific, then fine. Yes, if you want to answer, then I will listen. My name...Steve?” Dee shook her head. “Call me whatever, not like the name defines me. But, it’s Deidra. Bitch is also a term most tend to call me.” Dee couldn’t pull away when Amber painted a red trail on her nose and out of reflex, attempted to smack her hand away and crawl towards the other side of the room, back towards the door. She wanted to make it look like she was trying to escape, planning to open the door and push past Marcus, but she knew she wouldn’t get far, one way or another.

Amber blinked, as Deidra tried to get away from her and open the door. The girl shook her head in amusement, hurriedly moving to block her path before she reached it, not touching the woman. “Hey, Hey... Easy. I thought you wanted my answer.” Amber reasoned. “Deidra, is it? That’s a nice name. Not as fun as Steve, but I’ll use it.” Amber snorted, a bit amused and then shrugged. “Like I said, at some point someone’s going to want to hurt you just because they can. One day I decided to not take it as quietly as I should. A couple of guys in pretty red clothes, like our boy Marcus out there, decided to mess with me... I put up a bit of a fight... Bit an ear off of one of them. That ended as well as you’d expect. They beat me half to death, I thought I was dead, but I was rescued. I was offered... Salvation, sort of. Salvation always comes with a price though, Deidra. I was more than willing to pay, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

When Amber cut Deidra off from opening the door, she pushed herself to her feet and stepped blindly backwards, bumping into the small table with the single lit candle. The candlestick wobbled in place, hot wax splattering as it teetered and fell off the table, Dee’s reflexes reacting to the fallen object so that she caught the candlestick just between her fingers, not even flinching when the hot wax burned her. For a moment, her eyes flickered from the object towards Amber as she spoke, as if contemplating using it as a weapon on the girl. Deidra didn’t hide the fact it was a fleeting thought, but decided to replace the candle on the table. “So..you sold your soul and traded one prison for another?” Staring down at the flame she whispered, “I guess we all do what we need to survive in this world..So..what now?”

Amber smirked, her eyes registering Deidra’s reflexes in picking up the candle and the thought that crossed her mind to use it. “Smart lady.” She mumbled under her breath, snickering at the woman’s conclusion. “I understand that you’d see it that way, but I don’t sell what’s mine. Guys like Marcus, they’d sell themselves for one reason or another. My loyalties were willingly given, for my own reasons; some things in this world are stronger even than survival. I’m sure you know that though, don’t you, Dee?”

Deidra tilted her head, looking onto the woman with a perplexed expression when Amber addressed her by her nickname. She used the alleged confusion to distract herself from the bit of panic that passed over her, internally twitching at the women’s words. In all truth, Deidra did know some things held a more powerful sway than the instinct of survival, so it wasn’t a total lie when she retorted to Amber’s ‘assumption.’ “I know that I have spent most of my life fighting to survive and that instinct has pushed me past new limits so that I found out I would become a toy to men like Marcus there, if it meant avoiding a beating or not starving.” Deidra wrapped her arms around herself, sitting back on the bed, purposely keeping her stare to the floor. Again she invoked that fear, but just enough so that she sounded more awkward than anything. “I’ll make use of myself where needed, even if it is as simple and trivial as improving upon someone’s personal taste in hat wear.” Dee shook her head, wiping at the bit of blood on her nose, rubbing it between her fingers so that it flaked away.

“Oh, Dee Dee... You’re a blast.” Amber smirked. “I do mean it; I like you. My loyalties are my loyalties, but they at least allow me that.” She calmly paced closer to the woman until she was close enough for her whispers to be audible. “We’ll see each other again and when we do I’m going to bring a gift for you, it’s a very special gift, you’ll want to see it believe me, but hey... This is important...” Amber paused to make sure Dee was paying attention to her and poked her own temple in a knowing gesture. “For your eyes only, that’s the only rule. I’ll know if you cheat and I don’t like cheaters.” She winked and started to head for the door, turning her back to Deidra in the process. “I said five minutes and unfortunately I have somewhere else I need to be. Afraid I’ll have to keep my word on this one. Hang in there Dee, and I’ll see you later.”

Deidra didn’t hide her reaction when Amber once again addressed her as Dee, the casual way she spoke to her sending a chill down her back. It was as if Amber knew her, but at the same time Dee couldn’t place seeing her before, but how would she know that was her nickname? When Amber leaned in close, Deidra’s body tensed, tilting slightly backwards as if to pull away but she had nowhere to retreat to from her spot on the bed. She listened closely to the woman’s words, a genuine flash of fear passing over her eyes before they narrowed uneasily, only relaxing when Amber pulled away. The woman was toying with her, that much was clear, but there was some hidden truth behind her words. Dee knew no one should be trusted in this place but she couldn’t deny her curiosity towards the woman. She didn’t respond, simply listening as she stared after the woman until she left. The sound of Dee’s own heartbeat was deafening amidst the otherwise silent room so that she didn’t even hear Marcus’ parting words towards Amber.

The aching in Deidra’s head was fading, which only reminded her of the pain in her side she had managed to forget until that moment. She tried to breath through it, taking a deep breath, but it was cut short by the sharp pain from her neglected, cracked rib. Golden-brown eyes darted from her bed to the dirty folds of her dress, trying to determine what she had to make some temporary bindings to wrap her torso in. Dee’s thoughts were interrupted when Marcus entered the room, politely extending a hand towards her. It was as if he was trying to pretend to be a gentleman, when she knew by the hungry look in his eyes, that he was anything but.

“There’s work to be done, come now, but first we are going to get you cleaned up a bit.” Marcus smiled, bowing his head slightly in a mocking fashion, his fingers beckoning to Dee to approach. When she didn’t move or respond, he sighed, his smile drifting away. “Are you trying to make me look bad now in front of my peers?” The man stepped aside so that the open doorway was visible, revealing several feet down the hallway two more men in red and a woman adorn in a blue cloak. Her face was hidden from Dee but she knew it was a woman by her figure that pleasantly accentuated the attire.

Deidra shook her head at Marcus, slowly standing to approach the door, her arms wrapping around herself as a temporary support to her throbbing side. She ignored the offered hand by Marcus, which seemed to have been a mistake, the man quietly noting the refusal as an insult, his wounded pride instigating him to shove Dee forward so that she stumbled and fell to her knees.

“Time’s a wasting, Darlin’..”

“Enough games, Marcus..” The woman hissed, pushing past the two men and kneeling down to inspect Deidra when she didn’t move. “She’s injured..”

Dee caught a flash of blue from the woman’s eyes as she glared over at Marcus. “Sorry, that is not my handy work. Damaged goods, I’m afraid, but nothing that can’t be fixed.”

“Just remember...you brought her here and she is your responsibility if she doesn’t work out. Are we clear?”

Marcus straightened, motioning for the other two men to get moving, “Humbly, Amara. If I may, at your word of course, I was going to alert Olivia to expect this one’s arrival.”

Amara just waved Marcus aside as she stood, watching Deidra carefully. “The faster you move, the quicker you can get yourself cleaned up and changed into something that doesn’t reek of a sewer drain.”

Marcus quickly took his leave, purposely but discreetly brushing up against Dee as he passed by her. He nodded towards the other men in red who roughly gripped Deidra by her arms to hoist her to her feet and smack the girl firmly on her rear with the flat side of one of their swords. It stung, nothing more, but it’s message was clear as Dee followed Amara out the building, flanked by her new shadows.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

About An Hour Later

Deidra had welcomed the idea of a bath until she realized it was freezing and that she would be watched the entire time she bathed. The water tingled and caused her minor flesh wounds to burn, the liquid tasting of salt upon her lips. She worked to make the process as quick as possible, unable to deter her body from shivering and yet a small part of her did find solace in the numbing effect the icy water held as it blanketed her aching muscles and bruised ribs. Both sides of her torso were shaded a deep purple, speckled in such an odd fashion that it caused a dark memory to resurface. In a flash she once again witnessed her husband’s last moments struggling to breath so that each time he inhaled, a painful spurt of blood would mist Deidra’s arms and face as she used all her strength in an attempt to slow the pool of blood that seeped from his chest. Nothing she tried had prevented Eric from drowning in his own blood. ”Stop it, Dee..This is not the time to be thinking of Eric..” She scolded herself, quietly climbing out of the wooden basin, her arms trembling as she attempted to cover herself. Her twin shadows banged on the door that they were guarding, indicating to the other side that Dee was finished, their eyes never leaving the trembling woman. One seemed disgusted and quite annoyed to be where he was, his gaze almost resentful as he stared. The other seemed to enjoy the humiliation his very presence was inflicting upon Deidra. His eyes flickered as they reflected the candle light, his twisted smile lay hidden beneath the dancing shadows casted over the stone walls.

The door opened finally, both men standing aside to make way for a blond-haired, green-eyed woman to enter. She was dressed simply in a cotton, grey dress and slippers, her blond hair tied off into a braid that draped across her right shoulder. Her eyes were down-casted towards the floor as she shuffled to Dee, carrying a duplicate grey dress and shoes. In silence she dropped the shoes in front of Dee so she could slip them on, while the woman unwrapped the dress and hastily pulled it down over the woman’s goose-bumped shoulders. Once Dee was clothed, that was when the stranger lifted her gaze to inspect Deidra.

Dee opened a grateful smile, rubbing her arms some to strip out the cold. When the woman responded with a smile of her own, Dee took several steps back. It wasn’t the smile itself but the look beneath her green eyes that made Dee drop her gaze back to her feet. Cold and resentful the stare was, but for what reason Dee couldn’t imagine. All she knew was that those eyes screamed danger, sending off instinctual bells and whistles inside her head.

“I’m Olivia. I am told you can sew, yes?” The blond’s smile faded as the sweetness of her voice seemed to cut down the eerie look in her eyes, her demeanor becoming less threatening. Still, Dee didn’t look up at the woman when she responded with a nod.

“You can speak, can’t you?” Olivia reached out and lightly smacked Dee’s chin so that she would look her in the eye. “Rules here are simple. You can speak when spoken to and you do what I tell you to do. Easy, right? Keep your nose clean and you won’t have to deal with them.” Olivia nodded behind her, motioning to the men. One stepped through the door, the other snorting in annoyance as he waited for the two women to move.

“Yes’m.” Dee whispered, following Olivia as she moved to fall in behind the guard, Dee closely followed by the second. As they walked, Dee noted the stone walls changing to clay, spacious torches adorning those walls to light their path. If she wasn’t paying attention, she would have easily missed the dark corridors they passed, noting how the torches were spaced just far enough to hide them away in shadow. It struck Dee as odd when she realized the only door she saw in that path they walked was the one they had exited. When they reached a set of stairs and began to climb those narrow steps, Dee caught several rats scurrying out from beneath and disappear along the walls. Faking her surprise, she squeaked and squealed like a small child, attempting to hide behind the guard who trailed her. The small distraction gave her a few precious seconds to watch the rats escape beneath the walls. Her eyes widened in disgust, a perfect camouflage to her true thoughts when she realized not all the walls were solid. She didn’t have time to ponder further as she was yanked by her wet hair and thrown against the stairs.

“Move your ass, you little twit.” The guard continued to bark orders at her, Dee scrambling on all fours up the stairs to catch up to Olivia who paused to turn and quirk a brow over at Deidra. “Rats? Why rats?” She asked in a slight mocking fashion.

Dee quickly stood, wincing at the pain from her cracked ribs and shrugged, trying to appear embarrassed and skittish. “I...was once tied up in a burlap sack with a dozen rats..” Dee wrapped her arms around herself to cover up as if her naked form was still exposed.

“Oh?” Olivia lead Deidra through another door at the top of the stairwell and down two halls until they reached another door that was wooden on the inside but steel on the outside. Adorn with several locks, her hand brushed across the cold metal only to pause over an etched shape over one of the locks. There wasn’t time to inspect further as she was lead to an open room with racks of hangers and clothing, Olivia pressing along Dee’s shoulder to sit at an empty desk.
“What did you do to get left to the rats?” Olivia asked with genuine intrigue.

“...I think I breathed or sneezed..”

Olivia snickered. “How did you get out?”

Deidra sighed, wheezing through a few breaths and holding back a yelp when Olivia lifted up Dee’s dress to wrap her ribs in a few rags made into bandages. The binding added a bit of support that made it slightly easier to breath. Deidra was grateful for the small blessing, releasing a deep breath as she looked up into Olivia’s green orbs. No hint of emotion appeared across her features as she whispered her response.

“I...grew hungry..”

It took a second for the comment to register and it was Olivia who now looked disgusted. She was quiet for a few moments before retrieving a pitcher of water and some bread. Olivia sat beside Dee and broke the bread in half, pushing the other half towards her. “A girl’s gotta eat, right?” She chuckled. “Sorry, we don’t serve rat here.”

Dee snorted, almost inhaling the bread while she laughed, her eyes scanning the room to note how the annoyed looking guard had taken post on the other side of the door closing it behind him. The other guard still stared at Dee from across the room where he stood beside the exit to the streets.

“Well, when you’re finished with your meal, I have a list of chores for you to do. This is a tailor shop..more importantly it is MY shop, so you are not to talk to the customers. Are we clear? You’re a mute.” Olivia poured herself a glass of water and downed half before continuing. “You may also be asked to complete services outside the shop or below. IF that happens, you don’t question the task and complete it in silence. If you happen to get the inkling to take off, trust me..you won’t get far and you will be moved to less...accommodating surroundings.

Dee attempted to brush her fingers through her damp locs, her knuckles catching knots that seemed to take forever to untangle. Letting her hair dangle over her face, she rolled her eyes and reached over to pop the last bits of her bread into her mouth. A sudden knock at the front door, turned her fingers to imaginary stone. Hanging her head low, she watched through strands of her hair, the door slowly open. The guard nodded, casually pacing towards the basement door to retreat below the building. Deidra’s eyes followed, flickering back to the familiar blond in red who was staring at Olivia expectantly. A silent gesture was enough to command her to his side, Marcus swiftly wrapping one arm around her waist to hoist the woman over his leg, securing her thighs on either side of one knee. Oliva winced, wrapping her fingers over the man’s forearms to lead his touch from her waist to the small of her back. The act seemed to anger Marcus, tense fingertips digging in her lower spine so that she arched backwards exposing her neck.

Deidra’s eyes narrowed along Olivia’s collar bone and towards the top of her shoulders where she was just now discovering black and purple fingertip size bruises trailing off beneath her dress. As Marcus roughly twisted her around, Olivia’s back towards Dee, Marcus shifted his eyes towards Deidra and smiled. How devilishly handsome and terrifying he appeared in that single instant. Dee kept his gaze but didn’t hide the awkward shivers that spasmed and made her ache when she breathed.

Deidra snapped her head back, tossing her hair out of her eyes, the sudden blood rush to her cheeks giving her color a healthier glow. The sudden flush to her skin caused Marcus to twitch, his smile broadening as he tightened his grip on Olivia’s back before releasing her, his gaze still glued to Deidra. Olivia gained her balance, smoothing out the wrinkles of her dress, her lips shifting to somewhere between a frown and a smile. It was almost like she was trying to not enjoy it and as her own stare went from herself to Marcus, those green eyes went cold, darkening like a stone descending into an eternal eclipse. Olivia’s fingers clenched in a silent fury as she trailed Marcus’ gaze to Deidra. For a second, Dee thought her heart had stopped beating as it dawned on her what type of position she had fallen into.

As if to break the silence, Marcus bounced a bit in his step, making his way towards a painting on the wall. “So, Olivia...Are you happy with the extra help I’ve given you? Sufficient?”

Olivia sneered, turning her attention back towards Marcus. “We shall see, right? I hope so..after all that trouble you went to…”

“True..” He muttered, tapping his chin thoughtfully. “So just make sure she succeeds, right?”

Olivia straightened motioning for Dee towards a small hallway that was set up like an open closet, bookcases of velvet, leather, silks, and cotton folds of material were piled ceiling high.
“Two ravels of blue cotton and four of purple silk...cut to this size…” Olivia stepped behind a desk and retrieved a small, plush doll, white and black thread and a single sewing needle. “Go downstairs and tell Seth to show you to your room. You have until tomorrow morning to dress the doll. If I like what you do, I’ll allow you to work in the shop. If not, you don’t leave that room until one of us says.”

Dee went to respond, her mouth parting to form some sort of intelligible words but she decided better of it. Instead she hustled for the additional supplies and waited by the basement door. Marcus crossed over half the room in three, lengthy steps, mockingly bowing slightly as he placed himself between Dee and the door and pressed his ear against the wood. He knocked in a numerical pattern that Deidra almost didn’t catch, turning to open the door like a gentleman and bowing once again as he watched the woman descend down the black stairwell.

“So, which one of you is Seth?”

~~~~~
Later That Night

Deidra didn’t hear from Kyle that night, or much of anything for the most part as she worked. She couldn’t have slept if she wanted to but there was a point she almost dozed off once her project was completed. The doll was no bigger than from her wrist to forearm, but she had used most of the material and thread given to her to complete a tiny, silk cloak and a matching blue and purple ankle length dress that was bare at the shoulders. Dee even managed to sew tiny slippers for the doll, using the thread to embroider black and white vines bordering the edges. Blended into the foliage were numerous thorns and tiny black feathers caught within their grasp.

Dee dream like trance shattered at the head of that doll shoved into her mouth, gagging her to choke as it was lodged into the back of her throat. It was blindingly dark, but she felt a light weight press down upon her chest, the outline of a body trembling to hold Dee down. At first she struggled, knowing she could easily overpower the form above her, but calmed once she realized she could still breath if she did so through her nostrils.

“Now, are you fucking listening you little harlot?” Olivia hissed, the heat from her breaths forcing Dee to twist as if she were trying to pull her now sweating ear away from the woman. “You do your best to look small and insignificant...If he forgets...if you try to seduce him...I will rip you open from the inside out.” A cold, steel like point was now pressed along Dee’s inner thigh just enough to prick her skin as it was dragged slowly across her flesh towards her knee. A second later, the weight was lifted off Dee’s chest and the estranged woman had faded back into the empty silence of night.

Slowly Dee sat up to a sitting position. Only after she swung her legs over her cot did she reach over and pull the doll’s head from her mouth. Deidra didn’t bother to light the candle at her bedside when she felt for the doll’s attire and smoothed out her tiny outfit. Standing, she replaced her spot on the bed with the doll before kneeling to the floor and stretching out on all fours to distract herself with completing several sets of push ups. “Crazy...fucking...bitch…” She whispered through heavy breaths and gritted teeth.

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Character Portrait: Ess Character Portrait: Jake Turner Character Portrait: Darren Hearst
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#, as written by Essence
White Shadows Camp, Otium 16th, Evening

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

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


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

Raven’s Nest, Otium 17th Late Afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss Ess, Miss Ess! Look at me!”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like money?”

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

“..They’d kill that person?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do...do you like to kill them?”

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

“Do you?”

“....Lily..”

“DOOO YOU?”

“Sometimes.”

“Why? Does it make you feel better?”

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

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

“What…?”

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

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

“Miss Ess?”

The woman smiled, “Yes Lily?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, so he’s jealous?”

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

“..Ok.”


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Raven’s Nest, Otium 17th Late Evening

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“ A what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have empathy too then.” Lily smiled.

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

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

“What is it, Lily?”

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

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

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