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Swordbreaker Chronicles 9: Storms and Stars

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The air in the Swan's side alleyway was much cooler than within the theater. Nero moved slowly through the hole he had smashed into the side of the building, his body aching from the sheer torture it had been through. The cool air only served to remind him of the drying blood sticking to his back and the missing weight of weapons he had entrusted with his life. The swordsman felt naked without them. But that was the price they had paid, and paid willingly. 

His sky blue eyes glanced behind him to the small group in the theater beyond. Audric lay propped against some debris, his shoulder wrapped with some bloodstained bandages. His expression was dour, although, that didn't say much given the Count's usual demeanor. His gaze was locked on his wounded arm, lost in thought. Nero could see Sai standing near Haidee as Claire helped her brother up from the ground. Perhaps we should have let you go. But I couldn't. And I couldn't let him die like that either. It left a bitter taste in his mouth. How many had died because of him? Had bled or been wounded? How many had his curse unwittingly stolen from? 

But those were questions for another day. A day where his body felt less like an ancient and battered punching bag and where he could think about all that had happened. You're not dead, Marcus. The swordsman frowned deeply as he considered that. He had seen him board the airship with their parents and the Lady Grey, spoken to him as they went about their business and returned. But he had not been on it when it crashed. For a moment he felt a stubborn hope that his  parents had survived, as well. But he had seen the ashen  proof himself. "More damn questions."

At last, he turned his attention to the figure standing by herself in the alleyway. Even now, his memories of her were dim. He would die for her, had done so before, if the scars across his chest were any indication. But he could not shake the profound sensation she was more alone that even he was at the moment. Nero, master Swordbreaker, renowned bookseller and vendor of information, victor of a dozen duels to the death, could not find an answer  for her in that moment. He could not even find answers to his own dilemmas. But he could try. 

Nero approached her slowly, announcing his present in a gentle baritone. "Little Poet." 

Edited by Grimmholt

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Continued from Chapter 8 | Chapter list


Florica had been staring up at the narrow strip of stars slowly drifting over the alley, lost in thought. At the sound of Nero's gentle voice she turned to him, surreptitiously wiping her eyes on a corner of her sleeve, and offered him a small smile. "We d-d-did it," she said softly, wonder in her tone.

Noticing how stiffly he held himself, Florica suddenly remembered that he had been injured, and that the others probably were, too. Guilt stabbed at her. I'm so selfish. They all put their lives on the line, and all I could think about was myself. Remorsefully, she stepped up to her big brother, placing a hand on his chest and letting their auras connect, beginning the process of healing. Her mind travelled back to the first time she had healed him like this, all those years ago in a bookstore in Blairville, and she smiled wistfully, wondering if he even remembered it any more.

But perhaps it was best if he didn't, whispered the bitter voice tangled into her soul. Hold me lightly, aquila mea. Don't let me pull you down again.

She glanced back towards the theatre, and a little tremour of nervousness ran through her. Her expression never changed, but the spike of anxiety was palpable through the connection of their auras. Nate was back. Was it really him? It must have been; the Master would have reached out to her by now.

But if she let herself believe it was really him, then... Why did she still feel so reluctant to go to him? Shouldn't she be running into his arms? But at the very idea, her soul recoiled with a visceral shudder. Too much has happened. She remembered how easily he had betrayed her, at the Holt. Even if he didn't. And there was the long, poisonous stretch of months with Peter, covering her like an invisible stain from head to toe. Idly, she wondered what he would do to her in punishment for her long absence.

Her mouth twisted with bitterness at the poisons seeping through her soul, and she shook her head. There was time enough for that tomorrow. She glanced up at Nero again, sombrely studying his chisled features. "I'm g-g-glad you're a-alright," she stammered softly. Whatever other thoughts were going through her mind, she left them unspoken.


Edited by Song Sprite

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"We did it," he confirmed, nodding to himself as though he could finally acknowledge it. They had managed to drag both Grimmholt siblings back from the verge of death, and, at least momentarily stalled the Master's control over Nathaniel. Possibly even freed the boy entirely. But there was an uneasy sense that things had simply reached a temporary impasse as their plans, the master's, and whatever Marcus's had been collided and derailed. Nero forced a smile onto his face, unwilling to show that uncertainty to Florica. You've been through so much, little poet. I will find answers on my own, and protect you any way I can. 

He arched an eyebrow as she came and pressed her hand to his chest, wondering whether she even had the strength to heal his injuries at this point. Something about the look on her face told him that she wanted to do this, needed to do it, and he acquiesced without complaint. He could feel the tumultuous direction of her thoughts through their brief connection, and he did not need to be a telepath to figure out why she was so anxious. Seems we're both worried about the same thing. 

"I'm g-g-glad you're a-alright." He gave a smile at that, a genuine one that lit his eyes up. "I made you a promise, columbus mea, and here I stand." He waved a hand back at the others. "Here we all stand," he added, more somber this time. "I'm worried about him too, if it makes you feel any better. I don't know what Claire was able to do, but.. when I was cast back out of whatever connection we had, she was trying to bargain for Nate's soul. I don't know how successful she really was. I got the impression that she was able to force the Master into dormancy. I don't know what else happened."

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Florica looked up at Nero again as he expressed his concerns, openly studying his face in a way she had been too shy to do before. She had lost much, these past months, living in the dark with her demons; but some things had become clearer. Such as how precious every moment was that she was able to share with her brother. Her instinct to try to protect him from herself only made these rare moments of relative peace all the more valuable; bright jewels to hold in memory against whatever loneliness the future held. She would not, could not, look away and waste the moment. Not with him. Not when he was finally awake, and piercing her with his bright, compassionate gaze.

She was distracted from her thoughts as he voiced his concerns, his suspicions only deepening her anxiety about being in the same room as the Grimmholt siblings once more. Her smile faded. Dormancy... So it wasn't gone. Only sleeping. And possibly had struck a bargain with Claire. Florica shuddered, her heart sinking to the pit of her stomach. Having healed the worst of Nero's many injuries, she dropped her hand, glancing uneasily towards the theatre once more. Was the Master really gone? Or was he just biding his time until his next appearance? 

I'll never really be free of him.

I can't stay in Ashville.

The conclusion was painful, but inescapable. Leaving the home that Nero had built for them was the best way to keep her brother out of the line of fire. And if the Master was still at work in Nate, or Claire, or both, then staying far away from them might be the only way for them to lead something like normal lives. If there was one thing that her brief, dysfunctional romance with Nate had taught her, it was that she was the equivalent of oil to the fire of the Grimmholt curse.

But where would she go? She doubted Nero would ever rest easily if she just went wandering alone again, disappearing off the map. No, it had to be somewhere he could reach her, check on her. Accessible enough to give him the illusion that she would always be safe.

The heaviness of her thoughts was making her head hurt, and she sighed and shook it. There would be time enough to figure that out tomorrow. For now, it was enough that she had her brother back. Reaching out, she took his hand, holding it for comfort as she had done the last time he had gathered her from Weland. She glanced up again and offered him a weary smile. "L-let's g-g-g-go h-home, b-b-b-brother," she voiced haltingly, rubbing her tongue against the roof of her mouth in frustration afterwards. Ever since she had started dating Peter, her stammer had gotten worse and worse.

Belatedly, she remembered that the house in Ashville had been all but destroyed. She supposed they would all just have to go back to the castle.

* * *

In the theatre, Sai stood respectfully off to the side as Claire and the others slowly picked themselves up. His gaze was drawn away for a moment, examining the fresh damage to the Swan. It could have been worse... but it was definitely not an ideal starting point. It might almost have been easier to level it and start from scratch, but he hoped it would not come to that.

Stepping further away from the others, he knelt down beside one of the few undamaged patches of holy flowers, touching them and bowing his head in prayer, offering his heartfelt thanks to the spirits of his family for their aid in the battle. Even from beyond the grave, he knew they still watched over him, and he felt their guidance and protection more strongly than ever, as though the surging clash of magics had given them fresh life and purpose. He smiled wistfully, and nodded.

Standing again, he looked curiously over at Claire's brother, whom they had come to fight, and who finally had been saved. It must have been awful for him, being possessed by a demon who ate the souls of its victims. He hoped that Nathaniel would finally be able to find some peace now, not least for Claire's sake. He considered introducing himself, but decided that that could wait. Now that the adrenaline of the fight was starting to fade, he felt a great weariness being cast over him, and he was sure the others would be feeling the same way.

It was time to go home.

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Nero's expression fell as she glanced towards the theater. You've suffered so much at the hands of that thing inside him. He pursed his lips tightly as he tried to find the words that could fix things, but what could he say to that? He had been little better than a living corpse for so long while she had been at that hospital. Gaia only knows what she had been through in the intervening time. It turned his stomach to think about her lost and alone with little more than his few friends to keep her safe. He had to speak with Claire, and Audric, and Haidee. Measures had to be taken to ensure that they really had saved Nate,  rather than simply buying him a few more days, months, or years until what was left of him was consumed by the wicked creature dwelling within. 

"L-let's g-g-g-go h-home, b-b-b-brother," she said. And that cut him in a way that he had not expected. For the third time in his life, Nero had no home - no place he could feel safe. So many books, so many treasures within had been lost when... whomever... had stormed in to take his life and recapture her. "We don't have one at the moment," he murmured quietly. "It will probably take some time for us to rebuild. And I do not know that I could ever truly make that place safe once more. Not now that they know where it is." He placed a hand over his face, pinching the bridge of his nose. 

In the moment, survival had been the priority. But so much had been utterly lost in their desperate scramble to  make it out that he had not been able to save a single precious thing. Well,  I managed to save one. He turned to her, and swept his arms around her in a crushing bear hug. "I promise you," he whispered, "I promise you that we will find a way to make this work. Someway you can be safe from it all."

But in the interim, there would only be one place they could safely retreat to - the only safe haven any of them had left in the world. 

- - - 

Claire brushed her hands through Nate's hair as he slept in her lap. She could feel no trace of the Master or the abyss reacting to her touch, but that was precious little guarantee of anything. Were you really able to destroy it, Uncle James, or did you just imprison it so deeply within Nate that it might never be able to re-emerge? At the thought, her throat felt oddly dry. Audric doesn't know what he did, does he? Her silver eyes shifted to the slowly corroding shards of metal atop and around them. Even now, she could see a faint shimmer in the air as Nate drew in their power, consuming what was left of it to complete the healing process. His hands were still dark and rough, still reverting from whatever stone-like substance he had formed them into. 

"Claire." Haidee spoke softly as she knelt beside her. "What did you do?"
The swordswoman smiled wanly. "I offered it my heart. In exchange for binding them both together, to live,  with Nathaniel in control." 
"You what?" 
"It accepted. But then I saw him - Uncle James. He came and.. dragged it down into.. into one of the cracks. I don't know if he managed to kill it, or if he buried it." She sighed deeply. "I don't know whether I have my brother back or not, or for how long he'll be back. But I had to do it. I couldn't just let him die when I knew he still lived - that he was still himself." 

Haidee frowned, and when she spoke it was in a voice weary with an old, deep sorrow. "Others have tried to bargain, Claire. I can't say we were successful." She glanced away, unable to meet the girl's eyes. So idealistic. So naive. Damn you all for forcing us to live with the cowardly bargain you made. "We will speak of this, later. I will attempt to seal all of his power away until we can make it back to the Vaults, but.. " she swept her hand at the debris. "Once he really begins to rebuild his aura, I think even you and I would be hard pressed to secure him alone. We might have to speak with your mother as well, perhaps even Siegfried." 

"No." Claire's voice cut through the air like a knife. "Bind my life to his, if we must. I'd rather die before allowing them anywhere near him." The air around her shimmered with heat. 

Haidee clenched her jaw. "You might be making a terrible mistake." 

"But even so." She rested her hand on his head. "Cheer up, grandma, it'll be my funeral if it is." The smile she gave was deeply incongruous with the dark thoughts swirling behind her eyes. 

- - - 

Audric shifted to stand with Sai, his body aching terribly. Well, the parts of it he could feel. There had been an instant of blinding pain when the arrow struck him. And then he could not feel much of his right hand at all, beyond that. The noble, well raised part of him wanted to claim it was a small price to pay to have saved Nathaniel. But he would be lying to himself to hide the sheer rage and grief within, to have been lamed and have failed to bring down the Master. Instead, they had managed to keep both of the siblings alive, but at such a terrible cost that he wondered whether it had not been their undoing. Only time will tell, he thought, as he gazed out at the survivors of the Swan. 

Nero and Florica were outside, he knew, but they would have a long and bitter road to recovering what had been lost. The fire had gutted their old home so thoroughly that only its mighty bones remained jutting from the foundation amidst the ashes. Claire's absence had only served to hurt her business, and while he still thought the restaurant existed, it would probably take many months of  hard work before it managed to regain its prime. And my own fortunes.. 

He shook his head and forced the selfish thoughts aside. 

This is the burden we have chosen. And we owe it to ourselves to fulfill it. 

"Kimura-dono," he said softly. "I cannot thank you enough for everything you have done for us. For Claire. For Florica." He offered his left hand to the young man as his right remained limply at his side.. "We have much to discuss at the Castle. I will do everything in my power to help rebuild the Swan as I promised." His icy blue eyes surveyed the damage, fresh and old. "We could tear it all down and begin anew, if you like. Or we could probably attempt to save much of the old structure. It would cost a little more, take some more time, but we owe it to you and I think it would likely consecrate the ground as a defense against any... lingering.. pests our friend left behind."

"But let us talk back at the Castle." 

And Mia can see what is left of the man she said goodbye to. 

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Florica returned Nero's embrace with equal fervor. And I promise you, I will try to keep you safe from me, she vowed silently, determined that from now on she would treat him as he deserved: not as her sword and shield, but as the only family she had left.

* * *

Dawn was grey in the sky, though the sun had not yet risen, when they boarded the earliest train leaving Weland. An exhausted silence had fallen over the group. Whatever else needed to be planned, it would have to wait until they had a chance to rest.

There were few other travelers this early, and the weary group secured a carriage to themselves. Florica and Nero sat together - she had not released his hand since they left the Swan, and she seemed intent on ignoring everything and everyone who wasn't her brother (particularly if their last name was Grimmholt). She fell asleep almost the moment she sat down, her scarved head resting on Nero's broad arm, faint worries creasing her pale brow even in sleep. Claire sat with Nate, who had barely woken enough to put one foot in front of another for the trip to the train, exuding a sense of gentle confusion about his surroundings, and had immediately fallen asleep as well. The others each took a seat to themselves.

Sai stared out the window, unable to sleep now despite being so tired that mounting the steps up to the train had been a real effort. Too many thoughts crowded his brain, shouting over each other like needy children. What was needed to rebuild the Swan. The alarming sense of power and rightness he had felt when wielding Thorn with the intent to harm. His unresolved feelings for Chiba Amy, which needed to be put firmly to bed now that she was married and had a child with Aki-san. A child she named after me, whispered a treasonous voice which he immediately quashed, blowing out a slow breath. Seeking distraction, his eyes traveled over his new companions again, frowning softly in the direction of Florica, hidden from him behind the bench she sat on with her oversized brother. He remembered too well the pained look on her face when the others had gathered together for a moment of rejoicing, and his sense of sympathy for the troubled young woman only deepened. I think we're both outcasts, in our own way. It was an oddly comforting thought.

Florica's dreams raced by at the speed of the landscape hurtling past them outside, never resolving into coherence, the dark corners of her psyche held at bay for the moment by the solid, comforting glow of her brother's living aura, so different from the emptiness she had felt all those evenings sitting beside him at the hospital. She felt she had only just closed her eyes when the changing momentum of the train woke her, and they were arriving near Grey Castle, at the train station where carriages stood ready to take them the rest of the way. With a weary sigh, she sat up and let go of Nero's hand, giving him a tired smile which didn't bother trying to reach her eyes.

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Audric stared out of the carriage window, watching the familiar scenery as it passed by. He could taste the sea salt in the morning air, hear the distant crashing of waves against the sheer cliffs. It was something he had always taken for granted. These were the lands his family had owned for generations, won through battle and marriage, fed and cared for through the fruits of their tremendous skills. Skills I can no longer use. His right arm lay against the handrest, and while the rest of him could feel the thudding vibrations of the carriage wheels across the rougher parts of the road, they were dull and distant from his shoulder down. From the look on Haidee's face as she had tended him, there wasn't much hope of changing that.

The castle loomed overhead as they drew near. He could see the faint silhouettes of his men manning the walls at regular intervals, some with bows unslung and arrows nocked, others with more modern rifles resting casually in their hands. The carriages swept through the gate and eventually came to a halt at the foot of the stairs to the main keep. Nero's was behind, and he knew that Florica would probably disappear with him into whatever chambers Mia had been able to secure for them. The Grimmholt carriage was ahead of his, and he fully expected them to head to the Vault to perform whatever rituals they needed to do to seal Nathaniel's power away. 

Audric didn't know what he would do. He could not help them craft sturdy restraints. He could not replace the weapons they had lost. It was all he could do to hold back the overwhelming sense of bitter, crushing failure at returning as he had. But he had returned. That much, at least, he could say he had done. He had brought them all home safe and for the moment, that was the only thing he could bring home to her. 

He emerged from the carriage, and held his head high as he walked towards his wife. His arm swung uselessly at his side, but he swung the other around her and pulled her close. "We did it." 

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Mia wrapped both arms around her husband, holding him close and letting out a long, weary sigh of relief. Her ring had assured her, through the long watches of the night, that her husband yet lived; but it was a poor substitute for having the reality in her arms. She was elated to hear that they had succeeded in their task, but the wellbeing of her husband ranked far above that in terms of importance.

Speaking of which, she had not failed to note that his face looked unusually dour for what should have been a triumphant return. Pulling back slightly, she looked up, studying his face with renewed concern. Had something happened? Had they lost someone? She cast her eyes over the rest of the group emerging from their carriages, doing a head-count. They were all there - even Nathaniel, much taller than when she had seen him last, battered but whole. Finally, Amirah focused on her husband's arm. She had noticed immediately that it was injured, of course, but... injuries heal, don't they? Pulling back further, she gently took the loosely-swinging hand in both of hers, feeling the chill in Audric's fingertips. "My love... your hand..." she whispered for his ears alone, her tired face growing pale. They had succeeded... but at what cost?

* * *

Not having slept at all on the train, Sai was dog-tired, and grateful enough to follow one of the servants who had been assigned to guide them to their chambers. Florica already knew where hers were, having visited them with Amirah...was it only yesterday? It felt like a lifetime ago. But she didn't feel like mustering the energy to explain that to the nice young man who offered to be her guide, so she simply nodded. She stepped out of the carriage with a single backward glance at Nero. Thoughts crowded her mind, but she pursed her lips, and none of them fell from her tongue. With an inexpressibly weary expression, she turned away and followed the servant, giving the Grimmholts a wide berth as they began to emerge from their carriage.

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Audric could only shake his head as she took his hand in hers. He could scarcely feel anything of her warmth, of the ring which was the twin of his own. The last night had aged him a dozen years, he felt, and the injury only added a score more. "Other archer," he managed to say, his throat dry and the words difficult to summon. He could not find levity in it, nor the bright side of this. It pained him to even begin to consider the ramifications of an injury such as this. Their household depended in no small part upon the reputation of the Grey smiths as craftsmen and artificers. What use was a smith who could not swing a hammer, nor feel his way through fine engraving, nor even lift his own creations to display their power? 

I probably couldn't even lift Clarissa at this point. 

A shadow passed over his face as he turned to the Grimmholts. They at least, had lived, more or less intact. They at least could pass on their talents to the next generation. But their daughter was far too young to learn the family trade, too young to start as he did, learning at his father's side in the forge. And even if she wasn't.. he would have no way of showing by doing, at any rate. He slipped his damaged hand from hers, letting it fall to his side again. A very real part of him wanted nothing more than to send Nate and Claire from the grounds, banish them from Castle Grey until his dying day so that he would never have to gaze upon their idle freedom. 

Some costs aren't worth paying, Audric the smith reminded himself. But what is done is done.

Count Audric Grey merely gave them all a reassuring smile, and leaned on his wife as they walked inside. "Later," he promised. His eyes were dull and wet as the doors opened. 

- - -

The salty air brought Nero memories. Some of them were actually good. 

They passed a patch of overgrown grass that had once played host to an airstrip, though the far end was still black and bare save for the occasional glint of rusted metal. Nothing will ever grow there again. Nor fly. It was blocked by a copse of trees with a small clearing inside. His eyes trailed up one of the trees, where the bark seemed fresher than the others, although it had been several years since that night. His fingers ached dully at the memory, as though they could still feel the splinters and fresh callouses. That had been the first time he had ever truly wanted to kill someone. Now he could hardly remember the face of the last man he had killed. 

A Kharn. A slaver. One who  should have never touched my sister. 

And there was a vicious satisfaction to that thought. It sobered him considerably.

The stairs came into view, and at their top, Mia Grey stood, her face clearly scanning the carriages for her husband. You're a good woman, Amirah. Thank Gaia that dolt managed to convince you to marry him. He smiled at that. There would be no warm reception like that waiting for him at home, nor a home itself. Only the knowledge that Florica was, for the time being, safe here. 

And then he was there, sitting at the top of those stairs on a warm afternoon, fingers flicking a page across The Bard of Ignatz. The sounds of horses and carriage wheels grew nearer until he could no longer tune them out. He looked up, wondering who would be coming out at this particular hour, and that was when he saw her. She was willowy, dressed in a fetching green gown, her blonde hair reaching just barely to her shoulders. Her eyes were the color of bright silver reflecting the sun, and her lips were curled into a wide smile. The book slipped from his hand and slid down the stairs. "Damn it," he muttered, scrambling to his feet. She stood there, holding his book back out to him in black gloved hands.  

"Oh, thank you," he said, taking it back and inspecting it for damage as one might a precious heirloom. She laughed like bright bells, and he smiled. "I'm Neromius, but you can call me Nero." He offered her a hand.

"Claire," she answered with a smile that set his heart racing, though she did not take his hand.

And then their door swung open, a footman nodding as he stepped aside. Nero stepped out into the air, stretching his aching limbs as he allowed Florica out. He watched in silence as the Grimmholts followed the Count and his wife into the castle doors. He kept pace with Florica and the servant as they guided them to the chambers they had been given. It was a familiar set of doors that greeted him, and as he entered the room he idly traced his fingers along the faint carving of initials on the back side. 

When the servant departed, the swordsman simply found the nearest wall and slid down it, uncaring of the dried blood that left a trail on the surface. It had seen far worse injuries than that in his time there. "Full circle," he remarked, more to himself than her. He looked up at Florica, the weariness setting into his face. He brushed a stray grey lock from his eyes and smiled weakly. "I think we'll have to find you some new furnishings, little poet." 

- - -

The stone guardians of the Vaults loomed overhead, their countenances returned to their original directions. To Claire, it seemed almost as though they could not bring themselves to greet the three who entered. Nathaniel leaned heavily on her as they walked down the steps, his movements uncoordinated and weak. It was hard to believe that he had just been ferociously attempting to end all of their lives. But that wasn't really you, she reminded herself. It was hardly a comforting thought. It was why they had retired here with him, at the center of their power within the castle. Here, at least, they could call upon the power of those interred within in order to restrain even the Master of the Holt, if needed. 

She just hoped profoundly that she wouldn't have to. 

Haidee knelt at the center of the Vault, considering her next steps. Already, she could feel her inborn powers beginning to leach away into the air itself. The events of the last few weeks had cost her dearly. Perhaps, even enough to be her final undoing, in time. She had much to do before she allowed that inevitability to occur. She closed her emerald eyes, and reached out to her sides, forcing the power around her back into her hands where she could at least make use of it. In her minds eye, she laid the foundations of her spell. It began to take shape before her body - the shimmering outline of a slim, red steel chair in the shape of a modest throne. She poured more and more of herself into it, willing it into existence with the ironclad knowledge that it could be and therefore must be. 

With a flash of brilliant scarlet lightning her device slid from the stone of the Vaults until it rested there on clawed limbs, ready for her use. Her breathing was hard, and she forced herself to her feet with pale, shaking hands. Her body creaked and protested with her every motion as she turned to face them. Though her eyes remained as luminous and green as ever, her hair was more white than brunette, the streaks of gold more pronounced. 

"Let us begin." she commanded. 

Claire stepped back at the figure before her. So much.. She opened her mouth to speak, and shut it promptly. This was not the time for sympathy. If their sacrifices were to mean anything, they had to ensure that Nathaniel was truly free of any lingering darkness. 

Nate moved along dully as they guided him into the throne, and it wasn't until he was locked firmly in place that he began to stir. His silver eyes suddenly focused on the blurry persons in front of him. He immediately began to claw at the metal, shaking the chair violently as he shouted. "You should have left me, Claire! You should have left me to die!" He smashed his head against the steel. "I never wanted this. I never wanted to live like this!" Tears streamed down his cheeks. "DAMN YOU ALL!" 

Edited by Grimmholt

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Watching the way Nero slid down the wall, Florica felt his aching weariness echoed in her own bones. Part of her wanted to just find the nearest soft place to lay down, and sleep forever. But she felt a stab of guilt at her brother's words. She couldn't put off facing this any longer. It would only hurt more in the end. Walking forward, she crouched down before him so that they faced each other eye to eye, her crossed forearms resting on her knees. "B-brother..." she murmured, a faint blush of shame staining her cheeks. "I... d-d-don't think.... I should.... g-g-go b-b-back to.... a-Ashville. I..." A pained look crossed her features, and she looked away for a moment, before forcing herself to look back at him again. "Y-you'll always b-be my b-brother. But I... I f-feel like if I s-stay with you, y-you'll g-get hurt again." She reached out and laid a hand on her stalwart protector's broad shoulder. "Y-you deserve.... rest."

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Nero looked up at Florica as she came closer, raising an eyebrow slowly as she stuttered her objection to returning home. At least, to the home they had before any of this had happened. He pursed his lips tightly as she rested a hand on his shoulder and told him that he would only be hurt again, that he deserved rest. Those words, wise as they were, right as they were, cut through him like a hot knife. Nero rumbled a mirthless laugh, resting a scarred hand atop hers. Little poet. Brave little poet. "Such is the fate of a Caesar," he demurred quietly. "Something I accepted as my reality a long time ago. I buried my parents here, Florica. A brother. An uncle. I alone survive." A half truth, at this point. But I can't expect that your betrayal went so smoothly, Marcus. Perhaps it is true enough that I am still the last of us. He fixed her with tired sky blue eyes. 

"You and I survive." He amended his statement as he removed his hand from hers. "But perhaps you are right. Those who attacked our home are still at large, and we are no closer to unmasking them than we were months ago, before my untimely demise." He scratched his chin idly. "Perhaps we can create a safer haven for you, in the meanwhile. I can't say that they might not still be lurking out there, but I believe our stand at the Swan probably threw their designs into chaos. It may well provide me an opportunity to use my connections to unearth more about them. They were sloppy in coming after us, and they must have left some traces I can follow." 

He smiled broadly at her, burying the uncertainty he felt deep within. "I will speak with Audric. And we shall find you a place to remain, safe, undisturbed. But someplace where help would never be far from you." 

The swordsman tilted his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. 

"But first, I believe it is time that I did something I should have done long ago. Would you accept the mantle of a Caesar, Florica? To join my doomed house in name and title? I cannot say I am much of an optimist, but so doing would grant you at least some of the more official protections and privileges our noble house confers." 

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Despite her best intentions, it hurt a little when he agreed with her so easily. But she also felt vastly relieved that he wasn't going to fight it. That was an argument that she probably would not have had the will to win, yet she would not have been able to live with herself if she submitted to returning to Ashville with him only to have him get hurt again.

Those who attacked our home are still at large.... She wrinkled her brow at that, vaguely concerned. She had taken those attackers for more of the Master's servants, and thought that they would fall or fade away when he did. But Nero was making it sound like they were still alive and well. If so, who were they? There's so much I still don't understand. But from his following comments, it sounded like it was unclear to everybody. She tentatively returned his smile as he reassured her that they would find a safe place for her to live, and nodded her head in agreement.

Her deep blue eyes widened as he extended the offer of the Caesar name. For a moment she hesitated. She felt deeply unworthy of such a gift. Ever since her conversation with Mr. de Sande, she had felt so very distinctly the vast disparity between the bravery of a Caesar and her own timid nature. In her own eyes, cowardice was her defining trait, and although she tried her hardest to overcome it, she knew that fear and worse was still the guiding compass behind most of her actions. She was no warrior-hero like her eagle.

But they were family. That was a truth written deeper than blood. Ever since she had stubbornly pulled him back from the very teeth of death, mending vast swaths of his body and aura with her own, that truth had become absolute and inviolate. 

It would have to be enough. She could not deny him the chance to do this for her, not when she had just taken from him the chance to make a home for her again. "I would b-be honoured, aquila mea."

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Nero nodded slowly as she seemed to get the gist of his comment about their enemies. "People. After everything we've been through, it seems our fellow humans are as much as, if not more of a threat than the more supernatural foe we've faced." He paused for a moment, searching for the right words. "Those things, in the Holt. The creatures that the Master summoned. They were dead things, little more than puppets it strung along. But the ones who came after us in our own home, those were flesh and blood like us. And that means there's someone else out there with their own goals related to that thing and our curses." He gave a heavy shrug at that. 

"I would b-be honoured, aquila mea." And at that, Nero smiled his first, real smile since leaving the Swan. 

"The honour will be mine, little aquila." He offered her his hand, and then pulled the wisp of a girl into a bear hug. "I will make the arrangements. But first, I think I shall be finding a fresh set of clothes and a warm bath. I recommend you do the same. We can't have you start looking too much the part, you know." 

- - -

Warm blood dripped down the arms of the restraining throne, running down his mangled fingers, soaking his back where he had cracked his head against the chair. Nate's eyes were narrow pools of steel staring out at Claire. He was too weak now to speak, but the hatred had etched itself into every strained muscle of his face. No matter how hard he had struggled, the chair refused to relinquish its hold on him. "I.. can't.. believe you," he rasped. The sound grated against her ears like nails on a chalkboard. 

Claire walked to the foot of the chair and gently placed her hands on his. "I couldn't just leave you there to die," she whispered. "Not when I knew you were still there. You never deserved it, Nate, not any of it."

"Yes, I did." His voice rang with guilt. "I've killed so many. I... I thought about killing Florica and stealing her power." He cast his gaze to the floor, unable to meet her eyes. "Back in the Holt. Before the  Master had hold of me." He shook his head slowly, feeling the steady pulse of mana flowing to his wounds. Even now, it won't let me end this suffering. 

"... I didn't know that," Claire answered softly. "Does she know?" 

"I think so." He let out a shaky breath. "I can't face her again, Claire. It would have been.. a thousand times better.. if I had simply ceased to exist." He tilted his head back to stare at the guardians of the Vault. His ancestors, the cowards who had bargained away their lives so easily. Part of him wanted nothing more than to rip those statues apart, to cast their shattered pieces into the spring below. Another simply wanted to cease to exist. "I wish I had died there. At least the last thing I did would have been something good." 

"But now you have a second chance." 

"I'll just screw it all up again." There was a sense of finality to his words that reverberated in the air. 

"You won't. I'm going to help you - the same way Haidee helped me." She closed her eyes and began to trace the spellrunes into the space between them with both hands, leaving a luminous trail where her bloodied fingers completed each. 

Nate laughed bitterly, and then shifted his attention  to the other woman. "I still can't believe you," he muttered. "Hiding in plain sight this entire time. I wish you'd never done what  you did. What did it save? All we've done since is ruin everything around us." 

Haidee snorted with derision. But there was a pronounced weight to her voice when she spoke. "I still wonder that myself. But I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. I could no more allow any of you to die than I could kill you myself." She moved to stand beside Claire, occasionally correcting a rune here and there until, at last, they finished. "That should do it," she remarked. 

"Don't do this, Claire," Nate pleaded. "Don't tie yourself to me like this."

But the elder Grimmholt merely pulled a small blade from her pocket and slashed it across her palm. Fresh blood dripped onto the pooling mess below the throne. She dipped a finger into her own blood and marked her own forehead with a triangular rune, and replicated the same on his own. She closed her eyes, and unleashed a flood of power into the space between them. The runes burst into brilliant crimson flames and then winked out as suddenly as they had come. Faint peals of scarlet lightning arced across their hands until, at last, the restraints sprang open. 

Nathaniel eyed the dagger in her hand. And then he simply laid back in the chair and sobbed. "You fool." 

"Aren't we all," demurred Haidee. 

Behind her, Audric Grey laughed bitterly. "I'd agree." 

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Florica giggled fondly as Nero pulled her down into a hug on the floor, her heart aching with warmth as he called her an eagle for the first time. When it was him saying it... she could almost allow herself to believe in it. That she could have that kind of strength. "S-sounds good," she agreed, and when he released her she stood and headed out to her own chambers down the hall, casting one last fond, ever-baffled smile back at her brother.

* * *

Some time later, when all had had a chance to refresh themselves from the fight and travel, they all gathered in the dining hall for a very late breakfast. The long table was heaped with filling foods, a veritable feast in celebration of their safe return. Amirah gathered Claire and her not-so-little brother in her arms in a warm embrace the moment they stepped into the room. "Claire, Nathaniel. Gaia be praised, you made it safely." She pulled back and glanced between them, concerned at the sight of something deeper than weariness on their faces. But it was not the time to ask. She curtsied deeply to Lady Haidee as the woman entered behind them, noting that the woman looked many years older than she had just a few hours ago. What happened, in the Vault? What price have we had to pay for the sins of our fathers? "Welcome back to Castle Grey, m'lady."

Nero and Florica walked down the hall together towards the dining room, side by side. For once, Florica had put aside the timid, slouching shuffle that usually marked her stride. If she was to be a Caesar, a true sister to her proud brother, then she was determined to act the part. She walked with her head held high, her arms swinging gracefully at her sides, and seemed to have gained several inches in stature from that alone.

She still wore a headscarf, but it was a smaller style, set further back on her head so that it did not hide much of her hair, which had been washed and cascaded in loose, waving locks behind her shoulders, seeming much longer without her usual braids. And instead of her usual blouse and layered skirt she wore a sky-blue dress that had once belonged to Lady Amirah, a sleek silken garment that left her arms and shoulders bare save for the slender ribbons of its shoulder straps.

But for all her newfound confidence, her footsteps still faltered for a moment as they approached the door of the dining hall, a spike of nervousness pressing into her gut. Nathaniel... She couldn't bear to face him. She wanted to turn around and run far, far away. She took a slow, deep breath. We're just going to eat. I don't have to talk to him. I don't even have to look at him, she reminded herself. You're an eagle now. Act like it. Holding her head high, she entered the room with her brother. A single, sweeping glance over the room sufficed to locate her former lover's dark hair at the other end of the table, and from that moment onwards she looked determinedly elsewhere, even as a discomfited blush slowly burned its way across her pale cheeks.

Mia came over, hugging them each tightly in turn. "It fits you so well," she praised Florica, enjoying the girl's shy smile and stuttered thanks. "Come, eat. You all must be starving!"

Sai was the last to join them, having slept most of the intervening time away, and thus only having had time to splash some water in his face and straight black hair before combing it back and corralling it into a short tail at the base of his skull. Somehow, the lady of the castle had contrived to secure fresh, clean Welander-style clothing for him overnight. There was a card atop the neatly folded robes, reading, in her clear, confident hand: Kimura-san, please accept this gift as a small token of our thanks for the aid you have provided our family in its time of need. Sincerely, Amirah, Countess of Grey. He could hardly decline, though his decision was definitely helped along by the fact that his old white mourning robes were stained and ripped beyond saving. Putting the card aside, he lifted the robes.

He entered the dining hall wearing crisply-arranged matte black robes, with patterns of dancers embroidered in glossy black thread that caught the refracted late-morning sunlight. The ample fabric of the shirt wrapped around his neck and tucked in at the waist in an unbroken, smoothly overlapping hem, and the matching pants were loose and flowing, gathered at the ankles so as not to restrict his movements. He had given Thorn a brief cleaning, and wearing it at his hip he looked suddenly more like a samurai than the beggar boy Claire had discovered just a few days before.

Edited by Song Sprite

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Claire gave Mia a thin smile as she hugged both siblings, noting with some satisfaction that she could dimly feel the other woman's arm around Nate through their connection. Good, at least something there went right. "Claire, Nathaniel. Gaia be praised, you made it safely." Claire nodded along, not willing to discuss whether one could consider their current situation "safe". Mia would have enough to deal with at the moment, she assumed. Nathaniel did his best to muster a grateful expression. He wore black gloves embroidered with a fine silver serpent entwining its way down his arms, where it disappeared into his stark white sleeves. He was clean shaven, his hair cropped down into something considerably more proper. Claire was dressed in much the same fashion, her long blonde tresses trimmed to her shoulders, a dress of pure white and matching black gloves to complement his own. "Thank you, Mia," Claire said. "I.. I am sorry about what happened to Audric. We could not have survived without him. Nor would we have freed Nate without his doing." And his father, she thought, but she could not bring herself to give it voice. 

They sat together as Mia greeted Haidee. "Welcome back to Castle Grey, m'lady." The older woman bowed to Amirah, showing the proper deference to the Lady of the Castle. She was dressed in a modest green dress that matched the hue of her eyes, her hair pulled back into an austere bun. "Thank you, Countess Grey," she said softly, taking her seat beside her grandchildren. "You have done an admirable job of welcoming us all. Even those of us who may not truly deserve it." 

 Only Claire chose to eat, Nathaniel instead rested his chin on the edge of the table, sleeping, while Haidee withdrew a small notebook from her pockets and began to scrawl notes in tidy script. There was an unspoken tension between the three of them, as real and substantive as the meal that lay before them. 

Nero moved with Florica in short and precise strides so that they entered the room together. The change in her had been immediately noticed, though he did not comment. It was enough that she could speak for herself, could make her decisions and live with them. She would have been as much a Caesar to him if she hadn't done these things, but the effort she was putting in made him beam in a way that hurt the muscles of his face. Nero's garb was simple, an older style of ash grey suit he had worn to a dance that felt years and miles distant from his current state. Mia had somehow managed to spirit even those bloodstains away. It fit him somewhat more loosely now. He was still a giant among them, but his long convalescence had diminished his frame to merely that of a very, very strong man. He had pulled his hair back into a simple knot, save for a lone curling lock of silver hair. His intelligent sky blue eyes swept the room, swiftly identifying the Grimmholt siblings. Claire met his gaze and inclined her head in acknowledgment. He did not return the gesture, his eyes locking onto what could only be Nathaniel's resting form. 

He knew without looking that his sister's graceful entry had stalled momentarily at that sight. Well, this he could help her with. He smiled broadly at Mia, returning her hug gently. "I could probably devour half of your stables," he agreed. He guided Florica to sit at the far end of the table, diagonally from where the Grimmholts sat. He made sure to place himself between them, intending to provide her as much of a subtle shield as he could from the trauma of the nights past. Nero leaned over to her and whispered. "Eat, but if you want to leave the room, tug on my sleeve twice. I will find you an appropriate exit." And then he was piling food onto his own plate, digging into the meal with aplomb. Being dead left one with a tremendous appetite.

He turned to Mia as he ate. Taking a napkin, he wiped his lips and asked "Audric?" The Count's absence at this meal was conspicuous, to say the least. But I can't say I blame him. If that arm is as bad as it looks, I can't say I would want to be here eating with it. "Resting?" 

Claire rose from her seat as Sai entered, moving to greet him. She had to admit, he cut a rather dashing figure in his new kimono with Thorn at his side. "See, I told you I would make a swordsman out of you," she said, smiling warmly. "You saved my life back there. Twice. I can't say my second favorite sword doesn't look good on you, either." She offered him a seat near them, but she waited to allow him a moment to choose. "I hope you'll come and see my restaurant, once I get it back off the ground." 

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