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Thu Nov 09, 2017 2:39 am
TheSilverFox says...



LMS Writing Part 6


Yaaaay, the madness won't ever stop. :P


Chapter 19: Borders, Part 4 (1,034 words): Day 8 of NaNo 2017! There will never be enough character death to compensate for the ones I'm adding. :P

Spoiler! :
Karikoff stumbled forward, clutching the sword embedded in his gust. The color drained from his face for the split second in which horror captured him in its arms, and he looked up at his murdered in an expression that quickly turned to fury. "You bastard," he said, spitting blood on the ground.

The killer took his helmet off. "It's always handy to have the element of surprise," Kasimir said. "I would've been that hapless man if I hadn't already tried something like this on The Mad King." He gestured to the messenger, who scrambled onto his feet and, with a nod from Kasimir, sprinted as fast as his legs would talk him.

Karikoff fell onto his side, head resting next to Kasimir's boot. "This doesn't hurt," Karikoff whispered, anger fading away and being replaced by a pallid calmness. "Not as much as I thought it would."

Squatting, Kasimir stared right at Karikoff's listless eyes. "It's done me a lot of damage," Kasimir confessed. "Cath can throw in one of his own puppets."

Rolling his eyes, Karikoff coughed more blood, which ran down his chin. "You're so important," he said weakly, rolling his eyes. The electricity around him waned to the occasional bright spark, Kasimir waving it away with his hands. "I - just wanted them to pay."

"If you had listened," Kasimir growled, "They would've."

"Not soon enough," replied Karikoff, wiping the blood on his face with an errant hand and looking at the results. "Will I see her?"

Kasimir stood up and shrugged. "No reason why you shouldn't."

Laughing, Karikoff tried to pull the sword from his stomach. He winced. "Best to have died by my King's hand, then?" Karikoff spasmed, somewhat out of mirth. His increasingly misty eyes seemed to be observing something beyond the world. In his laugh, he acted as though he were sharing a joke with whoever he was hurtling towards, like there was something funny in his own death. "I wish I'd done more."

"You've done enough," Kasimir said, reaching down to cover Karikoff's eyes. "Rest."

"I could've - killed - all those bastards - not the plan - but," Karikoff whispered, voice becoming increasingly faint. "Make them - pay - make those bastards pay." His spasming withered, and soon he breathed no more.

Kasimir sighed, wrenching the sword and axe from Karikoff's cold, dead hands, after putting on his helmet again. "I will," he breathed. Swiveling around, he marched off, trying and failing to scrape the blood from the weapons. The mess would have to be dealt with later, Kasimir reasoned. He had fairly good chances of being caught already, and he didn't want to waste his time. Slipping each underneath the backplate of his armor, he pulled a strand of rope from his pocket and wrapped it around his midsection, tying a knot at the space of the hole. Hopefully nobody would pay close attention.

He hated killing, but he did what he had to do. Karikoff had been an obstacle in the road to his country's survival, and he never much liked obstacles.

******


"Keep yourself calm. You're only tiring yourself out by sprinting that much."

Alarick, wooden sword raised, stood opposite Jonathan, who sighed and wiped the sweat from his brow. Jonathan's eyes narrowed, and then he dashed towards Alarick, the former's sword thrusting forward at the last second.

Deflecting the blow, Alarick kicked back Jonathan as the latter collided into him. Jonathan flew back, landing on the ground and rolling. "You're predictable!" Alarick shouted in frustration as Jonathan, clutching his chest with one hand, tried to pull himself up with the other. "You can't win with only one strategy!"

Wrath in his eyes, Jonathan hauled himself onto his feet, clutching the sword even tighter. He sprinted at Alarick again, raising his weapon. Alarick attempted to counter, but Jonathan turned sharply to the right, causing Alarick to nearly throw himself forward. It was only Alarick's quick readjustment that kept him from falling over, whereupon he happily shoved into Jonathan, who had been attempting a strike.

Caught by an elbow to the chest, Jonathan staggered back, clutching desperately for air. Gritting his teeth, he flung his sword at Alarick. "That never works," Alarick chided, swatting the sword out of the air with his own, as though Jonathan's were a toy. "If you want to learn how to fight up close, you need to stop thinking like an archer.

"Worked for me so far," Jonathan replied, coughing. He made to run over and pick up his sword, but Alarick kicked it aside.

"Versatility is handy," Alarick said, scowling in response to Jonathan's glare. Alarick pointed his sword at Jonathan's chest. "5-0."

Jonathan threw up his arms. "You win. So be it. I'm done." He tried to walk off, but Alarick grabbed him by the back of his shirt.

"You need to learn," Alarick said, ignoring Jonathan's thrashing as he reached for a book on a table. Whirling Jonathan around, Alarick pushed it into his chest. "A strong body is nothing without a strong mind. And, though you haven't broken much of a sweat, perhaps you're better focusing on the pen than the sword."

Grabbing the book, Jonathan again tried to walk away. "Don't disobey me," Alarick boomed, pushing Jonathan onto the ground and flipping open the book. "Read."

Jonathan complied, scanning through the pages. Each was on the military, whether in tacticians, battles, or key strategies. "How did they train you?" he asked bitterly, after some time.

Alarick laughed. "It was worse," he said. "I went to the best academy they had, and they wanted to break every bone in my body to see how I could handle it. It wasn't allowed, but they came close. Literally or otherwise." In the candlelight, he looked eerie and distant, watching the horizon where the sun had set an hour or two ago.

"Any regrets?" Jonathan asked, scrunching his face as he tried to comprehend the tiny writing.

"It wasn't my choice," replied Alarick, now watching the stars. "They forced me into it."

"And this is...?" said Jonathan, pointing to himself.

"What is necessary," barked Alarick. Their gazes warred with each other. "And you had better not forget that."


Chapter 19: Borders, Part 5 (1,037 words): Day 9 of NaNo 2017! I'm wondering if I can enter the second part into the YWS Birthday Week contest, so I think I'll abstain from putting it here until the 14th.

EDIT: Here we are!

Spoiler! :
"You're not dead yet," Jonathan commented, somewhat happy (though he dared not show it) to have a distraction from reading. He'd been taught over the past couple of years - mostly due to Terasu and Rowland's mutual dismay that he hadn't learned in the mudpit he'd called a home - but still struggled with the longer words.

"I'm old," Alarick said scornfully. "And my line of work keeps death at my heels."

Jonathan hated Alarick's pessimism; it never proved inspirational, nor did it make him look like a leader. Then again, at least Alarick stayed true to himself. "I still won't be a leader."

Spotting something out of the corner of his eye, Jonathan snapped the book shut and rolled before Alarick could hit him over the head with a wooden sword. "I never was," Alarick said menacingly, kicking the other sword to Jonathan, who stood up and picked it off from the ground. "I've only been an anchor, and that's worked fine."

Jonathan sprinted forward, waving his sword in an arc over his head. He switched his trajectory from Alarick's head to his shoulder at the last second, but Alarick still stepped aside and blocked the blow, sending Jonathan careening off to the side. "1-0," Alarick said, as Jonathan whirled around. "If you want to disarm me, be less predictable."

"This isn't a fair fight," Jonathan said, voice deepening. He began to run in a tight circle around Alarick, looking for a chance to strike.

"2-0," Alarick monotoned, striking Jonathan in the shin with his foot. Staggering, Jonathan stopped and moved away. "Fighting isn't fair."

"You can't stand there like a rock," Jonathan replied, going in for another attack and feinting towards Alarick's midsection. Alarick swung out his sword, and Jonathan dodged it at the last second, aiming for Alarick's extended arm.

Alarick laughed as he pushed himself forward, crashing into Jonathan. "I've always been an anchor," he said, watching Jonathan's sword fly off backwards. "3-0."

Jonathan dashed after his sword, realizing that heavy footsteps followed him. "It's a coward's move," said Jonathan. He snatched up his sword in one graceful movement, but was wholly unsurprised to feel the blunt point of a sword against his back.

"4-0," Alarick said. "I've been taunted far too many times."

"Did Rowland ever mock your fear?" Jonathan shouted, swinging around to aim for Alarick's forehead. Caught off guard, the stunned Alarick had only the reaction time to step back, not fast enough to pull his sword towards his face. Jonathan's sword clipped the edge of his nose. "4-1." Breathing in deeply, Jonathan slouched, feeling a pit in his stomach.

In the light of the candles, Alarick looked pale and somber. "I had expected more from you."

Sitting down, Jonathan sighed and stared at the ground. "You said fighting isn't fair," he said half-heartedly, setting the sword beside him. Rowland's cheery visage and red hair played out in his mind, repeating itself in the setting of hills, plains, mountains, and rivers.

"He was like a son to me," Alarick whispered, looming over Jonathan. A tear slipped down his face. "I am not a caring man, but I tried to be, for him. If you refuse to respect that, I don't see why I bother with you." He picked up Jonathan's sword.

Jonathan didn't respond as Alarick poked his chest. "5-1. We're done." Alarick threw the sword off in a fit of rage and walked away.

"I won't play your game," Jonathan mumbled, when he was certain Alarick was gone. "He was my friend. I can't follow his spirit. Especially not for you."

******


"Are they not lovely?"

Seated on his throne, the King of Exedor relaxed on an array of colorful pillows, his young daughter resting on one knee. His green and blue robes blended with the cushions, leaving a homogeneous color pattern broken only by the silver crown poised atop his messy hair.

The well-dressed audience, assembled in the massive ballroom, watched the jesters at the center. The trio, wearing colorful outfits, summoned flames to create the image of a soaring bird speeding around the ceiling. Applause echoed through the space as the bird traced figure eights and flipped upside down, among other tricks. Embers drifted towards the ground, crushed into oblivion by the few guards who coated them in the flakes of ice they summoned.

The young Eremia watched mesmerized, her four-year-old eyes bulging. She shouted with glee as the bird zoomed overhead, her father brushing away any embers long before they reached her.

On the other royal seat, Eurynome laughed sweetly, cradling a swaddled infant in her thin arms. "All for you, my princess," she said, the voice almost wiped away by the sounds of the audience.

Eremia tried to push herself off her father's knee, but he held her back. "It's dangerous," he said. "You needn't want to-"


He stopped. Everyone stopped talking, moving, breathing. Color drained from the room, turning it black and white. The windows were consumed by a darkness that seeped from the curtains partly covering them, leaving no indication that there was ever an outside world.

Startled, Eremia pushed aside her father's arm and rose, finding herself to be a teenager again. She wheeled around to find his cheerful, gracious face frozen in time, smiling down at where his daughter had been.

Trying not to panic, she took a deep breath. This was clearly a dream, and she happened to be a lucid dreamer. To test out her talents, she glared at the bird over her head. It gradually regained all the tones of fire, eventually sprouting to life once more. The creature shrank in size as it neared her, perching on her shoulder and making the shrill cry of an eagle. There wasn't a burn in her clothes.

Eremia stepped down the stairs towards the floor, passing over the blue carpet. "What else did happen here?" she asked aloud. "I wish that I remembered more."

Her voice echoed off the walls. Not a response came back. Eremia walked up to one of the revelers, flicking his nose. The jolly-faced man remained unresponsive, caught in the middle of downing a glass of wine (he held another in his other hand).

"Foolish."


Chapter 19: Borders, Part 5 (1,023 words): Day 10 of NaNo 2017! This includes the rest of the birthday celebration/dream sequence thing, so I'll abstain from posting it here until the 14th as well.

EDIT: Yay! Here we are!

Spoiler! :
Unlike all the other noises she'd heard thus far, this shot through the setting without an echo, as though it were an arrow aimed directly at her. She flinched as it clapped around her eardrums, the flaming bird on her arm crying out in alarm and beating its wings dangerously (if this were not a dream) close to her hair. Eremia scanned the faces of the frozen partygoers, looking for some detail out of place - an object, a person, even hints of light or wind. Nothing save eerie footsteps greeted her efforts, and they appeared to be coming from behind a closed door to her right. She knew, from the times she had spent in the mansion, that there was a long hallway leading out to an open garden behind that entrance. Indeed, hints of sweet flowers tinged the air.

"Little!" the voice said, the word slicing through the air like its predecessor. The footsteps stopped. Eremia, heart beating rapidly, pointed towards the thickset door. Squawking, the bird arced above her head, landing briefly on her index finger before it launched itself to the entrance. She retracted her hand in surprise, holding it firmly in the other as she inspected the fingers for any damage. One felt hot, but there wasn’t any harm done – she muttered to herself a vague excuse about being surprised, embarrassed at forgetting where she was.

The bird's wings stuck into the entrance, burning holes through the wood. An acrid smell emanated over the ballroom, causing Eremia to wrinkle her nose in disgust when she looked up from her hand. She gasped in alarm when she saw flames, but knew that there was no point in holding back. This was all fake, after all, and she wanted to get to the heart of the matter. On hearing her shout, the bird briefly stopped and looked at her, waiting for her approval; she nodded, and it persisted.

By the time the two oversized wings had eaten their way through most of the door, the footsteps resumed. The doorknob trembled, like someone were handling it delicately. Panicked and sweating, Eremia willed the bird to triple its size. Its cry grew deeper as it complied, shoving its way through the gaps it had made in the wood. As soon as the door started to swing open, it exploded in a shower of flaming splinters, shooting both into the hall and the room.

Eremia ducked, falling to her knees and covering her head with her arms. The cloud of smoke and timber exploded over her head, drowning out her ears in their sharp noise. Though she avoided most of the blast, the overwhelming force was enough to break her position, catching her in the chest. Her vision spun as she was thrust back, head landing harshly on the wooden floor.

And then it arrived, and she felt like she was right back in the wagon. As she stared at the ceiling, feeling like somebody had split her head open, she could see Jonah (or what was once him, but she found it easier to call the disheveled creature by the identity it stole), glaring at her with lifeless eyes. It held the weakened, frail, small bird in one hand, throwing it to the side as their eyes met. She was so tired and surprised that she couldn’t say a word, much less call the bird back into play.

The blues, reds, greens, and other colors of the ballroom seeped back from around Jonah's head, consuming their surroundings slowly. Its scowl deepened; the frown seemed to be saying that she was a nuisance, one that should stay away from it and its plans. That was how her mind perceived the gaze - as she realized, her brain was picking up words in Jonah's voice, though Jonah never opened its mouth.

It leaned over in Jonah's normal, childish fashion, and reached out to touch her forehead. "Girl!" it shouted at last, booming through the scene and reanimating all the onlookers. Colors burst out of the walls and people in a kaleidoscopic effect, settling back down as the rest of the memory fell on Eremia.

And then she was a child again, sitting on her father's knee. The bird, back to its grand stature, passed by once more, ballooning in size and exploding into the images of numerous small doves. The audience cheered as the jesters beckoned for the doves to come closer. Each burst into small balls of fire on contact with the jesters' hands, shrinking as the grip around each one grew tighter. A round of applause greeted the showmen as the last of the fire dissipated, their light replaced by the brilliant gleam of numerous candles superimposed on the chandelier and scattered among the walls, casting a myriad of lively shadows.

The jesters bowed, one at a time, waiting for the clapping and cheering to desist. One, in a loud, high-pitched voice, struck up a conversation with the King. Eremia's four-year-old mind was too awed by the sight of the glorious bird to understand a word; mostly, she felt disappointed that it had gone.

"Come now, you need your rest," said a maid, picking up Eremia and lifting her away from her father, who was laughing heartily. The maid set Eremia on the ground, taking her hand as they walked off to the side. Guards stood at attention, fists closed around their spears and sword hilts as they parted to make way for the duo, who proceeded down the steps and arrived at the door.

Pushing the door open, the maid led Eremia down the long, dimly-lit hallway, towards a garden illuminated by the moons and the night sky.


The edges of the world began to fray. The tapestry that was the memory tore at itself, making the setting vaguer and cloudier. Growing older by the second (she didn't know how else to think of it, other than that she was pulling away from the memory and back towards lucidity), Eremia easily wrenched her hand from the maid's. She sprinted for the garden, trying to outpace the wall of dense fog that consumed the hallway. It sped ahead of her, however, and she awoke, seconds away from bursting into the garden and touching the green leaves of the spring trees.


Chapter 20: Given, Part 1 (547 words): Day 11 of NaNo 2017! I didn't have much time and so had to write at the last minute, so it's probably not good, but eh. Thank goodness for buffers.

Spoiler! :
That’s all I missed?” said Katerina playfully, propping her elbows on a box and her head on her hands. “You’ve made a great enemy.”

“Does she have to be an enemy?” Eremia asked, turning her head around. The hour she’d spent practicing with Iasquam sapped her already poor energy (she was not a morning person), and the drills that he was attempting to teach her had already become lost in the tangles of her memory. For his part, he was sitting cross-legged on the ground, waiting patiently for their break to end. She could feel his soft eyes on the back of her head, but chose to ignore any suggestions he might have until later.

Katerina thought for a moment, staring at the early morning sky. Pinks and reds tinged the edge of the vast, empty landscape. “Terasu holds grudges, and the word is that she blames you for Rowland’s death.”

Scoffing, Eremia turned back. Iasquam nodded and rose, his stick at the ready. “What does she think of me? I have little reason to hate her, cross as she might be, but I would not like to play this spiteful game.”

The clack! of wood against wood emanated into the surroundings as the exercise started.

“You were the closest when Jonah – well – you know,” Katerina said slowly.

Eremia hated thinking about that ugly night and all of its bitter consequences. She scowled as Iasquam parried a shot aimed for his legs. “Does she believe I caused it?”

“Maybe?” said Katerina.

“She visits the hospital often,” Yorew said, striding from behind a tent to where the rectangular training grounds were set. “She’s not well. Don’t worry yourself about her.”

Iasquam bowed to Yorew as the latter entered. This gesture led Iasquam to lose his focus long enough for Eremia to hit him over the head. She blushed and retreated, but said nothing.

“I couldn’t hear you at all!” Katerina said in alarm as Yorew sat on the ground next to her. “I guess you’ve come to watch?”

Yorew nodded.

“Be that as it may,” Eremia said, as the exercise resumed, “Terasu is still a general. I have suspicions Alarick does not much like me either.”

“By all my accounts, he’s fuming,” Katerina said, laughing. “He hates it when things go on behind his back.”

A warm wind blew from the south, sprinkling sand into Eremia’s eyes. She raised her hand for Iasquam to halt. Wiping the sand from her eyes, she blinked out the tears and moved so that her back would face the wind. Iasquam took an opposing position in response. “I have my own cause,” remarked Eremia, dodging her opponent’s stick and narrowly clipping a wing with her own, “And, though I may be trained here, I have my own authority.”

Suddenly, Iasquam desisted, making one more attempt at a strike. He took a few steps back and sat down, sighing.

Eremia raised an eyebrow. “Something amiss?”

He looked up from the ground to her, eyes slightly red. “Am I doing well? I don’t know how experienced you are, but I’d like to think you shouldn’t be able to hit me at all.”

Sighing, Eremia said, “I was given cursory lessons by the teachers in my castle. Besides, I just grazed you, and only once.”



Chapter 20: Given, Part 2 (1,046 words): Day 12 of NaNo 2017! ANGST. I kind of like this because I want to throw some reminders that hey, Eremia is not the best at problem solving, and she's not always nice, and she can be flippant/prideful (though that doesn't make Jonathan totally right here either).

Spoiler! :
His spirits brightened somewhat. “We may continue, then” he said, voice still tinged by depression. “Ready?”

Eremia took a battle stance. “As always.”

They resumed, Eremia trying to strike at Iasquam. He deflected the blows handily. It surprised Eremia that he thought so little of himself. Were they holding real swords, and had he not been restraining himself (his attacks were slow and unwieldy), she would have fallen almost immediately. That she managed to land a blow at all was impressive, and she was certain that she would’ve never had the chance if he stopped holding himself back. His prowess seemed to be clear to everyone but himself, as Eremia could see Katerina nodding in approval beside her. Then again, he considered himself so much less talented than his sister. How strong had she been?

The air brightened as colors spilled from the heavens. When the edge of the sun burned its way into the sky, Yorew looked off to the side and said, “Your young man is here.”

“Jonathan?” Eremia asked all too happily. She completely ignored Iasquam’s accidentally hitting her on the shoulder with his stick as she watched a familiar shape step into the clearing.

Jonathan waved. There were bags under his eyes; his steps were frail and somewhat erratic. He slouched, and his hair was a mess. “Training?” he said to Eremia, raising an eyebrow.

Eremia stammered, “Yes, absolutely,” and turned to face Iasquam. She made a series of quick, furious strikes, aiming for his chest. Alarmed, Iasquam jumped a few steps back and swung outwards, knocking Eremia’s stick from her hands. It flew towards Katerina, who shouted and threw herself onto the ground.

“You don’t need to impress me,” Jonathan said softly, walking over to the tent where the stick was embedded and yanking it out.

“I had no plans to,” Eremia retorted, regaining her composure. “This is my training.”

Katerina, from where she hid behind the box, snickered. Handing Eremia the stick, Jonathan’s normal frown deepened. “Seems cruel to me.”

“Apologies,” Iasquam piped in. “I hadn’t meant to do that.”

Taking a stance between them, Eremia set down the stick and walked up to Jonathan. “I hope yesterday was not bothersome to you,” she spat out, giving him a sorrowful expression. “We have not been around each other long, so I imagine I sounded presumptuous, and -”

Jonathan went around Eremia to approach Iasquam. “It’s fine,” replied Jonathan in a voice that cracked more than usual, raising an outstretched hand to Iasquam. “I feel the same.”

Curious, Iasquam reached out with a wing and enveloped Jonathan’s hand, shaking it. “What about Terasu?” Eremia said quietly, looking away. “I suspect she does not like me.”

Yawning, Jonathan retracted his hand and stretched. “Of course not,” he said simply, “she’s told me as much. But she’s a friend.” He sat down at the edge of the battlefield, picking up small pebbles and tossing them into the sky. “And she needs someone who can be around her more.”

When Eremia, not sure what else to say, picked up her stick again, Iasquam shook his head. “We’ve had too many interruptions,” he said. “Can we find a time when you’re less busy?”

Of course this would be the morning when everyone wanted to talk to her. With the number of friends and associates she was making, that made sense to her. Still, there wasn’t a better time she could think of - the afternoons were getting hotter, and there wasn’t much respite in the evenings. Then again, she may as well get used to the weather (which she suspected would only get worse from here). “You may,” Eremia said, cutting herself off as a stray thought entered her mind. “Can you do something for me?”

Iasquam nodded apprehensively.

“Can you find Aquila? I last saw him yesterday, and I worry for him,” said Eremia, words becoming sterner as she saw Iasquam look away contemptuously. “He seems alone and depressed. So are you, as far as I can see. If nothing else, I would think you have some common ground.”

“He hates me,” Iasquam replied, still looking towards the horizon (the sun had mostly climbed into the heavens). “And I won’t respect someone as crude as him.”

“He was insecure. So are you.” Eremia gritted her teeth, causing her head to hurt slightly. “Find him and either ease his temper or bring him back, unless you would like me to kick you out of here.”

Puffing up his chest, Iasquam scowl hardened. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“I would,” replied Eremia. “And I will not tolerate your little feud. Go.”

Iasquam threw his stick on the ground and walked off, grumbling to himself as he did so.

“Not a good idea,” Jonathan remarked.

Catching the pebble that he threw towards her, she scoffed. “They need to learn to tolerate each other.” Walking over to where Katerina had stretched out, Eremia sat on a box and glared at no one in particular.

Jonathan hurled a pebble to the sun as he said, “You’re their common tie. And you won’t be around. They’re both aggressive. This can’t end well.”

“My hope is that their emotions are their common ground.” Now that Iasquam had left, and only Jonathan was in front of her, Eremia’s expression softened, smiling ever so slightly. “Now, what were we talking about?”

“Terasu needs someone more reliable,” replied Jonathan with a newfound coldness. “I am not that person. I told her as much.”

Eremia felt hurt; she decided to pull the conversation back to the original topic. “It is done,” she said hastily, trying to defend herself. “I would like them to at least stop being enemies.”

Jonathan sighed. “Pride is an ugly thing. They have it. So do you.” He stood up, a gust blowing through his hair. “I hope you’re right. Katerina, will you join me again?”

He gestured towards Katerina, who shook her head. “Hunting parties are boring, and I think I need to stay here.” She reached up and patted Eremia on the knee; the latter continued to stare at the ground.

“She told me not to talk to you, Eremia,” Jonathan said he walked off, shrugging his shoulders. “I didn’t listen to her. Just don’t escalate things and expect a solution.”


Chapter 20: Given, Part 3 (1,035 words): Day 13 of NaNo 2017! BIRBS.

Spoiler! :
For someone with keen hearing, a grudge, and the ability to fly at a moment's notice, Aquila was surprisingly easy to find - it only took about an hour for Iasquam to finally find him, lurking in the form of an eagle in a small patch of shrubbery, clearly trying to make himself look hidden. Given Aquila's size, Iasquam found it almost funny; he would've laughed if he didn't feel so bitter.

Aquila shifted to half-form and hide him among the bushes, scowling. "Have you come to say goodbye?"

"The lady wants you," Iasquam said, crossing his wings. He had not been looking forward to this conversation, and had spent his past hour conceiving what were first ways to demand an apology, followed by ways to beat Aquila in a fight. Admittedly, considering how small and ineffectual Aquila looked, Iasquam felt that wouldn't be nearly as much a challenge as he planned. As long as Aquila didn't fly, it would be easy to trap him and force him to abandon his little petty feud.

"She couldn't talk to me herself?" Aquila said indignantly, standing up. "But she sent you?"

"I was available," Iasquam said, sounding contemptuous. "You should try to be."

Giving out a cry that sounded like derision, Aquila took a few steps forward. "I've tried, but she knows how bad I am, because she picked you."

While he was leaving, Iasquam had heard something about emotional common ground. Now that he could see Aquila in front of him, managing to ruffle his feathers and have his eyes droop, the comment made more sense. Still, that wasn't an excuse for Aquila's paranoia; it was childish and petty, and beyond Iasquam's respect. "I'm her swordsman. Was that your job?" He asked with honest curiosity, but it came across as biting in the anger that spilled through him.

"No," Aquila confessed, pouting and looking away. "But you can do everything I can and more."

About to make a comment of disapproval, Iasquam decided it would be better to keep his little secret under wraps for the time being. The last thing he wanted was for Aquila to have ammunition, or some other reason to work himself up over. "What do you do?" he finally said, trying to soften his voice.

In return, Aquila exploded into a fit of rage. "I'm the messenger!" he shouted, sprinting towards Iasquam. "Just like you're trying to be!"

At least that planning wouldn't go to waste, Iasquam figured as he easily sidestepped Aquila and raised a leg. Moving too fast to correct himself, Aquila tripped and faceplanted in the earth. By now, a small crowd of bystanders had gathered, watching in curiosity. Somebody ran off, shouting some garbled phrase that sounded like a call for help.

"What is wrong with you?" Iasquam shouted in the old language, placing a clawed foot on Aquila's back. "I never meant you any harm!"

Aquila lashed out with his claws, scratching Iasquam's leg. "Since the moment you saw her you have," he spat in the same language, glaring up at Iasquam. "She probably told you about me and you decided to fix the problem, didn't you?"

Seeing the blood beginning to coat his feathers, Iasquam dug his foot down deeper, knocking the air out of Aquila's lungs. "I never even knew you existed," Iasquam said, clenching his clawed hands together to keep them from enacting the hateful dreams in him. "If you were always this mad, then perhaps I should take your place."

"I knew it," Aquila gasped, shoving his hands into the earth. He flung himself up with surprising speed, sending Iasquam falling onto the hard ground. Reaching back to check for any wounds in his back, Aquila showed his bloody claws. "You manipulated her, and you're trying to get rid of me, and too many people have tried to do that to me." He soared up before Iasquam could grab at him. "Fight me!"

A few deep breaths. Iasquam pulled a sword from its scabbard on his back, pointing it at Aquila. "No! You're a frightened child, and I will not play your little game."

"You'd better," Aquila screeched, diving down to lash at Iasquam. "Because I'm going to end this. Get up here!"

That secret started to worm its way up Iasquam's neck; he buried it, dodging Aquila's attack and scratching a leg with his sword. Drops of blood spilled onto the ground, leading some of the people among the onlookers to shout. One man ran up and grabbed Iasquam, who allowed the man to pull him away while still watching Aquila's movements. He was tired of this fight, and it appeared that Aquila had done a good amount of damage to his own reputation. It was what the child deserved, Iasquam figured.

Now Aquila appeared more desperate, as he lunged for yet another strike. He was forced back at the last minute by somebody casting a net, leading him to squawk in irritation. "Face me!" he said pleadingly as he soared up into the sky. "I - I won't stop!"

"I won't fly!" shouted Iasquam, now amongst the ground. To his right, he could hear a conversation about a healer coming. Scattered bits of dialogue bounced around in his head: Jonathan was running over, somebody had notified Eremia, Madeleine was already preparing a couple of hospital beds. He felt that it'd be more necessary for Aquila rather than himself, as he could only feel a mild pain in his leg. As for the emotional scars that were going to come out of this, Iasquam suspected that it would take far longer for Aquila to burn through the rest of his fears. Also, since the secret had almost broached Iasquam's lips, he guessed that his own stay could be a while.

"And why not?" replied Aquila, faint voice cracking as he looked around and saw the ever-growing audience. He seemed to shrink, both as he pushed his legs into his chest and as he soared upwards. "What keeps you from finishing the job?"

Well, it was endlessly embarrassing, but Aquila wouldn't mock him for it, and Iasquam thought that it might provide just enough leverage to stop him. "I'm afraid of heights!"


Chapter 20: Given, Part 4 (1,088 words): Day 14 of NaNo 2017! KNIVES. Cataracts didn't help her job prospects much, but she took care of the problem/s.

Spoiler! :
Aquila stopped, hovering in the sky. "Wait, really?" he shouted (being far enough away that it sounded like a whisper). "Are you serious?"

Looking around, Iasquam feared that every pair of eyes was focused on him, and that every facial twitch was a mocking smile. He felt much smaller. "Yes!" he shouted up. To his right, a woman in a white dress pulled at his hand. Amidst the growing din of the crowd, sneaking past the beating of his own heart, she asked him if he had any injuries. Nodding, he gestured to his leg and sat down, the injured digit extended outward.

"That can't be true," Aquila responded, lowering ever so slightly. "But you didn't follow me, so that means - that means - what does that mean?"

Not sure what else to say, Iasquam watched as the woman placed a hand over his bleeding leg. He winced as he saw a bright flash, white energy emanating into the injury. The pain subsided as the woman pulled out a gauze bandage from the folds of her dress, wrapping it around the damaged area. She said something that he could distantly hear about it being minor, and that he should wash off any blood left on the wound.

Trapped in the prison that was his mind, fears bounced around Iasquam and weakened his senses. Everyone knew now that he couldn't fly - that he was afraid to fly - and that showed his weakness. As a hawk, he should be able to fly; all the friends in his old home (before he'd moved to the wasteland of southern Walenty seeking profit) had, and his sister had been the best at it (as she had been the best at everything). But he had been afraid of it since he was a small child, as he had been afraid of falling and smashing to pieces against the weight of the earth.

The malevolent thoughts ate at him. He barely noticed that Aquila had shouted something and flown off in a random direction, and that the crowd had followed him, nets and healers at the ready. Even the woman in white patting his back and trying to soothe him by suggesting he was okay proved insignificant to his mind. When he looked up again, she was gone, and so was everyone else.

He had hoped so much that he wouldn't be in pain anymore, now that he was free from his home. What a cruel world this was.

******


Cerin, dressed in her usual black-and-purple outfit, hid behind the dressing cabinet in her room, hoping that the lady with cataract eyes wouldn't notice her.

In the national tradition of adorning a royal's life in the color scheme of their nation, the entire room was coated in dark fineries. The thick bed, table and chair, canvas walls, and even the cabinet were black or some dark wood. Understandably, the place came across as bleak, only brightened by the shades of purple running through the rugs on the floor. Cataracts lady, dressed in blue robes, sat gracefully on the side of the black-blanketed bed, holding an opened book in her pale hands. Her eyes scanned the space, focusing on every nook and cranny. "Come now," she said peaceably, patting the side of the bed. "You must have your lessons."

The young Queen of Claec, curled up in a ball and peering from the right edge of the cabinet to the bed, scowled. She had no interest in learning, not when there was no point in it.

The gaze of cataracts lady shot towards the cabinet. Cerin jerked back her head and arms suddenly, accidentally knocking an elbow against the wood. "Come now, my princess," said cataracts lady in the same sweet tone, closing the book and standing up. "You must have your lessons."

Pushing herself back with her arms, Cerin inched towards the open tent flap, sweating and frantically darting her eyes to where cataracts lady started to walk. The topic had to be some petty thing about proper matters or history, Cerin reasoned. It would make no difference in what her horrible regent had done to her parents, and could easily do to her.

"There's no point in hiding," cataracts lady said, grabbing the edge of the cabinet and peering around just in time to see Cerin squeeze through the back and yank herself up.

Cerin had no urge to respond. Turning around, she bolted into the campsite, swinging her arms madly as she barreled down the hill. Her ringlets flapped wildly as she hopped, so that she could bring a leg up and pull off the high-heeled shoe that constrained her. None of the onlookers even bat an eye to the spectacle that she presented, but she could see well-armored soldiers casually closing off the open paths in front of her. She openly swore at this.

"Why do you keep trying?" shouted cataracts lady as Cerin took off in another direction. A knife whizzed past Cerin's head, forcing a man behind her to duck in terror. "How many more times will you run away?"

"None!" shouted Cerin. And, indeed, she felt like this would be the time she could finally escape. It was impossible to outrun the cataracts lady, who appeared to have legs of steel. The place was too well-guarded and too frequently searched for her to hide anywhere. However, a few wagons had stationed themselves at the edge of camp, preparing for the long journey back to Claec. As long as she made her path convoluted enough, and the driver of one of the wagons she would not be using accepted the bribe she'd quietly made the previous day, she figured she could clamber onto one of the others and escape in the chaos.

Another knife, accompanied by the shout. That cataracts lady hadn't already been imprisoned, Cerin knew, was a matter of contempt. As long as the victims were human, Alsather was perfectly content to let them die at his whim. That Cerin herself wasn't dead was hardly an accident, of course.

Breathing smoothly, she appeared to duck into an empty tent, quietly crawling out the other side and sprinting again, keeping her head and body low. She didn't expect cataracts lady to be fooled, and a knife embedding itself into the ground beside her proved as much. Cerin had already attempted a stunt like this dozens of times. What mattered was convincing cataracts lady that this effort, and the ones that followed, were as predictable as usual.



Chapter 20: Given, Part 5 (1,014 words): Day 15 of NaNo 2017! PUPPY DOG EYES. Halfway through!

Spoiler! :
The wagons were in-sight now, horses at the ready. Cerin picked up speed, running as fast as her small legs would take her. Nobody, despite the steady stream of soldiers she passed, tried to stop her. Not even a word against her drifted through the air - the cataracts lady had gone silent, though she still made her presence known with a knife or two. Doubt crept into Cerin's heart, nestling among the veins and whispering unwelcome questions into her blood. It was her best plan, but was it good enough? It had to be, Cerin convinced herself - or, if not she would try to escape again, and again, and again, as long as necessary.

She threw herself into the first wagon that she saw; Cerin rolled into it as smoothly as she'd hoped. The horses instantly whinnied, leading her to dig her fingers into the wood as the wagon shot past the edge of the camp, spilling its cargo onto the ground. Standing up and coughing, waving away from her face the dirt wafting around in a huge cloud, Cerin watched as soldiers poured from the newly-made gap in the perimeter. They thrust spears swiftly, but the wagon was too far away and moving too quickly.

As the wagon swerved around in a wide loop, Cerin felt herself pushed against by the wall by the sheer force. Dodging the barrels and sack of flour that hurtled towards her, she kicked them out when she could, watching them crack and spill their contents onto the ground. Teeth rattling and body numbed, she still mustered the energy to push herself towards the back. Cerin reminded herself once again that this had to work, taking a few deep breaths and stretching. Soldiers ducked out of the way when the wagon careened towards them, nearing its compatriots. She could hear spears and arrows made thunk! sounds in the wood behind her, giving her the last bit of motivation she needed to hurl herself from the back of the wagon and land on her two feet in front her target.

The frightened horses, tied to poles barely attached to the ground, frantically whinnied at spotting her landing. She jumped away before they crushed her with their hooves. Dashing around the side, Cerin hoped that she was indistinguishable amidst all the carnage and dust. The rest of the plan flashed in front of her head in the seconds before she enacted it. She would get into this one, and she would hide among some of the barrels inside. When the wagon finally left, she would wait until it had made good distance from the camp, seize control from the driver, and ride off in whatever direction looked best. It had to work, it had to work, it had to -

"Come now," said the cataracts lady, standing inside of the wagon that Cerin had propped one foot on. Holding out a hand, the cataracts lady smiled gracefully. "That was a wonderful try."

Cerin's heart sank through her chest and into her legs. Wobbling, her grip on the wood weakened, and she stumbled back onto the ground. All around her were soldiers. "You could have killed me!" Cerin said desperately, spinning around in frantic search for an escape route.

The cataracts lady shrugged. "I believed you were not stupid enough to be driving the first one." She pointed off in the distance. Cerin's eyes followed, and she gaped when she saw the plume of fire off towards the horizon, releasing a huge cloud of smoke into the air. "We had to set an example."

Taking a few steps back, Cerin collided into a couple of the soldiers. "And if it was me?" she said, voice quavering as she tried to squeeze between the immovable guards.

"Were," the cataracts lady corrected, stepping off the wagon in noiseless steps. "Perhaps we had best discuss your grammar."

"That doesn't answer the question!" Unable to move anything beyond her arm in the gap they made, Cerin ran towards another part of the circle, with similar results. "And either way is still correct!"

Grabbing Cerin on the shoulder, the cataracts lady wheeled her around by surprising force for someone so frail-looking. "My liege would have lost a useful pawn," said the cataracts lady silently, vehemently, staring down Cerin. "These games bore him. You will be under much stricter surveillance past this point. Should you attempt to do something like this again, we will place you throw you into the prisons until Alsather should wish otherwise. And he is tired of wishing."

Cerin, the dream of freedom stripped from her and destroyed, stood limp. The hopes that she had clung onto lay rotted and meaningless before her. She was going to die some day, when Alsather had decided that nobody would accuse him of regicide. That was the only reason he kept her alive, she knew, because he had told her as much. It was both her greatest fear and the only truth that she had. Mind dead and heart broken, the most she could do was silently look at the flaming wagon and weep, shoulders shaking as the cataracts lady took her hand and walked her away.

******


"They've been talking some time now."

"Hm? Oh, yes, yes, they seem fond of each other."

Katerina sat on the grass outside the hospital, having pulled her legs to her chest. She rocked back and more gently as Eremia buried her nose in a book.

"It worked, you know."

Rising her head, Eremia sighed. "He was right," she commented faintly.

"They're boys," Katerina said. "Besides, Aquila probably spent his whole life being told how great Exedor's royalty was, so I'm not surprised he freaked out over it."

Watching the clouds overhead, Eremia mumbled, "My family is great."

Eremia glanced, out of the corner of her eye, Katerina's expression brighten. "You never talk about them much. What were your parents like? Did you have any cousins or uncles or anyone like that? Anybody you had a crush on?" Leaning against Eremia, Katerina presented her greatest pleading eyes.


Chapter 20: Given, Part 6 (1,044 words): Day 16 of NaNo 2017! BIRBS MENTIONED.

Spoiler! :
"My father and mother were the two most loving parents I could have," said Eremia dreamily, gently pushing Katerina off with one hand. "I suppose that was compensation, since they were hardly ever around."

Katerina nodded, her smile fading. "My parents sent me off to live in Wyandanch for my training when I was a little girl. I never saw them much, so we're in the same boat."

A question leaped onto Eremia's tongue and just as quickly escaped. "Did you ever see the King?"

"A few times," mused Katerina slowly, waiting just long enough for Eremia's curiosity to turn to an impatience that manifested itself in waved hands. "Usually surrounded by his bishops."

"Did he ever notice you?" Eremia went back to her reading, taking a few glances at Katerina to watch the latter's expression.

"Of course not," Katerina replied, laughing. "He was too busy being led around the streets and asking the Pillars for blessings."

Craning her head to the side, Eremia squinted at the horizon and spotted the vague, misty outlines of the Pillars. The black towers shot upwards into the sky without limit; as she'd heard, there was none. That they were visible from a large part of the world had always baffled her, but she'd always admired them. They were, as she believed, the protruding part of the core upon which The Creator and His Sons had made the world.

Muffled footsteps. Eremia saw Katerina looking behind her and did the same. Approaching them was Madeleine, seeming pale and tired. Madeleine waved weakly, arm flopping to the side as she eased herself onto the ground beside them. "Evening," she said, propping up an elbow on her leg and resting her head on her hand.

"How've they been?" Katerina said first, cutting through the suspense that coated the air.

"Fine," said Madeleine. "Aquila's calmed down some. They're actually striking up conversations now."

Eremia immediately perked up. "Are they no longer enemies, then?" she asked, focusing her gaze on Madeleine.

Madeleine's face briefly contorted in rage. "They lived their trial by fire."

"We have to confront our fears," Eremia returned, trying not to grit her teeth (she felt it would make her look undignified). "Is that not right?"

Brow furrowed, Madeleine grew even paler in the sunlight. "I have no idea what you're talking about," she said, almost unsteadily. She composed herself in a deep breath. "As for you, feel fortunate that they didn't tear each other's throats out. That was beyond reckless."

Katerina, who appeared frightened, pushed herself forward so that she would not be in between them.

"Had I not intervened, it would have happened eventually. Given the time period, it would have been much worse." Eremia's temperature rose, and she donned her biggest scowl.

"Perhaps," said Madeleine. "But Jonathan told me all about your decision, and he thought it would've been better if you'd talked to the both of them, since they have respect for you."

The impetus of her energy withered, leaving Eremia to blush and stare at the ground. "Is he here?"

Madeleine snorted. "Alarick has him training again. The kid's tired and bitter enough, but Alarick's made sure to keep him out of my hands."

A couple minutes passed by in silence. Madeleine finally rose up, brushing off grass stains. "It worked," she said at last, staring down at Eremia's curling herself into a ball and reading. "You took a great risk, and it paid off. He's not happy with you, sure. I'm not happy with you either. Honestly, it's mostly that you're trying to justify yourself that gets on my nerves. What you've done barely touches the levels of stupidity that some of us have had. The years before I came to the Confederacy are a good example of that."

"So, don't feel this need to act like you're always right. You're going to do much worse, and I'll tell you right now that you'll have worse reasons. And that's fine, because you're flawed. Everyone's flawed. I wish you would apologize for once, but you've done well enough that you don't really have to; I at least want to see you recognize you can't always be perfect."

Hesitating, Madeleine waited for an answer. Eremia knew she was looking for an apology, or maybe just any sign of recognition. "...Sorry," she said at last, shoving aside her selfish side. "It was foolish of me."

Now Madeleine walked away, appearing satisfied. She turned just before the corner of the hospital tent. "Also, it's pretty clear you're sweet on Jonathan, and vice versa. All I have to say is that you'd better watch out for Terasu. You also don't need to always put his logic above your own, because the Creator knows that he's not perfect either, not by a long shot."

Katerina reappeared after Madeleine left. "I went off to do a little eavesdropping," she said without embarrassment, beaming in what appeared to be an attempt to remove Eremia's frown. "Sounds like Aquila wants to help Iasquam" - she still struggled with the syllables, saying them slowly - "learn how to not be afraid when he flies. You want to talk to them?"

Would they be angry at her? Would they decide that she had been reckless, as she knew was the case? At the same time, she didn't have much else to do. Besides, in their focus on the bridge of trust that they were beginning to build, they weren't likely to criticize her for her part in it. If they did, then perhaps she deserved it. Eremia closed the book, holding it in one arm, and accepted Katerina's outstretched hand. Katerina pulled Eremia up.

Holding each other's hand as they walked towards the tent, Eremia felt the weight lifted off her shoulders and replaced by a growing calmness. She would still have to apologize to Jonathan, and Eremia was not looking forward to it. However, at least it would lift one of the many pains that he had, and demonstrated her love in an action she was not used to, but was ultimately for the best.

In that moment, Eremia believed that she had almost everything that she wanted, save for Jonah; she was not going to let anything else she had slip away.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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Sat Nov 18, 2017 3:07 am
TheSilverFox says...



Is it my lucky day? No, but it's -

LMS Writing Part 7



Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 1 (1,027 words): Day 17 of NaNo 2017! Honestly I just like saying the Rat King.

Spoiler! :
He walked through the dusty, stone-rimmed tunnel, taking care to keep his torch away from the wooden railing. Not being proficient in fire magic, nor having the stamina to run along the infinity that stretched silently in both directions, he didn't want to take chances.

His blue robe, extending down to his elbows, tangled itself against the posts at times, and he had to rip it away. Hence, there were a series of cuts on the dust-covered outfit, opening in the faint breezes that emanated from in front of him. It amazed him that it was possible for the wind to arrive, but the city's old builders had planned for every contingency - a working catacomb that stretched deep into the surrounding countryside worked well to satisfy paranoia. That didn't stop him from hating the dreary, long tunnels to and from the Two Thousand Year Capital.

Not a soul was in sight; there were no distant lamps or torches. Not that they were necessary, since it wasn't as though somebody would fall from the tall railing and land on the ground two feet beneath the raised path. He mostly feared that someone would sneak up upon him in the darkness, which would do wonders for his rampant claustrophobia. As it stood, his heart raced at the prospect that one of the local underground dwellers was watching him. They were not hostile - Seres had seen to that - but they were grotesque and disturbing little creatures.

A figure covered entirely black appeared at the edge of the man's vision. Screaming, the man flung his torch up in the air. The figure in black stepped forward and caught it deftly, pulling back their face mask to reveal the healthy face of a young woman. "Nissyen," she said.

Leaning on the railing, the man took a few deep breaths. He tried to regain his composure. "Oh good, it's only you," he whispered, before his face turned green and he threw up over the edge.

The woman cringed. "I still don't know why in the world Seres makes you his adviser."

His nerves and stomach seemed to be in the middle of a war. Nissyen wiped the corner of his mouth and stepped unsteadily towards the center of the path, holding a hand against each railing. "I don't - don't care. Did you do as I asked?"

A message dropped onto the floor. "On your request, we executed all of the suspects. Each came from the west and south, carrying messages like these."

The gears in Nissyen's brain fired at rapid speed - he hadn't expected they would be messengers, nor that the spies would deliver him the messages. Picking it up, he scanned the page quickly, looking for any words of interest. Something clicked. He tried not to smile as he handed the letter back and said assertively, "The Doves, last we checked, are in Eimhin, keeping an eye on that bastard son of the Mad King's. They planned on staying in Exedor afterwards. Had they truly sent any letters, they would have come in from the north."

She accepted it as though it were a wet towel. "Should I burn these, then?" she asked, expression in disgust. "They've already been found clear of poison, so it appears to have been a misdirection ploy."

"Definitely," Nissyen replied, having regained the stability to move his arms and legs without them wobbling. He pushed the spy aside and walked forward, her following. "Likely to keep the city on guard and force it to waste precious resources. Are all the messages with you?"

Her response took a few unnerving seconds. Nissyen was tempted to look behind him to make sure she was still there, and that he wasn't all alone in the darkness. "One of them is with the rat people, yes."

"Go and intercept them," replied Nissyen, sweat forming on his brow. His voice was laced with a tinge of nervousness. "It's not of Seres's concern."

"Attempted espionage seems like it should be," the spy said, jumping up from the edge and in front of Nissyen, who screamed once again. "Did you ask me and my men to commit murder without his approval?"

Of course she would be persistent. It was her job, she had to keep prodding and prodding until he gave a satisfactory explanation, and he was always horrible at those. And every second that he hesitated was another second that she suspected him, so he had to react quickly. "We always have espionage attempts," he said dismissively. "And the city's almost on edge, so, messages or no messages, the reality will be much the same. I also did not want to stress him any further."

Her eyes narrowed, but she nodded. "Correct on all counts," she murmured, turning and walking away from him. "I know you're overstepping your boundaries, but you seem more stupid than evil. Just like most everyone else here. Still, if what you say is correct, there should be no harm in Seres accepting the message. Interrupt it yourself, or explain it to him."

And then she was gone. Nissyen waited anxiously, tapping his foot, until he believed that she was far enough away. Then he breathed a sigh of relief and contemplated his options, holding his hands against his head and staring at the floor. If the rats had the message, it was likely in the vicinity of their leader, who kept to the pit beneath the city's largest chapel. He always treated Nissyen with contempt, and might just decide to send the message out of spite. That meant it would end up in Seres's hand. Seres would doubtlessly ask why Nissyen had ordered the executions, and then posit all the ways that the messengers could have been legitimate, and delve into even worse trains of thought (for Nissyen). Between the two options, Seres was easily the most perceptive, whereas the rats could be coaxed.

Nissyen decided that he had to see the rat king. He had no respect for the king, or his dirty creatures; they were not the dragons that had helped build the city. Still, what other choice did he have?



Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 2 (1,039 words): Day 18 of NaNo 2017! She should probably have more of a backstory, I like her.

Spoiler! :
He dashed down the tunnel in the direction he'd come, the flame on his torch dancing fervently as he threatened to trip over his own clothes. The repulsive smell dissipated with time, replaced by the dry and dusty air of his surroundings. Nissyen kept a steady pace and scanned the walls swiftly. The creatures were best known by their red eyes, but he could see none peering out from the darkness. He would've been happier about this if he were not running towards their king.

Reaching an intersection, Nissyen blew out his torch and set it on the place where he'd taken it. His eyes adjusted to the dim lights of weak-glowing fires set in braziers on the walls in three directions. He tried to make calculations in his head as he chose the path to the right and hurried away. The spies notified him and Seres on their actions as soon as they returned from wherever they had gone. Hence, it had to have taken no more than a day for the messengers to be killed. If any message had reached the rats, it had to have been within the last couple hours or so, and no doubt they were arguing over its implications. Seres kept them metaphorically and literally in the dark, as he figured they were more of a nuisance than anything else. Under those circumstances, Nissyen figured that it could be easy enough to convince the creatures that the letters were meaningless, given his ties to Seres.

The flames appeared less and less often. Nissyen was increasingly aware of flashes in the looming darkness, spots of red that blinked and vanished on seeing him. A faint but disturbing smell reached his nostrils, causing him to scowl and slow his pace. By now, the tunnel widened, sloping down farther and farther beneath him. Looking over the railing, he could spot a few pairs of red eyes from the path that he presumed now stretched beneath his. He blinked, and they were gone.

It was dark enough that he could barely see. He gripped the railing as he walked forward, feeling the way that it shifted from cold metal to thick slabs of stone. The fact that he had not kept the torch lingered in Nissyen's mind, taunting him for his imprudence. When he spotted a final brazier sitting on the edge of the railing, looking ahead to notice the total darkness in front of him, he found himself motivated to pick it up and carry it. So, with not even the tunnel walls visible anymore, he did so.

"What is your business?" The words echoed through the impossibly large tunnel. He screamed again and accidentally cast the brazier over the side of the railing. It landed with a clang! on the ground beneath after a dozen precarious seconds, snuffing all the remaining light with it.

Nissyen stammered as he spoke, body shaking as he spotted two specks of red close to his face. "I am here to know what your King has done with the message."

His eyes started to adjust to the light, capturing the silhouette of a large, bipedal rat, dressed in a tattered uniform that looked like it used to belong to a guard. The vaguely raspy voice was distinctly feminine. "What message?"

"From the messengers our spies killed," Nissyen said, sucking in air and trying to quell his frantic heart.

The eyes drew closer and narrowed into slits. "We have one, yes. Is there something important about it?"

"It's fake!" Nissyen shouted, recoiling as he felt the touch of whiskers against his cheeks. "The Doves should not be that far south, and there are no signs that the Alliance would've captured the children."

The shaded rat came even closer, enough for Nissyen to smell her halitosis (and gag), for just a second, then retreating back carefully. "The King has been ill for some time," she mused. "He hasn't been in any state to read the message. As his premier guard, the choice falls upon me, and suffice it to say that I don't have much reason to trust you."

Anger captured his spirit, drowning out the nervousness that normally compelled him. "Trust me!" he said angrily, stepping forward. "I've worked for Seres for seven long years, and still nobody thinks I'm reliable? Do you know how hard I work? Do you know how long I spend every day trying to keep this city alive? I can assure you that the message is entirely fake, because the Alliance would waste no time in marching straight for Wyandanch with the captive children! They would ransom, and the city would fall into their hands without a single life lost on their hands! And then they would murder, pillage, and burn this city! Do you want to -"

The rat smacked him in the face by a well-timed blow from the back of her spear. He recoiled, clutching his chin as he fell against the railing. "Enough!" the rat shouted, tapping the spear's wooden end on the ground loudly. "You've made your point, but it doesn't hurt to check." As he tried to pull himself back up, Nissyen felt himself being grabbed by his robe and forced into the air. He swung his legs futility at the dark speck below him, her red eyes narrowing in concentration.

"You do have the smell of the coward," she said at last, throwing him on the ground. "I was expecting you, or one of your ilk. You all look the same, and almost smell the same."

Nissyen could feel warm blood as the back of his head pulsed, having taken its being thrown to the ground poorly. He pushed himself up. "Will you destroy the message?" he spat, standing precariously on his feet taking a few steps back.

Vision blurry, the most he could see was a pair of red eyes moving up and down, though he was unsure if that was just his own unsteady movements. "I will give you the little respect you deserve," she shot back. "You'd better be right, or else I will personally kill you when this city burns." And then she turned around and walked off, but not before actually spitting at him.



Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 3 (1,046 words): Day 19 of NaNo 2017! I think she likes name-calling people in general, angry or not.

Spoiler! :
He rose, trying to wipe the spit from off of his suit and swearing under his breath. His hands felt like the garbage that gathered at the bottom of his shoes in his trips through the streets of Wyandanch, and Nissyen waited until he was sure that the distinctive pair of red eyes had vanished before he tried to scrape his hands along the railing. One of them touched a soft fabric; a hand clamped over his mouth when he began to scream.

"Still a consistent story," said the familiar voice behind him. "You only appear to be an idiot."

She let go as Nissyen attempted to shove the offending arm away, upon which he took a few deep breaths. "What are you?" he then demanded loudly, wheeling around to face the dark silhouette of the woman he immediately recognized as the spy from earlier, as her outfit almost perfectly blended into the surroundings.

The spy laughed, throwing her head back (as Nissyen assumed). "It's in my job description to have a few identities," she said in mirth, shifting between form so that a pair of red eyes illuminated the surrounding rat fur. "I wasn't lying when I said I was a personal guard."

"Is tormenting people part of your job description?" Nissyen asked, clutching onto the railing as he moved around and slowly walked towards a distant, far away light. The red eyes, always focused on him, shot ahead of him.

"You must trust no one," she said, stopping to let Nissyen go ahead of her. "That's what I've always been taught. I'll even question my wife at times."

Feeling more confident in his awareness, Nissyen's steps widened and grew more frequent. "And who is this lucky lady? Another rat like yourself?"

The spy kept ahead of him, much to his intense frustration - he was so focused on his own steps that he almost convinced himself she wasn't moving at all. "I've had to deal with worse people," the spy mused. "You won't break me by your racism. I still haven't given you my other identities, told you my wife's name, nor given you anything to use against me. I can even tell you that Seres respects me enough that you'll never go after me."

"Can I at least have the honor of a name?" Nissyen felt a drop of water land on his head, and was suddenly fighting off the overwhelming urge to look up.

"Veta," the spy said after a long pause. "With your ego, I doubt you'll remember it. I've only told you it a few times before."

Nissyen scrunched up his face. "I've only seen with your Seres, and he never addresses you by your name. Besides, I had to use your codename when you sent that letter asking what to do with the messengers. How am I supposed to know this is your true name?"

"Ah, you're not as stupid as I believed," Veta replied. "Since I imagine you have no more requests, I'll be on my way. My wife misses me, and I'll have to take care of the last message. Never forget that my threat still stands, little coward."

Tense silence. He looked around, having a short time ago passed the first light and being coated faintly by its brightness. As expected, she was gone. But his plan had gone mostly as he'd hoped, so he walked along more happily as he escaped that dreaded tunnel.

******


The border station, Terasu thought, didn't live up to its reputation.

Positioned on both sides of the river, the small stone forts protruded from the earth like mounds, their insides marked by the presence of a measly gathering of soldiers and weapons. Their archers aimed their weapons at the caravan from the small holes set towards the top of the mound. Terasu had spent enough years of fighting crackpots for the Doves, and so easily identified those narrow slits and the arrow poking out at the edge of them. It helped that she was standing right below them.

"Now we can get into the action," she said blissfully, leaning on one side against the wall as she looked sweetly up to Jonathan, who crossed his hands and focused his gaze away from her.

"Alarick said-" Jonathan began, but Terasu laughed off his comment, annoyed by his lack of focus on her.

"As if you ever listen to what that old fart says." She replied, poking him in the arm and laughing uneasily. "We haven't been on an adventure in a long time."

Jonathan shrugged. "Point."

Terasu didn't mind his silence - it was part of the package. His apathy frustrated her. Weren't they friends? Hadn't they both lost a piece of them in Rowland? "You've kept your promise, right?" she said in hostility, leaning towards him. "You haven't seen her, I know."

"That wasn't a promise," he said, turning around and keeping a weary expression on his face. "You just told me not to."

Flames reached their way up the tips of her fingers. "So you have?" she said, clasping her hands together and avoiding the temptation of slapping Jonathan in the face. "Well, promise me!"

"Don't be like this," Jonathan said in a sudden display of dismay, placing his hands on her shoulders. "She's good."

"Good enough to murder!" Terasu spat back, spreading her hands back and glaring at him. "Not even you can see it? She's done enough to murder Rowland and, and -" she spotted Yorew standing against the wall on the other side of the entrance to the fort - "bringing in creeps like him! Hey, old guy!"

Terasu hadn't bothered to use his name, though she'd heard it in her conversations with Alarick; all she cared about was how thoroughly impassive he was. In her eyes, Yorew was Jonathan, if the latter were older and didn't have any friends. Besides, Yorew was directly linked to Eremia, and that made Terasu hate him passionately.

She shouted the epithet a few more times before Yorew finally seemed to notice her, craning his head to look over Jonathan. "Hm?" he said.

"Like being her pet?" Terasu called, ignoring Jonathan trying to block her with his arm as she stepped around him. "Don't you have anything better to do?"


Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 4 (1,058 words): Day 20 of NaNo 2017! Nobody knows how to have a happy conversation and it will never stop being funny to me.

Spoiler! :
Still no response. He looked way, completely ignoring her.

"Hello?" she said again, voice now edged with fury. As she walked towards Yorew, she could see Jonathan silently moving towards her, trying to intercept her. A quick burst of flame on the ground halted him. Terasu knew that he was glaring at her in those widened, furious eyes he only saved for special occasions. The way that the stare burned into the back of her head almost made her stop, but she felt herself egged on by the chance of revenge.

"Who do you even think you are?" Terasu continued, staring up at Yorew's expressionless face. "Just that freak's to use as she wants?"

In the assembly of soldiers gathered some distance from the fort, standing about in neat rank-and-file, Terasu spotted, out of the corner of her eye, a pair of horns wading their way through the crowds of men. Terasu shoved at Yorew, still to no effect. "You're no fun," she said, spinning around to point at the horns. "Maybe I'll just ask him how stupid of a servant you are."

"Alarick wanted that the generals and generals-to-be talk to the bordermen," Yorew said, cut off by a ring of fire that flashed in front of his eyes.

Terasu, hands balled into fists and readying a battle stance, yelled at him, "As if I care!"

The flames that grew on her hands vanished in an instant as Jonathan grabbed her and yanked her away, allowing Ceinen to march up to Yorew and engage in a staring contest.

"Don't do this," Jonathan growled, turning Terasu to face him as they stood towards the edge of one of the walls. "You're not alright."

"Oh, really?" said Terasu as she smiled menacingly at him. "I'm not alright? Well now, I wonder why that is?" She started up the side of the mound, gripping the earth with her fingers and leaving black marks on the ground in her wake. "Maybe because my boyfriend's dead and you're all keeping the bitch who killed him?"

Jonathan watched her, clenching and unclenching his fists. "You know it isn't her."

As she neared the top of the mound, she became increasingly aware that the long ring of hills extending in either direction had the same distinctive holes that marked hers. She realized that, since there were no other hills beyond the ring, it should have been obvious that all of them were part of an elaborate series of forts. Anger was not a thing to expand vision, though. "Oh, I know? She was closest to that stupid kid, she was the first person to "fight" him when he went crazy, she couldn't be bothered to trust me."

"What do you remember?" Jonathan cupped his mouth and called up to her as she reached the top of the hill and stood assertively, hands on her hips as she spun in a circle to see all the landscape. "She got thrown through a wagon!"

"You weren't even there!" Terasu said as she span around, caught by the brief and sudden feeling of euphoria at not being able to clearly see anything. "For all we know, her little creature turned on her - as she deserved!"

She stopped and fell onto her knees, gripping the grass. The world continued to turn, disorienting her by its violent rocking. Beneath her, she could see Ceinen also failing to shove Yorew and demanding that the latter was needed back at the...hospital?

Her vision fixed itself on Jonathan when he spoke again. "This isn't coping. It's hurting you."

"I'm already hurting!" Terasu shot back, pulling herself down the face of the mound so that she neared the entrance. "And do you think you're any better? Alarick's making you into him, and you don't have the spine to say no."

He hesitated. "You're going to kill someone," he said at last, as Terasu reached the spot over the entrance and dangled her feet off the edge.

Terasu laughed, struggling not to cry. "I kill lots of people," she retorted. "So have you. They always had it coming."

Now she could hear the conversation between Yorew and Ceinen growing louder, as Ceinen asked for the whereabouts of a certain someone, his old argument having been apparently ineffective. She knew her target was right beneath. She wanted so hard to jump down and set the inside of the mound on fire. It would be so easy, so simple, so cathartic.

"Not this time," Jonathan said. "You know who she is. You want to kill her? It'll help your parents."

She silenced, face paling. "You don't mean that," she shouted, voice fading fast. "You don't -" In all of her contemplations, all of her schemes, and all of her hatred, she hadn't considered this.

Jonathan looked pained, eyes widening as he moved his hands behind his head. "I do," he said slowly, voice choking. "You're going to screw her over? Fine. I can't stop you. But you won't kill her; it won't help. He died because of himself, and you know that."

And, with that, he ran off, seeming more frightened than anything else. Terasu blinked, the color gradually returning to her face as she started to think again. She hardly noticed the sound of somebody running into her boots until a voice called up from below, "Who, by the Creator, is up there?!"

Pulling her head forward and looking down, Terasu saw the face of Alarick peering up at her, frowning more than usual. "Me," she said wearily. "Just waiting for the all clear."

Alarick relaxed, the tension on his shoulders wearing away. "It would be much easier if we could keep you two in the same room. She'll be out soon enough - the guards gave their approval, so we'll be off before the hour's done."

"What are you out here for, anyway?" asked Terasu, the inklings of an idea forming in the back of her head and sending her its enthusiasm. "Bored? Is that even possible with you?"

"Some must have had told Ceinen that she was here," Alarick said (Terasu was happy that he complied with her request to never mention the certain someone's name), "And they've been bickering about deities for the past half-hour. Katerina's betting the lead guard let us through just so he could stop listening to them."


Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 5 (1,070 words): Day 21 of NaNo 2017! Wielde probably spent his childhood being told "You're the Dragon King, you're going to do great things!" Being pushed aside and generally ignored means he's definitely got a snobbish temper. He's not a bad kid, he's just had his ego inflated and isn't quite sure how to handle the reality.

Spoiler! :
"And you're not taking sides?" Terasu said, leaning forward and smirking.

Alarick glared at her. "I'd rather not have both of them shouting at me," he retorted, grabbing Terasu's outstretched hands and lifting her down onto the ground.

He let go, and Terasu walked as far away from the entrance as she could. Even if the freak was too distracted to notice her, it was better not to take any chances. "She's making things so much more complicated, isn't she?" Terasu said, propping an elbow on the wall and resting her cheek against her hand.

Alarick pinched his nose and nodded. "As though keeping an eye on all of you wasn't hard enough," he half-mumbled. "At least she wants to be a general, unlike Jonathan. I'd rather that she give him her spirit."

"Do you want her to be a general?" Terasu raised an eyebrow. The question popped out of her mouth, beckoned by the implications of his statement. "She wouldn't want to work if she didn't feel motivated."

Loud voices began to draw towards the entrance from inside the mound, muffled by thick earthen walls. Waving Terasu away, Alarick clasped his hands together and stood as firm as a statue, looking inside firmly. "If it keeps her busy," he mumbled as Terasu pulled herself up on the mound and layed her head back against the grass, watching the sky and ears patiently scanning the conversation for any useful words. She couldn't stand to hear her enemy's voice; it inspired flames to appear on the crown of her head and project themselves in little flickering wisps that wafted upwards.

"That interpretation is utterly blasphemous! The Creator is omnipotent; he cannot possibly exist in any pantheon whose members are on an equal level to him."

"Y-yet, well, he's not all-powerful, you know, because no one m-man could create everything. And it's - it's stupid to think that only the humans g-get a god."

"One who exists before the universe did, and had enough time, can create one. Besides, he did create the other species and their leaders - those he did not pacify, of course, from the influence of The Corruption."

"But, but, if that were the case, he would s-still be building it! Universes t-take time, you know. And if that were so, why, why are the humans not as s-strong as the others? Why didn't he make h-his 'images,' like you call them, p-powerful?"

Through this endless flood of arguments, the familiar, weary tones of Madeleine reached Terasu's ears. "Give Katerina some candy or whatever it is she wants, Alarick. She won the bet. We'll be leaving the country now. Hopefully we can leave those two behind, because they will never shut up."

It had been the first time in years since Terasu had left the Confederacy's walls. Terasu smiled as she stood up, brushed the grass stains off of her clothes, and walked towards the river. She had a few strategies now; the freak was being a nuisance, and Alarick hadn't been entirely honest about why he tried to bring in a new general. As she checked to make sure that the conversationalists were far enough away for her to walk back to her soldiers without coming across either of them (a definite yes, as Ceinen's horns poked among the crowd in the distance), she looked at her frail reflection in the muddy river. The reflection was about as solid as she felt.

She wanted to make the water clearer.


******


The Dragon King slouched in the chair in his room, propping his legs on the table and peering out the narrow window onto the desolate city below.

He sighed and squinted his eyes. His imagination tried to pretend that there was an eager parade of loyal followers charging past, sounding trumpets and carrying the royal colors. Though the idea had worked when he was ten, it had virtually no effect now. There was still an abandoned street, there was still a man in tattered clothes sleeping beside an alleyway, and all of the flags were almost pale enough to be white.

Somebody knocked at his door. "Your Majesty," said who Wielde recognized as one of his bishops, "Seres would like you to see him."

Of course. It was always him heading toward Seres, never the other way around. A few years ago, he would have wondered who was running the country. By this time, he knew for certain it wasn't himself. Grumbling, Wielde pulled his legs back and stood up. "I will find him myself," he said, walking across the room and taking care not to trip over the robe that streamed behind him. He had to remind himself to stand up straight, so as to avoid the bishop's criticism. "He always stays by the throne room."

Sure enough, a short walk down the stairs of the tower where Wielde's room resided (the bishop had fled on Wielde's approach, since few dared get in the way of the King) led Wielde directly into the left side of the imposing throne hall. Seres reclined on a seat set towards one of the massive stained-glass windows to the right, scanning through a manuscript.

Standing at the bottom of the steps, Wielde waited for Seres to look up and notice him. Not a response. Wielde stepped across the hall, walking onto the blue carpet that extended up towards the elaborately-carved, massive wooden thrones. The black stone absorbed most all of the light, so that even the windows to the side cast a weak glow on their surroundings. Seres had propped a table where a candle still smoked faintly - he must have lit it when he had been touring the building's defenses, Wielde thought.

"Hello?" Wielde said at last, frustrated. He stamped his foot as Seres's eyes poked above the paper.

"Good afternoon," Seres replied gruffly, setting the paper on the table and placing his hands on his knees. "How have you been?"

Wielde scoffed. "As if you care. Just get to the point."

"Who do you want to give you the crown?" Seres said, standing up. "The King decides."

Baffled that he would have a decision in his own coronation (and not be shut out of the meeting halls where the bishops planned it), Wielde stammered. "Maybe my cousin?" he said at last, having scanned his thoughts for the people he knew and settling on the one he most liked.


Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 6 (1,087 words): Day 22 of NaNo 2017! I didn't intend to put her in the scene at first, but I really like the character, soooo (also basically Seres treats Wielde with pretty open contempt, and Wielde hates his personal lack of influence - it's fun to write that dynamic).

Spoiler! :
"Any reason for that?" Seres said, his expression suggesting that he already knew the answer.

Wielde blushed and raised his voice. "She is the best, friendliest soldier we have; it would show the people -"

Seres fell back in his chair. "We don't have any people," he said, sitting rigidly. "I've already been told that you take a great deal of interest in her."

At times like these, Wielde despised Seres's know-it-all attitude. It was justified, as the latter had numerous informants spread out among the city, and Wielde knew that even his slightest breath would reach Seres's ears eventually. However, it made sure that Seres came across as the superior man (as Wielde wanted to be). "N-nonsense!" Wielde said, raising his arms dramatically. "She merely shows her talents. Is that not something to admire?"

To Wielde's surprise, Seres smirked. Turning his head towards a corner of the hall, Seres said, "He is smitten. I hadn't thought Wyandanch's royalty kept in the family."

Wheeling around, Wielde watched as a lady in a black suit appeared from the darkened corner, striding confidently. He knew he had seen her before, usually whenever Seres received some report that was "confidential" enough for Wielde to be pushed out of the room, but he had never heard her speak a word. But there was a first time for everything.

"After that mess with our young King's grandfather, it makes sense," the lady said smoothly, voice slightly deep. She stepped past the fuming Wielde and stood behind Seres's seat, her arms stretching down the embroidered front.

Wielde scowled, stamping his foot. "Is that why you brought me down here?" he said in an attempt to sound restrained, instantly forcing his voice to a higher pitch. "To taunt me?"

While the lady withdrew from her spot, Seres stood up, clapping his hands momentarily. "You almost sounded regal there," he said, cupping his chin in his hand and nodding. "Your voice is still too light, I'm afraid. "Yet, you'll be happy to know we approve - she will coronate you."

"Seriously?" Wielde took a step back. He blinked and puckered his face to wipe away any joy that skipped on it. "I mean, it is good to see you finally honoring your King."

Seres's smile widened, an effect dimmed by how he spread his arms out. "Even better," he continued, "you can then coronate her."

He couldn't resist. Jaw dropping, Wielde struggled to find the words. "You want me to make her the queen? That could only mean -"

"You will marry her," Seres finished, walking towards Wielde. On stopping a couple feet away from Wielde, Seres pointed towards the ceiling. Wielde's eyes followed, capturing the sight of a mural that he had seen countless times in his meditation sessions with his bishops. A man holding a gleaming sword fended off a dragon attempting to encircle the shape of The Pillars. The spare hand of the man held a bag spilled out gold coins, granted towards a few men with dragon heads. Wielde knew the meaning; it symbolized Wyandanch's garnering the favor of the compliant dragons and crushing the rebellious ones.

Spreading his arms wide, Seres gestured towards the design. "In these times, we dearly need another general to lead this land. I'm growing old, and I have a wife and children to love. She will be a fitting choice for you, as she can accommodate for your personal failings - maybe you will be the ones to finally crush the heart of the Alliance!"

A coldness seeped from the back of Wielde's head as Seres spoke. "In other words," Wielde said as Seres finished speaking and looked down, the latter's eyes shining, "You believe that she can carry on your legacy. You want her to unite the Confederacy, and leave me sitting at home and trying to peddle the policies you think are too merciful."

Seres beamed. "How bright of you! The coronation will be in a month. I'll see to it that my family attends."

"Anyone else?" Wielde said, walking towards the thrones. "Or will it the quietest coronation in two thousand years?"

This had little effect on Seres's mood, as Wielde saw when he sat on the ground in front of the thrones and watched Seres's unconquerable smile. "My wife would love to see her distant cousin crowned, and I believe she and our children can arrive in time. Eurynome and Trevonn are still devoted to their search, but I imagine they could be coaxed to see a good show. We should have dignitaries soon enough -"

"Who?" moaned Wielde, burying his head in his hands. "The only countries that care for us are far away. How is it that you can pull all the joy out of my being crowned? It seems I will still be your puppet."

Now Seres sounded tense. "A month is enough time," he said, resisting the way the edges of his mouth tried to create a frown. "And your turning eighteen has never been a mystery. The date of your crowning has been kept a secret for years to avoid security problems, but I know that many of those who will attend have been here for quite some time. You are no puppet; you are a King."

Wielde had little interest in angering Seres by suggesting that the two were not mutually exclusive, so he looked around for something else to say. "If you already knew," he said, resting his head on the backs of his hands and pointing to the lady who half-hid in the darkness. "Why did you bring her?"

"Formality," the lady said before Seres could speak, stepping out of the shadows. "He also believes that I could serve as a spy."

"Why?" Wielde said, shoulders slumping. "And what is your name?"

The lady smiled. "I'm Veta, and I'm the personal guard to the Lord of the Rats. Seres hopes that giving me to you will keep the old Lord happy."

Wielde had little interest in the rat people; he knew they kept to themselves, lurked beneath the city, and always had a tenuous relationship with their human neighbors. The rats considered that their slavery under the dragons had been replaced by slavery under the humans. "So be it," he said. "Will the 'old Lord' be in attendance?"

Veta looked away. "He's ill. Hopefully for not much longer. I will come in his place."

"That could either mean that he lives or dies," Wielde said, eyes drooping ever further.

"Yes," Veta said, "possibly."


Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 7 (456 words): Day 23 of NaNo 2017! I write my antagonist trio like this - Kasimir smiles, Alsather sneers, Catharnach dramatizes. Let's go throw the rules around.

Spoiler! :
"And who will succeed him?" Wielde said, raising an eyebrow ever so slightly while still sounding laconic.

Veta shied away. Seeing this, Seres leaped into the conversation, stepping forward. "That is irrelevant," he said quickly. "The coronation is in a month, the marriage will be shortly before it, and you have much to prepare for."

"I suppose so." Wielde stood and turned around, observing the thrones. "I will be sitting in the King's seat. For the first time in eighteen years, it will not be empty anymore."

"Your father was a good man -" began Seres in a voice that sounded so nauseatingly fake to Wielde's ears (though he would later wonder if he imagined it, much as it fell in line with Seres's normal degree of contempt).

Wielde, in that moment, spun around. "He was a reckless blowhard who abandoned my mother and left her to fall into madness. In eighteen long years, Wyandanch has been picking up the pieces, and now the picture is almost complete. I would like to finish it myself."

For once, Seres was speechless, outstretched hand frozen. Wielde's cheeks burned, and he felt tears forming at the corners of his eyes as he sprinted towards the staircase. He made his way up the stairs - due to his inability to see anything beyond a hazy blur, he collided with them, and spent a few seconds pushing himself up - vanishing in a wave of blue.


******



"How can you be this mad!" said Alsather, flinging papers onto the table. "I had thought it would not spread from our dear little ally."

"It's called sacrifice," Kasimir said, grabbing the papers and pulling them away from the large map that adorned the center of the table. "I'm willing to lose quite a few pieces to have that boy in our control."

Alsather scoffed, raising his chin even higher. "As far as I know, he controls himself. Without Karikoff, we have even fewer ways to prevent The Mad King from working with the boy."

Sitting beside Kasimir, Drusus tapped a finger on the wooden table to get attention. As all eyes turned on him, he said simply, "Hence the rest of the plan."

"You, the supposed 'genius' who bested his father and cousin," Alsather said, pointing to Kasimir, "would like to use few soldiers to seize too many targets while relying on no vantage points?"

Kasimir stuck his index finger on a point on the map. "This one," he said slowly, emphasizing each word, "is the perfect opportunity to catch them off guard."

Leaning over to spot the point, Alsather laughed bitterly. "Do you honestly think this will convince me?" He shook his head. "You will not have my support, I must say."


Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 8 (1,125 words): Day 24 of NaNo 2017! A bit longer than usual, but, uh, yeah, I had to put this in. <.<

Spoiler! :
"Do you know how long we've planned this?" Kasimir said, slamming a fist on the table. He stood up, knocking his chair onto the ground. "Will you just abandon this because you have the slightest fear it might fail?"

Smiling, Alsather looked beatific. "Yes," he said, expression instantly turning malevolent. This is hardly a weak fear. You should know how little of a coward I am."

"Your country surrendered to mine!" spat back Kasimir, his fingers shooting down and grabbing the edges of the table. Drusus gripped one arm and tried to pull it back, gesturing for Torion (who stood by the opening) to do the same to the other. "You stupid bastard, I made you kneel!"

Alsather's grin faded. "Good point, though it means little. Do you think you can call upon your army when you are dealing in mine?" He pointed two fingers towards a corner of the tent. The lady with the cataract eyes, carrying a knife in each hand, stepped out graciously.

It was here that Drusus realized that only Kasimir's self-control kept him from breaking free, leaping across the table, and strangling Alsather. As a royal, Kasimir had been trained to lift boulders and take shots of magic to the chest; he could make quick work of Drusus and Torion, strong as the both of them were. That healers had the ability to augument one's body always impressed Drusus, but now it terrified him.

"Now now," said the blonde-haired lady, leaning against a cabinet. "Who wants a diplomatic incident?"

"Precisely," Alsather said while scowling at the blonde-haired lady. "Your lout of a king appears to."

Kasimir's grip on the table grew tighter, and Drusus swore he could hear the snapping of wood. "Why don't I bring down my army on your head?!" he said.

That proud voice of Alsather's intensified. "Tsk tsk," he began with the attitude of someone speaking to a child. "Because it would kill too many people, because that boy would find us both a threat, and because we would never be able to storm Wyandanch."

Drusus internally nodded; all were rational explanations. Annoyingly, Alsather wasn't stupid.

The lady with the cataract eyes stood beside Alsather. Drusus could see her eyes scan over everyone, each face greeted by the twirl of a dagger. In response to this, the blonde-haired lady tried to walk towards Alsather's side of the table, but was intercepted by a few soldiers, spears withheld.

"Is that all?" Kasimir shouted, hair bristling. "Are you going to walk away and leave that madman in charge?"

Soldiers began to surround the small party. The blonde-haired lady, forced back, stood in front of Kasimir. Straining to look over her shoulder, Drusus spotted her sweet smile, noticing how it matched Alsather's pleased expression. Of course, her being happy was often a front to her being furious. That Alsather looked as devious as he did - lowered head, shaded face, crooked grin - furthered Drusus's suspicions.

"I must," Alsather said. "You should not believe I like it - he wants my head as well. It does amuse me to see you reduced, but I had no high hopes in this plan from the start." He waved Kasimir's group away. "Take them to the edge of camp," he said.

In those few seconds, nobody moved. Kasimir clenched his fists, unclenched them, bowed his head, and nodded. He turned around, shoving Torion and Drusus aside, and marched off without a single word. As the soldiers crowded closer, the blonde-haired lady followed, saying what sounded like curses under her breath. The rest of Kasimir's associates took one last look at Alsather - now talking to the cataracts lady and shooting them annoyed glares - and ran off after him, pursued by the slow steps of the soldiers.

"Plan B?" Drusus said as he caught up to Kasimir, their dusk shadows covering tents and passerby.

If Kasimir responded, Drusus didn't see it. Hunched, steps firm, Kasimir looked like a strange creature, massive arms ready to rip into anything that should come in his way. The King stormed on ahead, the soldiers guarding the path parting over fear of colliding with him.

Slowing down, Drusus allowed Torion to catch up. The wolf had a fire in his eyes that grew brighter as they spotted each observing soldier. "Who does he think he is?" Torion said at last, pinpointing the thought that Drusus could read on his face. "That snake isn't even king!"

"I have always been a duchess," the blonde-haired lady replied before Drusus could open his mouth, prancing past them. "But force kept me alive."

"This isn't your conversation!" Torion shouted after her as she skipped besides Kasimir.

Drusus furrowed his eyebrows. "She is right," he said. "And he effectively is king."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Torion replied, "So what? He's still weaker, no matter what you want to call him."

"That's what Plan B is for," Drusus said, slipping an arm through Torion's. "to make sure of it."

Torion tried to come up with a response, but only managed to splutter and pull his arms back, holding Drusus's hand. They were silent for some time, scanning the last rays of the sun as they fell through the sharp spires that were the Pillars. The black shapes seemed to swallow up the light, leaving no trace that they were ever brighter than tar. In those plodding minutes spent marching down a hill, Drusus couldn't help but feel like it was a symbol. Perhaps it stood for Wyandanch, now only a state of frauds, or the darkness that boy was said to conjure. He hoped it didn't stand for his relationship.

"Do you think Kasimir'll try to get another meeting?" Torion said at last, as the group reached the end of the wave of purple and black flags and halted. Blue and silver ones extended into the distance a short ways from where they stood.

Drusus spotted Kasimir speaking quietly to a few soldiers of Walenty and Claec, gesticulating something. They nodded and separated, letting the King pass. "With Alsather?" Drusus said, as he and Torion started walking again. "Unlikely - that man has made clear his decision is final. He also might be too bitter to gather his generals together until tomorrow."

"That's good," Torion said faintly, looking away.

A thought wormed its way into Drusus's head. "Any reason why you'd ask?" he said as innocently as he could, leaning against Torion and feeling the wolf's thick fur against the side of his head.

"I just - I just wanted to know. That's all, yeah," Torion said quickly, though taking care not to brush Drusus off.

Before Torion could say anything else, Drusus reached over and kissed him on the cheek.


Chapter 21: Lord of the Rats, Part 9 (204 words): Day 25 of NaNo 2017! >.> <.<

Spoiler! :
Torion froze; were he not in his half-wolf form, he would likely be blushing. "W-w-well," he said, the rest lost in an indecipherable mess.

Mind lost in a cloud, Drusus barely noticed the onlookers turn away. He didn't care; there was only one person in the world he cared about. Torion, in the way that he stood still and couldn't muster the strength to lift a finger, looked so innocent and sweet. "That meeting shouldn't be a loss for everyone," Drusus said.

In the few seconds that followed, Torion gradually moved. He seemed to decide that there wasn't much use in saying anything, so he kissed Drusus in response. "How's that for a first kiss?" Torion said after their lips parted, now as hyperactive as a kid.

Drusus laughed and held onto Torion's arms. "You need to brush your teeth sometime," he said at last, pushing through the rush of euphoria that had buried him.

"Oh, I, uh," Torion began, trying to let go out of embarrassment.

Drusus let go of one of Torion's arms to put a finger up to Torion's maw. "There's no harm done," he said. "It was wonderful." They, breathless and spirits lifted, embraced before the darkness of the Pillars.


Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 1 (883 words): Day 25 of NaNo 2017! Time for an awesome subplot!

Spoiler! :
If the landscape ever changed, it shifted slowly. Yet Eremia, ever since she left the borders of the Confederacy for the first time in her life, never felt any farther from home. The Doves never strayed away from the gaze of the rolling hills - the hills blocked the group's vision, splitting the landscape into two pieces - but Eremia couldn't imagine that The Confederacy she knew lay on the other side. Hence, she kept her gaze on the opposite side, watching the dry plains with an interest the dulled little over the hours and days. It was quiet; it was almost picturesque; it was completely foreign.

In the mid-morning hours of one particularly sunny, hot day, however, she awoke to find Katerina kneeling patiently beside her, looking down on her in her sunny smile. This was normal, as creepy as Eremia found it; Katerina didn't much understand the concept of personal space. It was the way that Katerina's eyes darted around and her smile seemed forced that caught Eremia's attention the most.

"Jonathan wants to see you?" Katerina said, noticing that Eremia was finally awake.

Eremia propped herself on her arms and blinked at the light rushing in from outside. "Why?" she said, thoughts dulled by the haze that ate at her senses.

"We might be in trouble?" Eremia wasn't sure what made her bolt upright - that Katerina drew out the "might," that Katerina laughed uneasily, or the thought of Jonathan wanting to see her.

Regardless, Eremia pushed herself forward, carrying her blanket with her as she scooted along the wagon floor. True to Katerina's word, Jonathan stood just outside of the wagon. Bow strapped to his back, the sun making the drops of sweat on his arms glisten, Jonathan had a surprisingly happy expression. Specks of dust spilled off his hair as he waved to Eremia. "Doing well?"

"Yeah," Eremia said, trying to force some energy into her laconic voice. "Is something wrong?" She noticed that he looked paler than usual.

Jonathan shook his head, catching Eremia's stare. "Only the training," he said. "I didn't sleep. I would've, but Alarick wants a team. There's a village under attack."

In the back of her head, Eremia remembered that Alarick had mentioned something about raiders harassing the towns in one of his previous meetings. "I suppose you wanted to let me know?" she said, slightly confused. Her stomach grumbled and her head faintly ached (it had gradually adjusted to the rough floor of the wagon), but both weakened in each moment she watched Jonathan smile.

"I'd like you to come," he replied, holding out a hand. "You are being trained."

Eremia instinctively reached over to grab the hand, but Katerina pulled at her sleeve. "What?" hissed Eremia.

Craning her head, Eremia saw Katerina lean over and start to whisper, though the latter started shaking. "It's dangerous, and I don't want you to get hurt."

"Will you be with me?" Eremia said, eyebrow raised. Katerina had, for the most, stayed as Eremia's protector - leading Eremia around, introducing her to people, conjuring magic whenever something bumped in the night (though Katerina pretended she wasn't doing anything). By all accounts, Katerina was a competent mage, capable of alternating between icicles that were as sharp as arrows and bolts that scorched the ground (of course, since talent in one class of magic diminished skills in either, she wasn't especially strong in either). Besides, Eremia's training had honed her accuracy and toned her muscles. Why was there any reason to be afraid?

Katerina shook her head swiftly. "They want me to scope the number of raiders."

"In that case, with your skills, I should be fine," Eremia said, placing her hand on Katerina's paw and nodding affirmatively.

As Katerina's teeth clattered, Eremia felt like her words did not have much effect. Still, Katerina clutched Eremia's hand. "Okay, I won't stop you," she managed to say, words rattled. "But there's something else. You need to watch out for someone."

"Who?" Eremia said. She turned her head back to see Jonathan's hand retracted. Jonathan, arms crossed, stood patiently.

While Katerina drew in a breath, a horn sounded over the campsite. The surroundings exploded into a fury of activity, soldiers marching from their tents in full gear and walking in the direction opposite the hills. Jonathan shrugged and reached out a hand again, doing so in more urgency.

"You'll know it when you see it," said Katerina eventually, breaching the impatience that swelled up in Eremia.

Eremia accepted Jonathan's hand, pushing herself off the back of the wagon and stepping neatly on the ground. She turned around to help Katerina step down, holding both of the latter's hands. On landing, Katerina mouthed a few goodbyes and ran off, waving towards a few soldiers in the distance. Eremia only hoped that Katerina was alright, or would be; she felt confident enough in herself.

"I'll take you to my tent," Jonathan said as they started walking in the opposite direction. "There should be food."

Stomach grumbling, Eremia nodded. She suspected she might lose the food, so to speak, in a fight, but she wanted to be totally alert and ready during the combat itself. It was also a chance to spend some time with Jonathan, which she happily admitted to herself.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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Mon Nov 27, 2017 12:34 am
TheSilverFox says...



Because seven

LMS Writing Part 8


nine.

(wow I think this is where the last of my LMS work will go. And then I can finally stop spending my time making new posts every week).

Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 2 (1,031 words): Day 26 of NaNo 2017! Hahaha almost lost this one. My heart's still a bit bitter about that. <.<

Spoiler! :
Horns blared off in the distance - they sounded fainter, but no less urgent. Keeping up with Jonathan proved tiring for Eremia, who had to deal with his long and frequent strides. "How has your training been?" Eremia finally asked, though she knew the answer. She simply couldn't come up with anything else to say.

"Worse than usual," said Jonathan, cheery tone blunted. "He wants to train me fast."

"You would think he would have something better to do," Eremia replied, smelling the musky odor of the countless fires in the camps being stamped out of existence (the burning material being a replacement of wood she'd rather not specify). "Katerina said he sleeps at odd intervals in the day."

Jonathan shrugged before gesturing for the soldiers walking across the path to get out of his way. "That's normal for him. Been so for most of his life."

"Where did he get his own training from?" Eremia said, ducking between two people carrying a saddle.

Another shrug. "He doesn't want to tell me. Just that it's from Elchanan."

"The country of lions?" Eremia shivered. She'd always heard about the nation in the whispers in conversations around the castle. Elchanan periodically harassed the north of Exedor, brining their large armies and bravado. Otherwise, she knew little about them, except the country ran itself strictly, and devoted the majority of its resources in building a military.

"I guess," Jonathan said. A pause. "Terasu's leaving you alone, right?"

Eremia shook her head, respondingly slowly. "No? Why would she?"

"It's nothing," said Jonathan quickly.

She wanted to ask further questions, but she couldn't. By now, the soldiers had massed into crowds. At regular intervals, men and women would break off from the gatherings and ask Jonathan questions as they walked, such as about the enemy forces, how many people he was planning to bring, and the strategy. He answered simply and quietly, citing estimates and drawing points in the air. Eremia felt out of her element; he knew everyone, and he blended right into the choas. She was out of a place, an anomaly that people gave odd glances and ignored.

However, despite the interruptions, it wasn't long before the two arrived at the equivalent of an open-air mess hall. It was a few tables stretched out on the earth and surrounded by empty benches, the soldiers having mostly abandoned it in their haste to get ready. From the center of the space, a black-haired woman weaved around the tables and waved towards Jonathan.

"Eremia," said Jonathan, stepping aside and gesturing to the woman, "this is Lyness, my second-in-command."

"A pleasure," Eremia said sweetly, shaking hands with Lyness, who had a firm grip.

Lyness let go first, turning to Jonathan. "Is this your girlfriend?" she said innocently, winking a few times.

Jonathan blushed. "Yes, we're close. Do you have to mention it now?"

Lyness's smile hardened into a frown. Eremia was surprised at the swiftness of the transformation. "If you bring her, you'll have to keep her safe and do your job."

Annoyance burrowed into Eremia's heart. "I can take care of myself," she said, glaring at Lyness.

"You?" Lyness retorted, facing Eremia. Jonathan pushed himself between the two, stretching out his hands to keep each of the two back. "You're just a girl."

"When The Doves found you, so were you," Jonathan said swiftly. He craned his head to look into Lyness's eyes, and Eremia imagined his stare hardening. "She can fight. I'm too tired - I need help."

"Fine," Lyness said at last, her hard gaze softening as she turned away. "But I won't excuse your sorry ass if you're too busy to be at the front lines with me." She walked off.

Jonathan took a deep breath as Lyness exited. He looked around the table, finding a piece of meat and bread laying at one corner. Only after Jonathan stretched himself to pick up the food and hand it to Eremia did the latter speak. "Does everyone hate me?" she said.

Sighing, Jonathan sat down on one of the benches and covered one of his eyes with a hand. "It's her job to order everything; she wants to do it."

Eremia looked down at the food, wondering why it had been neglected. The prospect soured them in her mind, hungry as she was. She knew that she had to eat them, since there likely was little else - still, she decided to distract herself and Jonathan, so she didn't have to think about it. "Given her name, I suppose she is a lioness?"

"Yes," Jonathan said. "Alarick came up with the name himself."

"Did she not have one?" Eremia said, taking a bite of the meat. It was gamey and stringy, but otherwise fine.

Jonathan massaged his right temple while staring at the wood. "He found her in a bush. Don't know where, don't know when. She was a baby. She's been around longer than most the rest."

"And she happens to be your second-in-command?" Eremia said, raising an eyebrow as she ate the bread (also fine).

"I work better with others," he replied. "She doesn't like me much."

Jonathan stood and began to walk again, still pushing on his temple. Running briefly to catch up, Eremia quickly finished off the meat and teared into the bread. It was undignified for her to eat so messily, but she reasoned that she didn't have the time to eat any other way. "Is that why I have not heard of her before?" Eremia said between bites.

"Yes," Jonathan said, stopping in front of group of horses. Numerous riders were already saddled and prepared, watching him patiently as he stood there. "I have enough problems right now."

Eremia swallowed the rest of the bread. Now, as she saw Jonathan clamber onto his brown horse, she had a feeling that she guessed Katerina had earlier. "Will I?" she said, gesturing to the horse. Her teeth started to clatter, and her heartrate tripled. The enormity of what she had become a part of finally weighed on her.

Pointing to the back of the saddle, Jonathan nodded. "Get on," he said calmly, noticing Eremia's growing panic. "We’ll be fine.”


Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 3 (1,017 words): Day 27 of NaNo 2017! Let's shoot things!

Spoiler! :
The mass of faces turned their eyes on Eremia. Her skin felt clammy, her breaths ragged. A loud voice in her head demanded that she walk away - this was war, and she, despite her knowledge, had no place in it. Another voice piped up and pointed out that it could both literally and metaphorically keep her closer to Jonathan. Besides, Eremia knew that she and Jonathan were both competent, and her confidence used this to egg her on. So, after a minute spent looking as calm and casual as possible, eyeing each person and their horse while nodding in approval, Eremia went to Jonathan's horse.

Jonathan smiled, lifting her up with his hand. She took her assigned place, whereupon she tried to keep her balance against the saddle's back edge. When Jonathan pulled on the reins and the horse trotted forward, Eremia found keeping herself stable was futile. Blushing, she wrapped her arms around Jonathan's chest, (though she was frustrated by how dusty he perpetually was). If Jonathan noticed the gesture, he didn't respond.

In any case, Jonathan urged his horse on, its pace increasing to a gallop as it was followed, and eventually overtaken, by the mass of other riders. Jonathan rode at a steady pace, disregarding the raised spears and eager shouts of his own soldiers. She wondered if it was for her own sake, or if it was normal for him. The cloud of dust obscured Eremia's vision, but a few harrowing glances (as the effort threatened to pull her off, which was not an experience she wanted to go through again) behind her suggested that they were hurtling away from the camp. For the most part, she stared to the side to avoid being battered by the wind and dust, watching the landscape roll by unsteadily.

She hoped, by the Creator, that Katerina and the others would be alright.

"You did it!" Jonathan shouted through the wind that buffeted him, pointing towards a point in the sky. Eremia squinted at it until she could see the figures of two birds; one was soaring far above the ground, and the other appeared to be hovering closer to it. They dodged the scattered arrows that flew towards them, seeming graceful. As the dust lashed at Eremia's eyes, the wind wiping away her tears, her eyes shot down to what she recognized as the target.

Indeed, it was a tiny village, not unlike the one where she'd found Iasquam. Most of the raiders were racing about the houses, having breached the small earthen wall surrounding the town. Brandishing what appeared to be torches, they were hardly distinguishable in their own carnage. Smoke billowed from houses, and Eremia could see that a few of the shacks in the countryside had been reduced to smoldering heaps.

Jonathan snapped the reins, pulling his head down as the horse complied and went even faster. Tightening her grip, Eremia tried to clear out her head. She needed all the concentration she could muster to conjure spells, and it wouldn't work if her conscience was buried by the sounds of war. "Get ready!" Jonathan shouted as the gap between them and the raiders closed. Eremia was tempted to roll her eyes, but the sight of arrows shooting overhead stifled the idea.

Considering the second confrontation of Ailean and the fight against the creature, Eremia guessed this was her third battle. They hadn't stopped feeling any less confusing, nerve-wracking, or chaotic. Some of The Doves' cavalrymen broke from the ground, chasing down the raiders circling the village outside of the wall. Others slipped through a collapsed portion of the wall, horses jumping and coming down on the heads of hapless raider. Raising an open palm towards the cloth-covered, axe-wielding barbarian that appeared at the side of the entrance, Eremia slammed a gust of wind into their face.

It worked like a charm - the raider flew back, though Eremia nearly yanked Jonathan away from his reins by the force. Nevertheless, he threw himself forward, lowering himself as the horse leaped over the pile of debris and landed in the midst of the fighting.

The sounds were even worse than they had been before, if only because they were mixed with the screaming of the dying, townsfolk or otherwise. Eremia couldn't see more than a few feet in front of her at best. Nevertheless, she could admire the way that Jonathan, despite his fast speed, weaved among the cavalry from both sides. She knew that summoning any further gusts of wind would destabilize him too much, and she had absolutely no desire to fall here.

She realized Jonathan was traveling in a circle; the cobblestone on the ground led her to believe that this had to be the village center. No other part of the village would have so much attention paid to it; admittedly, it was odd that there would even be stone in such a place. Eremia briefly wondered if this used to be an outpost, though she threw that thought aside as she captured an enthralling sight.

A girl, about as old as Eremia, appeared out of the dust. Dressed in a tan shirt and shorts, a green and red bandana covered part of her mass of brown hair. An imposing, blood-covered, and rusted scythe cut its way into an offending raider, who leaped back while clutching their stomach. The girl had an expression of extreme concentration, betraying no nervousness. When the raider leaped for her once again, sword in hand, she jammed the scythe into his face. The scene vanished into the dust before Eremia could see the results.

Naturally, Jonathan chose this moment to stand up. Eremia's arms slipped down to his legs as her grip tightened. She was too panicked to blush - now it would be all that easier for the two of them to be sent flying off. Still, he yanked out his bow from where it was slung along his back, removed an arrow in the same way, and fired at a figure in the dust. That figure slumped over, vanishing in the carnage.


Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 4 (1,055 words): Day 28 of NaNo 2017! EEEEEEEEE the trio is together at last! I've been waiting so long for this. :D

Spoiler! :
Jonathan fired a few arrows in quick succession. Eremia couldn't help but wonder, as she saw his targets fall, if he could tell friend from foe in this chaos. She hoped so, because the other possibility disturbed her stomach almost as much as the smell of blood.

Another figure leaped out from the dust. She realized, in horror, that it was the girl with the scythe. The blade cut an arc through the air, cutting away Eremia's breath. The horse dodged at the last second; it made no apparent sound as the scythe slashed the air by its side. Eremia, though impressed the horse didn't even need a command, blanched when she looked up to see Jonathan instinctively prepare another arrow and fire into the cloud. She hadn't had the time to react, nor could she have even said a word.

She tried, but any words stuck in her throat. Eremia just had to hope the girl with the scythe hadn't been hit.

Now Jonathan had only three arrows (as Eremia guessed). The next one embedded itself in the leg of a passing warrior. His stoic expression contrasted with the pain and terrified faces appearing in all directions, granting him an almost inhuman energy. It made Eremia hold onto him tighter. She knew, based on the girl with the scythe, that even the villagers were attacking her allies. Perhaps the villagers assumed that the Doves were another group of the raiders? In any case, she wanted to believe that the Doves didn't assume the same of the villagers. There would be no point in saving the village if innocent lives had to die under friendly fire.

Eremia's heart stopped. Across the square, she could see the unmistakable shape of Katerina, firing shards of ice into the air. The latter didn't notice the burly man raise his axe and charge towards her. Eremia screamed for Katerina's attention, but Katerina was too far away to see, much less hear, her shouts. An idea popped into Eremia's head. She tugged at Jonathan's leg; as Jonathan looked down, face still grim, she pointed in the direction where Katerina had last been.

Reaching down to grab the reins of the horse, Jonathan pulled. The horse whinned in frustration, but ultimately stopped. Eremia was almost bucked off by the force of the horse stopping from its gallop; her hair flew around wildly, temporarily obscuring her vision. Even Jonathan almost toppled over, though he held firmly onto the reins to avoid this. Still, without any other thought, Eremia leaped off from the horse, sprinting across the square. One goal crossed her mind - find Katerina and keep her alive.

The only sound she could hear was her heartbeat. An attacker - villager or raider, Eremia couldn't tell, they were moving too fast - thrust their pitchfork at her. Definitely a villager. She ducked, thrusting a leg to the side to catch them in the shin. It appeared to work, as she had to dodge a pitchfork that clattered onto the ground. She got up and ran again.

And then there was Katerina. Eremia halted as she captured the scene. Katerina still fired into the air, body shaking uncontrollably. The shards of ice leaped wildly, though it appeared she was attempting to target something in the air. Scanning the scene for the would-be attacker, Eremia caught him fighting against the girl with the scythe. The girl had an arrow stuck to her shoulder, but used her other arm to jab at her foe. Understandably, she looked to be in intense pain.

Eremia dashed towards Katerina. At this point, Katerina decided to notice her surroundings, doing so poorly enough to shoot right at Eremia. The latter dodged to the side. As the girl caught the man's chin by the tip of her scythe and kicked him in the stomach, Eremia ran to and embraced Katerina.

"You're alive!" Katerina shouted, stammering as she hugged Eremia with one arm and continued to fire ice with the other.

Letting go, Eremia summoned balls of wind in each hand. "You had doubts?"

The girl holding the scythe whirled around as Eremia slammed a gust into the stomach of the burly man. Raising her weapon menacingly, the girl shouted something incoherent. Before Eremia could respond, Katerina moved past her and held a palm out. "Why wouldn't I be?" Katerina shouted. The confidence seeped into her voice and posture in full force.

The girl seemed to accept the gesture. She moved closer towards them, and Eremia could now see the blood seeping from the wound. Impulsively reaching for the arrow shaft, Eremia found herself at the receiving end of a fierce glare. "You the good guys?" the girl shouted in a slightly scratchy accent, pointing her scythe to the other two.

"Trying to be!" Katerina firmly pointed up to the sky and lobbed a huge piece of ice into the air. Eremia watched as it ran into one of the specks waving about above. The speck plummeted - a few second's observation told her that the black-feathered figure couldn't have been anyone she knew. Emboldened, she threw up a blast of air. It collided with the speck, forcing back its wings and breaking its attempts at a graceful fall. The speck vanished among the dust.

The sounds of war began to fade. Groans and whimpers accompanied the cries of fleeing horses. The cacophony was grating to Eremia's ears, but at least it started to ease the knot in her stomach. In the meantime, the trio formed a triangle, backs to each other as they tried to find enemies in the dust. Three pairs of eyes scanned their surroundings patiently, but nothing approached. Eremia breathed a sigh of relief, cut off by the sound of shouting behind her.

She spun around in time to catch Katerina jump in between the girl with the scythe and Jonathan, who yanked back on his horse again. He didn't appear to have any arrows in his quiver, and his face looked tired and haggard. The girl with the scythe glanced at her limp, useless arm, dangling at her side. She screamed and threw herself towards Jonathan, blade raised. It took the effort of Katerina colliding into her and pushing her back to give Jonathan the chance to ride away, vanishing in a plume of dust.


Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 4 (1,065 words): Day 29 of NaNo 2017! The novel's now at 99,950 words. Might as well sweep two great accomplishments in one day (tomorrow), right? :P

Spoiler! :
"He was here to assist us!" Eremia shouted as she saw Jonathan ride off. She ran over to where Katerina blocked Marisol with outstretched palms.

"He fucking shot me in the arm!" Marisol replied after turning around to face Eremia, throwing her scythe on the ground and touching her shoulder. Both Marisol and Eremia winced.

Katerina pointed past Marisol's shoulder. "They can fix that," Katerina said matter-of-factly. Marisol turned around, as did Eremia.

The dust had cleared. The square was littered with piles of dead bodies, the groans of the wounded, and pieces of the razed buildings. Soldiers poured from the openings in the walls, casting aside their weapons in front of the villagers, who clustered together in their fearful little mass. The soldiers parted, so that a procession of healers marched into the square. Katerina and Eremia grabbed Marisol by each arm and pushed her forward as the healers did their work, casting bright beams of white and green light into the survivors.

Marisol resisted, but weakly. Eremia couldn't help but notice Marisol's face was pale. Whatever bloodlust had propelled her this far was burning away, leaving behind someone who had still been shot in the arm. Marisol's legs wobbled, and she began to slump. The other two held her up, pulling her over the bodies and heading towards the familiar figure of Madeleine.

"Oh, by the Creator, you're still alive!" Madeleine said on looking up from the body of one of the raiders. She dashed over, nearly tripping a few times.

"Yep!" said Katerina, smile instantly destroyed as she turned to look at Marisol.

Madeleine's eyes followed. Something clicked in her brain, as she instinctively reached for the arrow in Marisol and pulled it out. Blood spurted from the open wound, though Madeleine dodged in time. Marisol screamed, flaling wildly as Madeleine leaped back and sent forth a stream of light from her hands. Eremia held her head back while she watched Marisol's wound, embraced in light, slowly begin to slow. The sinews reconstructed themselves, layers of blood vessels interspersed among the muscles, and soon were covered by skin.

Marisol stopped struggling, peering down at her injury in surprise. No one could response before, from the opposite end of the village, came the sound of metal boots.

Eremia let Marisol free. The former watched as Alarick strode into the battleground. "We do not mean you any harm!" he said as he came to the assembled villagers, now covering by the largest-looking building. Its interior had been burned out, but terrified faces poked from the windows.

The injury closed. Madeleine walked away as Marisol set herself gently on the ground, still looking at her shoulder as though she were expecting the wound to come back. "Guess I can trust you," she mumbled in fascination.

Eremia looked down on Marisol. Katerina squatted and placed a hand on Marisol's once-injured shoulder. "You didn't?"

Scowling, Marisol shoved aside the hand. "You can't trust outsiders here," she said, stretching out her legs while avoiding any limbs or blood. Eremia could see Marisol's eyes flicker to the building. "Not since they abandoned us?"

While Eremia's eyes scanned the husk of a building, Katerina kept up the conversation. "From whom?"

"Kings," Marisol said, venom in her voice. "Blast all of them."

Alarick now talked to a pair of people - a man and a woman - at the building's entrance. Each of them shot glances towards Marisol at random intervals. Whatever they were talking about, it was enough for them to nod in agreement. Eremia didn't feel like jumping into the conversation, mostly because she didn't want to know how Marisol would respond to finding out Eremia was a princess.

"Which ones?" Katerina's voice was strained, but she made her best effort to sound as friendly as possible.

Marisol sighed. "Can't remember the name. All I know is they left us, and that means I've had to keep an eye on the town."

Katerina sounded interested. "Have you ever wanted to go anywhere else?"

Over by the building, Alarick said a few words and then waved a goodbye. He made a beeline for the trio just as Marisol commented, "Yeah, I wouldn't mind seeing the world."

"Well then, I believe you're in luck," Alarick's voice boomed. Marisol and Katerina's eyes shot towards him as Eremia saw Alarick looking at her. His eye twitched, but he didn't say anything about why. Eremia could guess on her own.

Marisol's eyes narrowed to slits. "Oh?"

Alarick stopped, bent down, and held out a hand. "I've talked with your parents, and it seems you could be a fine member of our group."

Standing up, Marisol balled her hands into fists. "Of course they would," she said. "Right when I want to stay and keep them alive."

That Alarick appeared completely unbothered by this led Eremia to wonder how many invitations he'd make just like this one. Did they often fail? Naturally, she felt that his not bothering to ask Marisol herself was contemptuous. Marisol wasn't in any position of danger, nor did she appear to particularly need safety. Of course, at that moment, those didn't seem like big concerns of Marisol's.

"I promised that, after we reach our goal, we would send some soldiers from Exedor to this place. On its' lady's approval, of course." Alarick bowed briefly to Eremia, who raised an eyebrow. He glared at her. She nodded.

"What does he mean by that?" Marisol said, wheeling around to face Eremia. Marisol's expression looked like she'd been chewing on a lemon for an hour.

"Is it not important," Eremia said calmly, stepping backwards. She nearly fell over one of the bodies, but Katerina quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her back up.

Marisol stamped a foot and picked up her scythe. "I'm not going anywhere," said she, waving her scythe at Alarick. "Nobody else in this town knows how to fight, and I will not let my parents die because of how stupid they were in letting me go."

"How often do you get attacked?" Alarick replied, still unfazed by the tip of the scythe hovering inches from his forehead. He casually pushed it out of the way using his finger.

"...A couple of months?" Marisol said after a minute of thought, as shown by her furrowing her brow. "The king of the desert's probably found some other people to pick on."


Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 5 (655 words): Day 30 of NaNo 2017! HAHAHA I'M DONE, I CAN REST NOW AND REALIZE HOW MUCH THIS SUCKS LATER.

Spoiler! :
"We would be able to go to Wyandanch, solve its issues, and return within a month," Alarick said, expression stiff as the scythe hovered back to his chin. "And then we can bring you the soldiers you wish."

Marisol scowled. "Wait a minute, those guys left us to rot. Why should I care?"

"We could've left this place alone," Alarick replied. Eremia found herself surprised that Alarick remained unbothered by the scythe. She looked around. A few of the soldiers in the crowd had their bows drawn. Eremia believed that she could even see Jonathan for a second, but he vanished in the mass of the crowd. Was he avoiding her? In any case, Marisol had spent much of her energy in the fight; she lacked the strength to dare harm Alarick before she could be shot.

Originally opening her mouth to come up with a counterpoint, Marisol could only narrow her eyes to slits and nod. "Yes," she said slowly.

Alarick held out his hand again. "I think you'll find we're better at keeping our word," he said. "And your parents feel it best if you were to leave."

Silence. The hairs on the back of Eremia's neck stood up as she looked between Alarick and Marisol. They appeared frozen as statues. Each seemed to be waiting for the other to move as they waged a war through their eyes - Alarick's calculating stare versus Marisol's fiery gaze. The strings of bows being pulled back emanated quietly in the corners of the square.

Suddenly, Marisol pulled her scythe back. She raised her once-injured arm unsteadily, shaking Alarick's hand. "Fine," she said. "I guess this's a better way to die."

"I've said that a few times myself," Alarick said as he let go and stepped aside. "Twenty years and I'm still alive."

Now he glared into Eremia's eyes. She warily took a step back, but returned the glare. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Katerina standing behind and to the side of her. Marisol watched in total disinterest, which Eremia assumed from Marisol's long frown. "I suppose you didn't come here after the fighting?" Alarick said in a surprising quietness.

Eremia shook her head.

"Who's idea was this?" Alarick continued, voice still a whisper.

Katerina piped up. "It was Jonathan," she said. Though she tripped over her words at first, she recovered and blushed, speaking faster. "He told me to keep it a secret until now. And he's my friend, so-"

Lips tight, Alarick smiled. "Wonderful," he said through gritted teeth. "Well, I'll leave you ladies to head back to camp. I have someone to speak to."

He departed in firm steps. On pushing his way into the crowd, it seemed everyone else came back to life. Bows unstretched, people poured into the square, and a mass of conversations ran over each other in Eremia's ears. She moved closer to Marisol and Katerina as they found themselves surrounded by countless faces. Nobody looked at them in particular, nor seemed to give them much heed - instead, all they were concerned about, from what Eremia could hear, was repairs, damage control, and food supplies.

"Just great," Marisol said, sitting back down again. "I'm going to join an army to fight in a war I don't care about so they can 'help' me in a problem I don't think they care about. Does anybody know what it feels like to get pushed into something like this?"

Eremia didn't mean to, but she started laughing. The past few weeks of escapes, evil brothers, injuries, shouting matches, friendly banter, and weariness flooded into her all at once, flashing before her eyes. She'd just survived yet another battle, and so still rode on the euphoria that carried itself in her smiling down at Marisol.

"What's your problem?" Marisol growled, offended.


Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 6 (1,086 words): Easing back into the whole LMS schedule is going to suck, thanks to my wonderful partner NaNo Burnout. Still, this was a thrill to write. It's probably too informal for the tone of the story, but I at least managed to mix those short sentences in there, so I'm feeling pretty good about this.

Spoiler! :
"How many casualties do we have?" Madeleine asked, standing at the center of a circle of white-clothed healers.

"57," said a voice to her right. Madeleine turned to see a black-haired young man. "At least 30 need only minimal attention, but ten are either dead or beyond our efforts."

"Good!" Madeleine called after him, trying to speak above the mass of questions. "See to it that we can keep the number at ten." She waved him off, and he instantly vanished into the crowd.

Another voice popped up behind her. "They're bringing one of the townsfolk," it said. "Said she was shot in the arm. She's with a blonde girl and Katerina?"

Madeleine sighed. "I tended to her myself. Find whoever isn't busy; the injury shouldn't be much of a problem."

"Alarick said that you -"

Spinning around, Madeleine barked at where she thought the voice was coming from. "This is my hospital." A woman detached from the crowd and ran off.

She hated this part of her job. Healing people, sitting by the dead, burying corpses? Those were simple tasks; they were quiet, personal tasks, and exactly as her training had focused on. Trying to handle so many people at once boiled her blood. Everyone expected answers from her, some vision of leadership. She knew that she couldn't live up to their expectations, and she wished they knew that as well. To lead was to take charge of a swarm of confusion and pull out a wall of strength; it was beyond her.

The crowd parted at one edge. Madeleine whirled around just in time to see Ceinen trip over his long robe and fall onto his face. Marching forward, people getting out of her way, Madeleine came to Ceinen. She bent down and grabbed one of the hooves that scrabbled wildly at the air, hauling him up.

"You mustn't - you shouldn't - you can't," Ceinen whispered, taking in deep breaths and leaning his hooves against Madeleine's shoulders. His frantic eyes darted to her and widened.

Stepping back, Madeleine raised an eyebrow. "All is under control," she said patiently, placing her hands on his hooves and pushing them away gently.

Ceinen bared his thick teeth. "You-you-you're letting that-that faker heal our injured - dying - dead?"

"We've talked about this before," Madeleine said, shaking her head in frustration.

"B-but this is too important - pivotal for him!" Ceinen retorted. He shook his head as well, but Madeleine felt the gesture was more meant to shake his antlers and show his anger.

The wall of voices hardly ceased. "Ceinen, I'm busy, I have things to work on," Madeleine said calmly. Their last conversation about Yorew flickered in her head, mocking her.

Ceinen stamped at the ground, nearly crushing Madeleine's foot. "This is important! He could - he could - poison them, or something?" His eyes darted away from her.

She couldn't think anymore. She didn't feel like she could breathe anymore. There were too many people asking too many questions and of course he had to drop in now and carry on this little feud, right when it was least wanted or convenient. "I haven't seen him use a weapon," Madeleine said, answering a question or two mid-sentence as she paced closer and closer to the hospital tent. Ceinen never let go of her shoulders, though his hooves, lacking grip, threatened to fall off constantly. "Can't you please talk to someone else? Maybe Eremia? Doesn't he work for her?"

That last conversation grew ever brighter. The Ceinen in front of her disappeared at intervals, replaced by the lovesick, worried face that she had consoled only a short time ago (as it felt like). That face only reminded her that he was too innocent and kind and he didn't deserve to be trampled upon, not least by someone who really did care for him. And Eremia's words began to ring inside of her head, drowning out all other sounds in their crescendo. Should it really be that hard? Do you love either of them?

Ceinen grew closer, nose almost touching Madeleine's. "But she's b-boring and crazy and she won't - won't listen to me. A-and I feel like he's a r-risk and you're - you're - you're putting your feelings over our safety and -"

Nope. It was too much. "Our safety?" Madeleine said, instantly silencing him. She almost stopped when she saw him stammer and look down, but she knew she had gone too far to turn back now. Taking a deep breath, she continued. "I will not play this game any longer. You love me, and I love him. I'm watching him, but I do love him. He's silent, caring, uplifting - everything I need. And I like you, but I pulled you back to sanity. Part of me thinks of you like a son. You have your wife to think about, and I have my husband. Please, just go. I need - I need to work."

He wouldn't move. Ceinen stood in place, frozen, as though still trying to figure out what he'd just been told. Gently pushing his hooves down to his sides, Madeleine wiped a few tears from her face as she walked past him. The throng followed her, but she couldn't hear them. It was the silence she'd wanted the whole time, but not in the way she wanted it.

Well, her brain told her as she opened the tent flap and stepped inside. All eyes focused on her automatically, including the assortment of familiar faces at a corner. You have a job to do. Madeleine sniffed and wiped away some more tears. She wanted so badly to scream for everyone to look away, get back to their positions, do anything but focus on her tears. That's when she remembered one of the perks of being a leader.

"Get to it!" she shouted, voice cracking. "We have a long day ahead of us!"

******


A wave of red dashed through Eremia’s eyelids, cutting into the blackness that she’d been staring into for hours. She had been awake for so long into this infinitely long night; the battle had frayed all of her nerves, and her willpower was useless in reconstructing them. Every stray thought led her to thinking about how many people she cared about – Katerina, Jonathan, even Marisol – had almost died in front of her. And she couldn’t but think, as it was all she’d ever done.

"Uh, Eremia? You're going to want to see this."

Eremia's eyes shot open.


Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 7 (1,198 words): Tip - forcing myself to write, without thinking about it, gives me that little push that I need to get myself going. And, given that I wrote this in 45 minutes, it can keep me going. Also I probably need to work on my word compression, since this now exceeds the 100k mark. I'll probably start dealing with that in the next chapter.

Spoiler! :
"Ah, you're awake," said Katerina. Her voice was odd; it sounded almost like she was relieved, like some great weight had been lifted off of her shoulders. She kneeled in front of the sitting Eremia, eyes darting back to the red flashes in the distance.

"She sure looked like it," Marisol retorted from above Eremia's head. Eremia stared up to see Marisol propping herself up on the hospital bed by one arm. Marisol scowled and continued. "I've seen dead people fake being asleep better."

Eremia chose not to ask how Marisol knew this. Standing up, knees wobbling slightly, Eremia allowed Katerina to hold her up. "Are we under attack again?" Eremia asked, fear poking at her chest. She regretted, for a few seconds, that she had ever tried to become a general - it was too chaotic of a job.

Katerina looked sideways. "No, that would be Terasu."

The roar of flames emanated in the distance. Eremia gritted her teeth and frowned. "Is she looking for me?" Eremia said.

"Erm, nope, she wouldn't be so angry if she was," Katerina said, still not looking at Eremia. Eremia found those sideways looks frustrating, but she was too familiar with them to complain.

When Katerina refused to elaborate, Marisol hauled herself off the hospital bed with her usable hand, taking care not to let anything touch the gauze wrapped around her other shoulder. "Why don't we just find out?" Marisol said.

Whirling around, Katerina gasped. "You shouldn't do that!" she said, but was cut off before she could say anything else.

At this point, Eremia realized that Marisol dripped about as much sarcasm as Jonah (except not directing most of it at Eremia). It was almost comfortingly familiar, as much as it made Eremia's blood boil. "I can walk without an arm."

"Fine," said Eremia. She stood up and walked past Katerina, who followed, mouth open in protest. Eremia raised an eyebrow and Katerina desisted. "Katerina, I am your friend. Why should you fear to tell me something?"

Marisol reached the tent flap first, pulling the opening out and stepping through the resulting gap. "I should've told you earlier today," Katerina said all at once, as Eremia stepped over to the entrance and began to yank its edges. "But I was worried you'd think less of us."

The nighttime air felt strikingly cold. Eremia had to remind herself the camp was close to a desert as she walked outside and stopped, looking around. Not a wind blew her hair or clothes; the temperature still caused her teeth to chatter and forced her to wrap her arms around herself. She faintly desired to head close to the brilliant red glow to her right, though the rational parts of her mind suggested she would end up too close. "I would never think less of you, Katerina," Eremia said as Katerina poked her head out of the tent.

Katerina stuttered - Eremia figured it was more out of fear than cold, given Katerina's fur. "The man who works for Terasu? You've seen him, right?"

Eremia nodded. She remembered his red outfit and grim demeanor, and thought of him mainly as boring. He had spoken little (generally only in formalities) and appeared devoid of personality. Spotting Marisol a short way ahead - she was tripping over objects and swearing - Eremia followed in long strides. The sound of rippling canvas entered Eremia's ears from behind.

"Turns out he went with her when she left her home, but he didn't really give up his ties. He's been working for her dad the whole time. He's stupid enough to think we haven't been watching him, so he's never suspected us. We've been waiting for him to pull something like this. I guess these last few battles have been too much." It had only taken a short jog to catch up to Eremia, and Katerina talked as she kept pace, leaping over boxes in the meantime.

Raising an eyebrow, Eremia almost wanted to laugh. Not too long ago, she would've taken this as evidence that the Doves couldn't be trusted, that they were all hiding something from her. But now? This was what Katerina was worried about? An actual spy that the Doves knew about, but turned out to be bad at his job? Several questions floated around Eremia's head - she chose one at random. "What does he think he is doing?"

"Kidnapping her, obviously" Katerina said instinctively. She paused for a few seconds. "That sounds really stupid, doesn't it?"

By now, the two had caught up to Marisol. Eremia could tell not necessarily by sight, because the tent had been lit by candles and her eyes had not yet adjusted to the light, but the steady stream of curses that Marisol shouted made hearing her too easy. Eremia wanted to criticize Marisol, save for the fact that Marisol had been raised among villagers. What did she know - or care, for that matter - about etiquette?

Eremia rolled her eyes. "From what I have heard," she said, watching Katerina grab Marisol by the arm and pull the latter along, "That seems normal for him. But, Terasu ran from her home?"

Dodging the errant arm or foot, Katerina sighed. "I'd hoped you'd already knew, but yeah, that's what happened. When your parents throw their support against the monarchy that you spent your whole life fascinated in, what else would you do? Terasu probably never would've left if she hadn't threatened to set everyone on fire. She certainly took care of the walls, at least. Even then, they would only let her go if she took Latton as a servant."

A pillar of fire illuminated their surroundings. Eremia had noticed that the flames grew weaker each time, scorching the skies less and possessing fainter colors. Terasu's magical stamina was amazing, but apparently not limitless. "I suppose that was your first warning?"

"Yeah," said Katerina, drawing out her response. Marisol sulked behind her, making the occasional weak effort to pry herself from Katerina's grip. Since Marisol had been a farmgirl, a position that Eremia understood required a great deal of strength, Eremia wondered how long-lasting were the side effects of the medicinal herbs that Madeleine had applied to Marisol's shoulder.

"Are there any other agents?" Soldiers dashed all around them. A quick glance showed why - burned tents littered the area, most of them extensively blackened. Some, still on fire, added eerie shadows to their surroundings. Eremia felt a shiver run up her spine.

Katerina thought for a few moments. "The last time that he left, he headed towards a hotel. We didn't want to raise suspicion by going any closer, but he probably gave news to at least one or two agents. That was our latest warning."

They arrived at the scene. Or, as Eremia guessed, since she could see Terasu sprawled out between two tents, shooting flames out of her hands and shouting swears. Alarick and Jonathan stood on either side of the tied-up, head-bowed figure in familiar red clothes. The figure's lips moved weakly as Madeleine stooped down, peppering him with questions. Eremia couldn't hear what those questions were, but the tone was definitely angry.


Chapter 22: Marisol, Part 8 (403 words): Hahaha that chapter took forever. The ending's pretty good though - definitely a lot less cheesy than most of the rest. And it's cute.

Spoiler! :
"Should we do anything?" Eremia asked, watching the scene in faint disgust. It was because, at about that moment, she spotted the figures keeping to the darkness on either side of Terasu, pinning her legs down. Their faces flickered in the weak flames that she tried to cast in their direction - one was human, the other was a deer. The latter was too short and burly to be Ceinen.

Katerina shrugged with her spare arm. "He's their problem. Kind of disappointed - he was always pretty nice, if a bit dim."

"He's a traitor," said Marisol, scoffing. "Aren't you just going to kill him or something?"

"Why?" Katerina said, as Eremia crouched to avoid being caught by the light of the fires. "He can't succeed, no matter what he does, and he's still useful."

Marisol made another frail effort to pull herself away from Katerina. "You're going to guess that?" said Marisol, taking in a deep breath and grabbing her trapped arm by the other one. Still no success; Eremia could see Katerina's grip tighten, though her claws never touched Marisol's skin.

At that point, Eremia tuned out from the conversation. She wasn't interested in arguing, not when she could see Alarick pull Latton up by his shoulders and haul him off. Latton, suspended inches above the ground, tried to kick at Alarick, but only succeeded in making loud noises as his shoes ran into Alarick's armor. In a few seconds, the both of them had vanished; Jonathan stepped slowly behind, joining them shortly thereafter in the darkness. Eremia guessed Jonathan was happy from the way he held his shoulders high and stepped confidently. It bothered her that she still didn't know why he felt that way.

Someone tapped on her shoulder. Eremia turned her head to see Katerina, beckoning back to the hospital tent. "Madeleine's gone to look after Terasu," Katerina whispered. "Let's get back before she figures out we brought one of her patients out here."

"I'm-" Marisol tried to say, before Katerina shushed her.

"There never is a normal day around here, is there?" Eremia said. After taking one last glance - Madeleine stood over Terasu and appeared to be whispering something slowly, which Terasu took well enough that the fires on her hands shrunk in size (though it may have been exhaustion) - she rose and turned away.

Katerina laughed quietly. "Nope. That's why I like it here."


Chapter 23: Taken, Part 1 (740 words): Time for a big shocker. You have no idea how long I've been waiting to write this. At this point, I'm only a short ways from the buildup to the big action scene, so yay!

Spoiler! :
Eremia had a few signs that today's meeting would go poorly. Firstly, when Madeleine and Yorew woke her at the tent, both of them frowned (in Yorew's case, slightly more than normal). Secondly, she had to be led to the generals' tent right away, without even a moment to completely wake up or eat something. Thirdly, and most importantly, Terasu came into the tent at around the same time as Eremia. Terasu appeared to be smiling, and Eremia had always seen Terasu smile out of malice.

The commander of the Doves, Alarick, shuffled a few papers at random. He nodded respectfully at each newcomer, but his scowl never diminished. Eremia guessed, from the bags under his eyes, that he hadn't slept all night. That was mostly normal, though no less eerie.

Everyone seated themselves. Terasu and Jonathan sat on either side, closest to Alarick. Positioning herself next to Ceinen (who sat next to Jonathan), Madeleine gestured to the seat beside her for Eremia to sit on. Eremia complied. Hovering over Eremia, Yorew placed his hands on the corners of Eremia's seat. Nobody said a word, as they were all too busy watching Alarick's slight facial twitches and labored breathing.

"Alright," Alarick said at last. Everyone froze. "We have a long list today, but I'll endeavour to make this quick."

He first glared at Jonathan. "For your flagrant disrespect of orders, and your earnestness in jeopardizing the mission, I have found due cause to demote you. You share your duties with Lyness now, though neither of you may claim the position of general. Since this is a generals' tent, I ask that you leave."

Jonathan shrugged, yawned, and rose. "And I would like him," Alarick continued, pointing to Yorew, "To leave as well. The girl can take care of herself."

A shiver crawled up Eremia's spine as she felt the wood on the chair creak under Yorew's grip. She pulled herself around unsteadily, spotting Yorew's eyes seem to sink deeper into his face and obscuring his expression. The timely arrival of Madeleine, who placed her hand over Yorew's, ended the moment. Yorew let go and swiveled around, marching away. Jonathan followed in a heartbeat, though he did give a smile and wink to Eremia.

A few gears spun in Eremia's mind. They were validated when she moved back to her original position just as Alarick continued. "Since I would like my successor to be a general, I regret to say he no longer holds the position. Terasu, being of the most suitable temperament here, can take his place."

Madeleine clapped. She tried to nudge Eremia and Ceinen. The latter slumped further in his seat and focused intently on the jar he'd carried with him. Eremia, eyes wide, clapped weakly, though this dissipated in the face of Terasu's smug grin. Even Alarick could barely muster the energy to nod.

"Her servant, in case you have not already heard, was arrested last night. His traitorous scheme collapsed, and he confessed his guilt after a quick interrogation." Eremia wanted to believe that had only been Madeleine's burying Latton in questions, but she suspected an altercation. "We will see how, or if, Comas reacts. In the meantime, he will remain under arrest until we determine if he has told us as much as he knows, whereupon he will resume his duties. We should be too far away for Comas to reach us, and we can easily watch to see if he tries to steal anyone else in their sleep, or try to administer sleeping potions on them when they awaken."

Eremia had wondered how he could've pulled Terasu anywhere without her reacting. She wondered if he had either made a poor potion, or she had reacted too quickly - she thought the latter.

And then Alarick's eyes focused on her, chilling her blood. She tried to say something, but all words died before they reached her lips. "Finally, I would like to address our general-in-training. You put your life in danger in joining Jonathan, an act that he suggests was yours alone. Of course, you also left camp without notifying me. Due to your importance, you cannot do this again. You are to remain in your wagon from this moment onwards, until we reach the city of Wyandanch. I will surround a small area around that space with guards to assure your compliance. Marisol is also your responsibility, since you befriended her first. Any questions?"


Chapter 23: Taken, Part 2 (1,060 words): Without warning or preparation, Marisol has transitioned to 100% sarcasm/meanness. Watch out. :P

Spoiler! :
Madeleine recognized the situation before even Eremia did.

"Be calm," Madeleine said to Eremia, rising up and placing her hands on Eremia's shoulders. From the corner of her eye, Eremia could see Madeleine shoot a glare at Alarick, who looked impassive.

Balling her hands into fists, Eremia felt her cheeks burn and scalp itch. Her gritted teeth made it almost impossible for her to speak, so she resorted to slamming a fist against the table. "You bastard!" she bellowed at Alarick as Madeleine's grip tightened. "We had an arrangement."

Alarick rested his cheek on his palm. "No, you had a deal with Madeleine," he said, eyes drooping even further.

"You didn't say no," Madeleine said, drowning out Eremia's comment. "With you, that may as well have been a yes."

"I did not expect that she would land in any danger," Alarick said. "I was wrong."

Eremia rose up, pushing her seat aside. Only the surprisingly strong grip of Madeleine kept Eremia from leaping across the table and punching Alarick in the face. "So, what did you want? Did you want a general? Or, did you hope I would delude myself into thinking I was one, but never feel the need to actually fight? How stupid do you think I am?"

"Take her away," Alarick said, waving at Madeleine. "I know you want to speak to me, Maddie. We will do so later."

Though Eremia planted her feet into the earth as firmly as she possibly could, Madeleine slowly pulled her away from the tent. Eremia's endeavors split the little grass that existed, revealing the dry dirt beneath. Her thoughts flickered, imagining the countless ways that she could murder Alarick in his sleep. Poison, swords, claws, suffocation, and so on. Each flashed by, fueling a rage that found itself focused on the intensely smug grin of Terasu, who sat patiently beside Alarick.

"Your boyfriend killed himself!" Eremia shouted before she knew what she was thinking. "Get over yourself!"

She could hear something like a gasp as Madeleine yanked her out of the general's tent. Letting go of the ground, Eremia allowed Madeleine to carry her swiftly away. The distant smell of burning reached Eremia's nostrils; it smelled at first like victory, but increasingly shifted into shame. That hadn't resolved anything - it hadn't changed the truth. Eremia had had her strength taken from her. And it likely wouldn't come back. Besides, Terasu was possibly delusional, but did Eremia want to make a greater enemy out of her?

"Is he always this creepy?" said a familiar voice. Eremia felt herself being planted back on the ground, and the blur that was Madeleine heading back the way they'd come. Turning around, Eremia could see Marisol standing a short distance away, Yorew looming over her. On their eyes meeting, Yorew nodded at Eremia and walked back towards the hospital tent in the distance.

Eremia rolled her eyes. "I have not been with him for long in some time, but this is normal for him. You will likely adjust to it."

Snorting, Marisol said, "I hope not. His eyes are creepy. Anyways, why'd they send me out here?"

The camp seemed quiet and largely empty; Eremia looked around, but couldn't find anyone she recognized. "It seems that they would rather keep you around me. Except I have to be within my wagon, and I have no idea where it is."

Marisol raised an eyebrow. "They arrest you or something?"

Eremia was about to respond with a remark on Marisol's dialect when she heard the flapping of pairs of wings from above. Looking up, Eremia spotted two birds just before they landed to her right, shifting into their half-forms.

As she hoped, it was Iasquam and Aquila. "We were told to find you?" Aquila said hesitantly, looking away.

"Hey, guess what? You have!" said Marisol, appearing from behind Eremia. "Going to fly us somewhere?"

Iasquam ruffled his already messy feathers as Eremia stepped to try and block Marisol (who easily moved away). "We could hardly carry you," he said, voice mildly shaky. "We are just here to lead the way." He raised each leg at a time, arms quivering as his feathered hands tried to point towards the east.

Eremia followed the gesture, but cocked her head to the side as she turned back to Iasquam. "Something amiss?" she asked.

If Iasquam responded, it was buried by a burst of cawing. "I'm teaching him how to fly," Aquila said, beaming. "He's actually okay!"

While Eremia began to walk in the direction of the pointing, Marisol stifled a laugh. "He can't fly?" she said.

In response, Iasquam sped after Eremia. The other two followed, walking to the same tune. "He's afraid of heights," Aquila said. "Kind of a childhood thing?"

Marisol burst out laughing. Wincing, Eremia watched as Iasquam seemed to shrink in front of her eyes. "I told you not to tell anyone," Iasquam said quickly.

"What else was I going to say?" replied Aquila, spreading out his wings and accidentally striking Marisol in the face. "Maybe you could've been fighting, but against what?"

Iasquam gestured to Eremia.

"As if," Marisol said, still chuckling while she plucked a feather from her forehead. "She's good, but he's a hawk with a sword. It'd be an even fight at least, especially if he's fast. And speaking of, what's this about me being with you, Eremia? Am I also arrested?"

Eremia was both pleased at Marisol's compliment and annoyed at Marisol's inability to pronounce her name correctly. "Alarick said you would be my 'responsibility.' I have no clue what that means."

A pause settled over everyone, broken only by Marisol laughing again. "And you're a - you're a princess, right? Oh joy, maybe he thinks I'll be your servant. Because that would be dignified."

From behind, Aquila squawked harshly. However, before the conversation could continue, the group found itself at the edge of a circle of guards. Each had basic armor and a spear, and they all surrounded an empty area marked at the center by a familiar wagon and makeshift fire (whose ashes had been spread around in previous hours by the wind.

The two nearest guards nodded and stepped aside as Iasquam strode through, followed by Eremia. "Hardly," said Eremia. "I have other plans in mind."

"Such as?" Marisol said, struck by sudden unease.

"You will see."
Last edited by TheSilverFox on Sun Jan 07, 2018 5:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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TheSilverFox says...



Because it just won't die:

LMS Writing Part 9



Chapter 23: Taken, Part 3 (1,045 words): Hahaha yeah, everybody get on board, we're heading to our favorite Dysfunction Junction.

Spoiler! :
Madeleine found Alarick in less than an hour. She had known him for years; he always kept close to his personal tent, even when he walked around to contemplate his next moves. The main challenge was in navigating the camp, swatting aside a few of the peskier hospital staff, and clearing the sea of anger that raged in her head before it damaged her sense of direction.

That ocean evaporated into steam when she saw Alarick ahead of her, stepping down one of the more-traveled paths through the camp.

"I was expecting you," he said, stopping and slowly folding his armor-covered arms behind his back. Madeleine stormed towards him, her hands balled into fists.

"Start explaining," she said as she caught up to him. A good part of her was tempted to hit him over his head, but she knew that he would likely dodge. Even in a suit of armor, he could be fast. That had been part of his training, of course.

Alarick eased himself onto the ground, legs splayed out. He looked up at Madeleine, who glared down at him in response. "I had thought you would keep a better eye on her."

Madeleine made a strangling gesture with her hands. "She was going to be a general," Madeleine spat, "And you do not make generals with books alone."

Raising an eyebrow, Alarick said, "You don't understand how important she is?"

"I know better than anyone else," Madeleine retorted. "I've had to keep an eye on her this entire time, one way or another."

"And you watched over her when she rode into battle?" Alarick said, eyebrow still raised. His voice, laced with tiredness, lacked a piercing edge. Madeleine could still sense his fury lurking under the surface of his words; it fueled her own.

Now crouching and gripping the grass, Madeleine stared into Alarick's unfocused eyes. "First you attack me for 'coddling' her, and now you attack me for doing what you wanted? All you had to do was tell the truth."

Alarick shrugged before propping his arms behind him. "I assumed you were smart enough to know," he began, but Madeleine put a finger over his lips.

"That's not how a leader leads," Madeleine said softly. A smile trembled its way onto her face and widened. "And now, because you never told anyone, you only have three generals."

Methodically, as though shouting names from a list, Alarick replied, "You, Ceinen, and Terasu."

She held up a finger in Alarick's face. "Terasu hasn't fully recovered - she's too unstable." Another finger. "Ceinen just had his heart broken, and he barely has the heart to even pray to his gods." A third finger. "I don't have patience for you."

"I wanted to see how you would handle an apprentice," Alarick said calmly, pushing the fingers aside. "To see if you have the potential to raise a su-"

Madeleine screamed. "Enough with your successors!" she said. The eyes of all the surrounding soldiers gravitated towards her; they tried to inconspicuously walk away. "Enough with your games! We are going to Wyandanch, and we barely have the ability to keep ourselves together! What could you possibly benefit from any of this?"

His eyes focused in startling speed. "Do you remember how my father died?" he said calmly. It was evident he wasn't looking for a response. "Do you remember how Rowland died? Never again. We must keep them safe, and we must have inheritors."

"Is that it?" Madeleine said, laughing bitterly. "That's really it? You're afraid?"

Alarick frowned, eyebrows nearly colliding.

"The man who invited me to another country to be a hero, the man who faced death on a daily basis for years, the man who raised the other generals like they were family, the man who let his 'children' fight at his side, is afraid to die? Is afraid they will die?" She wiped the tears beginning to accumulate on her eyes.

Alarick started to rise. "Maddie," he started to say, reaching out a hand.

She slapped it aside. "Grow up," she said. "We're all insane here, and I thought you were better. We've lived, Alarick, we've lived for so long. How dare you be at the top of the madhouse by lying to yourself like this. I left my husband for you. I'm starting to regret it."

Madeleine sniffed and turned away. "This won't stop you, will it?" she said as she walked off, voice shaky. She took a deep breath and spoke again, now sternly. "Do what you want. I'll do what I do best - what's right."

It was easy enough to vanish from his sight; she slipped between two tents and took another road. Alarick's somber gaze towards the ground, the last that she had seen of him, burned in her mind. Gritting her teeth and letting a few more tears slip away, Madeleine soon sighed. Soon they would be at the Pillars, she reminded herself. Not long after that, Wyandanch. If all was well, they would alert Seres, help barricade the city, and plot to bring back Jonah. After that, if The Doves still lived, she would find a way to stop his delusions. This army was all that she had left - she couldn't just give up now. As much as she wanted to.

******


"Are you alright, Iasquam?" Eremia asked, wooden sword knocked from her hands by a quick strike from his.

Iasquam squawked. "Yes," he said between breaths. "Though I don't believe this is fair?"

He batted aside Marisol by a sweep of his wing, before she could come from behind and hit him over the head with her wooden axe. "Ugh," Marisol groaned, coughing. She pulled herself up and rested with her knees on the ground, a cloud of dust hovering around her. "He's too tough. What's even with these practice weapons anyways?"

Eremia ducked as a sword zoomed over her head. "The Doves seem to love their preparations," she said, jumping to the right to avoid another strike.

When Marisol tried to rise up, Iasquam pointed a sword behind him, at her chest. She sighed and fell back down again, watching in something resembling boredom as Iasquam continued to fight Eremia. "Can I get the real thing now? I'm much better with those."


Chapter 23: Taken, Part 4 (1,052 words): This is so sappy and I love it so much.

Spoiler! :
"Because," replied Eremia, swinging her blade at Iasquam while her other hand pointed to ground. "Someone could leave here without a head?"

Marisol groaned. "Since when? You're doing okay, I can hold my own, this guy can fight, nobody -"

A gust of wind exploded from Eremia's fingertip, catching one of Iasquam's feet. He stepped back, only to trip over Marisol and collapse.

Leaning against the wagon, Katerina clapped. "That's probably cheating," she said, "But well done!"

The sounds of swearing emanated from beneath Iasquam, who struggled to pull himself up. Eremia sighed and set the practice sword on the ground before she walked over. "I was told that fighting is not supposed to be fair," said Eremia, grabbing Iasquam by the hand (taking care to avoid his claws) and yanking him up. He brushed off his outfit and nodded.

"Who told you that?" Katerina said, head craned forward.

Marisol rose up swiftly, pulling the ax from where it had been on the ground. Casually ducking, and watching as the ax zoomed past her head, Eremia pointed to Marisol's face. "Yorew," she said, as Marisol was struck by wind. Marisol blinked and shook her head, granting enough time for Eremia to knock the ax out of Marisol's hand.

"Yes, he would say that," Iasquam said, walking towards Katerina.

"Enough!" Marisol shouted, before Iasquam could continue the sentence. She wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. Panting and slightly hunched, her hair spilling over her face, she coughed and then said, "Are we done yet?"

Eremia nodded. Marisol immediately breathed a sigh of relief and sat down, falling back on the ground.

"Bravo!" said Katerina. She clapped as Eremia turned and gave a small bow. Iasquam sat beside Katerina, looking up at the sky with an expression that appeared to be contemplation, mixed with a little fear. "I'd say you're getting pretty good, right?"

"It helps that I had some anger to take care of," Eremia said, frowning. She did feel better; she felt calmer, more in control. The space around the wagon was her world, surrounded by her people, and had importance to her. Her eye had twitched whenever she had thought about the liar that was her commander, or the little games her 'rival' (if Eremia ever cared about that) had played to remove Eremia's strength. But now? They were irrelevant, and for one good reason - Jonah. She had to find him. She had to save him. And then, she could go home and be done with this.

Katerina raised an eyebrow. "Something wrong?"

Eremia realized she was gritting her teeth. Instantly relaxing, she put on her most innocent face and said, "No, of course not."

"That's good," said a voice behind her. Whirling around, Eremia's heart swelled at the sight of Jonathan standing between two of the guards. "Because we need to talk."

He smiled, but Eremia could see how awkward and straining it was. Aquila stood to Jonathan's right; the two whispered a few words between each other, and then Aquila left, walking past Eremia to head for Iasquam. Eremia could hear Iasquam audibly groan behind her, but she was too focused on reading Jonathan's every odd step, crooked smile.

After a few seconds, Jonathan seemed to notice. His shoulders slumped, his eyes drooped, and his smile faded. He looked just about like his normal self now, if a little worse for wear. "It's not good news," he said, shaking his head while he stopped a few steps from Eremia. "It hasn't been a good day for you, but-"

"Just say it," Eremia said, taking a deep breath. She pinched her nose and tried to ignore the weights that she felt was building on her arms, legs, and chest.

He crossed his arms and looked at the ground. "I can't - can't see you anymore. It's not your fault. Terasu's worse now, from the betrayal. And I owe her. I said something harsh once, and-"

Eremia held up a hand; it felt like a brick. He appeared to notice it from the corner of his eye, because he froze. "Fine," she said, after a long pause. "How long have we known each other?"

"A - a few weeks," Jonathan stammered, making his voice even scratchier than it was.

"And did we talk to each other much? Did we do anything?" Eremia's voice picked up now. The words streamed out of her, undampened by any cracks or signs of weakness (which, she knew, lurked in the pit of her stomach; she stifled them as much as she could).

Jonathan shook his head. Dust spilled onto the ground. Part of her wondered where he kept getting that dust from. All she knew was that it was a part of him - with how much he worked, it wasn't a bad one.

"I despise her. However, you are her friend, and you should be there for her. I love you - I meant it then, and I meant it now. You have always been too kind and too helpful. I love that about you, and I want to see you continue on that path. Had you talked to me earlier, you would have received a much colder reception. Now, I see that I have my duties, and you have yours."

Everyone remained still; Eremia watched Jonathan to see his response. Suddenly, he pulled his head up and nodded. "I still need to train - I still need to - I still need," he said, words becoming shakier.

Eremia stepped up to him. "The training? As in, setting up a camp?" she said, eyebrow raised. When he nodded, she embraced him quickly, holding tight. She ignored the dust that spilled onto her hair and clothes, only closing her eyes in response. "You can come as often as you would like. Where else am I going to go now?"

And she could feel Jonathan hugging back.

"So dramatic," Marisol said from the background, followed by a loud "Ow!" Eremia guessed that Katerina had hit Marisol in the back of the head, especially based on Katerina's hissing whisper. Now Eremia smiled.

"I hope you can get back home," Jonathan whispered suddenly.

"I will see to it," Eremia replied. "I just wish I could bring you all back as well."


Chapter 23: Taken, Part 5 (1,105 words): Oh noes.

Spoiler! :
When the moons began to trace the sky, they captured two armies scattered at the edge of The Pillars. The largest one marched slowly, the footsteps of tens of thousands of people discordant and shaking the earth. It passed between two of the largest structures, which towered impossibly high into the sky. No commands, no warnings; only the silence of the night reached their lips and ears. The animals, sentient or otherwise, never came here, as though they recognized it was all holy. Even the place's legendary voices, trapped deep within the landscape, inspired fear and reverence for one's deity of choice.

In the frigid air that gently blew through their perch, the second army huddled inside the caves littered on one of the largest pillars. Each entrance was massive, as the former dragon inhabitants had planned them to be. Towards the back, a few hastily-assembled tents shone light into the blackness of the stone. The stone swallowed it greedily, leaving nothing behind for the soldiers who stepped and pawed their way through the darkness.

"Will this work?" said Torion (now in human form) nervously, rubbing the red dye into Drusus's hair. Torion's gray eyes looked weary, and his long brown hair shuffled as he applied the paint. Drusus sat on a seat at the center of his mostly-empty tent, looking among the scattered provisions and weapons. It wasn't hard to guess, with that hour of the night, that Drusus was equally weary, as much of a late sleeper as he was.

"Not likely," Drusus said, sounding lost in thought. "It will make us harder to recognize, but we're doomed if we're captured they look close enough."

Torion momentarily stopped. "Then - what's the point?" He looked down at his red-stained hands. The color made him uncomfortable. It reminded him too much of the roar of the crowds, the weapon in his hands, the weeping figure at his feet, the -

"A slight advantage," Drusus said. "And I imagine you like this, don't you?" It did not sound like a question.

Torion snapped back into reality. He smiled and kept rubbing. "Kind of wish we didn't have to do this when we're worrying about our lives."

"The invasion of Wyandanch is in a week," Drusus said. Torion could see the corner of Drusus's mouth curve upwards in a smile. "We can at least make it a memorable one."

A soldier, dressed in Walenty colors, stepped in. "Our spies believe we've spotted the targets," she said firmly, stamping her spear on the ground.

"Have you made sure that Kasimir won't "wander" into his war party?" Drusus said. Sighing, Torion gently pulled his hands from Drusus's hair and tried to ignore the burgundy tone by looking at the soldier intently.

"We've kept him to his tent," the soldier said, unfazed by Torion's glare. "He will be going nowhere."

Drusus clucked his tongue. "I should hope so," he said sternly, before mellowing his voice. "Tell the men to gather at the pass. Let our agents head down and assemble the bombs. When they detonate, begin the charge."

The soldier nodded and marched away, slipping into the darkness.

Now Drusus stood up and turned to face Torion. "Are you comfortable staying in this form?" Drusus asked, placing his hands on Torion's shoulders. "I know what memories it brings up, and -"

Torion shrugged. "That's the past. And they'll recognize you if I'm with you as a wolf."

"And you know you can shift form if you need the upper hand," Drusus continued. He had that way of bobbing his head and speaking quickly that Torion immediately knew was anxiety.

"Yes," Torion said as long as he could. "You already told me."

"And-and if this doesn't go well, you can do whatever you need to do to get the both of us out of here, and-"

Torion leaned closer. He wanted to hug Drusus, but he still had that red paint on his hands (he'd have to wash that off later, he figured) - it would be odd if Drusus led a war party with red splotches on his stomach and chest. "It makes it that much easier to kiss you."

Drusus stopped shaking. A wry smile spread across his face. "And you will make the first move this time?"

"Hey, I got bigger things to worry about," Torion replied. His face inched towards Drusus, he puckered his lips, and he closed his eyes. War was his strong suit, his element - it filled him with determination. He could die fighting; with his luck, he guessed he probably would. And not as a slave or a pet or a tool, but as a warrior, with the man he loved the most. That egged him on as he neared Drusus.

And then, without warning, a gigantic boom emanated from the outside world. It reverberated inside of the cave, causing the walls to shake ever so slightly. Both of Torion's ears popped, causing him to hear a painful ringing. He instinctively smacked his hands over his ears, completely disregarding the sensation of red paint worming into them.

"No, those were too soon," Drusus said (or, more likely, screamed), voice faint in the face of the ringing. He mumbled something Torion didn't understand.

When Torion opened his eyes, after the ringing had mostly subsided, Drusus had vanished. Panicked, Torion swung open the tent flap. Light from one of the moons ringed the edge of the enormous cavern, but showed no one at the entrance.

"Hello?" Torion called, cupping his hands over his mouth. It echoed across the cave without a response. Heart pumping, he sprinted across the earth and willed himself to shift. Fur sprouted across his body as he stooped lower and lower, transitioning into the full form of a wolf. Claws skittered along the black ground as they reached for a leverage that did not exist, causing him to stagger and spin. It didn't matter; his now-simple mind hungered for the one distinctive smell of paint that hovered above the bloody scents of armor.

As he neared the exit, enough to where he could see the lights that flickered far below and to the right, Torion suddenly heard the galloping of a horse. He froze, muscles tense, and waited. On cue, the familiar smell of paint wafted into his wolf nose, and he connected it instantly to the rider whose horse kicked into the air, abruptly stopped.

"Need a ride?" Drusus called, patting behind him on the horse. Torion barely understood the words, but the cracking in the voice and the gesture made Drusus's intent clear. Torion howled and sprinted outside.


Chapter 23: Taken, Part 6 (1,135 words): OH NOES.

Spoiler! :
There was no adequate way to describe the feeling of shifting back into a more intelligent form. Torion could never fully understand the other way around, either, if only because he wasn't in a position to perceive it by then. What little he did remember feeling reminded him of his brain shrinking and his head widening. Regaining his intelligence was only disorienting and numbing, particularly as all of his senses changed at once. It would have been a much smoother process if he hadn't been so nervous.

Now in half-form, he staggered his way to Drusus's horse. Even by the weak moonlight, Torion could tell that Drusus was panicked, given the way he fidgeted in his spot, hands read to snap the reins and send the horse galloping away. "What's the matter?" Torion half-mumbled, still a little dazed, as he clambered onto the back of the horse.

On cue, not bothering to say a word, Drusus yanked on the reins. The horse whinnied and dashed down the black stone path, its hooves slamming against the ground ferociously. The click noise almost immediately drowned in the sounds of fighting and screaming emanating from between the pillars. There, flames and lightning shot out in all directions from a cloud of thick gray smoke, illuminated a blood red by its components. Embraced by the wind that howled around Torion, the smoke clustered around a pillar, climbing up the imposing structure.

Seeing the carnage, Torion nearly shook off the horse, unable to move his hands out of surprise; finally, he grabbed onto Drusus's waist, though his teeth clattered (not from the cold, thanks to Torion's fur). Torion wondered if that was why Drusus couldn't speak, though that proved immediately wrong.

"They either knew we were coming," Drusus said, voice shaky as he pulled on the reins, sending the horse turning in a sharp arc to head down a barely-visible path etched into the side of the stone, taking them away from the carnage. "Or there was an accident. Either way, we lost the element of surprise. We need to get out of here."

Torion craned his head back to observe the smoke. His nose twitched, catching the metallic hints of blood, as well as the static that lingered in the air. "Yeah, good call."

He looked back just in time to see a lantern light shine ahead and below, not too far away. It blinked a few times, slowly and rhythmically. Drusus pulled back sharply, forcing the horse to a trot.

Soldiers appeared on all sides of Torion, spears at their sides. Fear gripped at his heart for the second before his vision caught the blue and silver colors of Walenty. He sighed in relief as footsteps marked the approach of one heavily armored person to the front of Torion.

"Any news, general?" Drusus said breathlessly. Torion peered over Drusus's shoulder to see the armored person. Their face was indistinguishable in both the night and the oversized helmet with a blue feather on top.

"You were closer," the general said in a masculine voice. "You should know better."

Drusus took a shaky breath. "I had just enough time to be told to run away. Did you see the boy? 'Jonah'?" he said slowly, an angry tone growing towards the end.

The general nodded, his helmet briefly colliding with his shoulder plates. "That's what they're telling me. Said he threw an orb of - something at the barrels with the bombs. Blew them up, and then just kind of sat there and scowled while the Eimhin archers came out."

Drusus mumbled something about the general being a simpleton. Except, Torion could barely hear anything now. Not the soldiers gathering around, not the fighting in the distance, not even the wind that whistled gracefully past. Something else crawled into his ear - a voice, somewhat high-pitched. It scratched into his brain, the words edged by an alien presence. "You dingy little creature," it said, echoing. "An aberration. The mind of a man in the body of a wolf. I should-"

The voice vanished as quickly as it came, replaced by the shout of the general. "Look out!"

The sky lit up in flaming arrows, scattering happily into the armor and flesh of the gathered soldiers. Some screamed in pain and immediately collapsed, while the general and a few others whirled towards the source. A dark figure in the distance peered back, silhouetted by the flames swirling around it. Torion could feel Drusus's chest tightening, arms beginning to shake. That's the boy? Torion thought, eyes widening.

Reacting quickly, the general shot to the back of the horse and smacked it in the rump. "Go on! Get back to the camp!" he shouted as the horse reared up and galloped away, creating a huge cloud of dust. "We'll keep him busy!"

Trails of fire broke free from the coat of the dark figure. Torion looked back to see the arrows slamming through the soldiers, felling more of them. The remainder, spears raised, began their charge. However, if the creeping feeling up his back was any indicator, the figure had changed its focus.

"I really should kill you," the voice said, cutting through all other sounds again. "It would be so easy."

The world was a daze now, the horse’s frenetic pace jumbling his vision while his other senses were crippled by the voice. He could see Drusus's hands moving, guiding the horse in the direction that Torion hoped led to the Walenty army. Torion hoped that Drusus couldn't hear the boy, lest Drusus have a heart attack or something. Drusus, based on his compressed chest, was already panicked enough.

"But that foolish general of yours - ah, is dead. You know your place now, which makes you useful. But still, wolf boy, if you want to save yourself, try and shoot a few sparks at me. You two look so precious, and it would be a pity if something happened to him"

It took a few seconds for Torion to recognize the command, since his heart seemed to stop on hearing the threat. Raising a hand nervously, he tried to remember the little trick that he'd learned. Between the horse and his nerves, it took nothing short of a miracle for the specks of lightning to dance at his fingertips again.

He wasn't quite sure what happened next. Torion found himself on the ground, staring up at the night sky. Or, perhaps it was the ground - he faintly realized he couldn't see at all, since even the stars weren't visible. Little red spots danced in front of his black vision, and his ears registered nothing but a faint ringing. There was only the voice laughing, laughing from inside his mind.

"You fool," it said as he lost consciousness. "You will be useful."


Chapter 24: Breezes, Part 1 (1,003 words): Yay for non-standard, stream-of-consciousness writing formats!

Spoiler! :
As the sun rose, Yorew and Madeleine walked slowly through the camp. Hands held, Madeleine's head resting on Yorew's shoulder. Yorew felt at ease. Like usual, he didn't show it on his face, but he walked delicately and smoothly.

He wondered. No patients left in the hospital, except for those suffering from the occasional bout of illness. Good, Madeleine had said; the army needed to be ready. It would be eight days, he had been told by Madeleine, before the group arrived at Wyandanch. That seemed like too little time. Only eight days, and then they would head into the city, give the news to Seres, and deflect an invading army. And then they would likely disperse, especially if Jonah was found. Eremia would take her brother, and Yorew would have to come with them, because they were his obligations. Right back to Exedor, right back to a comfortable and - dare he say it? - boring life. It was too little time. Madeleine was so lovely -

"Yorew?"

"Hmm?"

"It's lovely outside, isn't it?"

"Hmm."

- she was reliable and strong and caring, and she needed an anchor. And he was happy to be that anchor, the one to absorb her late-night frustrations because one of the patients had died and she was blaming herself and shouting out curses. Or maybe Alarick hadn't consulted with her on something and went on ahead with his plans (he seemed to do this a lot). Or maybe something reminded her of her home and her family and she buried her head in her hands because she had spent so many years away from them. It was all too familiar to Yorew, but he told as much as she was willing to tell about her past - little. They only had to look in each other's eyes to know -

"Not many clouds. Do you think it will rain, Yorew?"

"Hmm."

- that they had both suffered. And he wondered if this was real. This, this being an anchor was how he had kept the Exedor royal family from tearing each other apart for so long. Was this his own emotions, or was this merely a familiar response to a familiar situation? It had been so long since he had fallen in love with anyone (and that had ended so painfully) that he wasn't sure if he could ever love someone again. At least, romantically. But, if this was real, what about Eremia? Hadn't he sworn to protect her? Hadn't he helped raise her all these years? She was confident, assertive, strong. She'd already built a circle of friends, and she didn't seem bothered by his unavailability. Still, was this fair to her? He would still fight to protect her, die to protect her, but could he when he -

"You feel stiff. Is something wrong?"

"Not at all. Merely a tad cold."

"I suspect The Pillars have something to do with it. They always gave me the chills, even before I heard the voices."

- wasn't around? He wondered if he had spent too little time thinking of himself. He was getting old; his bones weakening, his muscles softening, his face sagging. He was strong, but it wouldn't be for long. Perhaps this was the time to devote himself to royalty and back away, retire in the comfort provided by a decent wage. Eurynome and Trevonn were too kind. They helped make the palace feel like a true home. His brow furrowed. Had he stayed in his actual home, would he look any better? Would he be what his cousin had wanted him to be? Could he live with himself if that was the case, or would he have died before he could? Part of him asked if she had -

Yorew felt a jolt. He looked to see Madeleine raising her head. "That'll do," she said quietly to no-one in particular, beaming proudly.

Raising an eyebrow, Yorew said, "Hmm?"

Turning to look into his eyes, Madeleine's wrinkles appeared to fade in the light that wrapped itself around her. "Ceinen won't speak or leave his tent much, right?"

Yorew nodded slowly, curious to see where this would lead. He quashed the hint of annoyance building inside him. "I think I can fix that," she said, gripping Yorew's hand tighter. "I'll give him something else to think about. Do you remember his conversations with Eremia?"

The two long, rambling, irritating voices instinctively began to fill up his head. If he were not holding Madeleine's hand, he would have clamped his hands over his ears. "I would not advise-" said Yorew, but Madeleine was already talking over him.

"He's so passionate about his faith. It's a good part of who he is, and it will do him some good to reignite that. We'll have to figure out how to make them stop talking when he recovers, but this should help him. Honestly, with her so frustrated by Alarick's stupidity, it might distract her as well." Madeleine began to step away, looking through Yorew as she spoke.

"I think she would like to tr-" Yorew began.

Madeleine let go. "This will be wonderful!" she said as she skipped off, vanishing into the midst of the camp.

Yorew stopped and allowed himself to smile. She was wonderful. He would likely have to warn Eremia, but Madeleine was wonderful.

******


Marisol hated the hills. They were ugly, no matter what kind of grass was on top of them. In this case, they were painted yellow, just like the landscape that stretched far off into the distance. She had never been here before - there wasn't much of a desire to go places when farming all the time - but she had heard from travelers that this was the savannah. It matched the descriptions, anyways; a few trees scattered around, not a lick of water, and edged to her right by the ugly hills and then The Pillars extending into the horizon.

She wasn't much of a fan of the locals either.


Chapter 24: Breezes, Part 2 (1,108 words): Character development ayyyyyyyy

Spoiler! :
"No, I am not 'the boss,'" Marisol said, glaring up at figure on the other side of the guards. She crossed her arms.

The figure, a bipedal cheetah, cocked his head. At least, Marisol guessed he was a he, based on his voice. He yawned something out in one of the old languages, each word a grating hiss in Marisol's ears. Marisol captured the words "salt" and "trade."

Marisol gave a thumbs down. "It's not my call," she said, pointing to herself and shaking her head. She titled her head back into the camp. "I don't run this place. I dunno if they even have anything to trade."

More hissing - she hated that voice so much, it was even uglier than she'd remembered. The cheetah's mouth widened, flashing teeth. It gripped its staff and lowered it gently, only to step back when the weapon was blocked by a pair of swords.

"Sorry about that," Marisol said, rolling her eyes. "I'm not trying to 'fraud' you. Go find someone else to bother." She waved the cheetah off, scowling.

It copied her eye roll and broke out a wicked smile, but obliged, walking softly along the line of guards that stretched around the camp. Marisol flipped her hair back and turned around, beginning to hum.

"You know one of the old languages?"

Marisol whirled in the direction of the noise. "Shit!" Marisol said as Katerina jumped out from behind of the tents. "How are you that silent?"

Katerina skipped forward, hands behind her back. That was even more annoying than the cheetah, Marisol decided. Especially in the way that Katerina trod on the earth without a sound. Stupid paws.

"Part of my job," Katerina said, stopping in front of Marisol.

Again, Marisol rolled her eyes. "And what's your job this time?"

"Eremia wanted me-" said Katerina innocently.

Marisol snorted, stopping Katerina immediately. "So I've got the princess's attention? It's sweet that she cares."

The guards, a short distance away, remained perfectly unresponsive. The Pillars seemed to loom over their heads, though it cast no shadow upon them. Marisol remembered her father telling her that The Pillars swallowed the sunlight, or something equally dramatic. The thought cut right over Katerina's comment, which, judging from her frown, was either harsh or sarcastic.

"Yeah, I know, she saved my life and all," Marisol said. "But after that, why's she still bothering? We've got our own lives to deal with."

"She told me that you're under her jurisdiction," Katerina replied calmly, teeth close together. Marisol was surprised that didn't hurt Katerina, given the latter's sharp teeth.

"'Jurisdiction?'" said Marisol, eyebrow raised.

Katerina sighed. "She's basically your boss," she said flatly.

Marisol buried her head in her hands and groaned. "And whose stupid idea was that? It's not like I'm good for anything besides farming."

"It wasn't her idea, no." Marisol could feel Katerina's hands trying to slip between hers and pry them apart. Tightening her grip on herself, Marisol stepped back as Katerina continued. "Besides, in case you haven't noticed, you can not only fight exceptionally well, you know another language. That isn't exactly common. So, perhaps you could stop contradicting everyone?"

Marisol pulled her hands from her face and yanked her rebellious hair back. "Firstly, no. Secondly, so? I know enough to get me by. They showed up a lot at my family's farm, so of course I know how to understand them. But I know you can actually speak of those languages, and I can't. You're a fox, after all."

On hearing "speak," Katerina froze. That, Marisol recognized, was odd. Katerina, on the rare occasions when she didn't say anything, always moved. It was impossible to stop Katerina - she was too energized. "Am I wrong?" Marisol said, her scowl fading away beneath arched eyebrows.

Katerina looked away.

Now Marisol couldn't help but laugh. "You seriously can't?" When Katerina's blank expression didn't change, Marisol stopped laughing and sighed. "I'm guessing there's a story behind that. So, why not tell me?"

"I went off to live in Wyandanch when I was...six?" Katerina finally mumbled, after a long enough pause and shuffling of her paws to make even Marisol embarrassed, "I didn't go with my parents, and they stuck me with all the other kids. Nobody taught me."

"And you're sad about that?" Marisol replied, spreading her arms wide. "You got to hang out with royalty and you're bummed because you didn't learn a language? I don't care what those guys did to piss off Walenty, or how stupid this whole royalty thing is in general, that sounds awesome."

That didn't seem reassuring, given the way that Katerina dropped to the ground, criss-crossed her legs, and stared down, sniffling. It took a few seconds before another hammer dropped in Marisol's mind. "Oh," Marisol said, walking up to Katerina and crouching down in front of her. "It's because you're a fox, and it sucks not to know their language, isn't it?"

Katerina sniffled again and nodded.

"Hey," Marisol continued. "That's crap, yeah. But still, it's something you can learn. And I'm betting you spent years learning how to read and write and study all the fancy stuff. You think I can read? You think I can write? My family's been stuck in the middle of nowhere my whole life, so I don't know half the stuff you do. Probably less than that, actually. So what if you don't know a few words? The foxes aren't one of those groups that doesn't like to speak the newer language, right?"

"Yeah," Katerina said faintly. "They speak the new language. It's just...it's my culture. I haven't seen my parents in years, and I don't know if I ever will again, so this is all I have to remind me of who I am, isn't it?"

This girl has issues, Marisol thought, but she kept it to herself. Now wasn't the time for any other remarks, as good as she was with them. Marisol gripped Katerina's shoulders until Katerina pulled her head up. There were definitely tears in Katerina's eyes. "Yeah, that's fine. But hey, I don't have any culture, and I don't give a flying crap about it, and I'm still me. You're still you, no matter how many languages you want to speak. You're always going to be the princess's friend and servant or whatever, so why worry about it? I'll go back with you if you want - good to know I'm not the only person with problems."

Katerina laughed unsteadily. "You really lack confidence in yourself, do you?"

Marisol shrugged. "You guys all look like geniuses to me. I’ve just got fists and anger."



Chapter 24: Breezes, Part 3 (1,053 words): Hahaha this isn't depressing or anything. <.<

Spoiler! :
"You're selling yourself short, but, if that's the case, you'll fit right in," Katerina said, laughing again. Her expression froze and softened. "Do you - can you - do something for me?"

"Sure?" said Marisol, rising up.

"You - you won't tell Eremia about this, right?" said Katerina, looking up and wiping away the tear or two in her eyes. She sounded more insecure than before, to Marisol's surprise.

Thinking for a second, Marisol muttered, "It'd be a laugh to tell the princess." Katerina's eyes narrowed - curse her good hearing - so Marisol stepped back and nodded firmly. "Yep, we'll keep it a secret."

Though she still looked suspicious, Katerina stood up and said, "Thanks."

Ugh, Marisol thought. The way she slumped and shrunk, Katerina looked so pitiable. When Katerina silently turned and took a few steps, Marisol called out, hand outstretched, "Wait!" As Katerina turned around, Marisol continued. "Yeah, I can walk you back to Eremia, if you'd like."

"I would like that," Katerina said, a playful smile forming on her lips. "Are we girlfriends now?"

Marisol snorted and took Katerina's hand. "Not like that, if that's what you mean," Marisol said, rolling her eyes. "But yeah, friends."

They walked away, Marisol at the lead. Of course, Marisol wasn't sure where Eremia was, and Katerina probably knew better. But it was the thought that counted. Or something.

******


The Doves had stopped by The Pillars before night. Eerie as the place was, they wanted to spend as few nights in there as possible. For the two figures crawling their way through tents and skirting around guards, The Pillars could never have been as suspenseful as their goal.

"You're sure they're not in his tent?" Terasu whispered, her night robes billowing as she rolled past Jonathan, who looked around the corner of a tent.

Jonathan sighed; it was a miracle she hadn't attracted anyone's attention. "He didn't want them close," he said, walking across the earth as Terasu darted to and fro in front of him. "So he hid them."

Terasu stopped to catch her breath. "It would make this easier," she said between breaths. "But this feels just like the old days, doesn't it?"

Silence from Jonathan. Terasu looked back at him approaching her and scoffed. "You know I'm right," she said.

Jonathan shrugged and walked ahead of Terasu. "You said it."

Smirking, Terasu caught up to Jonathan, who stopped at the back of a wagon, pressing his hand against the wood tentatively. "You're my boyfriend," she said, laying a hand on his back. "Would it kill you to talk a little more?"

Pressing both hands on the wood, Jonathan slowly pushed himself onto the wagon. "We must be silent," he said as he turned around and held out a hand for Terasu.

She curtsied and daintily took the hand. "Do you know how late it is?" she said while Jonathan pulled her onto the wagon. "I doubt anyone on this planet would stay up-"

A light flickered into life from inside the wagon. Jonathan and Terasu froze, eyes instinctively scanning the candle that illuminated the space.

"I had expected you sooner," said the tired voice of the tired man the candle light now captured, slumped on a cushioned seat and the bags of his eyes pronounced. "I had waited quite a few nights, actually."

"Alarick-" Terasu began. The shadows that played across her face emphasized her widened eyes and short breaths. Jonathan looked at her as she forced a fake smile. He turned his impassive gaze to the equally blank Alarick. Their eyes met. They had both seen this coming, Jonathan realized. Terasu had wanted the contents of the wagon for so long, and Alarick had seen right through her attempts to win his favor. He wondered if this would make him Alarick's successor again - he dreaded the thought.

Alarick raised a hand. "Were this any previous day," he said, "I would have stopped you. On this day, however, I received advice from a good friend." Gesturing around him, he rose. "This is all yours. He was a son to me, and a brother to you. We should share his memory."

Terasu and Jonathan stepped aside as Alarick, candle in hand marched past, leaped off the back of the wagon, and disappeared into the night.

Neither moved for some time. Terasu, gaping, tried to speak at a few points, but the words never came. Jonathan was fatigued enough by staying up this late that Alarick's words came across as more of a dull surprise. What little he did feel was happiness. He was still suspicious that this was a more complicated ploy, a test to see if they would happily overlook his authority. Yet it was so unlike Alarick to concede defeat and walk away, particularly over something so important as this. If Terasu hadn't recovered her senses and began to rummage through the wagon's contents, Jonathan would've contemplated the meaning of this.

Pulling out a piece of armor, Terasu hugged it tenderly. "It's all his, she whispered. "All Rowland's."

"Should we take it?" Jonathan asked, walking over the chair. Sure enough, it was Rowland's embroidered one. He surmised Alarick had taken it from the general's room and exchanged it for another. Jonathan didn't dare sit on the chair - it wasn't his.

Terasu happily sprawled across the chair, tears in her eyes. "It all still smells like him," she breathed.

He took a step back. "Go on ahead," he said, trying to mask the bitterness in her voice.

"Rowland," Terasu whispered. "And his stupid charming face and his wink and his perfect red hair and - and - and -"

Jonathan wheeled around and sat at the edge of the wagon, propping his jaw against his fists. He could hear the soft weeping from behind him; it weakened his hard heart. Of course she had reason to cry, Rowland had been her boyfriend. Yet, he thought, was burying herself in Rowland's possessions a healthy solution? No, and neither was trying to make a new boyfriend or pin the blame on Rowland's death to the wrong person.

But what he could do? He didn't want to break her heart, even if it was already broken. So he waited. And waited. And waited.

Jonathan didn't even know when he fell asleep.



Chapter 25: Crowns, Part 1 (1,080 words): UNEXPECTED PERSPECTIVE.


Spoiler! :
Gently resting on top of a set of cushions, Eurynome, the Queen of Exedor, spoke gently. "The essence of magic is the application of the mind. If the mind is skilled enough and strong enough, it can invoke some of the many elements that comprise our world." Beatific, legs crossed, she clasped her hands together and looked down on the group of children sitting in a half-circle. All eyes faced her, expressions wholly focused on her somber-looking eyes. Perfect.

"We think of magic primarily in a few types," continued Eurynome, brushing aside a vine waving in front of her head. "One is wind," said Eurynome, closing her eyes. The vine waved weakly. "Another is fire." She faintly recognized the warmth as tendrils of flame leaped from her hands to the vine's edges, smelled the charring plant. One of the kids shouted in alarm, but Eurynome's expression tightened - the flames vanished. Smiling once more, Eurynome persisted. "Another is lightning." She could feel her fingertips tingle as the sparks danced across them. "The last is ice, my specialty."

Opening her eyes, Eurynome pointed to the vases of water positioned on either side of her. The water crackled, spears of ice shooting through it and expanding. The children applauded as the vases shattered, leaving behind ice imprinted in the vases' patterns. She waited for the children to silence.

"These are but the most notable of types; magic exists in many forms, as it is the manipulation of all in the world. Fire, lightning, ice, and wind are the easiest to wield and master. This is because magic is, sadly, tiresome," said Eurynome, arms retracting back to rest on her lap. "And one's expertise oft only lies in one type.” She could hear two pairs of footsteps from the spiral staircase that led to this open space – one clawing the cobblestone. Eurynome spoke faster. “If you master ice, like I have, you may only handle any other type weakly. Thus, be cautious about your choice. Ice and lightning can absorb energy from their surroundings; you will still lose some, but they are more efficient than the wasteful habits of fire and wind. The former two are weaker, however. Also remember that, as one masters a type, he or she is more liable to apply it in greater force. We have yet to learn why.”

Trevonn appeared at the stairs, a worried expression on his face. Beside him stood an eagle in half-form, towering over Trevonn, retracted wings large enough to nearly envelop the eagle. The eagle wore a green toga whose edges poked from beneath white robes stretching down to the eagle’s knees. Despite the hideous sound of the eagle’s claws scraping the stone, he held his beak high and looked royal.

Eurynome rose as the two entered the space. She herded the children, whose gazes were totally focused on Trevonn and the eagle, towards a door set in a tower. With much, if quiet, complaining, they eventually listened, stepping single-file into the tower while she held the door open. Eurynome shut and locked it, pressing her back against the wood.

“Trevonn, Aquila the Greater,” she said, listening for the clack of the children walking down the tower’s staircase. She breathed a sigh of relief a few seconds later when she heard it.

Trevonn, now where the children had sat, bowed. Sitting beside him, Aquila frowned. “My Queen,” Trevonn said in his soft way, rising. The corners of his smile twitched.

“Is something amiss?” she said, stepping cautiously towards him. The vines clung to the stone pillars placed at intervals around her, allowing the sun to shine on her face. It seemed to pull away the wrinkles on her face, illuminating her eyes and mind.

After a huff, Aquila shook his head. “Some idle worries of his,” he said, voice thick as steel. “‘Tis nothing but a false report.”

“Lord of Eagles, thank you for your words” said Eurynome, quickly bowing her head to Aquila before fixing her gaze on Trevonn, whose eyes darted away. “From whom?”

Putting great effort into returning the stare, Trevonn spoke slowly. “Wyandanch says it intercepted some message from The Doves. All lies, of course, they being nowhere where they should.”

The sun seemed to lose its effect, and the bags under her eyes felt like they were swelling. Eurynome sighed and clasped her hands again. “Alarick goes where he pleases. He should yet be in Eimhin, though. Has the situation been resolved?”

“We’ve not the time to see,” Aquila said, beak nearly clamped shut. “You’ve led me to threaten my soldiers with death to find the Prince and Princess, and now they’ve gone to stumble over each other. A disgrace!”

“It was what needed to be done,” said Eurynome without hesitation, still focused on Trevonn. “I suppose you worry about Jonah and Eremia?”

For a brief second, Trevonn’s eyes again fell away. When their gazes met, he nodded. “I,” he began, and then focused on her hands. She waved for him to continue. “The reports say that The Doves have – had – possession of our children. Something happened, and our son escaped. They did not say what.”

Silence fell over the three of them. Eurynome, who appeared and felt as frozen as the melting ice vases, watched as Aquila looked between her and the equally-stiff Trevonn. “A folly!” he squawked after a few impatient seconds, and the royals of Exedor flashed back into life.

“It is nothing,” said Eurynome airily. “Just parental worry and fanciful imaginations. Eremia would never let Jonah go past the border. We will find them in our country. Keep our soldiers on their task. If they are too disorganized, we may have to send a few more soldiers from Wyandanch. Seres will not like it, but I daresay he could do with disappointment at times.”

Aquila rose, looking annoyed. “As you will,” he said, turning away. “Seres already has enough disappointment from Wielde, and I would rather like to avoid his temper, so I will use only my own soldiers. I also wish that it had not taken you so long to realize my accuracy in those reports.”

“You are, as ever, wise,” said Eurynome, rolling her eyes when she believed he did notice. “Can you leave us to speak to each other?”

Raising a wing, which stretched out from the robes and almost touched the ceiling, Aquila went down the staircase without another word, the scraping noise fading as he descended the staircase.


Chapter 25: Crowns, Part 2 (1,053 words): This was more depressing than I anticipated. <.<

Spoiler! :
They waited until they couldn't hear him anymore.

Trevonn slumped as he approached his wife. Eurynome felt it undignified; she didn't do a good enough job hiding her discontent. Trevonn looked sheepish, but didn't change his posture.

"Is it-" Trevonn whispered, reaching out for Eurynome. She placed his hands on her shoulders and gently embraced him, pulling him closer.

"Perhaps." Eurynome whispered back.

Trevonn rested his head under Eurynome's chin, breathing in and out deeply. "What are we to do?"

Staring at the tranquil sky, Eurynome wondered if The Creator was staring back, peeling aside the sky and beyond with His power. She scowled. "We shall see," she said at last, neutral as her royalty demanded. "May we be fortunate."

******


Eremia relaxed when she heard the voices.

As she walked - and she'd requested this when she'd arrived - she rubbed her palm against the black stone that rose around her. Cold, impossibly smooth, and tingling. With each errant touch, Eremia could hear them. They did not speak anything she could understand, as they were too quiet and blended together. That they could speak at all was enough for her.

The others only recognized fear in this holy place; as the procession passed, many people stared at her as if she were crazy. Katerina's ears twitched constantly - Eremia would've asked Katerina if she could understand them, but any sound that bridged the quietness made Katerina jump. Even Marisol had stopped her sarcasm and offensive skepticism. Marisol hid her eyes under her mass of hair and walked silently along, keeping close to Katerina. Eremia wondered why they'd become so friendly as of late - she'd have to ask sometime.

It was not as though her friends were any less faithful. Well, Marisol was possibly not, but at least she didn't believe in multiple gods. Eremia thought of Ceinen. How would he interpret this place? Did he know The Pillars as they were - the centerpiece of Fayne, a channel of the voices of the dead, The Creator's magnum opus? Or would he speak some falsehood about his pantheon, diminishing or entirely ignoring the role of The Creator? Her blood boiled, but her mind pointed out the enjoyment she got from arguing with him. Proving her faith was thrilling.

Now the proof was all around her. Part of her wanted to take a piece from a pillar. She wondered if she could still hear the voices inside it if she left The Pillars. At the same time, it would be disrespectful if she did so. The Pillars were an integral part of the world, and she didn't want to cause damage.

"They all sound angry."

Eremia yanked her hand away, nearly smacking Katerina in the process. "Hmm?" said Eremia, composing herself as she turned to face Katerina.

Katerina half covered her fox ears. Knees bent slightly and arms close together, she seemed small. "They're angry," she said again, loudly.

Eremia wondered if the voices were crowding out Katerina's hearing. "For what?" Eremia said. "They have a paradise to live in."

"They just do," Katerina said. She mouthed "okay?", but didn't say it, likely out of fear of coming across as rude.

Frowning, Eremia held an ear against a pillar and closed her eyes. Drowned out by the stamping of horse feet and clattering wagons, she could barely hear the voices. What little she did hear, she couldn't make anything of. She couldn't tell if they were angry, sad, happy, or all emotions at once. It was almost disorienting. She wasn't going to disagree with Katerina, though the thought made her uncomfortable.

She heard a loud scraping noise. Yanking herself from the pillar, Eremia's eyes shot down as they captured black flecks raining down. Far above, two figures flew from pillar to pillar. The smaller one at the front was clearly Aquila, while the other had to be Iasquam, since Iasquam always flew slowly.

"What are they doing?" Eremia said. Cupping her hands over her mouth, she tilted her head up and shouted, "Get down from there!"

Katerina winced and closed her ears further. The two birds spiraled downwards, Aquila in graceful loops. On landing, he looked proud, reach up to pull down Iasquam as the latter swooped uncertainly above the ground. "He's making progress," Aquila said, beak curving in what Eremia assumed was a smile.

"This is a sacred place!" shouted Eremia, hands balled up into fists on her hips. "Does this look like a training ground?"

Iasquam looked with interest at the ground. "He thinks it's easier to fly around here," Aquila said, visibly shrinking as he wrapped his wings around himself. "And, uh, aren't these supposed to be super sturdy?"

Had she not heard Iasquam, she would've lashed out further. "One can hear the voices of the dead," however, destroyed all her tension.

Waving dismissively, Eremia said, "Carry on, then." Walking up to Iasquam, who stood frozen in place, she peered up into his sharp eyes. "Can you find-" said Eremia, then hesitated. To say anything more would hurt him.

"I'd like to," Iasquam said, wheezing slightly - from flying, Eremia reasoned. "She - di - left flying. It's - it's enough to finally honor her like this, but -"

"I understand," said Eremia. She didn't, but she didn't know what else to say. She'd known people who'd died, but she'd never been close to them. They certainly weren't family members. Except, Jonah had left. Not died, but it still hurt. Since Iasquam's pain was older and more severe, though, she remained silent.

Without a word, Aquila launched into the sky. A horse whinnied as he whipped up a gust of wind, propelling himself where he'd come from. Iasquam cast a forlorn glance at Eremia and followed. Buffeted by the winds, Eremia took a few steps back, covering her head as dust particles swirled around her. When she peeked out from over her arm, they were gone.

What saddened her more was not that Iasquam was searching for whatever was left of his sister, but that his earlier expression told her he knew exactly what he would find - nothing. She decided to pray. The Creator generally did not involve himself in anything but the most important events, but she hoped that, in this holiest of places, he would make an exception.
Last edited by TheSilverFox on Sat Mar 10, 2018 2:25 am, edited 1 time in total.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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Behold, the power of Roman numerals!

LMS Writing Part X




Chapter 25: Crowns, Part 3 (1,046 words): Whoopsy punchy. :P

Spoiler! :
As the group started walking again, she closed her eyes and thought. Thinking was more personal. Maybe that would make her plea all the stronger. You, Your wise guide, and Your three Sons - I beg Your attention. First, that You should help my erstwhile trainer find a trace of his dead sister in this, Your holiest of places. Secondly, though no less important, I ask that you lead my brother and I home. Bring us to our loving parents. End this fight between the Alliance and my kingdom. We need peace.

She wanted to continue, but anything else would be repetitive. Giving a tiny nod, Eremia envisioned a small gust of wind above her head. She could feel it blow her hair in the seconds before it rose upwards. Eremia hoped it would take her prayer with it.

******


"What are you doing!?" said Ailean, smacking a soldier on the back of the head. Ailean watched the soldier turn around and bow, trembling.

"J-j-just listen-n-ing," said the soldier, pointing to the wall of black rock behind him.

Ailean scowled. "You must be mad," he said. "Have we not already heard enough of this place?"

The soldier bent lower. "I j-just wanted to h-hear if they-they had anything to-to say."

"And?"

"They j-just sounded angry, my Prince."

Turning and walking away, Ailean pulled aside some of his long blonde hair. He laughed mechanically. "Go back to your march, soldier, or will you hear someone else angry."

Ailean strolled through the crowd of soldiers marching in the opposite direction. He peered up at two massive rocks on either side of him, trying to ignore the chill that ran down his back - he hoped his voice hadn't shook. Ailean ignored the masses. They would never dare to get in his way. That made it easier for him to hide his darting eyes, scanning the rock - almost invisible in the night - as though expecting a monster to leap out. Internally, he laughed again. He already knew one.

Catharnach's palanquin wasn't hard to spot, as was typical of his father's possessions. Fires from mages glowed in a steady circle around the palanquin, occasionally flickering as the mages grew weary and traded places with the newly awoken. Catharnach couldn't have a normal torchlight procession. Ailean was surprised that the lights didn't flicker more often. Catharnach had commanded the soldiers to march hours longer than before, to make a final push to Wyandanch.

When he approached, Ailean realized why - there were no mages. The flames hovered, casting no shadows on the ground. The attendants, messengers, and soldiers scattered around all looked panicked, staring up at the flames in anticipation. One touched a ball of fire before yanking his finger back, shouting. A groan from the palanquin made the foolhardy man clamp a hand over his mouth.

"Fath-King?" Ailean said, hand at the side of his mouth. He felt his legs jerk as he came closer. Ailean could sense something hanging in the air. It reminded him of a wet cloth being shoved in his face. Breathing deeply, Ailean wiped a few beads of sweat from his face while the last few servants parted. They gave him startled looks; a few were even crying silently.

Leaping onto the stairs at the back of the palanquin, Ailean marched up and peeled back the green curtain. The lamp inside had been extinguished, plunging the room into total darkness. This was probably for the better. As his eyes adjusted, Ailean could see a pair of convulsing figures opposite him. They were sprawled out on the floor, limbs flailing as they moaned.

"Father!" Ailean screamed in disgust, reaching down and picking up the lamp. "How dare you act so-"

The candle wick inside the lamp burst into flames, instantly coloring the room. Temporarily blinded, Ailean held a hand over his face. Each finger that he peeled away from his eyes made the scene more grotesque. Catharnach and Leathan huddled together at one corner. They hugged, nervous eyes shooting glances all around the space. Both were covered in sweat, but their ragged breathing and red eyes told Ailean it wasn't from what he had thought. Nevertheless, the Kings had cast aside their blankets and some of their robes, so that they were dressed in dark green nightgowns.

Their eyes focused on a spot behind Ailean. Catharnach screamed and shoved his head behind Leathan's back.

Ailean whirled around to find it looking back, expression blank. "You!" cried Ailean, pulling out a rapier from the scabbard at his side. Anger buried his thoughts, replacing them with the desire to stab the "child" through its hideous skull.

It raised a hand. A black ring immediately enclosed the tip of the blade. Ailean struggled to push his blade forwards, but to no effect. "How unsurprising," it said. "You would have all killed each other without me, wouldn't you?"

Because Ailean kept straining, it sighed and continued. "I have no interest in killing them, boy. Need I explain again? They merely suffer from nightmares. It always happens to those who stay around me."

"Freak!" Ailean spat, letting the rapier fall to the floor. He whipped out his bow, reaching back into his quiver for an arrow. His raspy breaths gave little air to his energetic mind.

It slammed a dark fist into Ailean's stomach. Ailean collapsed immediately, howling in pain. "I suppose you prepared your sword and bow for this?" it mused, placing a foot on Ailean's head. "Please stop. Controlling my followers and my fires strains me enough."

"You-" said Ailean through gritted teeth, trying to rise up. His arms convulsed under the strain of its impossibly strong foot. "-You want to rule Wyandanch yourself, do you not?"

It groaned. "You people will never learn, will you? Humans, I suppose. I have no interest in a kingdom as tiny and meaningless as Wyandanch. Catharnach will be the Dragon King, the short-sighed fool."

Ailean began to mutter an incantation under his breath. "Oh, Creator, bless me with the powers-"

"Activating your bond?" it said. "How clever." It created another dark fist, stepping off of Ailean's head. "Enjoy your nightmares, boy."

Ailean watched the fist crash onto his head, screaming until his eyes shut and the curtain of his dreams parted.



Chapter 26: Pre-Mortem, Part 1 (1,045 words): Alarick is 100% the kind of person who thinks everyone knows what he's going to do, and doesn't see why they don't.

Spoiler! :
"We'll get there tomorrow," Jonathan said, crouching down beside Terasu. She sat underneath the hotel's awning, legs crisscrossed as her eyes focused on the gleaming chestplate resting on her lap. Terasu nodded a few seconds later.

Scowling, Jonathan rose up. He was sure she hadn't gone to sleep last night, or the night before. Part of that had to be from Alarick's training, of course. Jonathan wished Latton would finally agree to never pull his stunt again and be released. Latton always knew how to talk to Terasu.

The familiar clink! of armor led Jonathan, walking towards one of the awning's many posts, to turn around and see Alarick approaching. "The owners are immensely friendly," Alarick said. "They couldn't fathom that I would give them money, and they tried to accompany me when I had to leave for an 'emergency.'"

"You're telling me because-?" Jonathan said, squinting.

Alarick sighed. "I have accommodations for myself and my generals. You may be my former protege, but you and Lyness still qualify, so I would like to know -"

"No," Jonathan said, crossing his arms. "I sleep outdoors. Lyness can decide herself."

Rage flashed in Alarick's eyes, but dissipated just as quickly, replaced by a weariness that dragged down his eyelids. "So be it. Could you point me to Madeleine?"

Jonathan pointed to Terasu.

"Must you always try to anger me?" Alarick said, his eyebrows furrowing. "I gave her what she wanted when I left you in that wagon. Did you expect this?"

Swiveling around, Alarick stomped off, heading along the path of tents now being erected on either side of the road. "No," Jonathan called out, cupping a hand over the side of his mouth. "But you can stop making her worse."

A heavy silence fell on the awning, just strong enough for Jonathan to hear Terasu's gentle sniffling. He decided that he was going to find Madeleine first. Making his way across the awning's dirt floor, he rounded one of the pillars and nearly ran into Eremia, who'd been leaning against one of the posts. She yelped in surprise, leaping back.

"Were you listening?" Jonathan asked.

"I was trying to hear the voices," Eremia said, looking up at him and scowling. "They may be faint now, but I wanted to see if I could still listen, and the shade here is marvelous. I had no interest in eavesdropping."

"But I'm guessing you did?"

Eremia's expression softened. "Will she be okay?"

Jonathan looked at the ground. "No. I talked Alarick into making her a general again. I found a way to quit. I didn't think he'd make her his successor. That made her worse. And then we stole Alarick's stuff, like we'd planned."

"I suppose that went poorly?" Eremia said, casting a wary glance at Terasu. The latter stayed still.

Nodding his head, Jonathan walked past Eremia, who ran briefly to catch up with him. "I don't know how to fix her."

They left the awning and made a wide arc to the front of the hotel, where a few soldiers had gathered to sit on the steps and relax, their armor laying around them. Others hammered tent poles into the earth, tied horses to some of the hotel's posts, and covered their ears as they whispered between each other. The soldiers left a clear path for Jonathan and Eremia.

Eremia broke the ice. Staring up at the midday sun, hand casting a shadow over her eyes, she said, "Was she listening to the voices?"

"No clue," said Jonathan. "She won't tell me."

He could see Eremia's mouth open as she tried to form another question, but she apparently thought better of it. Her eyes focused on the hospital tent that Jonathan could now see rising in the distance. "To Madeleine, then?"

"If I can get to her in time," Jonathan said bitterly. "Alarick wants to talk to her."

She scowled. "It cannot be convenient he wants us to have a 'few hours rest' before we spend the night running off to Wyandanch."

"Agreed. We barely sleep already."

Eremia laughed harshly. "It would fit him, given how oddly he sleeps."

They were close to the hospital tent now. Poised in front of one of the pillars, it loomed over the tiny rock formations scattered around. Jonathan could see a small crowd of people walking in and out of the tent. It was an oddly large amount - he suspected it was due to the stimulants Madeleine sometimes offered. He couldn't recognize Alarick's suit of armor.

"Ceinen?" Jonathan said, looking down at Eremia.

She rolled her eyes. "He is not nearly a problem," she said. "I find our conversations, to put it nicely, engaging. Time-consuming, but thrilling. He seems to enjoy them as well."

Jonathan put his hands behind his head and chuckled. "Sure. He's better these days, more active. I saw him planning routes on our maps an hour ago."

"Where?" Eremia said, a bit too excited.

Jonathan pointed towards their right. Eremia immediately broke away and walked off, disappearing among the soldiers. He'd been a little dishonest - Ceinen was either in the nearby tent or with one of the reconnaissance squads figuring out a path through the pillars. Still, at least he wouldn't have to hear them arguing again. They were horrible. He wanted to find out whose idea it was to bring them together, and - well, he'd decide on that later.

One group of people detached from the mass outside the tent and approached. It was comprised of about a dozen people, most of whom were pitching questions to the tired woman standing in the middle. Madeleine was too easy to recognize. She was leaning against Yorew's shoulder, dismissing each person with a wave of her hand as her steely eyes latched onto Jonathan. She gave a half-hearted smile while Yorew waved stiffly. "How is she?" called out Madeleine as the last few people ran off.

"Who?" Jonathan said, stopping in front of Madeleine.

Yorew instinctively halted, lightly bowing to Jonathan. Madeleine, pulling back some of her hair, sighed and said, "Terasu, of course. Alarick requested that I should keep an eye on her."

Jonathan clenched his teeth. "He didn't tell me that."

"You know how is about telling anyone anything," Madeleine said.


Chapter 26: Pre-Mortem, Part 2 (1,040 words): It's not getting much harder to write anything, no. <.<

Spoiler! :
"If only he would-" Jonathan grimaced. An idea, swallowing his mind from where it had hidden in the back of his head, cut him off.

Madeleine looked into his eyes and nodded. A strange calmness washed over her as she rose to full height, one hand still clasped in Yorew's. "It takes him forever to learn," she said quietly. "And we may not have much time left."

Jonathan rubbed his eyes, wiping out the dirt that had drifted down from his hair. He took a deep breath. "Is this the end?"

Her expression was mostly incomprehensible. Jonathan interpreted the rest as vaguely somber. "When we get to Wyandanch, I imagine not everyone will stay with The Doves."

"Not Eremia," Jonathan said. He felt like someone was hurling snow at his chest. "She wants to go home."

"And Katerina won't say no," Madeleine replied, looking pensive. "She would also bring the eagle, the hawk, her new friend, and-"

"Terasu could go home?" He remembered the last time she'd visited Comas and shivered. Still, there was so much difference between the fiery girl who would gladly yell at her father for daring to disrespect her friends, and the broken shell of a warrior that she was now. Perhaps she would go to her parents, especially if she felt (as he suspected she did) that she had lost everything. And what would she do then? Would they ever meet again? Jonathan pondered until he realized that Madeleine had stopped speaking. Her last words rang in his ears. Sighing, he craned his head in Yorew's direction.

Madeleine's eyes flared. "That is not your concern." Jonathan noticed Yorew grip Madeleine's hand tighter; she smiled at him in the split second before she resumed glaring at Jonathan.

"You don't know," said Jonathan. "You want to go with him, or the other way around."

"And what about you?" Madeleine replied, raising her chin. "Your former girlfriend and your best friend could leave, and I know that you would never stay with Alarick." She tried to continue, but Jonathan could tell what she was going to say next. She was angry, and she knew about his past. He slowly shook his head.

"Don't talk to me about my old home," he said, emphasizing each word. "It isn't mine anymore."

Yorew spoke. Jonathan and Madeleine nearly jumped as Yorew coughed and said, "These are moot points. We must get to Wyandanch first. Then we may decide who exactly goes with whom."

That comment sliced through Jonathan's restraint and the underlying anger. How? Eremia never quite explained to him how Yorew behaved. Jonathan couldn't figure Yorew out. Yorew had silently charmed Madeleine, proved an exceptional healer, and remained as unnoticeable as ever. He was impossibly suspicious, but also right. "Yes," he said, sighing. "We still need to think about the future."

Madeleine mumbled something that sounded like, "If there is one." She shuffled her weight and looked away from Jonathan. Yorew's words had stuck more than one person.

Jonathan scowled. "Rowland should've not fought it. We're falling apart."

Putting a hand on his shoulder, Madeleine smiled faintly. Her eyes gradually focused on Jonathan's as she spoke. "It's how he was," she said. "We knew something like this would happen eventually."

"He knew we could've been going to war. We had Eremia and Jonah, the kids of Wyandanch's only close ally, in our camp."

"And how many people would've died if he did nothing?" Madeleine retorted. When Jonathan hesitated, her calm voice flooded into his ears. "He picked an awful time to go, but he was doing his job. We're doing our jobs. And now, it's best that we sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow."

Madeleine and Yorew walked past Jonathan.

Jonathan placed a hand on his bow. They would be in the City of Dragons by tomorrow. The Alliance couldn't have mobilized quickly enough, but, if they had Jonah, they would be coming. There would have to be a war. He hoped for one. It meant spending more time with Eremia and Terasu, pretending that The Doves could still work together. If he died defending Wyandanch, at least he would die fighting, and he wouldn't have to worry about the pain of separation. Nodding, Jonathan followed.

******


Drusus had been reading the same page in his book for the last two hours. He would make it to the second paragraph, halt at the word "loss," and his eyes would immediately jump to the top of the page. Between his shaking hands and darting vision, that was the only word that he could recognize. He felt uncomfortably hot, wrapped in a blanket that covered his robes. The late afternoon sun didn't help, though he at least had the shadow of Torion covering the inside of the tiny tent.

Looking to Torion, Drusus saw the wolf's ears twitch. As if on cue, Torion turned around, poking his head into the tent. "Something bothering you?" Torion said.

Drusus resisted the urge to laugh. When Torion tried to hide his anxiety, his voice sometimes broke into something like a howl. Patting the ground beside himself, Drusus said, "Yes."

"The fight?" Torion said, frozen in place. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, trying to control his shaking.

"It could be a poor one," Drusus said, wiping sweat from his forehead with a towel. "We need to be honest about that." He was proud his voice only broke twice

Torion crouched and slipped into the tent, resting next to Drusus's feet. "I don't want to, you know, um," Torion stammered.

"Lie? Say we're going to be fine?" Drusus said, raising out a hand to rub the fur at Torion's ear. "We can't."

Torion whimpered and set himself down beside Drusus. His ears flicked back and forth erratically.

"But we have each other," Drusus went on. It was so hard to speak when Torion looked so pitiful and adorable, even if Torion was supposed to be the guard. "And the others are fighting for themselves. And two is better than one, isn't it? Even if there's a lot of - a lot of things we still haven't done. As a couple. While we still have a day, is there anything you would like to do?"


Chapter 26: Pre-Mortem, Part 3 (1,098 words): Worrrrrrrrrrds, plot-relevant worrrrrrrrds.

Spoiler! :
Torion closed his eyes. Drusus gently pulled on one of Torion's ears to get it to stop, and then continued to stroke it. "More of this," Torion said. Yet his ears moved again.

"Is that true?" Drusus said after a rattling sigh. He set his book aside and placed his other hand on Torion's back. "We've gone the romantic route, but should we go further?"

Torion growled, but it died quickly, especially as Drusus rubbed Torion's back. "It's kind of too soon," he said, eyes still closed.

"We can't exactly wait," Drusus said, eyes darting to the tent's entrance. Nobody in sight. He shook his head to fling off the beads of sweat reaching for his eyebrows. Suddenly he couldn't think of the war. He couldn't imagine the cavalry charge, or the thousands of archers firing from the walls of Wyandanch. There was only Torion, who was crossing his arms and trying to stifle the smile forming on his lips. Drusus could feel his heartbeat quicken; it matched with the rapid pace he felt on Torion's ear. "How about tonight?"

"We'd stay up all night," Torion said. He leaned backwards, slowly switching from sitting to laying down.

"It wouldn't make a difference when - when tomorrow comes," Drusus whispered, letting go of Torion's back. Images of flames and swords flickered through Drusus's head, only briefly jabbing fear into his veins. "And we'd feel alive."

Torion, head on the ground, looked up at Drusus. "There's still the whole life after death thing, right?"

"Always," said Drusus, sprawling out on the floor and wrapping his arms around Torion's shoulders. Torion's fur was warm and soft to the touch, but it didn't have half the strength as Drusus's radiant eyes. Caught by their power, Torion's eyes gradually focused on Drusus. Drusus leaned forward.

An imposing shadow fell over the both of them. Drusus instinctively screamed, pulling his head back from Torion's. Letting go of Torion, Drusus propped his hands on the ground and glared at the thickly-armored, beaming man standing over him. "Have you ever heard of privacy?" Drusus said, before his eyes adjusted to the darkness and captured the impressions of the man's face. Drusus paled.

Kasimir, pulling a long pipe out of his mouth and breathing out a ring of smoke, shook his head. "Privacy? Do you know how long we've all wondered if you were lovers?" He gestured to Torion, who had covered his head with his hands and curled into a ball. "You're good kids - I'm happy for you."

Had his affection really been so obvious? Trembling, Drusus pushed himself onto his feet, ducking beneath the smoke and the tent's small roof. "Why would you smoke that?" Drusus quavered, snatching Kasimir's pipe. "You know how bad it is for your health."

"That's what my healers are for," Kasimir said, laughing. He patted Drusus on the shoulder. Drusus's eyes darted to the spot long enough for Kasimir to pull the pipe from Drusus's hand.

Drusus said, mustering as great a frown and loud voice as he could hold for longer than a sentence, though he had to stress every word, "It wastes good farmland. No wonder we have to intrude into Claec and suffer poverty."

Kasimir shrugged. "Hey, I'm not a good king. After this, though, we can get as much land as we'd like." He peeked over Drusus's shoulder. Drusus turned to see Torion hiding in a blanket on the other side of the tent.

Drusus could feel the tug of a heartstring. He immediately crouched and tugged at the edges of Torion's blanket, revealing part of the wolf's head. In response, Torion yanked the blanket back with a quick movement of his claws, pushing Drusus forward. Kasimir, making a clicking noise, grabbed the back of Drusus's robes before the latter fell on Torion. As Drusus struggled, silently cursing Kasimir for daring to intrude and ruining what had been a good time, the King of Walenty let go and positioned himself between Drusus and Torion.

"What do you think I'll do?" Kasimir said, easily pulling back Torion's blanket. The wolf looked with dilated eyes shifting between the King and Drusus; Kasimir blocked Drusus's attempts to get in front of him. "Hey, I saved your life. That's never going to change. You can do whatever you'd like with each other. Or to each other." Kasimir chuckled at the end.

And then Kasimir stepped back, allowing Drusus to throw himself onto, and hug, Torion. Drusus glared at Kasimir as Torion's muscles relaxed, head resting against Drusus's chest. "Very good kids," the King said. "I think you'll do great things tomorrow."

"We're going to die tomorrow," Drusus spat. He was relieved to be back with Torion, but the shock of being caught by Kasimir - combined with the King's beaming expression - filled Drusus's mind with fire. The fear of disrespecting his king died.

"Sure about that?" Kasimir said, wagging a finger. "We're still following the Mad King's plan, and he's not dead or a prisoner. But hey, we still have Belisarius."

"That freak of a child barred our spies from talking to him."

Kasimir raised a finger. "He still knows the plan." Another finger. "That kid could actually take the city." A third finger. "It's easy to backstab someone in a burning city."

Drusus laughed. "They will be thinking the same thing."

Spreading his arms out, Kasimir said, "Sure, but Wyandanch has a million tunnels and buildings. They're good places to hide."

Drusus's mind raced to find an objection, but it couldn't dispute Kasimir's logic.

Stepping out and away from the tent, Kasimir rose up to his full height. "I don't care how many assassins or soldiers they have. We can kick their sorry asses if we figure out the city's insides. You want to stay out of the fire? Get your boyfriend here and map out Wyandanch. You're a strategist; it's your job. Hey, I'm not so evil that I would just let two kids in my court die."

Still infallible. Why did Kasimir have to be so reasonable? Drusus had to remind himself that Kasimir had fought, and won, a war. If Drusus was a student, Kasimir was the master. "Thank you, my King," Drusus said at last, bowing his head. "My - my apologies. I was - doubtful."

"You have one good reason to be," Kasimir replied, pointing to Torion. "Just don't question me until you know the facts."

When Kasimir walked away, Drusus felt a tap on his leg. "Since he's gone," whispered Torion, "Let's make today count."

Drusus kissed Torion lightly on the forehead. "Alright."


Chapter 26: Pre-Mortem, Part 4 (541 words): Dramatic irony at its finest.

Spoiler! :
Wielde never liked his bedroom.

The bishops and Seres had been kind enough to move him away from his old room, which rested beneath his mother's on the tall tower. But this room was hardly an improvement. The black stone sucked in all the light, making it shaded in the daytime. In the night, it was an endless darkness that swallowed the Dragon King as he nestled in the sheets on his oversized bed. Not even the chair and writing desk were visible, nor the thick wooden door that stood opposite him. To his right, the only trace that the rest of the world existed filtered in through a narrow window.

But he had to be near the throne room. It was the duties of being a king, they told him. Should any dignitaries and diplomats come, he should be ready to greet them at a moment's notice. Never mind that they came rarely, often visiting Seres before giving him a few pithy words when he came to the throne room. Wyandanch lived on tradition. Or, as Wielde thought, it was dying because of tradition.

He raised his head up and fluffed one of the pillows. Flopping back down, he peered out into the emptiness. The faint smell of baked bread - how late was it, anyways? - reached his nose from the window. Poor commoners. Did they even have meat, or salt, or wine? Wyandanch kept a supply of hogs somewhere in the city, but they were meant for the army, he had been told. Everything was meant for the army, or for him. With what little his crown meant to him, he would've gladly given away his food and titles. An army didn't have much use in a dying, nigh-impenetrable town.

But Seres wouldn't listen. Seres would never listen.

Probing the darkness with his index finger, Wielde felt the edge of the wooden cabinet beside his bed. Pulling himself onto his side, he tapped the cabinet, hearing a distinctive plink! On his third try, the fingernail tapped the edge of the sliver of metal.

Wielde gently grabbed it and pulled it close to him, propping himself against the back of the bed. Pinching it with his other hand, he jabbed the sliver into his index finger. Closing his eyes and focusing on the pain, he imagined the finger as it always looked - pale and unharmed. A little white flash creeped into his eyelids; he opened them to see the tip of the finger glowing. It faintly illuminated the blue bedsheets, the edge of the cabinet, and the hands in front of his face. A speck of blood tried to run from the light, but it was pulled back by some strange force and vanished.

He smiled. It would've been more convenient to light a candle, but something about using his own powers appealed to him (besides, he knew ice and healing magic better than fire). And, in that desolate room, the flash was the only real thing. It was something the darkness couldn't swallow up so easily.

The light flickered out. Wielde wormed his way back into the bedsheets, nudged his head into the pillow, and soon went to sleep.

He felt sure that tomorrow would be fine.


Chapter 27: The End, Part 1 (544 words): SUBTLE FORESHADOWING.

Spoiler! :
Wielde woke up to the sound of someone beating his door.

"My King! My King!" a voice shouted. The groggy Wielde recognized it as one of the senior bishops.

Placing his arms on the bed - they almost sank against the downy mattress - Wielde squeezed his way out of the sheets and yawned, blinking his eyes. A narrow beam of sunlight shot into his bedroom, coloring his surroundings in faint blues and browns. As he watched, eyes slipping into and out of focus, the beam grew smaller. Probably a passing cloud.

"My King!" shouted the bishop again, slamming his fists on the door. "Open this door at once!"

Running a hand through his hair and pulling it back, Wielde shouted back, "Will you break it down first?" He internally groaned. He'd probably forgotten some ceremony, or maybe Seres was calling him for morning training, or maybe the chefs had made breakfast and were getting impatient. It was all the same to him. Nevertheless, Wielde had no choice, so he slid to one side of the bed and yanked blue robes down from a hanger. The hanger fell onto the floor, making an audible thump against the black floor.

"There is an invasion, my King!" the bishop said. His voice croaked, which Wielde knew only happened when the bishop was nervous. "There is no time for dawdling!"

Wielde slipped the robes over his white boxers and froze. "Did I mishear you?" he said. "There is an initiation?"

"An invasion!" bellowed the bishop. About then, Wielde focused on the beam of the light, partly obscured by a changing shape. Smoke.

Heavy as the door was, Wielde thrust it back in only a few seconds. The senior bishop, dressed in white robes and carrying a golden staff with an orb at the top, snatched the King and led him down the spiraling staircase. For an old man with more wrinkles than muscles, the bishop moved surprisingly fast, almost treading over Wielde's feet a couple times. Wielde had just fractions of second to glance out each tiny window poised in the tower. Was that smoke? Was he imagining things? It was hard to distinguish the gray from the color of the city, yet the plumes stood out against the morning sun.

At the bottom of the staircase, the open door led into an active throne room. The rest of the bishops huddled in a semi-circle by the center of the room, whispering among each other. Their heads all turned when Wielde and the senior bishop entered, faces etched in trembling lips and restrained sobs. Behind them, staring through the large windows, was the familiar outline of Seres. He held his claymore in front of him, as though he were going to attack the glass.

"My Lord, I-" said the senior bishop to Seres before the latter pivoted around. The senior bishop quivered and hid behind Wielde.

"Come with me to see the battlefield," Seres said. He didn't need to say anymore. Beneath that stoic expression, Wielde could see Seres's firm grip on the claymore, the bulging muscles on his neck. Seres was furious, and each deliberate step and sharp breath said he could do anything. Wielde didn't want to be on the receiving end of that blade.



Chapter 27: The End, Part 2 (1,047 words): whoopsy stabby.

Spoiler! :
Wielde nodded, resisting the urge to gulp, turn around, and run back to his tower.

Letting go of the claymore for a second to beckon the others, Seres walked through a door stuffed against the corner of the wall, almost invisible in the dark room. The bishops looked among one another as he exited. They seemed hesitant to follow, as though there was a trap on the other side of the door.

Wielde led the charge, speeding after Seres and catching the edge of the door before it closed. Flinging it open, the Dragon King ran after his strategist. The bishops, huddled together, followed. Normally, they would've chastised Wielde for his hastiness, but they'd wisely decided otherwise.

They made their way through a corridor stretching out into the light. Thick black walls confined them. Between the darkness and the surrounding Wyandanch troops, the King and his bishops were herded into an almost single-file line. Soldiers strapped on their helmets and armor pads as they rushed past, brandishing spears or bows. Some archers aimed through the crosses that had been carved into the walls. Many saluted the King as he caught up to Seres, who barked orders and pointed to a tower poised at the end of the walkway, darkened by shadows. Those in earshot quickly turned around, colliding into their neighbors before slowly forming lines on either side of the royal group.

A familiar figure slid into place beside Seres. Her outfit made it look as though she were Seres's shadow. Wielde recognized Veta's sweet voice instantly. "You called me, lord?" she said.

"How did you not notice this?" Seres growled back. As he and Veta stepped into the light, he pointed to the city walls.

When Wielde, panting from keeping up with Seres, felt the warmth of the Sun caress his face, he gasped. Huge pillars of smoke rose from the southern edge of the city, accompanied by the screaming of men. Spurts of flames licked the city's walls, scattering the specks he could barely see among the parapets. His heart stopped. Where were his uncles? What was the dim, massive outline buried in the smoke?

He ran into Vera's back; she didn't respond. Leaping back, he made a quiet, nervous laugh. It stopped as he peered between Seres and Vera to find Seres's loyal assistant barring the path, standing between two grim-faced soldiers. Wielde couldn't remember the man's name, only that the man was annoying and sounded whiny.

"Nissyen," Seres said. "What. Are. You. Doing."

Nissyen laughed maniacally, rasping as he slapped his knees. "You old shit!" he said. "You never figured it out?"

"I did not. Care to tell me why?" Seres raised his claymore ever so slightly, but Nissyen kept on laughing, barking out sentences between laughs and coughing fits.

"I moved your spies around. I made them burn up those warning letters. I let them slip right under your nose until it was too late. All because they knew how to pay me actual money. You worthless excuse for a leader, what are you going to do now?"

Seres stood silently. "Cover his eyes," he whispered to Veta. She immediately swiveled around, blocking Wielde's vision with two hands. Ice running through his veins, Wielde tried to escape by pushing forward, but to no avail. He wasn't all that strong.

And yet, through the gaps in her fingers, he could see two soldiers grab Nissyen's arms and hold him in place. Seres made one wide slash across Nissyen's stomach. Nissyen looked down at his wound, then back at Seres, in surprise and rage. He collapsed. They flung his body over the wall.

Veta pulled her hands away. Wielde immediately ran to the edge of the wall and vomited, grapping the parapets for support. Tears slipped down his face as he shivered, teeth clattering.

"Carry him," Seres shouted. Eyes closed, Wielde could only vaguely recognize Seres's voice getting more distant. Hands wrapped around his midsection and pulled him onto his feet, pushing him forward. Wielde didn't resist, though he was tempted to barf again when he nearly slipped onto the ground.

The stench of ash inundated them now. It made up for the silence that permeated them, broken only by the distant sounds of fighting or the coughing of the bishops as they breathed in smoke. Wielde wrapped his arms around his chest feeling each unsteady step that led him closer and closer to the tower.

This couldn't be the end, could it?

No, it couldn't be. Seres had always protected him.

No, it could be. He could lose his crown.

No, it couldn't be. His crown was worthless anyways.

No, it could be. His crown was the only thing valuable about him.

He had to believe the ancient city would hold against the enemy's barrage. It had taken on the dragons and phoenixes alike and held. But those were the old days. Doubt flickered in his head, emphasizing that strange shape in the smoke.

The light blinked out of his vision. Based on the echoing footsteps, he guessed he was heading up the tower now.

"Of course it would be now," Seres grumbled. "Exedor's pulled out half of its troops, we have no idea where their children went, and this city is half-dead already. Thank The Creator they didn't come during the wedding."

"We're not having one?" Veta said. She sounded almost sad.

"No. Unless both of them live," said Seres. "Since she happens to be commanding soldiers in a battlefield, and only the walls are keeping her outnumbered army alive, I have my doubts."

"Her uncles?"

"If they aren't there, I would gladly give them Nissyen's punishment."

Seres then said something incoherent and punched the wall. Wielde flinched, heart skipping beats as he thought about his uncles. And then his mother, still stuck in her tower, likely abandoned to whatever fate the attackers should desire.

This was a nightmare. This had to be a nightmare. Soon he would wake up in his soft bed again and not think about how he had just seen a man die. He would head down the stairs, walk into the throne room, and the bishops would guide him to breakfast. It would be a normal meal, a boring meal. And he would be thankful for that.


Chapter 27: The End, Part 3 (1,092 words): Do you like cliffhangers too?

Spoiler! :
“Pry his eyes open,” said who Wielde guessed to be Seres. His voice was so strained it was almost unrecognizable. Frankly, that Seres was so angry was baffling. He was always so calm, so poised. A bit depressed and frustrated, perhaps, but who wasn’t in this city? Wielde had never associated Seres with rage, much less a murderous one.

Not wanting to see if someone would enact Seres’s command, Wielde opened his eyes. Temporarily blinded by the light, the Dragon King quickly realized they were standing on the tiny top of the tower. Only a few soldiers, Veta, Seres, and Wielde could squeeze into the space, which was edged by stone paraphets and a few wooden posts that held a thatch roof. Another could’ve joined them if it were not for the telescope that pointed to the south. Wielde was impressed – he’d heard of of them before, but never seen one. It looked so articulate and fragile, thanks to the lenses and the intricate carvings on the wood. He guessed it had to be a gift from the merchant lords in The Passageways.

Seres, pulling his head up from the telescope, gestured in the direction of Wielde. The soldiers parted as best they could, allowing the Dragon King to walk up beside Seres. A brief glance captured Seres’s clenched jaw and ashen face, eye muscles twitching as he glared ferociously in the direction of the fighting.

Disconcerted, Wielde tried to keep his shaking legs under control as he bent down and stared into the eyepiece. After a few seconds, he gasped. He gripped the edges of the telescope and restrained a sob.

“My spies-” began Veta quietly.

“They were right,” whispered Seres. “They just had to be. But I needed to see it myself.” He took a deep, audible breath. When Wielde let go of the telescope and rose, Seres looked down. “Have you?”

Wielde nodded. He hoped it would be distinguishable from the way his head bobbed.

Wheeling around, Seres shoved his way towards the stairs. “Follow me!” he barked. “Find me the King of the Rats, my generals, and the diplomats. We’re evacuating Wyandanch!”

******


“Brother!”

Franz sprinted across the top of the wall, dodging the latest wave of arrows that sprouted from the thick smoke. Soldiers screamed as they collapsed, arrows sprouting from their chests or necks. Others retreated to the stairs leading to the wall’s insides, though a defeaning explosion from below led some to crouch warily at the stairs’ edges. Leaping over a pile of debris, Franz avoided most of the shaking, though he landed unsteadily. Something in his foot popped. He grimaced and carried on, mustache blowing in the wind.

In the distance was his target. Emmerich, bow still drawn, fired a few shots into the smoke. He lay on his back, leg trapped by debris. Franz had no doubts that, even if his brother weren’t trapped, he certainly wouldn’t be fleeing. Which was the problem.

Without hesitation, Franz stopped and hurled the piece of cobblestone trapping Emmerich’s leg. “What nonsense is this?” Franz shouted as he grabbed Emmerich by the chestplate and pulled the man up. It took a panick-filled second for Franz to realize that Emmerich was coughing out ash, not blood.

Another explosion partially drowned out Emmerich’s words, but Franz caught “fighting!”

“Moron!” Franz said, yanking on Emmerich’s arm. “Our soldiers are scattered! We need to rally them!”

Emmerich stood steadfast, though his formerly-trapped leg bent slightly. “Does it matter? We will all die! I will die for my country! No retreat, no surrender!” He snatched an arrow from the ground, stuck it onto his bow, and drew it back.

Cupping his hands over his mouth, Franz replied, “You are horrible with bows! You always have been!”

Indeed, the arrow nearly clipped the edge of the paraphet as it fell down the wall. “I lost my sword and picked this up!” Emmerich shouted back, now growing hoarse. “It will do fine!”

By now, Franz was wondering if it would be fine to use the butt of the sword to knock Emmerich out. They had so little in common, despite being twins.

Another wave of arrows forced both men to duck. “Be practical!” Franz yelled. He looked around. Few soldiers stayed, and those that did were dying fast. He decided to make the argument anyway. “Who will lead without us?”

Emmerich fired another shot. “The fools are gone, Zin – they lead themselves! I have my own cause! Death to the traitors, and glory to the Dragon King! Ha!”

Had he really lost it? Was the stress and fear getting to Emmerich? Franz had known Emmerich to be cocky and fervent in battle, but this was something else entirely. This was stupid. No, this was outright suicidal. It wasn’t hard to guess why, but Franz refused to believe it. Wyandanch had never fallen. He was going to make sure it wasn’t about to.

Before Franz could respond, the sun died. Or, that’s what he thought. The battlefield plunged into near-total darkness. Soldiers, thick columns of fire and smoke, arrows flying in both directions - all vanished. He could barely even see Emmerich, who still plucked broken arrows from the ground.

A voice screeched from over their heads. It drowned out the sounds of war in its intensity, shoving its way through Franz’s ears in a near-defeaning roar. He could’ve sworn they were bleeding. The high pitch, which reminded Franz of his nephew when he was surprised by something, helped make the sentence somewhat incomprehensible. However, Franz could still detect the sarcasm and contempt dripping from the words.

“Yes, you’re both very entertaining. But I think you need to go.”

The ground underneath Franz’s feet gave way.

He couldn’t remember the next minute. One moment he was standing on the top of a wall, listening to some unspeakable abomination, and the next he was scrabbling his way out of a pile of bricks. Pain washed through his entire body as his fingers desperately cast aside stones, looking to give him an opening to breath through. His armor was doubtlessly dented and broken in countless places, he could feel something trickling down over his eyes and mouth, and he could barely recognize he was screaming because of his ringing ears.

Most of all, he felt numb from all the pain. Spots danced in his eyes; his nose only smelled burning wood. The only sensation that coursed through his veins came when he finally pulled his head out of his rocky prison and spotted Emmerich. And it was fear.


Chapter 27: The End, Part 4 (1,118 words): rip cousin marriage. ;-;

Spoiler! :
The only clue that there was a person in the rubble at all was a leg sticking out from a pile of cobblestone. Franz rushed over, vision clouding as he stumbled. Not that it was easy to see anything in the first place; everything was shrouded in a darkness only faintly illuminated by flames. A wave of nausea struck him. Still, driven by an impulse that defied his broken body, he made it over to the pile and began throwing stones over his shoulder. His hearing slowly recovered, picking up the sounds of roaring fires, collapsing walls, and screaming. He closed his mouth.

Eventually, Emmerich’s head appeared from the stones. Blood trickled steadily down his mouth, eyes, and nose. Franz cried out in joy, tears slipping down his face as he set down a stone. Emmerich suddenly coughed, hacking up and spitting out gray ash. While Franz desperately tried to wipe the blood from Emmerich’s face, Emmerich stared up at his brother and mouthed something. As pale and haggered as he looked, coated in blood and debris, it was impossible to tell the exact words. But Franz saw the fear in those eyes.

Franz’s muscles were far less willing to free Emmerich. The sense of urgency having faded away somewhat, they groaned with Franz’s every effort. Fortunately enough, Emmerich shook some of the stones off of his chest and stomach, and it wasn’t long before he burst from his trap entirely. Breathing in deeply, Emmerich coughed out another remark, bending down and placing his hands on his knees.

“What?” shouted Franz, looking around. He could see a path winding its way up to the partly-broken ceiling. It was steep and full of sharp objects, but passable (thank The Creator).

“Learned my lesson!” came Emmerich’s shaky response. “Not a big fan of death!” Smiling in spite of it all, he stretched his arms over his head. Despite two loud popping sounds, he barely grimaced.

A tremendous explosion shook the space. Dust cascaded onto their heads. “We need to leave,” Franz said, taking a few steps forward. He almost fell onto his face, grabbing onto the rubble at the last second.

Franz felt a hand grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him up. “Are you alright?” said Emmerich, inspecting his brother’s face. “You smacked your head.” He tried to wipe some of the blood from Franz’s forehead. A wave of pain washed over Franz, who clenched his teeth. Emmerich stopped.

“Concussed, perhaps,” Franz said. He flicked some tears from his eyes, one hand clutching a temple. “We must fix it later. I need to find my daughter.”

Emmerich nodded solemnly. Throwing an arm around each other, they struggled their way up the path, grunting as their feet struck cobblestones or their senses returned to them. If they survived, Franz thought, they’d be stuck in a hospital for months. Or a jail cell, if they were captured. Or perhaps they’d be on the chopping block. But, the city couldn’t fall to its enemies, could it? He had a harder time believing that now.

It soon become apparent that the outside world was no brighter. Dark clouds obscured the sky, masking the walls that the brothers finally threw themselves on to. Panting and sweating, they let go of each other and rolled onto their backs, staring up at the thick, raging clouds. The sounds of battle – screaming, swords clanging, arrows zooming through the air – and the smell of ash and blood filled their ears and noses. Franz had never been in a battlefield of this size or intensity before; it was enough to even mask The Pillars. That it was at his home terrified him.

In a minute, Franz wished he’d gone blind. Propping his hands on the ground, he pulled himself up just in time to see the dark figure again. It had surrounded a group of soldiers. They stood in a circle, spears raised, protecting a single person with a raised sword. Franz felt his stomach drop. The soldiers were on the other side of a demolished segment of wall; flames and smoke made them hard to spot, much less tell apart. Yet he was almost certain who was leading them.

“No!” Franz yelled, throwing himself onto his feet and taking a few steps forward. Biting his lip to fight against the pain, he inched his way towards the gap in the wall.

The dark figured plunged both hands into the wall, spewing dust and stone in a massive cloud. Ground shaking and the air booming, Franz was thrust back. Emmerich, just standing up, reached out to grab Franz. They collapsed onto the ground, Emmerich briefly crushed by Franz.

No!” Franz cried, rising up again. Emmerich followed, wheezing. The dust across the wall cleared, revealing all the soldiers had vanished. Looming over the carnage, the dark figure (somehow smaller, it seemed) held one in the palm on his hand. The soldier, sword still drawn, stabbed at the figure’s hand. The figured laughed – a tinny, rasping one – and slowly made a fist.

Franz sprinted towards the figure, screaming in a primal rage that he never knew he had. Tears streamed down his face as a wave of arrows arched over his head, flying into the city. Then he felt something grip onto his leg. Pitching forward, he kept on shouting, even when his head poked over out the gap. He caught sight of the masses of soldiers streaming into Wyandanch. It looked like thousands, weapons drawn and banners raised, pouring over the stone like ants and tossing torches onto the buildings in front of them. Trumpets sounded. Soldiers roared names. Walenty. Claec. Eimhin. The Alliance.

“Don’t be stupid!” Emmerich bellowed. A pause. “Like me!”

“I-” began Franz, but the earth trembled again. And, once again, the floor beneath them collapsed.


******



“Having fun yet?” Kasimir called. His eyes glinted in the fires that surrounded them.

Drusus gave a crooked smile. Leaning against the inside of one of the formidable Wyandanch walls, he watched Kasimir drift in and out of sight, swept up by a wave of soldiers. He was sick of the sound of horses leaping onto cobblestone. He hated the smells of ash and death. Mostly, he hated that the plan was actually working. Wyandanch was legendary for its impenetrable walls. It terrified him that the ‘Prince of Exedor’ had snapped them like twigs.

“Just look around!” Kasimir said, knocked back by the force of his own army. The way he kept looking towards the burning city, it was clear he wanted to join them. “Don’t fight if you need to!” Almost totally out of sight now. “Good luck!” He turned around, raised his sword, and vanished in the smoke.


Chapter 27: The End, Part 5 (1,020 words): Get lost.

Spoiler! :
Drusus groaned as he watched his king disappear. He would’ve been happy if Kasimir had stayed. Kasimir could fend for himself; he’d be just fine on the streets, chaotic as they’d be. No, Drusus wanted the protection. He and Torion would be away from most of the fighting, sure, but the underbelly of the city was a strange and dangerous place. Or, so he’d been told.

Taking in a shaky breath, Drusus slowly turned his head around and gave Torion a nervous grin. Torion, pressed up against the wall opposite Drusus, grimaced back, canines poking from the edge of his mouth.

They walked in an awkward gait down the corridor that stretched in front of them slowly, holding hands. Many torches had been knocked down by the explosions, and most of the rest had lost their flames. The few still lit glowed eerily, casting small spheres of light into the darkness.

And then, in front of him, Drusus could see an outstretched hand spitting out tiny sparks. Their light was even weaker than the torches, but illuminated the stones scattered on the ground at their feet. Briefly startled, he gripped Torion’s hand tighter.

“Sorry,” whispered Torion. The sparks weakened.

“No!” said Drusus, reaching his own free hand to Torion’s. When they touch, the sparks intensified, throwing jagged shadows across the corridor. “No, it helps.”

Torion smiled. A genuine one, this time. Drusus could feel his heart fluttering, matching the faster heartbeats that he sensed from Torion’s hands. “So, about last night?” Torion said, stammering and laughing.

They leaped over a small pile of stones and ducked around a spot where the wall had bulged inwards. It grew hotter, but Drusus chalked that up to the narrowing corridor. ‘The Prince of Exedor’ must have forced the walls apart when he broke into Wyandanch. “Did we sleep at all?” Drusus said, tugging on his collar and then rubbing a scratch on his ear. He could feel sweat starting to trickle down his forehead, though it didn’t bother him – he had someone to relate to.

“In a sense,” Torion replied quietly. He looked away, lips curled in a slight smile. Drusus immediately recognized that reaction as Torion blushing.

Drusus made a high-pitched laugh. “Innuendo? I’d never thought that I would hear it from you.”

“Yeah,” Torion said, glancing at Drusus. “The first time changes things.”

Blinking, Drusus said, “Your first time? Beautiful as you are, I would’ve thought-”

Then Torion froze. Drusus stopped, foot raised in the air. A short distance away, an open trapdoor loomed from the floor. It would’ve been impossible to recognize otherwise – the top of the door was covered in some cobblestone camouflage. Their sparks barely cut into the square of darkness exposed by the trapdoor. Casting nervous glances between each other, Drusus and Torion inched forward carefully. Their held hands separated and reached for their weapons.

Still, nothing happened. No sounds, no responses that didn’t belong to the carnage above. Soon, their light revealed a staircase extending down to a musty path composed of cobblestone walls and the dust of hundreds of years soaking the air. Were it not for their objective, they would’ve walked around it entirely. However, goals were goals.

Each step they took down the staircase kicked up a cloud of dust. Between Torion’s furred feet and Drusus’s shoes, they hardly made a sound, much as the dust stung their eyes and made them want to gag. Suddenly, Drusus realized with horror, he was going to sneeze. If there was anything down here – and, with the dust already scattered around by the attack, it was hard to spot any footprints or scratch marks – it would detect them. Well, if it didn’t notice the sparks, but those were too important.

Drusus puffed up his cheeks, putting a hand up to his nose. Torion must’ve spotted Drusus and realized what he was doing, because Torion leaned over and kissed Drusus. And, somehow, that worked; the sneeze was barely audible. They reached the bottom of the steps and looked at each other, smiling. Then Torion stuck out his tongue and tried to clean it with his hand. Drusus rolled his eyes.

It wasn’t long, though, before they found the bodies. After a few steps, Drusus drew in a breath. He could see a pair of figures slumped against one of the walls, each’s hand over the other’s shoulder. When he and Torion drew closer, Drusus quietly let out that breath. Those soldiers had to be dead. Their Wyandanch armor was battered, blood dripped down their faces, and scorch marks stretched across their exposed hands. One had the remnants of a mustache, while the other lacked one at all. Their hair spread down their faces, smoking at the edges. The poor fools, Drusus thought. They must have been injured and tried to get themselves to safety. He couldn’t help but feel some amount of pity for these enemies – he’d always wished Wyandanch would give in to the Alliance’s demands peacefully. But Wyandanch hadn’t listened, so this was their punishment.

Yet, assured as Drusus was that the Wyandanch soldiers were dead, Torion clearly felt differently. His ears perked up, catching some insignificant sound. Before Drusus could ask Torion, the latter gently pulled their spark-producing hands towards him. Drusus obliged, standing just behind Torion. Nearing the soldiers, Torion sniffed the air. He frowned and bent down, inches from one soldier’s face.

The soldier’s hands shot down, grabbing Torion by the shoulders.

Screaming, Torion threw himself back. The sparks died out instantly, plunging their surroundings into darkness. Still, the startled Drusus didn’t dare argue when Torion, squeezing Drusus’s hand, sprinted across the dusty corridor. Thank The Creator for Torion’s good sight. Yet, as his senses recovered, Drusus hoped they wouldn’t run into something worse. They weren’t exactly inconspicuous anymore.

A minute later, they were hiding behind a protrusion from the wall. Torion held Drusus in a bear hug, placing his head on Drusus’s shoulder to peer out into their surroundings. Drusus smiled, feeling Torion’s warm fur through his fingers. He was still with the person he loved, and that gave him comfort.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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Fri May 11, 2018 10:40 pm
TheSilverFox says...



Yay, it's time for the never-ending, same old story:

LMS Writing Part XI



Chapter 28: The Library, Part 1 (1,103 words): The Holy City of Wyandanch.

Spoiler! :
The Holy City of Wyandanch was first designed to be impenetrable. Then it was built to be defendable. Lastly, it was made to be escapable. Seres knew this by heart; it was the first thing he'd been taught when he came to lead this city. It was the cornerstone of his strategy. He had to give the priests credit - weak and foolish as they were, they knew the city well.

Of course, he didn't ever imagine that he would be fleeing. No, escaping. Escaping sounded more dignified. Fleeing hid the fact that it took extraordinary misfortune to finally kill Wyandanch. A sizable opposing army, the appearance of a wall-destroying monster, and a lack of aid had combined to stomp on him and raze the city. Fleeing also hid the fact that he wasn't going down without a fight.

"Report!" Seres called out to the few generals scattered in front of him in the throne room. He stood on the steps to the throne, flanked by a quiet Veta and a shivering Wielde. The nearly pitch-black room was only illuminated by the flames dancing on his mages's hands. Snatching a map from the hand of one of the generals, he held it to his face and stretched it out, slightly tearing it in the process. "How are our soldiers?" he said, turning the map of Wyandanch around and gesturing to it.

The group of generals, dressed in soot-covered metal suits adorned with newly-blackened capes and robes, responded discordantly. The soldiers were fighting on the streets; the captures ones were being pushed off the walls; the monster was stomping towards the center of the city, gradually shrinking; horses were leaping over Wyandanch barricades; they would have to abandon the city soon.

Seres pushed his palm outwards, crumpling the map in the other. All the generals focused on his palm, silencing instantly. Seres couldn't help but notice how dazed they looked. Their pupils were dilated, their eyes were bloodshot, and they shook weakly where they stood. It could just easily be the shadows that flickered across their faces, but he had seen the monster. Only willpower kept him from reacting as these noblemen and knights - many of whom had not faced a real war - did. He could also feel a pit in his stomach as he realized that Franz and Emmerich were nowhere to be seen. In fact, these were less than half of the generals stationed around the city. Hopefully the others were still fighting. He couldn't hope to keep the Dragon King or himself alive otherwise.

"Any victories?" said Seres. "At all?"

The generals looked between each other. A general murmur of doubt rose from them.

Crossing his arms, Seres took a deep breath. He had to settle on his plan now, or risk losing the window of opportunity. "Listen up. Those of you who can must rally your soldiers around the Dragon's Library. Form the widest circle that you can. Bring in as many survivors as you can. My personal guard -" he gestured to the soldiers surrounding him - "will oversee the evacuation of the dignitaries and nobles."

As predicted, the generals gaped and spluttered. "Evacuate!" one shouted. "This is Wyandanch!"

Beside him, Wielde knelt down and stared at the floor, grabbing his head in his hands and quietly sobbing. "So I've been told," Seres barked. "Yet I find that our soldiers are dying, our defenses are failing, and our time is running out."

Some of the generals stepped forward, reaching out for Seres. "You have failed us!" one of the generals screamed. "We depended on you!"

Seres's personal guard swarmed around him, instantly barricading the encroaching generals. This gave Seres the chance to kick Wielde in the side hard enough to force the boy up. Wielde's face contorted in rage when he rose up and glared at Seres, but Seres ignored him. The King was nothing but a whelp. "I did not expect an attack like this. They came in quickly and with unexpected aid. We've lost most of our catapults and trebuchets, and the others aren't even ready to fire yet."

A side door opened, allowing a steady stream of well-dressed people to spill into the throne room. They looked just as panicked as the generals, clutching their hands together and stumbling over their robes. Guards surrounded them, guiding them up the stairs and halting them beside Seres.

"How could I have prepared for this?" yelled Seres, not paying attention to the newcomers. "How could I have prepared for a monster made out of darkness? How could I have prepared to lose the walls? How could I have prepared to lose my finest men? Either you obey my commands, or I will gladly see that you be sealed from the library after the commoners and nobles escape. Go!"

Perhaps they saw the light in Seres's logic. The cynic in him told him that they were merely afraid to die. In any case, the generals dispersed, running through various entrances. Turning, Seres waited for Veta to step out of the way and let one of the new soldiers stand in front of him. "We have evacuated the Diplomat's Quarters," the soldier said, saluting.

Seres was going to respond, but he felt something tapping on his back. Wheeling around, he saw a stream of ice pellets pounding against his suit of armor. Wielde, sniffling and letting tears slip down his face, didn't make anything more than a whimper when Seres gripped and crushed Wielde's hands. "Pick a better time to spite me," Seres said, using the very magic that he'd learned from Wielde to freeze Wielde's hands together. The King stepped back, vanishing between two of the bishops.

"How dare you disrespect our King!" said one of the bishops, pointing accusingly at Seres.

It was taking all of his willpower not to strike down the man where he stood. Seres was tired. In the space of a day, he'd gone from assured in his position to assured in his death. It seemed he could barely keep his army together, much less make it fight. And, somehow, despite all the people he killed and threatened, more kept on getting in his way. It didn't matter that he was one of the few people smart enough to save them. He was still the foreigner, still too practical, still too unwilling to die for a dying city. What would it take for them to accept him?

"Of course I respect him," Seres said, chin raised. "In fact, I think I can win your favor by showing my respect. Let's crown the bastard."


Chapter 28: The Library, Part 2 (1,087 words): The bastard is crowned.

Spoiler! :
The bishop cocked an eyebrow. "Now?" he said, waving at the darkness surrounding them. "Here? And you call our King a bastard?"

Another bishop cried out, "There is ceremony to conduct! We need the royal sword, the ritual, and the watchful eyes of the citizens, Lord Seres."

"He is not even of age yet!" a third shouted.

Seres pulled out his broadsword. With a quick thrust, he smashed the ice on Wielde's hands with the hilt of his blade. "Find the sword," Seres said, balling his free hand into a fist. "The diplomats are here, you know the ritual, and we will all die waiting for him to turn eighteen. Do I make myself clear?"

Apparently, he had. Two of the bishops darted to one of the doors beside the throne, whereas the others made their way through the gathering of soldiers. Wielde, rubbing and blowing on his hands, cast gentle beams of light across his palms and fingertips, sealing up the cuts made by the shattered ice. He glowered at Seres again.

Leaning down, Seres stared the young King in the eyes. "You have every reason to hate me," Seres whispered, sliding the broadsword into its scabbard on his back. He drew out each word, watching the fire that seemed dance in Wielde's eyes. For a slumping, hunched, angry little brat, Wielde almost looked powerful. Seres couldn't help but respect that. "And every reason to be afraid. But we need to look strong, even if we aren't. Stop pretending you're the only one afraid for his life."

The door by the throne swung open. The priests came out, each clutching one end of the Holy Blade, Rasia. It gleamed weakly in the torch and firelight, casting pale flashes of light on the faces of onlookers. The other priests started a chant as they saw it, having pushed their way through the troops to form a semicircle around the throne. Seres vaguely recognized some of the words - it was the Old Language of dragons, with a few human words thrown in where needed.

Wielde gave Seres one last glare, though it was tempered enough to look more like annoyance than hatred. Wielde rose to full height, put on the most serious face he could muster (slightly dampened by his red eyes and sniffling), and marched his way towards his throne. The soldiers parted to let him pass, followed by a steady stream of diplomats pushed along by the waving of spears. They grumbled amongst each other, but didn't resist.

Oh Creator, Giver of Life and Architect of this World, we come to you again to ask your blessing...

While the diplomats stood behind the bishops and priests, Wielde walked up the staircase leading to the throne. He almost tripped on his robes, but he composed himself just in time. The chant carried on; no one would dare think of stopping to help him.

...That you should see fit to accept a new King in the halls of the greatest crown that has ever existed...

Atop the throne rested a silver crown. It had been placed there in preparation for the ceremony, blending in with the black rock seat. The crown was nestled beneath the head of a coiled dragon, the latter composed of threads of silver and gold that weaved their way into the stone. As the chanting grew louder, Wielde eased himself onto the throne, robes waving as he turned to sit down. He winced as he pressed against the back of the throne - the material from the Pillars was unyielding and stiff. Still, Seres could only tell because he was approaching Wielde; from any farther distance, Wielde could've blended right into the shaded throne.

...Wielde, proud son of Wasser, proud son of Wassed, proud son of Wasseda, the rightful heir to the Revered and Holy Throne of Wyandanch, the true Dragon King...

Veta at his side, Seres loomed over the throne, further masking the King. At this rate, Seres could only spot a few strands of Wielde's hair waving about. Still, gently taking the crown and slipping it from beneath the dragon's jaws, he lowered it to Wielde's head. The bishops's chant reached a crescendo. Accompanied by the stamping of spears from the soldiers, not to mention the explosions of the outside battle, the noise made the walls tremble.

...accept him as your messenger, Creator! Long live the King! Long live Wyandanch!

Seres felt the crown brush against Wielde's hair. When he was certain it was on, Seres took a step back. Trumpets blared from behind the new King and former regent as Wielde stood up, pushing the crown into place. Now, Seres felt sure that he was supposed to bow, but who would notice in the darkness? He merely nodded to Wielde, who didn't seem to respond.

"The ceremony should have been longer," said one of the bishops, rising up. The others followed him. "We should have paid tribute to the Sons, Sons of Sons, and the Creator's Wife, Ismene." He sighed and brushed his robes. "Yet it is done. What will you have us do, my King?"

A twinge of fear shot through Seres's heart. How could he have forgotten that crowning Wielde would cost him his own power? Swiveling around to face the Dragon King, Seres paid attention to the little twitch on Wielde's lips. Would he dare to stay? Would he put everyone at risk out of pride?

Given the silence that fell upon the room, everyone else had the said questions. All eyes focused on the King expectantly. Somehow managing to look dignified, Wielde cast his gaze on the bishop. Seres noticed the glance or two that Wielde gave him. "Carry on with the evacuation," Wielde said quietly. "I have seen the attackers. There is no point in staying. We will return, but not now. Seres is in charge of the evacuation efforts."

The bishops tried to hide their grimaces and mumblings, particularly when they saw the proud smile on Seres's face. However, they bowed their heads to their King, dispersing among the soldiers.

Seres would've began to shout orders, but he felt a cold hand on his arm. Looking to his right, he watched Wielde walk up, stand on his tiptoes, and whisper into Seres's ear. "So long as I do not see you kill anyone again, traitors or otherwise."

"I'll see to it," Seres said. Ideally, he wouldn't have to kill anyone else. So far, so reasonable.

"And I want my mother to be safe."

Nevermind.


Chapter 28: The Library, Part 3 (1,553 words): Take that, modified word count.

Spoiler! :
His resources were strained as it was. He didn't feel like he could pull a bedridden woman down a tower that was a fair distance from the library and, as far as he knew, already invaded. But it wouldn't do to start his relationship with the new king on awkward footing, lest that king decide to act like his old self and do something stupid. "If I can," Seres said, emphasizing each word, "I will."

The King seemed satisfied by the answer. At least, he may have nodded in the second before a commotion broke out among the diplomats, who had gathered back together.

"She's trying to escape!" one of the guards shouted. The guard raised their spear into the air; Seres looked up from the tip to find a bipedal owl rising above the other diplomats. The owl batted her enormous wings gently, the tips nearly touching the flames of mages, who retreated. In the midst of the shadows, the owl looked like one of the city locals. Seres felt relieved that local wasn't around.

"I need to inform my Eternal Queen," the owl said, kicking aside the spear. The guard withdrew as the owl stared down at Seres. "That her ally is taking its final breaths."

Veta tapped Seres's shoulder, but he brushed her aside. "If you can make it," Seres called up, "Then go. I'd love to have the support of her and Prudence."

"I will make it so." The owl soared towards one of the narrow windows. "Best of luck, new King!" she said before transforming into a tiny snowy owl, which snuck through the window gap and entered the outside chaos.

The whole group fell into silence, listening to the wingbeats as they rapidly faded away. When only the smell of smoke stung their nostrils, and only the distant sounds of screaming reached their ears, Seres clapped his hands. "Let's go!" he said, when he was sure all eyes had turned to him. "We have a lot to do and not much time to do it."

The crowd got the message. Guards, diplomats, and royals alike streamed towards the door that Seres pointed to. He couldn't shake the creeping feeling of dread that crawled up his back. Sure, the path leading to the library twisted and turned, but was otherwise fairly easy to follow. The reason, and the fault, was that it was on wider streets. One of the streets merged with a boulevard stretching to the city walls. He'd have to hope the other generals were competent enough to guard the path and fend off the attackers.

"Anything for me to do?" said Veta, standing in front of him after he took a few steps. The tiny smile never reached her eyes, which glared holes into his forehead. Seres wasn't sure why, but he knew that she'd tell him soon enough.

"Gather as many soldiers as you can. Secure the tunnels." Seres said, counting each item with his fingers. "Find the Rat King. Rescue any civilians. Take out any attackers, if possible."

Veta frowned. "The King's mother," she said, poking him in the chest.

Seres hurriedly looked around. He spotted the long robes of the King by the doorway; Wielde strode slowly, the soldiers forming a ring around him. None of the bishops appeared to be in earshot.

"We don't have the time," Seres said, pressing a finger on his palm. "She isn't close enough."

Veta raised an eyebrow. "There are tunnels all over the city, and I'm pretty fast."

"Would she even leave if she had the choice?" Seres said. He and Veta started to move forward as the last of the crowd passed them, save for a few soldiers. They watched him patiently, steadily, unnervingly.

"You just don't want the liability, do you?" said Veta, crossing her arms. She was walking backwards; a small wonder that she didn't run into anything. Except, she would hardly be good at her job if she did. "Or is it the history? She jumped off a tower ledge when she heard about her husband's death. The death that ruined the city's reputation and gave you this awful job. Still sore about it?"

Seres looked down. "Maybe her story needs an end," he whispered.

"You're lucky I listen to you," Veta said after a pause. When Seres looked back up, she poked his forehead. "I'll do what you want. But, if that's all done, and I can save her, I will. She's screwed up, but she still deserves to live. Also, the King needs someone to keep him sane."

It was irritating how she, of all people, could get to him, even when he was angry. She clearly couldn't read everyone - Nissyen, for instance - but she knew him too well.

"Catch you soon," she said. Waving a hand in the air, Veta stared taking on the features of a rat. Out of the corner of his eyes, Seres could see the soldiers surrounding them doing the same. "Have fun!"

They vanished. Seres took a look back at the throne room, now almost impossible to see into. A beam of firelight extended from the open door to the throne's center, dimly illuminating the dark rock. Perhaps this would be the last time he would see it. Or maybe it was a glimmer of hope.

Either way, there was nothing to be done about it now. Seres sighed, walked into the corridor stretching onto the roads, and closed the door.

******


It never quite understood the laws of this world.

For instance, if it wanted to shrink in size, all it had to do was will it. The leftover energy of its dark form would radiate into the air, being absorbed by the air, stones, mages, and whatever else accepted it. The result was like cooking things in an oversized oven, except without scorching anyone's skin or starting fires. If it wanted to grow again, it would have to absorb that same energy. It knew the principles behind shapeshifting, but here they felt...wrong. Out of place. Relying on a framework it didn't understand. It never quite liked this.

The Alliance had done a wonderful job keeping away from it. By the time it returned to the form of Jonah, teenage prince and consummate moron, there was nobody in sight. The smashed courtyard, trampled by an errant footstep or two, gave no signs of movement. Flames licked the edges of the buildings, whose stones scattered about the courtyard like dominoes. Houses, perhaps? All the occupants must have died or fled.

From its crater, the creature stood up, brushing the dust off of its clothes. The dried bloodstains would never go away, but it wanted to look somewhat presentable. There was no point in hunting down its target if it wasn't recognizable.

It strolled through the streets, proud that it had mastered the act of walking. That task was always a joy to learn, alongside the importance of eating, drinking, and using the restroom. Human bodies were so frail and needy. Why, even the knees of this frame ached and groaned with each step. It doubted this boy had gotten much exercise in his life. He was certainly making up for it now.

It found its target on one of the widest streets of the city. A huge number of soldiers in blue and silver armor poured along the cobblestone, hoisting banners and pushing their horses onwards. In the distance, at the intersection of streets, Wyandanch soldiers had created something of a barricade out of boxes and pieces of rubble. Despite the street's width, the barrier was wide and tall enough to keep the Walenty soldiers at bay, though some tried to clamber over the barrier. Smoke and flames coated the scene, particularly as Walenty troops tossed torches into buildings and tried to burn down the barricades. Wyandanch responded with arrows, spears of ice, and pure fear.

There wasn't a single target. Kasimir's guard - the royal lady - just happened to be closest. It wasn't surprised; it had always pegged Kasimir as overzealous and with a bloodlust. No normal man with such a bloody reputation could smile that much. It snatched the royal lady's hand as she, pushed around by the crowd, drew near.

"I need to find something," it said in its light voice, dodging the fist that flew towards its face. As the royal lady recognized who held onto her, the wicked smile faded away. She gripped its arm with her other hand and tried to pull, but to no avail. Granted, were it not for the tiny layer of energy he sent into his grip, she could've freed herself. It was already weary from smashing the walls. "A place of whatever it was called. A center of, of, human knowledge?"

The royal lady huffed. Her arm swelled in size, sprouting brown fur. It tightened its grip; the fur retracted. "A library?" she said breathlessly, finally seeming to recognize his words.

"Yes," it said, tapping its foot impatiently. "Where would I find one?"

Sweat dripping down her face, the royal lady yanked back some of her blonde hair. "Just past that wall," she said. "That's what the map said. But why would you care about-"

It smiled. "Perfect," it said. "Knowledge is power."

And then, it willed itself to grow.


Chapter 28: The Library, Part 4 (3,022 words): Ugh

Spoiler! :
Despite all their bickering and hesitation, Seres was pleased to see that Wyandanch's army lived up to its reputation. Guards stood at regular intervals on either side of the route, spears raised. Many of them shook, but each looked out over the streets of the city and watched the flames curl their way onto rooftops and towers. When patrols showed up with dust-covered, battered citizens, the guards cheered and clapped their hands. Seres nodded to those patrols, trying to ignore the cuts on their feet, arms, heads.

He gradually moved his way to the front of his group. The only one who wouldn't part to let him pass was the new King, but he led the long, growing progression. Wielde's expression was neutral, even as he stepped around the occasional body. Seres wondered why the boy had finally calmed down and grown quiet. It could've been that Wielde finally accepted the weight of his position, but Seres had his doubts. No matter what, the city would fall, and that would drag down much of the legitimacy of Wielde's crown.

It didn't matter, Seres told himself; Wielde was obedient and regal, and that was all that mattered.

The sounds of swords clanging reached Seres's ears, accompanied by the crack of lightning and the clomping of hooves. Wielde stopped, forcing everyone else to halt. "Is it secure?" said the King, looking up to Seres.

Seres hesitated. He tried to think about the route in his head. They had to be near the widest intersection in the city; a perfect place for any attacking army. "We'll find out," Seres grumbled, turning around. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted, "To the right, soldiers! Set the pace and prepare for battle!"

On cue, the guards lined up to the left made their way through the crowd, joining their compatriots to the right. As Seres lifted his arm and threw it in the direction of what he realized were barricades, the Wyandanch soldiers charged ahead in an orderly line.

"What are you-" began Wielde, but Seres was already starting to run.

These boots made jogging tough, much less running. Yet fear was a powerful motivator, and Seres was nothing if not a strong man. With each deep breath, Seres charged ahead of another guard. He'd almost caught up with the lead guard by the time he'd reached the edge of the barricade.

And, just as he expected, spears and flames shot over his head, masking the noise of his boots. To his right, some of the guards jumped into the fray, leaping into the wall of stone barricades and raising their spears through holes as a wave of cavalry crashed into them. Walenty, if the colors were any indicator. A glance behind showed Wielde furiously running along, tiny legs catching on some of the cobblestones. His bishops surrounded him, while other civilians and soldiers streamed past. So far, so good. It was hard to see through the cloud of smoke, which had even suffocated the sun, but it was bearable.

About halfway towards the other end of the intersection, Seres saw the cobblestones grow darker. Looking up, his heart skipped a beat. He couldn't bring himself to demand the soldiers, now jumping back from the barricades and running alongside him, throw themselves against the gigantic dark figure that towered over their heads. Even the attacking cavalry seemed surprised; those that leaped over the barricades sprinted towards the neighboring buildings.

Each of the figure's footsteps caused the earth to tremble, rattling buildings and sending roof tiles crashing to the ground. Somehow - he was not sure how - Seres managed to keep his balance long enough to cross the intersection and make his way into the street beyond. He stopped abruptly, resting his hands on his knees and rasping. The foul air choked his lungs, as it did the many guards and soldiers who had broken formation and ran ahead of him. He knew it was a bad idea to stop. The library couldn't be too far now.

"Seres!"

Looking back, Seres watched as Wielde and the others made their way across the intersection. With one step of the giant, Wielde fell onto the ground. Bishops picked up him as horses flew over their heads. With a second step of the giant, the middle of the barricade exploded in a shower of rubble. Wielde fell again, but stretched his hands out enough to catch himself. As one giant foot lifted over the barricade and collided with a nearby building, Seres was able to grab Wielde's arm and pull him into the safe street.

The others were about as fortunate. The other giant foot broke itself free from the barricade and passed over the crowd, allowing them the chance to escape to the safe street. Nobody stopped. Not even Wielde. The few guards still around raised their arms and gestured to a narrow side-street.

Seres hacked out black spots onto the ground. His ears rang from the noise; spots danced in front of his eyes. A soldier ran up and yelled something, but he could barely listen. He didn't try to resist when the soldier grabbed him by the arm and pulled him in the direction of the narrow street.

What little he could think, squeezed in with so many other people who dashed between crumbling, burned-out husks of stone and wood, was wonder. Wonder that they were still running. Wonder that they were so orderly. There was no pushing, shoving, or fighting. Even as people screamed and pointed towards the huge black figure walking parallel to them, they never stopped. Even the King, now keeping pace with Seres, never stopped. He had every reason to - he was about to lose his crown, his city, his glory. But he kept going, kept up that stoic facade. Wielde looked like a man who accepted his fate.

Maybe he'd misjudged everyone. Maybe it was hope that moved them, not fear.

The giant's steps slowed. Seres realized it was shrinking, though it was still the height of the city's walls. Pitch-black, it was hard to distinguish from the smoke and flames, but looked no less inhuman. But it was beatable. Seres shrugged off the soldier's arm and kept on running.

Soon, lifeless and ruined as they were, his surroundings started to look familiar. Seres had been to the library countless times, particularly during the early days of his service. Few places had as large as collection of military strategy, religious texts, and historical accounts as the Dragon's Library. He could instinctively recognize the open square surrounding the library; four entrances at the center of each side, plenty of buildings with low-hanging roofs edging the square, and a ring of trees surrounding the library itself.

The only problem was that the library was burning.

The crowd slowed as it poured into the square. Soldiers rushed from the barricades at each of the entrances, heading to those in the crowd carrying bodies or hobbling along. The other soldiers stationed in the area milled around the front of the building, where they appeared to be in the midst of a fistfight centered around one man. Some staggered back with black eyes, while others threw pellets of ice into the building. Librarians, dressed in long, white robes, stumbled away from the flames, clutching books in their arms.

A familiar feeling crawled up Seres's throat. Stepping forward, neck veins bulging, he watched the way flames licked the sides of the library, spilling from the windows in great plumes of smoke. Sure, the Dragon's Library was mostly made of stone, but much of the insides had been propped up with wooden beams and posts. There had been plenty of wooden balconies and porches, stairs, and shelves. To say nothing of the books themselves.

"Who did this?" bellowed Seres, reaching the edge of the fight. The soldiers turned to see him and stopped, most with fists still raised. They parted, stepping over the burned splinters of the porch that had once been there. What they revealed was one of the librarians. His red robes identified him as the leader, and also did a wonderful job hiding the bloodstains. With a black eye, a bloody and crooked nose, and ashes scattered over his head, his laugh only made him look demented.

The librarian rubbed his hands together. "My whole life's work," he said, still laughing. He wiped a couple tears from his one good eye. "And none of you would have cared, no!"

"You set fire to your own library?" Seres said, making fists.

"Fool, it was going to burn," said the librarian. Blood trickled down over an eye, but he didn't seem to notice. "The raiders would've thrown in their torches and swung their axes and made a joke out of my life's work. Or you! You'd've left my life's work to die to cover your tracks, you filthy little foreign-"

Seres smashed a fist into the librarian's nose, punched him in the stomach with the other, and shoved the librarian back.

"See?" the librarian said, falling on his knees and coughing up blood. "Nobody cares about my life's work. You can't stand the truth in your faces, can you? I'm going out on my terms, fool - dying just the way I always wanted to."

A couple of the soldiers reached out to grab the librarian's arms, but he yanked them back with surprising force. Shuffling back, the librarian cackled as he approached the flames, which blazed on the other side of the library's open entrance.

"This was the greatest collection of books in a thousand miles!" Seres shouted, rushing towards the librarian. He knew exactly what the librarian was planning. "I would've saved every single last one of them if it weren't for you."

The librarian leaped into the flames. "Can't listen to liars," he said, making a crude gesture in Seres's direction. Fire crawled up the edges of his outfit; his words were almost buried by the roar of the floor above beginning to cave in. "The fools don't know what my life's work means."

With a resounding crack!, the upper floor of the library gave away, showering wood onto the floor beneath. Another followed thereafter, and another, and another. So much for an easy escape.

Seres fell on his knees, staring through the entrance with his mouth agape. His vision blurred into a whirl of reds and oranges and yellows, broken only by the soldiers peering in and jumping back. "The whole world will know, coward!" Seres shouted, rising to his feet. He punched one of the walls, recoiling as his fingers ached.

"What is this?"

Seres wheeled around just in time to see a neighboring building explode. The crowd scattered, shouting and ducking. Splinters shot into the square, stabbing at civilians and soldiers alike. Taking a rock to the knee, Seres crumpled. He barely caught himself with his hands. Head turned up, Seres watched the commotion.

The smoke cleared. The dark figure, now only twice the height of a man, strolled through the rubble. It stopped and looked around. "Where is the library?"

A few more screams passed through the crowd. People made their way across the square, almost outpaced by the soldiers abandoning their posts. Seres stayed - his aching bones wouldn't let him move. Not that he wanted to.

The figure followed Seres's eyes to the burned-out library. "What a pity," it said, shaking its head. "I would've loved to keep it intact." And then, shooting a ray of darkness into the sky, the figure collapsed onto the ground. What was left behind was the body of a teenage boy with dirty blonde hair.

Two soldiers reached out and hauled Seres onto his feet. They pulled him away from the wreckage of the library and into the massed crowd, surrounded by troops. And all he could think of was losing. He couldn't stand to lose. He wasn't about to lose anything else. At least the giant was gone; that would make Plan B more bearable.

On cue, Wielde showed up in front of Seres. "Please tell me there are other options," the young King said grimly. The bishops surrounding him all watched Seres, nodding desperately.

"That," said Seres, grabbing his shirt and wiping the ash from his face, "Was the largest of the escape routes. But there are others. We must go to the walls." He pointed behind him, to the northeast. "They'll take forever to arrive."

Yet more screaming. Around the body of the dark figure, the Walenty cavalry rode into action, spilling into the courtyard. The crowd surged in the direction Seres had gestured, making their way through one of the courtyard's entrances. The Wyandanch soldiers struggled their way to their general, with those closest to the cavalry sending out large plumes of flames. The horses neighed and halted, sending their riders slumping over or falling off.

Seres knew the streets ahead would be narrow. That would make the hiding so much easier. His newly-forming plan, on the other hand, wouldn't. He made to turn around and join the fleeing crowd, maybe find a surviving general and coordinate the rise of some barricades, but one thing showed up at the corner of his eyes. He looked back to the cavalry.

The dark figure, almost impossible to see in the mass of horses and men, stood up. It seemed to look right at Seres. A nod, a smile - was he imagining that? - and it disappeared.

It was the smile of someone who felt like it'd already won.

******


Ailean rested on a chair in the abandoned house, a foot over one knee.

He could see his soldiers patrolling outside of the holes that once held windows. They all focused on the flames that arced through the city to their right. Even the ones poking their heads out of neighboring buildings and rustling through the piles of debris kept one eye trained on the inferno. Ailean knew that because it was where he was looking as well. It was almost mesmerizing; he hadn't seen this much destruction since Catharnach slaughtered the one deer hideout.

Ah, father. Or, as he liked to be called, the King. If he were here, he would've happily ordered a random soldier or two shot, rounded up the rest of them, and commanded them to join in the fighting. But Catharnach wasn't here, and Ailean didn't want to play that game. There were better things to do than die.

Ailean was, on the whole, elated to see that things were turning out so well. Without that freak of a boy, he would've been trapped in the middle of a army fighting an indestructible fortress. Thanks to Leathan's scheming, he'd most likely have been massacred long before he ever touched the walls of that city. It would've been dreadful, especially because Ailean would've never had the chance to see Catharnach finally strangle Leathan.

But, because of the freak, it was simplicity itself to take a small group of soldiers, sneak into the city after Walenty, Claec, and Eimhin had sent their finest inside, and take up residence somewhere he wasn't too likely to be noticed in. Then he would wait until the perfect opportunity fell into his lap. And one had to come soon. This was a city of secrets, fortresses, and caves. It was designed to hold to the very last man. Now that it had actually fallen, these bounties were available for anyone willing to take them.

He reached for the quiver on his back. All the arrows were still in place. Good.

A soldier ran down the street, catching everyone's attention. Ailean nodded in approval as the soldier, dressed in the light outfit of a messenger, approached. Beyond singed hair and clothes, the soldier looked mostly unharmed. Eyebrow raised, Ailean said, "Report."

The soldier bowed and took a couple deep breaths. "Prince," he said at last, saluting. "It appears Wyandanch is leading a retreat."

How convenient. Ailean didn't trust it. "Why?" he said, raising his chin.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, the soldier started to stammer. "I guess they don't think they can hold the city?"

Ailean nodded. "The freak," he said. "Are the troops in pursuit?"

A raspy sigh of relief later, the soldier nodded. "They're being held back," he said, "But they've kept mainly after Wyandanch's heels."

"And the towers at the center of the city? The throne room? Are they guarded?"

The soldier paled. "I didn't quite check," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I was swept by the troops a good ways. But it doesn't look like anyone's there."

"In that case," Ailean said, standing up. "I have a new task for you. Gather as many battalions of Eimhin troops as you can find and bring them to me." Ailean hesitated, then walked outside.

"That applies to all of you," the prince called. "Save my personal guard. Find your fellow soldiers and bring them here. If they ask on whose authority, state mine. Avoid my fath - the King if you can. He should be keeping to the back of his army. I doubt he would notice the loss."

He started to walk along the road after they'd all vanished, accompanied by the three or four other soldiers. According to Eimhin's mole, Nissyen - probably dead, Ailean reasoned - this wouldn't be an easy journey. The network of spies, informants, and assassins in the city was nigh-legendary; they'd helped Wyandanch fight back sieges in the past. However much Nissyen's interference had kept them weak and divided, though, it was quite likely they still controlled their bases in ther underground. Hopefully they'd be too busy helping out with the evacuation to notice Ailean. If they did, Ailean planned on having a large enough army to make it difficult for them to stop him.

For now, though, he just had to hope he could slip by unnoticed. But, since he'd already escaped his own father, he felt sure he could escape the rats. Pity to anyone else lurking in the tunnels. Nobody would be that stupid, would they?


Chapter 29: The King in the Mountain, Part 1 (1,045 words): The broken heart.

Spoiler! :
Eremia had been to Wyandanch before. Vague traces of memories swirled around in her head – the black walls, brown stone houses, a quite courtyard with a tree in the center, an elderly maid holding her hand. For the first time in years, she was back.

And she was too late.

The army that was The Doves sprinted out from The Pillars, traveling alongside the once-imposing walls of Wyandanch. Against the backdrop of the infinite plains and the burning city, they moved and looked like ants. From her perch at the back of the wagon, Eremia watched the sky choke with smoke, flames licking the tops of the battered and ruined towers. She’d known this was what would greet her when the sounds of war cries, the firing of arrows, and the crumbling of brick had reached her ears a short time ago. Yet, this worse than anything she’d ever imagined. Here was more destruction than she’d seen in her lifetime.

And Jonah was somewhere in the middle of it.

Marisol, sitting across from Eremia, whistled. “Shit,” she mumbled, shaking her head. “Shit.”

“Eremia?” Katerina said from beside her, grabbing her by the shoulders and gently shaking her. “Don’t do it.”

Eremia didn’t respond. She watched.

The thousand or so soldiers ran alongside numerous wagons, keeping pace with straining horses while waving spears and banners. Arrows flashed from the various other wagons, soaring in graceful arcs to land among the scattering of men outside a gaping crack in the wall. Several fell; others fled to the gap. The wagons began to curve towards the city in pursuit. Marisol and Eremia gripped onto the sides of the wagon, while Katerina clung onto Eremia’s robes.

“I’ve been waiting for you for so long,” Katerina said, voice loud to make it past the thundering of hooves. “I’m not going to lose you now.”

The wagon sped up, causing the trio to hold on ever tighter until it finished its arc and made its way to the gap.

“We’re going in there?” Marisol said, turning to Eremia with a pale face and pointing to the gap. “Now?”

Eremia swore she could feel the earth rumble, though she wasn’t sure if that was just her mind playing tricks on her. She kept watching, particularly when another volley of arrows took out most of the remaining enemies outside of the gap. A strand of hair fell over her face; she blew it away.

“Jonathan put you in danger,” Katerina went on, claws beginning to tear into Eremia’s robes. “Either of us could’ve died. I made a good friend, but I’m not doing that again.”

Raising a hand, Marisol said, “I’m in with this whole ‘not dying’ thing. And screw pretty boy, that too.”

“If you want to go in there, I’ll go to,” said Katerina. Her voice shook. “But please don’t. It’s not worth-”

The wagon jerked to a stop, throwing the three girls back. Eremia landed on top of Katerina, pulling herself up just in time to see Marisol soar past them and into the front of the wagon, where she hit the wood with a hard thump.

Rolling to the side to allow Katerina to stand up, Eremia brushed off her clothes. She crawled her way over to Marisol, who was touching the newly-formed lump on her forehead and wincing. “Are you well?” Eremia said, reaching out a hand.

Marisol pulled herself back. “It’s nothing,” she said, wiping away the blood trickling down between her eyebrows. “And what’s gotten into you? It‘s like you’re a doll.”

A second of thought. “As you said, it is nothing.”

Marisol raised an eyebrow. “That’s not how I said it.”

Before Eremia could come up with a response, the blaring of a horn cut through the scene. That explained why Katerina had been tapping her shoulder - it was time for orders. They instinctively rose and reached the other end of the wagon in a few steps. Katerina stepped out first, reaching out to help Eremia and then Marisol down. Marisol tried to shrug away help, but complied when Katerina pointed to her bloody forehead.

By now, Alarick’s loud voice was already booming through the camp. “Everyone, stay calm,” he said, standing atop a pile of tents resting on a wagon. Soldiers crowded around, a thousand expectant faces staring up at him. The three girls pushed their way into the crowd, soaking in the tension and fear that hung in the air. “We have work to do, but I won’t have you needlessly risk your lives.”

A familiar voice came from the midst of the audience. “What happens afterwards?” it said.

Alarick scowled in the direction of the voice. “That comes later,” he said, adjusting his breastplate. “For now, I ask that some of you head into the city. We need groups of ten to twenty volunteers to see the situation, rescue survivors, and come back. If the situation is too dangerous, get out. The medical staff will take care of anyone and everyone who comes back.”

Marisol, standing to one side of Eremia, mumbled something incoherent and began to lean in the other direction. Katerina, on the other side, rushed past Eremia to prop Marisol up. “We’ll be right back,” Katerina said, voice cracking as she started to lead Marisol away. “Then we need to talk.”

Nodding, Eremia watched them disappear from the corner of her eye.

In the meantime, the familiar voice kept on speaking. “Who’s going and who’s staying?”

“Most of the medical staff,” said Alarick gruffly, “Our important princess, and Terasu, as my successor, will stay here. Everyone else can go, if they so choose.”

A blue-haired girl in the crowd shouted in fury. The familiar voice replied, “Finally keeping us cooped up? That’s respect.”

“For the sake of keeping us sane, Jonathan,” Alarick said, “I will not make anymore risks. Now, to your stations, soldiers! Choose your path and speak to your commanders.”

Stepping down from the tent pile, Alarick received a helping hoof from Ceinen, who’d been hiding behind the pile. When they reached the ground, the crowd immediately dispersed. Deciding that she’d rather not fall in the line of sight of Alarick, Eremia joined in, making her way to where they were setting up the hospital tent.


Chapter 29: The King in the Mountain, Part 2 (1,216 words): "My brother over everything else" is Eremia's motto right now.

Spoiler! :
She rubbed her eyes and yawned. Eremia hadn’t had good sleep in the past several days, particularly as the army’s pace had quickened and the voices in the Pillars had constantly vied for her attention. At least she had liked the voices; Katerina and Marisol, who hadn’t, had spent the past few days with darting, bloodshot eyes. Sleep deprivation couldn’t make her feel this hollow, though. But she didn’t want to think about it. Eremia had made up her mind.

The girls came from her right, Katerina still propping up Marisol. “She’s fine,” Katerina said, placing a hand on Marisol’s shoulder and gently shoving her off Katerina’s other arm. “It was just shock and a nasty bruise. Madeleine healed it right up.”

Marisol swayed for a second, but stomped a foot firmly on the ground and stopped. “Sick of gettin’ myself hurt,” she said. “But it’s insane out there. The biggest city I ever seen, and it’s on fire.”

“It may be best if you stayed,” Eremia said, stifling the little bit of fury she felt about Marisol’s dialect. “I doubt the city has seen the worst yet.”

Katerina placed her hands on her hips to keep them from trembling. That didn’t quite work. “So we’re going?” she said. “Are you sure about this?”

Looking to the city, Eremia sighed. “The work of my parents,” she whispered, “Is gone. You see what remains of it in front of you. The Confederacy d’Austliere is dead, and perhaps the Eighth Lord Exedor and the Dragon King as well. Seres was a good friend of my parents, and Wielde was apparently a respectful and kind man.” A few tears slipped down her face. “Yet, I can still save my brother. I believe he is still alive and somewhere in this city. I will find him. I will bring him home.”

Silence hovered over the girls.

“You know what?” said Marisol at last, pulling her shoulders back and pushing her chest forward. “I can get behind that. I don’t give a rip about kings or your dramatics, but like hell would I run into a burning building if I knew my parents were in there. This is kinda on a bigger scale, but he’s your brother, so count me in.”

Eremia turned back partway, rubbing a tear from her eye. “Thanks,” she said, a smile forming briefly on her face.

“Ugh,” Katerina said, walking off and waving for the others to follow. They did, keeping pace with her as she moved away from the hospital tent and towards a series of wagons that had been lined up in a row. “I guessed as much. I’m not leaving you alone, Eremia, so we’d better get going.”

“Won’t they see us?” replied Marisol, pointing to the people hastily throwing weapons and canvases into the backs of the wagons. Others tried to haul terrified horses to the ropes extending from the wagons’ fronts. The horses neighed and kicked, causing one man to stumble to the ground. “I’m pretty sure Eremia’s still under arrest and all that.”

Katerina squeezed between two of the tents, making her way to a spot in front of the wagons. The other girls followed, taking care not to trip. “Alarick is an idiot. With this ruckus, it’s too easy to slip into the city.” She clambered onto one wagon, reaching out a hand to help Eremia up. “And these folks are swapping out horses for less tired ones. We just need to hide behind all this stuff and-”

Eremia gasped. She had just peeled back the tarp covering the wagon’s side, only to find a hand with a large flame on top. Out of the corner of her eye, Eremia could see Katerina turn around, quickly hauling Marisol onto the wagon. The fox jumped towards Eremia, pushing her out of the way of the hand.

From between several piles of boxes, the face of Terasu poked out of the gap in the tarp.

“What,” growled Terasu, the flame in her hand growing larger. “Is this.”

“Oh, shit,” Marisol whispered into Katerina’s ear. “It’s the bitch.”

Terasu glared at Marisol, who looked away and whistled.

“We are heading to Wyandanch,” Eremia said, stepping between Terasu and Katerina. The front of the wagon loudly creaked, thanks to the number of people crammed into such a small space, but Eremia ignored it. “As are you, I suppose?”

“Not with the witch and her friends,” Terasu said. “Get off.”

The whinnying of the horses grew closer. Eremia tapped her foot, pretending that she wasn’t starting to sweat. “I am not here to fight,” she began, but Terasu laughed.

“That’s great!” Terasu said. “When you kill me like you did Rowland, I won’t see it coming. Sweet!”

Eremia raised her chin and took in a deep breath. She couldn’t possibly win in a fight against Terasu – the girl was too strong, and wind couldn’t do much against a wall of fire. As much as Terasu was trying to start something, complying would be suicide. That didn’t stop Eremia from throwing out an idea the moment it formed in her head. “Would you like to find out who did kill him?” Eremia said, before she knew what was saying.

Terasu hesitated, drawing back. “You, right? Obviously?” she said.

Eremia shook her head. “Even if I had sent out my brother, would he have been particularly entitled to listen to my commands, strong as he was? Note that he fled afterwards, rather than stay at my side. No, I will take you to the real murderer.”

A long pause. Eremia resisted the urge to tug on her collar and gulp. The horses were almost here now; their trainer was right around the corner. Finally, Terasu laughed again. High-pitched and discordant. “Sure!” she said between short breaths. “Why not? If you’re wrong, I can kill you and end this. If you’re right, I can kill him and then you. You have a deal!” Terasu extinguished the flame, pulling herself back into the wagon and patting a spot on the floor.

Eremia peeled back more of the tarp, reaching a foot into the wagon. She felt a paw on her shoulder. “She’s nuts,” hissed Katerina. “We can’t stay with her.”

“We have no other choice,” Eremia whispered back, squeezing into the wagon beside Terasu. The firey girl moved away, armor clanking. Katerina joined in, sitting on the other side of Eremia, who kept on whispering in Katerina’s ear. “Terasu is strong. She can keep us safe, if only by distracting our enemies.”

“And when she decides to kill us?” Katerina whispered, eyebrow raised. Marisol jumped inside, curling up in a ball in front of Eremia and Katerina, but not before closing the tarp and plunging them into darkness.

“We shall see,” Eremia whispered, after some hesitation. She tried not to think about that bridge. Hopefully they’d be able to find Jonah and escape before Terasu could respond. If Terasu decided to attack them beforehand, or Jonah resisted...Eremia didn’t want to think about that.

Katerina snorted, but chose not to reply. The trainer was already hitching horses onto the wagons. In a minute, they could hear a man slip onto the front of the wagon, crack a whip, and send them moving.

And into the burning city they went.
Last edited by TheSilverFox on Sat Jun 23, 2018 1:30 am, edited 1 time in total.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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Sat Jun 23, 2018 1:30 am
TheSilverFox says...



Man, I love inconsistencies, so

LMS Writing Part XII


Chapter 29: The King in the Mountain, Part 3 (1,044 words): Lots of people running around.

Spoiler! :
“Are the barriers secure?” Seres said, pressed against the wall next to an open cellar door. The narrow, dark alley allowed enough room for two people standing side by side, and most that space was already being taken up by a steady stream of Wyandanch citizens and soldiers. Murky skies, combined with the shadows of the looming houses, made it hard to see, much less recognize anyone. Still, Seres could’ve sworn he saw the flowing royal robes of the young King descending into the cellar. One less problem.

The woman in front of him didn’t respond, but slipped into the crowd. Whoops; Seres had assumed she was a soldier. He rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day, and it wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Leaning against the wall, Seres looked up at Wyandanch’s outer wall, which soared over the neighboring houses. The cellar led to a path beneath the wall, which extended to a bunker stashed with food and water. Ideally. Nobody had checked in the bunker in a while. In any case, beyond that was a underground route leading far away from the city. Right to Eimhin.

As much as he hated the comments of the bishops and priests and generals, he had to wonder if he was any good at his job. He was leading a group of terrified people away from a burning city, sending them along a series of possibly unstable routes to a country he absolutely despised. He’d just thrown the King’s mother away, not to mention murdered who he’d thought was a loyal adviser. Then again, all of the others had recommended staying to fight. None of them would still be alive if they’d gone that route. The dark figure had made that obvious, both for its destroying the outer wall and bearing the face of his friends’ son.

How would Eurynome and Trevonn handle this? Would they assume he was dead? Seres cast aside his doubt. He wasn’t, and he’d find a way to make that clear to them.

“Any soldiers among you?” Seres called out. The words disappeared into a distant backdrop of crumbling buildings and shouting. One man, wearing a blackened soldier’s helmet and chainmail armor, broke away from the crowd.

“Need any help, sir?” the soldier said. Their tarnished helmet tapered off at a point, reminding Seres of a crown. Seres scowled; he was sick of kings. Fortunately, the soldier didn’t seem to notice.

“How are the barriers?” Seres said. By now, the crowd of civilians had decreased so that they were walking single-file. Soldiers started to pour in. From what little he could see, Seres noticed that neither group looked well. Tattered robes, armor cut in places, helmets dented, hair dusty, faces darkened. His heart sank, but he tried not to let it show.

The soldier took a step back. “M-m-my lord Seres!” he said, shaking his head; it was covered by the same chainmail on his chest and arms. “I di-didn’t know, and I w-was the one to s-save you-”

Seres raised a hand, remembering the man who had helped lift him up earlier. The soldier stiffened, feet together and saluting. “Thank you,” Seres said, then coughed out a bit of ash. “But I need some answers, and Veta isn’t around. So, the barriers.”

“Holding firm,” the soldier said. “Last I saw, anyways.”

Looking past the soldier, Seres nodded. The soldiers heading into the cellar, if the slings and unsteady steps were anything to go by, were just the wounded or dazed. A few were even running back. The courtyard outside the alleyway – smaller and more confined than the one that had held the library – looked untouched. Seres felt a pain in his chest as he remembered the library. He wished he’d been able to save it. “Are we surrounded?”

The soldier hesitated, then shook his head. “They’ve kept to one barricade, but they might be heading to the others soon.”

Seres grit his teeth. He could count on the Eimhin soldiers being stupid enough to stay in one place, but Walenty soldiers were trickier. At least he knew he couldn’t waste the opportunity. “Are you injured?”

Shifting limbs, the soldier ultimately shook his head again, a bit too eagerly. “I wanted to help with the retreat,” he stammered.

Sighing, Seres walked past the soldier, heading down the mostly-empty alley. “You wanted to join the retreat. Well, you’ve saved me once, so I think you’ll be good to have around. Gather as many of the other soldiers as can come. I’m going to need them.”

The soldier saluted and ran off, outpacing Seres. Seres himself stepped out into the courtyard, which was only marginally brighter than the alleyway. It was practically abandoned, save for a few soldiers either heading to the barricades or the cellar. The barricades themselves were somewhere to the west, down a narrow street to Seres’s right.

The barricades couldn’t hold forever; Seres knew that. It could be a matter of minutes before the army of Walenty vaulted over it and headed for the courtyard. The Wyandanch soldiers would retreat and head for the cellar. If any made it that far, it would only alert the Walenty troops to the secret entrance’s existence. Seres couldn’t have that.

Heading back into the alleyway, Seres walked back to where he’d been standing earlier. A plank of wood leaned against the wall. Turning his head back to see that nobody else was coming, and finding only soldiers beginning to gather in the middle of the courtyard, Seres gently closed the cellar doors and slipped the plank between the handles. He grimaced. The soldiers at the barricades would make a noble sacrifice, but he didn’t have to like it.

It was only on reaching the courtyard again, brushing his hands on his shirt, that Seres saw the soldiers pointing at something in the sky. They whispered eagerly among each other, some lifting their helmets to wipe away tears. “It’s him!” one of them said. “The griffin!”

Craning his head, Seres spotted the shadow of an eagle, half-hidden behind the clouds. Seres groaned – he hated the lazy bastard, no matter how “exotic” or “mythical” he was to the civilians. He was a bum and a con man. Nothing more, nothing less.


Chapter 29: The King in the Mountain, Part 4 (1,009 words): Old people are awesome.

Spoiler! :
And yet, the soldiers didn't know any better. Not that Seres could blame them; Wyandanch was always a superstitious city. So they cheered as the shadow of the eagle circled over the burning city, making tight loops. Maybe they thought it would swoop down and blow away the fire with its wings. Maybe they thought it would plunge its talons into the armies making their way across the streets. The griffin was the symbol of the city - the literal union of species in a city build on a metaphorical union. The dragons had abandoned Wyandanch a long time ago, and there wasn't much else to have faith in.

Certainly, they didn't expect the eagle to fly into the clouds after a few arrows arced in its direction.

Seres frowned as the cheers turned to moans. How predictable. Raising an arm, he walked over to the group and said, "To me! If he won't save this city - if nothing will save this city - I have another option in mind."

A dozen expectant faces turned to him. "I'm here for revenge," Seres said. "Are you?"

******


A group of old men and women huddled around the center of the tower. A fire crackling in the hearth, they watched the smoke rise through a hole in the roof and into the sky. Just a drop in the ocean. All around them, the wooden floor giving way to thick stone walls, open doors revealed ransacked rooms, ones that lacked blankets, clothes, anything personal. They had their lives in bags slung over their shoulders.

"This how it's going to end?" said one person, a grizzled and burly man with only a few long white hairs on his head.

One elderly woman, wooden cane in her hand, sneered. "I've got a few years left in me," she said, puffing her chest up. "Let the bastards come."

"This city should've held up forever," said another woman. She sat on a chair away from the circle, black hair spilling around her head and masking her expression. "If it's burning, we'll burn too."

"What's the plan, nephew?" the grizzled man said, cupping a hand over his mouth and calling out to the man in question.

The nephew sighed. Leaning against the railing attached to a flight of stairs leading to yet more rooms, he'd been resting for the last minute. Listening to these geezers moan about the end of the world made his head throb. That, or the heavy weight of the things he'd taken from the rooms and wrapped up in a bedsheet. As the nephew lifted up the bedsheet and began hauling its contents down the staircase, step by step, he grunted out an answer. "Not die."

Several of the old people scoffed. The black-haired woman scuffed the floor with a shoe. "Easy enough," she said. "Why didn't we think of that sooner?"

He could stand sarcasm, but not the depressing kind. The nephew hurled the bedsheet over the railing. It landed on the ground in front of the group, making a loud clanging noise. "I'm not running a 'let's sit here and wait for death' home," the nephew said, clenching his fists. "I'm running a retirement home, and you're barely retired."

The others peeled back the bedsheet and looked aside. A few nodded and whispered their approval.

"Just like his father," said the woman with the cane.

They all froze. Something was running up the stairs. Something was at the door. Something was trying to pry open the door. Thank goodness they'd propped a bedframe against it.

The nephew moved first. He stood on the railing and jumped off, landing firmly on the ground. "Old fools," he mumbled.

"We've not been working in years," the black-haired woman said, as the nephew reached into the bedsheet.

"But it's in your blood, isn't it?" the nephew shouted back, still searching. "Now, get that bed out of the way."

"But -"

"Who's calling the shots?"

After a few seconds of silence came the satisfying rumble of wood toppling onto the ground. The nephew pulled out a gleaming, double-headed axe from the bedsheet and swiveled around. The intruder was still there, now banging and pushing against the door. They were clearly getting frustrated; the nephew didn't want to wait for the intruder to either burn down the door or chop it open.

Charging forward, the nephew leaped over the hearth and sent his axe blade crashing into the wood of the door. A gurgle and a thud came from the other side.

The nephew wrenched the door aside. A soldier in Eimhin colors lay dead on the spiral staircase leading to the tower's entrance. At least, the soldier was probably dead; the nephew could see the man's feet pointing up, and wasn't in the mood to look at the rest of him.

"Coming?" the nephew said, turning around and resting the handle of his axe on his shoulder.

The black-haired woman rose, revealing the katana that she'd hidden beneath her hair. "Haven't had a good fight in a long time," she said, smiling eerily. "Forgot about the whole bloodlust."

"We're mercs," the lady with the cane said to the nephew. "We like bickering. It's good to see you found out how to put the hunt back into us." Unscrewing the top of her cane, she pulled out a sword of her own.

Hauling a pair of hatchets from the bedsheet, the grizzled man grinned. "'s how I always wanted to go down."

As the others either pulled out weapons from their sacks or scrounged around in the bedsheet, the nephew laughed. These were the people he remembered. These were the people who'd raised him. The band of brothers and sisters. All but his old man and another old man, but they were likely watching from the World Above. "Sorry if I disappoint you," he said, taking a step down the stairs. "But I'd like to keep you all alive. Let's go cut off our enemies' heads."

"No mercy but death!" the mercenaries cried, marching after the nephew.


Chapter 30: It, Part 1 (1,033 words): Aaand let's begin LMS IV.

Spoiler! :
Surprisingly, entering the city turned out to be the easy part. Or, so Eremia judged from the lack of screaming.

Being stuffed into the back of a wagon, she didn’t have the liberty to see anything, much less the carnage. She could smell it in the air, and feel it make the hairs on her skin stand up, and that was enough. At least Katerina was there to set a paw on Eremia’s knee. Eremia hoped Katerina could see her smile in the darkness.

The wagon slowed down after a couple minutes, gradually coming to a halt. Terasu, tiny flames flickering between her fingers and around the edges of her hair, wasted no time in shoving aside boxes. Even when one landed on Marisol, who was able to cover her mouth before any involuntary shout or curse.

“They’re securing the place,” Katerina whispered into Eremia’s ear. “They say the other wagons will be here soon.”

“We had best be moving, then,” Eremia whispered back. She reached out to grab the box that Marisol was already pushing off her chest, relying on the flickers of light from Terasu to do so. It landed roughly on the floor of the wagon. Terasu cast a glare at them, lips drawn into a thin frown. Ignoring how those eyes buried into the back of her head, and the louder sound of Terasu chucking one of the boxes out of the wagon, Eremia pulled up Marisol.

Marisol, now crouching in front of Eremia, whispered, “Thanks.”

“Path’s clear,” hissed Terasu, squeezing between boxes. “Let’s go.”

Guided by a faint beam of light, Eremia made her way into the outside world, followed by Katerina and Marisol. The four, finding themselves in a narrow street, darted into one of numerous alleyways as one of the drivers marched by. The driver, armed with a lantern and a spear, paid no attention.

They pressed against the wall of an empty house, dust sprinkling from the edge of the roof onto them. Eremia resisted the urge to sneeze. She focused on her surroundings to do that, and couldn’t help but notice how dark the alleyway was. Her hands, much less the cracks in the pavement, were almost impossible to see. One glance at the huge plumes of smoke in the sky gave an answer.

“I said, ‘Let’s go,’” said Terasu, farthest from the alley’s entrance. “Take me to him.”

“It’s a big fucking city,” Marisol hissed back. “Give her a sec to-”

Terasu growled, the flames around her head causing shadows to sprout out of the others in the alleyway.

“I will find him,” Eremia said, after seeing Marisol bite her lip and glance in Eremia’s direction. “I promised that.”

And, without another word, Eremia stepped out onto the street.

The darkness hanging over the city had one advantage. Keeping as close to the buildings as possible, Eremia blended into her surroundings. She walked as quietly as she could, avoiding broken cobblestones and anything wooden. A glance or two behind her confirmed the others were in tow. Katerina, thanks to her paws, made not a single sound as she peered into alleyways and gently pushed open doors. Marisol kept tripping over rocks and cursing. She was clumsy, wasn’t she? Terasu was in the same plight, but the rocks in her way tended to explode into tiny shards.

And ahead was the city. Eremia watched the way the buildings degraded the farther she went into Wyandanch. Intact homes and buildings went to ones missing roofs, then ones with busted doors and blackened windows, and then ones that were merely piles of rubble. To say something of the sounds. Arrows firing, swords clanging against swords, high-pitched screams, the heavy hoofbeats of horses. A crescendo that went from a rumble at the edge of her hearing to a drumbeat that made her want to cover her ears. The closer she went, the thicker and darker the smoke became. It suffocated her, causing her to pull part of her dress over her mouth. She coughed anyways, but so did the others.

This wasn’t the city she’d been taught about when she was younger. This wasn’t the city of black stone, looming above the plains and paling against the grandeur of The Pillars. It was a nightmare of fire and blood, bombarding her senses and filling her with the urge to run away, to sprint until she was back in the safety of her home. To crash onto her oversized bed and bury herself in the white sheets and the down mattress and pretend this all never happened. But it had, hadn’t it?

Besides, Jonah was still here. It wouldn’t be right to go home without him. He was her younger brother, and he’d been that bright young kid who’d wanted to read her textbooks and join her in sword practice and, well, had admired her. She’d loved the attention, but she’d loved having someone to talk to, someone to show off to, someone who cared, even more. That kid had to be in there somewhere.

Katerina tapped her on the shoulder. Eremia blinked, finding herself standing at the intersection of roads. To the right and around the corner, along the wider street, came a conversation. The fox pushed Eremia back against the nearest wall, peering into the street to watch whatever was going on. Since Marisol and Terasu quickly stood next to Katerina and joined her, it certainly had to be interesting.

Wrinkling her eyebrows, Eremia gently pushed away Katerina’s hand and leaned forward.

“Good day, cousin.

That high-pitched, whiny, pompous voice was all too familiar.

“It’s not.”

And the blunt, scratchy one.

“You are not one to mince words, are you?”

Eremia took a step forward, squeezing between Katerina and Marisol. Sure enough, two men stood on the road ahead. Ailean stood on one end, grin on his face as he knocked an arrow to his bow. He wore a green jacket partly covered by brown overalls, all the buttons polished to a golden shine. The jacket cut off at his wrists, making way for white gloves. His dreadlocks swayed in the breeze, looking spotless compared to the dust that swirled off the other man’s head.

Jonathan.


Chapter 30: It, Part 2 (1,068 words): Marisol why

Spoiler! :
Compared to the prince, the tears in Jonathan’s ragged clothes looked even bigger than usual. His bow, arrow nocked to it, looked flimsy and pale compared to the massive bow in Ailean’s hands. His scarred arms and tanned neck couldn’t match up to Ailean’s perfectly clear skin and rippling muscles. And yet, only one of these two men made Eremia’s heart flutter. No matter how brief their romance had been, she couldn’t help but admire how Jonathan managed to hold himself up. He always meant business; she loved that spirit.

“What are you waiting for?” said Ailean, spreading his arms and his grin out. “Claim your throne.”

Eremia’s eyes widened. She’d known Jonathan could’ve been an Eimhin noble, but what did that have to do with -

“You’re tricking me,” Jonathan said. He pulled his bowstring back anyways, aiming for Ailean’s head. “Uncle would die first.”

Uncle? Eremia covered her mouth to stop the involuntary gasp. She looked in Marisol and Katerina’s directions, but she couldn’t quite read their faces. Not that Marisol would care about royalty, on top of hating Jonathan. Eremia could’ve sworn Katerina nodded, but the fox’s expression was inscrutable.

Ailean sighed, tapping his foot and placing a hand on his hip. “How can you be so smart?” he said. “Fath – the King threw you in the muck, and you somehow managed to crawl your way out of it. And I cannot even enjoy drowning you in it!”

“I can’t be like you,” Jonathan said, but he loosened his grip on the bow.

The prince’s mouth drew into a tight line instantly. Eremia could almost see his cheeks turn red as he balled his hand into a fist and raised it in Jonathan’s direction. “Do not tempt me,” Ailean said, spittle flying out of his mouth. “The King would be angry.”

Jonathan spat out a laugh. “You’d be happy,” he said. “You’ve tried before. You always had something to prove.”

Somehow, Ailean raised his chin even higher. “You know nothing about me,” he said, voice higher-pitched. “My dear King would rather not kill the son of his favorite sister unless he has to.

Snorting, Jonathan stretched out his bow again. “He killed her. What do you have to lose?”

Eremia wanted to run out and strangle the Eimhin prince. Punch that perfect sneering face and hear his frantic gasps. She hadn’t studied much about Catharnach’s rise. She’d only been taught the history of Exedor, the basic details of the Alliance’s rise, and the origins of the world. Given that her kingdom had apparently been controlling and secluding her, that made sense (even if it was hard to believe). Still, she knew Catharnach had stormed the capital and killed his father and most his siblings in the subsequent massacre. And Jonathan was at the heart of that nightmare?

Still, she’d never make it in time. The prince would shoot her full of holes first. Besides, Katerina had just put out an arm in front of her. Clever girl.

Ailean’s frown faded away. “Enough,” he said. “So I would rather have fun instead. Now, who are those girls?” He waved in Eremia’s direction.

Blinking, Eremia looked at the rest of her group. Sure enough, Terasu had begun to sneak out from the wall, fireballs in each hand. She reached out to grab Terasu by the shoulders, but Katerina held her back. The fox, kneeling on the ground, looked up into Eremia’s eyes and shook her head.

Jonathan whirled around, locking eyes with Terasu. Whatever her expression was, it was enough to make him pale and lower his bow entirely. He waved his hands to tell her to stop, but that was when an arrow whizzed by his head. Startled, he jumped out of the way.

Ffft!

A second arrow embedded itself into his heel. Jonathan gritted his teeth and fell onto his knees, reaching a hand back towards the arrow shaft. Blood spilled onto the ground, mixing into the stones and ashes.

“See?” said Ailean. “How fun. You must have thought you had distracted all my archers with your own soldiers. What fortune that I should have kept one around to wait for my signal. I -”

Running out and screaming, Terasu slammed her hands together. A cone of fire shot out from her fingers, scouring the courtyard and causing the stones to crack. Jonathan ducked as Ailean screamed and ran out of the way, vanishing quickly into an alleyway. As much as she could hear her heartbeat and feel her palms get sweaty – whether from the heat or the fear, she couldn’t tell – Eremia smiled at the prince’s departure. He deserved worse.

But there were more pressing matters, like Jonathan. He crawled on the ground, the arrow still sticking up. That must’ve been a perfect target for Ailean’s hidden archer, who fired a shot in that direction. Unfortunately for the archer, the arrow exploded in another cone of fire from the howling Terasu, who then lobbed a ball in the direction of the shot. Part of a wooden building exploded into splinters and flames. No other shots rang out.

Katerina and Marisol proved more reactive than Eremia. They rushed out, each grabbing Jonathan by a shoulder and pulling him up. Terasu, too busy scanning the courtyard for any other attackers and hurling fireballs at buildings, didn’t pay them any heed.

“How d’ya like that now?” Marisol said, pointing to the arrow sticking out of Jonathan’s foot and laughing. It was a bitter one, but edged in fear that raised its pitch. Make that two people to strangle.

“I don’t,” Jonathan whispered, words spaced by breaths. His eyes focused on Eremia as she stepped out into the courtyard and picked up his bow, which he had left on the ground. “Eremia, what are you doing here?” She couldn’t tell what was worse: that he sounded almost disappointed, or that he didn’t sound surprised.

On hearing Eremia’s name, Terasu spun around. “She,” Terasu said, pointing to Eremia, who froze, “Is taking me to her freak of a brother. That was the plan, wasn’t it?”

No. She wasn’t about to be cowed by Terasu, or let a blush fall on her cheeks every time Jonathan spoke to her. “That is indeed the plan,” Eremia said, puffing up her chest. “But Jonathan is injured, and I need someone to return him to The Doves’ camp. Will that meet your approval?”


Chapter 30: It, Part 3 (1,008 words): my feels

Spoiler! :
Terasu did not like the plan, if the wall of fire in front of Eremia’s face was anything to go by. “Oh no,” said Terasu, wagging a finger as the wall dissipated. Eremia coughed as she breathed in ash swept up by the flames, sweat trickling down her forehead. “No no no no no. You’ll just put a knife in my back if I don’t have my darling boyfriend with me. He’ll keep me safe.”

Heat flooded from Eremia’s chest. The version of her five minutes ago would’ve told her to keep her mouth shut. Stay quiet, look for an escape route, don’t challenge the crazy girl who could burn her alive. With Jonathan injured, however, the stakes were much higher. “He could lose his foot!” Eremia said, balling her hands into fists. “Do you really want that?”

“You could lose your head!” Terasu said, grinning and jerking her head to the side. “Do you really want that?”

Eremia swung her arm back, gesturing to the others. “These are the people I care about,” Eremia said, standing up straight and keeping her voice stable. “These are the people I have disappointed, frustrated, and irritated, but whom I have never lost my love for. You had best believe that I would die to see them safe. Do you really want to test me? Not when you are so close to finding my brother?”

For once, Terasu hesitated. The fire in her eyes waned. The tendrils of flamers on her fingertips shrunk and recoiled back into her fingernails. Yet the scowl on her face deepened. “I don’t believe you,” she said, crossing her arms and glaring at Eremia. “You’re just saying that to trick me. I won’t fall for it.”

“You don’t have to,” Katerina piped up. “He’s already gone.”

Eremia whirled around. Sure enough, she couldn’t spot Jonathan anywhere. Or Marisol, for that matter. A twinge of pain shot through her heart. She couldn’t protect either of them now. Between them, they had an injury in the foot and in the head, and they were wandering among the flaming ruins of Wyandanch. Even if it was better than staying here, she hated the idea of losing sight of anyone she knew. What would be the point if she saved Jonah, only to have to save someone else?

That was nothing compared to whatever Terasu had to be going through. Hissing, Terasu lunged for Katerina, who jumped out of the way. As Terasu glared up and down the path the group had gone through, back hunched and fireballs seeping out of clenched fists, Katerina sneaked right up to Eremia, grabbing her hand. “She stays,” Eremia called to Terasu. “Unharmed. Else, you will lose your chance to find Jonah.”

Terasu didn’t give a reply. The fireballs dissipated in tiny puffs of smoke. Still facing the wall, she stepped out of the way to allow the others to pass. In that mass of red hair, Eremia couldn’t spot an expression. Nor could she predict one.

And that was what ate at Eremia’s mind as she and Katerina headed down the path leading further into the city, Terasu always a couple steps behind. What was she doing? Eremia looked at the ash scattered across the road, growing higher and higher until it reached her ankles. She remembered Rowland and Terasu’s faces the first time she’d met them. They’d been beaming, throwing their heads back in laughter, punching each other. All of that was ashes now. And Eremia was only stoking the fires that licked at and wiped away ancient, beautiful buildings. She was manipulating an innocent, grieving girl. She had to – she would die otherwise. But Eremia wondered how many burning cities she had made by accident, circumstance, and her stubbornness.

“You okay?” Katerina whispered, pressing her head against Eremia’s. They held hands, turning to the right and following a wider road. Even fewer of the buildings stood, and the noises of battle had almost grown to a din.

Eremia sighed. “Will Jonathan be fine?” she said. She couldn’t speak any louder, lest she swallow too much ash.

Katerina harrumphed, throwing her head back to shake off some of the dust. “He’s been through worse,” she muttered. “Not like he doesn’t deserve it, after that time he pulled you into a battle.”

Gripping Katerina’s hand a little tighter, Eremia felt goosebumps form on her skin. She didn’t want to remember that day. She didn’t want to remember Marisol being shot in the arm. She didn’t want to remember driving Jonathan away. She always drove Jonathan away.

“You’re still crushing on him?” Katerina whispered. It wasn’t surprised so much as curiosity, but Eremia was tempted to throw back a snippy response. Except, that was the problem.

“I fear so,” Eremia said, nodding. She hesitated. Should she dare say it? It would only linger inside her and stab at her otherwise. “Am I an okay person? These last few weeks, I have learned that I am not a personal person. My wording sounds strange to many of you, I become defensive at the slightest slight, and I cannot say I know how to approach someone sad or wounded, as with Marisol when she hit her head earlier. I worry that Jonathan ended our relationship because of me.”

It was Katerina’s turn to grip Eremia’s hand. “You said it yourself,” Katerina said. “You’ve been stubborn and proud, and sometimes you come across as kind of mean. But you accepted me, and you’ll go to the ends of Fayne for the sake of someone you love. Jonathan knows it, I know it, Marisol knows it. You’ll always care about us, and the least we can do is stick by you. He would have never broken up with you unless he absolutely had to, because that’s who he is. And I’ve known him for years, so I can tell you right now, it wasn’t your fault.”

Eremia shuddered. She rested her head against Katerina’s shoulder and, for the first time in however many weeks, allowed herself to cry.



Chapter 30: It, Part 4 (1,114 words): Huh.

Spoiler! :
Katerina hesitated for a couple seconds, then gave Eremia a hug. Eremia couldn’t remember the last time she’d been hugged, nor did she think she would ever have a better one.

“What are you guys doing?” shouted Terasu from behind them. This time, she didn’t sound angry. She sounded like a child who’d seen a dead animal for the first time, and had to be explained what death was. “Take me to him!”

“Find him yourself,” Katerina said. She wiped off some of the tears spilling down Eremia’s face.

Terasu screamed, but Eremia could hear her voice fade into the distance. Not without a warning, of course: “Stay right there, freaks, and I’ll take care of you soon.”

As if Eremia could care. She sniffled and looked up at Katerina, who smiled back. Among all the smoke and ash swirling around, the fox’s expression shone through like the sun. “My apologies,” Eremia said, wiping the snot from her nose. “It is in-indecent of me to be like this.” She stammered and coughed, tears stained gray. “But I – I must thank you for staying here.”

“Like I said, it’s the least I can do for my princess,” Katerina said, reaching out to brush the dust off of Eremia’s hair with the back of her hand. “Besides, now we can get out of here. What are the odds Terasu actually finds –”

“You!”

The word was so high-pitched and loud that it made goosebumps rise across Eremia’s skin. She grit her teeth together, eyes bugging out. Katerina yelped and shot her gaze down one side of the street. As Eremia pulled herself up from Katerina’s shoulder, her eyes focused on the same direction.

And Eremia froze.

Fists wreathed in flames, Terasu leaped from a pile of rubble, aiming for a boy with hair and clothes nearly black from the city’s ruins. The boy jumped aside, the few soldiers around him scattering as Terasu punched the earth, which exploded beneath her feet. Since that group was crammed between the ruins of what had once been towers, the soldiers could only run in the direction of Katerina and Eremia. Fortunately, the men and women paid them absolutely no heed. Eremia, if it weren’t for the fact that she couldn’t move her legs, would’ve done the same.

“Me,” screeched the voice of the boy. “Fire head girl.” It stepped out from the wall of smoke and debris Terasu had sent in its direction. Those clothes were tattered, but Eremia recognized the Exedor insignia on the back, imprinted into its white undershirt (the shirt had been mostly burned off). That hair was almost black, but Eremia recognized the blonde edges. The voice was almost distorted beyond recognition, but Eremia knew that high-pitched whine.

Jonah. She’d finally found him.

“Die!” Terasu bellowed. She slammed her fists together, sending a pillar of flame hurtling in its direction. The hair over her eyes singed as she watched it handily deflect the blow with a sphere of darkness.

“Tsk tsk,” it said, shaking its head. “I cannot say I am surprised to meet you again. This time, though, you are disorganized. Weak. Clinging to your -”

Terasu pointed to the ground beneath its feet. It leaped into the air as the earth exploded, little balls of fire having shot from her finger. “Your mistake,” she growled, voice almost too gruff to be understandable, “Is talking too much. I won’t listen to her, I won’t listen to you, I won’t listen to anyone. Die, freak!”

Before Eremia could see what happened next, she found herself being pushed to one side of the street. Too transfixed to respond, she watched Katerina shove her onto the ground behind the wall of what had once been some kind of a store. “Listen,” Katerina said, hands on Eremia’s shoulders, “We need to leave. There’s something wrong with your brother, but you can’t fix it now. Not with Terasu around.”

For the first time in the last several minutes, words popped into Eremia’s brain. “But,” she said, “Terasu might kill him!”

Katerina gestured back to the street. “Listen in,” she said. Her words were slow and, if her gritted teeth anything to go by, strained. Eremia guessed that the only thing keeping Katerina from hauling them both away was their friendship and Eremia’s desire to be with her brother. “I think he’ll be fine.”

Eremia, taking ragged breaths nodded. She cleared out the sounds of war and destruction, straining to hear every word of the conversation and fight taking place only a short distance from her. It helped that both participants were loud, even if each voice was incomprehensible in its own way.

The sounds of pellets – ice? – raining against the ground. “‘Her’? I should hope she should be better at magic than you. How fortunate that I have learned plenty in my brief time in this body.”

This body? Had it used more than one in the past? Oh, Terasu was talking now.

“That bitch you call a sister! So, why. Won’t. You. Die.” Each of those last few words were almost drowned out in the fireballs that came with them, but they didn’t stop Eremia’s heart any less.

It laughed in a tinny and discordant way. “Ah, clarity! Is this the lovely Eremia? I distinctly remember throwing her through the back of a wagon. She thought to stop me. Stop me! What a fool! But, I imagine she has already gone to The World Above. When I send you there, please let her know that I will be seeing her soon.”

Eremia felt like daggers had been stuck in her chest. All this time, she’d clung onto the hope that maybe this was Jonah, or Jonah still had some control over himself. But this creature’s sheer contempt told her otherwise. A few more tears fell down her face, spilling towards her ears.

“Huh,” said Terasu, breathing deeply. She sounded much more muffled now, like somebody had covered her mouth. “All this time, I thought it was her. All this time. But you are. Huh. Guess I was holding back for nothing.”

“Yes,” it said. Eremia could imagine it raising its chin. “I killed him, and I will not hesitate to kill you. What do you say to that?”

Katerina realized the danger before Eremia ever could. She pulled herself and Eremia up with a speed that Eremia didn’t even know was possible. “Run!” Katerina screamed, as the buildings on the street in front of them started to glow orange and red. “Run!”

When Eremia saw the wall of flames, she didn’t need much more motivation. Turning around, she sprinted down the path she’d come from, Katerina in tow.


Chapter 30: It, Part 5 (1,037 words): Was it something it said?

Spoiler! :
Jonah, knife in hand, stopped in the middle of the grassy battlefield and squinted.

Today’s game was going about as well as he’d expected. Despite the addition of new people, he had only just started to move away from the house-sized hill he’d been trapped at. The archer had pinned him there for the last thirty minutes, taking out three of his soldiers in the process. The others had been separated, and he imagined they were likely being ambushed by the birds and its version of Eremia. It wouldn’t be long before it cornered and stabbed him. As usual.

As he watched the speck of light in the sky grow wider and brighter, taking on red and orange hues, he pointed the knife all around him. Better not to take chances. He was almost used to the pain by now – shots through the head, losing limbs, getting stabbed through the gut. Jonah figured it wasn’t nearly as bad as the real world. Even when it did hurt, he could always head back to the infinite darkness he now called home. Still, he didn’t want to lose so quickly.

Somewhere over the hill, a distorted and deep voice called out, “What is that?”

That surprised Jonah. He looked around wildly to make sure this wasn’t some kind of trick, a maneuver to get him to walk across the dust-strewn grass and get shot through the heart. On the other hand, it sounded genuinely surprised for once. And it was awful at faking emotions.

“Are you having fun, bastard?” Jonah said, throwing his head back and laughing. “Is the lord of crime finally getting to you?” He spread out his arms to embrace the gradually swelling ball of fire that consumed the horizon, heading towards the edges of whatever this place was. He then wiped the sweat from his brow and tried to stop himself from wheezing. Not out of heat – it was impossible to feel temperature here – but because he knew he also wasn’t good at faking emotions. Jonah didn’t know if this encroaching fire, which now lowered to the ground, was a trick, something unnatural, or even the end. He knew how to toy with people, though.

And, if he was going down, he wanted to see the color drain out of his evil doppleganger’s face.

“Less fun than usual, I will admit,” it said, voice booming across the mindscape. “I suppose I will have to end this charade.”

Oop. Jonah winced. He focused his gaze on the archer, who now stood at the top of the hill. The archer lowered his bow, dust spilling down his shoulders. Yanking the arrow out of his shoulder, Jonah threw it onto the ground and ignored the blood that poured out from the wound.

“I disagree,” Jonah grunted, spotting the flames trickling down just inches from the archer’s head. He flung his dagger at the archer and then sprinted alongside the hill, dodging another couple shots along the way. If he was fast enough, if he zigzagged enough –

Another shot whizzed by Jonah’s stomach. He panted, feeling his heartrate double. With adrenaline pouring through his veins, he made a wide arc and began charging up the hill, reaching out for his dagger. Sure enough, the archer was stupid enough to spot the dagger to one side, bend down, and reach for it. That few seconds was all it took for the flames to envelop the archer. The archer silently screamed, waving his arms futility. He collapsed into ashes seconds later, the dagger dropping onto the ground.

“Take that, monster!” Jonah screamed breathlessly. “In your worthless face!” He ducked beneath the wall of flames, snatching up his dagger and rolling down the hill. His shoulder ached, but he pressed the dagger close to his chest. At the bottom, he sprawled out, back to the fire. He’d done it. He’d finally done it. One of its little minions had died, outdone by his own wits. The true mark of a master criminal. While his shoulder spurted out blood, he took several long breaths and allowed a smile to form on his face. Now he stood a chance of beating –

He gasped, feeling a foot on his back. As soon as he reached his arms up, a knife joined the foot. Jonah grimaced and slumped back down. Spots danced in front of his eyes, and he could see the grass at his feet beginning to disintegrate.

“Brat,” it said, grinding the foot further into Jonah’s back. “Child.” It grabbed the knife and jammed it into Jonah’s back a few more times. “Go back to your baubles and leave the adults to do their work.”

It kicked at the back of Jonah’s head. Jonah’s eyes rolled back in his head, he could no longer feel the soft blades of grass at his feet, and the world around him disintegrated.

******


It summoned a sphere of darkness around itself in the nick of time. The flames lashed at its defenses, surrounding him in their infernal glory. It couldn’t breathe, and it could see the edges of its sphere cracking away and falling into the midst of the flames. Though it was distracted by holding its hands up to its throat, its train of thought slurred the longer oxygen didn’t reach its brain, it couldn’t help but admire the sheer power. The carnage. The rage. It was a power that it couldn’t harness yet, but the power it needed to control the world. It wanted this girl, but it knew it wouldn’t be able to survive the fight.

So it grimaced, gritted its teeth, and ran. The sphere held it aloft as it burst through the flames, landing on its face in a narrow alleyway littered with the bricks and debris of crushed buildings. It groaned as it pressed a hand against its ribs. One or two responded with sharp jolts of pain. Still, there was no time to be lost. It got onto its hands and knees. The nearest building leaned to one side, but looked stable enough for it to crawl inside and hide against the wall. There it hid, until the roaring of the flames ceased and it could hear its own ragged breathing.


Chapter 30: It, Part 6 (304 words): screech

Spoiler! :
It had expected that taking Wyandanch would be hard, but the events of the last few hours amazed him. He had spent most of his power blazing a path into the city, and then had been repulsed twice. A catapult and a angry girl had hurt him more than anything else in the past few hundred years. And what made his eyes widen in surprise was when, from the crackling flames and crumbling brickwork, came a long, piercing scream.

Peeking out the way it’d come, it saw the smoke curl around Terasu. Her armor was tarnished by ashes. The edges of her hair burned, glowing in the darkness. Tears streamed down, wiping the dust off her face. And she screamed. Falling onto her knees, she raised her hands and called to someone in the black sky above. It wasn’t sure if that was a prayer or a plea; it was more interested in covering its ears as the noise kept on going.

Now was its opportunity. Attacking her would be suicide, so it rose up and ran out the other side of the building. Sure enough, as it turned to head down an alley, it could see the flames sprouting from Terasu’s hands. Fireballs flew into the air, exploding around her. How did she even have the stamina? It would never admit it, but beneath all the calculations and suspicions and awe, one emotion led it away from her.

Fear. Fear of her power. Fear of her fury. Fear of her sadness. She had nothing to lose. It had everything to lose.

“Rowland!” she shouted as it ran away. “Please come back to me! I did it; I killed him!”

For a brief moment, as though everyone and everything in the city was straining to hear, the world fell silent.

And the screaming returned.


Chapter 31: Rewards, Part 1 (767 words): The nice side of town.

Spoiler! :
“Have they gone?”

“I believe so, sir. The last few scurried into the city.”

“Good.” A pause. “I had expected to be dead by now.”

“Kasimir did his job well.”

Belisarius took off the iron helmet that had covered his face. He breathed in the smoky and cold air of the city. At least it wasn’t hot and stuffy. He poked his head out from the pile of weapons that had been scattered on the floor by the Eimhin raiders. Only the rusty, dented, and bent ones remained. That there were so many spoke to the city’s desolation. If it weren’t for the fact that the Wyandanch monarchy and soldiers had suffocated the city, Belisarius would’ve sympathized.

He just hoped that his own country wouldn’t go the same route.

The other soldiers slipped out from the brickwork, spears raised. Five in all, two on the other side of the narrow, dusty hallway. Dressed in the blue and silver of Walenty. All around them, a few torches cast a pitiful amount of light over the inside of Wyandanch’s walls.

Standing up, helmet under one arm, Belisarius saluted. The soldiers saluted back, then stepped out into the hallway. He squeezed in between them and stamped his foot. Instinctively, the soldiers began to march, heading towards the speck of light in the distance. Belisarius quickly adjusted to the fast pace; it gave him something to focus on that didn’t remind him of how he was surrounded by another country’s soldiers.

How had he gotten here? Why had he decided to defy Catharnach, make friends with Kasimir, put on a disguise and slip away from the storming of the city, and end up a traitor to his country? He didn’t quite know. As the light approached, bringing with it the smell of blood and smoke, Belisarius realized something. If he was given another chance, he would do this all over again. The Mad King was an accurate name for his ruler. He couldn’t tolerate forcing his men into suicidal charges anymore.

Granted, now that he had just slipped away from his own army, who were now raiding an impenetrable city, he had some regrets. But the plan was simple – stay out of the limelight and wait until the fighting ended. That kept him from being a target. If Kasimir was still alive, Belisarius and his men would join him. If Kasimir was dead, Belisarius and his men would find a way out of the city.

But he couldn’t do that in the walls of the city. Too many holes, too many soldiers. No, it was better to find some barricaded place, whether in the city or beneath it. The section of the city furthest from the action looked like the best option.

The group stepped out into the destroyed segment of the wall. As he’d been told, nobody else was around. Flecks of ash sprinkled over the crushed cobblestones that extended in the direction of The Pillars. That creepy boy Catharnach had befriended had done his work well. An army could fit through the gap; an army already had.

One of the soldiers pointed to the west, in the direction of The Pillars. “Some high ground there,” the soldier said. She took a few tentative steps forward, walking onto the street running alongside the wall. “I believe that’d be the royal family’s quarters.”

“Is it still occupied?” Belisarius said.

The soldier shrugged. “We’ll just have to keep an eye out, but I’m guessing they’ll keep mostly to the king’s room.”

Belisarius sighed, but nodded. “Good enough,” he said. “Not as though any part of this city is safe.”

Slipping back into place, the soldier waited for Belisarius to stamp his foot again. Then they marched across the empty roads and abandoned vistas, heading northwest. Belisarius coughed as he breathed in the air, and his steps echoed loudly around the burned-out buildings, but he made no other noise. With goosebumps on his skin and a tingle up his spine – was that a scream? – how could he?

Fortunately, the farther the group went, the less decrepit the city became. At one of the open gates in the wall that divided the city, they stepped over barricades and a huge number of dead bodies. The gate had been burned and blasted apart, so that only splinters and shards hung from the stone. That was odd. It meant some group had carved their way into this part of the city. Based on the lack of shouting, they’d either turned back or simply had not run into any obstacles. He hoped the first idea was true.


Chapter 31: Rewards, Part 2 (1,023 words): much death, very wow

Spoiler! :
His guard took notice as well. One raised a fist to the side, signaling the others to stop. A few seconds passed by, Belisarius and the soldiers looking around the abandoned intersection. They finally turned and made their way down the smaller street. Clinging to the wall and bordered by tall buildings, it felt almost like an alley, especially in the darkness.

Belisarius counted the seconds that the distant scream lasted. He quickly lost count, and instead focused on keeping his bootsteps as quiet as possible. The hairs on the back of his neck told him that something was wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be this quiet. There should’ve been Wyandanch guards, Alliance soldiers, princes, noblemen, anyone. The city hadn’t been all that active of a place before – and he’d visited it once, so he knew – but this was ridiculous.

Another raised fist. An alleyway loomed to the right, extending into an inky distance. The guards scanned the perimeter, peering up at the wall and down into the alley’s depths. They crouched, extending their spears out. Belisarius, after a second or two of hesitation, joined them. He couldn’t see or smell anything out of the ordinary; all the smoke and mist that hung in the distance masked his senses. That just made him more nervous. There was nothing to project his worries onto.

The lady he’d talked to earlier focused her spear at the alleyway for a few seconds. Belisarius’s heart froze as he watched her, hearing the blood through his temples like drumbeats. He only eased his white-knuckled grip on the hilts of his swords when she raised her spear up and stood up. “All clear,” she said.

Then an arrow protruded out of her back.

Belisarius’s eyes widened and darted around as the lady crumpled forward in a heap. The other guards raised their spears and waved them, but were ill-prepared for the volley of arrows that came at them from all sides. From the windows of buildings, the top of the wall, anywhere but the alleyway.

Or, as much as Belisarius figured before he felt a stinging sensation in his leg.

A laugh echoed through the street, reaching the ears of Belisarius and the few living soldiers. They moved their feet back to avoid the pools of blood, covering their ears to hide the groaning and shouting. Only Belisarius didn’t, entranced by the vague outline of a figure leaning out the window of the building closest to him. An archer, aiming a shot straight for his head. That archer’s voice was unmistakable.

“Belisarius,” Ailean said, smooth as glass. “How wonderful to see you here. Alone, like the coward and traitor you are.”

Staring out at the arrow sticking out of his calf, which spilled blood that seeped through the cracks in his armor, Belisarius winced. “I have no idea what,” he said, taking a breath, “You’re talking about.”

Another laugh, but more hollow. “I see those soldiers,” Ailean said. “I see Kasimir’s troops. I could have sworn you had only loyalty to your own, but you always were. No matter; I shall have them taken care of.”

And, sure enough, another volley of arrows sprung out. Belisarius, who had closed his eyes, opened them to find himself still intact. Mostly. But he was alone. Headshots had wiped out those still crouching, and other arrows littered the bodies of the dead.

“See?” said Ailean. “Easy. I suppose you should receive the same treatment. You stumbled on my little force, and now I have the opportunity to enjoy killing you sooner than I thought I would. And you, I am afraid, will only be the first. Any final words?”

Belisarius’s eyes began to glaze over. He could see himself in the crib, stomping around in the mud, walking into a lord’s castle, striking at a training dummy, killing his first man in battle, being made a knight, leading his few squires and trainees against deer hiding in the wilderness, winning promotion after promotion after promotion, and being made a general by the King. So much blood. His hands were stained in blood. That of his page, his enemies, the soldiers he’d used to lead in suicidal charges. “Drown,” Belisarius said, though he didn’t know he was saying it.

“I must assume that is a ‘yes,’” said Ailean, who phrased it somewhat like a question. Belisarius watched as Ailean stretched his bow back – he could almost see the prince’s smug grin – and heard the sound of the arrow. The arrows.

The last thing he thought of was his family in their home, wondering where their son had gone.

******


Yorew wiped the sweat off his brow and looked down at his patient. Grabbing a few more bandages from the basket set on the patient’s unmoving legs, Yorew wrapped them around the patient’s head. The patient groaned, head rolling to one side as their eyes retreated into their skull. Blood soaked out from the bandages, staining their scalp red. Trying to fight off the tightening of his throat, Yorew gnashed his teeth and wiped the blood off with a towel.

“Out cold,” Yorew said, grumbling curses as he dropped the towel over the patient’s eyes. “I doubt they’ll make it.”

Madeleine, standing right beside him and tending to another patient, sighed. “We shouldn’t have tried to be the heroes,” she said. “All we’ve done is made a bloody mess.”

“But we couldn’t have just let the city burn,” Yorew said, looking out over the crowded hospital. Every single bed was filled, and a surge of patients, doctors, and nurses spilled around and chatted amongst each other. Past the hospital tent’s flaps, Yorew could see stretches being laid out on the ground. Dozens of them. Great.

“I guess not,” Madeleine said. “And I get to spend time with my hero.” She brushed Yorew’s hand.

Yorew’s heart fluttered. He tried to focus on his patient, throwing in more bandages and some healing magic to boot. Head wounds were always terrible to deal with and clean up. But he couldn’t stop the euphoric feeling that brought a tingle to his hand and his chest.

Until Alarick showed up.
Last edited by TheSilverFox on Mon Aug 27, 2018 2:10 am, edited 1 time in total.
  





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Mon Aug 27, 2018 2:10 am
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Aw crap, I thought the last one would last forever, but nope, it's time for


LMS Writing Part XIII




Chapter 31: Rewards, Part 3 (1,022 words): first post from collegeland! hopefully this is good enough.

Spoiler! :
Even in the crowd, and even out of the corner of Yorew’s eyes, Alarick was unmistakable. Both because of that suit of armor and the sheer fury etched into jagged lines, a creased forehead, and a thinly drawn scowl. His eyes looked like pits for someone to fall into and starve to death. Thanks to the goosebumps forming on his skin, Yorew knew who would.

“You,” Alarick said, pointing to Yorew. “Answer me.”

Yorew gulped, hesitantly looking in Alarick’s direction. “About what?” Yorew said, standing straight and speaking slowly. He was taller than Alarick, but he didn’t feel like it. At least he was used to keeping himself composed. Living in a turbulent family helped.

“Where is she?” Alarick said, tapping an index finger on his palm with each word.

“Who?” Yorew said. He could already feel a pit in his stomach. That wasn’t the blood this time.

Alarick lunged forward and grabbed Yorew by the shirt, pulling him close. Nearby, Madeleine shouted in alarm and walked over, but was blocked by a stretched being carried in front of her. “The princess,” Alarick said, staring up into Yorew’s eyes. “Eremia. Where is she?”

Yorew blinked. She was gone? How could she be gone? Unless she’d gone to find her brother. Which would be a thing she would do. Of course she would. It wouldn’t matter if The Creator came down and told her to stop; she’d just walk right past him.

Oop, Alarick’s grip was getting tighter. The collar of Yorew’s shirt began to pull against his neck. “I haven’t a clue,” Yorew said, trying to hide the rise in his voice. “I have not seen her since yesterday.” Hopefully Alarick would accept the truth. From what Yorew had heard, Alarick had both a legendary temper and strength. Yorew wasn’t about to get into a fight he couldn’t win.

Alarick’s gaze narrowed. He stared Yorew up and down for a few seconds, before yanking his hand back. “I believe you,” he said. “She wouldn’t be so stupid to tell anyone her plan and not bring them along.”

Quickly wiping the sweat from his brow, Yorew straightened his shirt and tapped his staff on the ground. “Now, I presume she did not go alone?” he said. In his mind, he replaced “presume” with “hope.”


“Of course not,” Alarick said. Already beginning to walk away, he waved dismissively. “She brought with her the usual confidantes – Katerina and Marisol.” His voice turned to a growl. “At least once of whom would’ve been extremely useful.” It snapped back to normal. “But, if you should find them, bring them back to me. She will be going home, one way or another.”

And he strode off, people parting in his wake.

After a few seconds, Yorew remembered to breathe. He had to convince himself it was alright. She could take care of herself. She was smart. She was strong. He’d seen her blow down trees, ride horses across the Exedor castle courtyard, pour over books in the library, and he’d even taught her the basis of using a sword. And she was with a couple friends. He wasn’t familiar with either of them, but they’d both fought with her before. If worst came to worst, she could make her way out of the city.

It’d be fine. Of course it’d be fine.

Yorew felt a hand on his shoulder. “Eremia’s gone?” Madeleine whispered. Normally her voice was a rush of fresh air. Something to smile about, open eyes wide to see, breathe in. Now that she was hammering in what he already knew, it just made him feel queasy.

Reaching down and placing his hands on his knees, Yorew nodded. He focused on a spot on the ground to keep himself from vomiting. In the crowded tent, with the smell of metal pungent, it was a challenge. His vision swam, and he swore he could hear his heartbeat in his ears.

He saw her walk around him, steps light on the earth, leaving no trace. Madeleine stopped in front of him and crouched down. “Are you going to get her?” she said, crossing her arms.

Yorew wanted to laugh. He would’ve, if he was sure he wouldn’t heave first. It sounded almost like a command. But he knew, and she knew, what this was all about. Eremia was the person he’d served over the past decade. She was in danger, and it was his job to find her and bring her back. It was time to play the hero, instead of patching them up.

And, well, he cared about her. With her father almost never around, he was the closest person she had to a parental figure. Which was depressing, since he wasn’t exactly the chattiest or friendliest person. Tearing her from her home had caused this entire mess, led to all these men and women he was now trying to safe. Some of whom he’d failed to save. The least he could do was repent, however he could manage it.

“Yes,” he said at last. He began to rise up. To his surprise, Madeleine joined him, placing her hands on his cheeks. Before he could respond, they were inches apart, Madeleine at her full height.

“Would you?” she said, biting her lip.

“I would,” he said.

Madeleine leaned forward and gave Yorew a kiss.

“I believe some of the patrols will be coming back in the next few minutes,” Madeleine said as she stepped back. She tripped over words and blushed, but Yorew hardly noticed. It felt like a firecracker had gone off in his mind, bombarding his senses in this feeling of wonder. He almost though he’d sprouted wings and flown off into the sky.

But the magnitude of her words came to him quickly enough. Eremia was in danger. He was going to save her. Yorew, realizing that he was smiling, retreated back to his serene expression and nodded a third time. And, without any fanfare, he walked past the patient he’d been treating, squeezed his way out of the hospital tent, and stared out at the burning city to his right.

He was ready.


Chapter 31: Rewards, Part 4 (1,070 words): lol Ailean you joker.


Spoiler! :

And Madeleine watched. She followed a few steps behind, peeking out the tent flap long enough to see him to disappear into the crowd. Turning around, she let go out of a breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding in.

The hustle and bustle of the crowd around her died down. Letting go of the tent flap, she took a few steps back, vision blurring. It’d been a while since she’d felt her heart beat this fast. It’d been a while since she’d fallen in love with anyone. After her first marriage, she never thought she’d have a moment like this again. A moment to forget about the world, her job, the idiots she had to keep from hurting themselves. And sure, he was one of them too, if running off into a burning city said anything. But he was her idiot, and her companion, and her rock. He was reliable, dependable, and faithful. She couldn’t ask for anyone else.

Hoofbeats behind her. Madeleine’s heart jumped for another reason. “Ceinen?” she said, turning around. Sure enough, the deer rose above the crowd, a stack of books clutched in his hands. For once, he looked almost cheery – he smiled gently and snorted.

“He’s – he’s g-going to the c-city?” Ceinen said.

It unnerved her how genuinely calm Ceinen looked. For once, he wasn’t shaking, and he’d kept his stammering to a low ebb. Raising an eyebrow in a silent question, Madeleine said, “Yes, he’s going to find Eremia.”

“Ah, yes, yes,” said Ceinen, stamping a hoof. “I li-like her. Sh-she makes me think.” A couple tears slipped down his face. Madeleine reached out – she didn’t know what he was crying about, except for maybe being rejected, but it always hurt her to see him like this. Except, Ceinen blocked the hand with his books. “Y-y-y-you ma-made a go-o-o-od choice,” he bleated out.

Madeleine pushed through the few people standing between her and Ceinen. She wrapped her arms around the deer, who continued to snort and sniff.

“Thank you,” Madeleine said, blinking the tears from her eyes. “And I hope you find your own good choice.”

Ceinen snorted and laughed. Madeleine joined him. And, without anything else to say, they kept hugging. Finally, they were friends again.


******



“Is that all?” roared Kasimir. He stood on top of one of the Wyandanch barriers, soaked in blood from his neck downward. His troops poured over the barrier on either side, killing the few stragglers or sending them fleeing. It was times like these that he remembered going up against his father. The thrill. The carnage. The feeling that he was invincible. The glory. There was nothing quite like it to him.

“As I believe most of them to be dead,” Alsather said, riding in on a horse and stopping beside Kasimir, “Then yes, it is indeed all.”

Kasimir looked down and grinned. That smug snake. As usual, Alsather had the cataracts lady and Cerin riding on the horse next to him. Cerin clung onto the cataracts lady a bit more on seeing Alsather; the cataracts lady herself yawned. “Somebody needs to teach you about rhetorical questions some day,” Kasimir said. He leaped off the barrier, standing in front of Alsather. “Maybe you’ll get into the spirit of things.”

Alsather sneered and recoiled. “Not if it involves such filth,” he said, gesturing to Kasimir’s torn and bloody outfit. “I should rather keep myself clean and leave such work to others. It is unbecoming of a monarch such as yourself, though you have not tried to become a monarch.”

“Because you’re looking all clean and dry,” Kasimir said as he rolled his eyes. He pointed to the ash scattered around Alsather’s white robes, turning them gray. It matched the color of Alsather’s scales well – a pity that Alsather was human this time. “We’ve both got blood on our hands. I just stopped trying to hide it.”

Alsather instinctively glanced down at his hands, which held the horse’s reigns.

“Rhetorical,” Kasimir said, laughing.

Alsather raised his head and glared. “I would happily bloody these hands if it meant coating them in yours.”

Kasimir threw back his shoulders. “What’s stopping you? We’ve kicked Wyandanch out. We’ve got a whole empire to rule. Why not make the job easier for one of us? You know, me.”

The snake gripped tighter on his reins. Kasimir’s grin grew wider. It looked like Alsather was just about ready to leap off that horse, turn into the disgusting creature he was, and try to bite Kasimir’s head off. Not that he’d live long enough to. Kasimir had planned several strategies for this situation. All he had to do was –

“Look out!”

Kasimir heard the screaming of arrows overhead. Instinctively, he ducked under the barrier, pressing into it as far as he could. His intuition was accurate, given the number of arrows that embedded themselves over his head. To his credit, Alsather responded just as well. He’d reacted right before Kasimir, pulling the reins on his horse and charging through the crowd, the cataracts lady and Cerin right behind. Kasimir watched them hide under an overhanging roof as soldiers fell to the barrage.

The attack ended as quickly as it arrived, leaving bodies strewn across the street. “What is this?” screamed Kasimir, looking around at the survivors. Some pulled injured companions from the road, while others looked up towards the nearby buildings. The King of Walenty pushed himself onto his feet. “This should’ve been a poorly defended place. Did Wyandanch sneak up on us? Did someone not check hard enough?”

Another wave of arrows screamed into existence. As the crowd pushed and shoved their way into buildings and under roofs, Kasimir peered in the direction the arrows had come from. Among all the smoke, it was hard to spot the line of figures poised on the nearest wall, a few blocks away. And then he had to duck and roll as the wave closed in on him.

Propping himself onto his knees, Kasimir grit his teeth. There were two possibilities. One, a Wyandanch force had sneaked their way out of the fighting and spotted his little army. But that didn’t explain how accurate the archers were – most of his soldiers were already in hiding, and those that didn’t died horrifically quickly. Only one country had such effective archers.

A trumpet blared out a long series of low, rolling notes. An Eimhin signal. Of course.


Chapter 31: Rewards, Part 5 (1,067 words): lol dramatic irony.

Spoiler! :
Alsather rode into view, stopping in front of Kasimir. “It seems as though the Mad King has finally made his move,” the snake said, reaching a hand out. “Would you-”

“Enough talking!” Kasimir shouted. He leaped onto the back of the horse. It instantly rose up in alarm, whinnying and flailing. When its front legs touched the ground, it galloped off. The horse sped away from the barrier and around the corner, taking the two down a narrow street. Another wave of arrows hissed behind them. Poor bastards. Kasimir hated how many of his men had to die today.

Alsather struggled with the reins as the horse jerked one way or another. It was surprisingly jittery for a war horse, but Kasimir figured that, much like its driver, it had spent a lot of its life in comfort. A battlefield as chaotic as this was an offense to everything it knew. Still, it soared through the labyrinth of streets and alleyways, keeping away from the line of archers. A second set of hoofbeats echoed from behind.

“I have half a mind to kick you and your oversized posterior off,” Alsather growled. The horse flung itself around a corner; Kasimir gripped onto the saddle and grimaced as he held on desperately. “Particularly as you tried to goad me into killing you, if you remember.”

“That’s war for you,” Kasimir shot back. He saw arrows break against the cobblestone to their right. Kasimir scowled – the archers were likely following them now. Whoever was commanding them had to be smart, which ruled out Catharnach and most of his high command. “And now we have a reason to work together, so deal with my ‘oversized posterior.’”

“Fine,” Alsather said. “I will describe it in terms that you and your crude mind will understand – you have a fat ass.” His dust-coated robes billowed out, restraining Kasimir’s vision. Between that and the comment, Kasimir forgot to think who’d be responsible for the attack.

Kasimir coughed, spitting out ashes. The smells grew more intense, the flames around them grew bigger, and the screaming picked up. “Maybe this fat ass won’t lead us into the middle of a battlefield,” he said. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Away!” Alsather said. “Yes, we do invoke a greater risk to our health by joining the rest of our men, but I can hardly imagine that our opponents would be able to spot us in such a mess.”

As if in reply, a group of arrows shot past them, striking the church to their right. The horse, with one long, high-pitched whinny, tried to stop. It toppled backward, forcing Kasimir and Alsather to jump off as it crashed onto its side. Kasimir stood up first, but Alsather had the advantage. Shifting into the form of a small, grey-colored snake, Alsather slithered his way to the church and squeezed under the door.

Putting a hand up to his mouth, Kasimir followed. He made it to the door before he heard the sound of someone clapping.

“Why, it must be my lucky day,” Ailean said. The King of Walenty groaned. Of course they’d be fighting the smart one (not that that was saying much). Who else would they run into in a place as unlucky as this? Kasimir couldn’t spot the brat, but at least he knew how to hide from him. Kasimir grabbed his ax from where it was strapped to his back and aimed it at the door’s hinges. With a loud crack!, the hinges split in two. The door tried to topple on Kasimir.

Ailean laughed at this. “Yes, make it easier for me. Fath – my King - will be very-”

Reaching up with both hands, Kasimir propped the massive door up. The holes were just large enough for the cataracts lady and Cerin, who had just dismounted by the door, to slip in. He grunted as he pushed the door aside long enough to squeeze himself into the church.

The King of Walenty fell on his knees, gasping for air. In the dark and abandoned church, the air was no better than it was outside. And that door had been a bit heavier than he’d been expecting. But the others had already pushed up against a dragonstone wall. Kasimir crawled his way beside them.

“I suppose not so easy,” Ailean said. “No matter.” Arrows poured through the gaps between the door and the inside of the church, turning seats into pincushions.

Kasimir propped himself up by his hands and knees. As he stood up, a now-human Alsather whispered into his ear, “How wonderful. You led us away from the fight – it would be safe, you said. Now we seem to be trapped and surrounded by the man stupid enough to be shoved into a latrine. Any backup plans, wise strategist?”

“Shut your oversized posterior,” Kasimir said. He glanced around the wall, only to yank his head back in time to avoid the arrows aimed at his face.

Alsather laughed. “I did not suppose I would die like this, yet here we are!” He raised his hands, his eyes now slits. “Betrayed, shot at, and isolated from our soldiers. Who would possibly be in a worse situation?”

******




“Faster!” Drusus shouted, holding onto Torion’s neck for dear life, “Go faster!”

“I’m trying!” the wolf said. He looked behind him down the dark and narrow path. The red eyes of rats flickered into and out of view. They were scurrying around the obstacles he had to leap over. They ignored the air that stifled his breaths and made him feel like his lungs were shriveling up. The pit in his stomach grew deeper. “It’s kinda hard to run and carry you.”

Drusus looked down. Sure enough, Torion had grabbed him by the legs and chest and was carrying him. “Sorry!” he called out. “Just – was that Seres we saw? Seres himself?”

Torion screamed as one of the rats scratched at his ankle. He doubled his pace, relying on the sparks flickering around his head and his good eyesight to guide him. “I dunno,” he said. “That was always your thing!”

“I just can’t trust my own eyes,” Drusus said. He shook his head. “That means we were wrong. If Seres is alive, Wielde likely is as well. And as long as they live, our invasion-”

“Um, now might not be the time!” Torion shouted. “They’re catching up to us!”


Chapter 31: Rewards, Part 6 (1,033 words): eugh this chapter has been going on for too long.

Spoiler! :
As if on cue, a pair of red eyes popped out from the right. Dark as the tunnels were, Torion could see the intersection that the rat had come from. Clever bastards. Still, he had an idea already forming in his head, and he executed it just as quickly.

Torion turned almost on a dime, pushing Drusus outward. The rat, caught off guard, took Drusus’s weight and crumpled to the ground. Torion ran over the rat, leaping when he heard the swish of a sword aimed at his ankles. Somehow, he was able to make the landing and shoot down the smaller, dustier tunnel.

Torion was too stunned to speak – he hadn’t expected that to work. Given that the only thing he could hear beyond his own heartbeat and breathing was Drusus’s, Drusus was apparently in agreement. The wolf felt a pang of guilt. He’d put Drusus in danger; he could’ve killed them both. Luck and adrenaline kept them alive, and Torion could already feel the latter running out. He huffed and puffed as he lugged Drusus’s weight down the claustrophobic tunnel. It was getting hard to breathe. The wolf’s arms rubbed up against the walls. This was a bad idea. Why did he even think to do something like this?

“That was incredible,” Drusus said at last. Torion, pulled from his thoughts, almost jumped in surprise and dropped him. But Drusus didn’t seem to notice. “How did you manage a maneuver like that? You startled that rat and switched paths. What a fine trick!” Looking behind them, Drusus nodded in approval. “And most of them fell for it!”

Now the wolf felt like he could run up and down the burning streets of Wyandanch with a lion on his back. “It was nothing,” Torion mumbled. He glanced back as best he could. Sure enough, there were only three or four pairs of red eyes following them. He could probably fight them off if he didn’t have to let go of Drusus first. And he wasn’t about to do that now.

Drusus laughed. “Nothing?” he said, reaching up to run a hand along Torion’s fuzzy cheek. “It was strategy! You’re learning from me rather well, it looks like.”

The wolf tried to focus on his task. He couldn’t see an end to the tunnel, but it either ended up in some basement or an intersection. If the rats caught up to him by then, he could try his trick again. But they’d see that coming, wouldn’t they? If there happened to be a basement, maybe he’d be fast enough to shut and bar the door behind him. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Drusus’s compliment. His face grew hot and his hands grew shaky as the last minute, and then last night, replayed in his mind.

And, suddenly, he stumbled over a rock.

Torion pulled Drusus as close to his chest as possible as they hit the ground. The stones scraped their fur and skin, leaving gashes on Torion’s legs. But there wasn’t any time to waste. The wolf kicked back to hit the closest rat scurrying over. The rat groaned in pain and toppled backwards. Gripping the stone, Torion yanked himself and Drusus up. While a commotion broke out behind them, Torion quickly regained his speed.

The wolf looked down. To his relief, Drusus was okay. Covered in a few scratches and spitting out fur, but okay.

A knife shot past their heads. Before the man even had a chance to open his eyes, Torion pressed Drusus’s head against his chest. That’d minimize the odds of injury and also brought Torion some comfort. Comfort that he needed, because he could see the outline of a door in front of him, just past some stairs.

Vaulting over the stairs in one leap, Torion only lost a little speed. He barreled at the door full force, both swinging it open and crashing into it. As the door swung back into place, he found that he couldn’t exactly stop to keep it shut. He tried to lean back, but slammed into a pew. Drusus spilled onto the seat, while Torion fell back onto the floor.

Torion groaned at the raging headache in the back of his skull. He tried to pull himself up into a sitting position – his legs stung too much for him to want to stand up just yet. Caught off guard as he was, his hearing just barely picked out the rats pushing open the door, and then screaming and closing it.

An oversized hand loomed in front of him. Torion blinked and looked up to see Kasimir. The King was grinning. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you both,” Kasimir said, lifting up Torion when the wolf took his hand.

“Same,” Torion stammered. He shook as he rose to his full height. His legs suddenly felt like jelly, and he was reasonably sure the gashes had torn out his fur.

“I’m guessing that door leads into the tunnel system?” Kasimir said, tilting his head to the door in question. When Torion nodded, Kasimir beamed even more (somehow possible) and went over to Drusus, who was still sprawled out on the pew.

A familiar smug figure took the opportunity to pop up next to Torion. The wolf growled as Alsather walked around him, inspecting his face and legs closely. “I sincerely doubt that we can simply flee this building by the tunnels, you oaf,” Alsather said, glaring back at Kasimir. “Clearly your idiots have been attacked by the rats. As they still have all their limbs, I must assume that the premier guards and assassins among the rats are not prowling around this side of the city, but any rat is a danger. They have sight and speed on their side.”

“‘My idiots’ outran and outsaw them,” Kasimir shot back. “Besides, we don’t need to use the same tunnel. I have to imagine this church has at least a couple. Wyandanch was always paranoid.”

The King grabbed Drusus and placed him on his feet. Drusus swayed from side to side, clutching his head and mentioning something about being reminded of last night. Torion pretended not to hear it.


Chapter 31: Rewards, Part 7 (100 words): lol honestly what did you expect

Spoiler! :
Alsather sneered. “I suppose we haven’t any other choice.” He waved behind him. “To me, Cerin.”

Silence.

“Cerin? You foolish girl, you shan’t be trying to rebel against me n-”

Alsather turned around, and, surprising the wolf, gaped.

As Torion adjusted to the dark interior of the church, he searched around for the girl. Nowhere by the seats. Not hiding behind a pillar or a curtain. Nowhere near the arrow-riddled door. The lady with the cataracts eyes, picking herself up off the floor, answered before he came to the same conclusion.

“She caught me by surprise,” she said. “She’s gone.”


Chapter 32: The Prince of Blood, Part 1 (1,011 words) ;-;

Spoiler! :
Yorew decided that he may have miscalculated.

He scrabbled over the ruins of a half-destroyed pottery shop. The kiln leaned to one side, its blackened insides mocking him as its soot covered the hand he placed on it. You won’t find her, it seemed to say. Or you won’t like what you’ll find.

Admittedly, it had a point. He hadn’t had a clue how big this city was or how many soldiers still fought in its ruins. Yorew hadn’t been here too many times before, even in the days when he wasn’t a servant. Maybe he’d come for the odd job or two, but he’d never make it past the front walls. Now he was starting to get the impression that he’d stumbled into a labyrinth of blood and fire.

Yorew took a few deep breaths as he leaned against the kiln. His lungs weren’t as strong as they used to be, and the ash that coated the air didn’t help. The darkness blurred his vision, reminding him of the fog that flowed from the shores of Lake Erefung, but far fouler. With each building that he’d passed, he’d seen death’s skeleton face grow clearer and clearer. It was unmistakable now.

But he had to find someone eventually. Not Alliance soldiers – he’d already run into enough of those. He suspected he’d find Eremia in the thick of it; she had a knack for being the center of attention, and she’d gone to find Jonah, who was likely trapped somewhere in this abysmal place.

The poor boy. He didn’t deserve any of this. Yorew grit his teeth, regretting helping him out of the castle in the first place. But Jonah had likely either died or was at The Mad King’s side – there was no way to rescue him. Eremia, on the other hand, would blow buildings down on anyone trying to take her hostage. And, even if he couldn’t find her, there had to be a few citizens scattered around, looking for a way out. That was his job, wasn’t it? It had always been his job.

That motivated him enough to let go of the kiln and stagger forward. Staff in hand, he went through a destroyed wall on the other side of the building and made his way into the street. Flexing his fingers, Yorew winced at the pops he heard. That last man had taken quite a few hits to the face before going down. Or Yorew was losing his edge. He didn’t like either possibility.

Yorew could hear the sounds of a scuffle up ahead. In the cloud of smoke, it was impossible to make out anything other than a few blurs speeding their way across the street. Wary, Yorew moved to the right when he noticed them heading to the left. He kept close to the busted doors, shredded curtains, and busted chairs of what had once likely been a series of restaurants. A market, perhaps? Did Wyandanch even have enough people to make a profit selling food to them? With the military, perhaps.

A few steps later, and Yorew caught the figures rushing into a building. The screams of soldiers echoed into the street. Yorew pressed himself against the wall further, straining to pick up every hint of the attacker’s whereabouts. The screaming died as quickly as it started. They were good.

Yorew grimaced. If he turned back now, he’d have to find another route to get deeper into the city. That was wasting time he couldn’t afford. The best he could hope to do was skirt around these thugs and keep his ears and eyes open.

But, as they spilled out from the building and onto the street, he couldn’t help but notice that they sounded familiar. The dark gray blobs spread out in a wide circle. A couple sung snippets of some fighting tune he remembered from his youth. One of them waved what looked like a flagon of beer. And, as he stepped closer, he could see their weapons. A katana. A sword in a cane. An axe. His heart leaped up.

Against his better judgment, he popped out from the awning he was hiding under and headed towards the nearest figure. A broad-chested man with short-cropped red hair appeared from the miasma. The man, startled, raised his oversized axe.

“Wait!” Yorew said, reaching a hand up. “Maedoc, don’t you remember me?”

The man instantly hesitated. Lowering his ax by a couple inches, he set his other hand on Yorew’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. After a few seconds, he nodded. “I do,” the man said. “But I ain’t my old man. Good to see you again, Yorew. Dad would’ve loved to fight with you one more time.”

The other figures gathered around as soon as the man said Yorew’s name, muttering in confusion and surprise. And, sure enough, Yorew recognized his old friends. All of them worn down by age, but still as crazy and violent as ever. Soaked in blood, they gaped as they stood around Maedoc’s son. And he couldn’t bring himself to move either. What could he possibly say or do; he hadn’t seen any of them in some fifteen years.

It took a minute before anyone could response. The lady with the katana recovered first, nodding in approval. “He ain’t changed,” she said. “Still built like a rock and got the face of one.”

Maedoc’s brother gave a toothy grin, ran up, and hugged Yorew. “It’s been a f***ing long time,” he said. “Ya still any good at healin’?”

“Better than I used to be, in fact,” Yorew said. He wiped a couple tears from his eyes. “I’m guessing you need something fixed up?”

“Pulled something in my arm, but it’s already fixed up,” Maedoc’s brother said, letting go and joining the crowd that now swarmed around Yorew. “I’m drunk as f***, and like I’m gonna whine about a cut in my arm when I’ve got you to get out your bandages and punch the f***er in the face. Just like old time’s sake, isn’t it?”


Chapter 32: The Prince of Blood, Part 2 (1,016 words) some of that high-quality old people action you were looking for

Spoiler! :
Maedoc’s brother stopped and cocked his head. “Something wrong?” he said, looking into the recess that had Yorew’s eyes. “Ya ain’t usually this emotional.”

Yorew wiped the tears from his eyes. Maedoc’s brother was right; he hadn’t felt anything so strong in years. Not since the last time he’d seen them all. He couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty that, in running into the inferno, he’d found the people he’d ran away from. And here there were, just about as punch-drunk and daring as ever, if a bit aged up. So was he.

He shook his head and straightened himself. A faint smile escaped from the corners of his mustache. “It is[i] just like old times,” he said. “I’m back home. If I was a wagering man, I would bet that you’re looking for a way to get out of this city?”

Maedoc’s son nodded. The man scanned their surroundings before responding with, “It turns out this place wasn’t as safe as we thought. And I’m a wagering man, so I’m betting you know the way out?”

Yorew gestured to the way he had come. The path was shrouded in more smoke than ever, but he knew the general direction he had taken. “It shouldn’t take us too long,” Yorew said. “And we’ll have the time to trade stories.”

The others breathed a collective sigh of relief. As Yorew turned around and set the pace, Maedoc’s son quickly caught up to him. Yorew was pleasantly surprised to find that the son was not only a spitting image of his dad, but had his dad’s stamina. Even hauling an oversized axe through air choked with smoke didn’t seem to faze him. Naturally, those conditions didn’t faze the others either. Yorew knew that they had all been through worse.

It was a minute before Maedoc’s son spoke. He gave Yorew anxious looks, shifted his feet, and adjusted his ax. Yorew resisted the urge to sigh. This was the one part of the reunion he hadn’t been looking forward to; he’d had years to answer the question that inevitably came out of the son’s mouth.

“You’re not still mad at us?”

Yorew’s staff hit the ground hard, causing Maedoc’s son to jump. “I never blamed any of you for what happened between him and me,” Yorew said, pinching the bridge of his nose and regretting that brief outburst. He tapped the ground more gently as he walked towards a low wall. “You loved your line of work, and it really was the best time of my life. But I couldn’t be take part in a profession knowing that I could run into him one day.”

Maedoc’s son vaulted the wall. He turned and reached out a hand to help Yorew, but Yorew stepped onto and off the wall with relative ease. “What job did you take up?” Maedoc’s son said.

A pit formed in Yorew’s stomach. He was fairly sure it wasn’t the heat that left beads of sweat on his forehead and suffocated him in his suit, or the smoke that curled up in his lungs. But, as usual, he did his best to make himself look at ease. He’d perfected that art decades ago – nobody could tolerate a mercenary who looked weak. Now it gave him room to think. “A bodyguard and servant,” Yorew said. “I didn’t abandon my roots.”

The son raised an eyebrow. “Ain’t poor men who get servants. Did ya actually get some work that paid better?”

“Yes,” Yorew said. “The Royal Family of Exedor pays rather well.” He didn’t want to think about how he was abandoning one of them, but what else he could do? He couldn’t risk the lives of his old friends to save someone he couldn’t begin to search for. It sickened him that he had to abandon her again. Dragging her away from the castle had been heartless – curse Jonah for convincing him to do it. But he had other people to look out for.

Maedoc’s son stopped instantly. Turning his head back quickly, Yorew caught the son’s face blink and twitch. “While dad his friends got too old and Seres gave them tiny pensions and shoved them into some dusty tower,” he said slowly, “You were hangin’ out with [i]royalty?


Eugh, of course the son had to say it so loudly. Yorew watched as his other friends crowded around the son, murmuring and casting wide eyes between each other. He sighed and tapped his staff against the ground. “I hadn’t a clue,” he said. “After him, I admit I tried as much as I could to keep away from you. I arguably did that too well. By the time I regretted it, I’d already started work overseeing the royal children, and I couldn’t find any trace of you.”

“No,” the son said, laughing briefly. The mercs moved away from him, as did Yorew. Yorew wasn’t familiar with the son’s temperament, but his father hadn’t exactly been the most level-headed guy.

In response, the son spread out his arms and looked around. “What?” he said. “I just wanted to say, when we get out of this, I’m headin’ back to Exedor with him. I f***ing hate how sh***y of a life most of us got stuck with, but I’m pretty f***ing happy he turned out okay.”

After a few seconds to process things, Yorew laughed. That startled the group even more. Between fits of laughing and coughing, Yorew said, “I can’t find either the prince or the princess, and chances are I haven’t been doing okay if I’m here. But, if the country still wants anything to do with me, I would gladly bring you all with me.”

“And it wouldn’t even be the first time you all’ve had to keep away from a kingdom,” Maedoc’s son said with a shrug. He started walking again – this time, Yorew had to catch up. “I’m just happy you’re here. Dad always said you were dependable and a damn good healer, so I don’t give much of a s*** where we’re going to end up. We’ll be fine with you around.”


Chapter 32: The Prince of Blood, Part 3 (1,010 words) gotta go fast

Spoiler! :
The edges of Yorew’s mouth curved up in a tiny smile. It wasn’t something he could believe right now, since he was failing in his main task, but he was happy someone believed in him.

Otherwise, he didn’t say another word. Maedoc’s son also fell silent. They could finally feel the weight of the task in front of them – getting out of this city. While Yorew hadn’t run into many obstacles getting here, and he was much better off than he had been five minutes ago, he eyed the buildings and streets carefully. It was what all the mercenaries who lived long enough did. Never could be too careful.

Fortunately for Yorew and his group, they scrabbled through the rubble that was Wyandanch without much incident. No patrols walked out from a side street and took aim; no soldiers leaped over the barriers with swords in hand; no archers sniped at them from the roofs. That didn’t stop everyone from holding their breaths and preparing battle stances when they walked around any corner. The few words exchanged between the other mercenaries were all about Yorew. How he was finally here. How he was a servant to royalty. How dashing he looked. He hid that strange and surprisingly pleasing feeling of being the center of attention for once.

Finally, the wall at the edge of the city loomed far over their heads. Yorew breathed a sigh of relief. They still had to go through the wall, and he was fairly sure the gigantic crack had only grown larger since he’d last seen it. On the other hand, there wasn’t likely to be any soldiers lurking in the area, and he knew that The Doves had camped not too far away. Then he could leave his friends in relative safety, turn right back around, and look for Eremia. Yorew was a man of his word.

A shout. Yorew whirled around to find one of the mercs pulling her sword out of her cane. His eyes quickly darted in the direction she’d pointed her sword, revealing a pair of what Yorew assumed were people. They appeared from the dark and flaming recesses of the wall, stumbling over. They were so caked in blood and ashes that it was hard to tell for sure, but Yorew swore he could see Wyandanch insignia beneath their dented and crumpled armor. He instinctively reached a hand out to tell the lady to stop. She complied, in part because the people were hobbling and stumbling so much that they couldn’t have possibly posed a threat.

Maedoc’s son stood in front of the other mercenaries, axe held out in front of him. “Before ya take another step,” he growled, “Tell me who ya are and what ya want. I ain’t afraid to use this.”

One member of the pair nudged the other in the chest with an elbow. They stopped. “I think you would recognize one of your superiors,” the one to the right said. His voice was as torn and bleeding as was. “Surely you cannot be Alliance soldiers – you haven’t the colors or the youth. That leaves one option.”

“S***,” Maedoc’s son said, lowering the ax and running over to the pair. He propped the one to the left up, grimacing when that person’s head drooped. “Franz and Emmanuel, ain’t it?”

“Perhaps just Franz,” the one to the right said, nudging his companion. “Emmanuel took the brunt of it.”

“The brunt of what?” Yorew said. While some of the others crowded around Franz and Emmanuel, providing support or wincing at wounds, Yorew walked towards Emmanuel. Resisting the urge to vomit, Yorew pulled out a roll of gauze bandages. As he drew closer, he realized just how thick and ornate that armor was. These were certainly Wyandanch royals. That they’d been beaten up so badly they looked almost unrecognizable somehow scared him more than the blood.

“I haven’t a clue,” Franz spat. Instead of spit, blood sprayed out of his mouth. Yorew ducked in time, using the opportunity to wrap a few bandages around a part of Emmanuel’s leg that had bent. “But it killed my daughter, it almost killed my brother, and it may have killed my nephew, so you could imagine that I might be hesitant to talk about it. Now, why not do you job?”

Faced with thinking about what horrible monstrosity crippled these men – it had almost certainly broken the wall, too – Yorew was more than happy to instead dress the wounds on Franz and Emmanuel. It was a challenge, mostly because he had to yank out stubborn pieces of armor, but he made quick work of some of the more grievous wounds with his bandages and poultices. It was only a minute before the heavily-bandaged Franz said he could walk with assistance, and a few of the mercenaries opted to carry Emmanuel. Franz wasn’t particularly happy about that, but chose instead to glare and scowl behind an ash-covered face as the group made their way outside of Wyandanch.

The walk to camp had to be the worst part of the journey. With the addition of two badly-injured people, the group had to travel slower than it already was. Yorew kept glancing back at the walls of the city. The open land around Wyandanch made it too easy for anyone inside to spot anyone outside. As much as the fighting in Wyandanch raged on, he knew the odds of his group being attacked were next to nothing, but the past hour had gone too smoothly. He didn’t trust anything.

On the bright side, it didn’t take long for The Doves to spot them. Wagons sped in their direction. Realizing that he hadn’t yet informed the mercenaries or the injured men about The Doves, Yorew shoved his way through the crowd and waved towards the wagons. The sounds of a dozen weapons being unsheathed was just as quickly replaced by them being sheathed. Yorew ignored the few cross glances in his direction – compared to what they’d just gone through, a scare like this was nothing.


Chapter 32: The Prince of Blood, Part 4 (1,011 words) GOTTA GO FAST

Spoiler! :
The wagons screeched to a halt all around them. Soldiers and medics, many in burned clothes, jumped onto the ground and swarmed the group of mercenaries. A couple pried Franz and Emmanuel away, hauling them towards the wagon closest to camp. Yorew watched it shoot off towards the horizon, paying little heed to his fellow medics. He knew they were now inspecting the various mercenaries and talking to Maedoc’s son, and he could hear whispers about casualties. It didn’t matter. The idea of some horrifying monster tearing through Wyandanch and killing its leaders did. He had to find Eremia. He had to find Jonah. Whatever the Alliance had done, they were both in more danger then he could’ve imagined.

Yorew heard a voice call out his name. Turning around, there was Madeleine, mouth agape. She instinctively tried to brush the dust that coated his face and hair. Her hands were clammy; her face was paler than usual. He pushed her hand away – he didn’t want her to notice that felt the same way – and asked a question before she could throw out any of the hundreds that were already forming in her brain.

“Any word from the patrols? Has anyone seen Eremia?”

******


That brat. That pathetic child. That moronic, conniving, sniveling, cowardly girl. She’d slipped away from him. How? How on Fayne did she have any wits at all? He’d cowed her parents, made them throw away their crowns and their daughter to rot in the desert, where they belonged. Why hadn’t she taken the hint to be silent, be obedient, and be his perfect little queen?

The irritating thing about humans, Alsather thought as he walked towards the church doors, is that they are always unpredictable. Especially when they shouldn’t. But there was no point in grousing about it any longer. Cerin was gone, and Alsather needed to bring her back. Cerin meant everything to him. There was no way the humans would tolerate the death of their leader in something that could easily be pinned on him, particularly when he was her successor. When she died, he wanted to make sure there’d be no blood in his hands. And she was doing the one exact thing that she could do to ruin that plan. She couldn’t have done worse if she’d tried.

A few more arrows struck the door, which now resembled a pincushion. Alsather grinned. He couldn’t walk out, but they hadn’t accounted for a snake. He immediately shifted, feeling his thoughts drain away as his other senses intensified. Now just a few inches above the floor, he could taste the blood in the air. He flashed his fangs in delight, his nasal cavity picking up the specific hints of perfume that he, in his animal state, recognized as Cerin.

Crawling out the door, Alsather quickly spotted the horse positioned close to the door. It had been unharmed, but it was clear from the archer crouched behind the right rear leg that they’d had good reason for it to be. He didn’t like it – he knew that it was a trick, and the size of those horseshoes made him curl back. Still, against his instincts, he skirted around the horses’s back legs and lunged for the archer. One quick strike and the archer was reeling back, hand over the new fang marks on his neck. The archer screamed as Alsather let go, overcoming the impulse to keep striking. His fangs seemed to hum in anticipation, but he had work to do.

Crawling around one of the horse’s legs, Alsather shifted form in time for the horse to go barreling down the street. Wiping the blood from his mouth – humans were filthy, and contact with one of them repulsed him – Alsather quickly grabbed onto the horse’s reigns. There wasn’t any point in stopping, now that the horse was terrified and trying to adjust to the shifting weight on its back. The most Alsather could do was tug it around a corner, sending it careening down a partly destroyed alleyway.

Fortunately, he could spot Cerin on the other end, turning into another alley. Less fortunately, she sent a bolt of lighting from her finger, which blasted the side of one of the buildings. Alsather ducked as his horse leaped over one pile of rubble, trying to dodge the other mound of bricks that rained over his head. He grimaced, feeling one of the bricks bounce off of his back. Pure adrenaline and anger kept him going, however – he barely noticed the pain as he led the horse around the corner, only spotting Cerin a short distance ahead of him.

In retrospect, it had been a bad idea to give the girl riding lessons. It made her look that much more regal in parades, but she’d apparently learned too well. Granted, her horse staggered with exhaustion and what had likely been an injury to a leg. It wouldn’t be long before the horse collapsed, taking her down with it. However, Alsather’s steed wasn’t doing much better. Perhaps that had been her plan too; Alsather realized that he couldn’t assume anything to be above her.

And, of course, Cerin looked back. To Alsather’s surprise, her response wasn’t fear or surprise. It was pure hatred. She knew he’d be coming. It was at that moment that Alsather realized there was a fair possibility he’d fallen for a trap.

He knew for sure when Cerin pointed up to a particularly tall building ahead of her. Lightning arced from her fingertip, smashing through the already-busted window. The roof exploded in a shower of shingles and debris, which rained down in front of her. As if that weren’t already enough, she pointed to the building’s bottom floor. Bricks shot outwards, causing the entire building to creak and groan. The amount of power that she was using amazed Alsather. If Cerin wasn’t crushed to death, the magic burnout would. It didn’t help that, with the freak and all of the fighting, there was plenty of energy to take advantage of.

Alsather grimaced. Time to do something stupid.


Chapter 32: The Prince of Blood, Part 5 (1,035 words) long boi

Spoiler! :

Letting go of the reins, he quickly morphed into a snake again. As he expected, the horse, confused by the change of the weight on its back, started to slow down and move away. However, he was already close enough to Cerin’s injured horse that he could soar into the air. Biting the horse’s haunch, Alsather wrapped a tail around the horse’s busted leg and squeezed. It wasn’t something that required much thought – this moronic snake brain was already hungry for blood anyway. A horse was certainly not an ordinary target, but it wasn’t as though the snake could rely on any other instincts for the fraction of a section that was the jump.

Cerin’s horse, caught off guard, staggered. The slits of snake eyes caught glimpses of the horse’s rider desperately kicking its sides, trying to get it to move towards the now rapidly collapsing building. It refused to budge – it was already beginning to turn to the right.

So the rider let go.

The snake was just barely smart enough to realize that wasn’t good. As Cerin hurtled off of the horse and towards the ground, the snake yanked itself free from the horse’s rear. Alsather transformed back into human form only a second before the ground rose up at him. He extended his hands out, but it had little effect - his knees took the brunt of the impact. Alsather rolled his way across the cobblestone, eyes blending the grey stone with the grey sky.

The building hit the ground. The only thing preventing Alsather from tumbling into it was the shockwave it produced, which slowed him down enough to roll over the top of a smaller body. Alsather pulled himself up, ears ringing. Watching the gigantic pile of rubble settle in front of him, he took an inventory of his anatomy. His ribs ached, his knees and elbows stung, and various others parts of his body had been scraped and bloodied. He hadn’t been through worse in a long time. But his expensive outfit was ruined, his teeth were still coated in blood, and he had no idea if Cerin was alive or not.

Spinning around, Alsather spotted Cerin’s dust-covered body sprawled out in front of him. Pale as she was, she almost looked like a doll. Hopefully she was more alive than one. Quickly getting onto his knees, Alsather pulled her head up and placed two fingers on her neck. One of the strangest things about humans, he decided, was how they mislabeled their senses. He couldn’t “hear” her heartbeat, but he could feel it. Slow and slightly erratic, but she was alive. Thank the Creator – she would be useless otherwise, even if he could pin her death on the Mad King. It’d be too suspect.

Placing a hand under her neck and knees and lifting her up, Alsather looked around. The horses had run off, carrying her strained his already weak breathing, and he couldn’t see any signs of soldiers, allies or otherwise. He grunted in pain, beginning to slouch. He was stuck.

Alsather froze up when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Hey, is that-”

He swung himself around again, trying to throw Cerin’s weight against whoever had managed to sneak up on him. Fortunately, Kasimir’s reflexes hadn’t waned. His eyes widened for only a second before he deftly caught Cerin, pulling her out of Alsather’s hands. Anger flashed across his face for an instant, replaced by a tiredness that weighed down his eyelids. “Looks like your snake sense aren’t helping you,” he said.

Scowling and crossing his arms, Kasimir retorted, “You know exactly why that is. The inherent superiority of my sense of smell and touch are muted by this weak human frame. And speak like a king, you worthless cur.”

“Mhm,” Kasimir said. Drusus and Torion appeared on either side of him, while cataracts lady silently manifested beside Alsather. The snake didn’t pay her any heed, since Kasimir was proving to be particularly irritating. “And I’m sure you could’ve just turned into a snake and carried her away.”

“Had I arms as a snake,” Alsather said. “Certainly. But that is one of the few practical applications of arms, and not one normally applicable to-”

Kasimir set a hand on his hip, shifting the other so that Cerin sat on his hand, resting against him. “Look,” he said, staring down at Alsather, who finally realized how tall the king was. “I told you this was going to happen. I tried to take the Mad King and his son hostage, and I almost could’ve done it if it wasn’t for you wanting to save your skin. You’ve mocked me, lorded over me, and insulted my soldiers. Yet, at the end of the day, I’m the only one of the two of us who came out of his personal war as a king. I’m the one who ran out into the range of Ailean’s personal guard, figured out where you were going, and ran through the tunnels until I could find you.

I seized your country. I have soldiers in your capital. I’m never going to be able to hold all of it, but you full well know how hollow your position is. You’re still stuck at this girl’s mercy – she just proved it. So, for once in your miserable life, it’d be nice to have a ‘thanks’ from you. I could just as easily take this girl. You’re outnumbered and too weak to stop me. So what’s it going to be, mighty ‘advisor to the throne.’”

Alsather paused. His face twitched, but he finally bowed his head. “Fine,” he said. Nothing could wipe away the stain that that single word left on his heart.

From Kasimir’s satisfied tone, Alsather could tell the king knew. “I’ll take it,” Kasimir said. “Now, let’s get out of this s***hole.”

******


Catharnach stretched out his arms, staring up at the ruined towers and walls spread out before him. “Can you believe that those fools never quite accepted my rule?” he said, restraining a laugh. “I swear, a man kill his worthless father, and all sense of respect and honorable tradition flies out the window. How they must regret their decision now!”
Last edited by TheSilverFox on Mon Oct 29, 2018 4:00 am, edited 1 time in total.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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The second best L XIV around

LMS Writing Part XIV




Chapter 32: The Prince of Blood, Part 6 (1,016 words) what trauma, what are you talking about

Spoiler! :
“I’m sure they do,” Leathan said as he gently nudged a body away with his toe. He grimaced at the blood-splattered corpse. It reminded him all too much of the days he’d spent in the Eimhin prisons – chained up against the wall, shivering, food thrown against his face, the moonlight taunting from behind the bars, the sun blinding him. Without a certain young prince joining him, he would’ve been trapped there for the rest of his (brief) live. Even now, dressed in his finest and surrounded by courtiers and servants, he couldn’t forget the steel digging into his wrists or the trembling of his stomach.

On the other hand, he had the King. The King that had set him free, killed the man who jailed him, and had taken down the weak and petty rulers who thought he was an upstart. This was a bloody and tense coup, but Leathan was one of the safest and most secure people in the city. On top of being the King’s beloved husband, of course.

As such, he could enjoy Catharnach ranting and raving. They weren’t wrong about calling him The Mad King, but Leathan loved it. Every flourish, fancy word, and every indignant expression almost hid the man who’d gone into the fire and come out invincible. That bastard of a son was too pathetic, sniveling, and childish to understand Catharnach’s strength. Only Leathan could, because only he’d been with Catharnach the entire time, from the escape to the seeds of revolution to seizing the throne.

Leathan stepped over the body and rested a hand on Cath’s shoulder, smiling sweetly as the King turned around and looked down.

“I have done it,” Catharnach said. It looked like a genuine grin, if a bit too wide. It was odd to think of the King as happy, but his rosy complexion and sharp eyes stuck out among the corpses and burned-out buildings and smoke-filled skies. “At long last, they are all as gore beneath my feet.” He stamped the earth. “My son is finishing off the last of the fools as we speak, and the King of Wyandanch and his little princeling are most certainly dead.” He tapped his chin and gave a tiny smile. “Now, what would you like to do to celebrate?”

Before Leathan could answer, Catharnach glared and swiveled around. Peeking over the King’s shoulder, Leathan saw a soldier in chainmail armor salute them.

“Well?” Catharnach spat. “What business have you? Make it quick.”

“We’ve traveled the route that the Lords Seres and Wielde were spotted on,” the soldier said, head held high. “We can confirm that all of the soldiers still around are dead, and there are no traces of anyone else in the area.”

“And?” Catharnach said, tapping his foot. The soldier jumped at this, but quickly regained composure, save for a pair of shaking hands clasped together. When the soldier refused to elaborate or say anything else, The Mad King tapped his palm. “Are they dead? Have you found their bodies?”

The soldier hesitated for a few seconds, then shook his head. “N-no,” he said. “Why would we need to?”

Leathan almost jumped back in surprise as Cath slapped the soldier. Fortunately, he managed to stifle a gasp and grip onto the edges of Cath’s robes.

“That bastard of a ruler,” Cath growled, clenching his fists, “Just so happens to be very, very dangerous. So long as Seres lives, he can plot. And without the confirmation that is he dead, I can only assume that he is alive. So, check again.

The soldier, who had shrunk back, nodded and ran off down the street that Cath and his war court had taken residence in. He ran around the tents, past tables full of maps and diagrams, and beyond the dozens of archers that patrolled the surrounding buildings and the camp’s edges.

Catharnach looked over at the retinue that had gathered behind him. Pushing Leathan aside, he strode towards them. Chin raised, voice deeper, and a fire in his eyes that almost matched the intensity of the city’s, he said, “Find me my son. Bring him back, now.

Several men and women broke free from the gathering. Dressed in the light, green garments of messengers and spies, they sped off in the direction of the wall that split the city. Those in heavier suits of armor marched towards the edge of camp to talk with the patrols and the incoming stream of soldiers. The remainder did what Leathan did – stood and tried to look their best to be concerned, with the odd cough or looking around or biting their lip.

Leathan wondered how many of them actually were. He certainly wasn’t. If the brat was too stupid to keep himself safe, that was his own problem. It was perhaps too cruel to think like that, but it would be a fitting end for Ailean. The prince would die a stubborn, petty, violent idiot.

And then Leathan wouldn’t have to worry about competition.

******


“Fortunately, I have,” said the princess. She stepped out from behind the wagon, pulling at the few strands of charred hair that still mingled with the blond follicles. “Though it was certainly a challenge returning here.”

Eremia watched Yorew’s expression closely. It bothered her the way that his mouth instantly closed, his eyebrows immediately lowered, and he went right back to being stoic and expressionless. Still, after running from an insane woman who’d tried to kill whatever was inhabiting Eremia’s brother by setting everything around her on fire, anything vaguely normal was worth its weight in gold. She also couldn’t help but suspect that he was relieved, if his following comment was anything to go by.

“I searched everywhere for you,” Yorew gasped. “Where had you gone?”

Oh. She’d have to word this in a way that wouldn’t concern him too much, especially after what he’d gone through. This was going to be a challenge.

“We went into the city to find Jonah,” Eremia said slowly. “We found Jonah, but we was not quite what we were expecting, so we made our leave.”


Chapter 32: The Prince of Blood, Part 7 (1,068 words) is this loss

Spoiler! :

Ugh, that had been a mistake. Yorew’s expression grew a little harder, like he was gritting his teeth. “What do you mean?” he said slowly, in that voice he always used when he was trying to separate Jonah and Eremia and one of them had punched him in the shins. They hadn’t done that in years, but Eremia remembered that tone distinctly; it sent shivers down her back.

“By what?” Eremia said, raising an eyebrow and trying to keep her face straight.

“Any of it,” Yorew said. He rested both hands on his staff and leaned forward, making himself look twenty years older. She guessed he felt like it. “Because I was just kindly told by a very important man that some monster had just killed his family. So, I’d like you to be specific on what you were expecting and what you got.”

Eugh, why did he have to be smart enough to see through her? He knew her too well. “I can say with absolute certainty that Jonah is not dead,” she said. “And that he is not in any immediate danger. Outside of those two statements, I am not quite precisely sure about his present condition.”
Eremia felt goosebumps on her skin – it was hard to tell, but Yorew appeared to be glaring at her. The crevices that hid his eyes didn’t tell much, but she swore she could almost see those eyes peeking out. Mixed with the shadows looming over their heads, it was eerie.

But he didn’t say a word. He glanced over Eremia’s shoulder, straightened up, and hobbled past her. She turned around quickly enough to see him heading in the direction of an oncoming Marisol, who had a hand on Jonathan’s shoulder and was helping him limp forward.

The site of two battered men slowly walking towards each other might’ve been funny or sad in other circumstances, but here it was terrifying. Marisol wasn’t exactly great about hiding the truth – even if she didn’t know what had happened with Jonah and Terasu, she could easily punch holes in Eremia’s arguments. And Jonathan almost certainly had no idea what had happened to Terasu, and that wasn’t a topic Eremia wanted to tread over again.

Yorew saluted Jonathan and Marisol. “Good afternoon,” he said, stopping a few feet away. “Do either of you fine folks know what happened to Jonah? Eremia says she saw him.”

Raising an eyebrow, Marisol glanced at Eremia, who had just caught up to Yorew. “Ain’t that her job to say, then? After crazy girl f***ed archer boy’s ankle, I kinda had to run back to camp. Where’d she run off to, anyhow? I’ve seen you and Kat, but not her.”

“Good question,” Jonathan said. Eremia braced for a glare or him crossing his arms or him tensing up, but he only sagged the longer he talked. “Last I saw, she ran off. I was worried she would kill you. Is she still in the city? Is she alright? Do you know? Did she hurt anyone? Did she hurt-” he trailed off. Not that Eremia couldn’t figure out the end to that sentence.

This day had been traumatic for all of them. She could easily sympathize with Jonathan – after spending all this time trying to console and deal with Terasu, the idea that she had snapped and tried to murder several other people wasn’t reassuring. Nor was the thought that Terasu had gone into the city to do as much damage as possible to herself or other people. And Eremia was about to make it much, much worse.

Eremia told the truth. There wasn’t any reason not to. The more that she danced around the topic, the more suspicious and concerned that Yorew and Jonathan would get. Better just to let out all the gory details. Terasu becoming increasingly unhinged. Not-Jonah’s freakish appearance and distorted voice. Terasu refocusing all of her anger on whatever used to be Jonah. The wall of fire. The screaming.

The longer she talked, the more her chest tightened, and the clammier her hands became, and the more tears threatened to pour out of her eyes. None of this was fair. Jonah hadn’t deserved to become some kind of monster, particularly one she couldn’t save. Terasu hadn’t deserved to let grief eat her up until she was a bitter husk of her former self. And neither Jonathan nor Yorew deserved to have to go through the pain that she was going through as she explained her side of things.

When she finished, she pulled a strand of blonde hair in front of her and focused on it. It was undignified, but it kept her from having to watch Jonathan push Marisol away and stumble towards the nearest wagon. She didn’t know where Yorew went, but she was certainly he was also gone by the time Marisol spoke again.

“F***,” Marisol said, mouth slightly agape. “I thought it was dramatic when Kat was talkin’ ‘bout it, but that’s some heavy s***. Dunno what I’d’ve done if I saw my brother turn out like that.”

“Thanks,” Eremia, coughing to hide a stutter. “I should certainly be proud that I ran away when I learned that my brother was … was not my brother.”

Marisol set a hand on her hip. “Look,” she said, “I need to get lover boy before he stumbles his way into a hole, but we can’t be sure of that. We dunno if he’s alive and he’s out there. We don’t know what all he’s doing, or what’s been goin’ on in that head of his, but at least we can find out. And I ain’t got nothing better to do but hang around you, so after this’s all over, let’s go find him and drag his ass back to Exeter or whatever yer country’s called. Deal?”

In spite of it all, Eremia smiled. Looking past the strand of hair, she nodded to Marisol. “I would like that very much,” she said.

“Alright,” Marisol said, walking to the right. “We’ve got a plan. F*** this stupid city and it earth it sits on, we’re going to save this kid. But, uh, I’m hoping we ain’t gonna be ‘round much longer.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Eremia said. She stared up at the burning rubble that was Wyandanch, wondering how anyone could still be alive in there. But she had to believe it.


Chapter 33: Escape, Part 1 (1,031 words) w00t almost done with this climax, phew

Spoiler! :
Ailean hated failure. Particularly when it was his own.

It should’ve been easy – the idiots had abandoned their armies and wandered right into his trap. Surely killing two old fools and their advisors would’ve taken a few well-placed shots. But no, they had to defy him. They had to skitter away and vanish in the city’s underbelly. A few minutes worth of sending a couple soldiers into the tunnel they’d gone through confirmed that the rats were still as busy as ever. A pity. Losing soldiers was also frustrating. It took so much money to train them properly.

The Prince didn’t show his anger, though. While he and his archers marched down the streets, heading back towards the chaos they’d sparked, he signaled for one after another to dart into buildings. Perched on balconies and roofs, they made quick work of the few enemies scattered around. Wyandanch or not, it didn’t matter; none of them would cooperate with Eimhin, and he had to make it back to his father before they did. Superior a force as it was, Eimhin couldn’t afford to go toe to toe with Walenty and Claec.

Of course, if he’d been able to send a messenger back, Ailean wouldn’t have had to do any of this. But, with most Wyandanch resistance crushed, the battle had ironically gotten more confusing. No doubt there were plenty of soldiers trying to escape the burning mess, and none of the nations were willing to cooperate enough with each other to actually coordinate their forces. Since Ailean was currently trying to murder them, it was perfectly understandable that they wouldn’t. It still amazed him that the Alliance had been able to take the city at all.

He strolled through a pair of partly-opened gates, two archers in front of him. Ailean guessed that this was once some lord’s estate – a courtyard extended in front of him, forming a giant cross out of cobblestone. An empty fountain rested at the very center, the stone blackened with soot and ash. The ponds to either side of him were coated in ash and the bodies of dead fish. The grass had been torched and trampled underfoot, matching the shattered windows and crumpled walls rather nicely. Ailean tsked as one of the gates fell to the ground behind him. The Alliance had been through here, no doubt. Most likely Kasimir’s men; it was rather like the brutes to burn and plunder. Eimhin’s and Claec’s soldiers merely went for the kill.

A few Wyandanch soldiers had taken up refuge here. Huddled by the pond to Ailean’s left, the five or so were picked off one by one, their bodies falling into the water. The last one gave the worst and most successful defense. A small fellow holding a box of gears and scrap metal tossed the said box at the first Eimhin soldier to come at him with a sword. The soldier stumbled back, crying in alarm. A second Eimhin soldier, took advantage of the moment, grabbing the fellow from behind and pinning him in place. Ailean looked away as the first soldier aimed for the fellow’s arm. Necessary brutality.

It was when Ailean reached the center of the courtyard and turned to the left that he felt that something was wrong. This part of the courtyard was something more of a private plaza. Perhaps it had once had a rock garden or training ground; it was mostly a dirt square surrounded by two floors of the stone and wood building. The raised wooden floor sagged, with many supports having been slashed or burned. The doors had been busted open, the windows had been thrown onto the ground, and it looked quite a lot like any other building in the city.

But it was quiet.

Ailean raised a hand. The other two archers immediately froze, then swiveled around him, bows ready. The prince scanned the hallways that barely peeked out of the windows. A few gray blobs that moved as his gaze fell on them. From how he wasn’t dead, he knew they were his own soldiers. He couldn’t see a trace of anything else. It didn’t make any sense. This city was crawling with Wyandanch soldiers. A place as well-fortified and large as this, even if partly destroyed, was a perfect hiding spot for stragglers. That was it close to the city’s edge helped.

A few small steps later, two screams rang out from behind him. Ailean whirled around to catch the two soldiers sprawled out on the ground – one with an arrow through his back, the other impaled by one. They had chopped the arm off their victim, who himself was nowhere to be seen. Nor was there any trace of the attackers.

Before the prince could respond properly, he heard hands clapping behind him. Spinning around again, a sneer on his face, Ailean gaped on seeing a very familiar man walk out one of the many plaza doors. That strapping figure, close-cut hair, mud and blood-covered boots, and oversized broadsword were unmistakable.

“So,” Seres said, crossing his arms. He ignored the two archers aiming arrows right at his chest, instead focusing on Ailean. “You are dumber than I thought. Good to know.”

Anger flashed in Ailean’s eyes for a brief second, replaced by a smile. This was doubtlessly a trap, and Seres was doubtlessly dangerous – any dead man who turned out to be alive had to be. However, Seres had to be making a miscalculation. He seemed to be thinking that Ailean was traveling effectively alone. Also, all reports suggested that the rats in the city were a disorganized mess. Seres almost certainly had a motley crew of idiots to fight against Ailean’s trained and dutiful soldiers. Even with the element of surprise and the home advantage, it wasn’t going to be a fight; it was going to be a massacre.

Ailean spread out his arms. “Why would that be?” he said. All around him, archers popped out of the woodwork, bows drawn. “Now, if you would be so polite as to surrender so that we may have this bloody business over with, I would very much appreciate –”

“Enough talking,” Seres said. “Fight!”


Chapter 33: Escape, Part 2 (1,004 words) man my writing sucks

Spoiler! :

The space around them burst into life. Ailean’s archers refocused their bows down the hallways of the buildings, only to be tackled by Wyandanch soldiers. Others sprouted from the rooves, distracting the few still trained on Seres, while yet others poured into the plaza to challenge Ailean himself.

Ailean grimaced and nocked an arrow to his bow. He fired at the nearest soldier, hitting them in the chest. However, the others were forming a circle around him. His next shot splintered against another soldier’s armor, while the third pierced the crevice in the soldier’s helmet.

Yet his archers looked to be regaining control of the fight. Arrows flew in all directions over Ailean’s head. A few groans and screams later, a good number of Wyandanch soldiers littered the plaza floor. They were already beginning to pick off the group surrounding Ailean, but he could see Seres untouched, even standing out in the open behind the ring of soldiers. Why? What could he possibly be thinking?

It wasn’t until too late that Ailean realized the ploy. The sight of Seres distracted Ailean long enough to absentmindedly shoot two other soldiers – one in the foot and one in the head – before one managed to rip his bow from his hands. The prince barely had time to register that something had come up from behind him and taken his bow before he found himself alone. The soldiers had scattered, barging their way into the buildings to deal with the remaining archers.

That just left him and Seres.

Ailean pulled a knife from his belt. It wasn’t a bow, but he still had speed and dexterity on his side. He wasn’t about to embarrassed by a pathetic fool who had just lost the city he’d sworn to protect. “If you would rather not play nicely,” he said, spreading his legs out and focusing on Seres, waiting for Seres to make a move, “I suppose my father will be quite happy with your head.”

“I’m sure he would,” Seres replied. He set the claymore over his back and scowled. The prince didn’t betray any panic about the size of the weapon. “But I’m sure he’s used to being disappointed.”

Ailean snarled and charged, knife raised. Nobody was going to mock his kingdom. Nobody was going to mock his family. Nobody was going to mock him. Not anymore. The longer Seres stood there, expressionless, unresponsive, the more he silently taunted Ailean. This fight was an insult to everything that Ailean stood for and pride himself in, and it wasn’t going to last any longer.

It wasn’t until the last second that Seres responded to the knife aimed for his heart. The man held out a palm, and Ailean didn’t have the chance to change direction fast enough. Stabbing Seres through the palm, Ailean collided into him, sending the both of them backward. Seres’s size and weight kept them from toppling over, but Ailean realized that he was now using his mortal enemy as a support. He pushed back, doubling the grip on his knife to free it.

It wouldn’t budge.

Eyes bulging, Ailean looked down. A thin layer of frost coated the knife and palm, and it grew more solid with every second. Lips drawn into a tight frown, he looked back up at the towering figure looming over him. Seres looked back, his cold, steely eyes matching the lines across his face. Only the sweat slipping down his forehead betrayed that he noticed the wound at all.

“The brat taught me something,” Seres quietly said. “I should’ve gotten rid of you a long time ago.”

Seres smashed the ball of ice against Ailean’s forehead. The prince’s vision exploded into a kaleidoscope of colors and black spots as he slammed into the ground. One temple screamed from the impact of the cobblestone, while the other pounded against the splinters of ice that now littered the side of his head. His ears rang, his teeth chattered, and he was fairly sure his nose was bleeding. The only thing keeping him from passing out was pure rage, but it didn’t leave him any less incapacitated.

The prince felt himself being picked up and hoisted over Seres’s back. Seres had obviously set the claymore back into place, so all Ailean could see were fragments of Seres’s boots and the floor below. It took a few more seconds before the prince could even register Seres was talking.

“I should kill you now,” he said, walking away from the plaza. The few soldiers left standing quickly followed, if the approaching footsteps were any indicator. “It’s more than you deserve. But I think you’ll make a good prisoner. It’ll give your father grief. It’s less than he deserves.”

Ailean tried to struggle, but his arms and legs felt like jelly. He wasn’t even sure if they existed; it wasn’t as though he could feel them.

“Just like the brat,” Seres said. “But I learned his magic and made it useful. What am I going to do with you, hm?”

A couple feeble kicks and punches later, Ailean saw his arms sag against Seres’s back. Feeling his eyes rolling back into his skull, his last thought was how his father was going to react. The world went black before he could come up with an answer.


******


Alarick stood at the bottom of a makeshift staircase that stretched up to the side of a wagon. He tentatively stepped on one of the boxes. It groaned and popped, but held surprisingly well for him wearing his armor.

“Is everyone here?” he said to Madeleine, who stood next to him. She’d popped out from the chatter on the other side of the wagon, looking about as frazzled as ever – hair frizzed, eyes slightly bloodshot, hands trembling. He could relate.

“That’s the last of the patrols that came back on time,” she said, brushing her hair aside. They watched as a few soldiers placed the last couple boxes onto the staircase. “We have as many people as we’ll probably get.”


Chapter 33: Escape, Part 3 (1,102 words) tmw u want to kill that dude but u know he's a clever bastard and has all the cards in his hand

Spoiler! :
Alarick sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Time for the most important question. “How many people? More or less?” he said. He could almost swear his eyes were sagging into his head.

Madeleine looked away. That was about the answer he expected.

He stepped onto the first box, giving Madeleine one last glance. Their eyes met for a fraction of second, exchanging all the thousands of concerns that had sprung to life in the backs of their minds. Neither of them had to say a word – the other already knew.
The commander reached the top of the wagon and looked over the ragged remnants of his army. What little conversation they’d had died as he appeared. Bleeding, soot-covered faces poked out from around wagons, beneath pikes, behind horses. Proper formation had long been thrown out the window; they stood around the wagon in a circle, with a few guards at the fringe staring out over the barren countryside.

For once in his life, Alarick didn’t know what to say. The princess was safe – she was looking right up at him, alongside Marisol and Katerina – but that was a hollow victory. The prince had been taken, Wyandanch had been destroyed, and the Confederacy as they knew it was dead. They had nowhere to go. The King and Queen of Exedor would never let him set foot in their country again. Everyone knew as much. Was there even anything to say?

Coughing, Alarick spread out his arms. “We will leave as soon as we can prepare the wagons to hold the injured. The city isn’t safe, and, until we can’t see it anymore, neither are we. Those of you who braved the fire and the battle to pull out the survivors before us, and those who tended to the injured and gave the dying a peaceful end deserve credit, but we cannot stop and rest. We don’t have the luxury. Drivers, turn your wagons to the east – we’re heading to The Pillars.”

Silence. Alarick coughed again. A thousand or so faces looked up at him expectantly, hoping for some sliver of hope or little bit of relief. But nobody chose to say anything until Alarick turned around and began to make his way down the steps.

“Hold on just a moment!”

Alarick sighed and turned around. Somewhere in the crowd stood an older man. A thick head of gray-blonde hair, green eyes, a thick moustache, and a loaf of bread in his arms. Between that and the freckles of flour on his face, mostly likely a baker. Maybe he’d been pulled out of his shop when the attack began. “Yes?” Alarick said, drawing his mouth into a thin line to keep it from sagging.

“We’ve lived here our whole lives, sir,” the man said. “D’ya really think we want to go? Where’re we goin’ to?”

“I don’t think you have much of a choice,” Alarick said, “assuming you want to live. Right now, our preliminary plan, barring any complications, is to make our way through The Pillars and head to the nearest country.”

“An’ that’s just the thing,” the man said, pointing a finger at Alarick, “maybe I don’t got much ta live for. One daughter disowned me and the other’s in the ground in some far-off place. Said the Blood Queen’s what done it. Why shouldn’t I get ta stay?”

Alarick crossed his arms. It was a fair point, but he wasn’t exactly in the mood to deal with a man who could inspire a mutiny. “Because plenty of people died so you wouldn’t,” he said. “Imagine what would happen if we’d done nothing. You look like a baker, if I’m not mistaken. No doubt you would’ve been baking bread at this hour, assuming that there was anyone left to buy it. Do you think the soldiers would’ve shown you any mercy? Do you think the soldiers wouldn’t have stabbed you, sliced at you, hacked at you, thrown your bread into the ground and set the place on fire? Even if you were fortunate enough to escape them, how would you escape the flames themselves? You’re old, your bones are likely giving out on you. Would that be a better fate than being granted some chance at life?”

The man silenced himself. Alarick knew the Wyandanch people – the idea of an invasion, much less a death by foreign soldiers, was nothing short of unfathomable and offensive. If nothing else, it would force him to think for a little –

“You!” the man said, pointing across the crowd. Heads swiveled and craned to focus on his target.

“Yes?” Eremia called back.

“Who’re you?” the man called. “You look just like-”

A horn sounded. Alarick immediately spotted the black specks massing on the horizon. Only a few dozen, but he couldn’t be sure at that distance. Time to go.

“Change of plans,” he called, using what little remained of his voice. “We’re leaving. Now. Get to it, people.”


******


Veta squeezed her way out of one of the smaller tunnels, pressed her back against a wall, and rubbed her eyes.
How hard could it be to find one man? She’d been talking with Seres earlier that day. But, somehow, despite her spies and informants, the most she could find out about him was that he was somewhere in town. What left the pit in her stomach was that he was a bright man, but not particularly sneaky or clever. Anyone who thought it was sensible to drag a giant sword around couldn’t just vanish into thin air. Yet, in the chaos that was Wyandanch, all he’d needed to do was send away the rats at his disposal. Frightened as they were, of course they’d listen to him whole-heartedly.

It wasn’t as though the rats were in great danger. Nobody went into the city’s underbelly if they valued their life. The many Alliance corpses Veta had seen told her that it had taken a while for them to get the hint, but she hadn’t heard anything about the main home of the rats being attacked. They would be safe, even if the humans wouldn’t. No, it was Seres taking away their king. The king that she’d been sworn to protect. Both kings she’d been sworn to protect were under his possession. But the King of the Rats was as much of a public face as they could get. He’d been around long enough to remember when Wyandanch was prosperous and dangerous. They needed that anchor, and they didn’t have it.

Veta sighed. If he wasn’t so important, she wouldn’t have had any qualms about killing Seres.


Chapter 33: Escape, Part 4 (1,033 words) what a mood

Spoiler! :

Not that he would ever give her the chance.

By now she could hear the sounds of people at the edge of her hearing. Conversations, crying, shouting, whispering. The noises of a milling, scared crowd. Soldiers surrounded them on all sides; the sounds of their armor bumping against the walls and their boots scraping the ground almost drowned out the civilians. But they were all alive, even if not in the best shape. It was nothing short of a miracle from the Creator that they’d been able to rescue so many people. Veta was proud of her soldiers, but they’d had so many odds stacked against them.

Veta transformed herself into a tiny rat, skittering through a grating to head down a dry tunnel. Her hearing picked up a man’s voice that, even in her non-sentient form, she recognized well enough. Speeding to the other end of the tunnel, she caught the whiff of his smell. There were others, too – one smelled like perfume, and the other smelled like a muskier version of herself.

When she exited tunnel and entered a torch-lit corridor, she quickly morphed back into human form. Sure enough, there was Seres, right where she’d expected him to be. Nobody would pay attention to a man at the back of a crowd.

He kept on walking without a word. Seres had to have known she was there, solely because of the glances of the soldiers around him. It wasn’t like him to ignore her, so he was obviously planning something. Veta didn’t take long to piece together the clues. He was surrounded by royalty - the Prince of Eimhin hanging over his back, the King of Wyandanch walking to his right, and the old King of the Rats walking to his left.

“Commander Seres!” Veta called. She took a few steps forward and crossed her arms. “Care to explain yourself?”

“No,” Seres said. He adjusted the unconscious prince on his back. “I have somewhere to be.”

Two transformations and Veta rose out of the ground in front of him. “And you’re not going to tell me where?” she said, raising an eyebrow.

He didn’t hesitate for a second, but pushed her out of the way. “I don’t have much time,” he grumbled. “I have a few important people with me.”

As if to emphasize this, Wielde and the King of the Rats looked back at her. Wielde frowned softly; it was disconcerting how pale he looked, even in the darkness. Compared to the way that he never looked away from her eyes, or how the torchlight caught his unchanging expression, it was unnerving. She’d seen that face before – Wielde was traumatized. Yet she admitted to herself that he looked stronger than he’d been in a long time. More resolute, more determined.

Her King, however, hadn’t changed in the slightest. The gray-furred rat hobbled along, almost buried in a pile of rags and blankets. Only his protruding snout, a cane that extended up to his shoulders, and the intricate twisting of his ankles as he walked identified him. He sniffed in greeting. The King was too old, too blind, and too frail to mince words. She hadn’t gotten a response from him beyond recognition or annoyance in a long time. That familiarity almost soothed the edge that Seres had given her.

“That’s the problem,” Veta said, walking to keep pace with Seres and trying to keep her voice calm. She could barely see him behind the wall of soldiers, but that wasn’t as frightening as what she couldn’t see. “Where did your rats go? And how in Fayne did you manage to sneak the King of Wyandanch from under my nose?”

The group rounded a corner. Veta knew this part of the underground. Some of the paths that extended outside of the city lay here. The old lord’s paranoia was finally paying off. Unfortunately for her, she suspected that meant their conversation was about to be cut short.

Seres raised a finger. “One,” he barked. Veta would’ve jumped at the change in his voice, if not for her training. “I sent them away. They will serve their purpose better here. As will you.” A second finger. “Two. He was already making his way to the back of the group. It must have been easy to slip away in a place like this.”

“And what, dare I ask, is that purpose?” Veta said, trying to restrain the venom in her voice. She had to admit, she hadn’t expected the King of Wyandanch to outwit her like that. Granted, she and the rest of the rats had been scrambling to make sure the crowd would make it to the escape tunnels without being attacked. She’d assumed he’d keep close to his ring of bishops. Those bishops had certainly still been moving together when she’d passed them.

They’d reached the end of the corridor. A few soldiers milled around the smaller tunnel that protruded from the right, pushing in the last few civilians. Veta peered into the darkness as she halted beside the tunnel, Seres’s group taking up all the space at the entrance. She couldn’t see the light at the other end, but that made sense. The mountains of Eimhin weren’t exactly a stroll away.

“I need eyes and ears in this city,” said Seres. He’d stopped, allowing the last of the royals and the soldiers to walk past. When Veta heard the scraping of stone against stone, she quickly fixed on the only people left at the entrance that weren’t her or Seres. A couple of soldiers were hauling an oversized rock into place. “And I need someone to lead them.”

Veta could hear her heart racing. She reached her hands out, but one of the soldiers shoved them back. “Then stop!” she said, voice high-pitched. “Bring the King back!”

Seres shook his head. “Aren’t you the heir to his throne?” he said.

Screw her training. Veta screamed and lunged forwards, but the stone slide into place right before she could make it into the tunnel. She slammed into the stone and crumpled to the ground.

Side aching, head dizzy, Veta pulled herself up against the stone and yelled into her hands.


Chapter 34: Messengers, Part 1 (1,022 words) blerg I'd like to rewrite this, I like the idea of a young king who's very, very aware of his mortality.

Spoiler! :
On a normal day, the hot baths would’ve been suffocating. The air would’ve been inundated with the smells of fur and sweat. Steam would’ve pooled against the ceiling. One couldn’t have taken a step without falling into the water or running into the back of a lion. It would’ve been impossible to see the other end of the broad space, with its cobblestone floors and marble pillars. Tannis certainly wouldn’t have ended up at a tub as wide or impressive as the one he was resting in, head poking above the water. The granite felt cool against the back of his head – he sank lower, quietly groaning as his muscles shifted and eased.

Sadowa had done his usual magic to make this possible. The staff had emptied the hot baths, set a single fire in the floor below, and prepared for the arrival of one very special guest. It wasn’t like the guest to visit such public spaces, but he’d always had a fondness for hot baths, and the staff had always had one at the center ready for him.

On the other side of the bath, the King of Lions dipped his toes into the water. Attendants in towels worked quickly to prop pillows against his back, rest his arms on his knees, and spread his legs so that he could bathe at all. It was a strange sight, but not as strange as the King himself.

Victis towered over Tannis. Had they been standing, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The King’s long arms and legs reminded Tannis’s of a horse – thick, muscular, imposing. Bristling with fur and a dark mane, it would’ve been hard to imagine that the King wasn’t able to walk or pick himself off the ground. This looked like the same young King that had thrown his rivals into the dust.

“I appreciate the offer,” Victis said, pausing at the last word, “And that you would so kindly invite me here, but I cannot say I accept.”

The King looked to Tannis’s right. Sadowa, draped in a red bathrobe, stuck his feet into the bath and smiled. Tannis grumbled as the water splashed against his face. Not that anyone could hear. Besides, Sadowa was shaking enough that it was hard for Tannis to feel anything other than sympathy.

Taking a deep breath, Sadowa pressed his palms together. “Why, your Highness, I perfectly understand. Yet, I think Tannis here would be a perfect fit for the position.”

Victis raised an eyebrow. “Considering that the position is already taken.”

“Legitimately?” Sadowa said. Suddenly Tannis was glad to not be able to talk, if the King’s grabbing the edges of the tub was anything to go by.

“Legitimately,” Victis said. His attendants glanced at him, but none of them bat an eye. A few retreated, their jobs finished, while the others sat around him. No one dared to rest in the bath. “My father chose him. The circumstances behind his predecessor’s death are suspicious, as are the lions behind his rise, but I respect my father’s judgment.”

“And your father was a good King,” Sadowa said quickly. He bowed ever so slightly. “And you are a worthy successor. But our Regulus is anything but popular, and there is the curious matter of who he chooses for partners, if-”

Tannis reached up a set a hand on Sadowa’s leg. Sadowa took the hint and silenced.

Watching the movement, Victis smirked. “It is indeed odd that he does not always take lions to bed, but not uncommon, and nothing to be ashamed of. One must always keep company. I must presume that your ‘virgin’ Tannis is no exception.”

Sadowa glanced down at Tannis and bit his lip. “But, my King,” Sadowa stammered, “the Regulus is not well-liked in any case. He knows little of the military, his aides all recommended him for the position, and he has no respect for his fellow lion.”

If it weren’t so frightening to see Sadowa flustered in front of the King, Tannis would’ve laughed.

The King raised a hand slightly. One of the servants immediately pushed a leg out of the water, resting the foot on his opposite knee. “And you are not promoting Tannis to me?”

“Well,” Sadowa said, “He hired me.” The lion hesitated when one servant ran across the room and whispered something into Victis’s ear, and Victis replied in turn, but talked again when Victis’s head tilted back in his direction. “Whereas the Regulus only showed up when several of his aides spread the word-”

The lion gulped at the outstretched palm in front of his face. “Cease,” Victis said. “My decision is still the same – it would be a nightmare to remove a lion against which we can confirm nothing. It is true that he takes little interest in the military, but I believe that his lack of cunning only shows that he is not personally responsible for any possible crimes. And he has, in other respects, served his country well.”

The servant sped back to the small doors that comprised the entrance to the baths. Watching as the servant pushed open the door and stuck his head out, Victis nodded. “As such, given the news I have received, I have decided to invite him myself. The other generals and lions of the court will be convening shortly, so I will not ask you to leave.”

Tannis turned his head back in time to see the Regulus striding through the entrance. Dark mane billowing and adorned with white bows, his white robes pooled to the floor as he walked carefully and confidently over, chin raised and chest out.

The Regulus stopped in front of the bath, staring at all the bathers. “This was not the kind of meeting I was expecting,” he purred, voice deep.

Victis frowned. “How disappointing. Though, I cannot imagine you would like it if it was. I am not as mobile as I used to be.”

When the Regulus hesitated, Victis tapped a spot beside him. “Come,” he said. “We have plenty to talk about. I’ve just received word that the King of Wyandanch is dead.”


Chapter 34: Messengers, Part 2 (1,009 words) not paying him enough for this

Spoiler! :
“Dead?”
The word echoed through the throne room. It hung in the air, threatening to pull down the oversized curtains that swayed on either side of the court. The torches seemed to grow just a bit weaker, the ceiling seemed to shift just a bit lower, and the messenger kneeling in front of the throne trembled.
“Dead,” said the messenger, nodding his head. The fox stared up at the three figures clustered around the throne. Specifically, the fox that sat on it.
The King of Foxes, dressed in his finest yellow silk, tapped a finger on his chin. Age had worn him down – back bent, fur grayed, arms and legs shriveled, eyes shrouded in shadow – but the messenger still quivered as the King thought. The messenger suspected the King’s brain hadn’t rotted away like the rest of him.
However, the fox to the right of the King spoke first. “And why should we care?” he said. Embers bounced off his long ears and settled on his shoulders. This fox, his fur colored a mixture of silver and red, brushed them aside, peering at the tiny holes they left in his long, pale silk robes. Oversized cuffs swallowed his arms as he refocused on the messenger.
“I-” the messenger began, then choked on his words. The Prince of Foxes’s glare shot right through him; the messenger couldn’t dare say anything that would possibly anger him. Which didn’t leave much to say.
“The monarchy may have been, in its last days, a powerless husk,” the fox to the left said, “but no less a symbolic one. That the greatest enemies of that state have toppled it is worrisome, to say the least.”
The messenger breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He’d just been promoted to this job, and the last thing he wanted was to be cast out of the palace for bringing the King’s family bad news. It was good to see Enide here; in the few times that the messenger had seen her, the Princess always managed to cut through her husband’s arguments. Still, the messenger could’ve sworn that, for the briefest moment, she’d noticed the sigh. Enide also made the fur on the back of his neck stand up.
“But I cannot see how we-” the fox on the right began.
The King raised a hand. “Grandson,” he said. “She is correct. Wyandanch was the lynchpin of the center of the world. Now that the Mad King and his allies controls it, who knows what chaos will come from it? We cannot always hope to be above the rest of the world.”
“We can do business with the newcomers,” the prince said. “What have we to lose? We have few ties there, and the only foxes are the traitors who fled our kingdom.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, the King inhaled sharply, then looked down at the prince. “If you’d paid attention to your history, Shiruba” he said, voice suddenly sharp, “Then you would know it wasn’t our kingdom, and they were not traitors for escaping the brutality that it was. And we have much to lose; the newcomers are more interested in plundering Wyandanch than making a deal with one of its allies.”
The messenger looked down at the ground, trying as hard as possible not to flee.
“Well, Yasuko,” Shiruba said, “Maybe you have yet to try hard enough. Humans are weak and stupid – you can convince them of anything. We could always say that we had been conspiring against Wyandanch the whole time, win their trust, and plunder the city ourselves.”
A silence fell over the room.
“I doubt there will be much left to take,” Enide said. “Nor that they would accept us with open arms.”
“Precisely,” said Yasuko. The messenger looked up to see the King straighten himself out, while Shiruba took a few steps away. Enide never moved, her expression never changing from a blank one. “The Alliance cannot and will not be able to protect itself from its neighbors, and those neighbors will tear the Confederacy limb from limb. We are dealing with merciless, ruthless, paranoid tyrants. They will destroy Fayne if given the chance. I have a plan to preserve some sense of order – they are likely already enacting it. As you do not understand the situation, grandson, I will ignore your slight.”
Shiruba snorted, but his voice sounded more on edge. The fire around him grew stronger, and it was then that the messenger realized he was pulling it from the torches. “Well, Yasuko, If Wyandanch could keep the Confederacy together, the army that toppled it can do the same. Besides, I feel like you overestimate the power of the other states. It is not as though they can just-”

******


“March right in,” Cynwrig said, pointing to a spot on the map spread out on the table in front of her. “Can we do that?”

The desert winds howled over the ceiling the small adobe room as the fox scanned the map. His leather armor, combined with the fur, would’ve been roasting if not for the fact the room was underground. His sandals scraped the floor as he looked up into the face of his father.

The human who looked back frowned. His oily black hair, not protected by a hat or a shawl, didn’t match with his well-waxed mustache, his impeccably tanned face, or his brown robes. It was almost comforting to have a reason to be looking somewhere other than his eyes.

“How many soldiers do we have positioned along the border?” said the King of Besmar. He pointed to the edge of the circular map, where little lines had been drawn to mark boundaries. Few things made Cynwrig as happy as seeing the bite that he had personally taken out of Walenty, but now the jagged lines and random curves made him pause.

“A few thousand, I believe,” Cynwrig said. He itched the bandages wrapped around his chest, ignoring the pain in his back.

“Can we relocate any?” the King said.

Cynwrig hesitated, but nodded.


Chapter 34: Messengers, Part 3 (1,038 words) Her Eternal Majesty has been ruling for some 200-300 years; mercy is possibly the only word in her vocabulary.

Spoiler! :
“Some of them need to protect the land we’ve already taken from the locals and Wyandanch’s border guards, but we have a few options,” he said. “We could send them through The Pillars and surprise the city – I’m willing to bet that’s how they did it.”

The King shook his head. “Too long,” he said.

Letting out a huff, Cynwrig pointed to the spot on the border most directly south of Wyandanch. “If we concentrate our soldiers here, we could overwhelm the border guards and cut through Walenty.”

“But we would have to go through the mountains of Eimhin,” the King said, stroking his mustache.

“Not necessarily,” Cynwrig said, pointing to Wyandanch. “If our reports are true, the Alliance brought together the good majority of their forces to storm Wyandanch. They’ve obviously left some behind to defend the most important cities and forts, but we could skirt around Eimhin’s capital and the mountains.”

The King nodded. “And if they should return before we arrive?”

Cynwrig paused. That was an extremely good point. They’d have to spend some time fortifying Wyandanch and proclaiming one of their idiot leaders the King, but that could only take a few days. Eimhin being closest to Wyandanch, its soldiers could march back to defend their country first. Fighting the border guards, much less dealing with the populace in Walenty and Eimhin, could take much longer.

“How are our soldiers faring against the tribes?” the King said, seeming to pluck the thought right out of Cynwrig’s mind.

“Not well,” Cynwrig said, bowing his head. “They’ve been growing bold enough to ambush our soldiers and sabotage our supply lines, but not enough that we can crush them.”

The King of Besmar patted Cynwrig on the back. “I admire that boldness,” he said, smiling in response to Cynwrig’s. “It rather reminds me of my uncle. Yet the border is too much of a nuisance. It will take him to disentangle the soldiers – they are too well-armed and too well-fortified to allow for anything other than raids.”

Peering at the jagged lines on the map, Cynwrig tapped a claw against his chin. “We need to find a weak spot.”

“Precisely,” the King said. “We have time enough for that. The Alliance must doubtlessly be bloodied and bruised after their invasion, and nobody will recognize their legitimacy. The chaos is ours to exploit, and the resources are bountiful, so we have nothing to lose. If nothing else, we can drive a wedge into them and-”

******


“Chip away at their borders!”

Inside his tall spiral tower, Prudence hovered above the ground. His black-spotted white wings beat furiously as he scanned the rows and rows of books that lined the walls. The steady ticking of mechanical birds emanated from above, almost perfectly synchronized.

Beneath him, papers fluttered from his desk. The quill, lantern, and other accessories remained still – they’d been glued to it a long time ago. Three small owls snatched the papers as they flew, setting them down beneath the desk.

Prudence tilted his head. His voice sounded lighter. “But her Eternal Majesty would hate me for it, would she not?”

“It would indeed be a bloody affair, but the utility of it!” He now sounded deeper, more regal.

His voice took on a nasal hint. “And it only requires a few poor bastards. You have enough of them.”

One of the owls rose up to Prudence’s height, dodging the winds that swirled around him. “What is your lordship planning?” she said.

Prudence hesitated. He kept a good eye on his attendants; they didn’t run off to Eternia to report his every word, unlike some of the others in his court. And, well, this was certainly not something that he wanted to tell her. She was remarkably hesitant about the idea of death. Perfectly understandable for someone who had lived so long. But, as much as he hated to admit it, she never quite grasped the concept of risks worth taking.

“An invasion,” he said, voice settling to its normal low, calm pitch. “Has our diplomat returned yet?”

“No,” the owl said, shifting its beak. “But we’ll know as soon as he shows up at the wall.”

“If he shows,” Prudence said, nodding.

The owl twisted its head to the side for a few seconds, then shifted it back. “Yes, but why does it matter?”

Prudence clamped his beak shut. As he lowered back to the ground, slowing the beat of his wings, he answered. “If what I am told is true, the Alliance has committed a most grievous offense against our allies. I may wish to be more merciful if I am that they treated our diplomat with respect, or did not heap further indignities upon their state.”

A pause settled as Prudence touched the ground, sitting in his chair. The owl fluttered down beside him.

“How many soldiers?” the owl said at last. That hesitant told Prudence that she already knew the answer, but he spoke anyway.

“All of them,” Prudence said. “Line them along the border and have them march in. We will make clear our thoughts.”

“But the land wouldn’t hurt?” said the owl. Her companions, finished with their tasks, soared up towards the distant top of the tower, presumably to fix the few mechanical birds out of tune.

Prudence laughed, which came across as a long hoot. “It would not,” he said. “It is my contingency – I am not sure those murderers and oathbreakers would take the empire or its lovely queen seriously.”

“How many casualties?”
Raising his tiny claws over his mouth, so that his wings enfolded him, Prudence thought about this. “Enough to justify the attack,” he said. “I have my doubts they will band together, and that will be their doom.”

“I didn’t think Wyandanch would fall,” the owl said. “Only the dragons remember there was ever a time it didn’t exist.”

Prudence shook his head. “It was inevitable. Save our Eternal Queen, age grinds us to dust. I had hoped that its time would not be now, as this will create such an abysmally gory disaster, but it is up to us to seize the opportunity. At least the Confederacy will have the honor of being conquered by its betters.”
Last edited by TheSilverFox on Mon Dec 31, 2018 6:02 am, edited 2 times in total.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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Mon Dec 31, 2018 5:59 am
TheSilverFox says...



ugh fine, have your 11pm post

LMS Writing Part XV



Chapter 34: Messengers, Part 4 (1,108 words) edana: latton failed because he kinda sucks so that sucks

Spoiler! :
Leaning forward on his wooden throne and adjusting the plush seat, Aelius took a long, slow breath. “Is that all?” he said, the words almost drowned out by the exhale.

In the well-lit throne room, the armor of the messenger gleamed. Circular stained-glass windows lined the white walls, illuminating the red carpet leading up to the thrones and giving the messenger a kaleidoscope of colors. “As much as we know – the soldiers at the border got the message a week after it was sent. Its sender didn’t come with it, and we haven’t had a response since. But we doubt anyone know more about what happened than us.”

It was hard to read Aelius’s face. Not because he was any good at hiding his emotions – the people loved an expressive priest – but Edana had rarely seen him so terrified. The man wasn’t someone who she thought could be fazed. He’d shout about the Creator’s will this and the Creator’s will that, and obviously connecting every failure or success to the whim of a deity he believed in and preached was a strong coping mechanism. But even he had limits.

The Bishop King turned to look at Edana, face drooping and eyelids sagging. He peered at her ragged and torn coat, her battered and bruised wings, and the claws that scraped against the stone floor. “You were found by a fisherman?” he said. “He thought you were some kind of monster, but he still helped you to our borders?”

“I don’t think that’s important right now,” Edana said, bowing her head.

Aelius sighed. “I would rather hear some good news.”

“I persuaded him,” she said. “He was just frightened.”

“Persuaded? Not forcibly, I should hope?”

“This is pointless,” piped up a voice to the right of Aelius. The Queen of Comas, Aisa, leaned back on her throne and scowled at her husband. If he looked miserable, it was raining over her head. She looked like she had thrown her clothes on hastily, as her wrinkled robes buried her arms and legs. Her makeup had started to run down her face, and the fire in her eyes had reached a fever pitch. Edana wanted to shuffle away – at least the king could be reasoned with.

Aelius looked back and frowned. “Indeed,” he said, “Yet we know the answer to the question.”

Tightening her grip on the arms of her throne, Edana huffed. “We only know that Latton failed at this task.” She focused her stare on Edana. “Is that correct?”

It took a few seconds for Edana to respond. “He should’ve come here by now. Either he failed, or something happened to him.”

“Then we may assume our daughter is, if his last report is correct, either in Eimhin, outside the borders of the Confederacy, or some distance from Wyandanch.” Aisa raised her chin. The quiet sniffle betrayed her thoughts, but Edana suspected she was the only person who could hear it. Phoenixes always had much better ears than humans.

Coughing, Aelius spread out his hands. “That does not necessarily limit the range of where she might be,” he said, “And I can hardly imagine that any of those locations are-”

Aisa shook her head. “I took you for a religious man.”

“Excuse me?” Aelius said, raising an eyebrow. Edana took a couple of steps back.
“Terasu is alive,” Aisa said. “I feel it. The Creator would not be so cruel as to take our daughter from us at such a young age. Princes and kings can be reckoned it. If not by us, by her. It would not be the first time that she tore her way through a palace.”

Ah, that incident. Based on Aelius’s frown and the way he leaned over the side of his throne to whisper in his wife’s ear, it had crossed his mind too. “We will need to send our commander after her,” he hissed. A quick glance sent the messenger next to Edana turning around and walking away. Hopefully she could pretend that he also hadn’t been trying to shoo her away. He had to; he knew how much she could hear. But she couldn’t help but wonder what he had in mind to deal with this disaster.

Aisa raised her head, eyes wide in realization. She quickly lowered herself and scowled. “Is he still infatuated with her?” she whispered.

“Naturally,” he whispered back. “We must have our daughter back. I would rather she have an escort, though I will see about sending our spies to find any trace of her first. Yet she is too valuable of a target for the Alliance, and I cannot imagine she will come back willingly.”

“What about the attackers?” Edana said, before realizing she said anything. She quickly threw a wing over her mouth.

The King and Queen paused and looked back at her. “Attackers?” Aelius repeated. That haunted expression began to settle on his face again.

Edana nodded. Unfolding the wing, she gulped. “The messenger kinda said there’d be others who’ll know what happened. I don’t think they’ll decide to just leave the Confederacy alone, especially if the Alliance murdered the King of Wyandanch and took down an ‘invincible’ city.”

The monarchs glanced at each other. “But our daughter?” Aisa whispered.

Raising a finger, Aelius pointed to the massive doors at the other end of the room. “Go,” he said, voice somehow magnified and deepened by the walls. “We have much to discuss. I must apologize, but it is not for your ears.”

Edana was happy to leave. She fluttered her way across the room, feeling a growing pit in her stomach. Her wings groaned and ached as she pressed them against the doors and flew out into the wide insides of Comas’s castle. She’d refused healing (and that fisherman had been no healer) and taken to the skies as long as she could tolerate to make it to her rulers. All to be back on safe ground, all to see the arrival of the rebellious princess, all to have that little bit of praise for completing her mission.

Instead she could see the soldiers massing in the training grounds, arming themselves with swords and spears. Men and women hauled out targets, polished armor, and sounded horns. And, as Edana hovered over them, she knew it would just be the beginning. Comas was alone, surrounded by much larger, much better-equipped, and much more dangerous countries. As much as it pained him, Aelius would have to summon all his troops, then the civilians. And, even if they could hold Comas together, so many of them would have to die in the process.

What a nightmare.


Chapter 35: Check, Part 1 (1,057 words) 35. Rxd5+

Spoiler! :

A thick fog had settled over what was left of the city of Wyandanch. Anyone who’d been alive long enough (and had kept on living after the siege) would have been stunned – it hadn’t been so misty since before the river running next to the city dried up all those decades ago. And then they would’ve been running inside, once they realized they couldn’t breathe.

The smog had poured through the streets before the sun had had a chance to rise. It suffocated towers, enveloped houses, sucked the fresh air out of the palaces whose smoldering husks looked even darker than The Pillars behind them. On the field in front of one of those estates, ash and dust settled over the blades of grass and in the nooks and crannies of trees. As he leaned against one of the broad trunks, Leathan kicked up the remnants of thousands of homes, livelihoods, and bodies.

Pulling up his robes over his mouth, he sighed. He’d been waiting for this day, but now he waited for the moment he could get out of here.

But they’d done. The Alliance had done it. No, Catharnach had done it. Beyond his hopes and expectations (except Leathan could always hear them at the edge of his voice and in the flick of his tongue, a secret language of pipe dreams that he could read), the King of Eimhin had taken Wyandanch. That weak and sniveling country had been crushed, its leaders killed or driven away. Catharnach now controlled the Confederacy, the most powerful group of states in the world. And where was the king to enjoy it?

Leathan gasped when he heard rustling to his right. Eyes darting in that direction, he silently cursed his luck as figures began to walk out of the darkness.

“How goes it?” Kasimir called. The dust had only weakened his voice slightly, and the booming tone and smugness in his words drowned that weakness out. Leathan glared as the King of Walenty strode into view. The man had exchanged his armor for a black jacket with silver buttons, blue pants, and thick gray boots. A light coating of ash had settled on all of them; that, and the way it settled into his smile lines and made them wider, or how it tinted his hair a light gray, made him seem much older. But those broad muscles and the massive axe strapped to his side told another story. A story Leathan didn’t want to hear.

“It goes,” Leathan said, crossing his arms. He didn’t dare look at Kasimir, though he did catch more shadows moving around them both. “Rather finely, I might add.”

“Really?” said Kasimir, eyebrow raised. Leathan grit his teeth. It was a trick, it was a joke, it was a ploy, there was no emotion in that face, there was no sympathy or understanding. “Where might your husband be, then?”

To Kasimir’s left, his wolf guard appeared. The blonde-haired noble added to the tight circle by standing to the wolf’s left. They both had grins on their face, but slightly different kinds. The wolf looked very happy with himself, while the blonde-haired lady reminded Leathan of the emotions that had danced on his face whenever he’d come up with some way to off Catharnach’s son.

Such an irony – the brat’s death should’ve made him happier.

Leathan looked at the ground. “He still keeps to his office,” he said. And that was the truth. It wasn’t a good truth, but he’d never been interrogated by another king before. Didn’t Eimhin have diplomats? Why it had been so easy for Kasimir to waltz into the Eimhin camp, demand a meeting, and get approval from Catharnach himself? But no, Leathan was supposed to be a show of force, some sign that Eimhin was still a country that could be reckoned with. He couldn’t act the part.

And sure enough, the other leader, a master of dramatic timing, rose out of the mist and stood to Leathan’s right. How long had he been waiting before he could transform back to a human?

“Unfortunate indeed,” Alsather said. The snake shook his head as the tiniest smile played on his lips. He looked a little disappointed that he hadn’t been able to catch Leathan off guard, but he knew he could still twist the knife in Leathan’s gut, so to speak. “A man such as that should not be allowed to grieve alone.”

Wipining the sweat off his brow, Leathan glared at Alsather, then Kasimir. “And where’re your deputies, huh?” he said, betraying his commoner voice. That made his heart race faster. “I sure haven’t seen your advisors around. I don’t think we’re the only ones suffering here.”

Kasimir opened his mouth to speak, but the wolf guard beat him too it. “Drusus is meeting with the other generals,” he said, coughing between words. Leathan couldn’t read his expression – why did he look so disappointed? And why that did make Kasimir happy?

A tap on his shoulder derailed that train of thought. He whirled around to see the cataracts lady glaring up at him. “I believe you are mistaken,” she said. She stepped back, taking a spot to Alsather’s left.

“We must get to the heart of the matter,” Alsather said, nodding at the cataracts lady as she approached, then glaring through Leathan’s eyes. “The King of Eimhin, whether he weep alone or in company, is certainly in no condition to rule. The war has wearied him in more ways than it has any of us. I should like to propose-”

“A partnership,” Kasimir said, taking loudly enough to drown out Alsather. The snake reared his head back, but the King ignored the fury in Alsather’s face. He instead reached a hand out to Leathan. “We’ll send our best to find Ailean’s body, track down and kill Seres and whoever he’s working with, and rebuild the Confederacy together.”

Alsather huffed and took a step closer to Leathan, holding out his own hand. “And I would love to accompany such an arrangement,” he said, casting a glare or two at Kasimir, “But we have not even confirmed that your poor stepson is dead. My trackers would be able to guarantee this, as well as pursue his attackers, more quickly and decisively than this oaf’s. The choice is, of course, all yours.”


Chapter 35: Check, Part 2 (1,235 words) 36. Rxd4+

Spoiler! :
Leathan stepped back, pressing into the tree. Propping his hands against the wood, his eyes jumped between the two leaders that approached him. They had the wide grins and bright eyes of predators who’d just cornered their next meal. And he was certainly the prey, if the fear that forced its way through his throat and left him breathless was any hint. Were they going to keep playing with him? Were they going to strike?

Suddenly, Kasimir tripped. Falling forward, he just so happened to catch himself on the tree. Alsather, scowling, stepped back as Kasimir pulled himself up. The King of Walenty grabbed Leathan’s coat, then his shoulders. “Sorry,” the King said. “I didn’t look where I was going, it’s hard to see anything in the-”

Kasimir was far too close for comfort; Leathan could feel the king breathing down on him. He tried to duck, but Kasimir took that as an excuse to grab Leathan by one hand and pull him up.

“Oh!” Kasimir said, staring down at the hand he held. “It’s a deal, then?”

“You absolute child,” Alsather said. The snake crossed his arms. “Anyone can see how obvious of a ploy that is, you complete and utter inept moron.”

Obvious, but effective. Leathan tried to wriggle himself free, leaning in Alsather’s direction, but Kasimir hardened his grip. Biting his lip and trying not to shout, Leathan finally dipped his head. “No,” he said. “We have a deal. Walenty can do the job.”

“But that doesn’t mean I won’t ask for the services of a good friend,” Kasimir said. He turned in Alsather’s direction, pulling Leathan with him. “We can look after Catharnach and his city together.” Kasimir held out a hand.

Raising his chin, Alsather stepped back. “Do so yourself, bastard.”

Something indescribable slipped across Kasimir’s face, but the smile came back just as quickly. “So be it,” he said, just a little too sweetly. “I’m sure you have to lot to attend to in your own country. As for me, I think I can manage a little bit more.” He beamed down at Leathan. “So, what do you say? Would you be against me being, say, the advisor to the throne? A bit like Seres?”

“I believe that we all know Seres ruled the city,” Alsather said, but Kasimir held up a hand.
“This is for Leathan to decide,” the King of Walenty said.

Not wanting to lose a hand, Leathan nodded weakly.

Kasimir let go. “Wonderful!” he said, turning around with a wide sweep of his cape. Gripping his bruised hand, Leathan ducked under the cloth and stood back up, glaring into the back of Kasimir’s skull. If the King noticed, he didn’t say anything. Instead, he gestured to his soldiers and barked commands. Bring his generals to him. Check for any evidence of Seres. Map out where the rats were. Count rations and supplies. Set up a meeting with Catharnach.

A pit settled in Leathan’s stomach – what in Fayne was he doing here anymore? Eimhin’s victory had ended almost as soon as it had begun. Catharnach had actually lost his mind, Ailean was dead, and Kasimir had just bullied his way to ruling Wyandanch. Leathan had no reason not to run past the tree and vanish into the smoke. Maybe Alsather or Kasimir spotted him, but why would they care? He was a puppet that had played his part and been cast aside.

Catharnach should never have invaded Wyandanch. Then he would’ve been safe.

******


Eremia was starting to see what Katerina had been talking about when she’d said The Pillars were creepy.

It wasn’t the voices. Well, not exactly. Perhaps the voices would’ve been fine in any other circumstance. Quiet, hushed, reverent. But the bodies scattered across this holy land had changed them. Now they were frantic. Some yelled, some cried, most merged together into a crescendo.

The dead were angry. So was she.

This should’ve never happened. Wyandanch had always been invincible. In all the books that she’d read, it had outlasted years of sieges from some of the most powerful nations in existence. It had been the unconquerable symbol of humanity and its union with the dragons. And yet, somehow, here she was, joining a somber march of ash-covered citizens and soldiers as they squeezed their way between the black spires. Here she was, staring at the dead and dying as they slumped and quivered against the ground. A few of them had lost limbs. One poor bastard lost an arm.

Above all else, her brother wasn’t standing beside her. He was still in that horrid city, the first victim of the creature that had clawed through it. For all she knew, he was trapped somewhere, whether in that creature’s mind, or in a dark prison cell, or in the walls of Wyandanch, or beneath its rubble. And he was waiting for her to save him one more time. But this wasn’t about stealing bread or an advisor’s hat or the lances of a couple knights. This wasn’t about a sandwich or impersonating someone or challenging people to a duel. This was far worse than anything Eremia had ever even though possible.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. “We need to move,” Alarick said.

Eremia froze up, but anger seized her. Shoulders shaking, she clenched her fists and glared at the dead man sprawled at her feet. “You need to move.”

Alarick sighed. “You can’t seriously be thinking of returning to the city,” he said.

“What of it?” Eremia snapped, whirling around and pointing up at Alarick. “You trained me to be a general.”

“I trained you to get out of my way,” Alarick said. He tapped his foot and scrunched up his face before gesturing back the way they’d came. Eremia followed his gaze, watching the smoke curl off the towers and walls of the ruined city. “Or, I tried to. And if you want to go, go on ahead. Your parents are never going to forgive me for what happened, and I’m too tired to care. But know that you’re going alone. I have too many people to treat and lead to safety to stop and drop everything for whatever strikes your fancy. So, what’s it going to be? Will you join us in trying to salvage the country you fought for? Or are you going to run back into the fire for someone you don’t even know is alive?”

A long pause. This was the moment. The do or die moment. She either took the risk, or she’d never be able to take it again. And sure, she had no idea if Jonah was alive. She had no idea if she could ever save him, even if he was alive. But the last thing she was about to do was listen to a man who had manipulated and controlled her. He didn’t care about Jonah like she did. And that was all she needed to know.

Eremia brushed his hand off of her shoulder. “If you did not care,” she said, “You would never have come to see me personally. You had a mission – I was your mission. And I know that some part of you would like to see that mission fulfilled. I understand that perfectly, because I have a mission of my own. I will find my brother and I will bring him home. You cannot stop me.”


Chapter 35: Check, Part 3 (1,035 words) 37. Qxd5+

Spoiler! :
She grit her teeth at the silence that followed. It’d never been easy to get a good read on Alarick, since he liked to mask emotions and plans behind a sagging face and bloodshot eyes. There was the possibility he’d laugh at her, the chance that he’d haul her back to the wagon he’d kept her in, the very slight odds that he’d just walk away.

But, like she’d hoped, he slumped his shoulders and sighed. “No,” Alarick said, “I can’t. You’ve always outwitted me, or found people who could. If it wasn’t for how important you were, I probably would’ve made you a general in any case. I’m still tempted, you know, but your decision is your decision.” He pushed her forwards.

That bastard. “Not alone,” Eremia hissed. She wheeled around and pointed up at him. “I would like a few companions.”

Alarick sighed and rolled his eyes. “You’re not taking Yorew,” he said, glaring down at her.

“He’s my servant.”

“He’s my healer.”

“He only obliged himself to working for you because of me,” Eremia said. “And I will not look for my brother unless he is there himself. He is as distraught as I am.”

Alarick slammed a fist on the palm of his hand. “I need healers,” he said slowly. “Especially ones who can work with my staff. He’s close to Madeleine, and I think he deserves his autonomy. Not that you’d know anything about that.”

“And you do?” Eremia said. “You seem more than happy to recruit him against his will to a country he may not want to travel to, purely because of someone he has affections for.”

Fine,” Alarick growled. Eremia almost flinched – it was odd seeing him angry enough to have spit flying out of his mouth, but it felt good. He’d been trying to control her long enough that it was nice to flip the tables for a change. “We’ll ask him. But that’s it. You can’t bring anyone else, I can’t afford to lose anyone-”

“Katerina,” Eremia said, holding out a finger. “Aquila.” Another finger. “Iasquam.” Another finger. “Marisol.” Another finger.

Taking a deep breath, Alarick pinched the bridge of his nose. “And why?” he said.

The whispers around them seemed to grow just a little bit stronger. “To find Jonah,” Eremia said, “I need spies and I need healers for the spies. You know Katerina is exceptional at eavesdropping and sneaking into places where she does not belong, while both Iasquam and Aquila could hide in the smoke and either pinpoint escape routes or Jonah himself. Worst comes to worst, Marisol is handy with an axe.”

“And if you do find him?”

“We bring him home to Exedor and invite you and the survivors. If not, we return and see the survivors find a secure destination, be that Exedor or another country entirely.” Eremia pulled back her hair, scowl growing deeper. “I believe that would make you happy?”

Alarick scanned his surroundings. The crowd had already begun to thin out, the front was some distance away, and it was obvious to the both of them that he still had a job to do. A tiny smile danced across Eremia’s lips. After all the times he’d praised her and promised to make her a general and let her sit at the general’s table, watching his own responsibility weigh him down was more enjoyable that it should’ve been. But he simply didn’t have the time or patience to deal with her, and the hard lines written across his face confirmed it.

“Go,” he said, turning around. “Find your soldiers, find the boy, get back to me. I hope there’s more to you than just words.”

“I hope the same of you!” Eremia called out when she was reasonably sure he was gone. Then she stepped back and leaned against one of the pillars. Sighing and running her hands through her hair, she watched the crowds filter by. The dead and the living mixed together – it was getting hard to tell them apart. Voices from bloody faces mixed with hisses and growls and spats, creating a quiet rumble. Which only reminded her of Jonah.

She hadn’t expected this to work. It made sense why Alarick would throw her aside – she wasn’t of any use anymore. That she could argue to bring so many people with her was the amazing part. Well, she’d just have to make sure he didn’t get to them first.

Eremia made a brief prayer, then walked back into the crowd.


******


Gripping the side of the wagon, Yorew stared down at the people stretched out in front of him. Four, barely enough to fit in the open wagon even without considering his size. So, for the most part, his legs dangled from the back of the wagon, sometimes scraping against the ground.

None of them looked to be in good shape – he’d been replacing blood-covered bandages with clean ones for the last hour, but was about to run out of both good bandages and healing magic. It was bizarre. In the last couple of battles, he’d never had to worry about finding clean water, poultice and herbs to rub on wounds, or expending himself so much that his hands shook and his face ran with sweat in the cool morning air.

Everyone was exhausted. It was almost impossible to pick out the medics from the rest of the crowd. Those sunken eyes, soot and blood-covered faces, and red eyes could’ve belonged to anyone. Those who could walk did, but he Yorew could see more and more people stuffing themselves into the wagons. It would be a nightmare if it rained; all the tarps had been torn off the wagons and used for gauze and stretchers. Not to mention the mud would make the horses go even slower.

Yorew heard a pair of hooves that was just slightly off rhythm. Faster, more energetic, quiet but closer. He stifled a groan, instead staring out through the sea that was The Pillars as Ceinen skipped up to the back of the wagon, shoving himself onto it with some quick movement and leg flailing.

“H-hi?” Ceinen said, glancing everywhere but at Yorew. “I-I was s-sent here to h-help?”


Chapter 35: Check, Part 4 (1,002 words) 38. Qd6+

Spoiler! :
“There’s not much to be done,” Yorew said. “Or we don’t have the resources for it.”

Ceinen’s eyes darted away. “O-oh,” he said, turning around and inching off the edge of the wagon. “O-o-kay.”

It went against his better judgment. The last few times Ceinen had done something like this, the deer had immediately taken the chance to yell at Yorew, glare at Yorew, do anything but actually help Yorew. Except, that had been before Madeleine had told Ceinen she didn’t love him. Now he seemed almost quieter, more subdued. His gestures and steps were a little less exaggerated, speech a little more stable, eyes a little less frantic. Why Ceinen had chosen now to come over was beyond Yorew, but the man took the chance to sit on the edge of the wagon, knocking on the wood beside him.

Ceinen sat down, legs dangling onto the ground. As his hooves scraped against the earth, he joined Yorew in staring out over the rest of the caravan. The deer huffed and sighed, antlers scraping one side of the wagon. It was obvious that he had something to say, but Yorew wasn’t going to press. He’d most likely just make Ceinen more agitated, and at least he could just shove the deer off of the wagon for any insult.

“S-sorry,” Ceinen said a little too loudly. He set a hoof over his mouth.

Well, that wasn’t what Yorew had been expecting. “Sorry?” he said, looking over at the deer.

Ceinen clapped his hooves together and stared at the wood, like he was tracing out its patterns. “F-for every-everything. You are a-a ve-very good du-per-person and I c-can see why she l-likes you.”

Yorew wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. He stared down at his legs. It’d be more than a little rude to ask about that change in heart, but there was something so incredibly freeing in Ceinen accepting his relationship with Madeleine that Yorew couldn’t help but be suspicious. It had never been that easy to find love. No, something would always go wrong. Someone would disapprove or the partner would turn out to be awful.

“A-and I’m s-sorry ab-about lying t-to you,” Ceinen said. When Yorew looked up at him, the deer shook his head. “S-she didn’t send me. I c-came over t-to say that. Y-you deserve it.”

Yorew nodded, feeling a weight slowly lift off of his chest.

“A-and th-that girl? E-Eremia? I-i-i-i respect her. She’s – she’s l-loyal. S-sometimes an-annoying ab-about it, b-but that’s – that’s faith. E-even the wr-wrong one. A-and she respects y-you.”

Leaning back and staring up at the sky, Yorew snorted. Eremia, annoying? That wasn’t the half of it. She was stubborn, harsh, and didn’t know when to quit. He couldn’t help but admire her for that, especially since it was those qualities that gave her a good chance of finding Jonah and bringing him back.

“Haha, a-and Madeleine l-loves ha-having you a-around. S-she doesn’t e-even t-try to k-keep an eye on-on you any-anymore; she-she hasn’t written a re-report in a lo-long t-time, haha.”

The weight went crashing back down. Yorew pulled himself back up. “What?” he spluttered, looking right into Ceinen’s eyes. “Keeping an eye on me?”

The deer looked away. “S-she di-didn’t t-tell y-you?” he said, eyes refusing to focus on Yorew. When he continued staring, Ceinen raised hooves up. “I-it w-was just, we di-didn’t k-know any-anything about y-y-y-you, a-and w-when E-Eremia passed out y-y-y-y-you h-had an a-accent t-that d-didn’t belong in t-this part of t-the world, so M-Maddie and A-Alarick w-wanted to s-s-spy on y-y-y-y-you. S-sorry.”

Yorew stroked his chin for a minute, trying his best to ignore the sea of thoughts that flooded through his head. Yet, the longer that Ceinen fidgeted and moved, the more and more it became obvious that Yorew needed to run. His brain knew that Ceinen was only anxious, but spouted ideas and suggestions about how Ceinen was actually conspiring against him, that this was Ceinen’s plan, that Madeleine had set up Ceinen to do this, that Madeleine had been lying to him this entire time. Well, no matter how much his ears chopped up the words they heard, or his nose masked Ceinen’s musk in the herbs that Madeleine carried with her, one thing was clear – she really had been lying to him.

“I had better go check on some of the others,” Yorew said, jumping off the wagon. He turned back and waved to Ceinen, face even more of a mask than usual. “Thank you for telling me.”

“S-sorry!” Ceinen called out, but Yorew had already made a beeline for the nearest hospital wagon.


******


Drusus had been suspicious of this meeting from the moment he’d stepped into the door of the burned-out house, but it wasn’t like he could turn back. The creature was watching.

It stood on end of the table, arms crossed and glaring at the advisors standing on the other side. Bloodshot eyes peered out through a mess of blond and black hair, but it didn’t seem to notice how disheveled it looked. It didn’t notice its blood-splattered clothes, the burn marks on its arms and legs, or that it was standing over the maps of the city, which steamed underneath its boots.

Is that all?” it said. Drusus flinched. That voice, like everything else about it, was so awkward and inhuman. Or, human wasn’t the right word. It certainly wasn’t anything he recognized.

The man next to him tugged on his collar. As the candles set in the corners flickered, the advisor nodded his head. “That is all,” he said. “Our most comprehensive, up-to-date report on the city of Wyandanch and the whereabouts of the participants of yesterday’s battle.”

The creature shook his head. The flames on the candles grew just a little bit taller, drawing the advisers closer together. As the table beneath it groaned and creaked, dust pouring out of cracks in the cobblestone walls, the creature said, “You do know why I have brought you here, yes?”


Chapter 35: Check, Part 5 (1,033 words) 40. Qf6+

Spoiler! :
Drusus inched back as the advisors around him shifted uneasily. The man that was now in front of him pointed at the maps.

Sighing, the creature took a step forward. Several of the advisors flinched. “I had expected that humans of such intellect and experience would wonder how I could browbeat your superiors into bringing you all before me. And yet, I am disappointed.”

Another advisor inched forward, pointing at the creature with a trembling finger. “You want to kill us!”

A smile wrapped around the creature’s lips. “Not unless I have to,” it said, stepping forward until it was at the edge of the table, grin growing ever larger as the advisors shrunk back. “You would be surprised how little death interests me. It is messy. It attracts attention. It forces people to act. And yet, humans like yourselves are crucial to your nations. Almost invaluable, even. Even one of you simply disappearing would be a blow to the foundation of The Confederacy. And that is all that I need, and all that I propose. Decide amongst yourselves who to kill.”

Drusus had almost made his way to the back of the room. His heart froze with the end of the creature’s demand. He didn’t know half of these men; he couldn’t trust half of these men to do anything other than stab the person running away in the back. And he was exactly that person. He could try slipping through the gap in the cobblestone on the floor, but he wasn’t sure that he’d fit. Maybe they’d drag him out and stab him to death. Or maybe they’d catch him as he tried to escape. Maybe they’d find his hiding spot and set fire to it. Maybe he wouldn’t reach Torion in time. Maybe he would and put them both at risk. That beautiful wolf. That beautiful, innocent wolf. Drusus was glad he’d convinced Torion not to come. Drusus wanted at least one of them to live.

Some of the advisors did glance back at him. However, they mostly whispered between each other, quiet and hushed and scheming tones that fitted their jobs. The creature’s smile started to fade.

“And what if we say no?” said one of the advisors. She and the rest turned in unison to face the creature. “If any one of us dies, and The Confederacy falls, the rest of us be at the mercy of the most powerful countries in the world. Do your worst.”

The creature tapped its foot. “Fine,” it said.

To Drusus, the next few seconds were a blur. Tendrils of darkness shot out from over the creature’s head, aiming for the assembled advisors. The few at the front were impaled before they could make their incantations. However, those that did sprouted red fur, shrinking down as plates of armor formed on their bodies. They took on the shape of foxes, swords in hand, and charged at the creature.

Drusus dived for the gap as the creature began to cut up its attackers. He tried to force himself through, ragged breaths cut short by the realization that his robes had caught against the cobblestone. Banging his fists on the ground in front of him and trying to pull himself forward, he realized he was truly and honestly stuck.

Fortunately, the creature hurled one of the attackers at the wall, or so Drusus assumed from the way the wall bulged and his back suddenly felt wet. Squeezed out, Drusus quickly pulled himself onto his feet and sprinted away from the house.

“You fools!” the creature shouted, voice cutting through Drusus’s mind as he jumped over destroyed walls and skirted around still-burning houses in the smoke. “You had the chance to save yourselves! Let the state die with you!”

Drusus screamed as he barreled his way through the streets of the city. He stopped thinking. He had one place to get to, one route to get to it, and death at his heels. Had he noticed at all, he would’ve found it was the fastest he’d run in his life.

It was only a few eternities later before Drusus saw the silver and blue banners foisted over the buildings, lining the streets, and draped against the walls. He hurtled himself over the barricade, ignoring the Walenty soldiers who scattered and shouted at his approach. The number of spears pointed in his direction, the number of commands barked by officers, and the movement in every gap of every building and every alley only kept him running, running towards the tent, running into the arms of the wolf who ran out of the tent to meet him.

The world came back into focus. Drusus winced at the sharp pain in his lungs when he inhaled deeply, to say nothing of how the muscles in his legs screamed as he leaned against Torion. He could feel the blood that had splattered against his robes, the soot that covered his hair, and Torion’s arms wrapping him up.

“What happened to you?” Torion stammered. He looked down at Drusus with those wide eyes, voice much higher than usual. “Are you okay?”

Drusus wiped a few tears from his eyes as he tried to control his breathing. Though his words were shaky, he hoped he was making enough sense. “Where is our King?”

Very slowly sitting down, Torion shook his head. “Please tell me what happened,” the wolf stammered. “He’s right in the tent, just like normal. He was going to meet Catharnach, but that thing got cancelled.”

“Why?” Drusus said a little louder than he’d intended

The wolf flinched. “I don’t know,” he said. “They said he was busy.”

******

“A long time ago, I made a promise to you. Do you remember?”

One of the broad doors leading to the throne room creaked open.

“I told you that I would give you The Confederacy. Your piece of the pie, so to speak.”

The creature walked through the dark chamber, leaving marks in the carpet under its feet. It cradled Catharnach – eyes rolled back, head lolling to the side, body limp – as it walked.

“And I have lived up to that promise. Not that it will do you much good.”


Chapter 35: Check, Part 6 (353 words) 45. Qxf2++

Spoiler! :
It stared up to the ceiling of the massive hall. Eyes without pupils caught the half-destroyed tapestries lining the walls, the balconies and hallways that led to servants’ quarters, kitchens, and armories. It couldn’t see anyone, but it could smell the blood.

“Nothing lasts forever. You know that, do you not? Not even children.”

Catharnach groaned, struggling weakly against the creature’s arms. It didn’t hesitate in the slightest.

It shook its head. “Two thousand years,” it said. “Two thousand years for an empire to rise on the backs of animals, and two thousand years for an empire to be felled by them. A joke, all of it. Such a joke.”

Walking up the steps, it approached the throne, stopping a few steps away. “And yet,” it said. “Though I may outlive it, and long preceded it, I appreciate the joke. I will gladly continue the joke. It serves me well.”

Its grip on Catharnach tightened. Fabric hissed, smoke curled into the air, Cathanarch screamed.

The creature tossed Catharnach onto the throne. The Mad King slumped across it, chin firmly pressed against the throne’s back. His arms and legs contorted as he started to slip out of the nightmares that came from being so close to it. Burnt fabric curled and smoked, adding a noxious smell to the already toxic air. Catharnach certainly didn’t wash himself. How odd it was to see someone whose inside resembled his outside so well.

The Mad King’s shouts grew weaker and weaker as he pulled himself into place, shoulders slumping and head sagging as he sat on his throne. It smiled at his refusal to look it in the eyes.

“I imagine there is more of a procedure,” it said, raising its arms. “But you on the throne is enough of a joke already. Catharnach!”

The King nodded lazily.

“I proclaim you King of Wyandanch, King of the Dragons, King of the Two Thousand-Year-Old City, and King of Nothing! May you serve your position faithfully and well!”

The King raised a finger. It laughed and stepped back, engulfed by the shadows that covered the room.

The door shut.


Chapter 36: A Quiet Place, Part 1 (715 words) what am I even doing

Spoiler! :
Yorew absentmindedly stirred the pot of beans, arm propped on a knee and fist firmly against his cheek. He stared at the weak flame as it boiled the pot’s contents, ignoring the hawk that had sat down beside him. Iasquam had tried to start a conversation, but the silence had been deafening enough for him to huff and tend to his sword, which he cleaned with a cloth in broad, slow strokes.

Eremia leaned up against the wood walls of the room, occasionally peering out through a gap that let her see into the hallway. She crossed her arms. Something had upset Yorew. He wasn’t willing to talk about it, which wasn’t exactly strange. Him abandoning the idea that he had any social skills whatsoever was. At least Iasquam could pretend to look busy. Aquila could too, even if it was by scratching at the floor and inspecting his feathers. Yorew just looked dead. Which made it a little bit easier to piece together what had happened.

Not that she was going to get anything out of him, of course. Once he decided he didn’t want to talk, he didn’t want to talk.

Eremia flinched when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She shot a glare to her left, switching immediately to a blank expression and a nod when she saw Katerina and Marisol. should’ve seen that coming, but Katerina was too quiet. How Katerina had managed to make Marisol quiet was beyond Eremia, though. Marisol wasn’t exactly good at subtle.

“Any particular luck?” Eremia said, trying to hide the strain on her face. Not that it would work, but she was particularly interested in Katerina asking about it.

Katerina shrugged her shoulders. “We suspect he’s not in the city anymore,” she said, gesturing to herself and Marisol, who nodded. “Everyone we listened in on seemed happier than usual.”

The princess felt like wrinkles had just spread across her face. “Any idea where he might have gone?” Eremia said.

“Probably to those creepy-ass pillars,” Marisol said. “We went out on the walls and we didn’t see any trails of fire or s*** like that on the plains, so he probably went there.”

“They are not-” Eremia began, before cutting herself off. It would be stupid to argue about The Pillars now. Better to wait until they were actually there (so that Marisol would hopefully change her mind). The princess took a deep breath. “And yet, we can absolutely confirm that Jonah is alive, yes?”

Katerina nodded. “Yep,” she said. “It sounds like he did something bad enough to frighten the Kings in the Alliance, made Catharnach the King of Wyandanch, and vanished.”

Drumming her fingers against the wall for a few seconds, Eremia ultimately nodded. “Good,” she said. “I would rather that we not stay in this pile of rubble any longer. I advise that we eat the meager rations provided to us and then rest for another hour or so. Then we leave.”

With a long, exasperated sigh, Marisol walked past Eremia and Katerina. Slumping her way over to the fire, she sat down next to Iasquam, staring at his sword. After a moment, she focused on the scythe in her hands and began to copy Iasquam, tearing off a piece of shirt to wipe away some of the dried blood from the scythe.

Despite her hopes, Eremia still found herself face to face with Katerina.

“And you?” Katerina said. If she could raise an eyebrow, she would.

Eremia slid down the wall, wrapping her arms around her knees as she sat on the floor. “You can smell it,” she said, staring up at Katerina.

Katerina joined her on the floor. “That’s stress for you,” she said, setting a paw on Eremia’s knee. “I’m pretty sure my period’s on the way. Or, not exactly a period, but I can relate.”

“What is that like?” Eremia said, raising an eyebrow. “Being in heat, that is.”

“Uncomfortable,” Katerina said, grimacing. “Painful, disorienting, gross, and distracting. I have to grin and bear it, I guess. Doesn’t make my job any easier.”

Eremia nodded. “I hope that neither of us have to do our jobs for much longer. He is close. We just need to catch up to him. I have confidence that we can do so.”


Chapter 36: A Quiet Place, Part 2 (1,083 words) some good old katerina angst

Spoiler! :
“Mhm,” Katerina said. A silence fell between the two of them. Not an uncomfortable or an awkward silence. It was the silence where everything that needed to be said had been said, everything that didn’t need to be was exchanged in ever glance or cough or nod, and the both of them could stretch their limbs and soak in the warmth of the fire in front of them. It was the kind of friendship that Eremia liked.

“Could you tell me about Exedor?” Katerina said. “You’ve explained it before, but I like to hear you talk about it.”

Marisol immediately scooted closer. She flopped onto the ground and rolled herself around, staring up at the two girls. “Yeah,” Marisol said. “I figure I might as well go see what this whole princess thing is all about before I go back to mom and dad.”

Smiling, Eremia set her palms on her knees. “It is a gorgeous country,” she said. “Though I have not had the privilege to see all of it, I admire the beauty and extent of the plains. It may have not been my ancestor’s homeland for two thousand years, but they did a remarkable job working with the eagles to cultivate it. Rolling hills, small villages, and eagles’ nests are my childhood, particularly when my parents tour the country. The palace in which they, and in which I, have lived is no less impressive.”

As she poured on details, Eremia couldn’t help but notice Marisol latch onto every word she said. It was a little odd to think about, that there’d been a time that Marisol had been hostile, harsh, uncomfortable about being around royalty. Mumbled words and attacks in practice duels that had hit just a little too hard had said as much. And now she seemed so much more friendly. No less sarcastic and biting, but that was Marisol. Eremia was tempted to chalk it up to her own charm, but not too many people found her charming. Perhaps it was another friendship, which was more reassuring to Eremia. She’d never been good at making friends. And here she was, entertaining them.

Hopefully she’d be able to keep them when the time came to go home.

******


Yorew lit the way through the inside of one of the city’s once great walls. The torch he kept steady in his raised hand caught rubble, bloodstains, ash, and rusted metal. He stepped over obstacles, looking back frequently to make sure the rest of the group followed.

Marisol wished he’d look back more often. It was hard enough trying to stay at the edge of the light when she had to throw herself over rocks and squeeze her way through gaps. Doing all that while trying to keep up with a man speeding his way through the path was even worse. The worst was also dealing with the musty air that smelled like rot, trying to dry out her lungs and suffocate her. She could guess what about their surroundings bothered him enough that he had to almost run away in his long, stiff strides (everything), but that didn’t mean she had to like it.

But then, the eagle in front of her stopped. The torchlight stayed in place. Looking over Aquila’s shoulder, Marisol saw a humungous pile of boulders in front of them, rising up into the darkness. While Iasquam shook his head and made to turn around and head back, Yorew set his torch between two rocks and stepped forward, yanking a small rock out of the right side of the blockade. With a sweep of his wings, Iasquam joined him. And then Eremia, peeking through the small crack that Yorew had made.

Finally, a chance. Squeezing past Aquila, Marisol tapped Katerina on the shoulder. “Can I talk to you for a-” Marisol began, stopping when the fox turned around.

Even in the shadows, it was easy to pick out Katerina’s red eyes and the twitch of her nose. The fox sniffled.

Grabbing Katerina’s paw, Marisol pulled her away to a spot behind a boulder bigger than the both of them. “Was gonna ask you somethin’,” Marisol said, rubbing the back of her neck. “But it looks like ya need someone to listen to ya instead of talkin’ to ya.”

“I’m sorry,” Katerina stammered, resting her head against Marisol’s shoulder. “I’ve been…thinking about things?”

Eugh, hopefully Katerina couldn’t see the blush that stung Marisol’s cheeks. Setting a hand on Katerina’s head, Marisol said, “What’s all this ‘bout? Somethin’ between you an’ Eremia?”

Katerina snorted. “I wish,” she said, sniffling a little bit more. Marisol briefly wondered how much snot someone with such a big snout could make, but decided it wouldn’t be wise to bring it up. “I’ve just…been coming to terms with what happened here.”

A memory slipped through Marisol’s mind. “Ohhhhh,” she said. “Ya used to live here, didn’t’cha?”

Katerina nodded her head. “I wasn’t that old when my parents sent me away to Wyandanch. For the first year or two, I thought they’d abandoned me, that they didn’t like me. I, get what they were thinking now - it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to work for royalty instead of slumming around as a farmer on some tiny island. No offense taken.”

Marisol bit back any snippy remark – it wouldn’t be helpful here. “Nah,” Marisol said. “’s fine. I can see why yer parents did it. It’s uh, kinda why mine pushed me ta join The Doves, if ya remember.”

“Yeah,” Katerina said. “I remember. I wish I’d been friendlier to you then, because it sounds like you were going through what took me years to get out of. But I was suspicious.”

“Like I was the friendliest person,” Marisol said. “And not at all a bit bitter and confused. ‘specially about Eremia.”

“She’s wonderful, isn’t she?” Katerina said. “Everything I could dream of – an actual princess who needs my help. And it would’ve been so nice to run here and find my friends and find the people who took care of me when my parents didn’t and say thanks, thanks for raising me, thanks for helping me learn to stand on my own feet, thanks for giving me a chance to live a meaningful life. And I don’t know why it took so long for me to realize it, but I don’t even know how many of them are alive right now. I, I don’t even know if my parents know I’m alive. It hurts.”


Chapter 36: A Quiet Place, Part 3 (1,037 words) everything but the end of this sucks, eugh

Spoiler! :

Marisol paused, then patted Katerina on the shoulder. “That sucks,” Marisol said. “Good thing I’m kinda in the same boat.”

Wiping a couple tears from one eye, Katerina sniffled, a smile at the edge of her mouth. “We did employ your parents to send you off to a war zone.”

“They were ‘fraid,” Marisol said. She crossed her arms. “Had good reason to, but I ain’t lookin’ forward to the day I come back and find out they thought I was dead.”

Katerina nodded. “Neither am I?”

“And I ain’t even a stranger to s*** like this,” Marisol went on. “Livin’ between all these f***in’ kings and queens runnin’ us over, I’ve lost a lot of people I know. Ya never know just when some raid’s gonna kill off that neighbor’s family and burn their house down. It wasn’t fun.”

“No kidding,” Katerina said. “It explains your…hostility over monarchs.”

Marisol nodded dramatically. “Mhm,” she said, “The f***ers can p*** right off.”

“But our princess appears to be something of an exception?” Katerina said, tilting her head.

Marisol looked towards the rock pile, where Yorew was desperately trying to hold some of the larger boulders up. Iasquam and Aqulia tossed rocks back to Eremia, who threw them onto the ground some distance away. She didn’t appear to have noticed the conversation, if her concentrated expression and sweat were any indicator. Good.

“Is that who you wanted to talk about?” said Katerina. She blinked the last few tears from her eyes, her voice sounding less scratchy.

Turning back, Marisol quickly shook her head. “No,” she said, before pausing. “Not ‘xactly.”

“What do you mean by that?” Katerina said, leaning up against a larger rock.

Marisol sighed. Of course she’d have to explain. Why couldn’t she live in a world where people understood her awkward gestures and lack of eye contact?

“Okay,” Marisol said. “Do you remember that conversation we had once? When you were freakin’ about somethin’ or other and I helped ya settle down?”

Katerina shook her head.

Sighing, Marisol said, “At the end ya said that we’re girlfriends now, and I said it ain’t quite like that. Well, it turns out it’s kinda like that.”

Katerina blinked. “Um,” she said. “I’m flattered, but-”

A squawking noise cut through the conversation, causing Marisol and Katerina to whirl around. Apparently Aquila had underestimated the weight of one of the stones; the eagle slumped back as he tried to carry the oversized block against his chest. Iasquam flapped his wings, probably to see how much he could move them in such a small space, then reached them out to help Aquila. And, again, Eremia was too distracted by the commotion to notice the conversation going on behind her.

“No!” Marisol said, looking away when Katerina refocused on her. “I mean, ya ain’t a bad friend, and ya got all that soft fur and stuff goin’ for ya. But I’m talkin’ about not bein’ a fan of dudes.”

“Oh,” Katerina said. She blinked a few times, then smiled. “You could’ve just told me that you were gay,” she said.

Marisol pulled her arms behind her head, stretching them out. “Yeah,” she said. “Could’ve totally done it if it didn’t take me ‘till recently to put it together. There were plenty a’ boys in the village, an’ I just thought they were all dumb and boring as s***. And then I got pulled into The Doves and ran into all a’ these intelligent and strong and beautiful girls, and that’s when I started ta think about things.”
Reaching out her arms, Katerina hugged Marisol. “That’s wonderful!” she said. “It’s nice that you’re understanding yourself better, especially when it comes to who you love. I hope you find an absolutely incredible partner who gives you the respect you deserve. You have always been a considerate person.”

“Yeah,” Marisol said, her arms flopping down to her sides. “But, y’know, was kinda hopin’ I ain’t the only person here who’s gay.”

Katerina looked up at Marisol, realization dawning on her face. But, before Katerina could say something about it, a beam of light cut through the darkness around them. If it wasn’t for how cloudy it still was in the city, it would’ve definitely blinded them. It did catch Marisol off guard, however. The smells and sights of Wyandanch rushed back into her senses, suffocating her. The blood, the rubble that the rest of the group had tossed aside, the debris scattered across the ground. Marisol hoped she’d never have to visit a place like this again.

Letting go of Marisol and turning around, Katerina ran up to and embraced Eremia as the latter approached. Returning the hug, Eremia looked over Katerina’s shoulder to focus on Marisol.

“Are you well?” Eremia said. “The both of you seem rather distracted by whatever you were conversing about, and while I am perfectly content to assist in the work of clearing out a path, or do so myself, I would rather know that it is a path you would still like to travel.”

Marisol shrugged. “Yeah,” she said. “Katerina used to live here, so I was tryin’ to make her feel better ‘bout things.”

“Ah,” Eremia said, looking down at Katerina. “In that case, I suppose I have a few questions of my own. In the meantime, we had best be going.”

And, sure enough, as the rest of the group filtered its way through the large hole they had knocked out of the wall, Eremia and Katerina whispered to each other. Snippets of conversation drifted back Marisol’s ears – royalty and childhood friends and favorite books – but she tried her best to ignore it. Hands shoved into her pockets (with her scythe set in her back pocket), she whistled nonchalantly as the group walked out into the destroyed city. Part of her was relieved; all they needed to do was find a section of the wall that led to the outside world and they’d be free of the disturbing place. On the other hand, they’d be heading to an even creepier one, full of the voices of the dead.

Above all, Marisol tried her best to pretend that she didn’t want to be the one in Eremia’s arms.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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Sun Mar 03, 2019 5:54 am
TheSilverFox says...



I need to sleep but I just reached my character limit so it's time for

LMS Writing Part XVI


Chapter 37: Hollow, Part 1 (1,062 words) borb chat

Spoiler! :
Iasquam still couldn’t wrap his head around flying.

Even the concept confused him. If he just flapped his arms enough times, his feathers and his hollow bones would pick him up off the ground? He knew that he didn’t weigh that much, and he knew that his body was built for flying, but actually taking off felt more like he was using his own willpower than anything else. And, given how afraid he’d been of flying for all of these years, that wasn’t far from the truth.

At least Aquila was there to make Iasquam feel a little less absurd. Iasquam had the strength to not have to run and jump into the air first, which the hawk always found funny. Not so funny in the sense that Aquila wasn’t all eagle, admittedly. Aquila had said both his parents had human ancestors; it was apparently common for humans and eagles to intermarry in towns near their respective areas. But it never failed to entertain Iasquam to hear Aquila squawk and see the eagle’s wings flap at odd angles before Aquila took off in the third or fourth jump.

And Aquila didn’t need to run all the time – only when he wanted to build up the momentum to soar up to a high enough height. Which, in The Pillars, was of the essence.

So the hawk found himself following the eagle as they weaved around the black hexagons, trying to ignore the whispers that crowded around his ears. No matter how far above the ground he was, or how far away he was from any given pillar, his ears were good enough to snatch bits and pieces of conversations, prayers, screams, tears. How could the humans stand it? Their ears were so much worse, but even they couldn’t be able to tune the voices out. Those voices filled him with an urgency that tugged at his heart, stretched out his wings, and made Aquila look that much farther away. With every graceful swoop of the eagle’s, the hawk found himself flapping and swinging up and down.

Iasquam was more than relieved when Aquila ultimately spiraled to the right and disappear into the side of one of the Pillars. Raising his wings up, Iasquam slowed down enough to see the black wall sink in, revealing a small cave. The hawk plunged down, landing not far from the edge of the cave, claws scraping against the hard ground. Wincing as he heard one of those claws fracture, Iasquam pressed his wings against the back end of the small cave. He breathed a sigh of relief as he stopped; at least he didn’t slam into something this time.

“Great job!” said Aquila. Sitting on the floor of the cave, he crossed his legs as he stared out into the landscape around them. “You didn’t even need to use your whole hawk form this time.”

Taking a few deep breaths, Iasquam turned around and nodded. “Would certainly not like to be up here, though,” he said, walking up to Aquila and sitting down beside him.

“Yeah,” Aquila said. He gestured to the black rocks that shot through the blue sky in front of them. As far as they could see, no matter where they could see, at least one Pillar broke through the ground and climbed up into the sky, disappearing in the white haze that hovered over the birds’ heads. If it weren’t for the space between The Pillars, it would’ve looked like they were staring into darkness. As it was, they could only distinguish a little bit of sky, as well as the brown earth that criss-crossed The Pillars.

The effect was disorienting – it was like Iasquam was dreaming, or the sun had decided to shut off. Wyandanch couldn’t have looked so weird and so abandoned. There had still been people there. There had been humans and rats and other creatures rummaging around through the debris and ruins. Nothing lived in The Pillars. Nothing living, anyways. The voices hadn’t gotten any quieter.

“How hard do you think it would be to find it?” Iasquam said. He imitated Aquila, crossing his legs, looking out at The Pillars, and desperately trying to ignore the voices (he had to assume the eagle was doing the same, given that eagle’s odd glances and frowns). “I imagine it would keep to the ground more, and the sky isn’t exactly a convenient place do our search when we’re here, of all places.”

Aquila hesitated. “The lady asked us to do this,” he said. “And hey, our eyes work pretty well. Even if this thing uses darkness, we can probably pick up on anything out of the ordinary from here, and we have more to look at than the humans do.”

Iasquam nodded. “That makes sense,” he said, before looking down at Aquila. “Perhaps I should rephrase this – I am uncomfortable here.”

“Yeah,” Aquila said. He reached a wing back and scratched the back of his neck. “I kinda feel the same way. This place is so creepy, and something feels…wrong.”

“Precisely,” Iasquam said. Standing up, he grabbed onto the edge of the cave and leaned forward. “And not even in the sense of these peculiar voices, though I am not a fan of them either. It seems as though there is some kind of presence hanging in the air, and it does not like us.”

“The lady is on edge,” said Aquila. “I think she said she was having nightmares? She didn’t say much more than that.”

Iasquam paused. “You have a lot of respect for Eremia,” he said. “You’re very devoted. And I’m not saying that to complain – you did fight with me over her, but you also taught me how to fly under the idea that we would be working together. And I worry it’s rude to ask, but I’ve never quite figured it out; what exactly do you see in her?”

For a few seconds, Iasquam thought that worry was right. The longer that a pause settled over them, replaced by the white noise of the voices, he could feel his heart racing.

“She cares about me,” Aquila said at last, quietly. “She might be one of the people I was sworn to serve, but she also tried to help me escape when The Doves took me hostage. Doing what she says is the least I can do.”


Chapter 37: Hollow, Part 2 (1,153 words) Eremia: what is the fanciest way I can say no

Spoiler! :

“Hmm,” Iasquam said. “She tends to bring that out in people, I’ve noticed.”

Aquila nodded. “She’s very fierce. She holds on to what she believes in and fights for it. It’s a little scary, but I kinda want to be like that sometimes. It would’ve made being a hybrid kid a bit better.”

Iasquam paused, staring at one of the nearby pillars as he tried to think of a response. “And what was that like?” he said. “If it would not be rude to ask.”

“It’s fine,” said Aquila, shaking his head. “We’re friends, it’s something I can feel comfortable talking about. But yeah, it wasn’t all that bad? Both sides of my family had humans and eagles – it was just a thing that happened. I know a lot of kids in my town who were the same way, and we got along pretty well. It only got kinda bad when I went to work for the King.”

The hawk nodded. “And I imagine that they were not so tolerant?”

Letting out something like a slow squawk, Aquila focused on the ground between his legs. “Yes and no? It wasn’t really obvious. It was ‘do this job that none of us like’ or ‘why are you so slow’ or ‘aren’t you supposed to be named after the king?’ But yeah, I knew what it was all about. It was kinda depressing to go through every day.”

“At least you’ve done a remarkable job in the lady’s service,” Iasquam said.

Aquila nodded his head eagerly. “Yeah!” he said, looking up at Iasquam. “She doesn’t treat me like I’m crap. Sometimes she gets angry or frustrated, but it’s usually because of how screwed up everything is, and she likes to make sure I’m doing okay and that everything’s alright.”

“That has also been my experience,” Iasquam said. “Even though I have not been her trainer as much as I would like. I do not dislike these scouting missions, particularly as you have always been friendly company, but I would rather like-”

He heard the eagle make a squeaking noise. Instinctively, Iasquam whirled around, staring into the darkness of the cave behind him.

A few seconds later, a pair of white pupils appeared just over his head.


******



The voices sounded worse than usual. Which was saying something.

It wasn’t that they were any angrier or sadder or more emotional than usual. For lack of a better word, they sounded distorted. It was like Eremia was listening to a conversation coming from the other side of a brick wall that only grew thicker with every step. Screams turned into hisses, growls turned into murmurs, sobs turned into whispers. All these noises climbed out of her hearing, rising and sinking into oblivion. Maybe it was more of a mirror, but for sound – reflecting everything away from it.

Well, not everything. Something crawled around at the edge of her hearing, unbothered by whatever was driving the voices away. She had a good guess as to what it was.

Eremia ran her hands through her hair, trying to smooth out knots and brush away dust. She knew she looked like a mess. The wind and weather had started to tear holes in her clothes, dry out her hair, burn her skin, and otherwise make her look about as miserable as she felt. She knew the others were concerned about her. Even with the few supplies that Alarick had reluctantly let them take, she knew she could’ve used that comb, pulled out that gauze, eaten more of that food, have Yorew sew patches over the cuts in her robes.

But she didn’t see the point in it. She was so close to finding him. She couldn’t stop now. She couldn’t let herself waste her time to turn to trivialities. Maybe the others could, and they had every reason to do so – she didn’t want any of them to be hurt, or that would defeat the point of trying to save her brother. But she wanted to save her brother.

That little voice spiked in intensity, turning into a howl. Eremia stopped, pressing her hands to her temples as she slammed her eyes shut. She needed to focus. She needed to know where it was coming from. She needed to know if it was coming to her. She-

Eremia felt hands on her shoulders. “Hey?” Marisol said. Her voice sounded scratchy and sore; they’d run low on water not long ago. It was also on edge, shaking ever so slightly as Marisol’s hands did. “What’s wrong?”

“One second,” Eremia said, a little more angrily than she would’ve liked. “It is close. This might be our only chance to face it. You hear that noise, yes? The screeching one? I just need some quiet, so that I might be able to-”

“Look for me? You shouldn’t have.”

Eremia opened her eyes in time for a massive dark hand to slam into her and Marisol. They flew back, Eremia colliding into Yorew as Marisol knocked over Katerina. The four slammed into the ground, kicking up dust.

Waving it out of her face, Eremia growled as she pulled herself off of Yorew, who coughed and mumbled something (he sounded pained). Her chest ached as she fought for breath, using sheer hatred to get onto her feet and glare down at the creature who walked up to her.

“Foolish little girl,” it said, tapping her on the forehead. “You are ever so persistent.”

“And you are ever so afraid,” Eremia replied, standing up straight and crossing her arms.

It laughed a hollow, ringing laugh that somehow echoed through the pillars around them. Eremia tried not to wince.

“Now, why on Fayne would I be afraid of you?” it said at last. “My dear, I am a strategist. I cannot keep myself tied to one place. I have places to be, people to meet, and wars to fight. Why such a persistent brat as yourself should ever possibly vex me is quite a mystery.”

“Because you tried to kill me,” Eremia said, slapping its hand aside. “And you failed. I do not think you like to fail. I do not think you are used to failing. And, by all accounts, you certainly did not expect to be followed out of this city.

A frown flickered across its face. Then it went back to grinning. “Because your death had some utility to me, girl,” it said. “Understand that I have little intention to kill – it is a messy proposition, and always one that attracts enemies. But eliminating both of the children of Exedor in one fell swoop, implicating The Doves and Eimhin both? I would have been a fool to ignore such an opportunity. And now, I am afraid, you have no such use to me. Thus, I would like to humbly request that you leave me to my business, or I will kill you. Is this acceptable?”


Chapter 37: Hollow, Part 3 (1,004 words) when in doubt, punch god

Spoiler! :
Eremia thought for a few seconds. “No,” she said. “I would rather not die.”

“That is truly unfortunate,” it said. Taking a step back, it grinned. “Could this change your mind?”

With a snap of his fingers, a sphere of darkness sprouted into existence between it and Eremia. It disappeared just as quickly, spitting out a hawk and an eagle that sprawled out onto the ground. Their limbs and breaths trembled, slowly fading out.

Eremia ran up to them, crouching beside Aquila. It laughed as she pressed a couple fingers against the side of Aquila’s neck. “There is no need to check,” it said. “They are already-”

“Alive,” Eremia said. She pulled herself onto her feet. Behind her, Marisol and Katerina reached out and grabbed one of the birds, yanking them away from it. “What a stupid bluff. How much of an idiot do you think I have to be, and why would you have reason to lie to me?”

It cracked its knuckles. “This is a waste of my time,” it said. “I have rarely met a creature so antagonistic and frustrating as you. I had assumed that I could scare you away – most royalty, particularly the sheltered ones, are cowards at heart. Join them; run to fight another day.”

“You have my brother,” Eremia said, emphasizing each word. “I would like him back.”

“Would if I could,” it said. It threw up its arms. “Can you imagine how irritating it is to run around with these tiny limbs? To listen to that whiny little voice in my head? To speak with this scratchy voice? It seems to make me more intimidating, for reasons I cannot imagine, but I despise him more than I despise you.”

Its voice sounded more screechy and warped than normal, but Eremia got the message. “That would be a no, then,” she said. She glanced back to see the others – Yorew included, though he was pressing a hand against one of his ribs – a step behind her. She smiled faintly.

“That would be a no, yes,” it repeated.

Eremia crossed her arms. “Somehow, I have my doubts,” she said. “You appear to be capable of controlling bodies. What would stop you from, say, possessing me?”

If it wasn’t for the creature in front of them, Marisol would’ve walked up and whispered in Eremia’s ear to stop doing whatever she had planned. And Marisol wouldn’t be wrong (which was the part Eremia liked – Marisol was usually right), but Eremia was so close. So close to getting her brother back. So close to driving off whatever thing had taken control of him. And if that meant provoking it into action or a deal, so be it.

“Quite a lot,” it said, leaning forward. “But why should I tell you?”

“What would it take for I to be your vessel, as opposed to him?” Eremia said.

It paused, mouth agape. Then it started laughing.

“My dear,” it spat, “It is not that simple! I admire this notion of self-sacrifice, but the fact of the matter if that it is certainly not a deal we could arrange immediately, even if we wanted to. Which I certainly do not. Having your voice in my head instead of this brat’s would be infinitely worse.”

Eremia raised her fists. “That is truly unfortunate,” she said.

“And you are hardly innocent enough of a person to not conspire against me if we make this deal,” it said, staring through her eyes and ignoring her fists. “You know too much, dear. You know enough about me that I must imagine the machinations that are your mind are already plotting to destroy me. As though you could possibly tear me from such a small, worthless-”

Eremia punched it in the face.

She winced as it staggered back, clutching its chin. Jonah had to have felt that. She had always threatened to hit him after his stunts and games, but hadn’t ever acted on it. Not that she felt particularly sorry about hitting the creature in Jonah’s body. Nor would that stop her from doing it again.

“Fine,” it growled. Darkness swallowed up its feet, swelled from the sleeves of its shirt, and started to wrap around its head. “I have been patient, and I have been tolerant, and I have spent far more time trying to dissuade you than I could have taking care of the problem. If you petty, miserable, insignificant creatures would just cower like you are supposed to, my job would be far easier. But no, you are determined to be a thorn in my side, and it is obvious you have the resources to do so. Would you like to take his place? You will!”

The darkness swirled, surrounding it and expanding outwards. The figure of a man rose up and gripped the pillars around it. It glared down at Eremia, hatred seeping through its nonexistent face and its growing limbs as they tightened their grip on the pillars, cracking the stone. It was a bizarre darkness – almost like it was taking in all the light around it. Eremia couldn’t see where it began or ended. The last few times that she had seen it had been in the night, in the smoke, anywhere but a sunny and open place. It was about that moment that she realized how much danger she was in.

That didn’t stop her from waving off the others, returning the glare, and raising her fists higher. What did she have to live for? The others had families, homes, livelihoods. If she came back without her brother, her parents would grieve and hide away, her country would go to war, and everything she had been raised to do would fall to pieces. Better to die trying.

It pulled back an arm, smashing into and through one the pillars. “Goodbye!” it said. The voice made goosebumps appear on Eremia’s skin, pulled at her hair, and filled every part of her body with the overwhelming instinct to run away. She wouldn’t move.


Chapter 37: Hollow, Part 4 (855 words) reach heaven through violence (why are you reading this instead of kill six billion demons)

Spoiler! :
It hurled the fist at Eremia. Her vision withered way, darkness eating at its edges as the fist plummeted towards her face. She wouldn’t move.

She could hear Marisol swearing at her, Katerina and Iasquam calling for her, Aquila flapping his wings, and Yorew trying to run up to grab her. She wouldn’t move.

Its fist almost on top of her, Eremia threw her own punch.

For a second, she was sure she had died. A brilliant flash of light blinded her, tinging her eyes blue. A faint roaring noise rushed past her ears, while a gentle warmth raced along her skin. Other than that, she couldn’t feel anything. She didn’t feel the weight of the earth against her back; she couldn’t see if dirt and blood caked her clothes; she couldn’t make out the kinks and clods of dirt buried in her hair; she couldn’t even tell if she’d landed the punch. In that moment, she felt free. Free from all her obligations, her worries, her fears. Her mind was a blank slate, only held together by the idea that she’d done it. She’d stood up for herself. And hopefully she’d be reunited with her brother.

Then something grabbed onto her hand. Eremia tried to shake it off, but it only grew tighter. She frowned. That was odd. Why couldn’t she see it? She knew it was there – it was persistent enough.

“Eremia, run!”

The world crashed back into place. Eremia’s ears rang, but still caught the roar of crumbling stone around her. Spots of color sprouted back into her eyes and traced out the faint shape of a girl pulling her along. Without thinking, Eremia started to run. Her entire body throbbed with every step, like she had just been hit by a pile of bricks. The warmth that ran over her skin – she swore she could see steam coming off of her arms – made her feel like she’d been cooked alive. But the smells of the dust and ash that wrapped around her throat kept her going.

A memory flashed into Eremia’s mind. Her vision coming back to her, Eremia glanced back to see Iasquam and Yorew darting between Pillars, running away from the ruins of what had been the fight. She knew it had to have been where the fight had been, thanks to the giant hole in the ground, the scratches and holes that littered the surrounding Pillars, and the small creature trying to pull itself onto its feet.

“Jonah!” she shouted, trying to pull against the arm that kept her moving. The figure she stared at pulled itself onto its feet, flecks of darkness peeling off its skin and rising into the air. But she could see that blood-splattered hair, those shredded black clothes, the absolutely furious expression shot in her direction. It was just like whenever she caught him doing something stupid. He had always had that murderous little stare on his face, the one that he thought was more intimidating than it actually was. Their mom had thought it was adorable.

“That ain’t him!” said Marisol. Eremia grit her teeth as the grip on her hand tightened, nails digging into her skin and drawing blood. Why was Marisol doing this? That had to be Jonah. Something weird had happened, and Eremia didn’t know what it was, but she was alive. It had to have done something wrong. It had to have lost. Why were they running away?

Eremia reached her other hand back. Far away as they were, she still swore she could see the figure extend its own hand. Eremia’s heart sank when she heard the tremendous crunching noise over her head. One of the Pillars toppled, aiming straight for the figure. The figure shouted something just out of the range of her hearing (the roar buried all the other sounds in her battered ears), but didn’t move. She saw the figure raise its hands up right before the Pillar slammed down onto it, Marisol pulling her behind another Pillar right before the collision.

“No!” she screamed over the Pillar’s crashing and breaking to pieces. “No! No! No!” She swung a fist at the stone behind her and ignored the pain that shot through her hands. She’d been so close. She’d been so close.

“Eremia-” Marisol started to say, but Eremia was done listening to anyone else. She ripped her hand free from Marisol’s, running around the Pillar and towards the dust cloud that had just been kicked up. Eremia desperately tried to wave it aside and catch some glimpse of Jonah. Anything, any sign of him, any sign that he was okay.

And then she stopped, taking in a few deep breaths of ash and dust. She couldn’t move. Something tugged at her chest.

Falling onto her knees, Eremia drew in a shaky breath and hacked. Drops of blood spilled onto the ground, staining the earth and mixing with the ash. Her eyes grew wide.

“What happened to me?” she mumbled, clutching her chest and leaning forward. While she could hear her friends running towards her, she flopped onto the ground, vision fading to black.


Chapter 38: Center of the World, Part 1 (171 words) she's not looking too good

Spoiler! :

“What happened to her?” Yorew said. Breaths ragged, he caught up to Marisol and Katerina, who had just picked Eremia off the ground.

Marisol, holding Eremia by the legs, shrugged. “If I had to say,” she said, “She just got roasted.” What followed was bark or screech that Yorew was reasonably sure he was supposed to take for a laugh. How Katerina could make that noise, he wasn’t sure.

“We’d better run,” Iasquam said, swooping down in front of the others. Aquila landed beside him. “Aquila and I checked, but we’re not sure if it’s alive.”

“Where’re we gonna go?” Marisol said.

Iasquam tilted his head. “Where The Doves are,” he said.

Holding Eremia’s head, Katerina hissed. “But we can’t possibly make it!” she said. “Eremia’s too injured, we don’t have the resources, and-”

“Wyandanch is a pile of rubble,” Iasquam shot back, voice much deeper than Yorew had ever remembered. “We have no other choice. We’ll have to heal her as best we can and pray that we make it.”


Chapter 38: Center of the World, Part 2 (1011 words): yeet skeet move those feet

Spoiler! :

Katerina and Marisol turned their heads to Iasquam and nodded. Aquila, after a few glances at Eremia’s body, joined them. Iasquam looked over at Yorew, who’d been silent and still.

The hawk froze.

Iasquam had never gotten the hang of Yorew’s expressions. Even Iasquam’s vision couldn’t always piece together the little movements, twitches, breaths, and darting eyes buried in an emotionless face. Eremia could place his emotions better, but she had experience. But even she admitted that whatever Yorew did feel, he was remarkably good at hiding it. Well, except for now. Terror had crawled its way into Yorew’s gaping mouth and wide eyes. It flushed his cheeks, wiped out wrinkles, and pulled his arms behind the back of his head.

And, when Iasquam moved, so did Yorew.

Taking a step forward, Iasquam reached a wing out too late for the blur that was Yorew to run between the Pillars, kicking up a cloud of dust behind him for a few seconds.

“Yorew!” Marisol shouted. “F***er! What’re you doing? Get back here, you a**hole! Katerina and I can’t carry her big butt alone!”

The hawk shook his head. “I’ll bring him back,” he said.

Marisol stared out over the Pillars, focusing on Yorew’s footsteps. “How?” she said after a minute. “Dude’s a f***ing brick, and I’m pretty sure ya can’t just carry him back here if he doesn’t wanna go.”

“If I have to carry him,” Iasquam said, throwing his head back to make himself look more confident than he felt, “Then I will do so.”

Spreading his wings, the hawk took a couple of deep breaths and took off.

Fortunately, it didn’t take him too long to find Yorew. Beyond the obvious footsteps – almost nobody willingly walked through The Pillars, especially not at the center of them – Yorew hadn’t picked a spot too far away to hide. As Iasquam beat his wings softly, descending beside the Pillar that Yorew sat against, the hawk couldn’t help but sympathize. Yorew had taken care of Eremia for years; even now, he wasn’t going to outright abandon her.

“I suppose that’s it, then,” Yorew said. He wrapped his arms around his legs to pull his head against his knees, then pressed his hands against his temples. One eye caught Iasquam try to land as gracefully as he could. One broken claw just barely missed the ground, causing the hawk to spend a few seconds waving claws and wings around until he landed.

Iasquam raised his head, pretending that Yorew hadn’t noticed the spectacle at all. “What is?” Iasquam said, head tilted.

Yorew stared at the torn, bloody fabric on his knees. “Everything,” he said. “The lives of the people I was sworn to protect. My service. My profession. To say nothing of starving here in the middle of nowhere.”

A wing made its way around Yorew’s back, covering him as best it could. Sitting down beside Yorew, Iasquam rested his head against Yorew’s and closed his eyes. “You did as best as you could do,” Iasquam said. “What happened was entirely beyond your-”

“It was not,” said Yorew, a surprising amount of venom dripping in his voice.

Iasquam frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Had I chosen to ignore Jonah, none of this would have happened. He loved to concoct ways to escape from the castle – impersonating someone, stabbing a guard, hiding in the shipments of food that came to and from the castle’s storage, causing some accident that would distract his parents and the guards long enough for him to escape. Each was sillier and more complicated than the last, and he believed that I was indispensable to all of them. And I rejected all of them, of course – it would be beyond my duties to risk the health of the royal children like so.”

“What changed?” Iasquam opened his eyes, trying to stare into Yorew’s.

Yorew looked away, the corners of his face blending into the stone. “He did,” Yorew said. “With every day, he grew more angry, more petulant, more eager to run away. I had chalked it up to his growing – our bodies, as you might remember, never quite enjoy those years.” A faint smile appeared and disappeared in an instant. “But his bloodlust worsened. A runaway became a criminal, a criminal became a criminal lord, a criminal lord became a mastermind that would topple his parents and grant him the throne. Eremia never had such ambition or hatred in her heart, though perhaps it was because she full-well knew she was the heir. What reason did she have to rebel?”

“Their parents were playing favorites?” Iasquam said.

“Of course,” Yorew said. “One must if one is to either find or create a suitable heir. But it left him bitter and fuming, and it was obvious he would try to do something hazardous to either himself, his sister, his mother, or his father. So, when he proposed yet another plan to escape, I relented. I would see to it that he would make his way into the outside world, figure out how vastly different it was from the expectations of a sheltered child, and suppress whatever fire raged inside him.” He swept an arm out at the Pillars around him and Iasquam. “And that did not work as I had planned. One or both of them appear to be dead, the Confederacy is in tatters, and Exedor is in danger. All because I believed I could teach him a lesson.”

A heavy silence fell over them. Iasquam stared down as his claws. His mud-covered, cracked claws. But they were his claws. They were the claws that he had covered in mud and broken over something that he’d never believed he could do only a couple months ago.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think you might be selling yourself too short. Perhaps that past you did what he believed was best. It was not necessarily the wisest action, but it was what you considered to be the wisest. And, well, it’s not as thought you could have predicted any of this.”


Chapter 38: Center of the World, Part 3 (1017 words): yeet skeet get hit by box

Spoiler! :
Iasquam swore he could see a smile on Yorew’s lips. “No,” Yorew said, “I suppose not. No one could have. We barely know what happened in the first place.”

Both fell silent. Iasquam knew Yorew was right, and Yorew appeared lost in thought – the man nodded, blinked, and stared at the ground for a couple minutes.

Yorew pulled himself up, brushing dust off his clothes. “And I suppose we must make do with what he have,” he said, reaching out a hand to lift Iasquam up.

The hawk took it, watching Yorew effortlessly set him on his feet. Yorew moved a hand to Iasquam’s shoulder. “I should have said this sooner,” said Yorew, “But I do remember you. I do remember your sister. We did not fight together, but she was a fine hawk. As are you.”

Iasquam desperately tried to ignore the ruffle in his feathers at the comment. It was strange to hear, not only because it had been Yorew giving a compliment, but it didn’t feel like he was tying that compliment to Iasquam’s sister. Everyone had compared Iasquam and his sister – his sister had had too large of a reputation for him not to be caught in her shadow. But Yorew was praising Iasquam for his own merits. That felt nice.

“Thanks,” Iasquam stammered out. “It’s, it’s just good to see you back to your, your normal self.” He didn’t want to point out Yorew’s monotone voice or blank expression, even if they were refreshing to see.

As Yorew stared to walk back the way he’d come, he shook his head. “No,” he said. “I am not, nor will I be for some time. But I have no concrete reason to believe my lady is dead, and I will see to it that she lives.”

“What about yourself?” Iasquam said, running after Yorew.

“I had my own life before I swore fealty to that family,” Yorew said. “I suppose will have my own life back, should worst come to worst. What other choice do I have? I have too many friends and loved ones to die yet.”

A thought slipped into Iasquam’s mind as he caught up to Yorew. “And Madeleine?” he said, before he knew what he was saying. He regretted the question as soon as it left his beak.

Yorew only took a few seconds to answer. “We will talk,” he said. “I imagine we will have much to talk about.”

******


Marisol was exhausted.

Not from carrying Eremia – as soon as Yorew and Iasquam had come back, she’d gladly let them take Katerina’s place. That left those two carrying most of the weight (which was good, since Eremia wasn’t exactly that light).

No, Marisol was exhausted. The Pillars were larger than she had ever thought, and she’d lived close enough to see them all of her life. Then again, being inside them was an entirely different story. They were a labyrinth of black stone, dotting the dull landscape in hexagons. She’d been walking for almost a day without food or sleep, and yet couldn’t see any sign that they were almost at the other side. Her sandals were falling apart, her stomach ached and groaned with every step, and she swore she could almost understand why Eremia liked the voices that now crowded into her head.
None of the others were faring any better. Katerina barely looked up from the ground anymore, and she hadn’t tried to clean her matted and dirty fur in a long time. It was hard to tell what Yorew was going through, but his eyes seemed to be sinking even further into his skull. The birds were slightly better off – at least they could fly instead of having to walk, and the winds that howled around The Pillars kept them flying – but it was obvious that even they wouldn’t be able to keep going much longer. When they walked, both of them dragged their claws along the around. They weren’t flying nearly as often as they used to, and Marisol figured it wouldn’t be long before they stopped flying altogether.

And Eremia was still out cold. At least Eremia looked comfortable enough – she snored a little bit as the others carried her along, completely oblivious to whatever way she was jostled or pushed around or accidentally thrown onto the ground (Marisol blamed Katerina for standing in the way). Katerina said it was just an overuse of magic, and that Eremia would wake up eventually. That didn’t comfort Marisol too much, mostly because Katerina didn’t know what kind of magic Eremia had used to stopped that thing. It had been far too bright and noisy for Marisol to tell either.

Marisol stared up at the sky, looking past Eremia’s feet to catch sight of the edges of some of the smaller Pillars. She wondered if that was where the voices of the dead came from. Or perhaps the dead themselves. In any case, she could almost start the understand the conversations now – words between friends, shouts between enemies, hints and rumors tossed around in a cacophony of screaming. The screaming was understandable; if she was stuck on a tall pillar for the rest of time, she’d probably be screaming too. But, at the same time, she couldn’t help but get the feeling it was thousands of voices blending together. And, if hearing the kingdom’s name all the time was anything to go by, Wyandanch was at the heart of it.

She was tired of Wyandanch. She was tired of hearing about Wyandanch. She was tired of thinking about Wyandanch. Whether the King was dead or not, he’d done a really s****y job managing it. Why was that supposed to be the problem? Katerina losing her friends sucked; Eremia losing her brother really sucked. A king who lost his job because he was so bad at it wasn’t on Marisol’s list of concerns, and Marisol was more than happy to see Iasquam dropping down from the sky, distracting her from hearing Wielde’s name in the wind.

Which also meant that Marisol spotted the object that Iasquam had dropped.


Chapter 38: Center of the World, Part 4 (551 words): holy crap I'm almost done with this novel

Spoiler! :

“I’ve got it!” Marisol said. She raised her hands, watching the box grow larger and larger as it plummeted towards her. By the time she realized that she’d made a mistake – no wonder Yorew and Katerina were running towards her – her fingers barely caught the edges of a wicker basket. Which then slipped free.

The basket slammed Marisol in the face, slipping down towards her chest. While Marisol let out a steady stream of swears, a pair of paws snagged the basket from her.

“What the f*** was that for?” growled Marisol, pressing a palm against the bump growing on her forehead. She glared at Iasquam, who was looping his way to the ground.

Katerina, meanwhile, gingerly reached up and plucked something out of Marisol’s hair. The fox held out a note in the sunlight, staring at the neat writing. “Some kind of note?” Katerina said.

“I got that,” Marisol snapped. She stood next to Katerina and peered over her shoulder, squinting at the letters. Being around a book nerd like Eremia long enough meant that Marisol could kinda make out specific words – pronouns, a name or two – but she couldn’t piece the rest. Marisol frowned, watching Katerina’s eyes dart across the page. “Well?” Marisol said eventually. “What is it?”

“A gift,” Iasquam said. Marisol felt goosebumps as she stared up to see the hawk standing over them. How long had he been there? How had she not heard him land? “From our favorite commander. And you should not have been standing under it.”

Letting out a breath of relief, Katerina handed the letter over to Yorew, who now stood in front of them. “He says it isn’t much, and he isn’t quite sure if we’re still alive, but he wanted to leave something behind that would be useful for us. It seems he has some respect for Eremia, strangely enough.”

Marisol peered over at the wicker basket. “Wait, does that mean there’s food?” she said, tugging at the edges of the brown paper.

Smacking Marisol’s hand away, Katerina sighed and said, “Don’t get greedy. We need to wait for Aquila to get here first.”

The hawk pointed to a speck in a distance, darting between pillars and diving towards them. “And that should be him,” Iasquam said. “With the other gift, I should hope.”

Pushing Katerina out of the way, Marisol ran ahead. She wrapped her arms around the eagle after he landed on the ground and shifted back to his bipedal form. Aquila croaked, moving the basket to his side so it wouldn’t be crushed.
“F***, we’re okay,” Marisol whispered. She turned her head back as the others walked over. “We’re okay, right?” she said.

Katerina smiled and held up her basket. “We’re okay.”

A faint smile made its way to Yorew’s lips. “I daresay that we can escape this wretched place,” he said.

Even the hawk started to smile as Marisol let go of Aquila, blinking tears out of her eyes. “Thank f***,” Marisol said, sniffling. “That f***ing smug a** did something right for once.”

The fox tugged open the paper in her basket. Dragging out burnt biscuits, wilted cabbages, and gray meat, she licked her lips. “And now we can thank him in person,” she said, setting the paper and its contents onto the ground. “Let’s eat.”


Chapter 39: Burnt Offering, Part 1 (456 words): one last dream sequence

Spoiler! :
Eremia sat in the darkness.

She didn’t know how long she’d been sitting for – it felt like forever. And yet, she didn’t feel like standing up. There wasn’t anything to see. No wind ruffled her hair or her clothes. She swore she could smell something burning, but she didn’t feel any pain at all. When she looked down, she couldn’t see any burns on her skin, any patches of blackened hair, or any holes in her clothes. It was a peaceful emptiness.

Part of her was tempted to say that she had died, but she didn’t believe it. This wasn’t the afterlife. Her god and his children didn’t come down to greet her, to shake her hand and thank her for her faith and what she had tried to do. There was no Creator to take her hand and pull her into an endless paradise, an infinite landscape where beauty and wisdom shaped forests, gouged valleys, and built mountains. Not even a friend came to say hello.

She felt like she could sit forever, but only for the sake of a thought that tugged at her mind. Thinking about the afterlife reminded Eremia of something. She didn’t know what had taken control of Jonah, but she swore she could. Leaning forward and propping her chin against her palms, Eremia’s thoughts darted from memory to memory, story to story, idea to idea. There was something familiar about that creature – its ability to control darkness, its powers, its personality, the age that seemed to seep its way into its every gesture and every contemptuous word. When she’d crushed it beneath one of the Pillars earlier, she’d been terrified by the fact that she’d had no idea what she’d been fighting. Knowing that she had an idea was even scarier.

Her train of thought derailed the moment she recognized something at the edge of her vision. Looking up, Eremia saw a pinprick of blue light hovering far away from her. It almost reminded her of a star, but she knew better. It was the power that she’d tapped into. The power that she didn’t understand. The power that, somehow, was connected to her. Her, of all people. The person who couldn’t even tap into the full power of the eagle she’d bonded too.

Standing up slowly, Eremia stared at the light. An idea popped into her head; she raised a hand, outstretched palm, the tips of her fingers at the edge of the light. It had to come to her, right? If it was her power, and it was a power strong enough to beat back some kind of ancient monster, it wouldn’t just stay there and do nothing, would it?

And, sure enough, the light hurtled towards her.


Chapter 39: Burnt Offering, Part 2 (1,004 words): woooooooords

Spoiler! :
Eremia bolted upright, vision tinted blue. Though she swore she could feel the warmth of a candle by her bedside, or hear the whistling of the wind outside of wherever she was, she couldn’t barely see the hand she held in front of her face. And she’d always relied on her sight. Still, she got the feeling that wouldn’t last long – if that color was associated with her power, and her power was connected to her thoughts, she just had to relax. She took a few deep breaths as the blue gradually drained out of her eyesight.

“Good to see you again, Eremia.”

Turning her head to the right, Eremia saw the outline of a familiar man in a familiar suit of armor sprawled on a chair.

“What are you doing here?” Eremia said. A sudden chill washed over; she grabbed onto the bedsheets and wrapped them around herself.

“I could say the same about you,” said Alarick. He leaned forward and rested his chin on his fists. “I admit that you exceeded my expectations. I had not thought I would see you again.”

Before Eremia could retort, she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Yeah!” came an unexpectedly happy voice. “She’s pretty smart like that.”

Eremia pushed herself back, smacking the back of her head against the bedframe.

“What is this?” she said, just in time for her eyesight to come back to her. Like she’d guessed, she was in a tent. Sunlight streamed in through the open flap, highlighting the grassy floor and the two suits of armor worn by the other people in the room. Eremia had to put a hand over her eyes to block some of the reflections, but could still catch the flame of the candle waving in the gusts that howled outside. Part of her thought it’d been pointless to light the flame in what she guessed to be the middle of the day; the other part of her found it strangely comforting. She had a feeling she’d respond the same way if she stepped out into the light.

Beyond the bed, the nightstand that held the candle, and Alarick’s chair, the tent was empty. Terasu had jumped onto Eremia’s bed and was now flashing that old frown.
“Don’t get so worked up,” Terasu said, stretching across the width of the bed. “I’m not going to kill you or anything.”

Eremia’s eyes jumped between Terasu and Alarick. Alarick didn’t seem to be paying attention to the conversation at all – he seemed to be focused on something on Eremia’s face. She’d have to deal with that later, if only because Terasu didn’t like waiting for an answer and because Alarick being distracted made talking a lot easier. “But, Rowland-” Eremia began.

Terasu pulled herself up, rolling her eyes. “Smart, but annoying – you always liked getting to the point,” Terasu said.

“It would be rather pointless if I did not,” said Eremia.

“Then yes, I’ve gotten over that,” Terasu said. “Should I have done more? Maybe. Should I have gotten out of there? Maybe. But the dumba** knew what he was doing when he ran in there to try and save me. And yeah, that thing absolutely hates you - kudos for p***ing it off. It probably wasn’t that hard, but that’s just who you are. You’re not evil.”

As Terasu spoke, Eremia had kept glancing over at Alarick. He winced whenever Terasu mentioned Rowland, but otherwise kept on staring. It gave Eremia more chills than she already had.

“From you, that is exceptionally relieving to hear,” Eremia said. “But, if you would please explain what happens to be so wrong about my face-”

“A particularly nasty sunburn,” said Alarick. He shifted in his seat. “I imagine it will peel off with time. However, I find it rather strange.”

Sure enough, when Eremia reached a hand up, the skin felt hot to the touch. She glared down at her other hand – red, blistered, sore. Reaching down and poking at her fingers, she found that she could, indeed, peel some of the skin off. It fell down onto the bedsheets in little white flecks.

Eremia kept on scowling. “So? We were wandering around in a desolate environment for several days with little in the way of supplies. I should hardly believe that I be so alone.”

“You are,” Alarick said. “None of you were exactly in good shape when we found you, but you were a mess. You hadn’t woken up in two days. You hadn’t eaten in two days. Madeleine and I hadn’t been sure if you’d ever wake up. And I had hoped you would – I’d been told you’d have a fascinating story to tell us.”

Eremia resisted the urge to gape at him. Two days? She knew that she had overused her magic. She knew that overusing magic sometimes knocked the user out. But Alarick was completely right in that she shouldn’t have been alive.

He sighed. “But I imagine I’ll have to wait to hear it. You have a lot to process, and we’re rather occupied here.”

“Occupied?” Eremia said, drawing out the word very slowly.

Terasu, who had been absentmindedly staring at the ceiling or rubbing spots on her armor until they squeaked, jumped off the bed. “It’s a fight!” she said, running over to the tent entrance. “We met some a**holes by the Xyaltan border, and we’re teaching them a lesson!”

The usual droop settled over Alarick’s face. “There’s not much to it,” he said, following Terasu’s gaze. “They had made the unwise decision to prey on a group of refugees and soldiers. Particularly with the kingdom’s princess in the vicinity. She’s currently tearing her way through their ranks, and I imagine we will be meeting her soon.”

Eremia pretended she felt perfectly fine about being the middle of (another) battle. “Xyalta?” she said, tilting her head. “I cannot say I have heard the best about that country.”

“We can’t be that picky anymore,” Alarick said. “We must make do with what we have.”


Chapter 39: Burnt Offering, Part 3 (1,085 words): eremia cannot escape affection

Spoiler! :
The bags under his eyes seemed to grow as he talked. Between that and the way his face sagged, Eremia knew that he didn’t like the topic. Yet, she wanted answers. She wanted to know if her or her friends were back in hot water. “Xyalta has never much liked the Confederacy,” Eremia said.

“The queen and I made an” – Alarick paused, staring at his hands before looking back up at Eremia – “arrangement, if you will. Ideally, she has no reason to act against us.”

“I will not,” Eremia said, crossing her arms. “What kind of an arrangement? And why do you sound so concerned about it? I do not suppose someone called the Blood Queen would necessarily appreciate a betrayal, but I cannot imagine what you would have done to betray her by being in another part of the world.”

Pressing a palm against his forehead, Alarick lowered his head. “You’d be surprised,” he said. “But I believe she will continue to respect our arrangement.”

“I must imagine that cooperating with her daughter would earn her favor,” said Eremia.

Alarick didn’t respond.

Pulling back her hair, Eremia glared at Alarick. “What do I have to do before you actually explain to me what is going on?”

Of all the responses Alarick could’ve made, Eremia wasn’t expecting a smile to tug at the corners of his mouth, or hear a very faint laugh. “Not much more, I think,” he said. “You defied me, you took several of my best soldiers, and you came back alive. I am not keen on explaining this arrangement, both for personal reasons and because I hear the battle dying down, so the princess will most certainly be here soon. You’ll figure it out soon enough. But I do respect you. I underestimated you. If you would like to leave The Doves, I would respect that. I would also be happy to keep you as a general.”

Eremia paused. It was a barefaced attempt on Alarick’s part to flatter her and get her to stay as a general. On the other hand, it was the first time that he had ever respected her power. Beforehand, she’d always been overstepping her authority, or getting into battles she shouldn’t have, or wasting Alarick’s time and resources. In retrospect, he had never taken her seriously – maybe her entire position had just been a way to make her feel more important and put her under his direct control. Now he wanted her as a general. An actual general. An actual strategist. Someone to organize armies and fight a battle.

She liked the sound of that. She knew that she was supposed to go back to her parents, explain what had happened to Jonah, watch the world crumble around her. But, without the Confederacy, she had no clue if she’d ever get to see an Exedor she recognized ever again. Eremia wasn’t also keen on dealing with grieving parents that would be horrified by the very idea of her leaving her castle. They’d already lost one child; how could they lose two? Eremia started to understand what Madeleine and Terasu had meant when they’d commented on how controlling Eremia’s family had been.

Before Eremia could say anything, however, the sound of trumpets blasted through the air. Alarick and Eremia turned towards the entrance of the tent, watching the sudden surge of figures rushing around outside. Cheering accompanied the trumpets, both drawing ever close to the tent’s entrance. Eremia recognized the song as a victory call, something that the soldiers in the training grounds at her castle would use to group together and exit the pretend battlefield.

The trumpets got closer and closer, noise turning into almost a deafening roar before just as quickly dying out. “Terasu!” came a high-pitched voice. Terasu stepped outside in time to be swept up and spun around by a young woman in a suit of armor. Eremia caught her red hair juxtaposed against Terasu’s blue hair as both women came to a stop inside of the tent, the young woman letting go of Terasu. The young woman, wearing a red cape, a bloodstained suit of armor emblazoned with a snarling wolf’s head on the chestplate, and brandishing a bronze-colored sword whose tip was coated in black blood, looked over at Eremia. “Is this the princess you mentioned?”

“Sure is,” Terasu said with a grin. Pointing to Eremia, she said, “Eremia, Princess of Exedor, meet Yorena, Princess of Xyalta.”

“It is an honor,” Eremia began, but Yorena ran up to her. Eremia found gloved hands on her cheeks, which still stung.

Yorena bit her lip. “You look dreadful!” she said. “Hopefully we can get that fixed before you see mom – I don’t think she’s going to be too happy with Alarick if you show up looking all fried.”

Eremia had already started making a list of all the non-royal things she noted about Yorena, but chose not to say any of them. Even if Yorena had no sense of personal boundaries, or regard for proper etiquette or formality, or an ability to clean up her bloodstained uniform before paying a visit, she had saved The Doves. And, well, Terasu was far worse in that regard.

Besides, a few familiar people started making their way into the tent. Marisol and Katerina rushed inside, making a beeline for Eremia and stopping between her and Alarick. Katerina, eyes red, immediately gave Eremia a hug, while Marisol stepped back, smiled awkwardly, and gave a thumbs up. Surprisingly not as awkward as Yorew, who hobbled in on his cane, took a look at Eremia, and sagged into the chair that he had dragged along with him. His pale face, the sweat dripping down his forehead, and weakly shaking limbs made him look miserable. Eremia wondered how much of that was because of her – he seemed to be looking at Yorena as much as he was looking at her.

Lastly, accompanied by a few soldiers, came a tall, thin man. Also dressed in a blood-splattered suit of armor, he had taken his helmet off and was carrying it in one hand. In his other hand was a spear tall enough to poke at the edge of the tent, letting in a tiny sliver of a light. His bowl-cut brown hair, angled face, and brown eyes, combined with that small frown, made him look a lot more serious and imposing than Yorena had. “Are these our allies, my lady?” he said, glancing at the other people in the room.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  





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TheSilverFox says...



Probs the last time I have to do this, thank god.

LMS Writing Part XVII



Chapter 39: Burnt Offering, Part 4 (1,162 words): this is garbage but I loved writing it, and I haven't felt that way in a while, so yee

180,494 words overall.

Spoiler! :
“Yep!” Yorena said, looking back at the man. “We just need to get Eremia here loaded up, and then we can get going!”

Eremia blinked. “Loaded up?” she said slowly. “What on Fayne do you-”

The thump of hoofprints against dirt filtered in from outside. A few seconds later, the front of a wagon pulled by an enormous brown horse passed by.

“You cannot be serious,” Eremia said, watching as the back of the wagon stopped next to the front of the tent. With the neighing of a horse, the wagon began to turn so the back faced the tent’s inside.

“Sure I am!” said Yorena, stepping back as soldiers surged forward and reached for the corners of the bed. “It’s the quickest way to get you out of here, and I think we’ve got better places to be than this dusty old tent."

Katerina scrambled onto the bed, flopping down beside Eremia. While Marisol threw herself on, landing on her face in the middle of the bed, the guards started hauling the bed off the ground. With grunts, shouts, countdowns, and tears in the tent fabric spilling light in, Eremia found herself moving over to the wagon. Gripping the edge of the bed as it tilted side to side, she caught Alarick’s and Yorew’s tired expressions as they stood up and followed at the edge of the crowd.

Eremia would’ve almost liked the strange gesture if the soldiers didn’t end it by tossing the bed into the wagon. Her back ached as the wagon slammed against the wooden floor, making some uncomfortable crunching noises. The horse whinnied, the wagon creaked, and Eremia set a firm hand on Katerina’s shoulder to keep her from toppling off the side of the bed. Marisol, in the meantime, was currently swearing into the blankets, having had her first flying experience.

“That’s more like it!” Yorena said. Eremia could hear her armor clink as she pulled herself onto the back of the wagon. The man took the other side, standing next to Katerina’s side of the bed. So Eremia wasn’t all to surprised to find Yorena’s smirk looming over her a couple seconds later.

Yorena held out a hand. “You’ve never really been outside your country, haven’t you.” she said. “Want to go see what mine is like?”

Though Eremia had a feeling she’d regret it, she nodded her head. Yorena was quite a lot to handle, but the idea of seeing a place that wasn’t a burning city or the center of the world sounded nice.

And sure enough, Yorena took the opportunity to haul Eremia out of her bed, drag her to the edge of the wagon, and set her down. Muscles aching, pain flashing through her head, Eremia leaned against Yorena for a few seconds. Yorena didn’t seem to mind, and it was just long enough for the crack of a whip to send the horse trotting down its path.

When Eremia could finally blink the spots out of her eyes, she had to admit that she was impressed. In the plains, there wasn’t too much that distinguished the seasons. Sure, the gardens in the castle had plenty of trees and flowers that would grow, wither, and die with the seasons, but those seasons were nothing if not chaotic. Thunderstorms and snowstorms cut through spring and fall, making them all too brief middle grounds between the extreme heat of summer and extreme cold of winter.

Here, it was a little different. The hills that stretched out before her were taller, littered with trees whose leaves were just starting to turn brown. As wagons and soldiers passed by her, she caught glimpses of white and purple flowers littering the bases of the hill. Small as they were, the way they nestled among the rocks and moss made them look a little hardy. The flowers reminded her of the rippling muscles, sagging eyelids, and slow breathing of the old servant marching in front of her. She figured she’d tell him about that later, when they both had the chance to catch their breath. From the way that Yorew leaned on his cane, he wouldn’t necessarily appreciate hearing about flowers at that moment.

In the meantime, large, fluffy clouds rolled across a bright blue sky, casting shadows over the hillsides. The air felt damp, and the light that reflected off the grass on the hill made Eremia realize that it had just rained. As the wagon started to turn, she got a sense of why – the entire procession, barely big enough to fit the wide, winding dirt road that extended in front of them, was now marching through the hills towards an enormous stone gate. Beyond it stretched ever taller hills, obscured by a layer of mist.

“What do you think?” Yorena said, looking over at Eremia with a smile. “Nice, huh?”

Eremia realized that she’d been gaping; she immediately closed her mouth. That wasn’t royal of her at all, but she pretended to not be bothered by it. Not that she was. “It is,” Eremia breathed. “It is not quite like anything I have seen before.”

Yorena shrugged. “I mean, there’s not a whole lot to see right now. Once we get past that gate over there, it’s going to be the lowlands for a little while, and then we’ll hit the really big hills and valleys. Xyalta’s littered with them, and we’re pretty proud of it.”

“It is certainly an admirable gate,” Eremia said with a nod. “Almost as tall as the ones at Wyandanch, I would imagine.”

Yorena’s eyes followed Eremia’s, catching the gate right before it was partly obscured by the hill they were heading around. “Yep, and we didn’t even need dragons to make it! That’s the other cool part – we’re pretty good at doing things on our own.”

A pause. “You seem remarkably…nonchalant about Wyandanch,” Eremia said, looking over at Yorena. “From what I remember, you do not necessarily have much reason to like each other.”

“I mean, I kinda don’t, but that’s more of mom’s business than mine,” said Yorena. She set her gloved hand over one of Eremia’s. “Besides, I think you and your friends are pretty cool. And mom seems to like you guys enough, so I’m not going to question her on that.”

Before Eremia could say anything, Yorena waved to the rest of the wagon. “I mean, what, you’ve got a fox, and that girl who really likes scythes and axes, and you’ve even got that old servant dude of yours.” Yorena waved at Yorew. “Hey, what’s your-”

Yorew immediately vanished in the crowd of soldiers that massed around the wagon, lost in the dust the horses were kicking up.

“Huh,” Yorena said, lowering her hand. “Didn’t think he’d be that fast.”

“Neither did I,” said Eremia. She raised an eyebrow – Yorew only did something like that when he didn’t want to talk to someone. And she was starting to get a sense of why.


Chapter 39: Burnt Offering, Part 5 (364 words): don't need a fancy word to open this gate

Spoiler! :
“But yeah,” Yorena said, dangling her legs over the edge of the wagon. Her words were harder to pick out in the rumble of the massive gate opening, but Eremia could pick out a sentence over the creaking of water wheels and the thundering of moving wood beams. “You guys are pretty cool!”

“Thank you,” Eremia called. “We, try.” She wondered if that was the polite thing to say, but Yorena didn’t seem to mind, if her nod and smile was anything to go by.

Propping her chin on her palms and looking over at Eremia, Yorena grinned. Eremia wanted to say that Yorena was dangerously close to falling off the back of the wagon, but had the feeling that didn’t bother Yorena in the slightest. “Thrown off by the gate?” Yorena shouted. “You got anything like that in Exedor?”

Eremia shook her head. “Not quite?” she yelled. “My pa- the King and Queen’s estates had some rather sizeable doors to let in merchants, traders, diplomats, soldiers and the like, but nothing quite like this.”

Ah, those doors. Eremia remembered when Yorew and Jonah had dragged her through one of them. It stung at her that, as horrible as running away had been, it had also been one of the last times they’d been together.

Maybe Yorena noticed, because she threw her arm around Eremia and pulled her close. “Don’t worry,” shouted Yorena. “We’re probably not all that different from what you’re used to. And, even if we are, I think mom’ll love you folks, so you’ll probably be hanging around a bit anyways.”

The cart rounded the last section of the hill. The muffled thumps of the dirt gave way to the clacks and clicks of hooves over cobblestone. Eremia knew the gate was right behind her, giving out its last welcoming roars. And, somehow, in spite of the hills rising on either side, in spite of the howling of wolves in the background, in spite of Yorena being a little too close, they really did sound welcoming. It wouldn’t be long now before she entered the country.

“Yes,” Eremia said, more to herself than to anyone else. “I think I’d like that.”


Chapter 40: Xantheria, Part 1 (662 words): Final chapter! Let's do this!

181,975 words overall.

Spoiler! :
Eremia almost felt like herself again.

She’d gotten her first bath in several weeks. A lot of her burned skin had peeled and flaked away, leaving her only a little sore. She’d had her hair trimmed and cleaned; she’d finally gotten a massage; the cramps and pains were starting to fade out. She’d had her first real meal in months – not any of that “on the road” oatmeal mush or assorted herbs, but an actual, several-course dinner with hams and pies and cakes. Her robes had been cleaned; the dirt and grime had been washed off her face; she’d finally had her nails clipped. Walking down the long hallway, Eremia could almost believe she was back home again.

But she knew otherwise. And she knew that it was going to be a long time before she was.

Xyalta was, all things considered, a beautiful country. The valleys and hills were a little steeper than what she used to, but the villages and towns looked more alive. Trees littered the hillsides, shrouded in the fog and rain that kept the grass green and the plots of plowed earth massive. Finding a castle built into the rock next to a waterfall had only improved her opinion. Yorena had said that the waterfall made the castle a little unstable, so that a lot of old tunnels had been dismantled or abandoned, but that still left the imposing stone structure looming beside it. And Eremia had to appreciate the bleached stone, the towers that almost sprouted over the small mountain the castle rested on, the shafts that buried into the mountain and held the castle in place, and the crowded walkways that stretched out in front of the castle. Walking across the red and white stone had been a wonder, to say nothing of the bathhouses and guest rooms and dining halls and marketplaces that were the buildings beside it. Eremia had always thought of Exedor’s castle as a city in and of itself, but Xyalta’s palace dwarfed it.

Sure, it had taken a while for Eremia to get used to the wolves. Guards, sentries, attendants, all with wolf heads and furry bodies. Compared to her eagles, they felt a little more plain and rugged, on top of a little more ravenous at the dinner table, but they were as dedicated to Xyalta as the eagles were to Exedor.

A few of them walked alongside The Doves in the hallway, joining the procession of guards that surrounded them. That didn’t bother Eremia. She felt like she should’ve been. The hallway was grand and imposing, tall arches on one side looking out over the mist-covered landscape, while tapestries on the other side illustrated monarchs wielding swords, fighting armies of foxes and rabbits, and sitting on their thrones with their oversized bronze crowns. A red carpet stretched out along the way, while the polished granite floors gleamed in the light of a sun filtered by scattered clouds. It wasn’t exactly the friendliest place.

Still, she had her friends around her. She could still smell the salts of the bathhouses, hear the roaring of the waterfall, and see the bright and cheery faces of Yorew and Madeleine as they walked beside her. It hadn’t taken too long since they’d arrived for the two of them to reconnect. They’d swapped apologies, swapped hugs, and were now back to their old selves. The Xyaltan medical staff taking care of the wounded had made their jobs quite a bit easier, and so they’d been happy to spend that time together. Eremia knew that Yorew was still nervous – his glances to the tapestries and the guards weren’t exactly subtle – but she thought he felt about the same way she did. Alright.

It wasn’t Exedor. Her brother wasn’t standing next to her. Her parents weren’t welcoming her back and giving her hugs. She wasn’t in the castle gardens, or reading books in her room, or fencing in the training yards. But she was alright.


Chapter 40: Xantheria, Part 2 (1,536 words): oh my god I wrote a novel

Spoiler! :
“So, this is it,” Katerina said. “We’re finally going to see the queen.” She flashed a grin at Eremia as she threw her arms around Eremia’s shoulders. Scary as it was to meet a monarch, much less one who wouldn’t be friendly to them, Eremia couldn’t help but look back and return the smile.

“An’ hopefully she doesn’t chop all our heads off,” said Marisol, twirling an axe by its handle as she walked next to Eremia. “She’s called the Blood Queen for a reason, and I don’t think it’s ‘cause she’s all rosey and sweet.”

A fair point. Eremia didn’t know what she’d do without either of them. Katerina’s optimism always brightened her day. The fox had only gotten happier with every day that she spent in Xyalta, spent with the princess that she’d dreamed of serving. And Eremia tried her best to live up to that dream. Sometimes that meant holding onto Katerina while she cried about her friends and cried about her burned-out home. But, well, they all had a lot to grieve about.

Perhaps it was grief that had made Marisol so distant the last couple weeks. Sure, she’d finally swapped out her scythe for an axe, and Eremia had taken the time to watch Marisol bury axeheads in targets and comment on how accurate she was getting. But Marisol was always distant, always aloof, always there for a biting comment while looking anywhere but at Eremia. Which Eremia could understand – Marisol had been both pulled away and kicked out by her family. It was probably uncomfortable to be around the person that she’d been told to work with.

“Alarick says he says a plan,” Katerina said, letting go of Eremia and walking behind her and Marisol.

Marisol snorted. “Because I’d trust him with anything,” she said, words fading out as Katerina pulled her closer to Eremia.

Setting her head on Eremia and Marisol’s shoulders, Katerina whispered, “I’m not sure that’s something you want to say around these guards. Worst case scenario, he’d probably just lose his own head.”

Eremia nodded. Alarick’s plan was, well, a mystery. But he’d been very clear to the other generals that they weren’t supposed to say anything to the Xyaltans. Sure, he was fine with the general details – Wyandanch falling, the king going missing, the Confederacy being in disarray. But any deaths, anything related to Jonah? Swept under the rug. She had no idea why; it was quite like him to do something like that. Fine. From the way that she could spot him out of the corner of her eye, armor clanking as he walked a little too quickly at the head of the procession, he could feel that blade on his neck. And he was most clever when he needed to be.

“Eugh,” said Marisol, twirling her axe a little faster as she glanced at passerby. “You say that like that’s a bad thing. Like, who would take over if he kicked the bucket? Jonathan? He’s pretty okay. Not great, but okay. Better than Alarick.”

“A rather favorable assessment of the man who did shoot you,” Eremia said, eyes focusing on Jonathan and Terasu, who were walking beside Alarick. And Terasu’s arm wrapped around Jonathan’s. Eremia had to hold back a sigh. She didn’t quite know what Jonathan thought of that relationship. If it was legitimate, if Jonathan felt obligation, if Terasu was pulling Jonathan into it. Maybe it didn’t matter much. Eremia had seen Terasu drag Jonathan around, the fire in her eyes growing brighter than she’d seen it in a long time. They went to markets, they taught soldiers on the practice grounds, and they both swapped jokes and smiled.

Sure, Terasu would still have those days where she came to meal halls with a dead look in her eyes. She had a lot to grieve too. Eremia guessed there were still plenty of issues in a relationship that she knew was a rebound from Rowland. But that wasn’t something Eremia could fix, and at least Jonathan could get some comfort and joy out of it. And now Eremia and Jonathan could talk without the weight that was Terasu hanging over their heads. Eremia could join them in going to the baths, visiting the markets, and flop down on the couches in their room.

Maybe Eremia had fallen in love with Jonathan because she’d found someone in control of his own situation. Her heart didn’t pulse as quickly, goosebumps didn’t ripple across her skin, her thoughts didn’t jumble up so much anymore. But now they were on more equal footing, and now Eremia could feel more confident in herself and her ability to survive this world. She didn’t mind too much that it came at the cost of her relationship – they could still be friends.

Marisol stuck out her tongue. “I can change my mind,” she said, face suddenly a little red. “Kinda. What about Ceinen? I’m sure you still hate him.”

“He frustrates me sometimes,” Eremia said with a smile, catching the deer’s horns as the tall general walked on the other side of Alarick from Terasu and Jonathan. He strode happily, horns swinging from side to side. Whatever joy that deer had found, Eremia couldn’t help but admire it. “I despise and appreciate that stubbornness. He is combative, and his ideas about The Creator are neglectful of his omniscience, but-”

“Maybe you can talk about it another time,” Katerina said, pointing to the brass doors coming up to their right. As they watched, guards saluted Alarick and the front of the group before turning and slowly pushing the massive metal gate open. The rumble immediately drowned out the conversation, leaving Eremia to stare in awe at how quick the guards were. It was only a minute before the Doves and the guards could filter through into the throne room, tromping over red carpet and admiring the sheen of the circular patterns carved into the doors.

Eremia had always been impressed of Exedor’s throne room, but, looking around, she got the sense of how insignificant her kingdom was. Separating her from the throne were a couple rows of granite pillars towering to the roof above. Myriad torches littered braziers on the pillars and the walls, lighting the entire room in a faint and eerie glow. It emphasized the red carpet that turned the floor into a board; the tapestries that shifted into roses and gardens and tombs on all sides; the dark stone of the throne itself, contrasting with the faintly red granite, and the snarling wolf’s head carved over the throne.

And, just past the staircase, standing on the stone platform in front of a red-cushioned, gold-embroidered granite throne, stood the queen. Xantheria. The Blood Queen. The Queen of Xyalta.

The guards came to a halt steps away from the staircase, forcing the procession behind them to grind to a halt. Katerina yanked Marisol and Eremia back before they could run into Madeleine and Yorew, who started gripping onto each other’s shoulders ever so slightly tighter. The echoes of footsteps emanated through the pillars, sending a wave of sound down the room. Between that and the slamming off staffs on the ground, Eremia didn’t have to look to know that all three pairs of eyes – hers, Marisol’s, and Katerina’s – had fixated on the queen.

Xantheria lived up to her country’s aesthetic. Her red cape floated as she took a step forward, red hair spilling from one shoulder to the other. Dressed in a suit of red-tinted armor, marked and patterned with curves, she set a helmet with gray tufts down on the floor and rose back up. Underneath the armor, Eremia could catch hints of chainmail, black pants, and a red vest, but it was hard to look away from Xantheria’s face. The wrinkles had the firmness of a drawn bow, matching her tightly-drawn frown, jagged nose, and the sharp corners of her face. As the torches cast shadows across her pale face, Eremia couldn’t help but admire the intensity of her glare. Old as she looked, Xantheria hadn’t lost any of her wits or energy. And she was angry.

The sound faded out of the room, going as quickly as it had come. Silenced settled like a blanket, waiting for the queen to cast it aside.

“Alarick,” she snapped, the ice on her tongue sending chills down Eremia’s spine. “Where is he?”

Eremia could see Alarick take a few steps forward, kneeling at the base of the steps. The guards and soldiers joined him, sending another wave of sound through the room. Eremia pulled herself to the ground before Katerina could drag her down, but Marisol wasn’t so lucky (if Marisol complaining about having to put her axe away was anything to go by).

This sound also rushed out of the room, drowning it silence. Everyone kept their heads up, waiting for the response from their commander or queen. This was the moment of truth.

“My Queen, I-” came a voice so weak and frail that Eremia almost didn’t recognize it was Alarick’s.

“I did not ask for pleasantries or pleas,” Xantheria said, pointing down at Alarick. “I asked for the truth. Where is my nephew? Where is Rowland?”



THE END


Final Word Count: 183,511.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.
  








Be led by your talent and not by your self-loathing ... everything beautiful in the world is within you.
— Russell Brand