The Blind Knight







The Blind Knight



Marquis Ballard


Contents

Prologue4

Chapter 1:21

Severance21

Chapter 2:24

Stay with Me24

Chapter 3:26

The Cry of Desolation26

Chapter 4:30

The Powerful & The Yielding30

Chapter 5:36

Return to Me, Mother36

Chapter 6:39

An Unfathomable Weapon39

Chapter 7:41

The Festering41

Chapter 8:44

Conquest for Power44

Chapter 9:47

The Battle of Lurikain47

Chapter 10:55

The Lone Wolf55

Chapter 11:59

He who Distorts59

Chapter 12:63

A Feast for Crimson63

Chapter 13:70

The Father of Barbarism70

Chapter 14:80

Consuming the Weeping King80

Chapter 15:86

The Woman in Mud86

Chapter 16:90

The Cerogriff90

Interlude104

Mireth, the Great Stag104

Chapter 17:110

Sorry110

Chapter 18:115

A Bond of Strife115

Chapter 19:120

Damnation120

Chapter 20:123

The Scion of Vunmere123

Epilogue128







Prologue

From Blood



With the simple crack of a thunder strike, his eyes jolt open, strands of his ashen white hair obstructing his vision of the plain stone ceiling. Normal during a stormy night, the rain tapping against the window like bullets while the wind shook the tower. Storms calmed Leofrick, but only afterhe was awoken by them. If he could find slumber, adding thunder into the mix made him snooze until morning’s past. However, beads of sweat caressed his temples and cheekbones.

Could it have been father…? No... He thought to himself. How could it have been? He tried to forget that man over the sixteen years, it makes sense he’d start plaguing his dreams. He began to examine the bedroom around him, analyzing anything that could have possibly been looted from under his nose or even moved an inch from where it should be. Keeping eyes on your enemy includes your surroundings, there is no such thing as honor when it comes to a battle of swords. If a Knight has the notion of an advantage from flinging a burning torch into his foe’s eyes, best believe he’ll do it without hesitating, and before a second has passed, his blade is slicing through the belly and sticking out the other side. That was Leofrick’s experience in his years of combat. The scars that riddled his body were proof of it.

He looked at the wooden tables and the book stand. The troubled candlelight that swayed nervously as the small draft from outside the stone walls crept in like a dead mother’s whisper. He quickly and quietly got to his feet while making doubly sure to not wake Charlotte and made his way to the open glass, giving him the opportunity to view the streetlights from above. I remember when this was remnants of war. Now it resides like any other city.

He saw the shadows of tavern goers in the main quarter moving in droves while seeing a group of would-be knights walk into a brothel across the way. One sported a head of blonde hair, same with his beard. He looked like a chiseled man, one who had seen battle. With the single touch of a foot sliding along hardwood, he turns his head slightly to the right, seeing her slowly approach beside him while her finger traced alongside his spine, instilling goosebumps. He usually hated that chilling feeling, fear being the main cause of it; this however was not fear. “If you’re up at this hour, there’s either an enemy in our midst... or it’s your father again.” Charlotte took his hand, interlocking her fingers with his and gently placing her lips against his cold cheek. He exhaled calmly when she reeled in closer, feeling her sweet breath sway across his skin. It was a delight, his veins pumped and he felt warm. She knew him better than he knew himself. “Leofrick. If you are having trouble with him, a day’s ride out would fix that.” “No. I cannot afford to be absent from my Kingdom, it would do nothing for me except fill my own desire and for what? My father’s long gone… and a Queen with no King leaves room for drunkards lusting after you. Or chaos, that would also likely happen.” She gave a light, sexy chuckle. “The hearts of men are usually folly, they’ll lust after anything so long as it has tits. Mine however, leads way to a public execution. A slit throat or two would deter them.” Charlotte caressed his back as she spoke to him. She enjoyed his toned physique in all regards. “I didn’t realize I had summoned the jester to court midst this night.” Leofrick amused the idea, “Perhaps we send them off to the races, running across the Eastern landscapes and whoever gets to the Juxton Sea first gets to keep his balls!” “A splendid idea my King! Truly a tactician among the most renowned tutors.” Charlotte cracked a smile that seemed to shine light on everything that resided in the dark. He took her hand and spun her around whimsically, her feet sliding across the floor as she pulled him in for a splendid embrace, the wind dancing maddeningly around her as she moved. Tomorrow will be better. He tried his best to keep that thought in his head, keeping it close to him.

Before he knew it, the morning sun had subtly soaked the room in its light, forcing Leofrick to arise two hours later while Charlotte continued to sleep. Every morning was routine: Get up, grab your weapon and begin with four hours of training hand-to-hand, after that, breakfast would be served and a clean wash following the morning rays turn noon. The novelty of this seemed to sit well with Novelle. Never once did he question the formation of his father’s methods, nor did he act with discourse in mind. “Are you sure you want to keep using that polearm as your training weapon? A sword would easily get the job done just as quickly – if not quicker.” Leofrick spoke as he walked alongside the tower’s stone walls down to the training center with Novelle at his side. “Of course I’m sure. I’ve tried the sword before, I can barely slice butter with it, let alone swing it. I’m better with distance as my weapon!” He nudged his father’s long black jacket, he seemed to always keep that jacket equipped, never taking it off. He knows he must whenever he goes to sleep, right? There was nothing but undertunic, leather boots and tight pants. He never used armor during sparring days, probably never used it in real battle either. Father was far too fast to be encumbered by metalwork.

A blast of cold air swept through Novelle’s blonde hair as the large doors opened, leading way into the training room. It felt like a massive arena that sat atop the snowcapped Northern mountains. Without a second to spare, Novelle kicks the pointed spear to his hand, swinging it elegantly before pointing the tipped blade towards his father, who seemed to be preoccupied with the maintenance of his scabbard. “You’re going to use your sword…?” Fear wrapped around those words like a serpent. He left the sheathed blade by the opened door and grabbed the wooden sparring weapon from the rack and quickly approached. “Not even a glass of wine before trying to slay me I see?” Novelle gripped the spear with especial zeal, readying himself for battle. It seemed unconventional, downright foolish even, for a piece of wood to challenge finely crafted steel that seemed sharper than a sacred blade bestowed as a gift from God, but the wielder radiated otherwise. A man such as the King of Gale stood as a mountain in sheer strength, surviving against all manner of creature and splitting them in two by his own volition. Ever since he left home at the tender age of sixteen, he has only known blood, even when Charlotte crossed his path. Her madness coexisted with his, a maelstrom of misfortune seemed never ending until Novelle was brought into the world.


“Spare me the jokes, boy.” As Leofrick conveyed these words, it felt like only a second had passed by before he was across the room and at the spear’s edge. A simple lunge propelled him forward but Novelle countered, catching the sword’s tip before he could land the swing and pulling the spear back towards him, chipping a piece of the wood. Novelle swung the spear with grace and what seemed like a bit of anguish, moving in accordance with what felt like the wind, his feet danced and slid across the field as the spear sliced through the air with ease. His muscles became tense with every attack and Leofrick analyzed this; he sprinted forward past the blade with one step, in a visceral exchange, Novelle swings the other side forward to subdue his opponent with a quick skull bashing technique. Leofrick slides underneath in a blur, quickly getting behind him and swinging the wooden sword right before it reaches his neck, theoretically removing his head from his body.

“You’re trying too hard. You don’t dance with your opponent, you fight them, son. If you let your enemy even get past that distance you’re working so hard to keep, you’ll be dead before you can blink. I noticed you were struggling to keep your weapon up… is it too heavy?” “No… it’s fine, I’m just getting used to the weight.” He responded in slight frustration, sweat beading off from his forehead as he paused every now and again to catch a fleeting breath. “Let me see it for just a moment.” Leofrick requested, acquiring the weapon and clutching it with ease. “You know, despite our rummaging, this isn’t fair right? You’re a lot more experienced than I will ever be father.” Novelle glaring at the blade of the weapon as he spoke. Leofrick exclaimed, “That’s why it’s important to teach. You are my son. Who else shall I train that can endure such regiments I have in place? Surely not the Jester! Maybe your friend, Casteefwas it?” “Castiff, father. His name is Castiff.”

“Yes, Castiff. A peculiar one, he is. Fitting name for one such as him.” Leofrick said, slowly swaying the blade like a windmill. “He’s not peculiar… he’s my friend. He’s normal.” Novelle quickly snatched the bardiche spear back from his father’s grasp.

Breakfast was served, freshly made. Melted butter that slowly ran across the entire bread roll accompanied with freshly picked strawberries that seemed to always taste a bit sweeter whenever his mother served them. Fluffed scrambled eggs and cooked pork slices to go along with a cup of milk was the only way to “officially” start the day, save for training before then. He flipped pages as he stuck forkfuls into his mouth, it seemed magic was at play when one second the plate was there and then the next, gone. “What’re you reading?” Charlotte asked, peaking at the torn and tattered cover of his novel. The corners were pointed upwards and seemed riddled with small stains from a drink. “Hell Raiders. It goes over the war between the Hell-Raider Knights and the Lycans. One of the Knight’s leaders, named Vunmere commanded the army and it was said that he released his legendary blade from its scabbard and with one swing he felled an entire pack! Imagine… offing a creature like the mighty Fenrir. Howard Irving says that there are still some out there, the Lycans. Roaming the wilds…!”

Leofrick’s eyes gazed upon Charlotte as her eyes just as quickly met his. A mental connection was formed. “Perhaps you might see a Lycan one day then. Does it say in the book how these creatures and men are now lost in time? These tales were most definitely not of recent summers or winters.” Leofrick responded. 

“Aye! It goes on to say that the Knight’s souls eventually passed on, leaving their shackled armor and onto the next life while the Lycans continued to roam.” Charlotte continued to examine the damaged novel before speaking, cleaning the dishes with Leofrick’s assistance. “You ought to take better care of your books Nova’, lest you read indecipherable words that are covered in dirt and grime. Please keep them clean. That goes for ALLyour belongings.” He rubbed the sticky corner of the book, quietly groaning at its current condition. “Yes mother.”

“I’ll be back soon before dusk!” Novelle assured them, running down the stuffed main roads of the normal quarter. The streets rumbled like a subtle earthquake that was constantly shifting the plates, party goers ran towards the nearest tavern, bumping into merchants that moseyed their way towards the richer parts of Gale, hoping to land decent trade. The real trade was in hot sands of Jhik. Hunters and explorers set up shop to sell and trade their wares, their scents mixing deeply in the summer air and filling Novelle’s nostrils, forcing his face to scrunch instinctively. Many alleyways were strewn about the lavish plazas that laid below the grand tower and in between the homes and public establishments, he had wondered why no one used the alleys as way to bypass the aggressive traffic. Novelle leaped and vaulted over the storage boxes. He sprinted towards a high fence and inwardly congratulating himself as he catches the top with his hand, pushing his body up and over with ease. Novelle’s physical prowess seemingly outmatched most boys his age, it had to, given who his father is. He would run down the rocky coast that stood above the Juxton sea, reaching the end before you could finish whatever it was that you were doing. He was taught to carry his own weight, given who his mother is, an enigma to the public eye.

He approached a peculiarly small home, one that sat comfortably on the fringe of the inner city; the smithing quarter being only a few roads away. The stairs made a soft squeak every time he planted his feet on it, somewhat bending downward from the weight. He liked the familiarity of it. It meant he was at the correct spot. A sign on the front of the door that read, Richards. The damaged wooden sign swayed as Novelle ignored it, proceeding to knock a few times against the door. A few moments passed, and again another three or four knocks. …C’mon Cas’, I know you’re home. You’re a complete shut-in, you’re alwayshome.

He thought, straining his eyes against the dirty glass that stood between him and corridor of the house. Just then, he heard footsteps getting closer, he could feel them even. It was easy when you were away from the drunken crowds and loud soldiers that stood guard but weren’t actually guarding anything. A smile grew on Novelle like he’d just earned first place at a race. He saw a young boy approach the door quickly, curly and shaggy jet-black hair that went down to his shoulders and was clad in an all-black tunic that was coveted by a black cape that covered his entire backside. Boots for adventuring but he had no intention of adventuring anywhere. “You’re late!” He said to Novelle. His eyes consisted of a steel grey color. “I know, I know. I took longer than I usually do. You do have your book, yes?” The young lad shot Novelle an annoyed eye, “Course I do. Always, now let’s go!” Castiff escorted him through the old house and into the attic.

A few hours had already passed by within a blink it felt like. It was always like that when the two would discuss about the latest chapter that was being read in their books. A single lit candle and the orange sun that beamed light through the window, revealing the floating dust and terribly decadent walls. “This isn’t fiction Nova’, this just sounds like history.” Castiff continued to read through with impressive speed, flipping the next page every couple of seconds. Nova. He liked that nickname, and everyone liked to say it, not sure where they got it from though, never bothered to think on it either. No need to pry on something that made you smile. Novelle rubbed the soft and clean linen paper of his friend’s book, losing track of the story that seemed to consist of a legendary Knight that traveled the realms to save his poor old grandfather, or so it seemed. The paper was kept well and clean, Castiff was always good at taking care of his things. “Sorry, I figured maybe we could try a different kind of book? Besides, it’s exquisite! It’s about the war between-.” “I know who’s fighting, I read it. How do you even know this stuff is real? You’ve never met this Howard Irving anyway… who’s to say?” Castiff scoffed as he flipped another page, dragging his finger along the oily corner of the page before whispering, “Sorry,” Out loud.

Novelle turned towards Castiff, still reading and attempting to decipher what was historical and what was fantasy. His cold steel grey eyes could pierce right through a blade, they seemed so powerful. So stoic. His unkept hair covered his expression too. Despite time spent in each other’s company, he felt a sense of turmoil emit from him. A lack of ambition that couldn’t be built. Was this judgment justified? How could he think of his friend in such a way when he himself couldn’t even properly care for a book? In an attempt to perish the thought, he goes to ask him for a snack when the attic door quickly swings open.

A tall skinny woman peaks her way in the room before fully entering, “My Lord, it’s good to see you again. To think my son would befriend the King’s flesh and blood… do you need anything? A cold glass of water would be crucial for a smoldering room like this attic.” Her hands trembled ever so lightly with each passing breath. “Mother, he’s fine. There’s no need to pester him of such silly things.” Castiff continued focusing on the book as he responded to her. Her eyes glared at the back of his head, she had dead black eyes and her smile then faded the moment she looked at him. For someone who detested this book, he continued to read. “No, I’m quite alright Mrs. Richards but I appreciate your concern. No need for such formalities either! I’m… just Novelle, if you would.” He bespoke.

Castiff’s parents made a point to have their door always open for “his

highness.” It was difficult to know if such action was taken out of fear or compassion. Despite his numerous attempts to console them, their insistence couldn’t be swayed. If the King’s son wasn’t treated with the utmost respect, diligence, and hospitality, what would await them? A slit throat? Or maybe a hanging of man, woman, and child. It was all too much to think about. Novelle began to feel that guilt that slowly weighed down upon his shoulders; were it possible that his mother and father, perhaps even Castiff himself harbored malice towards he and his lineage? Should he actually try to act like the Royal son of the King instead of avoiding the title? The responsibility?

“My apologies your- Novelle. I’m sorry, it’ll take some time before I get accustomed to your birth name. Castiff, it’s almost dusk. You need rest, very soon.” His mother said sternly, her voice shifting as she looked at him yet again. Each time she spoke, it was as if everything was silenced. Castiff sat stiff until she left. Both of them slowly stood on their feet, Novelle began to stretch but quickly recoiled when he felt his hand brush against what felt like cold steel. He examined what seemed to look like an old ceremonial weapon. “Hey Cas’, what is this? Some sort of family heirloom…?” Castiff rushed over to the encased weapon, straightening it and making sure it was free of cobwebs and dust. It was the only thing in the room that wasn’tcoated in dust alongside his book collection. “I know this room is small but try to be mindful of the stuff in here. It’s my dagger. Well, it was my father’s dagger, and his father’s. Now it’s passed onto me. I don’t really know much about it except that it’s very important to my family and it’s

reallysharp. One swing will cut a beast’s finger clean off.”

Incredible design, this blade. Novelle thought as he examined it. It featured a serpent of some sort, attacking a very large beast. Upon further examination, its teeth could be seen lodged deep into the beasts’ neck, causing it to reel in pain.

“That’s quite the dagger, Cas’.” Novelle grabbed his book and quickly embraced his friend before heading towards the attic door. “When will we have our next club meeting?” Castiff asked, his brow slightly furrowed. “Tomorrow, I promise. Until then, I told you to try and read The War of Kings: Goldberg. It’s something I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised w-.” Suddenly, a loud crash emitted from outside. The entire house shook and every item inside seemed to jump from its place. Castiff looked at Novelle in fear, hoping he felt the same. They both ran outside, Castiff ignoring his mother’s frantic calls. The woman was absolutely mortified, her voice trickling from fear.

Crowds of people from across the different areas of the city stood as still as stone looking up at the sky to see an abhorrent thing. Novelle spotted Ms. Grayson, fallen to her knees and planting her hands firmly against her nose as she whispered a prayer. She was the Head Bishop at the central Cathedral, a hardened woman of unwavering Faith. This same woman, who traveled across frigid cold near Rancor and came towards the east with nothing but an uncured rabbit’s pelt wrapped across her head and her belief that there was something worth striding across the snow for, was now praying for mercy.

 

In the sky was a blackness, a slow-moving smog that expanded across the sky within only a few seconds. In everyone’s eyes, it looked so close yet no one could discern its distance. It featured a smooth layer that was coveted by a black layer of smog. It was simply suspended above their heads and continued to slowly move; it was incomprehensible.

The horns rang loudly across all areas of the city and the guards began herding the crowd like sheep, migrating slowly towards the center as fearful cries were heard. It made his head spin, the stomping of their feet, the clanking of the soldier’s metal armor as they screamed at the distressed, the anomaly that held everyone’s gaze, and his parents, who are likely checking the perimeter of the city, he thought. Sweat once more began running down his entire face as he examined the people around him, hearing them call for their mother’s, seeing stragglers run to their homes. Novelle seemingly kept his composure in all situations he found himself in, yet none of them involved city-wide evacuation and a rip in the sky. Panic had him by the teeth, he struggled to swallow whatever large lump had formed in his throat; he followed the crowd closely.

Castiff stayed back home… should I have run back home? Why would we move to the town square? That won’t keep us safe, who told them that was a good idea in their training? I’m certain father will have this taken care of, but it’s still concerning. What in the Hell is happening? Novelle began advancing through the crowd, there weren’t many buildings in the square, it was mainly used as a gathering spot for nobility and merchants alike, as well as sermons that were usually taught by Ms. Grayson. Structures were spread thinly, leaving ample space for the crowd to gather accordingly. Novelle’s heart began pumping at a rapid speed, his hands became tense as he balled them – quickly spotting something that looked human but was the opposite. Horror enveloped him completely. A demonic being was present; within walking distance of them.

They appeared, as fast as a streak of wind blew away someone’s whisper. Through some wicked and ghastly void, such beings that began walking, running, one foot in front of the other were now present. To them, they likely thought that the group of people that looked at them with utter terror in their eyes were the unidentifiable ones. Yet, here they were, rushing towards a defenseless woman with their serrated-looking claws, tackling her with what felt like disgusting force. A collar bone was surely broken, part of her rib cage too. She had yelped like a helpless animal after being struck by a steel bolt. Blood immediately poured from her mouth, that collar bone slowly protruding out the side of her neck while the monster dug its hands deep into her breast. Her yelling immediately stopped, while everyone else’s began.

Like flies drawn to a corpse, they continued to bombard. It was only the afternoon and yet, the end felt so sudden – so cold and surprising. That dead woman must’ve felt this, that cold and surprising feeling. Maybe with a tad bit of thrill, considering her adrenaline was running seconds before her end. Novelle took a step back and within that time, another one sprinted into the feast. The man attempted to flee but was met with a quick slice to his knee. The demon forced its weight onto him, driving its legs deep into his backside, crushing him with minimal effort.

 

His head began to spin once more, seeing stars where they shouldn’t be seen while the scent of blood was steadily filling his nostrils. He attempts desperately to distance himself, falling over a flayed corpse and pushing a panicked soldier aside, his iron sword scraping his arm as he pulled himself out of the mass group of victims. Another fatality occurred off to his right, right in the town center – a man and child quickly being gutted while another group fleeing down the market road met their end in an ambush. A swarm of them began dropping onto the rooftops from the open wound that filled the orange sky. An unprecedented and almost dreamlike sight occupied Novelle’s eyes when he looked up to see that. 

Is this really happening…? How is this real. It can’t be.He couldn’t stop repeating the thought, he kept blinking, clinging onto the hope that a single blink would end this imaginative trance.

He dragged himself into an alleyway, knocking over wooden boxes and stored mead to cover his escape. Through the gap in the way, he spotted Ms. Grayson’s body being feasted upon by three of them. Her eyes pointed towards the hole in the sky in a blank and motionless state. Novelle continued to run, all while praying to whatever God that had a strip of mercy left in them, that Castiff and his family were safe or escaping. Could Castiff really make an escape out of this Hellish maw that has so quickly forsaken the Eastern Keep? The mere thought of he and his family being killed in this ordeal would make Novelle spiral out of control.

Back in their home, Castiff remained curled in the fetal position by the door of his room swallowed by the darkness that was there, leaving only the dim torch light from the main room as a source of light. He watched as his mother and father frantically covered all windows and moved furniture to blockade the entry way. His mother couldn’t stop trembling, she knocked over kitchenware and used the dingy clothing as cover, placing it over glass windows all the while stumbling over her own feet. The entire house quickly became lightly defended base.

The tension could not be missed, the hairs on the back of Castiff’s neck quickly stood and goosebumps formed along his forearms. He could feel a sinisterly cold presence that had seemed to wrap itself around the entire house. His lips became dry, unable to truly speak or yell out for help. A dreadful memory stung him like a large wasp killing its prey. His brain submitted to the painful thought of that cellar that occupied the air, deep within a field of ivory flowers. The dark that crept upon him seemed strong enough to rip the skin from his young body. It only smothered him in it, keeping him hostage until he finally got out through those moss-ridden doors.

A slight gust of wind brought him back, a loud crash through the window brought the father down to his knees as he cowered back in bewilderment. The demons stormed the home like a battalion would a castle. Within a matter seconds, they tore them apart, rendering skin from flesh and flesh from bone. Castiff did nothing, his breathing was becoming uneven and his eyes twitched. He continued to sit in the dark, mere inches away from mother and father who were now unrecognizable. There was no movement, no form of voice or resonance that he could conjure within himself. Everything was dull. As he saw them mount her and his father, everything seemed to slowly melt. The stinging pain came back in full unrelenting force. The vultures picked him apart and plucked his flesh full of holes. The maggots would fester in him, for there was nothing left to be eaten afterwards. His head slid along the stone wall as his eyes fixated upon the ground, looking at his own feet. 

Anything but this. Please don’t do this. I love her cooking, I still love her even when she was mad at me, she can be mad at me forever if she wants – both of them can, just please, not this, he thought. Without an ounce of movement, he continued to sit in the void that was his room, his world. He was the creator of this travesty. The ramifications were his to deal with. Images swelled inside of his mind, like welts growing on damaged skin. Painful now, stinging and unavoidable, he couldn’t help but dive deep into the time when mother would clean his room while he ate dinner. Or while he read books on cavern roaming creatures and spirits, like the Howling Knight. Enduring the punishments were worth it if he could live those moments over and over again.

He could hear them leaving now. They had emitted a strange noise, scattered breathing and crazed moaning that they performed in unison before running back outside. They ran back towards the entrance of the City, where the King made his stand.

Leofrick held the frontlines gallantly with his men. His large black coat swayed slowly as the wind crossed him. He examined his knights, all aligned beside him waiting for orders. “Sir… there’s so many of them. There’s tens of thousands of them, not counting for those that made it in, sir.” One knight spoke abruptly, his sword wobbling from the acute trembling that occupied his hands. The mysterious demons spanned across what felt like a large village, there were a profusion of them that screeched and breathed loudly, it seemed like that was their calling. Amidst the crowd of monsters were large beasts that towered over them in height and physique. Their darkened skin was barely covered in long strands of fur that seemed to only grow in random areas of their bodies. They stood tall, carrying entire trees in their hands as weaponry as their yellow eyes looked at the young piles of meat that stood against them. “We will achieve victory here. Have faith in me. If we push them back, they will retreat.” Leofrick responded, his voice carried through the unit of men with melancholy. The sternness was a welcome sight given that a bloody death was just before them.

He pulled the Evergale Blade from its scabbard, its magic imbued steel glowed immensely in the dark. As he shined its radiant blue light towards the enemy, he shouted like a wolf leading its pack, “ATTACK!” 

They all sprinted towards the enemy with Leofrick leaping ahead through the skies, the gambit was reliant on pure assault and tenacity. The concept of fear had to be forgotten at the walls of the city or else Death would have them personally.








Chapter 1:

Severance


Blood flowed along the glowing blade before dripping onto the ground. Strands of hair slip through his fingers as he loosens his grip, allowing the severed head to fall. His chest expands and compresses as his heart rattles inside, blurring his vision only slightly. As it cleared, he could feel the heat from the sun’s rise behind the city. Bodies of both men and demon were scattered across the battlefield, the taste of blood stained his tongue and the ringing in his ears slowly quieted down. His hair was covered in blood, sticking to his cheek as he whispered, “They didn’t retreat. They kept coming, one behind the other… they didn’t turn back at all.”

Through the incessant battle, he could make out images of his father, looking at him from a distance. Would he be proud of this? Would he be proud of this product that he’s molded, a baleful wolf in human skin? The answer should not matter for he no longer existed and that was the truthful end of it. A memory that should haunt, debilitate no longer. As he turned, he saw smokestacks that stood above the walls. Stepping over the corpses, he sprinted towards the gates, towards his wife and child.

Novelle cradled himself against the iron bars of an underground waterway where the city’s sludge ran through. It filled his nostrils with a pungent stench of rat carcasses and rotten food. Dirt had gathered under his fingernails, he flinched towards the rusted bars, leaving small cuts against his arms. He glanced downward to see the colored water flowing around him and deeper into blackness. Water, entering the dark without flinching or jumping. It simply flowed without fear. While chaos had consumed the world that was only a few inches above ground, water was calmly flowing. Could Novelle really become undone, shapeless, and abstract to overcome the grief that has afflicted him so? It was worth a try at least, he slowly crawled around the bars, using his size to maneuver through the gap, and looked skyward to see others hiding in the shadows. Survivors huddling together in the Vinery slums, their children in the center; a desperate mother cradling her baby in attempts to keep them silent. Novelle went up the long and narrow staircase, leading up towards the city markets.

His heart skipped as he turned the corner to see his mother, Charlotte, tossing a flayed monster against the wall. He struggled to speak, excitement caught his tongue and for a moment his vocals could say nothing, so he ran towards her with an open mouth. Her eyes widened to see her son coming towards her with a demonic beast following close behind. Before he could realize it, Charlotte zipped past him, slicing the monster clean in two.

“Oh, thank the Heavens you’re alright!” She said as she embraced him with all her strength, keeping him close to chest as her heart pumped. He could feel the warmth of her skin, her heart beating against his head and her hands covering him completely. “I couldn’t find you after I finished the evacuation, where were you?!” Her sky-blue eyes pierced through him like a needle. He could feel her concern, tears began to pour. “I hid in the slums, below the market… I just ran, mother. I didn’t know what to do except that. The group I was with were killed. Castiff stayed home.” She pulled him back in once more, preventing him from speaking of things that were too much for a frail boy. Her child was always audacious when he spoke but could never stand his ground when approached with danger. Countless times of happening upon a lonesome grass snake after adventuring too far and turning tail was all Charlotte could think of when running her fingers through his blonde head of hair.

“We need to get your friend, now. The danger’s too catastrophic to just stay home. Why didn’t you take him?!” There it was again, that cold heart-stopping stare. He struggled to articulate what he wanted to say, his mind was already occupied being assaulted by the imagery that was the crowd of people that were once breathing only a few hours ago. He attempted to face the grim reality that his friend could have met the same fate. Castiff wasn’t much a fighter despite the temper he had on him. He fought with his words, persuading and convincing those he knew; demands weren’t ideal, but he wasn’t afraid of confrontation so long as resulted in him achieving his goal.

The front door was destroyed, pieces of wood and glass were strewn about the living area. When they entered, Novelle jumps back in fear when he sees his friend’s parent’s mutilated bodies on top of each other. Dried blood had coated both of them. Novelle looked deeply into her eyes and could feel the terror envelope him. It felt like nails scraping at his skin, he lacked the power to take a step forward anywhere, anywhere but here. He can’t stand in front this scene and yet he could not move a muscle. He thought of Castiff, he had to move like the water in the slums if he wanted to be there for him. Abandonment couldn’t happen twice. He walked down the hall, pushing past the grief.




Chapter 2:

Stay with Me


Castiff held onto Charlotte as they traveled back to the tower. Despite holding onto her tightly, it felt as if she wasn’t there. As if no one was there, really. Just a force that was shapeless, mindless, and had no sense of self. It felt almost like floating in a dream, except there were no dreams to be dreamt. No sleep to be had or memories to be treasured. Only a simple force that continued to pull him along towards something.

He couldn’t stop thinking about it. What had just happened? From now to about twenty-six hours ago, what happened? I was talking to my friend; we were reading our books. My mother came in, we talked some more and then they just died. Both my mother and father had perished, ceased to exist, vanished. I don’t understand how that can happen so quickly. Did I miss something? Castiff mumbled and drool began to slowly drip down Charlotte’s back, he replayed the event again and again, trying desperately to comprehend the newly faced reality that he lacked a home. He lacked love. Nothing could bring that back.

Before he realized, he found himself in a small woolen bed, covered in warm fur. His eyes burned, they stung as his eyelids peeled open. A sliver of sunlight broke through the gap in the red curtains, making him jump to his feet in a staggered panic. He fell to the floor, clutching his head aggressively as he attempts to focus on the red curtains. His eyes widened, that familiar pain had resurfaced once more. The vultures came to pluck, and the maggots burrowed into him. The acute pain had kept him bound, groveling on the wooden floor as his fingers had twitched.

“They’re gone. They’re really gone. How… I need you guys. Please, don’t just leave me here. Stay with me, please.” He whispered. He whispered it again and again, repeating it to himself until his mouth went dry. 

He felt the isolation choke the life out of him, there was no one else in the world except him. Stranded in a sea to never witness what could have been, and present to witness what will be.




 


 




Chapter 3:

The Cry of Desolation

 

It had begun to rain outside. Pouring over the land as the wind howled in accordance. The city of Gale was now silent, stagnant, and soulless. The sky, which no longer had a hole torn through, was filled with dark clouds and a cold, uncomfortable air seeped its way into the dormant streets. Novelle found himself entering the cold training room, where he and his father sparred. His feet slid along the stone flooring, kicking cobblestone pebbles out of the way as he made his way to the weapon rack. He simply stared at his spear, making no attempt to lift the bladed staff from its home. He could hear the rain, it sounded like a somber cry or plea that echoed throughout the room. The sound that had went rung his ears deeply as he attempted to evade the horrific imagery that filled his brain. The sound morphed from water hitting the tower, to screaming. There was no longer rainwater that would otherwise take the edge off the heat, but pools of blood that flowed through the stone cracks. It haunted him greatly without end.

“I figured I’d find you in here.” The door creaked as it slowly closed, Charlotte carried a ripe red apple and glass of water as she approached. She held a stern look on her face, that same look she had when plucking Castiff from his home. It was a look of focus; it held no emotion. It was a look of triumph. “You need to eat. I know it’s difficult, but you must eat something my dear.” She spoke in a calm, almost tranquil-like tone. “Mother… I must ask you. Have you ever ran away from a fight?” He asked. His hands slightly trembled as he swallowed a sip of water.

“Plenty of times. I know this may strike you as surprising, but I too was a young lass like you! The only strong thing about me was my legs could carry me for miles.” He smiles at that, it was a small one, the corners of his lips curved but it was still a smile that was caused by her. She took pride in that. “There were two boys once. They picked on me every day because I was a commoner. I held no nobility, my lineage was nothing but farm hands, and they picked me apart because of it. They were so mean. I would run away from them all the time, avoiding my work and taking the long way around to the central markets, arriving late to my daily duties all because I didn’t have the strength to push them back. Until one day, your father came and rescued me like a knight in shining armor.” Charlotte found herself beaming as she reminisced. “I thought you disliked those kinds of stories, mother!” Novelle exclaimed before biting deeply into his food. “I know. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Running away doesn’t make you a coward, Novelle. You are a survivor. You survived what happened. Castiff as well, you are both very strong boys. I want you to answer this question for me dear. When you told me about… what you saw that day, what was the first thing you thought of? The very first thing that came to mind, what was it exactly?”


Novelle tried his best to divert away from the painful thought that had only been made real just sometime ago. He could hear the screams too well, the blood spilling, and bones snapping. He constantly proclaimed that he was okay, yet he found himself on the verge of tears all day. “I thought to run. To escape to the nearest corner and hide there until it was over, praying that they wouldn’t see me.” His lip quivered but was quickly coveted by Charlotte’s finger.

“When you become scared, run toward them. Do not fear their attack but fear the chance that you may miss yours. If you run away, you will alwaysmiss. Besiege these beasts to protect your own. Turn your fear into ambition, my son.” His head tilted slightly, and he blinked once or twice. She chuckled, “You will know what I mean when the time comes. Until then, eat and check on your friend.”

 

A bowl of hot soup was delivered to Castiff, he sat down at the head of the bed, looking at the curtains once more as Novelle approached him with a steaming bowl in hand. His presence brought a faint, weak smile to Castiff’s face. “I brought you some food. Here, a piece of bread to dip in the soup.” Novelle said as he wiped his hands against his shirt. “Thank you.” His voice was frail, like an animal on its last breath. Novelle continued to look down at the floor despite him hearing the despair in his friend’s voice. The wind blew strongly against the window in the night. Almost a howl. Without an exchange of words, he stands tall only to leave him yet again. Small splashes of water caused a commotion in the soup, moving the small bits of vegetables that sat in the broth. Castiff sat motionless as his tears escaped him again.

Novelle simply rested outside of his room, his back firmly planted against the door as he shed tears of his own. They cried in unison as the wind blew against the tower, their throats dry and swollen from the depravity of it all. An amalgamation of anger and fear festered within them, a madness that was certainly fresh loomed over them both, and as their tears hit the ground, so did the humanity of the rest of the crumbling world.


















Chapter 4:

The Powerful & The Yielding

The precipice that lie between bravery and idiocy are almost nonexistent. Is it bravery that man follows to protect those closest to him? To what end does man reach before a senseless, idiotic death pulls the wool over their eyes for good? The accolades of being a brave and devout knight are enough to make a man go ballistic with succulent greed and die idiotically, for the world does not starve for knights. The world does not plead for a hero in ironclad armor, it simply exists. Within such confines of the world lie brutality and needless, idiotic deaths of the strong; until there is no strong left.

 

Novelle swung his bladed spear relentlessly at the training dummy that had hay spilling out from its sternum. He pierced with elegance, sliced with malice, and slashed with anguish. Blisters were popping all over the palm of his hands and sweat ran deep across his forehead and all throughout his blonde hair, he had been going for hours. Charlotte’s voice murmured in his head as he sprinted forward, her words sounded soft at first and then started beating like a drum. “If you run away, you will alwaysmiss. Besiege these beasts to protect your own. Turn your fear into ambition.”

Her words struck once again.

“I must prepare, Charlotte, I do not have the time to train with him. He can handle himself.” Leofrick said loudly as he walked with a quickened pace down the stairs that led to the main hall of the estate. “Then what will you do, Leo? I have two boys in there that cannot come to terms with the events that have transpired, and I must set groundwork to the survivors of the city. I have to reassure them somehow.” He quickly stopped and turned towards her, resting his hand on her cheek before giving her a Kingly kiss. “You are my wife. Surely the Queen of Gale can figure something out. If not, Charlotte can certainly find a way. I must visit the families of the knights that were killed that day. I’m also sending out a research party to investigate for any signs of those creatures. If we can find out anything about them, it will be of great-.” Novelle stood at the end of the stairwell, staring vastly into his father’s eyes. He exclaimed, without hesitation, “I want to accompany the research group…” His brows furrowed and he kept eye contact. Out of all the novelty things his son would do, this was the least expected. His valor caused Charlotte to smile a bit.

“…Why? Do you’ve any idea how dang-.” “Of course I know. I cannot just sit idly by while more and more men put their lives on the line for the sake of protecting us. I cannot do it anymore, father, not after what happened. I must act. I can’t let fear run me out anymore… Let me go with them and I can gather resources too. Please father.”

He glanced at Charlotte, then back to Novelle. Unless it was strict “NO.” from either his father or mother, the silence that emitted from him was a definitive “Yes.” “There’s some leather armor in the armory, grab it and put it on and do not, under any circumstances, stray from the group.” He sprinted up the stairwell already anticipating what could be found outside. “I suppose a boy such as him cancome to terms.” Leofrick whispered.

“Cas’! Castiff, I have something to tell you…!” Novelle says as he rushes through the doorway clad in leather and silver armor. The bed squeaked softly, he was rocking back and forth in a slow, comfortable motion. “Yes?” He responded; his voice still shot. “I-I’m going outside! I’m going outside with a group of knights and researchers. We’re going to look for them Castiff, the monsters. If we can find anything that will aid us, possibly prevent a future attack – now is the day to look for such a thing. We can actually fight back against them…!” Novelle’s eyes could burn a hole through him, he gleamed so cheerfully at Castiff it beckoned him to look back. His eyes were deep with dark shadows that lined the lids underneath and a dreary expression to boot. “That’s good, Nova’! We can actually keep them at bay…” His words lingered and dragged as he whispered, “baaay.” His eyes dropped back down to the bed, again. “We’ll get through this, okay?” His words were comforting, yet they felt fruitless. They warmed him up and immediately left him in the cold to freeze. He heard a faint sound as the door closed behind his friend, a voice of some sort yet only he stayed in this room. It was so dull it could have been mistaken for a house rodent.

The sun’s shining bright today. 

Novelle thought as he marched toward the city center. He spotted a large number, a battalion almost, of knights that were laughing and yelling at one another despite being only a few feet away. His lips tightened and he gritted his teeth; this was the scene to which he was caught in the bloodbath. The area where they were standing, laughing and corralling like children, was the same area that bore those bodies and a lake of blood.

He walked forward, the sound of his leather gauntlets stretching as he curled his fingers and the boots tapping heavily as he placed one foot in front of the other. They all turned instantly, almost in unison like they were a hive mind. Scoffs emitted, smirks began crossing their faces and whispers among men were created from thin air, causing Novelle to sweat with discomfort. To them, despite him having the King’s blood in his veins, he was still a stupid, reckless, and rich child who knew nothing and wanted to be something. “Look who’s come to court, your grace.” 

One of the knights flew down to a bent knee and cracked a wicked smile while the others followed suit. Their laughter scorned him, “I’m here… to help with the res-.” “Stop. You’re not here for that. Is it really a task of high importance to prove that you’re actually useful? To the point where daddy had to lend you a handicap, aye?” Another knight spoke as he stood back up on his feet. Novelle’s eyes widened as he quickly became engulfed in rage. He was baffled but still, the man continued berating the Prince. Were these really the so called “knights” that he had to be stuck with? The bastard’s tongue should be cut out for just thinking about speaking that way. “Silence! All of you worthless fucks need to at least pretend you’ve some dignity left when in the presence of Prince Novelle!”

A deep, stern voice broke amongst the group. A tall man fitted with silver armor that covered him from neck to toe moved gallantly towards Novelle. His armor gleamed brilliantly as the sun’s rays cascaded over him gently. Its reflectiveness could expose anything that hid in the darkness. “My apologies for their belligerence, my liege. It is punishable by death, the way these fools speak to you. Sir Nathaniel, Commander of the Research Party.” Novelle’s head reached his chest plate. A giant he was, knelt to one knee and placed his right hand over his chest. The rest of them did the same instinctively without hesitation. He had a head of blonde hair that swept back and went down to his neck and a beard that seemed recently trimmed. His deep brown eyes were shown as he lifted his head, followed by deep scars across his cheek and forehead, they seemed to compliment his coarse, rugged skin. “…Pleased to meet your acquaintance, Sir Nathaniel. I was tasked with assisting you – the Research Party, I mean.” He fumbled the words as they left his gullet, how should he speak to a man who has stared directly into the eyes of war? He kept his lips shut tightly after that. “Allow me to be honest, your grace. This will be a rather… large-scale expedition. I suspect, none of us will be back home for some time. It could be a few days, if the Lord wills it; or possibly a few months. If you’ve any obligations or responsibilities to tend to... I would turn back ‘round and tend to them.” He spoke with such certainty; he could feel his feet gradually shift back towards home. He thought of it, a lingering, burning question that he himself could not answer, not with truth nor with a lie. Am I about to run away, again? How many times must cowardice overtake me before I am able to do something? He staggered, thinking of that night and the possibility of it happening again.

He went forward, sticking with the band of cruel, dire men and walking out of the raised Portcullis that diligently protected the city. His eyes widened with surprise as he sighted the wasteland that lay before him. “What happened out here…?” Novelle said faintly, his foot stepping into a damp pool of blood. “Your fatheris what happened, Princess.” A passing knight rode high on his horse as he examined the poor boy’s astonished face. The face of bewilderment and dismay, never imagining that the King was capable of this, was plastered all over his face. The man that carried him to bed when he’d fall asleep, face first into his books, the man that bravely walked the streets and greeted both the poor and rich with a familiar smile, the man who wielded a sword and made sure he’d never witness it in action, was the deliverer of ungovernable death.

“Your father protected us without hesitation, my Prince. He routed the enemy in service of everyone behind the wall. As it looks, this was necessary bloodshed… The results of our expedition will serve as thanks. Come, we’re heading North, to Rancor.” Nathaniel shouted from behind the cart full of supplies and horses, making his way towards the frontlines. The flowers swayed and bloody leaves crunched as Novelle walked forward, walking North.

 















Chapter 5:

Return to Me, Mother


The field of ivory lilacs caught his eye. Warm winds caused them to sway, and he could not resist following their dance, almost mimicking it. He clutched his mother’s tender hand as he reached for the flower with the other. A faint scent filled his nose as he closed in. The petal felt soft, much like his own skin. “They look so vibrant, don’t they Castiff?” She said, her white dress flowing as the trees shook. “Yes… they do.” He responded. Vibrance and innocence, what could derive from such words? A silence fell upon them both and as Castiff plucked one from the ground, he turned to give it to her without a second to spare.

Her hand glided with speed and elation, making contact with his cheek as he falls over to the side, his cheek turning cherry red. She slapped him once again; with that, his eyes flew open to see a blank stone wall and sweat dripping down his neck. He felt his heart pump rapidly; what sort of dream just occurred? Or perhaps a nightmare? Castiff rose to his feet and quickly got dressed, his thin limbs being covered in a baggy tunic.

“Mother…?” He whispered. He heard it again, an unfamiliar song, a voice that seemingly peaked out from beyond a void. “Come to me. See me again, Castiff.” It said to him. Mother…!! He thought. He smiled; he began grinning uncontrollably as a glint of happiness shined in both of his eyes. He heard her again, she beckoned him, and he ran out of the estate that housed him. Tears ran down his face; he sprinted down the trash filled, abandoned streets of his hometown, eventually spotting his once-occupied home. There wasn’t a single soul in sight. The middle class, once hard working and vibrant with laughter as the blacksmiths pounded away on red hot steel, ever so diligently, was now turned to scorched ash.

He entered, stepping on broken glass shards from the door window. It was still relatively clean since it was only three days after the slaughter. Castiff immediately recoiled as his eyes lay upon the dried, rotting corpses that were his mother and father. He struggled to breathe after that, seeing them again torn to pieces, seeing them being torn to pieces that night caused his vision to darken without mercy. An intense wave of fear came rushing all over his body as the grim memories plucked his weakened mind apart.

She laid there, still. She did not move to clean the room, did not raise a hand to fold the clothes, or even lock him away in the cellar after a beating. She simply laid atop his father in a mucky puddle of dried blood. Yet, her voice beckoned him like a drum signaling the army of an enemy attack. It rang so loudly without stopping he became enamored by it. It was intoxicating. He moved closer, examining the lashes and cuts that were made all over her body. Her left eye was gouged out; a fly burrowed its way into the empty socket and didn’t leave.

“My son. Please.”

“Mother?! Where are you?! I need you, please mom please – I need you! I need you!! I need you now, please! PLEASE!” He screamed, he yelled it aloud the walls shook in response. He looked at the body in an exhilarated expression, his chest expanding rapidly as he attempts to catch his breath. “…I see it now, mother. I understand.” He whispered.

He got to his hands and knees, in a kneeling position to honor those above him. Castiff slowly advances upon his mother’s decimated body, the feeling of elation filling every ounce of him as he touches her warm, moist skin. It felt so elegant, like the white lilacs in his dream. The hand that hurt him, the hand that loved him was here. It could be felt again like it was before they had taken her away from him, the vile creatures. It made his racing heart slow down to a dull, sensitive beat. He crawled on top of her completely, the flies buzzing around him, landing in his frizzled black hair while staying near the body. It was bliss, the reasoning for all of this madness was for her warm embrace once more.

He could feel her again, her soft body as she cradled him; he rubbed his face against her back, the bone scraping against his chin. It sent chills down his spine; how could she have been killed if she was right here the entire time? She never left his side. She was here, awaiting his inevitable return. “Oh… mother. I’m right here. I’m always here with you.” He whispered into her ear, locking his fingers with hers and nuzzled even closer.

The house stayed silent, save for the flies buzzing; he continued to lay there with a comforting smile on his face. The white lilacs bloomed brilliantly as she stood in the garden. Like an angel that was descending upon a lost soul from Heaven, she came and caressed his cheek with a slap that could topple mountains. Castiff was struck and he fell over but continued to smile at her, for he knew what he was given. Not punishment, a blessing of divinity. Having a blessed mother contact him with such visceral rage was something no other son could comprehend. It was his duty to accept such a gracious gift. He slept on top of her, feeling nothing but her tenderness as he was fast asleep; reunited in her blood.


Chapter 6:

An Unfathomable Weapon


He would deny his own existence if it meant he could be with her. He would become a husk of a human, valueless if it resulted in comfort. Castiff had awoken, slowly dragging himself to his feet, only to be met with a distant dull glow that shined through his door. A peculiar sensation beckoned him to walk through; he headed toward the attic, his face covered in dirt and orange dried blood, he looked as if he’d returned from a grisly war.

He found himself in the attic, walking through as he crouched to avoid the wooden beams that held the structure. The weight of his body causing the floor itself to compress with every step he took as he approached his bookshelf, it was adorned with the same curved dagger that Novelle was examining. He saw the serpent’s maw as it bit deep into the ogre looking creature. What a design for such a weapon, beautiful… He thought to himself as he grabbed the golden handle. Its curved design was otherworldly, it had mesmerized him completely within a few seconds as he slowly rotated the weapon.

 

With some applied pressure, a simple cut across the throat would do the trick. It’d be over and done with and he could see her again. The idea replayed in his mind over and over. It would have to be quick but firm, fast but ruthless. After eyeing the blade, he welcomed it, he pressed the blade ever so slightly against his throat, the cold steel brushing against his soft, panicked neck and making the target that much more. He shivered as he pushed a little deeper against his jugular, blood slowly starting to draw. He felt the cut and quickly closed his eyes, gripped the handle with fury and pulled like the madman he was. It sliced through like butter, splitting himself wide open for the world to see. He stood there paralyzed as a steady flow of blood poured out and suddenly stopped just before touching the floor. It floated in the air now, being completely stagnant while he felt nothing. No pain or convulsion, no shutting down of the nerves or rattling. He examined his blood, seeing it slowly levitate as it became sentient. “Whoa…” He said aloud.

It flowed backwards, back into his throat where it once resided as if it yearned for his warmth. The atrocious open wound slowly closed, his skin pulling back together as it slowly reconnected tissue to close the embarrassing attempt on his own life.

There were no markings, no lacerations, and the dagger was completely clean. He stared in amazement. “What kind of weapon is this…?”

 







Chapter 7:

The Festering


Leofrick stood tall atop the castle stairs. The King stood before the gathering crowd of nobles, merchants, the strugglers, and the survivors. Charlotte held his hand tightly, brushing at his glowing white hair. “The people need assurance, Charlotte. They need to know that we are rebuilding and most importantly, they need to know that this Kingdom remains safe despite all that’s happened.” Leofrick pulled away, stepping forward and forcing all eyes onto him.

“People of Gale… we are struggling. We are clamoring for support, of any kind. As a result, from that night, we lost many. However, we must not lose again. We must not succumb to such wickedness that has befallen us, nor must we turn on one another in times of danger! There will be NO more bloodshed within these walls, we will take each other’s hand in stride and create new fortification.” His mouth began to run dry, his heart pounded heavily as he yelled each word at the still-gathering crowd. Some couldn’t understand. Some refused to understand. Some simply did not care, why would they? Their loved ones were butchered like dogs in the open; caring was out of the question.

A sudden shift caused unease within him. Every word sounded slow and weak in comparison with what was spoken only moments ago. His throat grew tighter and he felt a disgustingly heavy weight be brought down upon his shoulders; What just happened…?He thought as he raised his arms; the crowd raising theirs in unison. A scuffled, dingy head of hair seemingly poked out from the crowd of other heads, slowly moving and catching Leofrick’s attention.

Familiaritywas the word that echoed within his soul as he saw it walk by. It was his father.

“The boy’s become a man now, eh? How noble of ya’ to lead a worthless bunch!” He whispered to him and yet it bolstered louder than any scream or yell that was projected at him before. No amount of repetition of “You’re not real” and practice of beating the literal thought out would remove him from his fractured mind. The man was directly beside him now, to him but not the others. Only he could see his oily and rugged skin. Those swollen knuckles and gnarled fingernails that clutched the bloody hilt of a broken rusted sword. “I should’ve gutted you and strung you up in the hall from the moment you came out that whore’s cunt, you fucking disgrace.” The man talked as Leofrick talked, causing him to tremble in front of those looking for hope. “The question now is, what do we do?! What must we do now to bring the peace with which we were bound? We must work, hard. We gather supplies and build, we graze, we continue to work hard and we will regain what was taken from us. We owe that to those that are not here with us today.” Leofrick’s eyes looked all over the crowd before suddenly shifting towards the ground. “If only I could batter you again with this blade, boy, I’d do it slower than last time. Was too excited last time.”

The crowd remained stagnant, quiet as the dead. Heads tilted and fingers shuffled. Was that it? The King of Gale delivering a guttural speech; what else needed to be said? Leofrick searched the crowd desperately for answers, yearning for the correct statement that would bring them a shred of hope. He spotted a woman, knelt down and praying. Tears washing over her dirtied hands. Leofrick crouched and began praying with her, their voices attempting to reach somewhere – anywhere.

The crowd slowly dispersed, small bursts of chatter went into different directions as everyone spread out. Conversations could be as dangerous as a hidden knife or a poisoned chalice, depending on the topic at hand; the topic very well could be the King himself. A simple assassination was all it took.

 

He stared in the mirror with rage, seeing a quick glimpse of father behind him, gawking at his very being. His breathing became sporadic, he clenched hard and sent a fist quick and deep into his own head. Then another, into his cheek this time. One after the other, with sounds of bone bashing against each other brutally, he punched like a monster until his mouth turned bloody and his cheek swollen from frustration. He stood in front of that mirror, sewn into an opened wound that festered with noxious fluid and maggots that nibbled at his eyes. He felt every bit of it again, that familiar itchy pain that only his father would know. It was always the eyes. His only companion there, deep within that wound, was his father. A devil that hid in human skin. 

 

“You’ll never be rid of me, Leofrick. You still yearn for something with me, what could it be?” He said to him as he picked at the scarring around his eyes.






Chapter 8:

Conquest for Power

The hot rag rubbed against stone, cleaning the specks of blood that stained it. She squeezed the soaked rag tightly, water running down the wall as she pondered the thought of him being imprisoned within the confines of his own mind. She wondered what it felt like, to be a victim of yourself. To be at mercy at the feet of one’s own doing, as a result of past endeavors. She remembered it well. Having to run through the filth ridden streets of the Vinery Slums just to get away from those debased children and to get to that hole in the ground, what others called “home”. It was every day, this sprint; all for a few gold coins after scrubbing the boats so deep the fingernails would pull back and blisters formed. Then one afternoon, a random moment of belligerent chaos had shown her the path to freedom; free from the shackles that grounded her in Vinery.

Charlotte smiled, grinning from ear to ear at the mere thought of Leofrick becoming free just like her. What sort of man would he be if he had total control of his own mind? If he did what she had done? He’d be the purest man alive…  

She thought as her hand slowly shifted down her thigh. A slight push with her fingers sent a quick jolt of pleasure through her body as her mind ran rampant. The man that was able to claim the Eastern side of Gale as his own, the man that went out and eviscerated an army on his own, that same man who rebuilt the town into a fortified Kingdom, having complete control and using it would make him that of a God. There was a look of pure ecstasy across her face, her eyes unable to focus on anything as her legs shook uncontrollably. She wiped her fingers clean before wiping away the rest of the blood.

There was a large gathering of clouds that hung over the city, this time, voices could be heard outside. Conversations of gathering stone and rebuilding had flooded the main street not soon after the speech had concluded. They yelled and danced; Charlotte watched from above through the window where a cold breeze had caught her unaware. Castiff…She thought as she spotted him walking towards the front gate. He walked calmly, like a knight emerging victorious from battle.

“Decided to get some fresh air?” She caught him turning the corner, his dirty fingers clutching the stone wall with agitation. “Yes, the castle grew quiet, so I thought it best to go outside.” His voice fell deathly quiet. Words flowed with an elegant and threatening splendor as he spoke. “Of course. You’re back now, if there’s anything you need, call upon me or Nova’s father.” She looked at him; for a moment, a split second, she saw nothing in those eyes of his. Two black pearls that seemed to never change or express any kind of emotion. Eyes that befitted not a man, but a monster. He looked directly back at her, examined her very essence with those abyssal pearls. “I used to have that same look that you have right now. That stark and barren glint. It’s maddening isn’t it? Living through that day, over and over again thinking how it could have been different if you had done this or done that? It…leaves you craving, yearning for that which was unobtainable at the time.” She says to him with an ungentle tone.

Castiff’s brows furrowed instantly, “My apologies, my Queen. I don’t mean to burden you with my personal affairs. I am fine. In fact, I’ve never felt better.” He tightened his lips quick and continued to gawk at her with those hopeless eyes. “When is Novelle scheduled to return home?” “Scouting expeditions have no schedules, Castiff. It could be months or years before he comes back. However, they assume the journey will take two weeks at the very least, considering they’re heading towards a town in Rancor territory.” He nodded and walked past her towards his room. 

I know more and more about you every time I look at you, boy. She thought as she smiled. Charlotte wanted to take more interest in his blatant inner turmoil, she neededto know more of his pain.

Castiff placed the dagger underneath his pillow and sat in the dark. Every time he’d return home from an adventure, he found himself most comfortable residing in the dark while he heard his mother cleaning before bed. It was the noise that calmed him. The dark killed him. Perform the Pilgrimage, my son. Cross fields. Her voice erupted in his head without warning again. He ran his fingers through his hair, sitting in bed, unshaken by her revealed presence this time.










Chapter 9:

The Battle of Lurikain


Lurikain Forest was a fertile land that harbored an array of colorful flowers that were seemingly always in bloom. The trees spread far from each other, leaving the sun’s rays to bathe such flowers in radiance. The air grew colder as morning turned to noon, and the mossy stone structures that inhabited the forest lay in slumber. Their cracked stone shields that no human could hold alongside the towering grassy stone slab that they called “greatswords”. Novelle had passed by the forest once in a quickened blur as he practiced horseback with his father, the hooves clasping upon the dirt as he peered through the peculiar woodland area.

“What kinda fucking knight doesn’t know how to wield a sword?” A loud-mouthed soldier said as he wailed in laughter, the others following suit. “I was raised an archer, you rat. It’s all I know, so when I save your drunken arse in a fight that has distance, your appreciation is already noted.” He replied. Novelle clutched his spear tightly, warming the wooden handle while looking around at the other men. They all reeked of cheap booze, all except Captain Nathaniel. He looked ahead, completely stoic to the ramblings of those who’re infatuated with a bottle of ale. “The men trouble you, my Lord. I can sense it. Rest assured, this is just… their nature. It only makes sense for an animal to do four essential things: Sleep, fuck, eat, and drink!” Nathaniel yelled aloud. Novelle chuckled, loosening his grip on his trusty weapon.

“There’s a forest up ahead, we’ll reach it before long.” He said as he looked directly at the young Prince. He looked directly into his eyes just like the first time they met. He could lull a beast to sleep with those comforting brown eyes of his, if they looked at him long enough. “Aye’. Lurikain I believe. It would do us some good to rest there, two days of marching is… quite the distance.” He said somberly. He remembered where each grassy plain led to as he looked around. Looking West, the further you’d travel, the greater the heat. The territory of Jhik hid there; merchants quickly grew fond of the many opportunities that arose within Jhik. The city was enraptured by the smoldering hot weathers of the region. If one rode North they’d soon find patches of snow along the mountain ranges, leading to the small Empire of Rancor. In ever-lasting conflict for who will succeed the King, they are in constant reform. South, came the coast of Juxton and the Juxton sea. No King or Queen claimed that territory, it remained free and teeming with life as the dense woods clashed with the beach. Finally, adventuring East, lies Gale. The great open plains of green is obvious sign enough that a person wandering is heading toward the Kingdom.

 

“Your father taught you how to use that spear?” Nathaniel said. “…Somewhat. I mainly practice alone.” “No manner of beast or man could get past a good spear. You would do well to continue training, my Lord!” A smile came across his face again. They’re frequent when he’s around him. It’s natural to smile in his presence. A knight that upholds their honor is as rare as a majestic beast of old. “Maybe, you could do the honor of training me? Assuming you’re proficient with spearwork. A man with such talented skills hasto be more than just their sword, right?” Novelle spoke. “I did undergo rigorous training with all types of weaponry back home. Your father is a tough man, he leaves no potential knight rested, always training… I think I could do that, provided we have a smooth journey.” He became elated at that. A mentor that was willing to help improve his skills, a teacher.

Hours had passed by, the sun was bursting through the gathering clouds and offering its gaze upon the forest that lie just ahead of the battalion. “I heard stories that the stone knights would move around, come dusk.” One of the knights said as he removed his bags. The archer responded, laughing at his fear, “They don’t. That’s something your mother told you whilst you were sucking her tit. The sun petrified them. Before that, they were giant beasts that would roam the world, protecting the travelers from danger.” “Sounds like another tit sucking tale. Everyone unpack, we’ve arrived.” Nathaniel commanded. The knights were often times mistaken for giant spires of stone in the ground. Very commonly hiding in plain sight.

Novelle followed behind the others, unpacking his bag as they unpacked theirs, setting up shop just as they did. It wasn’t natural to lead - rarely did he ever. The closest he came to leading anything was when he corralled a line of worker ants back toward their dirt mount one time. The experience and vigor required to lay your voice down upon a group of rattled men was entirely unfamiliar. Yet, Nathaniel did it with ease. He is stoic.

He placed his belongings near one of the stone knights. Flowers sprouted from the greenery that covered the helmet and shield. All pieces of armor that stood taller than he ever did. He stared at the sleeping knight, tracing his fingers along its intricate design. It featured glyphs of unknown origin. There was a profound sense of stillness as he stood close to the mysterious stone, a sense of peace. It simply slept.

Why can’t all things be as calm as this? He thought. The idle ramblings of the other men fizzled out as he came across a peculiar thing. His fingers drifted across a sticky purple residue that hid deep within the cracks of the armor. It pulsated, it began to slowly spread across the chest plate, instantly killing the flowers that bloom and, in its place, infecting the entirety of it. Novelle quickly retreated as he squeezed his silver topped spear. “C-Captain Nathaniel..!” He yelped. It began to move suddenly. Pebbles and dirt fell as the knight slowly rose to its feet, alerting everyone in the area of its presence.

One rose after the other, his eyes going upward towards the sky as he watched it grow taller and taller. It stood on both legs and featured red glowing eyes in the slit of the helmet. That small moment of amazement quickly warped into terror. His heart pumped and his veins jolted as he saw all of them become surrounded by now-sentient beasts. “Group up, men! Protect the Prince at once!!” Nathaniel dragged Novelle with haste in his veins, placing him in the middle of their already struggling formation. “Just stay fucking calm!” A knight screeched as he swatted his blade as the stone knights quickly approached.

There was no more time left. The archer sprinted ahead, breaking formation and knocking an arrow. He loosed with speed, the arrow whistled through the sky right before planting square in the chest. The purple sludge ached and the stone knight crumbled, like a tower under siege. Another came quick, it stomped its foot, causing what felt like a miniature earthquake among them. Blood oozed from the bottom. One by one, the knights broke formation and made a beeline toward the forest entrance, only to be either smashed or sliced in half by the giant stone swords. The skirmish turned bloody and corpses were beginning to pile as they made a break for it, their last breaths being used to cry for help. “Don’t stop firing, archer!” Nathaniel yelled. He sprinted toward his enemy and leaped forward, planting his foot on the giant stone shield, utilizing it as a springboard before driving his blade deep into its weak spot.

Arrows flew over Novelle’s head. They took out two more enemies. He scrambled along the dirt, struggling to pick his feet up before hiding behind a tree. It was that same thing again, that maddening fear and fervent death that tracked him. His heart raced and he trembled. It had to be different this time, except, how could it be? He could hear them scream too; it wouldn’t stop. They sounded just like the townsfolk did that night. He was trapped by their beg for mercy, the same screams caused him to cover his ears. He’d do anything if it meant he couldn’t hear them again. Yet, the responsibility remained for him. He had to fight, and so he picked up his weapon instead for he could do no such thing while stricken with fear.

Of course, rarely was he ever free from fear.

He gripped his weapon with all the strength in his body as he remembered his mother’s words. They struck like a dagger to his ears. Twisted deep in his head as they picked the back of his brain. Run toward them. Run toward them; if I run away, I will always miss.He felt one approaching, the ground shook violently as it came closer. He inhaled and held his breath before turning from the tree to face the towering knight. Death stood in his gaze, not a stone knight. It held him firmly in its hand, the boy without the faintest idea of the perils of the world outside. He dropped his spear and his heart dropped down to the pit of his stomach as those faint red eyes ripped through him. They petrified him so easily. The knight reeled back its greatsword, readying to slice the young child in half.

From afar, a sudden arrow planted into its chest, this time fitted with an explosive tip. A fiery explosion followed when Novelle retreated, turning the knight into complete dust. Another three explosive arrows took out the last of them, carpeting the area in dense heat. “Prince…? PRINCE?!” Nathaniel searched in a daze. “I’m here!” The smoke slowly cleared, allowing him to emerge from the tree. “Was that you, archer?” Nathaniel called out. He struggled to catch his breath underneath the silver armor. He slowly walked across, examining the bodies as he moved. “Damn…” He said.

He found the archer’s bow, completely torn to pieces while his sizzled body laid adjacent to it. He knelt down, his face ridden with sweat and grief. He closed his eyes and said nothing, nor did he think anything. Nathaniel rose walking toward Novelle and seeing another figure near him. “I assume we have you to thank for that volley of arrows?” Nathaniel said. She lifted her cowl, revealing her cinnamon brown skin and dark eyes for all to see. Her arms were riddled with deep scars, hands equipped with leather gauntlets that fitted small compact knives and wiring, could be spare bowstring. Her long-braided hair dropped and she remained stalwart as she looked back at the Captain, “Your thanks is not needed. A sleeping sea beast could hear the commotion you all caused; I was just passing by.” “Aye’. Indeed. An yet, quite frankly, my gratitude isn’t very sincere, considering you fired upon my men. How should I thank you for that?” Nathaniel bit his lip deep, his anger festered seeing her callous look remain after what was said. “Had I not fired, you wouldn’t be speaking to me right now – nor would the rest of your men. It was the only way.” “Step away from this person, my Lord. I humbly request it.” “That certainly didn’t sound humble,much less a

requesteither, quite frankly.” She sparked his ire and he stepped forward, forcing Novelle to intervene. “Captain! Be that as it may… she saved my life. Really, saved

ourlives. You wish to repay her in assault?” He had his hands on his chest plate. He could still feel the heat rising off the silver, as if it were freshly made steel from the smithy. They continued to shake from either shame or fear. Eyes were watching him when he submitted before the stone knight, he was but a mere babe on the battlefield. Too young and certainly too stupid to be present here.

 

“Seems that it mustn’t take much to weaken the so-called “men” around here. Foolish bunch, you are. I know not where your travels take you, nor do I care to. You’ll die out here, and it’ll be an idiotic, useless one. Trophies, accolades, and mounds of gold do not lie in these lands, if it did, I’d have found it already. A bit of advice for the blonde Prince here; go home while you still can. Unless an idiotic death is your final wish in life.” Such poison in her voice. Her words stung deep like a viper’s bite. Novelle shook his head and gathered his belongings, “Thank you for saving my life. Should we cross paths again, I will reward you handsomely.” He meant that, she could feel the confidence in his tone when he said that. Her brow furrowed in anger. Blood began to boil for a moment. “No more stops, we march straight to Rancor.” Nathaniel said, the rest of the lingering group set off once more.


 


 

 

 







Chapter 10:

The Lone Wolf


The day had quickly turned to night. The stone walls that held up the city’s tower seemed to exude a cold whisper. Torches illuminated the corridors and rooms, sounds of flickering embers being the only sign of noise that emitted within the halls.

Charlotte snored loud enough to beckon a boar, her hand sprawled across Leofrick’s chest while the other was clutched in his, fingers interlaced. He looked over at her for a moment, her blonde strands of hair going in every direction. A small window of happiness provided a much-needed distraction as she continued to snore, calming his senses. She never snored when they were children, in fact, sleep was a rarity among the people of Vinery Slums. She always managed to keep herself just barely awake while she rested and would leap to her feet at any signs of danger. Whether it meant defending her scraps from wild dogs at home or running in order to protect those scraps from the rich. She was an excellent runner. Now, she was found herself deep in slumber.

As Leofrick closed his eyes, he squeezed her tenderly. He held it; he was coming for him again. To taunt him and tear him down like he usually did. He wouldn’t let him sleep soundly, that was a prerogative he held in high regard. He could see his father stare at him through the darkness again. This time however, he said nothing. Only peered at his son - his bringer of death. Leofrick’s eyes suddenly shot open at the sound of a wooden door creaking open. He turned his head to see Charlotte hunched over, shortsword in hand.

“You heard that too?” Leofrick said as he grabbed his blade. “Shh…! Stay in bed, dear. I’ll go check.” “What? You’re mad, I won’t let whatever’s downstairs harm you.” He furrowed his brow when she brought that up, risking her skin to save his. “You really think anything will harm me? Relax my love, stay in bed and rest.”

Footsteps came closer in a matter of seconds up the stairs, Charlotte inhaled and squeezed the hit. In one motion, she flings the door open, and drives the shortsword deep into the assailants’ neck. He choked violently, dragging his fingers across the wall as blood spilled across the floor. He was a grown man, his gargling voice could be heard. It faded within seconds. “I’ll be right back.” She slammed the door, the sound echoing throughout the halls and halting any other potential enemies.

Two more men approached, swords and axes in hand. She snickered at them both, she rushed them and spun past as they swung, their weapons clanging against concrete. Charlotte slammed her knee into the first one’s stomach, forcing him to kneel, allowing her to plunge her blade into the back of the man’s neck. He fell like a lump of rocks, his body convulsing ever so slightly. The second one’s eyes bulged wide open, what sort of attack was that? How did she move like that in such a confined space? In the dark no less? He lowered his axe and she had a fistful of his oily hair. “Who sent you?” She demanded. Her eyes locked with his, she could feel the fear that had captured the poor amateur. “W-What…?!” His lips ran dry as a stale biscuit, his entire body couldn’t stop trembling before the lioness. She grabbed his leg and plunged the blade deep into his knee without hesitation, he squealed like a wild pig and spurts of blood ran down his ripped pants. “Focus on my face and answer my question. Look at me, who sent you?” “No one sent us!! I swear, we were looking for the King, honest!” “Yeah and you turned down the right fucking corridor - the fuck you want with the King, huh?! After all he’s done for you shit eating pricks?” Patience was not her strong suit, Charlotte itched at the opportunity to gut this man wide open. She looked for an opportunity to ensure Leofrick’s safety. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? He ain’t done shit for us – any of us! He gave a petty speech about rebuilding and we’ve yet to rebuild anything…! The people outside are starving and they’re desperate. Please, we’re all desperate.”

Tears streamed down his face, he looked back in her eyes then. At his weakest, he didn’t break her gaze. “Did you hurt the boy downstairs?” “What? I-I don’t know, we didn’t see a boy cause’ it was too dark.” “Good.” Charlotte withdrew the shortsword from his knee and was inches away from pushing it into the poor bastard’s skull, until Leofrick intervened. His hand squeezed hers as she staggered with the blade in hand. His eyes petrified her, his deep brown eyes emanated disappointment and misfortune. “Stop this at once. There needn’t be anymore blood spilled in these walls, Charlotte.” His words stung like a hornet’s stinger. “He… they threatened our lives, dear! Why are you showing them any kind of mercy?!” “I’m being reasonable! Tell me, what would the public think if they heard about this?! About the Queen flaying aggressors in their own city? For fucks sake-they would revolt! They would try to overthrow us and that’s after they would try another possible assassination. Let this man go immediately before you make things worse than they already are.” His method made her blood boil. Why not eliminate those that oppose them? To keep up the Kingly image? They didn’t deserve any sort of mercy after this. Yet, he insisted. “Fuck off. If I see you anywhere outside of Vinery, I’ll slice you open.” She said to the poor man. He would be rich in stories to tell his children though.


 

“What blinds you so? Where does this rage come from? We aren’t kids anymore-,” “I know that! I know that. Just because you have a title now doesn’t mean you have to play God. You can punish them, you know that right? Do you know what the people call you out there, Leofrick? The Lone Wolf. They fear you!” Was fear something to utilize as a leader? Him being the only one to survive the slaughter that day put him in public’s crosshairs. “I know that we both have a part to play. We need to play it correctly or else we may wind up dead. No reason for any bloodshed… I should check on Castiff, make sure he’s alright.”

Leofrick’s mind wandered as he approached Castiff’s room, thinking of how he and Charlotte were as children. Was it “playing God” when he protected her from those men that would rob her? Did it require a title to mediate between a two people arguing? No one ever asked him to do this. He seldom thought about his actions back then, it was clear he didn’t think too much on them now either.

He was greeted with an empty room. The torchlight was out, and darkness rested within the emptiness. He descended the stairs, checking every corner on the way down, eventually making his way to the kitchen and training area. All empty. “He’s gone…?”



Chapter 11:

He who Distorts


Each night, it felt like it grew colder. Was it the wind, or the dead silence that flitted between the lost soldiers? The eastern winds were unending and brutal, the silence among the men roared as if there was anything but. They slowed their march and built a quick fire. Had to be for warmth, for morale was a thing of the past. Novelle struggled to keep himself from shaking in the cold and the men dragged themselves to and from a wet bag full of lukewarm meat, scooping slop from their bowls.

That was tonight’s dinner. A bowl full of cold, wet meat that looked as if it wasn’t cooked. Didn’t he say no more stops? Why the change of tune now? He dared not ask for fear of provoking him, instead, Novelle continued to examine the food, his stomach growling for a form of sustenance, but memories of the sun-bathed kitchen and freshly cooked bread distracted him from eating whatever it was that was in front of him. A meal properly fitted for a slave; if his mother or father saw the way he eyed the meal, they’d force it down his throat, most likely. In perilous situations, you eat to survive, to restore strength. That strength was needed now more than ever.

It slithered down his throat, like a slug rapidly plummeting to his stomach. The meat was chewy, and the juices emitted an odor foul enough to make the rats of Vinery wince. He became stiff before swallowing, trying not to let it back up. He could hear the conversation between the Captain and another soldier. Another tactic that could turn the tide of a battle, eavesdropping. We all do it, whether we mean to or not; utilizing such a bold strategy could provide one’s side with a powerful advantage. “Truthfully, I don’t care anymore after what just happened. Why the fuck did you drag us to that place?! You know how many men were killed, mere hours ago? I sure as hell don’t. What is the goal here, Nathan?!” His voice grew aggressively louder with every few seconds that passed. A clear question that had yet to be answered; why did we go through that death trap of a forest? Novelle thought to himself. He opened his bag frantically, examining the purple sludge that was seemingly infecting the stone knights. It slowly writhed inside its glass bottle. If this was what we needed, why travel to Rancor?

The conversation died as soon as his eyes locked with Nathaniel’s. He sported a fearful, angry look this time around. Novelle had to become stoic, he approached and shot a quick smile. Plastic smile it was, too. A smile to reflect the tragedy from becoming any heavier, or to continue to play coy. He stared at him, like a damn demon. How did he possess such wicked eyes now? Was Novelle understanding this situation all wrong? “…How’re you holding up?” He said with a smile. How could you ask that right now? Why?The thought rattled in his head before speaking up. “I’m fine.” Novelle said. He knelt down next to him, portraying himself as sincere. A fabrication once more, it had to be. “Do you remember, on that unfortunate day, when all of the knights laid down their lives for the kingdom?” It was something he would never forget. The iron bars under the concrete being his only form of defense. The sludge that flowed between his toes. The screams that tickled his sensitive eardrums. He’d never forget any of it. “I was… not on the battlefield, that day. Admittedly, I hid in the crevasses of the city, away from the overall invasion. I was simply terrified. Too terrified. Surely you were too, right? Who wouldn’t be?”

Novelle stayed silent, there were so many questions and yet the place to ask them surely wasn’t here. This group of men were dangerous. “I understand. Captain, look. Before we left Lurikain, I gathered up the purple substance that from the looks of it, controlled our enemies… what do you make of this? It could be what we need to complete our investigation. Perhaps we don’t even need to go to Rancor.” Nathaniel stood back up, picking up his bowl in the process and finishing Novelle’s meal as if it were his own. “I’ll take that. This could be useful, but we’ll have to continue our journey North. I’m sorry, Prince, but we cannot cut corners or take chances on something that may or may not assist the Kingdom. I could be reprimanded and you could be punished. It’s best if we make doubly sure to avoid these things.” He spoke as if he had been through this before. Had he escorted other princes before Novelle? In this exact order? Surely this was a jest. And now he had no food for the rest of the night.

A sudden wave of pain filled his head as one of the men walked by, his large knee guard cracking against his head in the process. Novelle fell over, clutching his cranium as he looked up at the tall brute. “’Scuse me, fucking princess.” His eyes widened with a sudden burst of anger. That strike infuriated him, he quickly stood up and marched towards the man with rage in every step, his fists clenched and blood searing.

The others riled up, creating a relentless fever of excitement at seeing the Prince stand up. The man turned around with a bowl in hand. “Something to say?” He swung his open hand, reaching to smack the bowl from the strong man’s grasp. It seemed like a quick flash had occurred and it was over, or a sudden jump in time via an incantation because Novelle found himself scrawling on the ground, grabbing at blades of grass. A disgusting hit connected to the side of his head, bouncing his head against the ground like an inflated ball. His ears rung and his brain winced in terror. The tall man approached him slowly, “Tired of escortin’your princely ass.” His voice sounded so rasp and deep, like a man who was itching to rip someone in two. “You’re lookin’ like you just had a eureka moment. Your eyes are like a deer before the arrow strikes ‘tween their eyes.”

 

Another meaty blow had sent him near unconsciousness, he turned over slowly toward the fire while the rest of the group downed their cups. He saw Nathaniel standing from afar, partaking in the drink that dripped down his throat. He sat there and did nothing, did nothing while his face was being bashed into the dirt, while blood ran down his temple and his cheek swelled with hot pain. They were enemies, all of them. Novelle had to escape, somehow, but not just yet. He closed his welted eyes and slowly slipped into a state of unconsciousness. His body went limp with pain. 

 






Chapter 12:

A Feast for Crimson


Monsters seemed to be a little more rampant at night than they were during the day. You’re more likely to spot a blood spattered shray or a lake dweller at the water’s surface if you’re adventuring deep in the night. It gave them a confidence to kill. Fearful travelers seldom walked any road at night, lest they be swarmed by wraiths or undead countrymen. Sometimes men would turn to beasts themselves, heralding the spirit of bloodlust in its purest form. Castiff found himself enraptured in such.

The full moon shined exquisitely above the landscape. He found himself beside a lakeside forest, off the main roads and deep inside a small pocket of the woods. The moon reflected upon that lake like a magical mirror. The sounds of a man could also be heard, a home not far from here, adjacent from the lake was a warm light shining softly from the window. He was starving but knew he could not stay, Leofrick must’ve sent a search party after him by now. They’d follow his footsteps, his smell, even his desire to see his mother again. Not her corpse, but her. She was lively and vibrant and was able to communicate. Passing that up was not an option. Letting him walk out of the Kingdom wasn’t an option either.

Castiff shivered relentlessly, the cold overpowering his weakened bones, forcing him to approach the small home that emitted light. The voice multiplied, two rough, male voices echoed through the door and quickly dissipated as Castiff’s feet slid across the wooden patio. This didn’t sound like food was on the other side, Castiff recoiled at the thought of trouble being only a few inches away from him, slowly moving backwards. As a notion of fear spread through his body, the door swung open to a tall dark figure coveted in cloth wrap, a bandit. “Who’s this? Another offering?” Suddenly, the air became hot and sharp. Like needles that punctured just beneath the skin, that feeling of dread resulting from standing in front of this vicious figure. He was tall and slender, wearing a dark brown tunic and loose chains that wrapped around his arms and waist. He had a bandolier of small compact knives with a larger one in hand. A large coat of fur draped over him, indicating that he may be the leader. “Bring em’ in here!!” The second, gruff voice yelled.

Before he could move a muscle, the bandit pulled him with glee, forcing him down to his knees in a lake of blood. Castiff’s eyes bulged as he examined the grisly scene around him; he felt the cold steel of a sharp kitchen knife press against his warm gullet and his fingers apply pressure to his skull. What the actual fuck is this…?! There’s so much blood. And where’s the other bandit? His thoughts were bouncing off the walls of his head, brain in a mushy scramble, eyes peering for any potential exits, items that could be used as weapons, and that other bandit. He couldn’t help but think that just mere moments ago, he was walking near the Juxton coast, cutting through the woods and happening upon that very lake; to being at the mercy of two fanatics in a pool of blood beside a fresh corpse.

The second one came from the kitchen, dragging a tied-up woman across the floor by her hair. She let out a muffled scream, the wet cloth in her mouth keeping her somewhat silent. Castiff’s eyes widened, seldom did he venture outside the city walls, but now he was in a stranger’s home, completely taken over by maniacal men and witnessing a poor soul seeing their assume to be husband sprawled on the floor, lifeless. “Bitch won’t shut up, be careful if you handle this one, Rahz.” She screamed and squirmed violently upon seeing his body, like a fly who’s got its wings clipped. Damn you woman, does that bandage not hold tight enough?” The second one said. His accent was deep, it didn’t sound like he hailed from anywhere nearby, not even from other regions. Did he reside somewhere off coast? There were stories of other continents far off, but that’s all they were, just stories. No one knew if they were inhabite-.

“Alright madam, game time! I need you to focus that sexy brain o’ yours for a quick spell and answer me this question: Would you murder that young boy over yonder if it meant bringing your lover back?” Her head spun towards Castiff, seeing him kneeled down as he met her desperate gaze; she nodded her head wildly like a dog, flinging tears and sweat. “No…! No-.” A sudden crack against his head caused him to reel in pain. The guttural punch sent his head spinning. Mixed with the awful scent, he had to hold back from vomiting. His heart pounded at the realization. “There we have it, answer’s locked in. Vunmere will have a new soul corralled to his ranks!” Vunmere? How did that come up? The legend in the book that Novelle kept badgering him to read? The target was now painted on his back, time had quickly dropped to zero as he felt his hair be yanked back and the pressure of the knife’s edge push against his soft neck. Was this a meager attempt to summon some figurehead? A sharp pain suddenly ran through his entire body like a lightning strike. Castiff saw the blood pour faster than he could comprehend. As his throat tore open, his ability to breathe was also cut.

He fell, splashing face first into the lake of blood. It was only for a second, but everything went dark, like a fire being blown out, or a winter storm covering a town. His body went cold and he felt an abyss latched upon his soul, like a grave-bound spirit that wandered from its stone slab. The woman became elated, sweat pouring down her face as he saw Castiff’s body slump over. She salivated, gnawed at the binding in her mouth as the sheer pressure from the chaos of the situation made her become almost feral. She must’ve been just a regular farmwife, doing nothing but assisting her husband in his physical labors. They likely took dips in the lake when they found themselves exalted of strength; only to end up in a senseless slaughter? There would be no recompense for that, if she survived.

“Well Frahz, go on – give the lady her reward!” Frahz trembled with excitement. He didn’t hesitate, moving his arms in a circular formation before clasping his hands together. A beam of red light emitted from his hands, the blood on the floor rising and taking shape of a human. The entire house shook violently as Blood Magic was being performed upon human life. The poor woman’s eyes lit up in horror seeing his face form in the liquid, the visceral bloodletting had her stricken, this was not the work of a binding spell. It was simple fear that gripped this small home now. Shook it to its pure core. It was such a powerful force; it could beckon even a Pious being from their slumber. She attempted to scoot back but Rahz gripped her skull once more and threw her forward, allowing for the bloodshade to dig its fingers into her warm skin.

As magic and malice filled the small room, Rahz quickly cut loose her binding, only to hear her scream in pain.

A sacrilege must be made, Castiff. Perform the Profaned Pilgrimage. The Valley awaits you.A low growling voice erupted inside his head, filling his ears with those words by someone else, not his mother. It was haunting. A Deathly hallow that beckoned Gods and demons alike to the call, and it was beckoning Castiff.

Upon hearing the visceral proclamation, his eyes fly open and he slowly rises to his feet. He found himself covered in thick smudges of blood from head to toe; he struggled to stand, and yet, his stance left the two men breathless. Between a boy who should’ve been long dead, the bloodshade feasting on its now slowly dying prey, and the two bewildered killers, it was a frenzy unraveling upon this four-by-four shack. Despite the Hell that was capturing the home, despite his brain feeling like it was on the verge of shutting down, and the pain that raced through every muscle, Castiff had felt clarity beyond comprehension. Like the wind flowed through his body. He felt faster, immensely powerful, and cunning. A surge of power from someplace deep within the recesses of his body had exploded.

He pulls the dagger from his back, holding it at the ready. Frahz took one step forward before Castiff sprinted and sliced into his chest. He swung in a downward motion, his chest being exposed and dying instantly. It felt so easy and yet, it was his first time ever doing it. He had never even hurt so much as a fly whenever he found them buzzing in his attic from the open window. Frahz collapsed like a meteor, dead as soon as the dagger broke his skin.

It did not stop him, his first kill. It did not so much as cross his mind, even. He breathed in calmly, pulling in a deep breath, he raises his free hand and swings his arm left towards the wall. A quickened flash of light diminishes the bloodshade instantly. A cancellation of magic – he walks forward, glaring deep into Rahz’s twitching, bulging eyes. When he looked at Castiff, he saw obliteration in his eyes. A world of fire and that of an unforeseen malice. It was the last thing he’d see before feeling a sudden pain drive through his throat.

Castiff pulls the blade from his neck, allowing him to writhe on the bloody floor before going stiff. The ringing in his ears had stopped and the pain that sung throughout his body was no more. He was covered in blood, but it was not his own; sheathing the weapon, his goal was refreshed. The woman lay there silently, her eyes peering forward at the ground as if fixated on something but doing nothing. Her breathing was slow, panicked but she was alive. Her once brown hair was now soaked in crimson and her pearl-like skin stained. It wouldn’t be a stretch to presume she wished for her heart to stop beating now, yet the juxtaposition was Castiff’s heart free of worries.

He opened the door and left the house, leaving her in the room with the corpses. No sense in freeing or killing a now broken woman. She was already dead. The lake rippled as he walked through, cleansing the dagger and himself in the cold clear waters. The clear moon that shined down upon the lake, had also shined down upon him, revealing the imbuing of his enemies’ blood in the lake’s water.

To the Valley.




Chapter 13:

The Father of Barbarism


“Do you really have to go?” Charlotte asked. Leofrick sheathed his sword with slight haste. The handle was cold, as if it had been in a frozen lake. It had been some time since he last swung that blade, the last time being in the chest plate of monsters and demons before crushing it with his boot and slicing down the next. During that time, it felt red hot. He remembered swinging so fast it was like he cut through the very air itself, creating visible ribbons of light. “I thought you wanted me to do this? Unless you think it’s more fitting I stay inside like a house maiden? Which by the way, we should look into.”

They walked towards the Portcullis, calling for them to be raised by the city guardsmen while keeping their conversation to a minimum. “This is important for you. I want you to do this. An yet, I also want you here. With me,” He couldn’t help but smile from hearing that, “Despite that, this must be done. I must put our Kingdom in your care.” “You’d be a damn fool to do that. It’ll be smeared in embers by nightfall. I need to search for our son’s friend. He’s… his mind has clearly withered; he should be in our care.”

The Portcullis raised slowly, pieces of splinters and overgrown greenery dropping onto the ground. The wooden wall that it ascended was decent in terms of protection, Gale and Rancor were the only two settlements in all the regions to appoint high walls as a means against outside threats. They walked outside, the dark grey clouds covering their heads. “When I return, I will take you away from here. I will bring you an entire Citadel of dreams. We’ll be right as rain, you, me, Novelle, and Castiff. I know you want to find him, but you must stay. Please”

Her eyes seemingly popped open. Goosebumps trailed across her arms and shoulders as he continued to look her in the eye. Charlotte’s pulse raced for a moment, it seemed like there was tear in the skies made by a lightning strike, causing her heart to beat harder than before. “Yes, my King…” It was the first time in a long time she had ever felt such vibrant confidence radiate from him. Where this had come from, only he would know that. The horse waited eagerly, clasping its hooves against the damp dirt and rearing its head up and down; the leather straps ready to be pulled against its mouth. The horse blowed readily, feeling the weight of the rider climb atop the saddle. A good sturdy horse had never betrayed a rider, so long as they showed respect. Then, it would become mutual. Leofrick ran his fingers through the horse’s mane before setting off towards the flatlands, The Abandons.

Hours had passed by the closer he got, the clouds gradually becoming scarcer as he rode towards the base of the mountains. “Now the bastard wants to stay quiet. Typical.” Leofrick whispered. Silence had fallen upon the horse and Leofrick when he left the city, which was usually an opportune moment for his father to deliver Hell upon his mind. It was never a dull moment, whether he was training or staying quiet in the bedroom reading up on battle tactics, his father never hesitated to break him down. The air grew colder the further he went, the horse galloped at a fantastic speed, but he couldn’t shake the burning hot sensation that was being felt across both of his eyes the closer he got. It was searing across both of his eyes, like someone placed a burning hot iron rod across the sockets; making it difficult to see – even more so guiding the horse.

The hooves clattered against rocks and pebbles, further down the rock scattered road was a small collection of housing on both sides that stretched down the road, looking as if it led into the mountains up ahead. Leofrick pulled on the straps, restraining the horse from progressing forward. He looked around, examining the lack of, everything. There were no fields of wavering grass or hilltops with trees at the crest. No rivers that streamed to or from, there was no wildlife that teemed within this type of land, nor was there any inhabitants to hunt it if there were any. Nothing thrived here except for the silence. It drove him mad.

Leofrick cantered over towards the settlement. He remembered everything from his youth living here. Working the trade route to make as much as he could, while also keeping distance from his father as much as he could. Forcing himself to keep a dagger at his side, fearing potential bandits descending upon the town’s stock, or even worse, being stopped by the townsfolk who were his age. It was anomaly to him. Those mysterious, foul-mouthed, odor ridden children who were the same age as him, thwarted his path every chance they had. Why? He could see they were struggling like him, scraping by on their own, their hands swollen from bruises and scratches. Their bodies becoming ill from living in their own filth and suffering from malnourishment from lack of food, yet they still set their sights on Leofrick. Their worries would be their undoing.

He dismounted from the horse, brushing his armored plating off and walking down the uneven road, eyeing each empty building. “Even for a trading post, this place barely made the cut…” He whispered to himself. A snowflake fell from the sky, followed by another. It began snowing, which calmed his nerves oddly enough.

“You don’t know when to quit, do you?”

Leofrick’s eyes bulged open with shock and fear. He kept quiet, but he could hear the man’s voice louder than ever before. It rang out across the town and went skyward, like an ethereal spirit commanding its followers. He continued walking forward, making his way closer towards the center, the wind picking up strongly as his boots shifted cautiously through the rock.

Uncertainty kept his hand on the pommel. He tried to stay composed, but his quick beating heart stammered his focus. When he could see, fear held him too close, like a rat caught in a trap. He needed to find him quickly, if seeing wouldn’t work, hearing him would. Leofrick slowed his breathing, pulling out the old blindfold that he kept by his side. As his lids closed shut, the cold wrapping covered them like dry paper. Once again, much like that horrific night, he could see nothing. His eyes writhed in that burning sensation, the scarring around them almost bubbling as he walked forward; gripping his weapon and slowly unsheathing it. As he moved his foot, a sudden burst of footsteps rolled behind him within seconds; now he can breathe easy, the enemy was clearly behind him, allowing him to put those years of training to good use. He remembered the two forms he learned: Subduing the enemy, which he taught himself through fast and hard grapples with Charlotte, and the second form in which he was forced to learn grisly techniques from his father. Twice a week, he would practice various moves that had forced a merciless throw over the shoulder, slamming the enemy onto their back and dislocating their arm or shoulder. Variations of those moves would follow later, and then ultimately, learning to kill with a weapon.

He spins around, grabbing the mysterious foe by their forearm and pulling them downward, they tripped up and slammed into Leofrick’s rising knee. He threw his arm toward their head, slamming them into the ground and planted his knee deep into the chest plate. Leofrick almost recoiled, he could no spikes of pain from the attacker. They were as silent as a ghost. They had armor from head to toe, large pauldrons that protected the shoulders and protruded outward, sharp grieves that curved upwards, they could pierce through a person’s leg with ease, massive gauntlets that were befitting of a giant, and armor plating that had large cracks in the chest, spewing trails of a blueish white light that wisped into the air.

Leofrick stopped amidst his attack, his large physique isn’t what left him almost paralyzed, it was the silence. The only noise came from his pounding heart. It struggled to reach for its weapon, he knew they were reaching along the ground for it, trembling as he flicked the rocks. Leofrick stood up, allowing the spirit to clamor for its weapon. Like a puppet being controlled, it swung wildly and staggered toward him with their sword going in all directions.

Leofrick’s sword glowed with a brilliant aqua-colored light. It shined greatly and began to tremble in the master’s hand. This was the purpose of this sword’s existence. He knew it possessed special properties as soon as his gaze fell upon its slender form in the former King’s chambers that day. Its radiance was blinding to everything that resided in the dark, and its imbued power repelled any and all spirits. Raising the sword, he dashed quickly, striking through the armor with ease. The armor quickly evaporated into a sparkling dust, floating upwards before completely disappearing.

“You’ve clearly grown. How proud I am of you.”

“COME OUT! NOW!” Leofrick screamed into the sky above, veins trailing down his arms as he grips his weapon with aggravation. “Your t—” He suddenly dropped to both knees instantly with his head pointed completely upwards, eyes pulled into the back of his head.

Cold, freezing darkness washed over Leofrick. It was this chilling air that he constantly felt when he was child whenever his father loomed over him like a cloud. Leofrick found himself in the abyss, kneeling in front of his oh so dearest father. “You must be depraved of blood if you thought approaching me was a sound idea, boy.” He said wryly to him; it was clearly a game to him. He prattled on about how this was indeed a game, a game of cat and mouse. It always was, since the day he was born, Leofrick was nothing more than a mouse to him. “You’ll dictate my life no longer… I won’t allow it. In fact, if mother were to see us now, she’d be proud of this. She’d be proud to see me kill you. I know she was the first time. She’ll throw me a fucking parade after this.” Leofrick grimaced as he stood back up on his feet, ignoring the pain that blazed through his entire body. “Well come then—you’ve clearly come here with the intent, let’s see the result.”

He broke free then, his body regaining feeling and his mind taking back consciousness. Ahead, two more knights clad in the same armor, wielding great swords marched toward him, blue trails of spiritual magic dancing in the air as it flittered from their cracked armor. Leofrick gripped his blade tightly swinging with brute force. They clashed, the sound rang so loud, the power so intense the rocks on the ground flew in every direction. He fought with no access to his sight still, yet he felt a sense of clairvoyance as he fought. He could feel his enemy’s movements as they struck, and he went against them with greater power. It was almost blissful, this innate ability. He almost found himself thanking the madman for giving him the resolve to fight without sight. The pain around his eyes grew unbearable for any other man, but this molded him. He absorbed it. This was the strength that Novelle had yet to see from his father. Leofrick wielded the Evergale sword as if it were his own limb. It was extended like a whip, slicing through chunks of the armor as he dodged their monstrous blows. One of the knight’s swung overhead, attempting to slice him in half; Leofrick immediately assumes a stance prepared to counter. The weapon lands over top and slides into the gravel below; Leofrick bashing the pommel into the knight’s helmet, shattering it completely before spinning around plunging the sword into the other’s chest. In the distance he hears another, unable to make out the details of the enemy, he hears an arrow being knocked and instinct forces him to sprint for cover near one of the abandoned shops.

His blood sizzled beneath his skin and his heart knocked against his chest with excitement. His life was in danger, knowing this, he stayed composed and began to ascent the shop quickly before sprinting across the roof tops. An arrow whizzed right past him, slicing his cheek open as he dodged the original trajectory for his throat. He didn’t flinch, he could feel the pain surge in his cheek, but he kept running, his vengeance was right in front of him. He leaped like a demon, high into the air with the tip of his sword facing downward toward the enemy. He crashed down, taking an arrow to the shoulder but not wincing from the immediate pain it caused, the impact of his attack hurt far worse. The roof caved in and they both fell behind a dust covered bar. Dirt and smoke filled the room and his lungs but only for a moment. He dismounted his foe and walked out the front door, back onto the main street.

He noticed the hair on his arms beginning to grow rapidly, it covered his skin almost like a second layer of armor. His body heat increased like a volcano eruption and his head became full, all he could think about was his father and what he had done to him and what he would do to him back, as payment of course. Pain began to emerge from the inside, he felt his teeth grow and bones crack. It was happening—the transformation was taking hold on him. He thought it would subtly come like last time, but this was explosive, it destroyed him. Leofrick teetered into the ground as his loosened his grip on the trusty sword. His instincts told him to cling onto the tiny bit sanity his mind had left but he felt lost his mind was swimming in an ocean of blood and sparks. It was doing this for years and he’d just now realized it. His ears pricked up at another blue, wisp-covered knight that made small noises, only attacked. Without hesitating, it plunged its spear deep into Leofrick’s back, driving the blade part through him and into the rock below where the blood spilled, running between the cracks.

There was no noise, no sense of pleasure or taste or sight. His body laid there lifeless, but also morphing into one that wasn’t his, changing into a monstrosity of unparalleled strength. He saw his father in front of him with a blade that was piercing his throat. Or at least he thought he did; the hallucination caused him to twitch for a moment. The transformation showed no sign of slowing or stopping. The bones in his face stretched and teared his skin into ribbons, forming a long snout and bolstered jaw while simultaneously stretching his spine and ligaments. Hair turned into long lumps of fur and began to cover his back where the spear was. His muscles compressed and expanded rapidly, the sound of bones cracking and skin being stretched could be heard throughout the entire village. As his nails grew longer, his skull became malformed and large; ears pointed and reeled. Leofrick’s lavender eyes busted open wide. His elongated arm reached back and yanked the spear out without so much as a whisper of pain.

He stood up on his hind legs, they bent as he stood—standing a good seven or eight feet tall with a hunched back and arms that almost touched the ground, he growled at the knight that stood in front of him, spear in hand. His snout was sharp and his purple eyes examined the area around him. He was still mindful, if only a little bit. Picking up his sword, held it firmly. Leofrick had transformed into that of a Lycan. A wolf swathed in moonlight.

He swung the sword with ease, completely slicing the knight in half as it attempted to attack. Its split body fell to the ground where he instantly followed, feasting on the remains. His mouth opened wide like the earth splitting its plates; globs of drool spilled over the lifeless armor as he crunched down onto it. His fangs shredded through like cheese being sliced into thin strings. Leofrick’s mind was active, but not strong enough to control any urge his beastly body came across. Control was something he was used to, he’d been controlling this monster for quite some time now, keeping it hidden from his son and those that posed no threat to him or his family. However, it was impossible to keep the beast’s rage bottled when it came to his father. Now that he was here, in his domain, he could think of nothing but flaying his skin and breaking his bone until there was nothing left. It had become a dream he had every so often when he slept. If he wasn’t being tormented by him, he dreamt of killing him.

Now, his father creeps from the shadow and into the light. Leofrick’s snout twitches and he sprints on all fours, sword in mouth, traveling a blinding speed toward the Demon in human skin.


 








Chapter 14:

Consuming the Weeping King

In his head, he was crossing swords with him, hoping to deal a fatal blow and be done with it all. Praying he would just go away, but he never did. He stayed on him like a leech, swinging his own sword masterfully, allowing no openings and adding constant pressure onto his son, slicing through his body with precision and piercing through his flesh like a crashing drop of rain. He was the best damned swordsman he’d ever seen. It was agonizing—it angered him.

Leofrick followed the scent and continued running down the bleak street, zipping past dilapidated houses and storefronts all for the sake of the hunt, mounds of smoke producing behind him as he ran. His eyes were big and wide now, the blindfold had been destroyed in the process of him turning, yet all he saw was red. His stench was rancid, it caused his nose to wince in disgust and yet he continued to sprint in anticipation.

Far into the distance he stood, a small bright red flash of something popped in the air and Leofrick pursued without thinking; he was here now. He could see the detail the closer he got, seeing his blood red flowing cape whistle in the air and his black ornate armor that covered him completely. Their swords met, sparks flying in every direction and the impact causing the ground to shake a little. He didn’t flinch. Deep within Leofrick’s mind, the man didn’t budge and neither did he in the real world. His eyes were covered by the sharp black visor that was attached to his helm. He wanted to tear it off so he could look at him again, to see those dreadful eyes that he saw every day thirteen years ago.

“Why don’t you hold that sword like you did that broken bottle, huh boy? Stick me with it and end me already!” He said, taunting him and rushing the attempt to kill. Leofrick continued to attack, going for a downward thrust to cut his thigh but is quickly deflected and knocked back. He knew he would have to get in closer if he wanted to be the victor. His sword whistled through the air with blue light, illuminating the darkness they fought in and revealing the age in his once commendable armor.

For the years he lived with him, he didn’t know how or why he had such a menacing set of armor in his possession. It stayed in a small room in their home, in the shadows it seemed like it was festering; it felt like there was another person living amongst them, watching them as they ate and slept. If Leofrick dared to ask, he would get angry and scream, threatening to have him strung up on a tree by his feet. Leofrick almost dared to try it, maybe attempt to turn that punishment into training, seeing how long he could last before passing out while performing sit ups in the air. Here he was, dawning the pieces like a new garment; like he was proud to sit inside the black cocoon of whatever it was. Leofrick didn’t care anymore. He’s been on this earth for far too long and he needed to be destroyed, immediately.

Paying for the sins of a father with your life was no longer acceptable, Leofrick thought. As his father swung horizontally, going for his head, Leofrick ducks and leaps for his shoulder, biting down and tearing through the armor with ease. So, then it was nothing but glamour, couldn’t even withstand a simple attack; then again, this attack wasn’t simple seeing as it came from a mythical beast. A monster who lost its battle against time. He feels a paralyzing sting enter his side, his sword goes through his thick fur and reaches skin, almost touching bone on the inside. They continued to slash, bite tear, kick, and punch until blood spilled across almost the entire street, covering the tiny rocks and the dirt. Leofrick swung with terrifying speed but the man dodged with ease, letting the sword clang against rock and dealing a deadly kick to the ribs. It caused him to stagger back, he could hear the ribs crack but held off; ignoring the pain and pursuing his prey. He stretches out his arm and swings a devastating hook into the helmet, dismantling the visor. Aside from their swords clashing, there was no other noise. They didn’t utter a single word or let a small shriek of pain leave their lips; the sound of metal on metal and meat being tenderized and bone being broken rang like a church bell. He saw it then, the opening, the opening his father always kept hidden. He could feel the window cracking open and the freedom coursing through his veins as the memories of him holding that broken beer bottle and pushing it with all the strength he had into his father’s neck until he stopped moving came rushing in like a tidal wave. It made his head swim in agony, the pain bubbling around his eyes again as he saw clear as day his father bash his eye sockets in with the hilt of a rusted sword, feeling his pupils being smashed and his retinas suddenly detached, his sockets filled with blood and clotted as the air dried it all. He couldn’t be safe until his death was assured.

Right then, Leofrick let out a blood curdling scream that flitted with pain. He screamed again, and again. They turned to howls, tears flowed from his eyes and he ran at him then with his sword in his mouth, wishing dearly for his mother to be here with him. To hold him as she once did on the day he was born. Despite the amount of unrelenting darkness he would face, her soft and warm arms seemed to always bring light; he would be alright. Leofrick loosened his grip and whipped his head, launching the sword straight at his chest. He assumes a guarding stance, but the speed of the attack obliterates his weapon and breaks the armor plating, going through rotten flesh.

Leofrick charges him, tackling him to the ground with indominable force, dragging him across the town at least ten yards, scraping each piece of armor away and revealing his fetid skin. His eyes peeled towards the sky until his son obstructs the view—towering over him. He takes a few breaths, containing his composure, allowing his body to slowly revert to its human state. His fur retracted and his bones withdrew back to that of a mortal, along with his height and facial structuring. Leofrick didn’t wince or crack at the pain, but his body was writhing in agony the entire time he shifted into that of the wolf. Broken bones and flayed skin covered in sharp thick spines of fur made it feel like he was engulfed in flame and now it has finally gone out. His pale skin was shown, exposing a wealth of scars that cover his torso and arms. As he exhaled a breath of relief, his moment of rest fled him, he was shocked alert now. The fallen knight grabbed the blade, trembling and struggling to hold it tightly, he bellowed in pain as the sword sliced his fingers and cut through the armor with ease. Leofrick gazed at his father’s life draining eyes and squeezed the sword with all the strength he had. His mind had become full of questions, from his obsession with this armor to his mother’s death. He demanded answers for all of it, but one stood out above the rest. He leaned forward, staring further into his brown eyes while keeping him pinned down. The battle wasn’t over until one of them had stopped breathing.

“Do you love me?” Leofrick demanded as he kept the blade’s tip pressed against his chest. “Of course, son.” His father mumbled. He heard him though, that caused his blood to boil relentlessly. Even as a corpse, he still managed to lie and hurt. “A father… a man with honor wouldn’t do this. A man who loved his wife and child wouldn’t rip apart their family. A man who loved their son wouldn’t spend their coins on this mockery they call armor, causing the death of the woman that kept them together. A man who loved their son wouldn’t destroy his life so callously!” He pushed the blade deeper and deeper, “A MAN WHO WAS CAPABLE OF LOVE WOULDN’T BASH THEIR CHILD’S EYES OUT WITH A RUSTY SWORD!” His pulse raced, staring into his father’s eyes all those memories kept coming like a volley of arrows. It destroyed him, Leofrick would never truly be whole, no matter where he was. He saw this in his father’s eyes. “You made me wish for death, father. Did you know that? I wanted to die every moment I stayed in that house with you. When mother passed, I had nothing. When you bashed my eyes apart, I had less than nothing. When I killed you, I was elated. I was riddled with relief. I couldn’t stop shaking.” Leofrick trembled, grief and a clenching sadness held him tight like a vice. He wanted it to be over but not like this. He wanted them to be happy, together with their arms wrapped around him, keeping him warm. This would never happen.

In Leofrick’s mind, his father was down on his knees, silent as stone with the sword at his scalp, prepared for his execution. Leofrick held it at the ready and swung without a moment’s notice. His head flew, his body evaporated in seconds and the veil of darkness remained. The sun shined brightly, a ray of light landing on them both as his father remained quiet. “Do you’ve anything to say?” His father did not protest, instead, he pulled the sword deeper into his chest, his fingers detaching from his hand and blood pulling in his mouth. The blade’s glow grew, and the blue light perpetually shifted and twisted in the air. His spirit was being removed from the world, whatever spell-binding trick was tying him to this place was no more. His father formed into a sparkling cloud of dust before completely disappearing into the air itself. “You had nothing to say…” Leofrick fell to his knees, gasping for air. His throat tightened and he felt a stinging pain form around his eyes. The next few minutes he cried out in pain, the battle he spent years thinking about, the moment he was to see his face again was one of the things that kept him going and now it was gone, an unsatisfactory victory. Where was his screams? He was supposed to beg for mercy, to ask for forgiveness. Yet, he did nothing of the sort, why? Did he win again? Was this silence his father’s way of saying he had truly won the battle?

a

God of some sort? Leofrick couldn’t possibly figure out anything or think of anything at this point. The beast scared him, it left him paralyzed for a moment in fact, but he pushed everything aside and proceeded to stand tall and slowly make his back toward the city of Gale.

 


Chapter 15:

The Woman in Mud


Charlotte marched towards the guardsmen with haste, demanding them to raise the gates one more time. In an ideal world, a world where things actuallywent her way, the guard would’ve listened and raised the portcullis and inquired no further, however, here he stood, as stiff as a log. “I’m sorry my Lord, I recommend you stay here where its safe until the King makes his return back.” Charlotte cringed. “Did I hear that correctly? You

recommendme stay here? Is that what you said?” Her voice raised in anger, the other guardsmen stood in front of the gate as well, signaling their answer in unison. “Unless you want the King to be notified of the treason you just committed, I implore you to raise that fucking gate and let me pass. Now.” “We know who’s in charge, sorry my Lord.” He said with a grin on his face.

This seemed to always happen ever since she rose in power alongside Leofrick. They listened to him. He was revered by his contemporaries and townsfolk alike. Yet, they always glanced at Charlotte second, they listened to her after listening to him first. She had made it her personal goal to acquire strength in order to protect Leofrick. When he failed to raise his blade, she would be the knife hidden in his boot. She would make her presence known to the world that power resided deep within her just as much, if not more than her husband.

It seemed like a fool’s wish at this point, it was clear he needed no assistance and the people of Gale never took her seriously. In fact, no one ever trulytook her seriously unless Leofrick was present. In the Vinery slums during her days as a youth, she was constantly beaten and pinned to the ground by the other kids who lived there, pressing her face against the sloppy manure that streamed down the pipeline. Punches were thrown, they didn’t hurt, but slight bruises were left after they were finished with her for the day. Until the time he had shown up in that alleyway; his punches were like bricks being launched. It only took one time; they never did

thatto her again. They couldn’t do it again, not to her or anyone else.

The townsfolk slowly approached behind, mustering up courage and rallying aside one another to overthrow her. “We need food and supplies…” One man said, he wore a tattered shirt and was covered in sweat; some nobles were mixed in the crowd as well, wielding staves, pitchforks, and torches all in protest to her rule. The city continued to struggle ever since the beasts mounted that invasion, Charlotte had tried to rid the thought, but knew that ultimately, Gale and those within it would never be the same. “If the King will not do his job, you surely won’t either. We’ll do it ourselves. Step aside or die!” He shouted, the crowd roared with him and began marching forward. Bewilderment halted her steps for only a moment. She slowly backed away, standing beside the guardsmen who was preparing to raise the gate. She ran through a scenario like this multiple times in her head before. What would happen if a rebellion were formed in the heart of her own city? Would reason calm them down? Fear might do the trick, but Leofrick would never resort to violence if he could help it. Yet, he was not here.

The hidden blade was shown.

As the guard prepared to raise the gate, Charlotte reacts with rage. They would know her name by the end of this bloodbath; she grabbed his spear with haste and sprints forward headfirst into the crowd. She runs the spear through the man’s throat, killing the speaker of the group with ease and pursuing the rest. There were multiple targets, all of them fodder, they had never wielded a weapon before in their lives and they couldn’t react to her speed at all. The pitchforks and iron swords controlled them and that was a death sentence. She dodges their sloppy attacks and swings with monstrous strength, cutting the men and women down as blood covered her face. It wasn’t mud this time, they were her victims. She goes low, sweeping a torchbearer off their feet and plunges downward, their eyes flying open with fear. She glared at the poor man; his eyes met hers before becoming lifeless. Horror ran fast through them and the crowd quickly thinned out. They ran in a myriad of directions, nobles ran back to their homes, the poor ransacked the higher class’ stores and dropped torches started small street fires. She was amazed, chaos seeped through the streets once more within seconds because of a few brave souls who thought they could take over.

She may have been titled a Queen, but never before had she felt this much power when not in the Kingly chamber. They were pigs trying to escape the slaughter. Charlotte was powerless during her entire youth, now they turned a blind eye to her ideals as a leader as well; now that their time had run out, they suddenly started to listen. It was satisfying watching them run, hearing them scream as they fled in the opposite direction. This was what power felt like, truestrength. It was for their protection, if they didn’t turn on her, eventually they would turn on Leofrick. They all committed treason as soon as they raised a weapon to her, death was the only way to atone for their actions.

She progressed forward. There were a few brave fools who stood their ground. Brave, but foolish nonetheless. “Please… I have a child.” The poor man said. Sweat dripped down his face and neck, he trembled as he raised his iron sickle. “I’ll make sure to send a message to your child then. A child of a traitorous parent doesn’t deserve to live either.” He winced with fear, the man swung multiple times, missing each attack as Charlotte dodges with a few simple ducks and dashes. A counter was all it took, suddenly he found himself with a spear through his stomach, sticking out of the other side. He fell to the ground like a boulder, blood pooling around him. She surveyed the area around her, hearing the bells toll and the other guardsmen race towards the massacre.

A platoon of armed guardsmen arrived within seconds. All of them hesitated, stricken with fear, shock, and bewilderment. How could the Queen do something like this?! Their faces expressed loud and clear. Charlotte cocked her head when they stood around for a while, “I guess someone needs to clean this shit up…” She said aloud, talking to no one in particular. “We should’ve acquired a maid.” Charlotte whispers as she makes her way to the city gates. The man did not open his mouth this time, he pulled the lever as quickly as possible; Charlotte handed him back the bloodied spear and proceeded toward the stabled horses. She exhaled, regaining composure, and setting off to search for Castiff. Soon, she would have him in her sight, and prepared to bring him back, no matter the cost. Foolish, idiot boy, she thought, the horse racing toward the hills and forests. We all want something, but power is something that only I will have. I will have it all.



Chapter 16:

The Cerogriff


Snow piled alongside the men’s legs as they drug their feet through, climbing was seemed to be a large mountain. Novelle and the rest were far north, he had never been this far from home before; it was breathtaking on one hand, on the other, terrifying. Surely there weren’t any other young princes that were inadvertently abducted by a group of brigands and treated so barbarically, he was alone in that regard.

Paper birch trees covered the way up towards the top. Novelle had never seen such thin trees before, he scraped his cold nails against the bark, peeling off the bark with ease. Wildlife accompanied them, deer stopped in place to examine the blonde prince, his blue eyes met theirs and for a moment, he felt at peace despite the lingering pain in his face. Squirrels scurried in the opposite and either burrowed into the snow or climbed the taller trees that surrounded the group. The sun’s rays shined through the branches; Novelle rubbed his cheek and his right eye time after time, the swelling gradually decreased but he still struggled to see the vista point that on his right side. Instead, he focused on the giant man that did it to him, the one that almost blinded his eye permanently and walked as if nothing was wrong. The chilling wind blew across the horizon, howling through the trees but Novelle didn’t flinch, despite being in the region of the Rancor Empire for the first time, he held his poise firmly, thinking of how to put distance between himself and Nathaniel.

Novelle’s eyes fell on Nathaniel’s back. He watched him struggle up the slope, his armor and weaponry covered in snow. The man seemed abnormal, every step was accompanied by a twitch and shake. His mannerisms looked crazed, like he struggled to find balance and his nerves were suddenly failing him. Yesterday he seemed out of sorts. Today is much worse, I wonder what has him so startled… Novelle thought. Yesterday, Nathaniel spent all day making final preparations for the last leg of their journey. During that time, Novelle examined him closely, as well as the man he was bickering with during their rest. He seemed to be in pain, writhing in it, a constant state of sweat and agitation, and worst of all, a withered sense of time and direction. The man was bemused; one of the men approached him to check up on him. He could barely focus on the poor soul’s words before shoving him in another direction.

Novelle spotted the same man that was feuding with the Captain. He had short and shaggy black hair and a trimmed beard. He had deep brown eyes, they would look black had it have not been for the sun that casted upon them a comforting ray. He kept his hands close to his side, his fingers sporting multiple rings that had gems lodged into sockets, Novelle did not see these before, but this was a clear sign of noble origin in some way. His skin wasn’t that of a Jhik native though, alongside their glamorous splendor and finely crafted jewels, their dark skin was another characteristic they shared. Yet he only possessed accessories which were not of Gale’s style. No knight held such a particular number of jewels out in the open, which gave Novelle the indication that he himself was also stranger, an enemy. “How far along are we, do you think?” Novelle asked without thinking. He needed a plan, but that required time, and time was running out.

“Hm… I’d say we are but only a few steps away from the gates. Once we reach the top, the Empire will be in sight. At that point, we need only to cross its silver bridge.” He spoke with elegance. He knew how to carry himself in a proper light, and his words rang true, Rancor would not be far now. Sweat ran down his temple, he shot a look of inconvenience at Novelle, his eyes darted away in a panic, hoping he wasn’t noticed by the Prince. “That’s good. The people of Rancor should be able to assist us accordingly. Also, I am not certain if you noticed but… the Captain seems to be perturbed ever since yesterday when we were preparing to leave. Would you know anything regarding this?” Novelle said aloud. There was a slight breeze that kept fluttering through them, he spoke through it, raising his voice mightily that the other two could hear him. “You saw it as well. It makes sense, the son of a King ought to be mighty perceptive. I am not sure what has him so befuddled. He will not say anything to me nor anyone else… and he continues to have those convulsions; frankly, it’s not natural. It is like he’s being wrapped up by a restless spirit.” “I think I might.” Novelle responded quickly, “I pleaded with him not to but… I know we could have avoided Lurikain forest. He insisted we march through it, knowing the danger and uncertainty that rested there. He mentioned that he knew, full and well. It was an option, and he took it.” The man’s eyes were stuck on Novelle now, he eyed him with confusion and anger. “Wait… Prince, could you please explain that to me in full?”

Novelle knew it was a lie, yet he knew it was also the truth. The most believable lies are the ones that consist with a shred of truth in them. Nathaniel could have avoided the forest, it would have taken a few extra days to reach the Empire, but bloodshed would’ve been avoided. “There’s not much else to say. When I confronted him about it… his entire demeanor changed. He mentioned the fact that he was aware, but ‘wanted the rewards for himself.’ He didn’t say it, but he was willing to sacrifice his men for whatever it is he’s searching for.” Another lie to tie ribbon together; his heart shattered into dust. He did nothing but glare deeply at the back of Nathaniel’s head. The heart was exposed and it lied within their own group, a simple twist of truths and they quickly turn on one another; their trust was never established, it was never earned between any of them and Novelle had brought it to light. “Honestly, it looks as if he’s been afflicted with cowardice if he’s willing to go through this without telling a soul. It’d be best to bring this matter to the table, no? “Of course, Prince… give me just a moment.”

Novelle could hear the man festering in anger, cursing under his breath as he marched toward him. He heard him bring it all to Nathaniel’s attention without hesitating. He picked the right target, when his head was pounding and his body shut down, that image of hurt and uncertainty was written across the man’s face. Novelle collected that moment like a prize, a weapon to use against those that hurt him, and it worked. As the snow-covered castle gradually came closer, Captain Nathaniel’s cries of frustration grew louder. Both of their voices were raised, their eyes peered back at Novelle multiple times, he needed to make sure he was ahead in this.

Nathaniel’s face was flushed red, sparked with rage. Before Novelle could react, he slumps forward and grabs him by the neck. Novelle flinches and struggles to break free from his tightening grip; his fingers are cold and wet from sweat. Throbbing pain races through his eye and cheek again but he steadily focuses on the man that could barely keep his eyes on the enemy, let alone hold him up in the air with one arm. “What in the Devil’s name did you say?! You have a Death Wish, boy?! I am trying to complete our mission!!” He screamed, saliva dripping down his chin and his eyes constantly rolling around in different directions in his head. The other men stopped for a moment and suddenly began cheering, on and on, roaring to end Novelle’s young life. If I have to really give my life over to these fools in order to stop them from whatever it is they’re doing, then so be it, Novelle thought, hopefully mother and father will give them justice. That’s what our people need now… Novelle’s vision began to darken and blur, he let go of the hand gripping him, fully prepared to forfeit his life in attempt to restore any sort of balance to the scale. A quick tackle sent Nathaniel over to the ground, snow powder flying in the air as he toppled over. Novelle quickly recovered, rushing to his feet in a daze to see them both struggling against each other.

“As soon as you were appointed leader, I knew it would fall apart eventually. You ruined every aspect of this entire journey, YOU sent us all to ruin you fucking blasphemer!!” Veins were beginning to pulsate around his gullet as his face flushed red, his jaw clenched hard and he glared directly into the Captain’s eyes without stopping to blink. He was engulfed in anger. “So that’s it then… whatever it is, none of you are actual Knights of Gale, you never served under my father’s rule. You all created a veil to pull me away.” Novelle said hysterically. The Empire was mere minutes away; as Novelle slowly turned to see its white walls, he had realized where he trulywas. It was a trap made perfectly for a nobleman who had no true ideas about the outside world, no authentic experience except for what he was told, in words only. The world was a vile web of danger, it lurked on every thread with predators lying in wait to take a chunk out of those who could not fight back, that was the truth of it. This happened to Novelle once already, but he refused to allow it again.

“Well if you’ve really come to kill me, assuming that is your grandplan, then get on with it already.” Novelle said sarcastically to the two large men. He added a smirk at the end of that, angering the two brutes as he taunted them. They took a step forward, Novelle instantly assumes a battle stance with his hands wrapped around his spear, without warning, a deadly, constant stream of distorted howls echo through the snowy boarder. They grew so loud everyone except for Nathaniel covered their ears. The sound bellowed, it sounded like a horde of beasts were chanting, but they’d soon find out it was exactly that. From the bridge, just over the snowbank, a line of shadows formed, fitted with long claws and blood tipped fangs.

“No…” Novelle whispered, he could barely form the word without his mind going blank, fear had an immediate hold on the boy’s essence; memories of his hometown being overrun came flooding back like tidal wave consuming a small village. The beasts emergence was the trigger, they looked just like the ones in the city square, right before Novelle hid behind those rusted bars in the sewers. The only thing that remotely stood a chance and protected him; the bars that he held onto for fear of his own life being stripped away from him, all while the ones above were being torn to shreds, their lives being taken.

His natural instincts kicked into full motion, he was about to run but he had to grab his own leg, forcing himself to stay. Am I insane? Why am I not running?!He thought. He asked that question to himself at least twenty times within only a few seconds, but he knew now. Utterly foolish, a Death Wish even, but he needed to stay and stand tall. Running would only strengthen the connection that tethered both him and the fear that was associated with that throat tightening memory. He needed to overcome it, he would find himself surpassing a mountain and discovering a massacre in its shadow. A massacre he would be in the center of, yet again.

They all ran forward, a whole pack of black dogs with bloody fangs and claws that sliced and kicked up the snow as they pursued their prey. Their beaded yellow eyes could be seen from anywhere, either in the dead of night or the sunlight noon, they would watch you before feasting upon your blood pumping body. One lunged at the large muscular man that approached Novelle, immediately digging its claws and fangs into his chest and head. It went through his armor with ease, shredding through the leather and metal and making contact with its prize. He screamed with pain, his throat shaking from the volume he emitted as he fell to the ground. Blood flew in all directions, splattering across the snow and leaving him lifeless in only a few moments. As it feasted on him, long black needle-like spines erected from the beasts back, growing largely in length and sharp. Novelle backed away, seeing another beast go for the other buff man, he swung his sword with ferocious strength, it was almost admirable seeing him attempt to put up a fight against something he struggled to see as it moved. The monster darted through his legs and ripped through his calf muscle, forcing him to bend a knee to the ground. Suddenly he found himself under momentous pressure and feeling his back being ripped apart as they ate their fill.

Novelle screamed in shock but he forced himself to stay, even still. He saw the man that was on top of Nathaniel, face first in the snow, his body completely hollowed from the back. As Novelle’s eyes fell on Nathaniel, who he had assumed was eaten, he saw the man get up and the beasts licking his boots. He was bewildered and left wordless. They assisted a human being? How was that possible? “Captain…?” Novelle whispered, he saw him stand and then noticed his entire figure changed. During that time he was pinned down, something had changed. An unfamiliar darkness or curse had afflicted him physically and his body had morphed. A purple residue had found its way to the left side of his face, pulsating, and spreading down to his arms and legs. His left eye was completely destroyed, a yellow ball of light had taken place in the socket now. It looked like a small beam of light was emitting from his skull; his entire left side was now taken over by the darkened slime that was on the stone knight in the forest. “Novelle…” He sounded nonhuman, like his throat was scorched. He sounded like he was burning alive, engulfed in flame; the embers had touched his esophagus as he tried to speak.

Everyone around except for Nathaniel and Novelle had been offed mercilessly, the dogs had retreated behind their malformed leader, brushing their heads against his legs before retreating to where they came. The entire field was covered in fresh blood, small stacks of steam floated from the warm blood that surrounded them. They both stood, staring at each other intently. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the smoldering socket. The yellow beam attracted his vision and he simply looked back, most likely starring through a hole that befitted his skull. Nathaniel’s entire body twitched; he was completely lost in whatever had captured him. No longer the man he was only a few hours ago. “What’s wrong?” He said. “Take up arms, boy.” Before he could properly absorb what had just happened, Nathaniel runs toward the boy like a feral ghoul. He went down on all fours and bolted towards him, blood spilling from the side of his head. His speed increased as he got closer, Novelle readied himself this time, holding his spear in the same pose that he did during all those training sessions with his father. He extends his body far back, the spear’s wooden handle stretching across his torso while the blade scraped through the powder.


He struck fast and true, his sword hand flying the weapon upwards for Novelle’s forehead. Novelle reacts last minute, dashing back and connecting the tip of his spear with the sword. Sparks flew, Nathaniel changed form and attacked again. This wasn’t like training, or any battle he’s ever experienced in fact. Leofrick had trained him in every possible area that consisted with the use of a polearm, Novelle could recognize the movements in battle and respond accordingly, but never did he have the genuine intent to kill, it was never to the Death, until one person stopped breathing. This was real. He was out for his blood, fiending for it. Novelle felt his power slowly overwhelm him the more times their weapons clashed, they both swung faster, his accuracy gradually decreasing while Nathaniel exploited it, getting past the spear’s edge multiple times and making quick cuts into his arms and legs. He barely dodged them, using every maneuver possible to keep him at bay while he searched for a weak point.

Exhaustion began to settle in, his muscles tightened, bones ached, and sweat ran down his face as he continued to fight. Despite the fatigue coursing through him, he also felt a sense of renewed vigor as he struck, like wind flowing through him. Is this what it means to fight for your life? Nathaniel charged in with his blade pointed skyward. He slams it down, aiming to split his head open but Novelle quickly sprints forward and slices upward, cutting his arm clean off. It spins in the cold air before making its own resting place in the blood-soaked snow. Nathaniel didn’t seem fazed, he picked up the sword with his other hand, bending the fingers back and ripping the sword from its convulsing grip. He was still able to fight despite there being a fountain of blood pouring from the wound. Novelle stayed alert, this time he pressed hard, lunging forward and flying past the sword with hastened speed. His heart pumped for what felt like a thousand beats per second, crashing against his chest as if it were trying to escape. Adrenaline coursed through him and a surge in strength blessed his body; he thrusts the spear forward and drives it through his abdomen. The sheer impact ripped through his armor with ease, it looked like a small gust of wind flitted from the other side of where the spear was poking out.

Nathaniel stood still, his body shaking from the attack. Blood ran down the spear and dripped gently below them both. His strength beginning to fail him, Novelle staggers and falls on his back; his eyes widen as he sees Nathaniel use the momentum to go for another attack. The weapon being jammed into his intestines, Novelle lets go and puts up a meager block with his forearms, feeling his life suddenly wisp away. A whizzing sound followed by a soft crunch makes him flinch… Novelle drops his guard to see an arrow sticking through his head. “What the Hell…?” Novelle said to himself, he grabs the spear and lands another strike, impaling him on the spear’s tip. It went straight through that beguiling yellow eye, destroying the entire socket.

Groans and muffled sighs of pain emitted from him. Before his body went completely limp from being in Death’s embrace, his other eye fell into Novelle’s gaze and said, “So—…rry.” It felt like he was being bound by his transgressions. A faceless, ethereal being that held him down in the snow and made him watch the dead body that lay there next to him.

The seconds felt like hours, like time had slowed as soon as his life was taken. The one responsible for the loosed arrow came up to him with their arm extended, “You need to get up, now.” She said, the same woman that saved his life in the forest, her skin a dark, sepia brown. Those scars that befitted her arms stuck out immensely, yet her outfit was entirely different than last time. She was covered in a thin snow-white fur that cloaked her body and head, the cowl covering her identity completely. He did not move, Novelle was completely stricken with horror, a torpor of guilt that would never leave him now, almost on the brink of hysterical disbelief. A sigh of anger left her voice as she picked him up by his armor. “On your feet, Prince. The beasts won’t allow you to wallow in peace,” She said, arrow knocked.

Novelle stood right beside her; it almost seemed like she was glowing from the cloak she wore. He saw her hold the arrow in place, aiming right at the pack of creatures that had mauled his escort group. Her form was deadly and perfect, he had never seen anyone hold a bow and arrow in place like that before. She didn’t falter, the bow did not waver and the arrow tip was lined with a mysterious shine to it, a trailing golden yellow glow that sparkled and fluttered around the arrow as she held it, as if a divine shield protected it. “Can’t let them attack us—I’ll loose an arrow, that will scare them off,” Before she finished her sentence, she let’s go and the arrow instantly goes right through one of them like a crossbow bolt, it disappeared and reappeared right before making impact, like an invisible explosive shot; it made Novelle recoil. A flash of yellow smoke puffed over the snowbank, and the rest of the pack quickly retreated below. “Much better.” She said, placing her bow over her shoulder.

“What is that…? On the mountain?” Novelle pointed, his eyes wandering past the ivory castle and at the line of mountains behind it. A colossal creature fitted with multiple wings and heads made its way toward them both, slowly disappearing behind the settlement.

A maelstrom was approaching

Suddenly, a devastating explosion took place atop the Empire of Rancor, the top of the castle tumbled and fell apart, large pieces falling into the deepened bank below, destroying the bridge that connected it to the rest of the land and crushing the rest of the beasts that hid there. The ground shook violently, like an eruption had occurred from afar, the creature then soared from the cloud of smoke that filled the sky, using it as a concealment. It flew right over them, its flapping wings sending small windstorms that blinded both of them completely. Novelle struggled to stay upright, he fell back over and watched as the massive beast soared into the air.

He couldn’t help but look at his commander one last time. He recoiled, seeing his malformed body covered in the same substance that was on the stone knights. His eyes widened hard, a realization had compelled him to search Nathaniel’s body. His book, that detailed Vunmere was there as well as the vial, but broken and empty. He dug deeper in his pockets to find a small note with scribbled writing. His mind began to wander with questions as he attempted to read, but the mysterious archer escorted him to her horse and they swiftly rode down the mountain, creating distance between them and the destroyed Empire.

 

The only thing that could be heard were the hooves stomping into the snow as the white horse galloped through the birch woods. Every now and then, a snort of exhaustion would leave its nose. She slowed down after a while, convinced they were safe for the time being. Novelle looked downward into the snow. He simply watched the snow being kicked up into the air from the horses’ hooves. Time with horses were never long, that’s what made them pleasant. Anytime he was outside, he’d stop by the stables and feed them whimsically and be on his way. It was never an obligation or an order he was tasked with, it was of his own accord. That felt good, making your own choices, doing good things for others, seeing them happy as a result of what you had done out of the kindness of your heart.

This was not kind. Nor was it by choice. Novelle’s mind was muddled; his head felt full like it was on the verge of bursting from too much air. He had just killed a man, with his own hands. A man that was living, breathing, his heart pumped, and blood flowed. All of that stopped now because of a young boy and his spear−the image was fresh in his mind−he could still smell his blood run like a river through this nose. He hadn’t noticed that the horse came to a slow canter until much later, making its way through the woods still.

“That creature that flew through the castle was a Cerogriff. Some people worship it as a God, and it very well could be for all I know. Tragedy follows whoever is caught underneath its gaze, so we’ll need to be vigilant, now more than ever.” She said, clutching the leather straps. Novelle didn’t respond, he simply turned his gaze towards the bright sun, it looked back at him like it did any other day, yet despite its warmth, his skin felt cold to the touch, colder than ice. “Are you listening to me?” She said, very quietly, almost as if she was speaking to herself. “Sorry… I don’t remember your name?” Novelle said back, trying to process what he had done. “I never gave you my name,” “Ah… my apologies then.” Novelle cringed. He didn’t notice, but he laid his head against her back as they rode out of Rancor territory, passing by abandoned towns and dilapidated storefronts. “I can’t come back from this.” He said under his breath. “Your hands are trembling,” She said back to him, her voice unshaken, hard like stone. She held the straps tight and continued to ride with conviction. How did she do it, or rather, what happened in her life that made her become so stoic?

“and you can come back. Everyone does, eventually.”



Interlude

Mireth, the Great Stag

A Few Days Earlier


The trees whipped past her in a blur as she rode through the dense forest. Crisp air filled her nostrils as the hooves clacked against the discarded branches and tall brushes of grass. Equipment was strapped tightly upon the loyal horse, food and water on the left side, tied together by a leather strap inside of the saddlebags. Weaponry laid on the right, a short sword and wooden bow that was covered in blackened smoke. Lonesome rides felt calm, they were quiet, the only thing to be felt was the wind fluttering by your ears and the horse’s feet racing along your heartbeat. The small animals scurried away in fear of getting trampled, or pelted by an arrow, only natural of course, Hiltred always stood aside while the men did business, staying in her own lane unless someone attempted to trespass it. Then she’d stand in the way.

Hiltred never once understood what made Lurikain forest so feared, perhaps it was the silence? Though she never understood why the lack of sound made people uncomfortable either. She was fond of the stone knights that rested near the entrance, the sun always created beautiful rays that showed their intricate design, if the grass hadn’t covered it. It was their claimed spot, she, nor any other traveler, dared not disturb their deserved slumber. The rest of the forest was hers to explore, hers to hunt, and sleep in. It was fitted with tall, thin trees that weren’t too close to one another, leaving wide areas that stretched near the Juxton coast, rocks sitting on the other side with the ocean crashing at their heels.

She returned, recognizing the symbols she had created for herself so she would not be lost. They led back to an old, wooden and rickety home. A sigh of relief exited her mouth as she pulled her cowl back, hair falling down to her back and arms cracking as she stretched her stiff limbs. Hiltred could not afford to waste time, boldness always got results and her nature called for being unswerving. “I’ll be back, Hearth.” She said, his head stretched downward, chomping on the grass, “I’ll get you some realfood once I return. Salted carrots and some corn sound good, yes?” His head rubbed against hers, strands of Hearth’s long and thick white hair getting entangled in her black hair caused her to smile greatly.

A few moments later and she was off, sprinting through the trees almost as fast as on horseback. Hiltred darted from side to side, zipping past some of the larger trees and leaping great distances across her own carefully made booby traps. At her core, her very being, Hiltred was a skilled hunter and there weren’t many, if any, that could match her prowess. Hours had began to pass by, the sun setting and heat rising steadily as she finally reached the spot she was pursuing. Sweat rolled down her temples as she examined the open area in front of her. This one however, was different. Trees outlined the area in a perfect circle, where a slab of stone flooring occupied the inside of the circle. As Hiltred approached, an image of a large stag fitted with a set of antlers appeared. The image glowed a brilliant gold yellow, shining through the cracks and dirt that laid upon the stone. Examining stones in their pure form was something she had grown accustomed to over the years, this was completely foreign to her. This one featured an almost harrowing design, it held beauty and age… Hiltred was almost bewitched by the Stag, had she not remembered her original goal.

She sat down on the stone, crossing her legs and keeping her hands together tightly; she lowered her head and closed her eyes, strands of hair dangling by her head. Hiltred tasked herself with finding the animal, pulling in a deep breath before holding it. Moments had passed before she felt began to strain. Her focus became shaky and her head light, her fingertips tingled but she continued to hold the tension filled breath.

The air inside was so tight she felt her consciousness slipping. She teetered, dizziness filling her head and throwing her off balance. Nothing really new, the same heavy weight could be felt lifting and slamming down a blacksmith’s hammer. Hiltred recovered, scrambling back a little and opening her eyes as the world opened back up to her. She looked upwards at the trees, they seemed… taller, than before, and thicker. The sky seemed different too, bright blue stars sitting next to the sun had taken place. She recalled hearing about this before, people called it “The Sage’s Eye,” as it only appeared for those who wandered toodeep into Lurikain.

The wind blew stronger and in the air itself was a peculiar sparkle of light that wouldn’t seem to leave her sight. It fluttered about, making such a feint and quiet noise; yet it almost instantly pulled her attention upon opening her eyes. “A soul…?” She said to herself, examining the thing as it flew in a different direction. Naturally, Hiltred followed it, the little gold speck of dust traversed the dead forest almost better than she could, zipping past trees and through hiding behind the falling leaves. It was attempting to leave her behind, taking advantage of the fact that she was still weary from earlier.

Drops of sweat flew behind as she sprinted forward, closing distance and keeping the golden looking fairy in sight. It came to a quick stop and Hiltred followed, leaning against a large tree. She was struggling to catch her breath even still; was there some sort of curse that was placed on her? Her body could take more than this, but now even a long sprint seemed too much to handle. Why? Her element was here in the forest, it was what she knew. She felt warmth for the first time in a long time when first arriving here; felt a safe haven despite the isolation in Lurikain. It was a home for her that she could go back to anytime, with Hearth being by her side. So why couldn’t she keep pace with a gold dusted sprite? Why was she panting so much—

Just then she saw it, her eyes planted on the giant thing she was looking for. It was hulking in size, at least fifty feet tall, and every step it took shook the whole forest for a moment. Its antlers held a contorted design, going inwards towards one another and through each hole before twisting and pointing upwards, scraping against the leaves of the high trees, nearest to the sky.

It was a colossal stag, draped in a long snow-white mane that left visible wind trails on its furry edges as it walked, with piercing ocean blue eyes that gazed back at her from the side. She felt paralyzed for a moment, as beautiful as it was, it terrified her, not only its size, but its presence… it wasn’t seen or heard until it wantedto be.

The golden spark had left, vanishing into thin air. Hiltred knocked an arrow onto the bow and approached slowly, staying vigilant before daring to attack. The wind trails funneled across the entire forest, swaying the tops of trees and forcing Hiltred to compensate for her aim. She trembled as she aimed down the bow, exhaustion debilitating her ability to hold the weapon upright. Still yet to regain her full strength, she moves in closer, avoiding the wind and dismissing the fear of retaliation. Hiltred took every step to become stoic, but the sheer size caused her to recoil once more; it angered her. It was a fear she never knew she had and it made her grit her teeth.


Damn this…

She made her declaration by running up, planting her foot against the side of a tree and leaping forward, pulling back and loosing the arrow in one jump. It gets lodged into its side but doesn’t flinch. It continues to walk through the forest as if nothing happened. Hiltred continued by pulling out her trusty dagger and slashing at the beasts’ hide. A clump of fur floats to the ground, landing next to the arrow that was, at one moment, in the Stag’s side. She glances at the fur before seeing it completely vanish into the trees ahead. It dissipated into hundreds of golden balls of light that surrounded Hiltred. They fluttered and floated around her, covering the leaves and sky above her head. “I guess this was the goal.” She mumbled confusedly. She looked at the white fur before picking it up, her eyes growing slightly distant but feeling confident; being bold enough to recklessly charge a powerful creature forced a victorious smile. As it caressed her hard palm, a sudden heavy weight forces her to the ground. Her vision blurs before completely blackening out.

A few seconds had passed before she had awoken again. Hiltred noticed the silence of the forest, the lack of wind and tall trees and Sage eyes. Another smile found its way across her mouth as she held her bow out, feeling rejuvenated, almost doubly so in strength. The bowstring was intertwined with the fur, it let out a constant stifled sound along with a wind trail. Her arrows glowed with a golden hue and were also cloaked in white fur. It radiated with a gallant glow.

Chapter 17:

Sorry


A group of dark clouds gathered above. The snow fell fast, almost like rain pouring. It fell near Novelle’s eyes as he looked up, unable to shift Nathaniel’s weight from overwhelming him. The tip of the spear was still stuck in place, protruding out of the back of his head, the snowflakes turning an instant red as they fell into his skull.

Sorry…”

His words echoed in his ear, it tortured him, chipping away at his soul. Before Nathaniel could reach for his face, his vision darkened; Novelle woke up, his fingers slightly twitching as he shifted around. “Hey… you fell asleep. On my horse.” Hiltred said, approaching him from the side. “Oh… my dearest apologies. Quite insensitive of me.” Novelle responded but didn’t look at her, he stayed centered looking down towards the saddle, looking at the worn leather but not really lookingat it. His eyes were bloodshot red, tears flowed while he slept. In reality, the snow had stopped falling some time ago, but the wind picked up and the temperature was slowly rising again. Everything continued to flow, time pushed everything forward except for the Prince.

“We’ll have to make our camp here for the night. A storm is coming, we would be foolish to ride through it, not to mention blind. Step down, please,” “Of course. My apologies—” “Stop apologizing. It’s already finished. Nothing can be done now.” He turned his head, blinking at her and attempting to process what she meant by that. “You continue to apologize for killing him. Stop it. There was nothing that could be done to avoid such a thing.” Hiltred unwrapped the thin cloth, his mind wrestled with her words.

The yellow eye of his former “captain” haunted him. The image continued to form in his head without rest, the world continued to darken around him as well, it wasn’t natural for a boy this young. He wished everything could just stop for a moment and allow him time to catch up, just for a few minutes. If it did, maybe he wouldn’t feel so numb. Or better yet, he wouldn’t have had to kill a man.

Dusk made its way after a few hours and a built campfire. The storm coupled with high winds shook the trees and threatened the fire’s source numerous times, flashes of thunder lit the mountains and woods upon the horizon. “So, who’s going to begin the introductions first,” Hiltred said as she looked into his weary dry eyes. It interrupted his string of thoughts. “I am Hiltred.” “Thank you for coming to my aid, Hiltred. I’m in your debt, again,” He responded while fiddling with his fingers. 

Novelle was lost, being guided by those that had seemingly already made their own path. His was uncharted territory.

“I’m Novelle.” “Well, Novelle; it seems you were the only one who didn’t suffer an idiotic death like I thought you would. My assumption was incorrect,” He remembered that now, the sting of her words when she had wished death upon their unit. It sang a different tune now. “His death will haunt you. That’s something I’m sure of. It will torment you until you break, and it will continue even after. But you can come back. It is your choice as to whether you let this storm overtake you, or you let it comfort you, but know this… The choice you made allowed you to be where you are now. Otherwise, you’d be buried in snow right now.” A brief pause came between them, leaving only the strong winds and rain do the talking. Novelle didn’t want to think of it so simplistically; things are never just black and white. However, perhaps adopting this philosophy would make swallowing what he did easier.

The rain fell hard now, eventually killing the fire and leaving them in the dark. Hiltred had fallen asleep a few minutes after it was put out, leaving Novelle completely alone with his thoughts, with the storm. Let it comfort you, he repeated her words in his head, his brain wouldn’t cease despite a severe lack of rest. His mouth and eyes were so dry, while his stomach turned in knots and his blonde hair soaked. He slowly walked towards the edge of camp, keeping in mind not to stray. A moment of isolation, just him and the storm, was maybe all that he needed. Upon closing his eyes, he felt the rain pepper him all over, like a volley of arrows that couldn’t break the skin. His father could have done it easily, same with his mother. Did they ever feel this when taking a life from someone? Couldthey feel this toxin that rotted him away from the inside?

It felt like time had finally stopped once he stood out there, in that desolate land where the rain had washed over him. He gave a small, hollow chuckle, he had a clearer mind now that he had in days. It could possibly be the arrival of night terrors. I’m alive now because of what happened. I won’t falter because of it. Novelle thought to himself. He swept his hair back and rung out the water that dripped from the strands before beginning his way back slowly, his eyes red and brows furrowed harshly.

Men dying on the battlefield, monsters being gutted, families being destroyed, and lives being reduced to ash, this was something he had now seen firsthand. No more protection from the high walls and guardsmen. It was only blood. If he wanted to move forward, if he wanted to live, blood would have to be spilled and accountability would be held. That was the path that was laid out for him, the storm provided it.

He went back to camp, drenched in rainwater and grabbing his weapon from that sat near the fire and holding it to Hiltred’s throat. He wouldn’t be kidnapped again, he knew next to nothing about her except for a name, which could also be a lie. Her eyes shot open, the rain ran down the spear’s tip and drizzled onto her cheek. A strike of lightning illuminated his face in a stark blue for a moment, eyes filled with fire. Hiltred stared back, unable to see his eyes in the dark but still glaring at him without a break in posture. “Who are you. I need to know who you are before we travel any further together.” He said, the blade tickled her throat. “Maybe I was wrong twice over, and you dowant to die an idiotic death,” She sat up and folded her arms, the sheer thought of keeping your weapon aimed on the person who saved you

twice was that of person who was clearly lost in all aspects of life. “The person who willingly walked into an amateur’s trap, failed to defend himself, struggles with a single kill, and keeps a silent tongue towards the one that saved him… is now pointing their weapon at me. How funny.” Hiltred chuckled as Novelle’s stance began to waver. “I’m not upset, madmen are just that, mad.”

“I did not mean to point it at you with the intent to kill… I just… wanted to know I was safe.” Novelle dropped the weapon as his voice was shot. “I don’t care what you thought,” She said, turning back over to resume her slumber. “I know why you did it. Now go to sleep.”





Chapter 18:

A Bond of Strife


Hearth raced through the open fields and thick woods, his hooves clasping hard on the ground as he ran like the wind. Hearth was a strong horse, a loyal one as well. Ever since she bought him from that old horse breeder near Jhik, he was stuck to her like the bow on her back. Novelle had difficulty reading the scribbled note, the penmanship resembled that of an infant, or an old person who couldn’t stop shaking; the addition of bouncing up and down as the horse galloped didn’t exactly help either.

A few sentences later and he was done, his eyes wandered around, seeing the trees zip by and the mountains stand tall in the far distance. Abandoned structures took hold of a lot of areas in the East, dilapidated towers and crumbled homes that were at one point, teeming with life, were now emptied. The greenery grew back on a lot of them, thick shrubs occupied the ground while moss and vines stretched across the walls.

“What did the note say?” Hiltred said as she reeled in Hearth, slowing him down some. He scratched his head for moment, “Um… well, it sounded like a direct order to have me abducted. Yet, concurrently, it also sounded like a plea…? A cry for help,” “How do you figure that.” “It says, “When you find him, you hurry back. They are quick to notice, I’ve learned. You’ll need a solid plan, one where they won’t track you. I don’t know how you’ll do it, but you need to just do it. Once you have him, take him to Rancor and tie him to the front gates where he’ll sit out in the biting cold. We’re dying, hurry.”

Hiltred whispered, a quietly frantic tone, “They tried to start another war?” “Another? I suppose that makes a bit more sense, the kidnapping. A Kingdom on the verge of demise will stop at nothing to gain its strength back, until they’ve fallen completely. Sore losers.” Novelle crumpled the letter, a grimaced look found its way across his face, his mouth tightened. He read about the War between Rancor and Gale but was told a treaty of peace had been made and was more than willing to travel there if it could possibly solidify the bond. Treaties were only on paper, subterfuge however, was the ink that lined the linen. This cleared the air a little more.

“I’d mind that tongue. You don’t know what warranted that desperate letter,” “Of course I do, Hiltred. They lost. They wanted to regain their butchered honor in any way they could. Unfortunately for them, kidnapping would have done the opposite. It just so happens that we’ve won twice!” He lifted his head up, almost praising himself through the wind. “I wish I could bask in the pettiness of nobility,” Her sarcasm raised his ire a bit, “My mind would never allow such distasteful displays.” “You know nothing of that war. I may not have lived to see it, but my father did, sure enough… He would tell me of the weaponry we possessed, as well as our enemy. They were exquisite—” Hiltred reeled in the reins with gusto, forcing Hearth to slide and buck before stopping. “Who do you think provided those weapons?! Where do they obtain the metal? The ores? Surely, they don’t they fall from the sky,” “What do you mean? Hiltred, I didn’t mean to offend.” “Children do not offend me, boy.” She said back to him, pushing away that ego with ease.

Novelle didn’t know it, Leofrick and Charlotte never thought to mention it, the origins of his weapon. Hiltred wielded a grudging talent for blacksmithing and metalwork. It was nothing special, nothing worth gawking at; her father crafted metal and his father before him, so on and so forth. They all slaved away at the hot forge, hammer in hand, striking hot fire at the thing until it burned like the sun. The thing that was worth paying attention to, was the metal that was used. Alloys of natural Takarite, or wraith stone, unbeknownst to Jhik natives, were found in the deep caverns off the coast of Juxton. When the previous King employed her father, the coin swayed him to slam the hammer with the strength of a Dragon. Creating only a handful of weaponry forged from the raw material. That fire would spark a war. A cool blue flame every time they finished, and the pockets were filled. It was good, too good. The Empire took wind of this and sent multiple groups of men, of dogs, to round up and slaughter her entire family; all while she was striding down the road in a wooden cart, a few glowing swords in the cart. Her legacy, decimated.

Novelle’s words finally reached her, snapping her back to the present, trotting through a shallow river as the trees blew. “Hiltred! Hiltred!! What does this have to do with—”

Novelle froze. It was almost as though he had seen a deathly icon. He squinted, that confirmed it. Castiff was walking, dragging himself across the grass with his arms to his side, all puffed and dirty. His dark hair caked in dried blood and grime. He called to him but received nothing in return. No, instead, his eyes glossed over at them both, eye lids sticky and bags pulling his expression down, he continued walking through the woods in a struggling manner. “My word… Castiff, what’s happened to you!” Novelle said concerningly but also was curious, what was he doing all the way out here, away from home? “I’m so close.” His voice was distorted, hoarse. It sounded like his throat was being squeezed by some unknown force. “Listen, Cas’ please take a moment. You look like you just crawled out of an animal carcass to hide from the cold!” Castiff kept slumping forward, going in one straight line as if compelled to do so. “Mother…” There it was. Novelle’s brow furrowed and he grabs him by the shoulder, “How many times must I tell you! She’s gone, Castiff! She is dead, your mother has passed now!!” Hiltred watched them from the horse, feeding Hearth pieces of apple while also taking some for herself. The clouds moved away from the sun, shining a bright light into the green woods, venturing anywhere from Gale spelt danger just from how similar the fields, forests, and valleys looked. The main road was far from where they were, and danger had already found its way.

He looked at Castiff, stared deep into his eyes as if he had looked through the ocean itself, seeing what lie below in the deep. What he saw was nothing. Seemingly, every time they basked in each other’s company, there was a sliver of somethingin the boy’s eyes. It would be concern, sadness, relief, bewilderment, happiness, or excitement. It was like looking at a lifeless animal, its black beads laying face up, peering up into the sky above but not looking, simply staying in the socket that decayed. Novelle saw those black beads in Castiff, he felt his spirit turned to dust. He looked down to see Castiff clutching that ornate dagger, trembling in hand.

In that moment, Novelle felt a wave of calmness wash over him.

He faced danger, he faced madness, he faced a certain nothingness that stood in front of him and it struck him deep.

Castiff swung the dagger sloppily at Novelle, leaving him a large window to evade. He continued to swing, falling over into the river nearby but quickly recovering. It brought a small tear to his friend. He could see the hunger, the anguish, the torment he endured all in order to achieve a warped goal. He cried out to him as he dodged, mindful not to strike back but Castiff said nothing. Only painful grunts of exhaustion emitted from his frogged voice.

Novelle took an opening and ran forward, grabbing both his wrists and forcing him to the ground. He was so light, paper thin, easy to overwhelm. He was thin, but never to this extent. He held the dagger strong and in one instant, Castiff rams the dagger with as much force as he could muster, plunging through Novelle’s left hand. It struck like a snake bite, fangs ripping through skin and flesh and breaking through bone. The blade protruded out the other side, blood gushing and running into the running waters below them. He yelped for a moment but continued to stay on top of him.

“No!! It’s right there—she’s right there! Get off me!” Kicks and screams and a few more slash attempts forces him off. He was like a cockroach, scattering towards whatever destination on his hands and knees, away from his enemy. Novelle and Hiltred both followed him, leaving no distance between them. “She’s right down here…!”

He pointed downwards, towards the entrance of an old cellar, surrounded in a small field of white lilacs.


Chapter 19:

Damnation


That still breath of air that left his lips during that battle, it would haunt him. His father may have been eradicated from the world for good, but his presence was still rooted in his mind. It was disgustingly deep now, his home was in the synapses of his soft, damaged brain. He could see all of the tissue being torn to shreds by his sheer existence, or lack thereof. Yes, his mind had surely withered now, not submitting to defeat, but mentally decimated. Slowly dragging his sword across the ground, scraping up stone and dirt, that deep grating sound like a rusty pipe against cold metal; he was gone, yet his presence was forever trapped. His final breath would stick like a nasty scar.

That last breath flowing through his dented helmet; the audacity to still say nothing was beyond him. He wanted to ensure that breath would reach no one, nothing. Scars and deep gashes painted his chest, back, and arms like an art piece without meaning. Armor being torn down after shifting into that beast would leave him without clothing; he simply continued to walk.

Walked through the Abandons.

Past the war-torn fields.

Traversed the silent woods.

Until he finally found fire. Nothing but fire. He was a slave to his father, and now the city burned a bright, paunch orange. It engulfed every street, every corner, every home, and every soul that once lived. He could feel his chest tighten and twist and contort in knots, not from the intensity of the black smoke, the burning of innocents, charring of children, but the results of his decision. He knew, yet it still grappled him like a monster pinning down weak prey. The people never held true faith, they clung to survival and that was not enough. They rebelled against her and now this was the price they paid. Once again, no words from old father, just silence. Oh, the silence. How badly did he want him to utter something, a word, a scream would have been nice to witness.

He remained in front of the falling Portcullis, seeing the blaze from afar but still feeling its warmth emanate from within the city. It felt good. Despite abandoning the people he became King for, leaving his only place of solidarity, leaving his distraught loved one to her own destructive devices—it felt good. Absorbing that desire, driving his weapon into that man’s chest and exercising his damned soul into the void, that was life changing. He shivered still from that. He could become his own man now.

He turned his head, forcing his tired eyes to look upwards towards the sky, to see a gathering, a distinct formation of dark clouds far away. They swirled like a vortex and crashed downward, flashes of lightning dropping from the open pockets above. It was a haunting downburst. He felt it then, the hairs on his neck stood up. The wind swayed in the opposite direction and drops of rain began trailing.

The world was beginning to change.

Charlotte was the catalyst. 




Chapter 20:

The Scion of Vunmere


Castiff struggled to stand on his feet. He had struggled with many things, the one thing he needed to absolutely work was his feet. He felt a howl come from the bowls of that cellar; it beckoned him but he stood stiff as stone. “I remember now…” He says with a tear drop running down his face. He went completely cold, pulling and tugging out tufts of his hair whilst struggling to catch a single breath. He remembered this exact scene now. It wasn’t a dream, nor was it a nightmare.

It was set in his broken reality, the world that had always been unknowingly shattered. The hand pulling him, forcing him down into the desolate crack in the ground and then leaving him there. He remembered pulling on her dress, his soft pale hands yanking for her attention and that inadequate, frail voice of his asking why she was doing this over and over. He remembered being forced into the center of the dark room, cold and heavy chains fitting comfortably around his wrists so that he would not leave a third or fourth time, perhaps. The amount of time that went by came to an eventual blur… six days of nothing, of no food and water would have him down to nothing but bone, slipping free of the cuffs and walking back home for another four days. It was torture, but it was for her. That dark undercroft was encompassed by white lilacs, standing beside the withered wood. That was when it happened, her hand gliding across his cheek like a hot iron, forcing him back into the cellar. “What did I just tell you?! Stay back there and help me do this, Castiff!” She screamed at him. Her voice rang out like a low rumbling demonic bell. It was loud, it tickled his eardrums to the point where he began walking while covering his ears now. They were mixing, sloshing around in his head like a person struggling to get out from the water; constant shrieks of his mother and Vunmere tortured him, cried out to him, beckoned him, sang to him, yelled at him “Come here.” He dared not defy either of them, his mother was just behind the cellar doors. No point in covering yours ears anymore if the drums already burst. He needed her warmth! She was here! Goosebumps popped across his arms as he flung the doors open, saliva dripping down his chin and splashing in waves as he descended the stairs to see her finally, Novelle following close behind.

What ensued was nothing short of a nightmare.

Charlotte, standing beside the chair with her arm caressing the wooden cuts and looking right at the poor boy. “Mother…?” An explosive gust of wind and darkness pushed them all back. It was blinding, the sheer force kept them at bay and increased in strength. Waves of heavy rain and lightning came down from above, swathing them in a storm. The inner workings of the cellar became torn to pieces, the wind carrying the structure into the maelstrom while only the chair and an erected statue remained. Flashes of blue and purple struck the ground next to them, sparking small pockets of flame around them as the wind only stoked the burning flames. The ground shook uncontrollably, yet Charlotte stood tall like a mountain, unflinching. It was horrific, she became bound by thick black strings; tethering her to the stone statue that was in front of the chair. The world was bending while she smiled, she grinned as her soul was plucked from her body. It made skin become a ghost white; Novelle made it to his knees, clutching a piece of rock for cover against the whipping cold air that only increased. The downburst felt like a mythical beast itself, attacking all that were inside of it while it quickly got colder. She was completely engulfed now. Her entire body was black, blanketed in this abyssal form that had her bound by her arms in front of the erected stone. A purple light emitted from her chest, it flashed for but a moment, blinding the two boys; for they cannot see such a sight. They dared not see it.

Another explosion of lightning and wind decimated the landscape around them. Novelle opened his eyes to see Castiff losing all sense of competence, rocking back and forth as he screamed into the ground beneath his feet, and his mother enraptured by the dark powers that came from this place. He saw her don unfamiliar yet blasphemous, and fiendish armor. It looked like something not of this world or the next: Devilish. Could he reach her at this point? Would he find the voice to bring her down, her own son? An attempt had to be made, “Mother please, I know not what you do but please talk to me! I wi—”

Abruptly, an arm spiraled in the distance and plopped in the grass, blood soaring as the limb settled firmly. Blood flowed. Novelle turned his head, his notice delayed by pure shock and force of it all; seeing his right arm completely sliced from his body. Blood spurted from the fresh stump. His eyes and mouth widened with terror, pain, shock and exhaustion all setting in at once as he screamed through the storm. He saw blood shoot out in bursts, leaking across the blades of grass as core of the world continued to crumble. He could do nothing but grit his teeth. It was so fast he didn’t even notice the attack had already happened. Sweat and dirt ran across his face, he struggled to truly breathe after that, his brain utterly rattled into mush, but he realized she was the one responsible. She was lost in the dark and destroying everything she had once loved. He became unable to fathom it all as the pain seared through his entire body, destroying his nerves as he slowly succumbed to the attack.

He fell over, vision going fuzzy before quickly fading. After what felt like a dreadful eternity, the storm began to dissipate. The dark clouds washed away and the wind died alongside the fires. What remained was a nemesis, an archdevil clad in abyssal armor.

An Apostle of Vunmere.

She was delivered unto him, a God and their fellow Apostle. Her maddening thirst for power allowed it to be as such, a revival of the Lycan Slayer Vunmere and his armor and weapon. Her body was his now, the essence of freedom, her soul and blood, her veins, it was owned by him. They stood up, an eight-foot-tall tower of Death, with an even longer sword that was covered in moss-like tendrils. A greatshield occupied the other hand, their entire body and shield wrapped in the tendrils that seemed alive, swaying like paper in the wind as they walked toward Castiff. Each step was strong enough to cause a shake to the earth. The giant stood over him, he looked up but could see nothing inside the helm. It was blackness that resided there and yet it spoke clearly, its voice a deep, unsettling calm. “Wolves always protect their younglings. I have witnessed this and ended the lives of both men and children. Little wolf, yours has instead offered your forfeited life to me. In this, you have failed.” Vunmere said to him.

His words were so calm, yet Castiff remained broken. With the walls of his mind turned to rubble, his body began to move on its own accord. He held the dagger in his hand and without hesitating, plunged it into his own chest, piercing his heart. A forceful strike that left him wavering on his knees. A small flash of red light burst around him, he was losing sight, a red material hardened around his and caused his entire body to contort and shift into a disgusting, malformed thing that was seen only by the one who ordered it. He didn’t know it until his master spoke it, his aching heart coveted death. As the dagger sat there planted in his chest, he became almost indescribable. He did not think, nor could he talk for he had no mouth. It was sealed shut. His arms morphed into that of these thick and bloodied blades that outstretched far, covering quite the distance. His muscles grew larger, popping bone and ripping skin and flesh, pockets of blood that dripped onto the ground from his shoulders. Vunmere transformed him into his pet, a dog only for killing, a servant made only to end the living. He would carry out this philosophy. Castiff, the mutt.

Novelle continued to lay in a pool of his own blood. As only seconds passed, Vunmere summoned a great army of demons and devils, horseman, archers, and knights that began a destruction unlike any war that had surfaced previously. A cavalry of impious saviors. They are to find the Wolf that still walks the earth.



Epilogue

From Blood, came the Warrior


Novelle shoots upright, his eyes red and head pounding. Blood covered his face and hair. How long was it since he had passed out? The blood was still fresh, yet the pain felt like it had subsided. The wind calmed as well, everything seemed to lull in one moment. The world plunged and now it has suddenly woken up from its bloody coma. He looked back at his stump, where his right arm used to be. His dominant hand, his main hand for defending himself was now gone. In a literal flash, it was taken… she took that from him and with it, the love that would come from a mother. A son couldn’t have foreseen this, this yearning for strength. Yet that was all Charlotte could see. Her eyes were beguiled with dominance. He wept, tears flowing from his cheek but not hitting the ground. Instead, they floated like bubbles, alongside them, orbs of lavender light flowed all around him. He saw them as clear as day, purple orbs like magic that surrounded him completely. There was a pressure he felt across his body, it weighed heavily but it wasn’t painful.

His heart began to race, what was happening? The quicker his heart pumped, the stronger the winds blew, the more sporadic the small orbs went and the greater the pressure. He looked at his limb to see a shade of clotted red, but nothing else. No blood, no convulsing of the damaged nerves. He had healed almost instantaneously. Did he always wield this power? It felt innate, like it was nuzzling deep within his own bowels before reaching out into the natural light. It was natural. Hefelt natural.

Novelle saw what happened to Charlotte, what became of her, how Vunmere cradled her soul into the depths. She wanted this. She chose this over her own son, over her King… her everything. She wouldn’t be forgiven for that; it would be impossible. Anger was etched across his face. His brows furrowed and his eyes streaming with tears as they change from deep blue to an iridescent purple.

Mercy would not be spared.





The End