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Grimmholt last won the day on March 14 2017

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About Grimmholt

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  1. Claire waved to Sai as she left him to work on the seemingly inexhaustible supply of paperwork. "I'll be back in a bit." She held up the letter from the Greys. "I'm going to send a message to Audric and Mia and make sure they sent us the right info." She smiled, but it had been gnawing at her all morning. The numbers didn't match what they were supposed to. True, it was certainly an account at the right bank, and it was certainly written in Mia's hand, and even sealed with the crossed spears and sword of the House of Grey. But it was not the account for the Forge. Did something fall through with the loan? Or did they simply wish to keep this as a personal loan rather than rely on the assets for the Forge to make it happen. She furrowed her brows. They'd never risk it, though. And if we can't make the Swan profitable.. it would hurt them twice as hard. She made her way through the halls until she found herself outside, at the courtyard. She settled down beneath the tree, and began to write in her short, precise script. "Mia, Audric, We got your letter this morning, but there was something off about the numbers you gave us. Is everything okay with the business? Should we put the reconstruction on hold? I can possibly speak to my father about some help, in the interim, but I don't want to inadvertently do something that hurts you all in the long run. Love, Claire." She pricked her finger with a pocketknife and drew a short rune that would seal the letter. It would also ensure that only a member of her family could open it. These days, it simply paid to be careful. Claire sighed softly, and leaned back against the strong trunk of the tree. Above her, the afternoon wind whistled through the leaves, and a few blew loose, meandering down to rest in her lap. It was peaceful here, and the Chibas were truly a welcoming family. Amy and Florica seemed to be fine with her company, and she actually found herself wishing she could stay just a bit longer. But every moment she stayed was another that Nate burned alone in the Castle. It was another moment that Nero found himself moving closer and closer to the shadowy forces that still sought to ruin them. The guilt was a heavy weight on her shoulders. It was all good and well to play Lady Claire here in Weland, but she had other, more important things calling to Claire Grimmholt, de Sande's prodigy. She took in another deep breath of the sweet, peaceful air, and then she forced herself to stand and stretch. Time to do some work. - - - "Hey, I'm going to head out an see an old friend. I'll be back in a few hours," Claire said, leaning through the doorway. She heard a grunt of acknowledgement from Sai as he pored over the documents. "I'd bring you back something, but I can already smell Cook's dinner brewing and I can tell you're going to love it." She grinned as she slid her cavalry sabre through her sword belt, wearing it Welander style rather than allowing it to hang normally. She wore a black blouse and a pair of dark trousers, figuring she would be able to move easier in them than anything more traditional. It would make her stand out, but then again, her blonde hair and silver eyes would do that for her, anyway. "Be good. Keep an eye on Florica for me," she called as she left. It took the better part of an hour to locate the small, rather plain shop in the West Quarter. It looked more like a modest home than anything else, sandwiched between a seamstress's place and a rather large ramen shop that seemed to be doing excellent business in the late hours of the afternoon. Her stomach complained a little at being subjected to such deprivation, but she had little time to stop and wait for some food. She stepped up to the sturdy wooden door and rapped on it with her knuckles. Hijikata Knives and Cookware, read the sign in fine calligraphy. There were the faint sounds of hammering inside, but they stopped as soon as she rapped on it a little louder. "Sojiro!" She reached out to tap on it again, but the door swung open and a short, middle aged man in an oversized brown leather apron peered owlishly out at her. He had a shock of wiry black hair that stuck up at odd angles, and the scent of sweat and leather, smoke and steel came pouring out. "Claire? That you?" he said, in perfect Mirian. "The one and only," she said, smiling warmly at him. "You going to keep me out here like the rest of them or are you going to invite your favorite customer in?" He laughed loudly, and stepped aside, waving her in. "Come in, come in. It's been so long. You'll stay for dinner, right?" "Well, I hadn't meant to, but" - her stomach grumbled - "I could be convinced." The inside of his shop was warm, and the walls gleamed with the hanging designs of fine cooking knives of all shapes and sizes. An immense glass counter formed the far end of the shop, and there were pots and pans stacked neatly against that wall. She only passingly saw some of the prices, but they were easily two or three times what one might expect to pay - even if they were fantastic tools. But, one could never accuse Hijikata Sojiro of being merely a knife maker. Or of being a Hijikata. "I've brought you something. A puzzle. I know how much you enjoy those." He grinned back and made his way around the counter. His hands reached behind the counter and produced a fine black cloth, which he laid atop the glass for her. "Show me," he said, tapping the cloth. She reached behind her and slid the dagger free of its sheath. The metal glimmered in the light, glowing faintly crimson along the runes as she set it down against the cloth. He peered at it, leaning down to inspect the blade in greater detail. "May I?" he asked, although he was already picking it up and tilting it. He frowned after a few moments, and set it back down. He leaned back and crossed his hands across his broad chest. "Claire," he said chidingly, "why have you brought me something like this? It's beyond me to repair, or even to sharpen. It's.. definitely a spell-eater. Hardened a lot, too. Looks like some kind of stunning and shocking spellwork inlaid into it." She gave him a winning smile that bounced harmlessly off his stern countenance. Claire grew more serious. "That's some serious hardware, Sojiro. I need to know anything else you can tell me about it. It.. might be a matter of life and death." He snorted. "With you, lady, it's almost always a matter of life and death." "Hey," she said, "that was one time, and I paid you back. I even treated you to dinner!" "I can't hear you over the twelve stitches it took to put my hand back together," he said, laughing gregariously. "But this is something beyond even me. Or the other me." His expression darkened. "I don't know where you got it, but this.." he held up the blade by the tip of the handle, looking almost disgusted with it, "is some kind of crazy complex spellforging. Almost like a Grey blade, but you'd have told me if it was." He shook his head. "And I know your cousin's work. This is.. some nasty stuff. Damaged, but even still it could seriously hurt a mage if it got near the vitals. Might even prevent one from healing for some time. Long enough for bleeding to be fatal." He set it back down and slid it over to her. "It's a butcher's weapon." "I was afraid of that," she admitted. Her hands closed around the warm handle and she slid it back into its sheath at her back with an audible click. "That's how I know it's not one of ours. Which means there's someone out there with the skill and precision to make something like this. Someone that wants my family dead." Sojiro looked back at her with a grave look on his face. He glanced around at the knives on the walls, and the pots and pans behind him, before he looked back to her. "I can't help you, little lady. As much as I want to." He shook his head. "I'm out of that business now. It took a lot to do it. But I paid off my debts and made my peace with the Twelve Clans." "I know," she said, resting a hand on his. "I appreciate everything you've done for me." He gave her a bitter smile. "Does the old man know you're working again?" Claire snorted, and shook her head. "I think he'd probably lose his mind. No, I've done a lot to keep him from finding out. It broke his heart when one of us left for it, I don't know that he'd survive knowing I did too. But someone important to me is going up against the people that used this knife. Something tells me that's just a party trick compared to what else they might have up their sleeves. Keep your eyes open for me, and let me know if you see anything else like this in the market. Both this one, and the other one." Sojiro fell silent for a moment, and then nodded once. "I left my life behind for Tomoe." He rubbed his wedding band. "But for you, I'll make an exception this once. Leave me your sword. I'll see what I can do to help it." She shook her head vigorously. "No, no. You're out. You made a promise, and I'd be a bad friend if I asked you to break it. Or let you, at any rate." She patted the handle of her blade gently. "It's no Brutus, but he'll do just fine for me." "You'll stay for dinner, though? Tomoe will be very happy to have you. And to pick your brain for some new recipes, I imagine." She grinned. "After you, then."
  2. The first fingers of dawn reached across the sky. Shadows stretched and clawed their way across the courtyard. He sat in seiza, his black pants soaked with fresh dew, matched by his charcoal dueling shirt. His had been a busy night. He was still sore from trading blows with Claire and crashing across the same ground he sat upon. But despite it, he was at peace with how he had left things with her. Hopeful.. was perhaps too optimistic a way to describe what he felt, though. Our entire house once fell to just me. Burned to ashes. Slaughtered by those who swore to protect us. Betrayed. And now there's two more of us. It was.. hard to even leave Florica there with the Chibas. Even knowing that she would be safest far, far away from him and the others until he did what he did best. But we don't need some noble figurehead atop our house. We need a nightmare. A drop of cold water fell from the tree above onto his head, and trickled down his nose. It dripped onto the silver scabbard resting in his lap. A second came down onto his hand as it wrapped around the grip. His sky blue eyes saw the third as it meandered to the edge of a leaf, hesitating before the fall. It plunged as a heavy, crystalline orb that sparkled in the pale daylight. He tore the straight blade from its sheath and shattered that lone drop into a thousand infinitesimal, glistening wisps of icy vapor. A good blade, Audric. A damn good blade. Its golden edges gleamed with hoarfrost. Streams of freezing vapor poured from it as it rasped back into the scabbard. Ocvtavius. Your Masterwork. I will be your hand in this fight. I will avenge what you have lost. But there was one last thing he had to do before he left. He found himself walking back through the hallways with two steaming mugs of fresh coffee and knocking on Florica's door.
  3. Claire grinned as Sai agreed with her rough blueprint. "We'll probably want the appraiser," she agreed. "Fire can often warp things beyond what we can see with the naked eye, and we'd definitely want to make sure everything is nice and safe before we open." She gave a modest shrug as the other Chibas began to chime in with their contributions. It was nice to see a family that worked together so easily. And of course, as native Welanders, their advice was pretty spot on. "I'll gladly take those names, Kei-san," she said. "If we're going to try and revive the East Quarter as well, it would make sense to use them over outsiders. Besides," she added, "some of them likely did work on the Swan before. That familiarity and similar construction ethic would make it a lot easier for us to strike defensive magic within it." She saluted with her empty cup as Obasan did, laughing softly as she left the room. From his seat across from Claire, Nero stifled a chuckle. "Tax cuts and grants?" He shook his head and leaned across to whisper. "I can't say Arima's been too generous in the past. Stodgy man's a solid administrator, but he's got no vision." His fingers brushed the cold metal beneath his shirt as he straightened his tie. "I'm sure I could find some... topics of mutual interest with him. It might make him more -" Claire cut him off with a sharp sweep of her hand. She rebuked him as quietly as she could. "Don't. We won't need your help with him." She glared. "This city does not need your criminals doing any research or convincing anyone or whatever subtle way you refer to it as in your meetings. If he does it he does it on his own. I could walk into his office and threaten to burn it all down, but what's the point? We want to build something good, Nero. From the ground up. Even if it's hard. Not that I expect you to understand a problem you couldn't cut through." He stared back hard at her for a moment, biting back a sharp retort with all his might. His hand tightened into a claw before he very slowly and deliberately placed it down onto the table. "You don't know a damn thing about me any more, Claire. What I've done. What I tried to spare you from." She laughed mirthlessly. "Don't bother." She turned back to Sai and Aki. "I think we'll want to start with clearing as much of the debris from the site as we can. At least enough for the estimators and city representatives to come in easily. It'll probably be some paperwork," she added wearily. "But hey, I think it should get much easier as we go along." "One would hope," Nero agreed blandly. "I'll liaise with the contractors once you've selected them. I figure I can talk directly with them as far as materials and planning, and have them keep you all apprised as we move along." And it won't require me to stay here. Or to deal directly with you, he thought, glancing back over at Claire. A deep sigh came through his lips. He felt tired in a way he hadn't in a long time. If I hadn't moved to that little neighborhood we used to visit. If I had kept a closer eye on Florica. We wouldn't be in this situation. I should never have broken your heart twice, but I never had a choice in that. "I'll be back," he said politely, and then stalked out of the room, giving Florica a last smile as she stood with Chiba Amy and her young son. He found himself outside, watching the breeze blow through the trees and streets of Weland as the evening made its way towards night. He had come for one reason - to make sure that Florica could be safe there. But being so close to her only dredged up the past. Too many old hurts came alive again every time she was around, and he had inflicted almost all of them. A problem I can cut through. He wished it was only so simple. Marcus is alive. Or was. But he was working against us. Of that I'm sure. "Where did you get the dagger, Nero?" Claire's voice was cold as it came from behind him. "Came across it during my business travels," he lied smoothly. "I figured something like that would come in handy someday." She placed her hands on her hips, arching an eyebrow as she questioned him. "And you didn't take it with you when we went back to the Holt. And you didn't use it the instant you had a chance against the Master of the Holt. You had me throw you another sword before you went through the wall." Damn. He turned to face her, taking in the way that the fading light glowed in her stern silver eyes. "Spellbane blades are a rarity. I don't need to explain my reasoning or my actions to you, Claire Grimmholt," he answered sharply. "I saved your life with it and destroyed my only birthright to keep you and your brother from dying. The only thing I had left of my legacy. I don't owe you anything more than that." His sky blue eyes burned with a righteous indignation that he only halfway felt. She winced at his words. Her hands brought up the dagger. The finely inlaid runes still glowed in a faintly crimson aura. She stepped closer, looking up at him with bright silver eyes, searching his face for the truth within. "You saved us," she whispered. "But you did so with something that could just as easily have killed us. Or Haidee. Why do you have this, Nero Caesar?" He turned away from the pleading look in her eyes. Would it really be so bad if you knew? She was just as capable as he was. They could search for the truth together, and unravel whatever sinister conspiracy labored against them. But that was a fever dream. I don't have the right to ask it of you. We've already gone through so much just to get back to this point. You deserve to go back to being a chef, or a partner in the Swan's success. You don't belong in my world of blood and death, and I don't belong in your life either. "I can't tell you," he said softly, his eyes meeting hers. "I'm sorry, Claire. This is.. You'll thank me for it later." She opened her mouth to protest, but he found the words that he knew would end it quickly. "You and I don't belong together. Not in this. Not ever. Go back to your castle and your restaurant, Grimmholt girl. This is something for a Caesar alone to do. Like your mother said, we're only good for fighting and dying." He turned to leave. She caught his hand before he could. "No," she said firmly. "No you don't." He moved to pull his hand away, but she held it tightly within hers. Her hands were as sword callused as his, but warm, almost feverishly hot. "Nero, if... I ever meant anything to you, you won't go. Not again. Not like this." His heart ached at the sound of her voice. He looked back at her and saw the faint, bluish glow of fire at the edges of her hair as it blew in the breeze. Ten years ago he had chosen to leave, and just like this, she had tried to stop him. Don't do this to me, Claire. "I can't tell you," he repeated. "If something happens to me, I don't want it coming back to you," he finished. "I can't put you through that. Not when you've got your brother back. And Kimura to take care of. You know I loved you. I still care about you. I can't drag you into this, no matter how much you want me to." She kissed him, and the world melted away for a single, blissful moment. It was selfish. It was unfair. It was something that made him want to throw it all away if it meant it could last. But he knew it couldn't. Even so, he stood there with his arms wrapped tightly around her warmth for far longer than he should have, his head resting against hers as neither spoke. The moment they did, the spell would break and they would be thrust back into the cold reality of things. "I know," she said at last. "You can't tell me." Her voice was barely more than a whisper against his neck. "But I would fight with you if it meant you'd come back. I'd die if it meant dying next to you." He felt a drop of something warm on his shirt. "Stupid, stubborn Caesars." "Stupid, stubborn Caesars," he agreed quietly. "Look after Florica if I don't come back?" "You're coming back," she said fiercely. "Because she and I will drag you back from the dead just to kill you again for leaving us alone." He rumbled a genuine laugh, and she joined in. "Yeah, you would." "I would." She stepped back and jabbed a finger at his chest. "You come back alive, Nero. And you and I are going to have words when you do." "I will," Nero lied smoothly. And this time, she nodded.
  4. Claire took her seat beside Sai, and her smile grew larger and larger as she picked out the little touches and tricks their hosts had used in preparing dinner. It was wonderful to be surrounded by a family who seemed to truly love each other. There was also a subtle pang of loss for what she would never have again. Claire buried it deep within her, and focused merely on the joy of being able to see Sai safe and brimming with plans to rebuild the Swan. Across from her, Nero gave a meaningful half nod. Easy for you to be okay, she thought, you've gained a sibling. Mine might as well still be dead. Only the faint traces of warmth and triumph she could sense through their distant bond served to challenge that notion. It was strange- she could almost feel heat on her right hand as though she had quickly dipped it into warm water. What are you doing, little brother? She looked back up as Obasan began to speak about talking to the Mayor and the state of the East Quarter. She could remember when it had been a booming part of Weland. One of her favorite smiths had been just around the corner. Now his store was gone, relocated closer to the city center where the clientele was a little less.. rough. Saito had never been much for weapons of war - but his knives were to die for. "It would be a sight to behold," Claire agreed politely after a moment,, giving the Chiba matriarch a smile. "If what I saw of Sai's skill is true, I am sure we can make the Swan's revival one that brings the entire East Quarter back together." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "I imagine the reconstruction itself would bring in a lot of work for Weland itself, since we'd want to use the same local woods and materials it had originally." She brought some paper out of her bag, and sketched along as Sai spoke, trying her best to give shape to the vision he had in his mind. Every now and then she went back over and hastily modified a part of the rough blueprint to account for his changes. It's going to be something great. We're going to make it something great, she corrected herself. After all, it's a joint venture. Nero ate as much as was polite, and then leaned back to observe as Sai spoke of what he wanted the Swan to become. Where Sai saw open and light space for the courtyard, Nero saw unsecured entry points and vulnerability. Where a studio came, entryways and exits for assassins. Difficult to secure it and keep it what it must be. He would have preferred to leave Florica at Grey Castle until he had tracked down Marcus and forced the truth from him, but she was no longer a dove to be kept caged. For better or worse, she was a Caesar now. If freedom was what she wanted, then he would respect that - and do his best to make her home as safe as possible given the circumstances. His sky blue eyes wandered over to Claire as she worked at modifying her drawing. Her hands flew across the paper, shading, writing, breathing life into the young Master Kimura's design. The ring around his neck felt cold and heavy for a moment. She had once dragged him out here - to purchase knives for her kitchen, of all things - and they had meandered along the river late into the night discussing the finer points of good steel and even better food. He blinked back to reality and slipped the chain beneath his shirt. I'm not here for that today. He glanced aside at Florica, watching with some amusement as she snuck a look or two in the direction of the young Chiba woman. He had no idea what she was thinking, but the two of them seemed outwardly similar - quiet and restrained while the others talked openly. He gave her a reassuring smile. "Made a new friend?" he whispered sidelong, glancing back at Chiba Amy. Claire finished her drawing and slid it over to Sai. "Something like this?" she asked, beaming at her handiwork. "I think wards at the entryways should cover most basic security. I'd do some inlaid structural reinforcement runes to the main walls, and then double that for the residence itself. Oh, and then probably add in some fire retarding runes to the most risky areas like the kitchen and stage." "Stronger materials like ironwood would probably be better," Nero interjected. "If something accidentally fell onto it hard enough, it would survive an impact or two." "It'd take much longer and make the building heavier," Claire answered swiftly, folding her arms across her chest. "We're not trying to make a fortress here. Just make sure that the place is strong and resilient enough to be safe." Nero met her gaze. For a moment neither spoke. "Fine," he said, sighing. "But at least reinforce the doorways traditionally. Spellcraft isn't always the best way to do things." "Fine." She rolled her eyes and scrawled a few additional notes in the margins before she slid the revised drawing over to Sai.
  5. "Focus. Feel the mana coursing through your fingers, but do not let it slip. Good. Very good. Now slowly - very slowly - allow some of it to seep free from a fingertip. Now! Warmth, heat, light. Focus only on those. You can do this. You can do it." The dark room flashed into brilliant crimson light as Nathaniel's palm erupted into a cascading gout of flames. He barely had a moment to scream before it winked out of existence and the room went black again. "I can't believe it," he whispered. "Just like that?" "Just like that," Haidee said from behind him. The room began to brighten slowly as she raised an orb of pale emerald fire in her hands. Long shadows stretched across the Vaults. He blinked twice as his eyes began to adjust to the light again. "Of course.. you nearly burned your shirt. You have to be careful with magefire. While it's burned from your own mana - - " "It can still burn things around me. Or that I'm wearing. Yes, I paid attention in Von Edelheim's class on pyromancy. It's just that I was.. never able to summon more than a few sparks, maybe a weak light." Nathaniel moved to sit cross legged at her feet. "Like the abyss just kept... sucking away any mana I tried to use." I only put a little of it into that last one and it nearly blew up in my face. He wrinkled his nose. "It always looked so easy when you and Claire did it. Just.. fwoosh. And then no more problems. Or a very crispy steak for.... Well, you, actually." He looked up at her, and she grinned back with teeth that seemed far too sharp to be purely human. "We've had a long time to practice." She waved a hand through her graying hair. "Despite my youthful looks, Grandson, I've had over a century to learn the limits of my abilities." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "Yours were stunted early by the curse. It makes sense that you'd have a hard time with the finer aspects of control." The light dimmed little by little until they were back in darkness. A pair of luminous emerald eyes looked back at him. "But now we have time. And now you can learn to control it. You must learn to control it. So let's try again." He nodded for a moment, and then stopped abruptly. Can you even see me in the dark? A short laugh answered his question. "Light. Warmth. Heat." He felt the slow drain of mana to his fingertips, like water trickling downstream. It pooled in his hand, growing denser and.. heavier. So much to hold back. "Light. Warmth. Heat." The cool sensation in his fingers grew warmer, like touching a pan after it had been doused in water - the barest memory of being warm. No light though. Gotta keep going. He closed his eyes and focused as hard as he could on keeping that dim pinprick concept of light at the center of his mind as he allowed more of his mana to move in. Now it was akin to holding his hand outside on a summer's day. He opened his eyes expecting to see something impressive, but only inky blackness greeted him. Warmth. Heat. Light. Light. The faint scent of cinnamon and honey came to him, joined by freshly cut leaves and cool afternoon breezes. His hand began to glow softly. It faltered a little as he nearly shouted with joy, but he settled back in to focus as Haidee's hand settled on his shoulder. "You're so close to getting it," she whispered. "Whatever you're doing, keep it up." He nodded his head and focused hard on those memories. His hand felt light, as though the weight on it was dissipating - too quickly, he realized. He relaxed his hold, and slowly began to pour more mana into it. But it wasn't enough, the spell was beginning to fizzle again. He had to find something else, another memory of fire and joy. A hammer sang a song of power and love into the ingot on his anvil. His hammer conducted, his tongs performed, and he kept a rhythmic beat up, much to the joy of the blonde boy at his side. The heat of the forge had transformed his face into a ruddy, sweaty mess, but the boy simply clapped and laughed as his steady work began to transform cherry red slag into the form of a beautiful knife, narrow and lethal. Pride. Love. Light. Warmth. Heat. FIRE! He felt the slightest touch of another hand on his. Nate's hand glowed brighter and brighter until at last, a small, brilliant orb of bright orange fire blossomed in his palm. "I did it!" And then it went out. But he was laughing madly as it did, and Haidee joined him. He built it back up, feeding more mana to that image of light and heat and warmth in his mind and again, the orb blossomed. The Vaults burst into bright daylight as he brought it up in front of him and let it float into the air where it hung, blazing merrily away for a few beautiful moments before he snapped his fingers and it vanished. "A Grimmholt after all," Haidee said smugly.
  6. As a girl, she had wandered the selfsame halls she now walked through. So much had changed since then. Beyond the simple effect of wear and age, the artifacts and lives of three generations of her kin now adorned the walls, pedestals, and walkways. What had been new in her childhood was now ancient by comparison. Haidee caught her reflection in the hazy surface of an old suit of armor her brother had once worn. More grey, more than the auburn and lone threads of gold. Her face bore more wrinkles as well, few from smiling. Her eyes were keen and bright still, but there was a gauntness to her face that made her human self seem even more alien to her. Has it only been a few days since I returned to this form? She rested a hand on the surface of Aurelius's old armor, looking up at the empty helm, and for a moment powerful emotions clashed within her. Outliving one's flesh and blood was a cruel way to live. Moreso to have to watch them age, and wither. Doubly so to watch them fall into the very same trap she had sacrificed so much to prevent them from falling into. She could feel it in her bones. Something had changed dramatically within her after they imprisoned what was left of the Master into Nate. Perhaps it was simply time catching up with her physical form, or sealing the source of her powers away had weakened them considerably. Regardless, she hoped only that they had truly shattered the creature's power and that he would never again rise to threaten them. "So it is you," Nathaniel said from behind her. She turned to greet him. He stood at the end of the hallway, his mismatched eyes a testament to the very nature of the evil trapped within his mind. His very fragile, very weakened mind. Haidee stood straight, and a thin crackle of power arced across her fingers. "It is. Am I speaking with my great grandson, or what lies within?" Nate snorted. He raised his hands slowly. "I'm me. Still... trying to figure out what that is." "You and me both," she said after a moment, relaxing. "Would you walk with me? It's been.. a long time since I was here. On my own two feet, at any rate." Nathaniel stared blankly at her for a moment, and then he gave a curt nod. "Alright," he agreed, and they set off down the carpeted hallways. For a few of them, there was only the normal sounds of life in the castle to accompany them. Every so often, Haidee would stop and examine an object or painting, gazing wistfully at them before motioning for him to follow her. Eventually, they meandered back to the Vaults. "You sure? I... uh... did a number on our family seal," he admitted softly. A flicker of pain crossed his face as he saw Claire's bloody dress. A vicious sense of satisfaction twinned it at seeing his mother's reaction. "I'm sorry. I should have controlled it better. She just... made me so angry. I feel like nobody understands what it feels like to be a ticking time bomb. Just never knowing when I'm going to go off and take the rest of you with me." Haidee stepped in front of him and placed her hands on his cheeks, drawing his gaze back to her. "Nate. You are not a monster. Not unless you choose to be." She shook her head softly. "You're human. You made mistakes. And our curse preys deeply on that. It's my fault that it cursed us so. I bear a portion of the responsibility for what you are today." Haidee released him, stepping back. She looked up at him thoughtfully. "You remind me a lot of your grandfather. And a little of his older brother. My Jack tried very hard to save him. It cost him his life. For so long, I wished and wished that he had run, let it take me instead. But I realize now that he chose to be there, and chose to shoulder the burden that he did." "It's not the burden you're born with that decides who you are. It's what you do with it. The choices you make are what define you." He smiled sadly. "You've.. really suffered this whole time, haven't you?" She said nothing, but her emerald eyes were wet. "I saw one memory. You, and Marcus. I never connected it until today, but I must have been seeing you through Grandpa Alex's eyes." Nate inhaled deeply and then let out a terse breath. "Alright. Then I choose to learn. Teach me. Show me how to be better than this."
  7. John considered her words for a moment. Perhaps. Still, a presumed dead-Welander boy and a gypsy girl with unbelievable power showing up at the same time. The timing's sour, indeed. He followed her gaze to the distant castle. For six generations, the Howes had served those of the Pact. Always there, always at their beck and call. Facilitators, coordinators, servants. The titles varied, but the dynamic was everpresent. But he would break that vicious cycle of power and gratitude once and for all. "Nathaniel is still our best link to the Master's power. I tried to convince him to return to the manor, but he refused.... rather spectacularly," she admitted. "He broke the family seal. With his bare hands, John. Just think what we could accomplish with that kind of power..." She patted her pocket. "I have his blood now. Just need to decide the best way to make use of it." "With his bare hands?" John sat up a little straighter. "If we could convert him into an asset of our own, I doubt the lamed Count Grey and our tired Caesar could stop us. Even with the girl in the picture, even with our mysterious Welander." He grinned as she patted her pocket. "Now that's a spot of good news we could use." His lazy smile returned to his lips and he leaned back against his seat. "I'll make use of the Howe apartments at the Manor tonight. I have a feeling it'll be a busy morning for us both." - - - "I don't suppose we'll have time for many more lessons." She shook her head slowly. "No, I don't think we will. I'd like to say I can stay in Weland indefinitely with you, or open up another location there to split my time in between, but.. I'll probably have my hands full just getting my first one back into shape." "...I wanted to thank you, Claire. For... well, for everything. You didn't have to do any of this for me. Gaia knows you've got concerns enough of your own. But... well, you've become like a sister to me. I didn't think I would ever have that again." "Oh," she said softly, listening to him. For a moment, they were back in the misty confines of that abandoned shack once more, faced with their paths diverging into the directions fate had intended. A shared biscuit, some shared stories, and now here they were. She had seen the worst of what life had given him. He had been there through the worst of her life. They had been strangers, but she could never again see him that way. She hugged him tightly. "You're like my other little brother, Sai. And you helped me fight off the other. Like one big, dysfunctional family." She grinned at him and made her choice. "Would you like some company on the way back?" She patted her sabre. "I can't say I can still put up as much of a fight without Brutus, but I like to think I can still teach you a few tricks along the way."
  8. "Nor have I," John agreed. "Although it's entirely possible that she's one of the rare few. The Roadwalkers are not exactly known for being open with outsiders, nor are they wont to share their secrets idly." He tilted his head slightly to the side. "That does make her acquaintance with someone like our Lord Caesar an unusual one. They seem close, but I don't ever recall seeing young Nero hanging around with anyone outside of your daughter and the Count." He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a small letter. "As far as my contacts in Weland have found, he's supposed to be a dead man. The rest of his family are certainly dead. Passed on during that dreadful plague a few years back. He's a dancer, supposedly one of some skill, although your daughter seems to delight in teaching him the blade. Good form. Little naive, though." He scanned the letter, tracing over the words with his finger. "No current known associates, although he was close with a Chiba Aki at one point. I can have our crew take a further look into him, if you like. I doubt we'll find anything interesting, frankly. The bloody Welanders are always so tight lipped and polite. Getting info out of them is expensive." - - - For a moment, Claire stood there numbly as he hugged her. And then she returned the gesture, allowing the tension to bleed out into the air. She smiled sadly as he asked about Nate and whether there was anything that could be done to help. "Probably not," Claire admitted. "He and I have always been pretty close, but even that's.. not likely to continue. I think he's going to have to figure out a lot of things on his own." She sighed. "Maybe you can talk to him - but he might just as likely snap at you, too." She glanced down at the drying blood on her dress. "He's changing. I know my brother's in there, somewhere. But he's starting to turn into something else, too." "I just wish I knew whether it was something good or worse." - - - Nero smiled gratefully as she began to chase away some of the aches and pains. He looked down fondly at her as she pulled his hand into both of his, and clasped them tightly together. "I will be c-careful, brother." She looked up at him intently, her grip tightening on his hand. "B-but I need you to be c-careful, too." It's all for nothing if you don't come home. "Promise me." Can't say I've had too much luck making promises like that to you. The last time, I died. But I am older now. Wiser. Perhaps better able to do what I must to survive at all costs. Nero, Lord Caesar, gave a solemn nod and spoke firmly. "I promise you. Even if I have to chase you to the doors of death itself, I will return to you alive. Promise me that you'll fight. No matter what, you don't give up until I find you."
  9. Nero took a seat in a chair by the window, his movements slower now that the exhaustion of the past few days had begun to sink back in. And, if the gray curl near his eyes was any indication, perhaps a little more than that. "Well, Lady Caesar, I thought I'd start spilling some of our sordid family past to you. And maybe some newer parts of that history as well." He gave her a wan smile. "I've come to realize that perhaps keeping things close to the vest is as dangerous to you as it might be to me. You're family now. You have been since that day in Blairville, but now you have so much more on your shoulders." "So I'm going to give you the best weapon any of us can have. The truth. Our families have been together since we first came to Mir. We made a bargain with the creature in the Holt for power, we used that to carve out a niche for ourselves here. Our family bargained for strength above all, and we act as the the sword and shield of the others. Audric's family bargained for their talents in the forge. Claire's.. chose to bargain for tremendous magical power." His expression darkened. "But that bargain nearly destroyed them at the Grim Holt. And our strength has not prevented tragedy from striking us down as well. Nor has their talent spared Audric." "I've buried my parents here. Audric's mother and father alike. My brother, and my Uncle as well. Aquila mea, our name is a boon and a curse. There are those who despise us for our power. They will stop at nothing to hurt us." He scowled. "As nice as it might be to have the title of Lord Caesar, I think we're going to need a Swordbreaker again." For a moment, he fell silent, contemplating the cost of walking that path once more. His sky blue eyes drifted back to her. You saved me twice, little poet. Once from that river of blood. Once from death itself. No matter what I have to do - or what I have to become, I will live up to what you see in me. "I need you to be careful," he said at last. "I will see you to Weland, but from there, I won't be able to see you often. I'll need to disappear for a bit and find out the truth." He considered telling her about their surviving brother, but decided against it. I'm not even sure if he's still alive. "I don't think my parents death was an accident. There's something larger here, and until we find it, we're never going to be able to rest." - - - Claire sighed deeply as Sai came out and saw her bloodied dress. She finished wiping her fingers clean with Nate's handkerchief. "Yes," she answered quickly. "No," she added, after seeing his expression. "Everything's a mess, Sai." She turned to lean over the balcony, letting her hair loose to blow in the breeze. "All of that to rescue my brother and he's... probably worse off than where we left him. Tormented, bitter. Alone." She groaned, and leaned down to rest her chin on her hands. "And then my mother's back. Oh, boy, she's... a piece of work. I never wanted to be anywhere near her. But we needed my father and her here for Nero and Florica." The wind picked up, and for a moment, she felt free of the seemingly endless list of things going wrong. "She never wanted me to marry... someone I loved. An idiot I probably still do, I guess. But that's old history." She forced a smile onto her face and rose. "Now we can focus on getting the Swan back together. And I've got to get my Cookery back to full form. I hear they've been missing their head chef for some time. So things will eventually settle down," she said with an enthusiasm that was absolutely faked. But hey, gotta give it a try. - - - John gave a short version of his theatrical bow. "I like to think you keep me around for more than my sparkling humor and good looks. I'll go ahead and reach out to his rivals around the major cities. Even if he is able to produce something, the damage will probably cost them more than a few lucrative new contracts. From there, we can start spreading the word to poach talent. Even the mightiest of forgemasters can't produce everything on their own. " He nodded to himself as she spoke. "For that matter, Nero performed no feat at all when we swore him in. Just dropped what was left of Flamesong on the aquila and took the oath. I really don't understand what value Julius saw in that. It was pitiful, honestly. That woman he adopted in, though!" He furrowed his brows, trying to remember the girl. Truth be told, she had simply vanished into the wallpaper. Hard to recall someone that barely seemed to exist. "She's more powerful than we gave her credit for. And now she's wielding that blasted Frost. She fixed it, somehow. Never seen anything quite like it." "That slip of a girl did that? I thought even James couldn't repair the enchantment?" Where in Gaia's mighty bosom did someone like that even come from? "Hm. I'll task some of our people to look into her background. That kind of power doesn't just materialize. Even then, finding any dirt at all might help us steer the Caesars into a position of some use to us." He smiled brightly. "Perhaps they'll even disappear for us on their own. That would save me quite a bit of work."
  10. "Of course, the Swan would be honoured to host the Lady Caesar, and the Lord Caesar as well if you like. It will just take some time to get her feather back in order. In the meantime, you'd both be welcome to join me at the Chibas'. They're old friends of mine, fellow dancers who are joining the venture of getting the Swan back in working order. They have several spare rooms, though of course nothing as grand as this." Nero gave a short laugh. "That sounds lovely, Kimura-dono. But I think I would bring more trouble than is fair to your friends. If you can keep an eye on my sister for me while she is there, however, I would be tremendously grateful." He inclined his head to Florica. "I think this might well be a way for you to get what you want. And I, in turn, will know you are safe while I try to find those who would do us all harm." Movement caught his eye and he looked up in time to see Nathaniel moving down the hallways alone. He pursed his lips. And you'll be far, far away from him, too. "Florica, would you join me for a walk back to our rooms? I need to talk to you about a few things before we run out of time. Things that, as a Caesar you have more right to know than anyone else." One of only three, if Marcus still lives and breathes. - - - John gave a little half bow as she thanked him, grinning. "I live to serve, Baroness." As they walked out to the carriage, he moved ahead to open the door for her. "After you," he said, seating himself after she had a moment to get settled. He swung the door closed and then smiled warmly. "So, what is our next move? I have confirmed that Count Grey seems indeed to carry a lasting wound from the battle. It is evidently a serious one - he has been trying to keep it under wraps, but the castle staff are aware of it." He tapped a thoughtful beat out onto the seat beside him. "Perhaps leak that he has lost his power to competing forges? It would arguably hurt their bottom line and damage their reputation to boot." He turned to her. "Or, perhaps we're going for more direct action against the Caesar brat? He's handy with a sword, but that's a nasty scar peeking out from his shirt. I'm willing to bet that even if the rumors of his death were exaggerated, he was still gravely wounded. He has enemies of his own, we could try to spread word of his survival and have them do the work for us."
  11. "I owe her a debt I can never repay, as does the Swan. She's become like a sister to me." At that, Nero glanced fondly over at Florica and nodded. "Strange how that happens, isn't it? But I'm glad. What she did to take care of Nate.. that was a bitterly lonely road. She needs all of the friends she can get. And all of the family." Nero chuckled softly as Clarissa came up to them and immediately launched into an animated conversation with his sister. He felt a familiar ache in his chest as he watched Audric's little girl ask if Florica would stay forever. In another world, another time, he might have been a parent by now. Perhaps Clarissa would have been friends with them, playing hide and seek through the grownups. Fond memories of wandering the castle with Audric came to mind. But here I am. And the Caesar family isn't dead yet. Marc lives. I live. And Florica Caesar lives. Perhaps one day we'll be seeing her children wander around here, too. If I can find and kill whomever did this to us. "Has work begun on rebuilding your home in Ashville yet?" Sai's question drew him back to the real world. "No," he admitted, tilting his head to the side. "And I may not, right now. It may be safer for the world to think Nero Caesar is still dead, until I've had a chance to find out who burned our home down in the first place." He felt the loss of his blades acutely now, missed the comforting weight of their steel. "I'll probably be heading back to Weland soon, myself. I have friends I can stay with, and I'd like to be able to keep a close eye on the Swan's progress." At that, he nodded along. And an idea began to form in his mind. The greatest defense against determined attackers was simply to not be where they expected one to be. They could expect eyes to remain on the Grey Castle, and on his properties and probably the Grimmholts' as well, but they might overlook a seemingly neutral party's. For all any conspirators of the Master might know, their choice of the Swan might simply have been due to its derelict state, rather than any arrangement with the owner. And if they played their cards right, perhaps he could fortify it enough that it might deter a second attack long enough for him to dismantle their enemies. But they had already asked so much of the young Welander. It protects him as well. It wouldn't take much to discover where Audric's money is going. "Perhaps I could assist with the reconstruction," he ventured at last. "I think Florica might be safer there. And there is a chance - albeit a small one - that our enemies may well seek vengeance on you for your assistance. I would arrange the cost of any fortification or additional materials, of course." - - - The lazy smile on John's face turned into something much more genuine as the familiar form of Alicia Grimmholt sauntered from the Vault. He waited a polite enough amount of time to allow her to greet the others, and then crossed the floor to fall in at her side. He handed her a glass of her favorite wine, white gloved hands precise and smooth. "Judging from the look on the little miss's face, I take it your reunion was an eventful one. Junior's brooding up a storm, as well." He spoke plainly, masking the true intent of his words beneath the affable veneer of a concerned manservant tending to his Lady's every whim. "As for our previously terminated employee, I haven't been able to find his forwarding address to deliver his severance pay, but rest assured I've located a few promising leads." He smiled blandly as a pair of bodyguards matched their stride, the poised viper of the Grimmholts embroidered on their sleeves. "I've taken the liberty of preparing a carriage home for you. My Lord Siegfried has already departed. He was issuing orders to the House guard for double duty. I have, of course, placed our best men onto the task." - - Claire turned sharply at the sound of footsteps behind her, not at all in the mood for any interruptions. Her expression softened as she saw Nathaniel emerge, his ungloved hands a bloody mess. She sighed deeply, and took them in her own torn hands. As she expected, his wounds had closed, leaving only the sticky residue of drying blood to be dealt with. "And people say I'm the hothead of the family," she murmured. Nathaniel gave her a tired smile. "Sorry. I might have... lost my temper a little. Maybe destroyed the seal. Maybe told dear old Mom to go to hell and take the family name with her." Claire remained silent for a moment. I honestly didn't think you had it in you. But then again, I didn't think you could snap my wrist like a toothpick or try to do... any of the things you did. The throbbing in her hands slowly faded away as Nathaniel's body fully healed. That wasn't you. You fought it. You tried to die to stop it. I need to remember that. There IS good within you, and you know it. There's just.. something else in there with you. Nate gave her an apologetic look and pulled a handkerchief from his pockets. He busied himself with tenderly wiping the blood from her healing hands. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I just.. lost it. She kept trying to convince me to go home. Claire, that's not home. Not any more." She let him finish wiping her hands, and then she hugged him tightly, uncaring about the blood that he left on her dress. "It's okay, Natey. I understand. Really, I do. I mean, when I left I threatened to burn down an entire wing of the manor. I.. there's a lot you know know about us. About why we left." He turned to look down the hallway at the figure of his mother. "I think.. I get a little of it. Maybe not all of it, but I can see the shadow of something there." She released him and stepped back to the balcony, listening to the distant waves. "So where do you really want to go?" "Here, I think. I want to stay with Audric. I won't be a burden to you, and I won't be near... her. And maybe I'll figure out where I go from there. But until I figure out what's going on with me, I don't think it's a good idea to be in public." Claire took in a deep breath, and then exhaled. "Yeah. I'll talk to him. I'll miss you, little brother." "I'll miss you too, Claire. Thanks for everything." He turned to walk away, and slipped into the side hallways.
  12. "The Eagle told me how to heal it." At Florica's casual statement, Nero arched an eyebrow. I've never heard of them reaching out to us before. Judging us, acknowledging our power, yes. But you seem to have a habit of getting even stone to feel. I shouldn't be as surprised. He grinned. "I think th-they like me." "For once, I think my ancestors and I can see eye to eye on something." Nero dropped his arm around her and gave a warm hug. "You did spectacularly, aqulia mea." As they walked up the stairs, he found Sai amidst the other retainers. He inclined his head politely in the direction of a tall man with salt and pepper hair and warm green eyes before returning his attention to the young Welander. Where the others, save Lord Howe, had more or less shied away, Sai seemed to be the only one genuinely happy to see them. "Thank you, Kimura-dono," Nero replied, giving him a formal bow. "I only wish you had seen my sister's entrance. It was.. something else." A broad smile crossed his lips. "Thank you for allowing us to use the Swan. I do not believe we could have made it out without both it, and your direct assistance." He paused, thinking back to the moment where he had almost ruined everything by leaving the bounds of their spell. Sai had simply dashed through the door and gone to Claire's assistance. It was what he wished he could have done at that moment. But he had his duty. Nero rested his hand on Florica's shoulder without really thinking about it. "And thank you for defending Claire when no one else could. She.." He trailed off, as she emerged from the vaults, a storm in the lines of her face. She strode straight past them and out towards the balcony without acknowledging them. I know that look. He wanted to leave and comfort her, but the last thing she would want to see was him. Nero smiled stiffly. "She's a good person. Fate has been unkind to her, as it has been to all of us. Please look after her." - - - He lifted the glass to his lips, and drank deeply of the pale wine within. Sir John Howe was a man of middling height, his raven dark hair peppered with gray, bright green eyes warm and a lazy smile on his face as he observed the other retainers. He returned Nero's nod of acknowledgement with mirth, and returned to waiting along the wall. His lord had already departed to the carriages, intent on making it home in time to spend poring over his latest project, no doubt. From the look on his face, however, John figured something had set him off. His Lady, on the other hand, was still in the Vault where he could not see. Claire had emerged, looking as angry as she had the last time he had seen her nearly a decade ago. Although at least her sword remained sheathed this time. It was rather unnerving to see her with steel in her hands, particularly with how similar she and her mother looked. He had given her a polite smile, and to her credit, she had simply given him a small wave of acknowledgement as she stalked away rather than unloading her emotions on him. Now that's progress.
  13. A blur of emotions swept through Nero as she knelt and accepted Frost from his fingers. He heard her vows, and the sheer bravery she showed drew a fierce smile onto his face. He could just barely see the ghostly impression of a wisp of a girl, grateful to the world for simply leaving her alone beneath blue skies, starlight, and wind. He could faintly see the young woman who had dived into the sinking depths of his dying soul and dragged him back. He blinked away the sudden wetness in his eyes, and then she was rising to her feet to take her place beside him on the Aquila. My family. He felt her hand tighten around his shoulder, and he turned to make sure she was still okay - it had been a rather strenuous task, he was sure. Steel rasped on leather as she drew Frost and pointed it at the bedrock above. "Praeteritis futura sit reconcilietur. Crevisset fractum reficere!" He watched in stunned silence as she summoned a symbol of their House from the blade cruel fate had broken, drawing forth power he had never truly seen her use before. And then shards of ice were falling around them as a layer of ice and rime spread through the rock itself. The sound of the three guardians slamming their fists against their chests in salute echoed like an explosion in the Vault. He felt utter satisfaction in watching even Siegfried and Audric in shock at what they had witnessed. Best not to let this wonderful opportunity pass. Nero rose from his seat and turned to face her, grinning broadly. He dropped to one knee as he had once done so long ago and saluted her as well. "Hail. Hail, Lady Caesar!" You were never simply a dove caught in my wake, were you?" After a moment he rose and took his seat, staring over at the other lords. Audric stifled a laugh and dropped into his seat with Clarissa. Siegfried remained standing for a moment, staring at the Caesar siblings with questions forming in every slow movement of his lips before he nodded and sat as well. Nero whispered to his side. "Now that was an entrance befitting a Caesar. How did you know Frost could do that? Audric said the crash damaged it badly." - - - Nathaniel's eyes swept from Florica to the shard of ice embedded in the ceiling and then back again. "Close your mouth, little brother," Claire whispered. His teeth clicked together. I had no idea you could do something like that. Except that she had. He had tasted that wellspring of power within her, once. She had destroyed him, or a part of him, once. Left him shattered and melting together like the chips of ice scattered around the bronze aquila at her feet. Her whispered apology from earlier came back to him. So much stronger than I thought. Stronger than I could ever have been. He finally found it within himself to look away. Claire stood beside him, her silver eyes intently searching the new Lord Caesar's face for something. She gave a thin smile and rested her hand on her sabre's hilt as she looked away. "I'm going to stay," he said after a moment. "I can't go back home with you. Can't live two and a half streets from her again. It's too much." At that, she merely tilted her head over and rested it against the side of his own. "I know," she answered. "I know." - - - "With that," Audric intoned over the sounds of the statues returning to their original positions. "We have restored balance to our three noble bloodlines. The events of the past year have been deeply trying for all of us. Brave men and women have lost much to bring us to this point. I believe we managed to best the enemy that lurked within Nathaniel. But there are those lurking in the shadows who would seek to do us harm." Audric's expression was a mirror of Weyland's above as he swept those gathered with his gaze. "We were unable to capture any of them alive. But they used our own weaponry against us. Bloodstone. Bloodsteel. Siegfried, I fear we may eventually end up at war with whatever cabal plots against us." He folded his arms across his chest. "Be wary. I fear they were not satisfied with claiming my parents and Nero's. I offer you any aid the House of Grey can provide." "And the House of Caesar will join them," Nero added. Siegfried gave a short laugh that cut off abruptly. "I know well the price of a Grimmholt life. They killed my brother and his fiancee as well." His expression turned cold and hard as ice. "I'll die before I let them touch anyone else of our blood. Now is there anything else?" Audric paused for a moment. And then he shook his head. "No, Baron. Please be safe as you travel home." "Feh," Siegfried answered, rising from his seat. He inclined a polite nod to both of his counterparts and then stormed from the room. Nero gave a powerful shrug. "Went as well as could be expected."
  14. Three ancient iron chairs stood beneath the shadows of the Guardians, gleaming brightly in the firelight cast from crackling braziers mounted to the walls. The quiet burbling of the wellspring and the slow sound of footsteps echoing down the steps were the only sounds that intruded. Audric was the first into the Vault, a circlet of bright crimson steel around his head, his strides uncharacteristically short and measured to account for the little girl holding his hand as they entered. They were garbed in black and silver, the proud crossed spears and sword of the House of Grey emblazoned above their hearts. He tucked his right arm into Amirah's as they walked, doing his utmost to appear as strong and stern as his reputation demanded. He came at last to the foot of the chair beneath Weyland, standing on the Grey seal with the two he loved most in this world. The other families would be making their way down the steps one by one as he had, their retainers left in the hallways to congregate among themselves. This place was sacred to the three bloodlines. This ceremony, even more so. Beneath the watchful eyes of the stone guardians, each of them would prove their heritage and right to rule. For him, it would be a feat worthy of the First Among Craftsmen. For the Grimmholts, a feat displaying their inborn powers as befitted the First Among Spellsmiths. For Nero, something that exhibited the uninhibited strength and prowess of a Caesar warlord. Behind him, Siegfried Grimmholt the Lesser came through the open doors. A tall, spare man, his leonine mane had once been ash blonde but had since faded to a pale white. He wore a robust beard, and his emerald eyes were inquisitive, darting around the room he had not seen for many years. Not since that dreadful business with Audric's father, at any rate. At his side, his wife Alicia strode confidently into the room. He wore a suit of the finest white cloth atop a black shirt, and the proud viper of the House of Grimmholt entwined its way around his heart. This had been a room of many painful memories for them both. It seemed that few good gatherings occurred in this room. He found that to be a tragedy in itself. Nathaniel and Claire followed. The former kept his eyes forward, his face an impassive mask in the firelight. His white suit was of similar design to his father's, with the notable exception of the deep black gloves that disappeared into his sleeves. The latter wore a stark white dress that bore no insignia at all, though she had chosen to compliment her austere outfit with a polished cavalry saber and a fierce scowl. She flashed Audric a thumbs up, and a quick nod in Nero's direction. Siegfried made his way to the chair at the right and turned before it. He stood alone, leaving his family to stand just outside of the Seal. It would be safer there, he reckoned. Perhaps the Greys could get away with performing their own feats with others, but his was not so easily restrained. But at least it wasn't the Caesars' destructive dance of blades. Nero strode down the steps with a vigor that did not reach his face. His was a suit of fine charcoal grey, with a sash that gleamed in the light like freshly spilled blood. The symbol of his office, the signet aquila, was nowhere on his person. His personal eagle lay beneath his clothing, etched into his back by elvish needles and ink. They would have to kill him before he surrendered that one. He wore the charred handle of Flamesong at his side. It would go back into the Vaults where it belonged, but it had one final duty to perform as a remnant of their ancestral weapon. He walked to the edge of the Seal with Florica, staring down at the polished bronze aquila carved inlaid on the floor. It had been the better part of a decade since there had been a Lord Caesar to stand and treat with the others. He tilted his head to the side, glancing at Florica. If he was to grant her name and title, he would have to do this first. And in a way, perhaps it was right that she, who had given him another chance at life, should be the first new Caesar to join the family since his birth. "Trust me," was all he said, as he stepped onto the seal and motioned for her to follow him. Audric turned and inclined his head in a show of respect. Siegfried did the same. "Tonight, we honor the pact of our forefathers, forged in blood, in steel, and in brotherhood. The Caesars have suffered long these past ten years. They have lost Lord Cato, and Lady Anne, and Marcus Caesar to tragedy. Lord Antonius fell to the blades of assassins. But here stands Neromius Julianis Caesar. Last of the Caesars, my friend, and a man who fought nobly at my side to vanquish a foe who threatened us all." Audric formed much of the runes in the air with his left hand as he spoke, and he lifted Clarissa into the air with his other hand to finish the rest. "I recognize Neromius as Lord of the Caesar Dominions, First Among Blades. May you stand triumphant where others have fallen." Audric snapped his fingers. Nothing happened. He took a slow breath, gathered his power, and snapped again with his left hand. The runes dissolved into a shower of multicolored sparks. Above, Weyland Grey tilted his head in a modest show of acknowledgement. "Thank you, little ember," he whispered. "I have not personally witnessed his valor," Siegfried intoned. And at that there was a slow, seething silence in the room. Claire fixed her father with eyes that glinted in the light like naked steel. Nathaniel coughed once, and folded his arms across his chest. "But my daughter and son have." A slow pulse of power flowed from the Baron and his voice reverberated in the air. "Cato was a friend to us all. A friend to me, personally. Our differences aside," Siegfried nodded to Alicia before looking to Nero, "he would have been proud to see you here today." Siegfried slammed his fist into the ground at the foot of his chair in a fountain of crimson lightning, and the groaning black stone of Siegfried brought its sword before its face in a salute. "I, Baron of the Grim Holt, recognize you as Lord of the Caesar Dominions, First Among Blades. May you live your life as honorably as your fathers before you." Nero took in a long breath, and the world around him slowed. He dropped Flamesong's hilt onto the aquila, where it rang with metal against metal. "Hail," he whispered tot the statue. "I come here to claim my birthright. Not for my own sake, but for another." He met the stone eyes of his scowling ancestor. "I swear on your blade to honor your vows. No harm shall come to any Caesar for so long as I live. No blow shall go unanswered. No blood lost without blood in turn." There was silence as he turned and sat in the iron chair, first of the three to do so. After a moment, the groaning statue ground to a knee, offering the hilt of its sword to his back. Claire arched an eyebrow. That was.. not what I remember. But the guardian had accepted whatever he had done, and knelt in fealty to a man who had run from this destiny for ten long years. "Hail, Lord Caesar" called Audric and Seigfried in unison. "Hail," he answered bluntly. "My first act is to recognize Florica Veshenga as a Caesar in name, right, and title." He reached into the folds of his cloak and offered her the handle of a narrow dagger. Faint tendrils of vapor dripped from its worn sheath as he directed Florica to kneel. "Do you swear by the same vows as I do? To leave no blow unanswered, and remain unbowed?" He waited for her response. "Then rise, Lady Florica of the Caesar Dominions. May you be a light to our House as you have been for me.."
  15. He looked up at the stone walls, blackened by thousands of hours of Grey hands busy at work, hammering the legendary tools and weapons that had won them fame and fortune. He could remember standing beside that anvil, pouring his heart and soul into creating his own blade. And now he might never again craft something truly wondrous. Utterly worthless. He walked over to the pile of equipment, his temper rising with every footfall. "Da? Mumma says to tell you it's time to clean yourself up so you don't scare off th'guests with your stink." Audric choked down a curse at her sudden arrival, opening his mouth to answer her before she continued onward with her observations in steadfast fashion You definitely don't get that boldness from me, little one. "Oh, your tools are all a'fallen!" And then his mouth closed, briefly unsure what one could say in response to such an earnest description of his life at that precise moment. Alright, that one's all me. Her warm hand slipped into his own, and he turned to face her, that bright smile of hers bringing a small one of his own out at last as she offered to help him put the tools back in order. Maybe it's not that important right now. He lifted her up into the air, laughing softly as he spun with her. Oh, he might be incapable of swinging a hammer at the moment, but this, this he could do. Audric set her down gently after a few good cackles, and joined her in surveying the calamity of his forge. "I would be very happy for the help, little ember," he said thoughtfully, cocking his head to the side. "But first, I think I shall need your help, Lady Grey. How would you feel about helping your dad put on a little show of magic tonight?" He took her hand and led her from the forge, taking one last look at the scattered tools before he gaze down at Clarissa. Maybe the best thing I ever made was you, little one. And I can't even take full credit. He smiled broadly at that. - - - He closed his eyes, and for a moment the dull crash of waves below, the wailing cry of seabirds above, even the soft breeze caressing his face began to fade away into the dark. There, he found peace. Here, of all the places within this fortress castle, he could rest free from the waking nightmares and twisted memories of a dozen lives he had not lived. And then the whispering voices came back, begging, pleading for power. Begging to be strong, to be smart, to be better. It turned his stomach. His eyes flicked open, a mismatch of silver and gold orbs that reflected the endless ocean beyond. Nothing would please him more at that moment than diving into the icy depths below and fading into the void. But eventually, he knew he would wash up somewhere, and the cycle would begin anew. And it would kill Claire. He leaned out onto the railing, feeling the wind against his face, wondering how it might feel on the way down regardless. He felt a familiar presence prickling at the outer edges of his awareness long before she showed herself, though part of him hoped against reason that she would stay away, far, far away. But when she spoke, he turned to her, and the sheer weight of the longing that swept through him at the sight of Florica dressed as she never had been before. It caught the words in his voice, and he had to look away. Conflicting emotions echoed in him as he answered her. "Florica," he replied cordially. For you, I died. For you, I killed. For you, I burn and wither away. How could one feel so torn just hearing your own name? The right thing to do would be to end things, to spare them both the torture of living like this. She was kindling. He was fire incarnate. But even so, part of him wanted nothing more than to throw caution to the wind, to beg her to save him from the misery of his own failings. You know you have to let her go. This can never end well. You know it's true. But it would be so sweet. Coward. Murderer. Liar. The wolf owes no apology to the lamb. Be better than that. Give in. Fight! He fixed her with his mismatched eyes, and said nothing. This is what I deserve. - - - Claire chuckled as Sai continued to keep pace with her, blow for blow. Since they had formally begun his education, he had grown by great leaps and bounds. "You'd have been the terror of my team," she called, blocking a casual thrust and returning a flurry of light counterstrokes. "I mean, it'd have been a little weird what with you being so young, but we'd have bullied them into submission." She ducked under a quick slash and spun back out of his range, laughing at the clever improvisation. There was something wonderful about teaching someone. She had always enjoyed that part of it. Nathaniel had always been so fragile she could never have brought herself to put him through this. Well, now he isn't, she thought, parrying his next series of attacks. But hurting him would just be hurting me with extra steps. And, she realized grimly, I've already crossed swords with him twice. Why put them both through that again when there was a much more willing opponent? Besides, she enjoyed seeing more of Sai come alive again. If what she had seen beneath his mourning half-death was splendid, seeing that promise come to life was a hundred times so. Enough to sweep away the guilt, at least momentarily. She held up a hand for a break, wiping her brow with a sleeve. As the carriage passed, her merry expression swiftly fell into something cold and distant. "Someone you know?" he guessed. "Something like that," she replied. "Although I assumed she had better things to do. Perhaps burning down an orphanage or hunting endangered animals for sport."
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