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Song Sprite

Under the Blade (Swordbreaker Chronicles Chapter 10)

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Continued from Chapter 9 | Chapter Index

The candle had burned down halfway, slim spires of half-melted wax casting flickering knives of shadow across the fine green wallpaper and the cascade of paperwork across her desk. The window was open, and a gentle breeze whispered into the room, rustling the papers and very nearly blowing out the thin flame. She sat on the windowsill, silhouetted by the pale moonlight, one bare leg swinging lazily in the open air, the other pulled close to her chest and used as a rest. 

Her long black hair framed the corners of her angular face as she looked down at the black leather wrapped book she was writing away in. Her eyes were the blue-green of the Sea of Callisto, vivid and focused as she glanced away at the lone, slender figure pacing the gardens in the distance. This was the third time this month they had been out there, toiling away unhindered by the late hour or afraid of passers by. She tapped her pen against the page. 

Observation was a fine art. As useful and deadly as a sharply honed sword, yet a skill which often went unnoticed, with some practice. 

They called her Marcella Fiore, occasionally, Marcie. She was almost nineteen now, and for most of those years she had been observing. Observing the people around her. Observing her mother. Observing the master of the Howe estates as he patted the dirt down around yet another dried flower-bed in the pale moonlight and then stood up, his trowel trailing fine dirt. 

She blew the last bits of ink dry, watching it fade deep into the creamy paper until it vanished entirely. When one kept so many secrets of their own, it just seemed right to see what others held close to their heart as well. 

Sir Howe looked up, and then scanned his surroundings before he cast the trowel aside into the bushes. Sloppy, she thought, very sloppy there, John. Marcie waited at her perch for another ten minutes, enjoying the pleasant autumn air. The lights of the Castle on the Hill burned brightly tonight, and a faint haze of smoke obscured the night skies beyond. They said the Count had lost his magic touch. Others spoke in whispers of his endless work in the wee hours of the morning. A madness borne of despair, according to her mother. 

Her gaze shifted back to the spot John Howe had carefully covered with dirt. A slew of shadows in the courtyard shifted and separated from the darkness, sliding into the forms of black clad men. They looked around for a moment, their motions almost vulpine as they watched for hidden threats. She snorted. They would have a hard time seeing through her woven Glamour. At the worst, they might only see a slight blur or haze where she sat, if anything at all. 

Marcella let out the breath she had been holding. Her heartbeat was a solid, rhythmic sound in her ears now. And now… the hard part. She brought her feet back to press against the wall beneath her window and then leaned out over the two story drop, using her hands to steady herself. 

“Here goes nothing,” she whispered, and Marcella flipped forward. 

The world spun end over end in a swirl of stars, ground, shrubbery, grass, and shadow. Impact! And then she rolled smoothly forward with it, coming back up to her feet with both hands up, her keen eyes searching around. She glanced down, and though her bare knees were a little muddy and her dress had been stained with some grass, her little trick had worked. 

She allowed herself a moment of euphoria, and then she was off again, keeping low to the ground as she snuck into the gardens. She ignored the trowel he had left behind. Disturbing it from its position would be… well, it’d be an amateur mistake. She found the small patch of disturbed earth beneath a rosebush, and she used her hands to shed it aside carefully. 

Her fingers struck something oblong and cool, and with a start she realized she had touched a small glass bottle. She pulled it free of the earth, brushing dirt aside with her fingers. A message in a bottle. 

“I believe that’s mine,” came a soft, familiar voice behind her. She turned with a start, her hands lashing out as she spun. 

She crashed into Marcus, wrapping her arms around him in a tight hug. “You made it back,” she breathed, burying her head into his chest. He coughed quietly, but his arms came up and pulled her close for a few moments. “Not for lack of trying,” he said wryly, and he leaned into the moonlight. 

She looked up and took a step back, her fingers coming up to brush the fresh scars along the right side of his face. “Your eye…” she whispered. “How?” 

“I wish I could say I gave as good as I got,” Marcus said, reaching into his cloak. He pulled the spellbane dagger free of its sheath, and flicked it up to hand it to her. “I need your mom to do me a favor. She’ll know what to do with this. It needs to get to them. Or we’re all done.” He glanced in the direction of the Castle before returning his gaze to her. 

“And that’s mine,” he added, reaching out and taking the bottle from her. He made no effort to reach inside and withdraw the small slip of parchment. 


“It’s… complicated. But let’s say I’m collecting on a few favors I’m owed.” He smiled grimly. 

Marcella frowned, but she took the dagger from him. From the instant her fingers touched the metal, she could feel the squirming, chaotic heat trapped within it. She nearly lost her grip on it, but managed to hold on at the last second. 

“Yeah,” he said simply. “That’s… as much of it as I could capture without dying.” Marcus touched the side of his wounded eye. “It still cost me quite a bit.” 

“Will you be staying with us again? I can have Mom-” 

He shook his head quickly, and knelt before her, a hand on his sword. “I’m sorry to do this. But I can’t.” Marcus looked up at her, his face cast half in shadow. “You need to get that dagger to the Castle. And then you both need to leave. The Viper of Inverness is entering her endgame.” 

A flash of something cold crossed the young woman’s features before she offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet.

“I’ll do what you ask, brother.” 

Marcus smiled sadly. “I know you will, Hallie. Stay safe.” 

“Fiat justicia ruat caelum.” She answered, clasping a hand to her chest. He repeated the gesture, but did not repeat the words as he turned to leave. She waited until he had faded entirely into the black shadows of the lawn before she made her way back to the wall beneath her room. 

The dagger felt uncomfortably hot in her teeth as she climbed. What are they even going to do with this thing? An involuntary shudder crossed through her as she considered what kind of monster it took to release power like that. 

-   - 

She awoke just as dawn began to peek through her white curtains. 

The heat still radiated from the dagger beneath her pillow, although she was beginning to get the impression that it wasn’t actually hot. It only felt that way, in the same sense that one learned not to touch a red hot pan as a child. 

It reeked of danger and the silent thrum of lethal force just waiting to be unleashed. She had misjudged the strength of enchantments before, but this was far and beyond what she had ever seen before. Even Marcus’s rapier was like a candle compared to the blast furnace writing away within the crimson hued metal. 

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. 

Someone knocked at her door, and she reflexively stretched a cold hand out, preparing to cast a strong, disorienting Glamour. “Songbird, are you up?” Hallie sighed, and her hand fell, growing warmer as her power flowed back in. 

“Yeah, mom. I’m up,” she answered. “You can come in, I’ve already dispatched my hypothetical secret lover to wait for me beneath the wisteria trees and strum his guitar balefully until our next rendezvous.” 

The door opened and Delia walked in, laughing as she set a tray of food down on the desk. She tsked at the state of the scattered paperwork and books. “You should tell him to clean up before he dives through the window. That or, sneak in through the ground floor for Gaia’s sake,” she teased. 

Hallie snickered. “Hey, it’s part of his hypothetical charm.” 

Delia rolled her eyes and set about putting the curtains aside and opening the window. The air was colder, winter’s first gracious warning before the ice and storms of the late months. 

“Big bro showed up,” Hallie said quietly, taking a steaming mug of fine green tea from the tray. She sipped on it as Delia froze, and then moved to the door, shutting it and locking it. She pressed a hand to the door and whispered softly for a moment. Dim tendrils of light slithered from her fingers and wound their way into the spaces between the door and frame, muffling the noises from beyond.

“Alright,” Delia said, coming to sit on the bed. “Was he okay? I heard he was burned by our patron saint of treachery.” 

Hallie looked down at her cup. “He lost an eye. Maybe more. He had something for you, said you’d know what to do with it. He also said something about getting it to the Castle, but I don’t know what they’d do with it.” She wrinkled her nose. “Or if we can even trust them.” 

Delia held out a hand. 

Hallie reached beneath her pillow and withdrew the blade. The color drained from Delia’s features as she recognized it. She held up a hand as Hallie tried to pass it to her, shaking her head. 

“That… thing. It’s not something I should handle.” She frowned deeply. “It’s one of your uncle’s blades. A blank spellblade, but it’s got something… twisted and powerful locked inside.” Delia’s expression was grave. “If that’s only a fragment of what that woman has… then we absolutely must warn them.” 

“Even if they left Dad to die?” 

Delia’s eyes grew distant for a second before she turned to Hallie and rested a hand on hers. “We protect lives. It’s who we are. Even if they are treacherous, or cowardly. Even if they try to use this against her. We cannot allow others to change who we really are.” 

Hallie sighed, and took another full sip of tea. “So what do you want me to do?” 

Delia tilted her head to the side for a moment. “I think… it’s time you paid Castle Grey a visit. I’ve heard the Viper’s son is staying there right now. According to John, he’s been training with the old sorceress they turned up. Some of my contacts say they call her Haidee, like the old Grimmholt-Grey woman.” She glanced at the dagger. “Take it with you. If it’s true, then she would be the one I trust with it.” 

Hallie set the cup down on her desk and then stood. She glanced out and up, towards the Castle on the Hill. Her fingers traced across the desk until she found the bright green ribbon she was looking for. “Alright,” she shrugged. “I do love a good challenge.” 

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The north road was a peaceful respite from the chaos of bustling Nikaido, and the autumn breeze at his back was crisp, but not so cold that he had needed to don his coat. He was dressed in warm, practical clothing - a set of rough gray trousers and a dark blue shirt that soaked up much of the pleasant afternoon sun. His swords clacked against Faust's side every now and then as they walked together along the shadowed pathway. 

Deep ruts had been carved into the drying mud where wagons small and large alike traversed the Fayrland road beneath the arching trees above. He was perhaps twenty miles into the journey, and Faust seemed almost anxious to get out into the more open expanses of the plains proper and stretch his legs. Nero patted his shoulder fondly, and the black Rakhsh leaned over and snorted. 

"Yeah, yeah. I thought they treated you well at that stable while we were gone." Faust snorted again, and stamped a little before resuming his stride. Nero laughed, and he reached into a pocket on his saddle and withdrew a small wrapped bundle wrapped tightly with some string. He unwound it, and withdrew a few choice carrots from the mix. "Here. Now don't say I never do anything nice for you," he said, replacing the bundle and then waving one in front of Faust's mouth. He managed to pull back before the big Rakhsh managed to take his fingers off along with the carrot. 

"Alright, alright. We'll go for a run when it clears up. Such a picky horse. I should have gotten that roan destrier, instead. Probably would complain less," he added, as Faust nudged against his side. He felt the air grow warmer as they neared the end of the forest path. Sure enough, the trees began to thin out, and the open grasses of the Fayrland plains stretched out before them. They were beginning to dry with the changing of the seasons, but there was still enough life to them as they waved beneath a gentle easterly breeze.

Faust pulled at the reigns, and Nero chuckled, shaking his head. "Alright my lord, you win," he muttered, sliding a foot into the right stirrup and then mounting smoothly. His back complained a little, but it felt good to be back in the saddle. Faust waited patiently for him to take the reins and settle in, but the moment that he had, they were off,  hooves thundering into the warm earth as they flew across the roads. 

He had ridden before, even had the chance to take the reins of a few of Audric's prized thoroughbreds once. Faust made them all feel dreadfully slow by comparison, the miles disappearing beneath his strides as though the world itself simply rotated away beneath them. They arrived at Miller's Holt just as the sun began its slow descent across the sky towards the Valtar peaks in the west. He was, naturally, grinning like an utter idiot as he recognized the tall, looming windmills in the distance, and Faust slowed to a respectable trot, breathing loudly, his flanks wet with sweat. "You know, I didn't say we had to run the whole way here," Nero said, pulling back a little on the reins. 

Faust slowed, and came to a halt, shaking his head from side to side. Nero rolled his eyes. "Yes, I'm sure you could do the whole trek at a canter. But you're also going to eat me out of house and ..." He stopped, and sighed. "Well, if I still had a home." Nero twisted and dismounted, feeling more than a little relieved to be back on the ground. Any moment now, his limbs would begin to regain feeling. "I'm a little out of practice," he apologized, patting Faust's flank. "You did well, my lord. I'll make sure they get the prettiest stablehand to take care of you." Faust nipped at his hand irritably. "What? Not in the mood for a nice rubdown and some oats?" He proffered another carrot, which disappeared instantly. And another. And another.

"Nope, that's all I've got." Nero smiled. "So you're eating what they've got now." He tugged on the side of the saddle, and Faust snorted once before keeping pace with him. The town was large, split along two large hills by a small valley and a burbling river. The townsfolk had just begun to set out lanterns and the farmers were returning from the fields droves, pulling the beginnings of their harvest behind them. They made their way in with them, and he enjoyed some pleasant conversation with an old farmhand by the name of Hamish about the odd weather they'd been receiving lately.

"If we're getting it this badly, I can't imagine what the Isles look like right now," Nero added, glancing back to the elder man. 

"Oh, you're damn right. But it's been hard on us all this year. I even hear those cave-dwellers are looking for extra food. Bad flooding down the north part of the Ryujin this year. Some of their crops ruined." Hamish sniffed, rubbing his nose with the back of a hand. He rested the other on his dappled mare and slowed to a halt as a small group of stragglers passed them by. "Serves them right, the daft bastards." He pulled his dusty hat down over one eye and made sure the others had left. "Still, they pay in fresh copper for what we've got. Can't turn down a good profit," he whispered conspiratorially.

Nero chuckled and clapped a hand on Hamish's shoulders. "Good man." Faust snorted his agreement over Nero's shoulder. "Say, you wouldn't happen to have any carrots, would you? Wild ones will do." He thumbed over his shoulder. "My lord's a picky one. Only the finest. Or whatever's cheapest." 

Hamish laughed and pulled the canvas back on his cart. He had mostly tubers, with some wild grain and a few small, dirty looking carrots at the very back. "Not a very good year for 'em, I'm afraid. But I'll give you what I got for five and one." He rubbed his hands together. Nero gave him a look, and reached in to pick up one of the more miniscule ones, weighing it appraisingly. 

"Poor things are barely worth eight. I'll give you nine if you throw in a few of those tubers." The old farmhand waved his hand disdainfully. "Bah, you don't know what you're talkin' about. These'll fetch me at least two and one in Faroe. More if I go a little further."

Nero glanced over at the old mare, and laughed warmly. "If that makes it to Faroe I'd rather buy her than the carrots." Hamish grinned. He held out a hand. "One silver even then." Nero fished a silver coin from his pockets, flashing the Athynian olive tree on one side before he set it into the enterprising farmhand's waiting palm. "You strike a hard bargain there, my friend. But my lord gets only the finest." 

"Only the finest," Hamish agreed, gathering the small tubers and carrots together into a small burlap sack and handing it over to him. "Pleasure robbin' you, sir." Nero laughed, and took the sack, slinging it over his shoulder. "I'm sure it was. Give the miss my regards."

They parted ways just before the center of town, and Nero turned down to the west branch, following the river's curve to the Holcroft Inn. It was a modest two story structure, bowed with age, but clean and rather welcoming. The stablehand was a rather diminutive boy of what appeared to be ten, his coloring almost as dark as the Kushanites to the west, but his features seemed far closer to the Nikaidoans, with canted eyes and dark hair. "Take your horse, sir?" he said politely, offering a callused hand. 

Nero placed a warm copper into his hand. "Take care of him, please. A nice rubdown and a good blanket, if you have it." He glanced to Faust as he rested the reins in the boy's hand. "Play nice and there's more carrots in it for you." He glanced to the boy. "And if my lord is happy when I return, there's another copper in it for you."

The boy grinned, and led Faust away into the stables. Nero waited to make sure that Faust didn't give him too hard of a time, and then made his way into the Inn. The Innkeeper was a pleasantly round woman of middle age, her dark hair streaked with early greys. She greeted him in the Nikaidoan tongue before she got a good look at him and switched to accented Mirian. "Room or just a meal?" 

"A little of both," Nero said politely, setting down a silver onto the counter. "And a little information, if you have it. I'm looking for the Rangers. Would have the battleflag of a Red Hawk on their kit. I know they usually make the rounds here when storms come through." 

She looked at him appraisingly, something calculating in the dark brown of her eyes. And then she nodded approvingly and slid the coin across the counter to inspect it before she answered. "This'll cover it all." She pulled a key down from the wall behind her, and set it down onto the counter. "You just missed them. Maybe a day or two's ride. They were heading north, to Faroe. Heard something about some bandits out that way, though."

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From her window in Inverness, the castle had seemed so large, so majestic. The ancient stone turrets and crenellations had seemed to bustle with the sort of lively activity that the Howe estate so rarely seemed to embody. She found it oddly disappointing. The lawns seemed a little overgrown, the edging rough and inconsistent. Some early brown and yellow leaves had fallen in the adjacent gardens, and coated the grounds heavily in odd patches here and there. The stone itself seemed as ancient as she had imagined, but there were so few people moving around that she briefly wondered if the Lord and Lady had absconded with most of their staff in tow. 

This was a puzzle - and she adored puzzles. However, the warmth of the sheath pressed into the heel of her right boot was an unpleasant reminder that she had another task here rather than snooping around. Hallie straightened her long charcoal skirt and white blouse, and then proceeded forward, climbing the steps at the fore of the Castle itself. The guards stood in rather casual form to either side of the doors, one holding a halberd with a rather wicked looking curve to it, and the other resting on his longsword as though it were a walking stick. The latter was significantly older that the former, but he spoke with a tone of authority that made the former suddenly stand at attention. 

"Hello," she said, waving demurely. Her voice was soft, with just the right touch of endearing waver. She kept her gaze down, focusing on their boots. The younger guard's boots were scuffed, and marred with some fresh mud. Small fragments of fallen leaves stood out brightly against the leather. The elder's boots were steel, and the right side bore considerable scratches and deep scrapes along the outer edge. She looked up at them, and found a grandfatherly face peering back at her through the visor. Keen chestnut eyes took in her appearance, and for a moment she almost felt as though he could see through her Glamor's subtle shifts entirely.

"Good morning," George said simply, tilting his head slightly. He narrowed his eyes for a moment, and then smiled. "What business do you have here today?" She blinked twice, as though struggling to get the words out. "I-- uh. My lord Sir Howe. He sent me here to -", she tugged nervously at the green ribbon in her hair. "To learn how to be a -  - a better servant." She bowed her head. "Milord says my help - m-may be appreciated."

George snorted, and glanced in the direction of the town. He shook his head. "Bloody Howes." He turned back to Captain Marconi and flicked a hand. The knight captain clanged a fist against his chest and stepped aside, swinging the door open as he did so. "I'll take her in," George said gruffly. "Gaia knows we're shorthanded as it is." He glanced back to her, and those perceptive eyes focused sharply on her eyes, boring into them for a long moment. Her Glamour was that of a girl a few years older, cheeks a little rounder, eyes a darker shade of green, and more full, natural curves to complete the illusion. Nice to look at, but otherwise, unremarkable enough to allow her to do her work. She left her hair the same color as it was now - too many changes would tax her quickly, and besides, she rather liked her hair.

Still, the elderly swordmaster - a lame one, at that - seemed to be looking right through it. It was... unnerving. But he simply shook his head and turned, leaning heavily on his sword as he walked. She followed close behind, taking care to remain to his right. It was in the shadow of his range, where she could dance back out of his blade's reach with ease. It was a reflexive thing, but she simply masked it by gawking at the hallway's accoutrements like a townie girl would. It helped a lot that she was, in fact, gawking genuinely.

The hallways had a few more servants than she had seen outside, many older than she would have expected, their gaits and posture bowed with what seemed like an intimate familiarity with the Castle's broad thoroughfares and slim doorways. She passively noted that there was an uneven spacing to doors and entryways with thicker stone molding on the sides facing the main hall. To deflect incoming arrows and allow the defenders to shoot back. She arched a brow,  and turned to observe the other side of the hallway. The old swordmaster was looking right at her. 

"S-sir?" she asked quietly, taking a step back, further out of his range and brushing against a table. She hoped it was the sort of bashful indignancy one might have expected from such close attention by a stranger. He laughed, and his hand rested calmly on the hilt of the sword. "You can drop the spellweaving, girl. You should,  any way." His words were kind, warm even. It was an entirely different tone to what he had used outside, and it almost made her want to listen. But hard lessons had been beaten into her mind. Double down. Flip the situation to your advantage. "I-I'm just me." She made a point of glancing at the sword, wide-eyed and fearful. "I don't know wh-what you're t-t-talking about." 

"Smart of you, to get into my shadow like that," George continued calmly. He fixed his eyes on hers. "And you picked up well on my injury." He patted his right side with a good-natured smile. It faded slowly. "But you're not as good as you think you are. And I will not allow you to pass as whomever's face you wear." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Do not think you are the first to come here with a Glamour." A flicker of something crossed his features.

She kept her breathing calm, even though her heart was racing. Who are you? She gritted her teeth and took another step back. She hadn't intended to break cover so quickly. The dagger was an uncomfortable burning sensation against her heel. Marcus had lost an eye for it- risked his very life to get it to her. And she had to get it to the witch of the castle at all cost. Hallie took in a sharp breath, and time slowed to a perfect, crystalline clarity. Her hands brushed along the table she was against, sending a delicate looking vase tumbling. For an instant, the old swordmaster's gaze shifted to the fine porcelain. 

Hallie ducked, crouching low and then scything out towards his wounded leg's knee. It was a dirty trick. She hated to do it to the old man, but her family could not afford to have her fail here and now. Even if Howe could straighten it out, it would draw far too much attention to them. 

George leapt up with the smooth precision of a much younger man and her leg passed harmlessly beneath him. She spun back to her feet as quickly as she could, lashing out with her fist. Something smashed into her leading foot and she lost her balance, crashing into the same table. Her head smacked into the wall and the world exploded into pain. She collapsed backward, her fingers clawing for the blade in her boot. Cold steel pressed against the hollow of her throat. She looked up at George and slowly, her Glamour fell.

"Oh," he said simply, surprise registering on his face for an instant. "Well," he said, re-sheathing his blade in a sinuous motion. He appeared to be at a loss for words. He was not alone in that. She reached down, and found that he had not even drawn blood from her neck, although she could feel a monstrous headache was in the works. "And now you have it," she said glumly. "Me." She stayed where she was, slowly coordinating a minor healing spell to lessen the pain. 

"So I have it," he agreed, and he leaned back on his sword heavily. Hallie snorted derisively. "Dirty trick, that." The old swordmaster smiled genuinely, laughing softly a moment later. "Those are bold words for someone who tried to kick an old, lamed man. Perhaps we'll table this matter for another time," he said, and he offered her a hand up. 

She glared at him for a moment, before accepting it and coming back to her feet. "Who in Gaia's name are you?" She was being impertinent, but his utter lack of concern gave her some courage. He laughed again. "Just an old knight." He gave her an approving look. "You look much better that way. The lion does not stalk his prey with another's skin. Neither should you." He folded his arms across his chestplate.

"So who are you today?" He asked, tilting his head to the side as he surveyed the destroyed artifacts on the floor with some disappointment. She wrinkled her nose as she followed his gaze. "Sorry," she said. "You can call me.. Del." He was silent for a moment, and then nodded to himself. "Better." 

"What are you here for? I am bound to protect the Greys. From any threat." Hallie closed her eyes, and paused. She had already been compromised. But truthfully, the old man seemed far more intent on talking to her than... actually attempting to arrest her or cart her off to the Count and Countess. You might actually be reasonable. And it's not like I'd expect to get away at this point. She opened her eyes, and met his own with a look of utter determination. "I need to see the witch. I have something important for her. It... nearly cost my brother's life to get it. I need to see her. Will you help me?"

George smiled. "Okay, Del. I will."

She blinked twice. "That easy, huh?" The old swordsman gave a shrug at that, turning slowly with his sword pressing into the carpet. "I believe you," he said. "Although I can't guarantee that the Witch will. She is..." he cocked his head to the side. "Hard to read." He set off down the hall, waving for her to follow him. Hallie's mind swam with the sort of annoying questions she hated to leave open. For starters, how did he manage to see through her Glamour so easily? So many wasted nights sneaking out into Inverness to practice, now that someone could see her behind it. 

Was it simply experience? Had she chosen a persona that was too obvious perhaps? Or was her accent off, uneven or otherwise imperfect? She briefly considered asking him, but why would he bother telling her what the tell was? Damn puzzles. Both a boon and a curse, depending on how much time one had to devote to them. They were descending now, she could feel the subtle shifts of pressure in her ears. The hallway was older here, and far more dusty than all the others. "The road less traveled by," she murmured, picking out the smooth trails where feet had worn away some of the stone over time. If he heard her, the old swordsman did not comment.

They made a final turn, and came to a rather impressive set of ironwood doors. Fine silver inlay was set into the wood itself, so smooth and perfectly flush that she briefly wondered if Aeldamiri hands had wrought it. But here and there she could see the ever so faint markings of tools. Three grand seals were set deeply into the wood. The first, and largest of them all, a pair of crossed spears with a sword thrusting upwards between them. It was centered,  the doors splitting it into two, although the gaps were so small it almost appeared to be a single piece. To the left was a fearsome eagle taking flight, and that drew a smile to her lips. She reached out and touched it, admiring the fine details in the feathers and its talons. The seal to the right sent a slow chill down her spine. A silver viper, poised to strike, fangs bared and glinting in the light. Red rubies were set in place of its eyes.

"Normally," George intoned behind her, nearly startling her. "You and I would not be allowed within the Vaults. But I think this time, we'll see if my Lady Witch will see fit to allow someone outside of the families in." He reached out and pressed the right fang of the serpent, the left wing of the eagle, and the fine hilt of the Grey sword in quick fashion. Slowly, the locks and mechanisms secreted within the doors began to recede. After a moment, he heard a sharp click. "Stay beside me, Del," he commanded as he pushed on the center of the seal. 

The immense doors swung open as though gliding - and a blast of cold air rushed out into the hallway. It sank deep into her bones, and she gasped at the sudden shock. Two figures stood at the opposite ends of the room, one wreathed in a smoldering cloak of gold-green flames, the other, taller figure silhouetted by a swirling cloud of bitter cold mist and snow. Three immense statues stood behind them at the center of a long, oval pool, watching in silent judgement of the duelists below. She recognized the features of the Witch beneath the flames, but before she could speak George clapped a firm hand on her shoulders. "No. Not yet."

The other figure was a young man, clean shaven, his hair short and dark. His white clothing flapped in the turbulent air coiling around him, and a look of cold, intent focus dominated his face. In contrast, the Grey Witch was calm, smiling slightly, her cloak of flames crackling away merrily as it cascaded behind her and pooled to the floor. Hallie managed to keep her jaw from dropping at the sheer ease with which  the woman manipulated her magefire. "It was a good try," said the Witch in an almost conciliatory tone. She waved a hand, and a small red flower of brilliant red fire formed in the air before her, floating easily into her waiting palms where it spun slowly. "But you're relying too much on power alone. It doesn't matter how much frost you throw at me if you can't make it hit me." 

The man scoffed, and at a twitch of his fingers the cold air flooded across the space between them. A sprawling sheet of ice and rime cracked and spread around his feet and then raced towards the witch in a glittering wave of crashing crystals. She flicked the flower in his direction. It spun faster and faster as it danced through the air currents - and then it erupted into a sheet of blinding white flames that blew the wave back in a hissing rush of steam. 

The man spun, lashing out with his right hand, shouting something. The steam spun towards him, coalescing into a spire of jagged black ice. He flicked his right hand and it shrieked through the air, splitting into two equally sized spears that smashed into her sheet of fire. The first disappeared instantly, vaporized by the tightly restrained heat and tearing a hole in the flames. The second sailed through it an instant later, shedding width and length in a haze of squealing steam.

The Witch twisted sharply, and the spear of ice crashed into the wall behind her, shattering into a thousand glittering shards of black frost. She clapped her hands together and the sheet of flame collapsed, shrinking into a line of fiery flowers. She lashed out with both hands, and the petals spun in a whirling vortex of heat and light that hungrily devoured the blast of cold air he was sending her way. He made a sharp movement upwards, unearthing great sheets of ice and sending them her way, but they flashed to steam as soon as the vortex caught them and advanced, ever closer to him. Sweat began to appear on his features as the room grew hotter and hotter. 

Hallie simply watched as the man was forced back to the very edge of the room, finally signaling with a wave that he was done. The witch closed her hands and the petals grew brighter for an instant, and then flickered out like stars in a hazy night. The winds began to die down and she realized her throat was painfully dry. Hallie turned to find George offering her an opened canteen. She drank it greedily, the warm water seemingly barely enough to quench the monstrous thirst. "That was... that was something else," she whispered.

It was a sobering realization. This was the power she stood against. The same power that had broken her family. So many other families as well, she realized. "My Lady Grimmholt," George said, his voice echoing across the chamber. Hallie took a quick step back at the name, her blue-green eyes widening as she saw the witch turn to her. She felt George's hand at her back and turned to him. But he shook his head, and turned back to the Witch. 

"Master de Sande," replied Haidee, "I wasn't expecting an audience." She glanced in Nathaniel's direction. "And neither was he. Although I don't imagine it was a poor show." She smiled warmly at them. Everything in Hallie's body screamed at her to run. But she stood her ground and curtsied properly, meeting the other woman's eyes with her chin held high. "Lady Witch, I have something for you. Something my brother risked his life to bring to your attention. He believes you alone are able to make use of it." 

She turned to George. "It's... a knife. In my boot. You won't stab me if I get it, right?" He snorted, and then gave a slow nod after it became clear she wasn't joking. "Do what you must. I highly doubt you'd be able to do anything untoward with it. And you don't have any bloodstone on you, either." Haidee made her way over to them, stepping beside the swordmaster with a quirked eyebrow. Across the room, the defeated man had slid down the wall into a more comfortable position to watch them. She realized his eyes were two different colors - both of which seemed rather unnatural, being silver and gold.

She bent down and slid the uncomfortably hot dagger from her boot sheath, and very slowly turned it over in her hands to offer it to the Witch handle first. Haidee watched her carefully, and it was only after a few long seconds that she extended a hand and took the crimson hued steel from her. "This is something unbelievably dangerous. You said your brother managed to capture this spell?" The older woman's emerald eyes locked firmly with hers, searching for the slightest twitch of duplicity. 

"It nearly killed him," Hallie admitted. "He was warded against it, but it still cost him an eye and very nearly a hand. Even with twelve wards." She folded her hands. "What... is it, exactly?" she asked, the curiosity burning away within her. "I know it's powerful, but it doesn't feel like any magic I've ever seen." 

Haidee turned the spellblade around, watching the subtle changes in hue and coloring. "... I don't think it's a single spell. I mean it's contained like one, but..." she trailed off. Haidee suddenly straightened up. "This is.. just like a Spellbane arrow. One of ours, I mean. This resembles a type we made called burst arrows. It's.. like a chaotic burst of fragmented spells. But the power.. if this is a fragment of a spell and not a completed spell..." She frowned deeply. "It would mean there's a far more devastating version of this out there, somewhere." 

"Where did he come across such a blade? And more importantly, where did he run into such an unbelievably powerful spell?" Haidee's expression was grim, her lined face showing more of her age now than ever before.

"I can't say. Or rather, he didn't tell me." Hallie held up her hands. "He only told me to bring it to you. And I can... sorta see why," she added, looking around at the scorch marks and drying puddles scattered around the chamber.

Haidee looked hard at her, and then to George. A flicker of a smile crossed her face. The old swordmaster kept his face stoic. "Yes. Indeed." Haidee turned to the man in the corner. "Nate, why don't you escort..." 

"Del," she answered quickly. 

"Del," Haidee nodded, "back to town. I may need to borrow Master de Sande to help me get to the bottom of this.. mystery." She smiled brightly. Hallie looked away, in the direction of the door. George clapped a hand on her shoulder in a manner she assumed was meant to be encouraging. 

She heard the sounds of the man she now knew as Nate sliding back up the wall and to his feet. He came over to join them, moving rather slowly. Yeah, you don't want to be here any more than I do right now, do you? She felt a small measure of pity for him. Losing was not exactly fun. Sure, he had done some pretty spectacular shows of force, but in the end they were simply too ineffective against the Witch. Spell duels were as much a bout of skill and strategy as they were raw power, and the Witch had played her cards well.

"As you wish," Nate said, giving a polite tilt of his head to the Grey Witch. She reached up and patted his hair affectionately. "See,  you're learning to lose with grace. Someday, you won't lose at all." He chuckled, nodding. "Someday. When I grow up. And then I'm all big and powerful and stuff. Gosh, I hope that happens sometime." Haidee laughed, and made a shooing gesture with her hands. "Alright, begone with you. I have a rather exciting puzzle to play with now." She cackled throatily for effect. 

Nate rolled his eyes, and he began walking to the base of the steps. He turned to wave to the young woman to follow him, but she was already at his side and climbing, her eyes straight forward as though she wanted very badly to be out of the Vaults. "Never mind," he said somewhat sheepishly. He waited until she cleared the last step and then turned to the doorway, watching as the doors glided closed behind them again and clicked shut. Worse ways to spend an afternoon, I suppose.

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A light rain had settled in over the city as her ship wound its way through the docks, a little more than a drizzle but certainly more than enough that she was grateful for the fine scarlet and bamboo umbrella she had packed. She had packed lightly - indeed, she had not taken much with her when she had left - and most of her possessions lay in the rucksack at her feet. She had chosen to sling her cavalry sabre at her hip, the black sword belt matching well with her charcoal coat and trousers. Her hair was braided and tied off with a crimson ribbon, all the better for moving about belowdecks. 

Claire took a deep breath of the river air, rich with the scent of fresh rain and the aging wood of the docks. She loved this city, had always wanted to live there. Somehow,  it felt emptier now, even as the rush of people in their evening clothes clotted the main walkways to and from the city center. She shook her head as if to clear it, and then leaned down to retrieve her bag. She tossed it casually over her shoulder, feeling the satisfying weight press down on her. There were things she had to do. Certainly, the first of which was to check up on the Cookery. Albert had been providing her with fairly regular updates, whenever he could find her current address, and it had been... well, to be frank, it was keeping its head above water. But she also wanted to see the Hospital Nero had been at. It was a long shot, but the  trail of the Master's comrades seemed to lead there.

As usual, Caroline was being run off her feet. They'd been through two nurse's helpers after Florica vanished, neither of which had lasted more than a fortnight, and while Peter may have been ten kinds of ass he had at least been half-decent at his job. The Athynian General Hospital seemed destined to be shorthanded indefinitely. But that wasn't the patients' fault, and they required the same level of care regardless of how many double shifts the staff had to pull to make it happen.

Caroline was on the tail end of one of these, and paused for a breather in an empty room, opening the window to gaze out into the rainy street, lit by the cold, reliable glow of the neat rows of skystone lanterns. She took a deep breath of the rain-scented air, and smiled gratefully, pushing a strand of limp auburn hair back from her wide brow. The rain made things stifling indoors, but here at the window it was a cool, sweet music that refreshed her almost as much as a nap.

With another deep breath, she marshalled the scraps of her energy and turned back to finish the last leg of her shift, leaving the window open to air out the muggy room.

Claire made her way into the General Hospital, noting with some surprise how busy it seemed at this hour. It hadn't been nearly so busy when they had limped their way in from the clash at the Holt, or so she thought. It felt so distant now that it hardly registered as more than a faintly remembered nightmare. Only the warm weight of gold against her heart reminded her that it had not been so long, and that for a time, Nero had been dead to the world. 

Until Nate- or rather, the thing that dwelled within him - had pulled Nero back entirely. And now he's... sorta back. And Nate's gone again. She shook her head. So much to process at once. Now wasn't the time, but some part of her dreaded finally returning home to contend with the awful emptiness of the place again. 

She made her way down to the unit where Nero had rested for months with only a few minor missteps. Claire caught sight of one of the nurses as she left a nearby room, flagging down the auburn haired woman with a polite wave. "Hi, hello. Sorry to bother you, I was wondering if you might be able to help me out. A friend of mine was here for some time - his name was Nero Caesar. He... might have recovered.. unusually. Would you be able to help me track down the staff that helped him?"

Carrie looked the blond woman curiously up and down, resting a hand on her hip. Her eyes lingered on the weaponry at Claire's hip for a moment, though she didn't seem overly bothered by it. A friend of his, are you? Then where were you those months when he was here? Where were you when his sister went missing? The nurse pursed her lips for a moment, trying to remind herself that her irritation was due to being overtired and not due to the person in front of her (a reminder so often repeated it had practically become her hail Gaia). "That'd be me, among others," she answered a little curtly. She made an effort to soften her tone as she continued. "What is it you want to know, miss...?" she left the last word hanging, clearly expecting a name.

“Ah,” Claire said, sensing the irritation coming from the nurse and furrowing her brows a little. “That worked out rather well, then.” She extended a hand to the nurse. “Howe,” she answered smoothly. “Alice Howe. I was away while Nero was sick. Truthfully, we weren’t expecting his recovery.” She met Caroline’s eyes. “I heard he got better after some friends visited. I’m hoping you might know something about that.”

Setting down her bucket of sudsy water, Carrie shook the woman's hand. The nurse's hand was warm and rough from working, with nails bitten down nearly to the quick. "Aye, I do," she acknowledged slowly. Sure a lot of people wanting to know about what happened that day, lately. Must be some kind of bicker about inheritance or somesuch. People were always the same. Not a single visitor while the supposed loved one was ailing, but soon's they kicked the bucket they suddenly had a whole world of loving relations. Carrie sighed and rubbed her temple, feeling the beginning of a headache coming on. "Forgive me, Alice, but I'd about kill for a coffee," she said frankly. "Why don't I go sort out the rest of my duties here, and then we can have us a sit-down at the Ready Roast downstairs," she suggested, referring to the small coffee shop attached to the south end of the hospital, which was open at all hours and saw a steady business from the hospital staff.

“It’s the least I could do for your time,” Claire agreed. She glanced around the ward, and then looked back to the nurse’s ID badge. “I’ll see you there, Nurse Caroline. You aren’t the only one on duty today, are you?” She gave a lighthearted shrug. “I could bring you something, if I’d be taking you away from your patients.”

Carrie actually smiled at that, and it suddenly transformed her face into something friendly and warm. Okay, Alice is maybe nice, and I'm maybe the asshole, she told herself. "Just Carrie is fine. And that's alright - there's others, here and there. My shift's almost up, thank the Mother. I won't be more'n half the hour. Meet you down there?" she suggested.


She ended up being a little longer than she had estimated, though she hurried as best she could. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she apologized as she sat down, nearly groaning with relief to be off her feet. She stretched her arms above her head for a moment, and her spine let out several satisfying cracks and popping noises. She chuckled wryly, shook her head, and tugged her hair out of the bun in had been in, revealing several more shades of red to her hair which had been hidden before. She started running her fingers through the long, wavy mess as the fifty-something man who was running the place tonight came over and poured them each a mug of hot black coffee without being asked. "You're an angel, Henry," Carrie praised him, drawing her mug towards her and reaching for the tray of cream, sugar and coffee spices he had set down between them.

"Coffee's always on the house for Nurse Carrie and her friends," Henry replied, with a smile at the nurse and a slightly-cheeky wink at the pretty blond she'd brought with her. "Anything else for ya?"

"S'all for me," Carrie replied, loading her cup with cream and sugar and adding several generous shakes from the dainty cinnamon shaker, her habit ever since little Florica had tipped her off to how good it tasted. It always made her think of the little Banjari girl, and she stared contemplatively at her mug for a moment before she took her first sip. Wherever you are, I hope you're alright.

"It's no problem at all," Claire answered, shifting to one side to rest her sword against the side of her chair. It was a damn sight less comfortable to wield than Brutus. Or perhaps she was simply getting used to it. She glanced up as Henry came in, smirking back as he winked. "That's it for me as well. Thank you," she said, raising her mug in a salute to him and then to Nurse Carrie. 

Claire's silver eyes caught the light as she watched the woman tip some cinnamon into her mug of tea. She busied herself with pouring some sugar and cream into her own, although the swordswoman abstained from adding any spices of her own. "That's quite a concoction," she remarked. "One of my dear friends seems to enjoy cinnamon almost as much as you do, I think. I'm.. undecided," she added, before taking a sip of coffee and letting the warmth radiate through her. 

She cocked her head thoughtfully, and then added another spoonful of sugar before stirring it. "Strong. Although I probably should have expected that." Claire looked up at Caroline - admiring the subtle and not so subtle shifts of reds and auburn in her hair. You and Mia would probably have all sorts of tips for one another. She smiled fondly. "Well, I'll be blunt. My friend was in a deep, deep coma. And one day he gets up and walks out of here to chase down his sister. There's gotta be a story there." She arched an eyebrow.

Carrie's eyes lit up, and she leaned forward, interested enough that she temporarily forgot about her coffee. "You knew Florica?" she asked eagerly. "Did he find her? She alright?" She found herself holding her breath as she waited for the response, though she barely dared hope it would be positive. Missing persons tended to stay missing in her experience, even under far more ideal conditions than Florica's, and her trail had been weeks cold when Mr. Caesar had finally set out after her.

Claire gave a quick nod at the flurry of questions. You made a friend here, didn't you? In a way, it was comforting. Although, being stuck at the hospital Nero was in for months... She pushed the thought aside, and took a deep drink of her coffee, setting the mug down as she finished. "She's alright. I can't say much more than that, but know that he found her and brought her home." In more ways than one. Claire leaned back in her chair, and her expression grew more serious. 

"Caroline. People don't just come back from what he did. I... know someone was here. I know he was brought back by that person. What I need to know is who else was with him. It's important. A matter of life and death for my family, Florica included."

Carrie let out a huge sigh of relief and sat back again, her right hand wrapping around her mug while the left absently raked her loose hair back from her face. "Thank the Mother..." she whispered, closing her eyes for a moment to let the news sink in. She's alright. She hadn't realized how much guilt she had felt for not taking better care of the shy girl until that weight was so suddenly lifted from her shoulders, feeling like it took most of the tiredness from her shift with it. 

She finally took a sip of her coffee as she listened to Alice's question, nodding slowly as she asked for details, though her brow knitted worriedly as she mentioned it being a matter of life or death. And she considered Florica family? Where were you when she needed family most? she wondered again, but the irritation had slipped away, replaced by simple sadness at the coldness of the world. But the fact that Alice knew as much as she did about what happened was proof enough that she was who she claimed to be, for Carrie had told no one but Mary and the guard from Grey Castle what she had witnessed, not wanting to bring the city police down on Archer’s head for effectively trading Peter’s life for Mr. Caesar’s. She had, in fact, felt rather resentful to the police ever since they made it clear that they wouldn’t lift so much as a finger to try to find a missing Banjari girl.

She spent a moment trying to figure out why Alice needed information about the Cromwells, why it might be a matter of life and death, and her frown deepened. Who’s endangering whom? she couldn’t help but wonder. Mary was, if nothing else, a familiar face, with how often she’d been in looking for her father. Alice seemed nice, but she was still effectively a stranger.

The silence stretched long as the nurse struggled with herself, gaining only a slowly-blossoming headache for her efforts to puzzle things out. She wasn’t used to thinking in these terms. Why can’t people just get along, damn it? She sighed and took another sip of her coffee, hoping at least to sooth the headache. “Why is it a matter of life and death?” she asked finally, searching Alice’s face.

Claire considered her answer carefully. People talked, and one was never entirely sure what seemingly harmless information could become dangerous in the right hands. At the same time, Caroline had been a little irritable, but more than evenhanded enough with her. Probably all the more reason not to tell you everything, she realized with a deep sense of weariness. "I spent much of the last year searching for the boy that brought Neromius back. He only did so to track down Florica using her brother." 

She shuddered involuntarily at the thought. "It wasn't... a good thing. Not an act of mere kindness, as I'm sure you've guessed." Her fingers slid around the mug, letting the fading warmth coat her palms. "Nero rescued her before he got her, though. And we... took care of it." She met Carrie's eyes, focusing intently as she spoke. "But there were others with him. And others behind even them, I think. As long as they're out there, none of us are safe." She frowned deeply. "We need to know what the ones with the one who raised Nero look like, or what they call themselves. Nero said there was at least one other."

Carrie tilted her head as she listened to Alice's response, and her brow creased again. So you found Archer... but not Harlon. "Why can't you just ask Mr. Caesar?" she asked suspiciously.

Claire's silver eyes narrowed at the tone in Carrie's voice. "I have. But having been brought back from the edge of death itself, his memories are pretty fragmented. He mentioned an archer. We clashed with him at least once afterwards, when he tried to kill Nero and another of our number. He succeeded in crippling my cousin's arm, though. The other figure was hooded when he met them, and they parted ways before he went after Florica with them." She fell silent for a moment, considering the situation and the nurse's responses.

"You don't trust me," she said matter-of-factly. "But it's strange. You know Florica, which means you must have known who he was to her. Likewise, you must know what the price for restoring one life over another was." She leaned forward, her eyes glinting like polished steel in the light. She laughed bitterly. "You already know it's a matter of life or death. So why are you protecting the ones who tried to use a brother to hunt down his own sister like some bloodhound?"

Carrie's eyes widened as Alice revealed that they had met Harlon again. But he tried to kill Nero? Why? What on Mir is going on here? She felt utterly out of her depth, torn between loyalty to Florica and her brother on one hand, and Mary and her dad on the other. She took another sip of her sweet coffee as the blond woman all but accused her of choosing sides, the very thing she was trying to avoid.

"I met Mr. Caesar and Archer, the big fellow who woke him... very briefly," she said carefully, trying to explain herself without betraying anyone's trust more than she had to. "He didn't even remember he had a sister when he first woke, no matter how I told him of her, and his manner was nearly as cold as Archer's. I don't know you, Alice, and you're not the only one searching for Archer's companion. I just... I don't want anyone getting hurt on account of me and my big mouth." She shook her head and chuckled wryly. "There and I've probably already said a sight too much."

"Archer?" She wrinkled her nose at the name. "Well, not a real name, I suppose." I should know. She nodded along as Carrie spoke. "He remembers now," she said, wanting to at least give the nurse that peace. Claire looked down for a moment as she put things into perspective. Damn it. I'm not the only one looking for them. Did they double cross the Master? Or were they simply being used by him? She grimaced at the thought. More people caught in the undertow by our damn curse. 

"No, I can agree with that," she murmured. "Enough of us have been hurt already. Doubt we need the help." Claire sat up, returning her focus to Carrie. "I can't tell you everything either. Honestly, it'd... probably seem too farfetched to even consider, and you have no reason to believe me." Gaia knows I've got enough blood on my hands already. She unbuttoned the top button of her shirt and pulled her ring free, balancing it on her thumb where the golden eagle glimmered in the light. "I already lost him once. Now he's walking into something that might just as well kill him again. Whoever you're protecting... they might be the key to keeping everyone else above ground."

Carrie studied her for a moment, and then offered her hand across the table for Alice to grasp. “Try me,” she said bluntly. “After what I saw that day… I’ll believe a whole lot. And if we hold hands I can tell by your aura if you’re lying. Hopefully.”

She met Carrie's eyes. Brave, aren't you? "Okay," she said, focusing inwardly for a moment. She imagined a smooth, glasslike stream gently winding its way through the hills. Slowly, she sent a steady flow of mana coursing towards her fingertips. Just enough to keep from shocking you with my abyss. Claire exhaled, and then she reached out, resting her callused hand on Carrie's. "Alright. I'm a friend of Nero's. And to Florica. I haven't always been the best to either of them. But I would die for either if it meant they'd survive this." 

"The person you know as Archer is my brother. Or was. He was possessed by something ancient and frankly, terrifying. We were able to free him from its hold, but at a dear cost. The archer is dead. Whatever possessed my brother killed him and turned him into a revenant. We don't know if he killed the other one. But we do  know that there were others supporting my brother behind the scenes,  either guiding him to do what he did, or taking advantage of his actions nevertheless." She closed her eyes. "Nero thinks he can find them. He's gone dark, but we know he's still alive. I'm trying to follow Archer's trail back from here. It might lead to the ones who set things in motion."

You’re telling the truth. Carrie exhaled slowly and nodded, letting go of Alice’s hand and wrapping both her hands around her mug, taking another sip. “The two with your brother were Harlon Cromwell and his daughter, Mary. If there were any others with them, I never saw them, and I don’t think Mary has, either. She’s been lookin’ for her da ever since, and worried something awful. He’s the only family she has- had, left in the world, far’s I know.”

Claire winced at that. Oh, Gaia. She closed her eyes for a moment. "That's unfortunate," she said. "I can confirm that he is indeed dead. I... I'm sorry. I didn't know he had anyone else. Do you know where Mary might be now? I don't know that she is one of them, but, if she's not.. she might be in danger from them."

Carrie nodded sombrely, looking down at her mug. Poor Mary. It's going to break her heart. But at least she'll know. Naught worse than the not knowing. She sighed tiredly and took another sip of her coffee. "I don't know where she lives, but she comes around pretty regular, asking if her da's been in. She mighta left an address with Gloria at the front counter, but Gloria's off for the night and she'll raise hell if anyone touches her papers while she's not there." The nurse smiled wanly, though the smile faded her thoughts returned to Florica again. "I'm glad Florica's alright. We... she wouldn't really talk to me, after she started dating Peter, but I never stopped worrying about her." She gave a small, frustrated sigh at the memory and rubbed the back of her neck.

"Hm," Claire said, resting her chin on her hand. "She should hear the news. Closure is... something we don't always get. I think I owe her that much," she said softly. Fuck. Nate, what have you done? She smiled halfheartedly as Carrie spoke about Florica. She thought about the little Banjari, now a member of the Peerage, still... remarkably kind and sweet. Now a little more capable of defending herself. "Peter?" she asked, her interest piqued by the name. "I didn't know she'd dated after.. her last."

A distinctly uncomfortable expression passed over Caroline's face, and her pale face coloured a little. "Aye." She glanced away, and then back at Alice. "If there's one thing the beastie what had your brother did right, it was killing that bastard," she said frankly. "He had it coming a mile off."

"Oh." A shadow passed across her features as she took in that statement. "... I'd like to say that all lives, no matter how miserable, have merit." She sighed deeply. "But I know better than that. She didn't say much about it, or, frankly, I might have been too out of it to remember." A thought came to her, and she leaned in again, cocking her head slightly to the left. "Why was there never a search for him? I can't say I'd be surprised if our lazy police service couldn't be bothered to hunt for Florica, but this Peter fellow must have been at least a citizen, had a family. I haven't seen any posters, or anything of the sort looking for my brother."

Carrie smirked a little sheepishly at that and took another sip of her coffee. "Athynia's finest didn't have much to go on. I... didn't want anything stopping Mr. Caesar goin' to find Florica. And Peter's life for his seemed a decent trade once I had a minute to think about it. 'Course that was after I went after your brother with a mop," she said with a straight face.

Claire snorted despite herself. "You.. you did what?" She looked the nurse up and down, the surprise evident on her face as she realized Carrie was entirely serious. "I'm impressed. Truly, I am." She took ahold of her half finished mug of lukewarm coffee and dipped a finger into it, stirring it up as she spoke. "We called it the Master. Just... seemed right, for what it did, how it acted. I think it was a little scrambled after I wounded it the last time, but... he was truly a monster. It took five of us to put him down. Six, if you count my brother working against it. You... stood up to it with a mop." She laughed softly. "Florica really knows how to pick em."

Carrie grinned sheepishly, a splotchy blush spreading over her cheeks. "Well I had to, didn' I, seein' Peter dead on the floor and your brother with hands on poor Mr. Caesar lyin' helpless on his bed. I about had a fookin' heart attack when it was him who grabbed the mop and started askin' for his swords," she stated, enjoying the chance to finally tell the story to an appreciative audience.

Claire burst into giggles, and then full laughter. "I shouldn't-  I really shouldn't be laughing at it." She tossed her head back, managing to speak between laughs. "I just can't believe... the first thing that blockhead asked for... was his swords." She managed to regain control of herself, with only a little steaming coffee spilled down the side of her mug. She grabbed a napkin and wiped it down before taking a sip of the now hot liquid. "Sometimes I worry about him. Books or swords." She shook her head. 

"I never did thank you for keeping watch over him. I spent most of the last year chasing after my brother, but I know you all did your best to keep him alive until he was able to come back to us." She smiled with genuine warmth. "Thank you Carrie, if I can call you that. "

Carrie giggled along with her new friend, no longer feeling any reservations about trusting her. She shook her head. "You're welcome, Alice. I didna' do much, though," she demurred humbly. "Florica watched over him more'n the rest of us combined. She was always studying in there, soundin' out the words in anatomy books 'n the like, or chattin' or singin' to him. She doesn't know I heard her singin," she said with a conspiratorial wink. "Right pretty voice, too." But then she sighed, her thoughts drawn inexorably back to Peter. "She... didna' study no more, after she started seeing Peter. It's a real shame too, she woulda been a fantastic doctor one day." She chewed on her lower lip and glanced back at Alice. "You should know... Peter... he liked to hurt people. He was always careful about it, never anything we could prove, but... there it is. That's what Florica and I quarrelled over. She wouldna' leave him, wouldna' talk to me about it. I never could make heads or tails of them, but it worried me somethin' awful. It's like she wanted to be beat down."

"She's.. still a pretty remarkable healer." Claire rubbed her wrist. "Even to those who didn't really deserve it. I hope she does finish her training someday. It would be pretty remarkable to see a Caesar with some common sense." She grinned, until Carrie brought back up Peter. Even knowing he was dead - and had probably perished horrifically, at that - did little to ease the sense of disgust that his name evoked. "I don't really know a lot about her past. She doesn't really talk about it much." Claire's gaze grew distant for a moment. "But she has some dark days in her past. Gaia knows my family only added to that." 

She remembered seeing Florica raise her dagger at the ceremony, and then seeing her use her blade against the dummies in Sojiro's range. "We all choose our own suffering in one way or another. For you, it's these long shifts. For her, it was that. But I think she's in a better place now. She might not look it, but our little eagle's got some talons now." Claire gave a wry smile.

Carrie brightened at that, and raised her mug in a salute before draining it. "I'm so glad to hear it." She stretched her arms above her head again, ineffectively suppressing a yawn while she did so. "Thank you, Alice. It's a load off my mind. Truly."

Claire drained her mug, and set it down. "Least I could do for your help, Carrie." She pushed back her chair and stood, deftly grabbing her sword before it could fall to the ground. "You're a good woman. I can see why Florica likes you." Claire slipped the sword back onto her belt, making sure it hung properly. "I'll try to find Mary on my own. But.. I might have to drop back in every now and then to see if she's turned up." The swordswoman smiled and turned to leave, but she paused. "I did lie about one thing with you. My friends call me Claire." She waved over her shoulder as she departed.


The nighttime streets were still slick with the last vestiges of rain when Claire wound her way back to the hospital. They reflected the red-gold light of the wrought iron streetlamps blazing overhead and highlighted the shade of deep red her hair had become. It had been a long time since she had donned this particular face. Glamours were normally tremendously taxing things, but this one was one she had practiced long to perfection in mirrors and in the field. 

She held her hair back in a tight bun, and topped it off with a nurse's cap. Her eyes had shifted now to a shade of brown so dark it seemed almost black against her ruddy, freckled complexion. Her nose was more rounded, upturned at the end, and her lips were dyed a shade of red almost as rich as her hair. All in all, she intended this face to be as striking and memorable as possible, for someone always managed to notice you, even when you thought you were utterly alone. Best to give them something impressive to remember, even if it was an utter fabrication.

She kept her dark coat pulled closed, all the better to disguise the nurse's uniform she'd "acquired", and moved with the sense of weary purpose that Carrie seemed to exude in spades. Effective camouflage relied on looking the part, but more so, in acting like one intuitively belonged. She started in the Cafe, picking up some coffee and an inexpensive sandwich. She waited there for nearly half an hour before she noticed more than a few of the other nurses coming out in pairs and small groups, some chatting with each other, others wearily making their excuses to depart for the rest they would need. 

That was her opportunity. She rose, slipping a small tip beneath her half-empty mug and unfinished sandwich, falling in behind a small group of young nurses animatedly talking about one of the more challenging patients of the night. The two blondes spoke in heavily accented Mirian, their hands waving about. Helleniks? Another of their number was dark of hair and skin, and his voice was a low, deep rumbling. Kushanite, she realized as he spoke of the crazed man attempting to disrobe in the waiting area. As they exited the hospital and the group turned to each other to exchange their goodbyes, she slipped in and bumped into the petite redhead standing near the edge, seemingly awaiting her chance to jump in. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said in heavily Hellenik-accented Mirian, reaching out to pat the other woman on the shoulders. "Been a long night, adelphe. So many crazies, ah." She laughed warmly, and the nurse joined in.

"Oh," Claire exclaimed, patting around her coat and then fishing about in her pockets. "I've forgotten my badge. Have a good night, my sweets." She turned quickly and walked back to the entrance they had come out of, unbuttoning her coat as she did so. She fished the pilfered badge from her pocket and clipped it backwards onto her uniform, taking great care to move as though she was running late for her shift. She gave quick, polite greetings in her accented voice to the guards, and moved deeper into the ward where she had run into Carrie. Normally, it would have been a simple enough endeavour to speak with the Gloria person she had referenced, and perhaps ask to see the records.

But now that there was a real, tangible thread back to those who threatened her tiny, perpetually endangered family, she could not afford to wait

The records room was a short ways from the center of the ward itself. Thankfully, it was clearly labeled. She reached out to try the handle, and let out a quick curse as it refused to turn. Someone actually keeping records under lock and key. Now that's a new one. She weighed her options. The shift change had just begun, and it would hardly be unusual for someone to keep their coat on and mill around a bit as the night began. But as time dragged on, her presence would become more and more conspicuous and soon the questions from those who actually worked here would begin. That would be... less than ideal.

She turned to the lock, and pressed a finger over the keyhole. Oh, she did have a small set of picking tools hidden away, but there were far too many other doors nearby where people could unexpectedly emerge into the hallway. That would also be less than ideal. Claire sighed, sending a slow pulse of mana coursing through the looks, closing her eyes and feeling it as it struck the back of the lock and rebounded. It was hardly a sophisticated piece of hardware. No traps, no hidden twists to the keygate, not even a particularly complex series of cylinders. 

She slipped a slim, black strip of metal from her bun, wiping it down with the edge of her coat. "Alright, time to get a little creative."

Claire walked through the hallway back to the nurse's desk, smiling warmly at the two other night nurses who were there. "I'm covering for Ilse tonight," she said in proper Athynian Mirian, using the name of the diminutive redhead whose badge she had appropriated. "Need me to run any scripts out to our fine guests?" The large, swarthy male nurse chuckled, shaking his head. "I can't exactly say we're busy tonight, dearie. Benson's been good about getting them out today. But I got one that needs to take some of these iron capsules, if you're hurtin' to get to it." 

She laughed warmly, and reached out to take the clipboard. She surveyed the list for a moment, pretending as though any of the gibberish the doctor had written actually made any sense. After a respectable amount of time and a few nods, she set the clipboard down and picked up the tray with a cup of water and a few small, whitish capsules that presumably held whatever astragalus was.

The room she was assigned to was only a few doors down from the records room. She emerged a few moments later, holding what was left of the cup of water - at this point, a quarter of the cup. Utterly benign, but for what she needed, an absolutely vital component. She leaned against the wall and withdrew the clean black strip of metal, dipping one end into the water. Claire closed her eyes, focusing on the attributes she wanted it to have. Cold. Wet. Empty. She sent a little of her mana dripping down the bloodsteel into the water, willing it to draw in the contents of the cup. She opened her eyes as the liquid began to swirl and then climb up around the lower third of the strip, spreading out and coating it in slowly undulating waves. 

She grinned, and turned to the waiting records lock. Carefully, she stirred up the cup, drawing almost all of the liquid out onto it, and then she stuck it into the waiting keyhole. Spread. Freeze. Expand. She could feel the cold beginning to lance up the steel into her hands, but she held it there as the slow sounds of crackling emanated from the keyhole and then abruptly ceased. 

Cold vapor poured out of the lock and fell in a small stream to the floor. She twisted it sharply, and there was a satisfying click as the frozen "key" cleared the cylinders and allowed it to turn. The records room door swung open.

Claire made her way in and closed the door behind her. The only light in the room came from a steel enclosed lantern hanging from the ceiling. It had no windows, and she realized, the light was a very vibrant bit of magefire burning merrily away. Clever and practical, she thought, surveying the nearly arrayed shelves and filing cabinets. "If I kept my files this organized, I'd be annoyed if someone moved them, too. You go, Gloria." 

She began her search with the logbook at the front desk, flipping through the immense, leatherbound thing until she managed to find the date they had come in from the Holt. She traced her fingers along the page through a host of unimportant names and conditions until she at last found what she was looking for. "Caesar, Neromius J. Brought in by associates. Severe thoracic laceration, healed in situ by associate. Severe burns around wound area. Non-Induced Coma. Numerous old scar tissue on hands and chest, deep scar tissue along back beneath large tattoo." She flicked through the pages beyond, searching for any references to when he vanished. "Caesar, Neromius J. Reported missing, files accessed by Detective-Inspector Rohit Karanis to begin search. Countersigned by Nurse Gloria herself." She nodded at that. "No follow up, though. And nothing about Peter, either. What about the rest of us?" 

"But nothing for Florica. Figures. Carrie had it right then." She flicked back through, noting her own records and that of Audric. Florica's caught her attention. "Burnt, cut hand. Extensive damage to Aura." She grimaced at that, and followed back through the the pages looking for any other references to her treatment. "Never really got any, did you... and a heart attack?" She glanced at the date, furrowing her brows. It was only a few days after they had been brought in. Oh, Gaia. That was when I met him in the forest... and used Brutus. I nearly killed you too?

She flicked back through the pages, scanning for Florica herself now. "Volunteer application in file?" She set the book down, taking note of the stack in which it was supposed to be stored. She moved back to the stacks, fishing through the files until she made it to the V section. Claire searched in silence for a few more moments before she found Florica's folder and pulled it free of the others. "They might have to change the name now, 'Rica." Claire picked up the documents within, leafing through them until she came to the application itself. She froze as she read the section entitled "past employment." Slave? Prostitute? A cold chill crept through her at that. Snippets of their conversations, her odd reactions to.. just about everything, and even the way she carried herself now began to fall into place. 

The paper wrinkled and blackened around her fingertips, bursting into blueish flames a moment later. She watched the ashes as they flickered out and fell to the floor in a fine mist. Claire's fist smashed into the desk. I made you heal me. Just like one of your damned masters. She felt the hazy prickling as her Glamour began to crack away. She clenched her teeth and picked up the folder, forcing the visceral reaction down to avoid burning it all away. As she looked it over again, she saw another small handwritten log note on the front cover.  "Checked out by Peter for 'training purposes.'"

Her eyes narrowed. "Son of a bitch," she muttered. "You utter bastard." She gritted her teeth and carefully replaced the file, taking care to avoid torching it any more. She felt sick in a way she hadn't in a long, long time. Not since the days she had spent working for Sojiro. At last, she returned to the logbook, and eventually found her way to the first mention of the mysterious woman she was looking for. "Cromwell, Harlon. Mary, address... ah." She took a moment to read the trail of notes across the last three weeks, growing more and more regular as the woman came back to check for her father. At the time, she hadn't noticed much about the fox-faced archer that had wounded Audric. But now that she knew he had once been a real, breathing person - had a family who wanted to find him even - it turned her stomach even more.

But she deserved to know the truth. Even if it came from the one who set the whole bloody thing into motion.

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Mary woke early. The sun streaming in through her window gave her little choice in the matter. It wasn't the sort of establishment to offer luxuries such as curtains - but the price was right, as was the anonymity inherent in the few small coins that had passed hands to secure her room. The last thing she needed was for the Orpheus Gang to catch wind of her presence there and decide that one Cromwell left in Athynia was one Cromwell too many.

Anger was her constant companion, these days. It kept her moving; it kept her warm. Even if her father returned safely - a possibility that seemed more remote with each passing sunrise - there would be no such triumphant return for her mother. It had taken all her willpower to keep from visiting the small city graveyard where they had buried what little was left of her after the firebombing of their home. That had been the single moment when Mary's whole world had changed, forever. All her hopes and aspirations, her friendships, the small collection of books, art supplies and paraphernalia passed down from five generations of Cromwells and Stuarts - gone in a single day.

All she had left were her wits, a few caches of family wealth from their mercantile endeavours, and the skills her father had taught her.

And her father.

If he ever came back.

Mary sat up and looked out the window for a long, silent moment. She had left it open overnight to listen to the sound of the rain, and now there was a spiderweb across the lower half, glistening with dew. A small, perfect world, built overnight out of nothing. A home.

She went over to the window and brushed the web away, sending its lone occupant skittering away in terror, and slid the window shut.

She dressed slowly, and went downstairs and out the door to complete the one daily task she never neglected - checking at the hospital for any word of her father. It was a slender, foolish hope; she knew they had gone southward, and many times she had considered relocating to Nikaido or Wildhaven, and searching there instead. But she still clung to a childish fear that if she left the last place where she had seen him she would lose him utterly. So she stayed, very slowly burning through the wealth and hope he had left her with, praying to any gods who might hear her beg for his return.

It took no more than a silent head-shake from Gloria to tell her that today, as every day, her hopes were in vain. But as she turned to leave the hospital, she bumped into Carrie on her way in. The red-headed nurse had been a reliable source of information, both about the circumstances surrounding her father and Archer's departure and about the patient they had absconded with, and the two women had cobbled something almost like a friendship out of their frequent short meetings. Mary nodded to her, and expected no more than an answering nod from the ever-tired nurse in return, but today Carrie stopped short when she saw her, something between guilt and regret passing over her face. "Oh. Mary," she said, and then had to step aside, for she had stopped right in the doorway, in the way of the other nurses passing in to start their shift.

"Carrie," Mary greeted her questioningly, searching her face as she stepped aside as well.

"Um, there was someone here last night looking for you," Carrie said in a rush. "Alice - no, Claire was her name."

Mary froze, her eyes widening. She knew the name. Claire Grimmholt. One of the three companions who had been checked in with Neromius Caesar when he first arrived. Despite many injuries, she had vanished from her own bed shortly thereafter, without officially checking out of the hospital. "Where is she?" she demanded, taking an urgent step towards Carrie, who stepped back in reply and shook her head helplessly.

"I'm sorry Mary, I- I didna' think to get her address. But I told her about how you're lookin' for news, and that you may have your address here, and I'm sure that she'll be back, or maybe-" she stopped short as Mary turned on her heel without another word and strode back out the door, walking hurriedly back to the run-down inn. The blond's hands shook, and she clenched them into fists as she walked. You have some explaining to do, Claire.

The doorman was still asleep when Mary returned to the inn, but on a hunch she bounded up the stairs to her room, taking them two at a time, her steps all but silent. It had only taken her the first few days to learn which squeaky steps to avoid. Striding down the hall to her room, she halted at the sight of a woman standing in her doorway, her back to the hall as she examined the meagre contents of the room. Red hair? That's not right... But it was too much of a coincidence. Even if it wasn't Claire herself, it had to be someone who knew something of where her father was. It just had to.

"I have a riddle for you," she challenged the stranger, and her voice came out so cold and tight that she did not recognize it as her own. "A Grimmholt, a Grey, and a Caesar arrive at a hospital. The first two leave; the third stays. For a time. But then he leaves, too. His business continues on in his absence, but his house is burned to the ground. Where did he go, Claire? Where would a dead man go when he wakes up?"

Claire spun back into the room at the cold voice, steel sliding from its sheath with a trail of bluish sparks as she came to face the speaker. She looked so much like the man she had seen wounding Audric at the Swan. Claire locked eyes with the woman, her mouth dry. “To track down what the one who raised him wanted. And then to kill something that should never have been.” She kept her sword at her side, but made no other unnecessary motions. “You must be Mary.”

Mary's hand fell to the narrow dagger at her waist, but she didn't draw it. Her eyes narrowed, and she nodded grudgingly. "Archer only wanted to find out who he was. He thought that gypsy girl, Florica, would be able to tell him. But they should have been back by now. My father..." her voice shook a little, and painful uncertainty flashed over her youthful features. "He should have sent word by now, at the very least. What happened to them?"

“Archer was my brother.” She lowered her sword to rest at her side. “Until something else took him over.” She raised her free hand slowly to her face, concentrating for a moment. Her Glamour hazed and then faded away entirely, revealing her weary face. She frowned, her silver eyes sincere as she met Mary’s gaze. “You should sit down.”

Mary's eyes widened as she took in Claire's true appearance, much closer to the description she had gotten from the hospital of the woman who had been checked in the same night as Nero. Why were you hiding your face? Someone after you? Her thoughts immediately jumped to the Orpheus gang, and she frowned more deeply, shaking her head and bracing herself. "I think I'll stand, thanks," she replied in a brittle tone, and her hand didn't stray from the hilt of her stiletto.

“He’s dead.” Claire said bluntly. “Killed by Archer. Brought back as... as something else. He crippled my cousin before we were able to stop Archer.” She grimaced at what she had to say next. “We buried him in Nikaido. It’s not a marked grave, but it was the best we could manage under the circumstances. I am... truly sorry for what you have lost.”

Mary paled and took a step back, but to her credit, remained standing. "When? How?" she managed to whisper.

“My family is cursed. I tried to stop my brother after he was taken over, left the hospital and tracked him down. I only succeeded in slowing him down... and destroying the memories he did have.” She took a heavy step forward. “But he overwhelmed me. And that’s when he became Archer. He raised Nero only to find Florica - to use her to bring more of himself into the world. Nero regained his memories and stopped him. But Archer turned on your father. There was nothing we could do. It took six of us to bring him down in the end.”

She paused for a moment, and when she began again her voice wavered. “I.. I don’t know how many others there are like you. I don’t.. know how many...” Claire raised a hand, illuminating her face with pale blue light. “But what I do know,” she said, her voice growing stronger. “Is that you’re not safe. There were others behind this. Others who wanted my brother to turn into that thing. And I think they’ve been looking for you too.”

As the slender woman before her spoke her piece, Mary felt the shattered fragments of her last hope for normalcy turn to frustration, and then to rage. She couldn't touch the Orpheus gang, they were too powerful; but they hadn't been the ones to kill her father, in the end. It had been Archer, this woman's brother - someone her father had trusted, someone whom they had both gone out of their way to help. Mary ground her teeth together, starting to see red. "Your brother killed my father," she said in a tone of cold rage, her expression hardening, becoming something almost mad. "Your family curse. I don't want to be safe, Claire Grimmholt. I want answers." I want your family to suffer as mine has, to be destroyed as mine has. "And I want justice."

“I don’t have many answers to give,” Claire said softly, watching the storm of emotions play out across Mary’s face. She sent a burst of mana to her left hand, keeping it swirling silently in her palm where she could form it into a spell quickly. But the very idea of using force against Mary turned her stomach. 

They had already taken so much from her. In a world where she hadn't failed, Mary might have well lived on happily with her father, uncaring of the matters of the Grimmholts, Caesars, or Greys. Claire felt a deep pang of sorrow for her. Justice? What justice could I give you without damning the rest of my family? There is no justice in further bloodshed.

“I can’t give you the justice you want. We’ve banished whatever Archer was... and my life is now the counterbalance to keep him from returning at all.” Her fingers tightened around the grip of her sword. “I... I can’t bring any of them back. I can’t turn the clock back either. All I can do is try to make sure it never happens again. I just... I know what it's like to not know. I wanted you to have that, at least."

"You can't give me justice.... Or you won't?" Mary snarled. "You're just protecting yourself, and your family's dirty little secret. You didn't fix a damn thing - just postponed it to when you die, so you don't have to deal with it any more!" Her fingers ached on her dagger, and she stepped forward aggressively. "I demand the blood price for my father, Harlon Cromwell, from the Grimmholts and those who stand with them. A life for a life. Your brother must pay for what he's done. And I'll see the rest of you behind bars for hiding this curse for so long."

"I won't." Claire said sharply, and her grip on her sword tightened audibly. Every instinct in her screamed to end things now, while she still had the advantage. "I will not," she said again, more calmly. Her eyes were pools of steel glaring back at Mary. You are a threat none of us can afford. Tragedy drove you here - our tragedy, our curse, our failures. But you will happily bring it all down on all of us if I don't kill you now. 

"Now, now," said the man emerging from the hallway, resting the cold steel of a falchion flat on Mary's shoulder. "Didn't your mother raise you better, Claire? We pay for the things we break." Sir John Howe stepped into the light, a faint smile on his lips as he greeted her. "I'm here on behalf of the Baron Grimmholt to offer you a weregild for your father. And peace with the people who still hunt you. Of course, you're quite welcome to decline. I can't say it'll benefit you much, though."

Mary's eyes widened as she felt the cold metal on the bare skin above the neck of her blouse, and saw the tip of the blade in the corner of her eye. She froze, but the rage and frustration only etched itself deeper into her features, and she shot Claire a murderous look, clearly of the opinion that the Grimmholt girl was working together with this newcomer. "I don't want your blood money, and I couldn't care less for your peace," she snarled in reply, slowly turning her head to fix the stranger with an icy glare that bore a striking resemblance to a younger version of Alicia herself. "I want justice," she insisted. I want revenge, a darker voice whispered inside her, and she was in no mood to argue with it. These people had taken everything from her. No weregild in the world would make it right. They needed to feel an equivalent loss.

"You want blood, Miss Cromwell. Call a spade a spade," John replied coolly. "And normally, I'd be inclined to toss you both a dueling blade and settle into the front row for the Kharnish bloodsport." He shrugged in the face of the murderous rage brooding behind those green eyes. "But I've been instructed to settle all debts and bury this matter where it belongs. In the distant past, with the ghosts and specters of the damned place where it all began." 

He flashed brilliant white teeth in a sardonic smile. "So take the money, and go bury your father someplace nice." His smile slowly faded, the intensity in his eyes constant. "Or throw it to the crows, and hope de Veraz is in a forgiving mood whenever he finds you." 

Claire's face paled. "John, what are you - how are you..." She shook her head sharply. "No," she said firmly. "We do not throw people to the wolves because they're inconvenient. That's not who we are." 

John chuckled, lifting his blade from Mary's shoulder. "Little Claire. You have... well, so much to learn about the family business. But I'll let Mother Dearest induct you, whenever you finish the little rebellious act and come to your senses." He rested his blade on his shoulder, and stepped back, waving his free hand to the side in an invitation. "Either way, my instructions are to protect the family name. No prosecutions, no fancy inquests, not even a peep in the papers. Buried."

Mary took several steps back into the corner of the room as soon as John lifted his blade from her shoulder, keeping a broad swath of distance from both of them, though she was smart enough to keep her stiletto sheathed. Against two swords, it would only be an invitation for them to kill her. Instead, she forced herself to rely on whatever shreds of honour these people might have left to keep them from striking down a woman with no blade in her hand. Because she had to live. Live, and make them pay. Her hands were curled in white-knuckled fists at her sides again, and her voice shook. "Get out!" she snapped at both of them, glaring between the two. "Get out now!" We'll see what family name you have left when I'm done with you.

Claire’s left hand blossomed into a sheath of rippling purple flame as John moved his blade and stood aside. She wanted so badly to sear that snide smile from his lips for what he’d done. You bastard. I could have talked to her. Could have tried to set things right. And now she thinks we’re all as bad as you are. She turned her head slowly to Mary, and her gaze fell. “I’m sorry, Mary. I truly am. I hope one day you’ll let me try to set it right.” The flickering purple flames guttered out abruptly, leaving just a worn and wearied swordswoman. Claire sheathed her blade quickly and moved into the open doorway, past John. “You and I will have words about this, Howe.” 

“And a pleasant day to you, little Viper. I must say, I was hoping you’d take care of her for me. It’s been... years since I last saw your swordwork. Or your fire.” He smiled blandly. Claire spat at his feet and departed, passing the other two men behind him. Feh. Never goes anywhere without bootlickers to keep him safe.

“Now then,” John said, clapping his hands together. “I believe you and I were going to have a lovely little talk about... gravestones.”

John laughed warmly, tossing his head back theatrically. He waved the black suited men behind him forward. The dark Kushanite was tall, and nearly as broad across as the doorway was wide. He had a mane of long black hair beneath a tilted gray cap, and a long, jagged scar across his left cheek. The other was a thin, middle aged man, short, and with balding gray hair. He had kind brown eyes that peeked around his wider comrade to observe the room. He raised a four fingered left hand, his brow furrowed with sweat and whispered something beneath his breath. A slender, shimmering stream of vapor poured from his fingers and set about wrapping tightly around the doorframe. The noise of the outside world faded away into nothing. 

The spellcaster turned, his cheeks red with exertion, and he nodded once to John. "Much thanks, Matthias. Now we won't be interrupted." He turned to the other man. "Keep a watch, 'Carter.' I'll take care of her myself." The Kushanite's eyes were an odd shade of amber that caught the light. "Whatever you say," he said in heavily accented Mirian. John stepped into the room, reaching into his jacket with his left hand. His fingers closed around the solid wooden grip of his weapon and he pulled the revolver free, letting the hissing crimson metal steam in the air as he leveled it at Mary. "You know, I was instructed to either bargain with you or kill you. Frankly, it seems like a waste. Why kill you when you might well help me bring these Grimmholt bastards down later?" He pulled back on the hammer and cocked the Witchbane. "So, Mary Cromwell, daughter of poor murdered Harlon. Let's see your bargaining skills."

Mary gritted her teeth at John's mocking tone, but she wasn't in much of a position to look for better options. Her eyes narrowed as she studied his face, the offer behind his words slowly sinking in. Confusion mingled with her anger. "You... but you're with them," she said cautiously, trying to feel out this new territory. "You just said you represent the Baron. Why would you betray them?" Though I suppose it shouldn't surprise me at this point. That seems like what you people are best at, after all.

“I think the better question is, what kind of man would willingly serve a monster?” He kept the Witchbane aimed at her, but took a long stride back to lean against the wall, just out of sight of the other two. “Mary, you’re not the only one that suffers because of what they’ve done. My family has been yoked to their insanity for over a century. Their unwilling puppets. We smile and bow and pretend that their...” He snorted. “Their Gaia given little freakshow is all perfect.” 

His expression went flat and emotionless. “But I know. And my father knew. We know what the Grimmholts really are. We tried to expose it, back with the Baron’s elder brother. But we failed, and they killed him to keep the secret from getting out.” He thumbed the hammer down, and lowered the steaming revolver. “But you, Mary. You’ve seen it. I know where all the bodies are buried. We can do it together. Bring them down. Give your family the justice they deserve.” His voice was anguished as he spoke. “You can help us bring down the greatest threat to Eslamir since the Vanamira.”

You people make me sick, she thought, still glaring at him suspiciously, even as he lowered the gun. She didn't buy his anguish, any more than she bought his smiles - but that one moment, when there was absolutely nothing on his face. That, she could believe. The look of a snake, waiting to strike.

Not like he's giving me much choice, though. "I don't like you, John," she told him frankly. "But it sounds like our goals are the same, for now. What do you need me to do?"

“Alas, my heart weeps. I shall endure.” He slid the revolver back into his jacket. “For the moment, nothing. I’m merely a cog in the Baroness’s plans.” His eyes glittered brightly. “But I have a place for you to stay. Somewhere where she won’t think about looking for someone like you. A place where I’ve gathered others like you, betrayed, cast aside. The ones who need justice. I think you’ll get along just fine.”

Mary crossed her arms, shifting her weight onto one hip as she considered it for a moment. With a short sigh, she nodded. "Fine. Let's go."

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The two walked in silence up the stairs leading from the Vaults and into the hallway. Hallie cast a glance over to the man she now knew as Nate. His hair was a similar shade to the Grey Witch's, but his eyes were an odd varicolor of silver and gold she had never seen before. He also seemed completely content to avoid conversation, the only real sounds coming from him were the steady thump of his heels on the marble. He had soundly lost to the Witch, but he seemed unperturbed by it, almost grateful to lose now that he was out of the Vaults. 

"So," she ventured, "how do you know the Witch?" 

He scoffed, keeping his eyes forward as they rounded a corner into the main hall. "A long story. How do you know the Lion?" 

"I don't," she replied, shrugging. "He walked me in. I've never been here before. Or met him. Before, I mean." Nate laughed softly, shaking his head. He glanced over at her, and realized she was being entirely sincere. "Ah. You just - You.. smell the same. It's hard to explain." 

"You know, I'm not sure if I should be offended about that," Hallie answered, cocking her head to one side. "But you did just lose rather spectacularly, so I suppose I can't be surprised if you're a little strange." She smirked. "Alright, that's me. What about you and the Witch?" 

"Great grandmother." He held his hands up preemptively."Told you. I know she doesn't look that old. I hope I look that good when I'm her age."

Hallie's next step skidded, but she recovered quickly and kept moving as though nothing had happened. Nate kept his gaze forward. "You're uh.." 

"A Grimmholt. You didn't seem to like it when Master de Sande called her one, either." He gave a smile that did not reach his eyes. "It's okay," he whispered. "I don't like being one either." His voice returned to normal volume. "Although everyone else seems to keep telling me that's what I'm supposed to be." The castle doors swung open before they reached it, and the knight at the front saluted as they passed through.

She considered that for a moment, and then turned to him, extending a hand. "Marcella." 

Nate glanced down at her hand, and then back up at her. He laughed. "So formal. What an odd tradition." He suppressed the bite of the Abyss and reached out to shake her hand. Even so, a flash of something came across his vision. Blood red. Pale blue eyes the color of a winter sky. Agony in his arm, searing pain in his chest, and then peace. 

His other hand clenched tightly closed, but he managed to keep the one holding hers mostly neutral until she released it, giving him a look of concern. He waved it off. "Old injuries," he said quietly. "Sometimes things just.. set it off." He took a step back, observing her more closely now. "Call me Nate."

"Nate it is," she said, nodding her head. For the first time she met his oddly colored eyes, and realized how intently he was staring at her. Hallie snorted, and then covered her mouth with her hand. "Sorry - I'm just realizing how neat your eyes are. Born with them?" 

"No," he answered, smiling. "I wasn't." He turned back to the path leading from the castle and begin to walk. She opened her mouth to ask a follow up, and then fell in alongside. "Guessing you don't like to talk about it," Hallie concluded. 

He nodded. "Everything has a price. Some higher than others." Mine was too high to pay. 

"Same way with your old injuries, then?" She glanced over at him, and he nodded again. "Same... incident?" Again, he inclined his head. "We won't talk about it then. Hm," she said, tapping the side of her cheek. "School?" 

"Took a year off to.. explore other things." He looked up. "Wildlife watching. A little hunting." He thought of the faint memories of people and silhouettes that occasionally watched him from the corners of his vision. Nate sighed,  and looked back to the road ahead and in the distance, Inverness along the coast. "Made some new friends. But it wasn't meant to be." He laughed bitterly. "I don't have the best luck with people."

Hallie glanced back towards the city, and her thoughts drifted to her own friends. Allison, Tom, and Eddie. Close, but never too close. Just enough to shield her from the specter of standing out too much or too little. "I can sympathize," she said carefully. "We moved around a lot.. when I was younger. Hard to make friends like that."

Nate nodded thoughtfully, and he looked out to the seas. So vast, ever moving. The taste of sea salt and the faint odor of fish came to him on the breeze. It stung his nose a little, and he wrinkled it, turning back to his walking companion as they began to descend the hill. "How do you get used to it?"

"You know, I never really thought about it. One day it just.. stopped being new. Weird. I just got used to it." She gave a shrug. "You'd be surprised what someone can get used to over time." 

He snorted. "Well, you've got me there." He slid his hands into his pockets. "You mentioned that you had a brother who found that weird knife. Older? Younger? I've got an older sister. You might have seen her around once or twice, although we live... well, I used to live near Vanaheim." 

"Older. He's like.." she cocked her head. "Well, he acts like he's an old man. But he's only..." she furrowed her brows. "I think he's like thirty something." She felt a pang of worry at that. Looks half dead right now, though. 

Nate chuckled, looking down. "Mine is..." he trailed off, his eyes growing distant and unfocused. How many do I have? His vision swam as he tried to find Claire in his mind. Nate closed his eyes, focusing deeply on her. He could feel their connection like a thin thread pulling him to the west, but her face in his mind was blurry, melding. Her eyes shifted hues from silver to blue to red and every color in between. 

He felt a touch on his shoulder and the old pain came screaming back like a sword plunged into his chest. Except it had been a real sword, obliterating him once and for all, and then he was falling again into that black sea... 

Hallie caught him as he suddenly snapped backwards, out of whatever trance he had been in. He fell limply forward, stumbling, his hand coming up to cover his golden hued eye, fingers twitching. He breathed hard, forcing air into his lungs. "Sorry, sorry, sorry," he apologized, shrugging away her hand.

He wrinkled his nose at the droplets, and laughed with her. "It's a good trick." 

"Stars and stones, is that you, Marcella? What are you doing out in that weather?" Hallie grinned and turned as she recognized the voice. "Auntie Avril," she said, smiling at the baker behind her. She was in her middle years, her face dusted with a fine layer of flour and wrinkles, but her mischievous brown eyes were keen and bright. Avril looked at Marcella, then Nate and then down at the modest puddle beginning at their feet. 

"Sorry," Nate said, "d'you have a mop I can borrow?" 

"Bah," Avril said, waving it off. "Come, come, warm up in the kitchen." 

Nate looked over at Marcella, but she simply shrugged and followed the baker back past the counter. After a moment, he sighed, and followed her, glancing back at the puddle and hoping that nobody managed to slip on it.

It was blessedly warm inside the kitchen as promised. A massive earthen oven blazed away merrily, and the air was heavy with the smell of baking bread. The countertops were covered with the same faint layer of flour, and at least two full batches of what he realized were muffins getting ready to go in. He found himself smiling, even though it hurt the sides of his face to do so. This was... like home. The home he'd had before everything else went wrong. 

Even that thought didn't wipe the joy from his face as Avril pulled two large stools out from under the center table for them to sit at. "Well don't stand on ceremony," she said. "As a matter of fact, don't stand at all." Marcella needed no further encouragement, and promptly took the one further from the fire. 

"As I said earlier," Marcie said, "I don't really intend on you haunting me or being hunted by your grandmother. No colds for you." He opened his mouth to protest, but she shushed him. 

Nate rolled his eyes and settled in next to her, glad for the warmth. 

She leaned over the table, stretching, and then brought both of her hands in front of her, cupping them together. She closed her green eyes, and Nate watched out of the corner of his eyes. Marcie blew into the space she had formed, and light blossomed there in a shimmering pool of vibrant green spellfire. She sat up, smirking at the shocked look on his face. 

"Watch and learn, sled boy," she whispered, lifting it above herself and then allowing it to cascade down her hair and shoulders, hissing away moisture and leaving what it touched dry and warm. The fire clung to her as it spread, moving to the very hems of her dress, the edge of her shirt and then her fingers, before it simply blew away. 

"And that's how you dry off in style." She laughed. "Wanna learn?"

"How in Gaia's blessed name did you manage that? I mean, yeah magefire doesn't really burn you, but it can burn the things near you. How'd you manage to insulate yourself from being burned by the steam?" 

Before she could answer, he had more questions waiting. "And how the hell did you learn that? When... when did you even have the time?" 

Nate opened his mouth to ask still more, but she flicked her fingers and a trail of glimmering green sparks arced into the air. 

"Point taken," he said, after they winked out. "Please teach me, great and mighty Marcella." 

"Actually," she answered, "my stage name is the wise and powerful Marcie. But points for enthusiasm." She cupped her hands together again, and blew out a smaller pool of fire this time. "Hold your hands out. It won't burn, I promise." 

He did as he was told, placing his hands beneath hers. She made a tilting motion, and poured the surprisingly dense substance into his palm. Nate swirled it around, watching the green fire as it made hypnotic patterns. "Huh," he said. "It's not hot at all." 

"Nope," she confirmed, walking over to the sink and pouring a small glass of water. "It's just regular old magefire right now. It won't burn you because I'm not making it hot." She dipped her fingers in the glass, and flicked some water into the center of the fire. 

He felt the drops pass harmlessly through and settle on his skin. "So how do you get dry? Wait, don't tell me." He cocked his head to one side. If you can't heat the clothes because they'll burn, or evaporate the water directly on me... 

It came to him suddenly and he sat straight up. "The air." 

Hallie grinned. "That's exactly right. I'm just heating up the air near it, just enough to make the water want to evaporate but not boil. It's.. a pretty fine balance." She rolled up the sleeve of her left arm, where a small burn mark presented itself near her elbow. "It's a lesson you learn once, really well."

"So, you ready to give it a shot?" She asked, leaning back. 

"No," Nate answered honestly. "But man, I really want to." He grinned, and gently laid the fire down on his right leg, injecting just a little of his mana into it. The flames began to flicker, changing hue in a rippling wave of blue and then pale white sparks. He closed his eyes, focusing on directing the heat to the air above the fire, raising the temperature slowly, bit by bit. It grew mildly, and then suddenly he could feel it working. He willed it to spread, just as it had for her, taking his time. 

It took just over five minutes, but he managed to avoid burning himself at all. Hallie clapped as the last of the magefire guttered out. "I mean, it's.. like half as cool as when I did it. But you're getting it." She offered him her hand. 

He shook his head, but he grinned all the same. 

"Thank you, Marcie. For everything." He looked back at his hands, turning the new information over in his head like a beautiful puzzle. "You're a good teacher." 

"Why thank you, Nate. I try. I think." 

"Ah, dearies, it looks like the rain's stopped. You should be getting home before your parents start to worry," Avril said  from the front. Nate looked down at the words. Hallie looked away and answered Avril. "Yeah, I don't want Mum to flip out." She turned back to Nate as she stood. 

"Well," she said. 

"Well," he answered. "It was fun. Have a good evening, Marcie." Nate stood, brushing a little flour from his sleeves. He moved past her to the door, waving to Avril as he passed. "Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate you letting me in." 

"Oh, it's no worry, dearie," she answered. 

"Hey Nate," Marcie called, as he reached the entrance. "How do you like tea?" He paused, turning back. "Not a fan. I love coffee, though." 

"Meet me here on Saturday. I'll show you some more magic if you bring me tea." She came up behind Avril, leaning on the counter. "What do you say?" 

"I'd say you've got a deal, wise and powerful one."

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Hallie stood before the finely paneled wooden door, tapping her foot against the rug. She glanced back at the old chronometer ticking away in the hall, and her tapping intensified. The lock clicked, and the door swung into the room. "We'll speak of this later, but for now keep an eye on her, " John said as he walked out of the room. His jade eyes came to rest on hers, and he gave a polite tilt of his head in response. "Pleasant evening, I hope." 

Hallie bowed her head quickly, "likewise, Sir." He padded down the hallway then, and she waited until his footsteps thumped along the stairs and grew distant. 

She had a few choice words for him. But it was not the right time, and she was hardly going to put them all in danger for a few moments of futile satisfaction. Hallie stepped into the room and closed the door, locking it with an audible click. Behind her, Delia sat at the window, gazing out across the hills to where the Castle stood watching down on them in the evening light. 

"Bad news?" Hallie asked, moving to sit across from her. 

"Not good news. Not sure if it's bad news, per se." Delia glanced back at Hallie, her hands coming up to remove her maid's cap and rest it on the bedside table next to her. "He has another one like us. Supposedly with testimony that'll blow everything up for them." A shadow crossed her face. "He's thinking she may need persuasion to work with us, but she has as much to hate our enemies as we do." 

Hallie nodded solemnly, and then she reclined back against the windowsill, bringing her knee up close to her where she could rest her chin on it. "I met them," she said softly. "The Grey Witch... and Nate.. Grimmholt." The name left a bitter taste in her mouth. You don't seem like one of them.

Delia glanced over at her, her bright green eyes shining. "And?" 

"She's strong. Really strong. But she was able to see a little of whatever was in that dagger. It doesn't sound like good news." Hallie idly swung her foot as she talked. "Nate seems..." she cocked her head to the side, watching her mother's reactions closely. "...vulnerable," she concluded. "He isn't all there when we speak. Almost like..." 

"Like it's not just him in there." Delia's voice was cool, but her hands were tightly balled. Delia smiled stiffly. "So I've heard," she admitted. "But I've also been told he's a recluse now, hardly ever interacts with the castle staff, let alone anyone else. Other than his great grandmother, of course." Hallie stopped moving for a second, furrowing her brows. You knew about that? She rested her head against the cold glass, closing her eyes. 

"But he seems.. willing to talk to you," Delia added. "Maybe that's not such a bad thing."

"What did you have in mind?" Hallie asked suddenly, her eyes snapping open to look at her mother. "He doesn't.. seem like much of a threat. I mean," she waved a hand. "He's got a lot of power to throw around, but he's slow at it, and he doesn't really seem all too concerned about anything else." She grimaced. "Honestly, mum, he's only a little older than I am. I don't think he had anything to do with..." She blanched. 

"He's one of them," Delia said bluntly. Her voice was low, strained like a wire under tension."Your namesake was a friend of your father's and mine. We fought together. Bled together. I was... going to be there for his wife when they married." She looked down. "And when his curse came alive it was like he was a different person. He nearly killed me. He did kill her. Only your Uncles coming to help managed to save me... and put Hall out of his misery."

Delia stared hard up at the castle in the distance. "He's one of them," she repeated firmly. "Like his sister, Vulcan. Like the Viper herself." She glowered. "And that bastard Siegfried is so blind he doesn't realize what his beloved family has done. What they've done do each other, and to everyone else around them. "

Hallie watched silently, the words slamming into her like a hammer. She thought of the tortured man she had met today, at times barely capable of carrying on a conversation. Would you turn into something like that? Have you already? She sighed, nodding her head. "Okay, mum. I'll try to find out more from him. I don't know how much he knows, though. He doesn't seem like he talks to anyone who the Viper might talk to." She glanced at the door, frowning. "Maybe John, though." 

Hallie looked  back at her mother, who had returned to staring out of the window. Wordlessly, she slid from her perch and moved to wrap her arms around her, squeezing tightly. "We'll avenge Dad. I promise." 

"I know we will, Songbird. I know." Delia hugged her back.

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The morning air was crisp and cold against Hallie’s face as she made her way down the street to the bakery. The sky was pink with dawn’s first light, and a few dark clouds curled overhead, threatening afternoon rain. She pulled her thick woolen coat around her, glad for the cap that covered her ears. By contrast, Avril’s bakery was blessedly warm as she entered to the sound of clinking bells. 

“Well, you’re up and about early today,” Avril said cheerfully, leaning out over the counter to give her a hug. “No hanging about inside with your books today?” Hallie took a seat and then gave a quick shrug. “I figured I might get out, enjoy the weekend.” 

The bells chimed as the door swung open again, and she turned to look at the lone entrant. She wrinkled her nose as she looked at the old man and his cane. “Morning,” George said, doffing his hat to both of them. He was dressed casually in a tweed jacket and trousers, but he wore a fine steel rapier at his side. The old swordmaster leaned heavily on his cane as he came to stand beside her.

“Is this seat taken?” 

She shook her head, and he sat down slowly, taking care to lay his sword across his lap. “Who are you today?” His voice was gentle, almost casual as he spoke to her. She glanced back to Avril, but she had disappeared back into the kitchen. Hallie thought for a moment. “Marcella,” she answered. “Marcella Fiore.” 

He gave an approving nod. “A good name.” He rested his hands on the edge of the table. She could see the fine traces of old sword wounds stitching across his callused fingers, along with a brightly gleaming silver ring with the emblem of a roaring lion and lioness in gold. He smiled. “I still wear it. I lost her twelve years ago, but I haven’t taken it off since.”
She winced, giving him a sympathetic look. “My daughter as well,” he continued softly. “Few years before that.” George glanced behind him at the door, but it remained closed. He could see more of the townsfolk beginning their days, sweeping their storefronts, walking past with packages and their morning meals. He turned back to her, and his warm chestnut eyes fixed hers. “But I’ve been blessed with other family. The Greys, as close as my own. The Caesars, as well. Even.. a few Grimmholts. They are my family now.”

Hallie frowned deeply at that. “Family..” she whispered. A tangle of emotions crossed through her features. “With them?” 

He narrowed his eyes. “Yes,” he answered. “Even them.” Hallie glared back. “The Witch, yes. I know what she’s done. She... sacrificed a lot to try and save us. But the others,” she let out a breath. “The others have done terrible things for power. I know what they’ve done too.” 

George let her finish, the words hanging in the air. “I’m aware.” He sighed. “But even so, it is not our role to pass sentence on others. You have no idea of what has happened. Why they made the choices they made.” He met her gaze, unflinching at the turbulent emotions playing out on her face. “Do not separate people into those with you and against you so easily. The truth is... rarely so easy to discern.” 

The bells clinked again as the door swung open. George rose from his seat, and doffed his hat once more to her. She stood as well. “No, no, you don’t understand. You don’t know what they’ve taken from me,” she whispered. “You don’t know what life has been like since they ruined everything.” 

George rested a hand on her shoulder. For a moment, he struggled to find the words she wanted to hear, needed to hear. His hand slipped to his side, and he leaned on his cane as he turned. “I don’t,” he said at last. “But I know what it’s like to lose family. It twists you. Changes you even if you fight it. Don’t let it turn you into something you’re not.”

“And what am I then?” Hallie asked, folding her arms across her chest. She narrowed her eyes as he kept walking without acknowledging her. Nate stepped out of his way, giving the old swordmaster a polite nod as he departed. Nate slid out of his black coat, tossing it onto the rack. He was dressed simply beneath, a white shirt and dark trousers. 

“Something wrong?” Nate cocked his head to the side. 

“Just having a nice chat,” she answered icily. Hallie sighed, and forced a smile onto her face. “Sorry, I guess I’m not much of a morning person. But I think tea will make it better.” She slid back into her seat, waving a hand at the chair across from her. Nate took a seat across from her, and for a moment neither spoke. 

“You don’t have to force yourself, you know.” Nate said sincerely, leaning back. “We had a good talk. You showed me a good trick. You gave me more fair treatment than... I ever really expected anyone here to give me.” He shrugged. "Least I could do is try to return the favor. You wanna see my magic?"

Hallie snorted, looking away for a moment. "Alright, sled boy. Let's see what you've got.
He finished stirring, focusing intently on the swirl of colors and the rich scent coming from the mug of brown liquid. Nate reached behind him and picked up a pinch of hazelnut and flicked it into the mix. He stirred again, his varicolored eyes staring hard at the mixture until. Hallie laughed from her spot next to him on the counter, shaking her head. "You're treating it like it's... some kind of insane potion. I mean, I've had this before, you know." 

Nate grinned, withdrawing the spoon and setting it aside on the sink. "Yeah," he conceded, "but you haven't had this before. Trust me." He passed her the mug handle first, taking care to avoid her fingers entirely. She took it, and gave a curious sniff. "Hazelnut," she nodded with approval. "And.. a little cinnamon?" 

"And lots of sugar, with precisely four half-full tablespoons of cream every fifteen seconds," Nate added proudly. Hallie wrinkled her nose at that. "Does it really...?" She took a sip. She raised her eyebrows. "It's.. uh.. not bad. Pretty good, actually." She set the mug down in front of her, watching the steam rising from it. "Still think I like my tea, though." 

"Hey, nobody's perfect." Nate grinned. She rolled her eyes at him and took another hearty sip, keeping the mug between her hands. "No. Nobody is," she agreed. Her green eyes flicked over to him. He had a cup of her tea in front of him, still steeping, the water slowly growing more clouded and dark as he watched. "So, how come you're here and not with the rest of your family?" She kept her gaze forward, sipping her coffee quickly.

“Truth be told, I don’t have much of one left,” Nate admitted. “My sister, she pretty much raised me. For as much as I can remember, anyway.” He stared off into the distance, frowning. “As far as I’m concerned she’s the only family I have. I gave up the Grimmholt name after the ceremony. I’m just Nate now.” 

“Ceremony?” She arched an eyebrow. “They make you give up your title like that?” 

He smiled bitterly. “Old tradition,” he answered. “To welcome in a new head of one of the Three Families. Or two of them, at this one.” He raised his cup in a salute and clinked it against hers. “To Lord and Lady Caesar. Long may they live.” His eyes grew distant, and he froze where he was, awkwardly extending his hand and the mug.

Hallie reached out, and gently slipped it from his grasp, setting it down next to her mug. “It’s alright,” she said softly. “You’re not there now. You’re here having a nice cup of tea with a friend.” 

He blinked painfully slowly, as though clearing something from his eyes. Nate blinked against and then looked at his hand, noticing that the cup had moved. She smiled sympathetically, offering it back to him. 

“I did it again, didn’t I,” he whispered, accepting it. He cradled the cup in his hands. “I never know what causes it. I think I’m fine and then... I’m somewhere else. Or someone else. Nothing makes sense.” His hands shook as he took a deep sip. Nate took in a slow breath, and the tremors gradually stopped. 

He looked back to her, meeting her eyes. “I’m not fit to rule anything or anyone. Better to let someone normal do it.

She finished her cup, and set it down on the countertop. “Alright,” she said, clapping her hands together. “I lost my dad when I was really young. I don’t remember a lot of him, but I heard he was an honorable man. A great warrior, too. My mom raised me by herself with some help from my big brother.” She glanced towards him. “He.. travels a lot. He’s a traveling guard out in the Fayrlands. Sometimes I have nightmares that he’s not going to come back,” she admitted. 

Nate was silent for a moment. Slowly, he nodded. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “He sounds very brave. Is that why you’re working so hard to study your magic?”

“Something like that.” Hallie shrugged. “I figure I’ll do whatever I can to protect my family. I can’t do as much as my brother can with a sword, but, I can definitely work on my magic.” She grinned, waving a hand in front of his face. Trails of green sparks fell from her fingers. 

Nate pretended to fall back out of shock, narrowly avoiding spilling some tea on himself. “Witch!” He exclaimed, extending a shaking hand. “Conjurer of powerful magicks and spells.” He grinned back at her, and then took a sip of tea. “Mn, and purveyor of fine beverages.” 

She gave a half bow, and then came back up. “So, ready to learn some real magic?”

“Brewmancy is an ancient and respected branch of the magical arts,” he replied, wagging a finger chidingly. “But yes, yes I am.”

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Nate watched the water recede, leaving behind trails of white foam and tumbles of smooth pebbles, shells, and sand in its wake. He could see the building wave curling back on itself in the distance, cresting sea spray, until it came crashing back into the small cove with a dull roar. The cove was perhaps a hundred feet wide at its mouth, flanked by a rocky crescent of jagged shale that jutted from the cliffs behind. Smooth, glassy rock shone here and there in the morning sunlight like black jewels. 

Idly, he wondered what sort of monumental force it must have taken to strike this place from the rocks around it. He heard footsteps on the sand behind him, and he turned to see Hallie offering him a small chunk of rough crystal, almost as big around as his palm. Her fingers were caked with sand, and he looked past her to see a small indentation where she'd been digging away while he watched the waves.

"Didn't take you for a rock collector," he said, accepting the strange crystal. He brought it closer to his face. It was vaguely tubular, the outside surface still coated with a layer of sand and silt, but the inside seemed almost glassy. "... Quartz?" 

"Something like that," Hallie said, taking it back. "It's pretty neat to see once it's all cleaned up." She looked around at the water's edge, holding a hand over her eyes as she scanned. "Aha," she whispered, and set off at a brisk pace to the right. He followed along, taking care to stay on the dry surf. Hallie seemed unconcerned about walking on the mud, and he watched as her footsteps left small hissing welts of steam behind. 

"That's cheating," he muttered, sticking his hands into the pocket of his coat. She merely laughed, shaking her head. "I've gotta keep some good tricks up my sleeve, you know."

There was a small, roughly oval pool hidden beneath the surface of the water, perhaps only a foot or two deep. She paused for a moment, getting a solid grip on the arms of the strange rock, and then she promptly dunked it into the water, shaking hard to get it clean. 

She withdrew it, letting the water pour out until she was sure there was little left. It resembled fuzzy glass now, the outside rough and irregular with smaller armatures extending from it at odd angles. Halle tilted the wider end to him, and he raised an eyebrow. It was smooth and clean, almost like poured glass. "Alright, you've got me," he admitted, taking it from her and turning it over. He placed a finger on the rough side, and then felt the inside lip. "What is this.. odd thing?"

"A memory of lightning," Hallie answered dramatically, flicking her fingers clean of water. "Also known as a fulgurite. This place is called Thunder Cove. For some reason, the storms like to dump lots of lightning here, sparing much of our lovely town." Nate stared blankly at her. "That's... pretty cool. So there's more of these buried under here?" He held the fulgurite up to his golden eye, peering through it at her, and then out towards the distant horizon. "Lots of condensed power melts the sand but it fizzles out quickly then?" 

"Yep," Hallie said cheerfully, joining him on the dryer sand. She held a hand out and he placed the fulgurite in her palms. "And that's what we're learning today."

She set it down gently, and then set off towards the center of the dry part of the cove, taking care to avoid what he now recognized as the little remnants of others of its kind peeking from the sand. Nate shook his head, but he followed her anyway. . Hallie made a shooing motion, urging him backwards until there was almost ten feet between them. She held a hand up. "Alright, so.. unlike Magefire, it's a lot harder to control lightning spells."

Nate arched a brow. He wisely took another two steps back, and drew a line across the sand with the edge of his shoe for good measure. Hallie smirked confidently, and she put both of her hands together in front of her, fingers flat against one another. “Magefire is fairly easy to work with. It’s just... very dense mana that you’re manipulating to make heat or light. Even spellrock and hexwater are just applications of mana to lock existing material into place. But Spellfulgur is an entirely different type of power to contend with.”

She closed her eyes. It was a little exciting to be able to show off her hard work to someone. Pretending to be Marcella was exhausting-  quiet, studious, shy Marcella especially. But here, she could show off a little. Hallie drew mana into her palms, at first a little, forming it into a small and dense ball the size of a marble. She poured more of her mana into it, building an even larger ball of sparking, softly glowing green light that peeked out of her fingers. 

She widened the space between her hands to accommodate the whirling ball of mana, gritting her teeth at the strain. Still she poured more energy into it, building it up until it spontaneously erupted into a blazing, crackling green lightning that arced wildly around her. Her hair rose into a black halo behind her as she opened her palms and held up the orb of spellfulgur. She extended her other hand and pointed at a spot roughly halfway between them. 

“Don’t. Move.” Her eyes snapped open. With her right hand she crushed the vivid green ball of screeching light and electricity. A blinding bolt of iridescent emerald energy erupted from the fingers of her left hand and blasted into the sand between them with a thunderous roar. And then it was gone. He found himself on his back, his hands digging into the sand. She had carved a long, chaotic furrow of superheated glass around where she’d pointed. Loose sparks surrounded her, snapping and popping.

Nate blinked, the hazy image of her hexbolt burned into his eyes. Despite that, he found himself grinning wildly. "That was.. one of the most utterly insane things I've ever seen in my life." He scrambled back to his feet. "I mean, wow. I get the.. general idea of it." He cocked his head, thinking of how he'd describe it. 

"Like.. a ball of mana. So dense and heavy at the core. Something to ground it and keep it from slipping away." He made a circular motion with a hand as he spoke. "And then you.. keep adding more and more, compressing it down until it starts... well, until it starts to want to break out." 

Hallie combed her fingers through her hair, nodding along eagerly. "Yeah, that's right. And you keep doing it past that point, working until it can't possibly hold any more." 

"And then," Nate added, "you crush it to take that chaotic burst of energy into you." 

"And give it an out. Wherever I aim it," Hallie finished, clapping her hands together. "So it's really not like Magefire at all. You're not.. inducing it to burn and controlling it. You're making it burst into energy itself and then releasing it in the general direction of what you really want to hit. I mean, you hope it's going to go there." She shrugged. "I figured this was a good enough place to practice."

Nate smirked. "Somewhere nobody'd notice a few more fulgurites than usual. Pretty devious, I have to admit." 

Devious. The word made her smile falter a little. "Y-yeah. I mean, I prefer 'clever', but, hey I'll take it as a compliment, sled boy." She stepped back, doubling the distance between them. "Alright," she called, "now it's your turn to try. Start small. Really small."

Nate grinned, and he took a few steps further back. "Alright, let's give this a shot." He rubbed his hands together and inhaled deeply. He mimicked her position and closed his eyes. They fluttered open a second later and focused on her. "Hey. What happens if I mess up? I mean, not that it matters much. I... I'm pretty tough." He gave a quick smile. 

"Well," she said, cocking her head to one side. "I mean.." She frowned then. "I hadn't considered that. I've.. never messed up with it. I just started slow and practiced with little zaps before I worked my way up to the big ones." She waved a hand around at the cove. "And then I started working on the really big ones." She gave him a thumbs up. "If you don't feel like you're up to it, we don't have to. I mean, I can always show you how to keep your feet dry on the wet sand. Honestly, it might be a..."

He waved her off, shaking his head. "I get that one... just a different way of heating something up. This," he grinned, "is something I really want to learn how to do." Hallie nodded, but she felt a flicker of worry as he closed his eyes and focused.

She watched him for a moment, and then, sure he wasn’t watching her, she drew a quick line across the sand with her bare foot, and another, crossing it. He looked serious as he kept his hands tightly pressed together, almost like he was praying. 

You’re a pretty odd one, aren’t you? He was tall, but not as tall as Marcus was. Certainly close in the shoulders, but he seemed far more timid with his movements, more concerned with where each step fell. Marcus moved with ease, as though he knew every step he intended long before he ever made it. But they had the same haunted look in their eyes. The same sadness and weight buried beneath every word. 

There was a sound like a tree branch snapping, and then another. She looked up. He kept his hands pressed tightly together, but shafts of crimson light peeked through the fingers. Fine arcs of bright red lightning began to peek through. “Hey, there you go,” she called encouragingly. He did not respond. The sounds grew louder and the light more intense. 

The arcs grew from small, minute bursts of energy to deep, lashing flares. A stray bolt cracked into the sand at his feet. Another snarled into the sky above him, while a third snaked around him and then plunged into the ground between them in a strip of molten glass. 

“Whoa, whoa, Nate you’re taking in too much!” She hesitated as he frowned, his hands loosening a little. A small ball of bright crimson light no larger than a marble sparked in his left hand as he lifted it. His eyes opened, and gold light shone in both. He made a movement to close it, pointing away from them both. 

But it resisted his fingers. Nate growled as he struggled with it, bringing it back down. It glowed even brighter. Crimson lashed out and his sleeve burned back where it struck, carving into his flesh.

She moved without thinking. She leapt over the smoldering gashes in the sand, rushing in front of him, ignoring the stench of burning flesh and hair as she reached out. Hallie slammed one hand over the spellfulgur, feeling it burn, scarlet welts racing along her arm as they struggled to contain it. 

“Run,” he choked. “Even if we fire it it’ll just burn us both. I can take it. Just run!”

Hallie snarled. She reached out with her other hand, crashing it into his and aimed both at the sky. “No!” She pushed her hand down, willing it to absorb the energy and discharge it, even if it burned, even if if killed her. “Marcie!” Nate’s face contorted into a mask of agony as the energy slashed across his cheek. Their hands met. The sky flashed emerald and crimson as a monstrous, branching Hexbolt erupted from their hands and ripped through the clouds above to the sound of deafening thunder. Darkness came for her.

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Hallie opened her eyes slowly. Gaia's own headache was the reward for her efforts, and she let out a sharp breath at the fizzing numbness that seemed to run all through her. The night sky above was cloudless, and utterly littered with stars. "N..n.. night time," she slurred, and then managed to push herself up to a sitting position. She expected to hear the soft crush of water as the waves rolled into the cove. What she heard instead was the slow rustle of leaves as the wind picked up and swayed the branches overhead. 

She swore loudly. Gone was Thunder Cove. She sat alone in a small clearing in an unfamiliar forest, the only light coming from the stars and full moon above. Hallie clenched her hands, wrapping them around herself. "It's not real. It's not real, it's not real." She could hear the thumping of her heartbeat in her ears like a drum. But this was hardly the first time she had found herself in a strange dream. She focused hard, trying to find the threads of reality that would lead her back to the waking world. She had to make sure Nate was okay.

"Huh," said a voice behind her. "You're a strange one." Hallie spun at the voice, shifting into a fighting stance that Marcus had shown her. Nate leaned against a tree, watching her with luminous golden eyes. "That's also strange. Usually you don't hear me when I speak. Or look like you're going to fight me." His voice echoed around her, at once distant and nearby. She blinked and he vanished. 

A hand tapped her shoulder. She lashed out with her elbow, but passed through thin air. Hallie looked around. "This.. isn't funny." 

"And you're.. like me." Nate stepped out of the shadows. Only then, she realized with a start it wasn't actually him. He was taller and heavier, his skin a much darker shade than before. He wore a rich robe of white, embroidered with gold and silver in patterns that seemed to shift and change in the moonlight - sometimes appearing like the stripes of a tiger, or a leopard's spots, or a snake's scales. "Here but not here," he added, waving to draw her attention back to him

Hallie blinked again. "What... are you?" She glanced back down at his shifting robes, and then up at his luminescent eyes. They seemed impossibly deep, like staring into a pool of gold that shifted and swirled. "I wouldn't, if I were you." said the stranger. "That's a fast way to end up like them." He waved a hand, and the moonlight grew even brighter. The scattered forms of bones and tattered cloth peeked out from the grass. She forced herself to keep her face level, even as a deep surge of panic shot through her. 

"Am I dead?" 

"I'm not entirely sure what you are, either." He gave her a casual once over, pausing as he reached her eyes. "You're not my Erda. And you're much too skinny to be Varak or Varan." He glanced back to her. "And unless you've decided to go and change on me, I doubt you're Thero." 

"Who are you?" Hallie asked again, glaring at him, determined that she would get her answer one way or another. "I have many names my children call me," he answered, "but none that you might know. Some call me Aval Edera - Master of the Hunt." He watched the expression of utter incomprehension on her face  and then sighed. "Call me Aval."

Hallie snorted. "Aval it is." She looked around, taking in the world around her in more detail now that she had more light. The small clearing was actually a courtyard of some kind, overgrown, with the bones of what she recognized as long dead people and animals scattered through it. The trees around were much taller than she had thought, huge,  ancient oaks sprawling above. She moved over to the obelisk, taking care not to disturb the bones. 

"What.. is this? And where are we, right now?" She asked, watching the fine scrawl of language etched into the metal as it shimmered in the light. She could feel the steady thrum of power emanating from it, something old and long undisturbed. Hallie stepped back uneasily. She saw a shadow shift in the distance and instinctively raised her hands. 

"They're not there to keep you in. Or do you any harm," said Aval from behind her. She stiffened. "They're there to keep others out." He walked around to stand on the other side of the obelisk, his footsteps scattering bones here and there. "This is... a graveyard." He stared hard at the obelisk, lost in thought for a moment. "Mine. My family's. My entire world, buried beneath here." Aval looked up at her, and she forced herself to focus on the obelisk instead.

"They come here seeking power. Or lusting after what lies buried within." His expression darkened, and she heard the slow crack of bones underfoot as he came closer. Hallie forced herself to look upward. He towered a hundred feet overhead and continued growing,  his ever shifting robes becoming the night sky, his eyes two bright stars glaring down at her. His voice became thunder that shook the earth and trees. "So why are you here, Hallie Anne Caesar? What bargain do you come to ask of me?"

It's not real, it's not real, it's not real. She clenched her fists so hard her nails drew blood. Still, those brilliant golden stars watched her. Her throat felt painfully dry. "I..." I want to wake up from this nightmare. She closed her eyes, letting her shaking hands fall to her sides. Damn you. I am a Caesar. I will not cower before you. Hallie clenched her teeth, forcing air into her lungs. "I... want..." 

"I want the truth."

She awoke again. The boughs of an ancient willow tree drooped overhead, and she could see bright blue skies and white, fluffy clouds through the leaves. A warm breeze picked up, and she caught the scent of wild gardenias on the air. Hallie looked around, half expecting to see Aval glowering back at her, but instead, there was only a large mansion with well kept gardens and a towering brick wall around it. She heard the sounds of children playing somewhere. 

"Claire!" A woman's voice split the air. Hallie felt her blood run cold. She snapped her head in the direction of the voice, and she gasped as the unmistakable figure of Alicia Grimmholt leaned out of a second floor window. She seemed so much younger now, wearing a warm smile,  her hair hardly touched by gray. Hallie turned as a young woman strolled past her, ignoring her entirely. She was dressed in dark gray dueling clothes, a curved sabre resting on her shoulder as she looked up. 

"Mother," Claire answered,  looking up with a frown. "What do you need? I'm practicing right now." 

"Darling, I need you to keep an eye on the boys for me. Nathaniel just got over his last bout, we don't need him getting sick again. Please, your Father and I are working on a very important agreement. I can't be out there with you as well." 

Claire sighed, looking up at the sky. "Alright, alright," she answered, and then she stormed off. Alicia watched her daughter for a moment, a look of disappointment etched into her features. She too then pulled the window closed and returned to whatever she was doing. Can't say I'm surprised. She never struck me as the maternal type. Hallie followed Claire to a spot in the gardens . She heard the sounds of the boys playing in the distance. Claire peeked over a hedge, glancing in the direction of the tree, before she brought her sword up and began a complex series of maneuvers. It was almost as though she was fighting someone, Hallie thought. Just like what Marcus did.

A loud snapping noise cut through the air, followed by a scream that cut off abruptly. Hallie saw Claire's head snap to the side, her silver eyes widening. "No!" She raced off in the direction of the scream. Hallie followed her. Two bodies lay at the base of the tree, surrounded by the shattered remnants of a branch and its leaves. One cradled his broken arm, his hair as dark as Alicia's, his eyes unmistakably Grimmholt silver, tears streaking down his face. The other boy lay perfectly still and unmoving, his dark brown eyes glassy and unmoving beneath a mop of blonde hair. 

"Nate!" Claire and Hallie both screamed.

She awoke again. Nate - the Nate she knew, lay bloodied and burned on the ground before her, crawling towards an archway of black obsidian and glittering red stone, a shining obelisk atop it. Behind him, the courtyard was strewn with bodies fresh and old, and she saw vague figures. The dark figure of a girl sobbing over a blonde, unmoving giant. It was like a knife through her heart. She knelt, trying to help Nate, but her hands passed through his lone unbroken hand as he lashed out and struck the arch with his sword. 

And then he was there, standing once more, battered looking but whole. Aval looked at him with disgust. "I accept your bargain, Son of Siegfried. I shall spare them - for now. But soon, our time will come. The blood debt - the debt you all must pay will come to pass." 

Nate looked pained as he watched the figures behind him. "Do it."

She awoke again to the wet sound of a sword piercing flesh. Nate stood in the moonlight, leaning heavily on a blonde woman, his chest transfixed by the blade jutting from his back. “Good.. shot, Clairey” he choked, before he reached out to touch the blade.

“You know.. what I have.. to do.”

 “Pierce,” he breathed.

There was a blinding flash of light. Hallie watched in stunned silence as he fell backward, his vitals utterly obliterated, black smoke pouring from the hole where they had been. 

She heard his voice from behind her. "And when we finally exhaust all of your stolen life, you and I will die here in the dark where we belong.”

Hallie spun. Nate stood there, his face marred by the pale pink of a fresh scar on one cheek where the fulgur had struck. His varicolored eyes met hers. "I tried," he said quietly. "I tried to stop it. I... I just break things. Whatever I touch, I break." He came to stand beside her as the world faded into darkness. "And now you know what I am. What I've done." 

Something hard and cold glinted in his silver eye as he watched her. "I know who you are now, Hallie. Why you're here with me now." His voice was strained. Nate forced a smile onto his lips. "It's okay," he said, raising his hand. "It... It's the right thing to do. I'll help you. The only thing... I just.." He looked down. "I need you to save my sister from me, first. She tied us together. I was able to dull the link just enough, before it all blew up. But if I die, she'll die first." He met her eyes. "Hallie, I need you to let her live."

"She's not one of us. Not really. She's a good person. I know she was supposed to watch me." He smiled wryly. "I don't blame her for it. She does, though." Nate laughed bitterly, shaking his head. "I wanted to tell her so badly, but I was too much of a coward to do it. To talk to her about it."

"Shut up," Hallie said acidly. "Just.. shut up, Nate." She reached out and grabbed him by the shirt. "I am..." she breathed in, "I am not your damned assassin. I am not your tool to just... kill and be killed like you seem to think I am." Her hands shook. Nate arched a brow. "You know what your family took from me?" she spat. "They took my father. They took my family's name. They sent us into hiding. They took it all because they could." 

Hallie let him go, her fingers shaking. "Do you know... how long we've been planning it? How many years," she said through clenched teeth, "I've been waiting to do this?" Crackles of green lightning sparked from her fingers.

"Long enough," Nate said bluntly. He met her gaze. "For what I did to Florica. And Claire. And Nero." He let out a shaky breath. "For what I've done to everyone.. I can't remember. I shouldn't exist. Every moment I draw breath is another moment that... that thing... gets to live among us." He shuddered involuntarily. "You've seen it. I'm... losing my mind. Some days are better than others but.. Hallie, the things I've seen. What he's done to the world in his grief and his rage. He won't stop until he's done it all again. You could stop that," Nate pleaded. 

"Do it yourself, Grimmholt." She slapped him.

Hallie awoke to the sounds of crashing waves on the beach,  the cry of seagulls, and the slow crackle of fading electricity. The air around her was a haze of steam and heat, and every muscle in her body held a profound ache. She winced as she sat up, not daring to look at her arms. She could smell the too-sharp scent of ozone and sea salt and fish, but, oddly enough, not cooked flesh and burning hair. The sun had just come out ahead, casting shadows along one end of the Cove. 

Nate stared up at her, his eyes more silver than gold. His sleeves had been burned back almost entirely to his shoulders, baring a fine crisscross of pink scars that slowly began to fade and recede. She looked down at her own hands. They resembled his own, the flesh already returning to her normal coloring as she watched in silence. Hallie gingerly touched them and found that she felt no pain at all, although her coat was utterly scorched and ruined. 

A massive swirl of melted glass surrounded them, spiralling outward for what might have been ten feet. Some parts of it still hissed with steam and vapors. We must not have been out for too long. She blinked, and  impressions of what she had seen burned themselves into her eyes, forcing her to keep them closed until, many moments later, the searing pain finally ceased. 

Nate had moved to a sitting position by then, staring out to see while he waited for her. "So now you know," he said quietly, not looking at her as he spoke. 

"So now you know," she answered, resting her head on her chin.

"What'll you do?" he asked dispassionately. "Now that you know. I could sever the link in a heartbeat, now. You could get your revenge on us." He looked over at her, and she kept her own gaze forward. She pursed her lips. "I could. I imagine it'd hurt your mother the most, seeing her pride and joy broken before her. It'd be.. perfectly fair, wouldn't it?" 

"It would," he agreed. Nate sighed. "I could leave you something to give to Claire. She'd... I don't know that she'd understand immediately. But I think she knows this is the way it has to be. I.. don't think she'd hurt you if that was my last wish." 

"Oh, for Gaia's sake," Hallie muttered, laying back down. She stared up at the clouds drifting by. "I told you, Grimmholt, I'm not going to be your personal executioner." 

"That's not very Caesar-like of you. Where's my justice coming from the sky?" Nate laid back down as well, closing his eyes. "That's what it means, right?" Hallie snorted. He felt something hard and wet smack into his face. Nate sputtered, wiping the clod of wet sand away.

"There's your justice," Hallie said irritably, turning back over to look up at the sky. "I guess I'm not much of a Caesar, then." She sighed, closing her eyes to the world. You don't seem like much of a Grimmholt, either. That, or.. I don't really know what either of us are supposed to be. 

"So what now?" He spread his arms to the side,  letting the warm sunlight strike his cold flesh. "We just pretend that I'm not slowly losing my mind to whatever Aval is, and you're not secretly out to kill every last Grimmholt? That we can just keep on... keeping on?" He groaned, bringing one of his hands up to cover his left eye. "Gaia, I hate it when he does that."

She took a deep breath,  and then reached out with her left hand, finding his own. His fingers were warm, far warmer than she'd expected. Hallie squeezed his hand, and he returned the gesture. "So fight him. He likes... bargains," she said softly. "So use that conniving Grimmholt brain of yours to make him a bargain that traps him into being... decent." She furrowed her brows. "I saw him.. or what he was before. Something awful happened there, to his people. I think it's.. twisted him into something awful. But you don't have to let it twist you, too." 

Nate laughed bitterly. "And what if I can't? What if I fail again? You saw what happened the last time I tried." 

"But you know better." She squeezed his hand again. "And this time, you've got Marcella the wise and powerful on your side." She gave him a wry smile. "I can always sled you off the cliff if you start getting too crazy on me, you know." 

"I think I'd rather have Hallie the Just, if we're being honest." He sighed. "But failing that..."

She chucked another clod of dirt at his face. 

"You'll do, Partner."

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The sun was setting behind the distant peaks of the Valtar range by the time she finally felt well enough to head out. The morning's excitement had cost Hallie dearly. She still marveled a little at the fine lines of pink scars winding their way up her hands as she walked through the streets, turning them over and over. The first real failure she had entertained as a mage. Almost my last, she thought grimly. And his, too. 

Marcus had warned her many years ago that there was always a price to be paid for knowledge. At the time, she had simply asked him where he was vanishing off to this time. He had looked at her, haunted blue eyes and slim smile on his face, and warned her gently. 

She pulled her new coat close to her as a steady, cold wind howled its way through the street. Gaia almighty, it was a bitter sort of cold now, the kind that made her wish she had stayed home with a cup of warm tea. Or bothered Nate for some more coffee. She snorted at the thought. Wouldn't it be nice if that was all we had to worry about now? But larger things called to her attention now. Plans made long before she was born that had to be dealt with. Hallie sighed, and then she set off at a brisk pace, following the somewhat vague instructions she had been given.

Now that she knew a little more about the approximate plans Alicia was setting into motion, it was high time that they set out to bring them to ruin. First and foremost was the mysterious person John had managed to hole up in his little cabin at the south end of town. Almost the furthest you could put Miss Cromwell without leaving the territory. 

She kept a woolen cap on her head, hiding her hair beneath. Tonight, she wore the face of a boy she'd known long ago. He was a bit rounder than she was, his cheeks appropriately pudgy and flushed with the effort of walking along. She had added in a touch of brown fuzz beneath his nose and chin, just enough to give him the impression of age so that she wouldn't be stopped out of hand. 

It took her the better part of half an hour to navigate the town and the streets at its edge. She had heard of the cabin described as small, but that did it little justice. It was a fairly large structure of logs and brick facade, not quite two stories high, but finely appointed. It stood apart from the other properties on the street by virtue of a freshly painted wrought iron fence that shone black and polished in the fading sunlight. She stopped for a moment at the corner, casually observing the small detail of guards that moved around the periphery. Some were more obvious than others. 

Hallie waited until she had a solid idea of their movements, and by then the sun had set entirely. The streetlamps blazed away with dull red magefire, just bright enough that one might see the general gist of where they were headed. It was a rather clever idea. It would keep nosy people like herself from seeing what the occupants of the estate were up to at night.

She made her move once the third rotation - by far the slowest of them, rounded one side of the cabin. Hallie slipped a pair of flat, black rocks from her pocket as she walked to the fence, pretending that she needed to catch her breath. She bent over a little, and placed the first roughly midway up. It adhered with a little mana, bonding to the metal and resisting her sharp tugs on it to make sure it was secure. She glanced around, and then she stuck the second a little closer to the ground. 

With her footholds in place, she quickly stepped up and over the fence, and then jumped over to the other side, rolling carefully as she hit the ground. Hallie came up smoothly, changing her Glamour to match that of one of the guards - the quiet, slow one. They were not the same height, but in the dim light of the streetlamps it would have to do in a mix. She hadn't yet mastered the art of changing her height, but once she did...

 Hallie made her way to the back door, taking care to sweep around to check for any of the other guards, and then she unlocked the door with the spare key.

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Mary was finding herself ill-suited for what amounted to house arrest. She had thought herself accustomed to relative isolation after living in hiding with her father for a year, but at least in the forest there had always been something to keep her hands and mind busy - some chore or clever little task that would make their lives easier, and, more importantly, bring that proud smile to her father's face when he returned home from hunting to see what she had accomplished that day.

Now, there was nothing to do but wait. She was almost bored enough to try her hand at embroidery - there was a basket of supplies for it on one of the shelves, and her mother had taught her a few simple patterns when she was younger. But every time she looked at the basket, she found herself overcome with a terrifyingly intense sense of sadness, the image of their burning home painting itself across her vision.

The house had a small library of dry books - just one shelf in a back corner gathering dust - but she had read through them all within the first few days. With nothing better to do, she picked one of them up again and sat near the window to read.

She was several pages in before she realized she hadn't taken in a single word that her eyes had passed over. Giving it up with a sigh, she closed the book and stared out the window. She couldn't see the sea in the darkness, but she could hear it, dimly. Mother would have loved it here.

The sound of the door unlocking broke her reverie, and she stood and drew her knife with the swiftness of paranoia. After one home burning down and another invaded by thugs, she was constantly on the alert for the next attack, the undercurrent of anxiety never leaving her, no matter how many guards John Howe discreetly placed around the home.

Hallie pulled the key back from the lock, and took one final look at the yard beyond. She had perhaps another thirty seconds before the other guard rounded the building and could see her. Less, if he'd decided to speed up for some hitherto unknown reason. She moved quickly, pulling the small bottle of oil from her coat and uncapping it quickly. It took only a moment to pour some of the contents out onto the hinges, and then she swung the door open. It complained a little, but she hope it would be barely heard over the distant waves crashing on the surf. 

The cabin seemed much smaller on the inside. She stood in a hallway, with a set of stairs leading to what she realized was a small loft hanging over the living room. There were two closed doors on her right, and a third lay open to the left. Light spilled from it into the hall. Hallie knelt, using one hand to lock the door slowly behind her while she rested the other on the floorboards. She sent a slow pulse of mana through the floor, letting it spread in a subtle trickle throughout the place. 

She could feel the two guards moving around outside at the very periphery of her senses, along with a third person in the room to the left. More troubling, she could feel the slight disturbance around that body, as though something had disturbed it. She frowned. Too loud? 

I don't have much other choice, though. I have to meet you. She thumped her way down the hall, giving what she hoped was Ms. Cromwell enough warning to be comfortable. Meanwhile, she kept her hand on the small dagger she carried at her hip. If I look like nothing's out of the ordinary, maybe she won't notice, either. Hallie knocked on the door as she entered the room, keeping her borrowed face entirely bored.

Standing in the middle of the room, Mary frowned in confusion at the sight of one of the guards, but she slid her stiletto back into its slender sheath at her waist. "Something wrong?" she asked, her posture still wary.

Hallie glanced around the room, and then she reached up, feeling the hazy buzz of energy around her face. She waved a hand over the Glamour, letting her features ripple and shift into her village girl’s mask. “Hello. My name is Hannah,” she said simply. “John seems to have a thing for keeping his new friends in places like these. I wanted to introduce myself.” She extended her free hand. “Who do you want dead?”

Mary took a step back as the guard before her suddenly transformed into a stranger. Bloody hell. I'm never going to get used to that. She scowled suspiciously, and her hand strayed to her knife again, gripping its handle rather than taking Hannah's offered hand. "Who says I want anyone dead? And how do you know John?" she demanded, sticking her chin out in challenge.

Hallie laughed confidently, although part of her was concerned at how quickly she had reached for her knife. "Because, Miss Cromwell, Lord Howe brought me here fifteen years ago. And we want Alicia Grimmholt dead." She kept one hand where it was, and adopted a friendly smile that did not reach her eyes. "We've met some of the others, but he does his best to keep us apart. I, however, thought we should meet. See which names we might help each other cross off the list."

Mary's eyes remained narrowed, but she grudgingly reached out and shook Hannah's hand. "Nathaniel Grimmholt killed my father, for the crime of befriending him, trying to help him. Their family is cursed, and they continue to hide the truth from the world, under the pretense that they can control it... no matter how many of us have to pay the price for their pride."

"Gaia almighty," Hallie said, taking her hand back. "I'm.. sorry. For me it was Alicia. She had my uncle, aunt, and father killed." Her smile fell away. Another victim to Aval's greed. Another name to add to the list. "So you're here to take him down then? He's.." she tilted her head. "He's a frightening one. I thought he was a decent one, when I met him. But it turns out he's just hiding something dark and twisted within." She met Mary's eyes. "But Alicia's worse, I assure you."

Alicia... Nathaniel's mother. Mary recalled how Claire had bristled when John mentioned her parents, and her frown deepened again. What a fucked up family. "They're all equally guilty," she said coldly. "The Baron, the Baroness, Claire and Nathaniel. And anyone else who tries to keep their secret hidden."

Hallie kept her face neutral as she nodded. She could feel the hatred emanating from Mary's aura like a wave of heat. It was hard to watch. Even harder to agree with her. If only you knew. "Would you.. tell me what happened? I met him a few times. But he seems so... disconnected from the rest of them at first. I don't know if it's an act or if he's really not sure what's even happening to him. How did you survive?" 

She rested a hand on her chest. "My mother... she had help getting out. John helped us escape." And he's been using us ever since. "I've... met a few others like us. Either hurt by the Grimmholts directly, or we lost someone to them."

Mary gave a short, bitter nod, and walked over to the open window, leaning her hands against the frame as she stared out into the unremitting darkness of the cold sea. The chill in the air was sharp, tonight, and she shivered once. But it felt right, somehow. A fitting match to the cold rage in her heart. They need to pay. They need to be exposed, and they need to lose everything, as I have, she repeated to herself, gritting her teeth. "When he arrived at our house, he was going by the name of Archer. He couldn't remember his past - Claire said it was because she tried to kill him, erased his memories." Mary let out a bitter laugh at the awfulness of it. "While he was staying with us, he was injured, trying to protect us, so we brought him to the hospital in Aythnia. But when we got there... he met someone. Neromius Caesar. He went with Nero and my dad to try to find his lost memories." She straightened, turning her back to the window, and met Hallie's gaze. "But all he found was the beast inside him. He killed my father, and Claire had him buried in an unmarked grave in Nikaido, restrained her brother's curse, and called it a day," she said bitterly.

"No good deed," Hallie said bluntly. "I'm sorry." She leaned back against the wall, watching the intensity in Mary's eyes. You could be dangerous. Very, very dangerous for Alicia. And even more so for John. Her heart ached for the woman standing across from her. They had been dragged into the curse of the Grimmholts without any warning, simply for trying to save a wounded man. 

At least we knew what we were getting into. She nodded again. "So John promised you revenge on them all. Disgrace, trials, the rest of it." But can you trust her to stick to the plan? To avoid letting her emotions get the best of her until it matters? She forced herself to keep her expression utterly dispassionate, playing the role of the cool, confident warrior rather than letting the uncertainty she felt show. She sighed, shaking her head. Part of her wanted to tell her what she knew, to try and convince her otherwise. 

You want blood for blood. Just like me. And I can't.. I don't want to stop you. Gaia knows we want Alicia to pay. Siegfried, for allowing it. "Be careful, Mary." Hallie narrowed her eyes. "John's... got his own plans. I don't want to see you used and thrown aside when you're no longer useful to him." She smiled wryly. "It wouldn't be the first time he decided to do that. Trust me." She held up her hand, showing her the patchwork of faded scars. "Don't bleed for their quarrel. You could leave. I could help you, even."

Mary crossed her arms over her chest defiantly, the intensity in her gaze never wavering. "I know he's as fucked up as the rest of them," she replied shortly. "First thing he ever did was hold a blade to my throat. But I don't care if he uses me, as long as it's against them. My father was a better man than all of them put together. I will get justice for him." Even if it kills me.

And you’ll die in the process. Another tragedy waiting to play out in the wings while the rest of the show goes on Hallie was silent for a moment. At last she gave a stiff smile, and made a half bow to her. “I wish you good hunting. I hope you live long enough to savor it.” She backed up to the doorway, keeping her eyes squarely on Mary. You should warn him, she thought. The thought made her blood run cold. He’d probably try to make it right. And then we’re all doomed when he fails. “If you change your mind, ask your guards for three cherry pastries from Avril’s Bakery. She’ll get word to me.” Hallie waved, and then she made her way to the door, her heart pounding. 

They needed to leave before this woman and John set things in motion. Before everything came crashing down around them.

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The village of Faroe sprawled across the hill's leeward slopes, sheltered from the occasional bouts of Tsovinar's furious storms by a bare, rocky face on the other side. The town was one of the larger of the Fayrland settlements,  and even with the afternoon sun beating down on the plains he could still see the distant figures of farmers toiling away all the way down to the valley. Faust shifted beneath him, his heavy hooves plodding into the warm earth. Nero reached up and wiped away a stream of sweat. 

"Yeah, I know, my lord. It's hot. But we don't want to fall into a trap out of haste, now would we?" He gave a wry smile, patting Faust's dark shoulders. They stood on the other crest of the Faroe valley,  and he could see the slim trickle of water meandering through a rocky, nearly dried up riverbed. For the moment, it was utterly miserable, but when one of the wild storms came through, it would swell to a swift, raging torrent that would fill the small lake in the distance to bursting. 

He pulled a small spyglass from his saddlebags and brought it to his eyes, sweeping behind him at first, and then focusing on the small band of travelers currently setting up camp on the windward side of the hill. A lone crimson banner waved in the winds where it had been struck into the earth before the tents. "And there they are," he muttered. Faust stamped away. "Yes, yes," Nero agreed, "we can go now." He scarcely had time to deposit the spyglass in its place before Faust surged over the crest of the hill and the wind blew wildly through his hair.

They thundered down the banks of the river, and then turned a small dirt pathway that snaked its way up Faroe Hill's rocky face. Faust's feet found solid ground where they struck and he moved with the surety of one who had been along this path before, even though Nero had never once taken him to Faroe. The mercenary simply chalked it up to Lord Faust's presumptive past as a Rahksh warhorse and trusted him not to kill them both. He busied himself with holding on and looking as though he had absolute faith in his companion until a quarter of an hour later, when they cantered up to the small camp. 

It was completely deserted save for the lonely fluttering of the crimson banner and the four rather tired looking horses. Faust did not greet them, although he did eventually deign to come to a halt before running into a small flickering campfire. Nero looked around. noting the four sturdy tents  that were assembled in a loose semicircle but left open to the air. He could see bedrolls and packs inside, along with a few old swords and an axe tumbled across one tent's floor. 

Nero dismounted smoothly, his boots thumping into the earth in a puff of dust. He turned, looking behind him once more, watching the trail they'd kicked up as it swirled and faded into the dry riverbed air below. He pulled a fine, polished carrot from his pack - the last of the set, and fed it to Faust, patting his slick sides as he did. "Sure was lucky we managed to find you some carrots, my lord." He smiled. Faust's eye locked with his, and then the big Rakhsh stamped his approval. The other horses seemed ambivalent. They usually were, around him.

Nero felt cold steel against his throat and he stopped where he was. He heard the slow strain of a bow being drawn back and more steel scraping from leather sheaths. "Hello, Caesar," breathed a woman's voice in his ear. "Didn't I promise you I'd finish that scar across your back if I ever saw you again?" He felt the curved blade at his neck bite ever so slowly into his flesh. Nero managed a smile. "Hello, Cat. Is it Hawke now, or are you still Shikoh?" 

The blade came back, and he let out a tense breath. "Hawke," she answered, "but since you weren't invited I can't exactly blame you for being an oaf about it." He snorted. "What do you want? Surely you weren't stupid enough to race into our camp because you expected a warm welcome." 

"That's... actually exactly what I was hoping for." Nero grinned.

Nero around slowly, keeping his hands up and out. Cat was very nearly as tall as he was, but far, far leaner. She wore her raven dark hair in a long braid that fell over one shoulder like a black slash along her tan tunic. Her eyes were a striking shade of amber that contrasted with her umber complexion. A long, thin scar traced its way down the left side of her nose to her jawline like the lone crack in a fine vase. She smiled amiably as she sheathed her scimitar at her right hip. "It's good to see you, Nero," she said, flinging her arms around him in a hug that forced some of the air from his lungs. 

He pretended to cough as she released him. She laughed throatily, shaking her head in faux disapproval. Nero's eyes flicked past her. On a shelf of sunbeaten stone above, an archer slowly brought his shortbow back down from full draw, a heavy wrapping of pale cloth around his features save for his bright gray eyes. To either side of Cat stood a pair of short, heavyset men, their skin the ruddy red of Green Islanders far from home, red beards and pale blue eyes watching him carefully. They brandished ornate silver axes in both hands and one wore numerous other short and blunt implements of war. 

"Morris," Nero called, waving out to the archer. "You making the princess greet your guests for you now?" The archer made a motion like drawing his bow and releasing it, and then he reached up with leathery hands to peel away his odd headcover, unwrapping it in a few quick moments. Morris vaulted down from the ledge, landing agilely and swinging his bow over his shoulder. He slung his scarf around his neck as he walked up to join them. "Adi, Hodi, you can go keep watch," he said in a soft, polite voice.

Morris's hair had once been pure black, but years in the Fayrland sun had bleached it red and gray in places. He kept it short, along with a fine, curling mustache that shimmered like bright steel. He was of average height, nearly half a head beneath Catherine's height, but he moved with the unmistakable grace of a man born into the saddle. "Protocol, my Lord Caesar, dictates that you two greet each other first." He shrugged with powerful shoulders. "I'm just the hired help." He held out a deeply scarred hand to Nero, and the mercenary shook it easily. 

"You didn't even invite me to your wedding," Nero replied, wagging a finger.

"In my defense, you were in a coma. Or dead." Catherine furrowed her brows. "I mean, not my kind of dead, obviously." She flashed a brilliant smile. "You were good and proper dead, according to my contacts." Beside her, Morris snorted and looked away. "So how did you manage to survive that, Swordbreaker?" 

Nero's smile fell away for a moment, and then it returned. "Family." He glanced at Morris, who had busied himself with staring off into the distance with an intense look etched into his features. "Found something interesting, Captain?" The ranger's lips curled up at the edges. "As a matter of fact, I think I have." He twirled an arrow in his fingertips. "You didn't mention you were bringing friends, Nero."

He looked back at the swordsman, and his eyes narrowed. "Ah. Damn Caesars, dropping in and ruining dinner as usual."

"Don't say that too loudly. We wouldn't want anyone to hear and try to follow me," Nero answered dryly. He drew Octavius from its sheath at Faust's side. Almost immediately, it frosted, trailing ghostly vapor behind as he slid it through the air. 

"Thought your thing was fire," Morris remarked. He unslung his bow, nocking the black shafted arrow with a smooth motion. "Will wonders never cease." Cat leaned on his shoulder, snickering. "I mean, your miserly self can hardly talk. A man of your age wedding? You probably had to pay her a fortune." Morris gave a long-suffering sigh, but he quirked his lips all the same. "My kingdom for a lawyer, Nero. My kingdom. And maybe my horse." 

Nero shook his head. "I don't think you'd like mine very much. My new friend, though, I think you'd like quite a bit." He patted Faust's side and the big Rakhsh snorted along with him in a pantomime of laughter. "He's just like yours, I think," Nero said. "Little smaller, though. I'd bet he'd give Vanhi a good run on a nice straight. Don't let him see you with a carrot though." He made a bowing motion. "My Lord has decreed them to be the sole property of Faust al-Rahksh himself." 

Cat strode over, looking Faust over with a discerning expression. He stared her down at first, and then offered her the side of his head. She brushed her hands along his mane, frowning. "Gaia abound, Swordbreaker, do you ever treat him like a real horse? He needs a bath, a rubdown, and a solid meal. We'll take care of that after our new friend. Our," she glanced back to Morris, who shrugged and drew back on the bow. "Our other new friend." Faust shifted around, and Nero swore he was smirking at him. 

"Can you believe the nerve of her? An old friend shows up and he gets blood drawn. His horse, though," he shook his head as he walked to stand side by side with Morris.

Morris glanced back to his wife, and then back to Nero. "It's good to see you, man. I mean that." He sighed. "More came after Zahra last month. My brother's at his rope's end trying to keep her safe while the bastards in the Senate bandy around terms like "negotiation" and "leverage" like she's just a tool to be used and discarded." Real anger flashed in his silver eyes before he swept his bow across the narrow path, bringing the arrow almost to his cheek. 

"I'm sorry, Mo. I've been... indisposed. I left word with D and V to render all aid we could, but... rumors of my demise have... lessened some of my contacts' willingness to work with me." Nero glowered as the sounds of hooves grew louder. "Some don't have your fondness for working with the allegedly departed," Morris agreed mildly, nudging him in the ribs with his shoulder.

(Random Trivia: 

All Rahksh horses are believed to descend from Rahksh himself, a steed of legend. As such, true Rahksh horses are granted the name al-Rakhsh (arabic for son of Rakhsh) which follows the naming convention for Arabian horses IRL. 

Queen Sahar was the sole princess of the Tanwar clan, and her dowry was Vanhi al-Rakhsh. He is known as one of the largest Rahksh in recent history, and was Sultan Jahal's personal mount during the fight where he lost his life. He is the only inheritance that Zahra and Ambra have left.)

An immense horse with deep red flanks came thundering up the pathway towards them at the head of a cloud of dust. The rider gave a shout in the Kushan tongue, long black hair flying freely behind her. Vanhi al-Rahksh slowed to a trot as they neared the camp, snorting and shaking his head as though he wished to keep running. Behind him, Faust came to rest his head on Nero's shoulder, turning to observe the newcomers. 

The rider wore a dress of tan cloth that had once been finely embroidered with green thread and beads, now a shadow of its former self. She towered over them as they came up to the group, thanks in large part to the gigantic proportions of the stallion beneath her, but there was more than enough regal demeanor between Vanhi and his rider to stun most onlookers. Her face was covered with a dark mask of fine silk, and her right eye lay covered beneath a black patch. The other eye was a mix of blue and green that seemed almost impossibly deep.

Nero fell to one knee, placing his sword at his side in the dirt. Beside him, Morris lowered his bow, inclining his head politely. Catherine simply continued petting Faust, unperturbed. Zahra Shikoh dismounted smoothly, her boots crunching into the dirt as she walked over to them. "Hail, Lord Caesar," she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper. He could see the fine threads of silver through her hair, but she remained much as he had remembered her so many years before. He gave Morris a sidelong look, but the man simply shrugged. "Hail, Princess Zahra. It's.. been a while, hasn't it?" 

"She figured we'd be safest together," said Cat as she flicked a stray stone from Faust's mane. "So naturally we brought her along." 

"She's also one of the most powerful mages in the Fayrlands, and prefers that her friends do not kneel before her." Zahra's boots crunched against the gravel as she came to stand before Nero, and she offered him a hand. He accepted it, coming to his feet. She was a few inches shorter than Cat, her skin a shade lighter. "Besides," Zahra stated, "I owe the Caesar family a blood debt of several lifetimes. Both mine, and my family's. Whatever aid you ask, I shall do all I can to provide."

Nero frowned, but he nodded his agreement. "So you picked up my tail then?" He glanced at the rope attached to the saddlehorn, following it back to where a bloodied figure lay behind the horse. "You didn't kill him, did you?" Nero squinted. The man did indeed seem to be breathing, although Nero wasn't sure he would be once they were done with him. 

"Of course not," Zahra answered, looking mildly offended. "I only knocked him unconscious with noxious fumes and then dragged him half a league. I'm not a savage." Behind her, Catherine stifled a laugh. "Besides." Zahra reached up and unwound the loop of sturdy rope, handing it over to Nero. "I figured you'd be the one to make introductions once he's conscious again. You can break bread with us again in the meanwhile and we'll catch up. Hopefully nobody will set the place on fire." 

She smiled winningly. "After all, I so rarely get to host one of your family." 

Nero rubbed the back of his neck as he considered the offer. Arguably, the most expedient thing to do would simply be to take the man and persuade him to talk as quickly as he could. But it had been a lonely path since he left Nikaido, and they were the closest thing to family he had in the plains at the moment. He sighed,  looking up at the sky. "Alright, alright. But we tie this idiot to a pole and let him smell the food. I figure it'll save me a good bit of work." He kicked a rock down the hill. "And.. I need some information." He glanced back to the Hawkesmesser. "Maybe a lot more than that."

The fire crackled away merrily at the center of the camp, shifting hues of purple and green and yellow flames dancing beneath a bubbling pot of something dark and spicy. They sat in a loose semicircle. Nero found himself leaning back against Faust's black flanks as the big Rahksh slept off the day's exertions, snoring slightly with his head turned away from the fire. The other horses had been tied off near the stone overhang, and they seemed to be enjoying a fine feast of fresh Fayrlands hay. They were less than enthusiastic about the bound captive sleeping in it, but if it bothered them much, they did not show it. 

Morris sat beside Nero to the right, a thick blanket draped over his lap as he leaned forward, stirring the pot in slow, precise motions. Zahra leaned over from Nero's left, sliding the Hawkesmesser back into its sheath and passing it to him reverentially. "I am saddened by its condition, but it is the nature of a blade to be broken in time," she murmured. He accepted it, feeling a twinge of sympathy at the wistful look on her face. Her blue-green eye drifted to his and she smiled wanly. 

"You owe no apology for it, Neromius. It.. it is a balanced blade, it seems. Cast our lives into chaos and then saved us from it again. I only hope it brought you the same good fortune in its time." 

"You could keep it," Nero replied, holding it back out to her. "It would have been yours, in time." She extended her hand, resting it on the smooth sheath, and then she gently pushed it back to him. "My inheritance is Vanhi and the life of my sister." The flames cast a deep purple light on her face for a moment. "The rest of it... we'll take back when the time is right."

Nero gave a slow nod as he accepted the blade, and then set it aside. "When that time comes... you'll know where to find me." He brought his hand to his chest in a salute. "Fiat justicia." 

Zahra returned the salute.  "Mafish halawa min gheir nar. Don't rush to it." Her expression grew more grave. Zahra glanced over to the others, watching as Catherine and Morris began to discuss the finer points of peppers. "Will you talk to me before we leave? Just you and me."
[5:57 PM]Grimmholt:(Mafish halawa min gheir nar = There is no sweetness without fire.)
[6:01 PM]Grimmholt:Nero arched a brow. "Aren't we talking now?" 

She laughed throatily, and shook her head sharply. "Not like this. In private. Some things I need to tell you before you disappear." Zahra looked down for a moment, crossing her fingers together. "About promises made,  promises kept, and promises to be broken." The mercenary narrowed his eyes slightly, and then he sighed, resting his head back against Faust's warm back. "Seems everyone's got one of those to tell me, these days. Some of them you.. well, you probably wouldn't believe me at first."

Zahra gave him a pointed look for a moment, and then she tossed her head back with a peal of laughter. "Oh, that's rich. Very rich. You'll like this then. You seem to enjoy finding yourself in ironic situations, so you'll feel right at home."

Nero snorted, and he looked back to her. "I don't have one of those at the moment. Some people took my survival personally, so they decided to burn it all down." 

Cat turned her head to him, shrugging in an exaggerated fashion. "Some people," she said, wagging a finger, "tend to take exception to most of us being alive." She thumbed over her shoulder at the man sleeping with the horses. "I'm guessing he's one of them."

"Now, now," Morris chided. He sprinkled a fine red powder into the pot, stirring it steadily. "Play nice, dear. He's traveled a long way to suffer at the hands of my cooking and I shan't have anyone else ruining it for me." He gave Nero a winsome smile, and then took a small spoonful of rich stew from the pot, blowing away steam. Morris winked at them, and then he tried it. He turned beetred almost immediately. Zahra laughed, and Nero joined her. Morris groped around beside him for his canteen. Cat chucked it to him, and he swiftly spun the cap off and drank deeply of it. 

"... Just.. right," Morris groaned, dropping the spoon back into the pot. 

Nero chuckled. "Still can't stand it, huh?" Morris grinned. "The things I do for love, my friend." Cat dropped down next to him, and began ladling out some of the hot stew into bowls. "There's Adi and Hodi's, and you lot can figure out the rest." She had a wicked grin on her face as she stood up. "This'll keep our friends wide awake for first watch."

Morris scooped out a bowl for Zahra, and she accepted it gratefully. Nero took his next, and he could feel the spice almost stinging his nose as he brought a spoonful up to his mouth. It was, all things considered, a surprisingly well balanced dish of wild rabbit and a thick, hearty sauce. Nero arched an eyebrow. Morris leaned back, making sure Cat was out of airshot before he spoke. "She thinks it's funny. And who am I to deny her some fun?"

Zahra wolfed her meal down beside him. Nero took a moment to savor it. "So you've been out here the whole time," he said to Morris. "Makes sense. Art can keep the tigers leashed while you keep an eye out for wolves."  Morris made a bowing motion, before he continued to eat. "I was hoping you'd know a little more about how the Hawkesmesser was even made. Or how to fix it."

He glanced across to Zahra, who wiped her mouth with a rag. "Well," she said, setting it aside. "I'd tell you if I knew." She pursed her lips. "We didn't make it either. It's old, far older than it seems." She glanced at the sheathed blade and then frowned deeply. "Well, now it looks much more like its true age. Truthfully, my father had it passed down to him from his father. And my grandfather passed it to him. It..." she trailed off, looking thoughtfully up at the stars for a moment before she returned her attention to him. "It's at least five hundred years old."

Zahra glanced down at the curved blade. "We called it Nishakara, back when it was ours. The palace might have... some records on it, but I can't speak to their veracity." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "I believe it might have once been a ritual blade of some kind, perhaps to celebrate the harvest. There was once writing on the handle, according to Lord Arthur, but he had it removed once it became his, and I don't know that he ever kept any records of it."

She turned to Morris, who was finishing his stew. "Mo, do you know of any such thing?" He took a long swig of his canteen. 

"My father might have kept some documents. But he willed them to Count James when he passed in '56 and Art delivered them personally. Best bet's going to be your pal Audric, if he's kept them. It was probably only a few months before that accident happened, so they may have been destroyed or locked away somewhere." Morris's voice was somber as he continued. 

"One thing I do remember my father saying about it." He pointed. "It's not a normal blade. It's been covered with all the fancy accoutrements of a ritual weapon, but... I don't think it was always one. There's more'n a little spellwork in there beneath all those sharpening and hardening enchantments, and some of it packs a hell of a punch. Probably a bit less now that you've gone and broken it, but.. maybe when all of that surface stuff fades away we'll see what's really inside."

"Secrets within secrets," Nero murmured, picking it up and turning it over in his hand. "What did you say it was called before?" 

"Nishakara. Night-bringer." Zahra said, waving her hand up at the moon above. "An old name for an old blade. Something tells me it has had many names over the years. As many names as masters, perhaps." She set her empty bowl aside with a measured, deliberate motion. "But for now, it's yours. No longer a Hawke's blade. A Caesar's tool of choice. So name it whatever you like." 

Nero nodded slowly. "Maybe I'll wait and see what it becomes, first. No sense naming... scrap metal." He drew it in a slow scrape of steel against leather, and it shone white in the light. The edge had corroded further around the tip, ugly red splotches beginning to spread over the steel and moving upward. He rubbed his fingers along the splotches, and they came off in large, abrasive flakes, leaving small pits and marring across the surface. 

He sheathed it abruptly. "I figure your father might have been on to something." Nero looked over at Morris. "It's not rusting the way it should. More like the outer layers are peeling off now that the enchantments are being eroded. I'll see if Audric can..." Nero closed his eyes. "Never mind." He glanced back to Zahra. She smiled sadly. "How badly was he wounded? I've heard whispers but.. you know well enough how rumors can be distorted." 

"Bad," Nero admitted quietly. "Even the little eagle that brought me back couldn't..." He opened his eyes, adjusting to the light. "She was able to get him some of the use of his hand back, but we don't know if he'll ever be the same." Zahra's lone eye glittered in the light. 

"You might be surprised what one can learn to live with."

"I might," Nero conceded with a tilt of his head."

The horses nickered behind them, and Nero's blue eyes swept up. The bundle of rope, hay, and cloth shifted suddenly. The man within groaned loudly. You must have Gaia's own headache at this point. Nero snorted. "Perhaps we ought to ask my friend what he's willing to live with," Nero said loudly. He stood, brushing some dust from his shirt, and then drew Octavius, letting it frost over in the air for effect. 

It always paid to be a showman, where interrogations were concerned. 

"Need a hand?" Morris asked, parting his cloak to show the fine stiletto concealed within. "Or a... less angry looking blade" 

"Sometimes, the old ways work the best." Nero gave a quick shrug as he skirted the edges of the fire and walked deliberately towards their captive. He sank the tip of the blade into the dirt before him as he inspected him. "Hello, Hamish. You're a long way from home, aren't you?" He glanced southward for a moment, and then returned his attention to the spy. 

"I see you traded the old nag out for a fine field horse. I told you she wouldn't make it out to Faroe."

Hamish glared at him, and made a point of spitting at his boots. He was so dehydrated that the spittle clung heavily to his lips. Nero's eyes shone like cold sapphires in the firelight. "Don't know what yer talkin' about," Hamish spat. "I'm just a traveler. I just thought I'd make the ol' journey up here to see what I could sell." 

Nero laughed sardonically. "Any farmer worth his salt would have traded south. Faroe's known for its soil. They wouldn't need you out here." His fingers squeezed Octavius' fine leather grip so hard it squealed. "And they don't grow carrots in your supposed hometown. They import them."

Nero rested his hand on the elaborate pommel of his sword, focusing for a moment. The air grew colder around it. Nero pulled his hand back as the frost began to seep into the earth and crackling ice crystals began to spread across the dust. "Let's not play the game today." Nero's eyes narrowed. "I could take you apart, joint from joint. Slowly. Deliberately. Burn the wounds shut. Freeze the damaged tissue so you don't die of shock too quickly." His expression hardened. "Don't try me, Hamish, or whatever your name is."

"I burned a man to death with a blade just like this. First I cut his ankles apart. Then his legs. And his arms. Just deep enough to sever the muscle tissue and ligaments. Then I burned him from the inside out." He leaned down. "Your employer chose to fuck with my family. The only family I have left." Octavius let out a blast of heat that flashed the ice to squealing steam. "Your. Choice."

Hamish paled, but he took in a sharp breath of air. "I'm tellin' ye, I'm just a godsdamned farmer!" 

Nero pulled Octavius free of the earth, shaking it to dislodge the fine layer of dirt on its edge. He flicked it, scoring a fine line of crimson along the farmer's cheek. Hamish hissed in pain. Nero made another flick over his head. "Farmers out here worship Gaia. Not many gods." The swordsman brought Octavius up in a two handed grip. "Tell me what I need to know. Everything you know. Or I'm going to start with your foot and work my way up." 

"I don't know any- ARGH!" Hamish shouted as Nero plunged the sword into the farmer's right foot, twisting sharply for good measure. Almost immediately, the temperature began to drop, cold vapor dripping. Hamish screamed as his blood began to freeze around the steel. A thin layer of ice and rime began to build up, crawling its way up his dirty clothing. "You can stop this, any time you'd like." Nero said simply. 

"Just tell me what you're after. Who sent you. Why me and my family."

Hamish ground his teeth together, his hands forming claws and straining against the ropes that bound him tightly. He twisted and twitched, his words slurring into an unintelligible mash of of inhuman groans. Nero ripped his sword free and plunged it into the dirt at his feet. "Couldn't hear you," Nero stated. "You're going to have to speak up, my friend. Otherwise I'm going to assume you're wasting my time."

Hamish spat into the dirt, coughing. "... You can't stop us. You and your brother, you're already dead." Nero's lips curled into a thin smile. "Am I?" He rested his hand on his sword. "I think rumors of my demise have been... exaggerated somewhat." Nero pulled Octavius free of the dirt, flicking it to clear some of the debris from it. He inspected it for a moment, and then slammed his boot into Hamish's face. He lowered the point of the blade to rest above the man's throat. 

Hamish gave a smile through bloody teeth and bruised lips. ".. Kill me if you want, Caesar boy. Won't stop us. We're going to find your fucking brother and run him through like the traitor he is. Then we're coming for you and that whore in Nikaido-" Nero smashed the flat of the blade against Hamish's head, snapping his head to the side. 

"Bawthers you, don it?" Hamish slurred. "Shame I never known. I'd have.." Nero laughed bitterly. "You think you're the first to throw that in my face? Gaia's sake, you probably won't be the last." His smile faded.

Nero's eyes shone coldly in the firelight. "You're hoping to make me angry enough to kill you quickly, aren't you. I'm guessing your employers aren't likely to forgive your, ah, amateurish failure." Nero rested Octavius on his shoulder, letting the blade gleam in the light. "Matter of fact, I don't think you were given much warning I was coming. Probably outpaced all of your friends on the ride out from the city." 

His smile returned. "See, I think you're not normally out here. This... reeks of poor planning." He turned around, scanning the moonlit plains beyond. "I'd have done a three man team. One like you, two shadows. But they only had you. Only sent you here to track me and kill me." He looked back over his shoulder at Hamish. "Frankly," he sighed, "I'm insulted that they thought a little snake like you could bring me down." 

Nero turned on his heel and brought the tip of the blade beneath Hamish's throat. "Fuck you, Caesar," Hamish said bluntly, curling up. "Just stick me and be done with it."

"Don't think he's going to talk," Morris opined from behind. "Probably better to just.. make a few choice incisions, roll him into the river, and be done with it." 

"Waste of a good resource." Nero glanced over his shoulder. Zahra shrugged, and set down her cup. "I think he knows something. But he's.. more scared of the ones he knows rather than you. There are other methods of persuasion, you know." Nero sighed, shaking his head. "You know, I didn't really intend on having help on this one."

"Ah," Zahra said as she joined him. "Is that why.. you brought him here, knowing we would capture him? And why you're still here, torturing him not ten feet from me? Because I may have misinterpreted that." Her lone eye glittered with amusement. She patted his shoulder. "Let me help you. It's the least I could do." 

"Alright. But I'm standing with you. Hamish, if you so much as twitch in a way I don't like, I'm going to warm up your leg a lot faster than I did last time." Octavius steamed as he pointed it at the man. 

Zahra knelt, observing Hamish for a moment. She pulled a small red ribbon from her pocket and tied her hair back in a slow, deliberate motion before she returned her attention to him. "Nero," she said softly, "count to five and then I need you to pull me back. Five. Exactly five. No more."

He frowned deeply at that, but nodded his assent. "You know what you're getting into?"

"No," she replied with a grin. "But when do we ever?" Zahra took in a deep breath, her fingers coming up to the eyepatch. She ripped it off and leaned forward. Hamish flinched before the crimson light that bathed his bloodied features and then he went absolutely still, lolling forward like a marionette with its strings cut. Nero counted slowly. He reached out for her at four. 

The instant his fingers touched her she snapped back, gasping in air. Hamish remained where he was, curled and unblinking. A slow trickle of blood dripped from his nose. Zahra closed her eyes, rocking back and forth slightly. "I'm fine," she whispered, reaching out to take his hand and squeeze it. "I'm fine. I'm fine. Don't worry. It's.. always a little frightening. Seeing someone else like that. You didn't give me the full five," she said chidingly, opening one eye to look up at him. 

"You found what you were looking for, though?" Nero reached out and brushed away a slim line of crimson from her nose, grimacing. He helped her put the patch back on, and she rested back on her hands, nodding slowly. "Nero, you have to go home. Not.. the farm. Home. Inverness." She took in a deep breath. "They're hunting Marcus. They think he's.. he's going after the boss. He's never met them. But Nero? I think they're both there."

Nero flinched at the name. "I didn't..." 

Zahra laughed bitterly. She held out a hand and he pulled her up. Their eyes met and for a moment neither spoke. "You knew," he said quietly. "You knew he was alive this whole time. That's what you wanted to talk about earlier. A promise. To him." Nero clenched his fists, setting his jaw. "You.." he closed his eyes for a moment. "How long? How long have I been the only one that didn't know Marcus fucking Caesar was still alive and well? You knew too, Mo? Cat?" 

Morris held up a hand. "Didn't know. I'd have told you." He pursed his lips. "No matter what. I owe you that much, Nero." 

"Guess that makes one of us," Nero said acidly, turning back to Zahra. She stared him down. "Yes," she said. "I knew. And he swore me to secrecy. Because if you knew, you'd try and find him, and all... everything he's done would be for nothing." Zahra took a step forward. "You think you're the Swordbreaker. All fury and steel. You think you're really some unstoppable force. But you're not. None of you are. He didn't want to see you die. Any of you. You don't know what he's been through! How..."

She turned away for a moment. "How much it cost him. But if you don't leave now, Nero, you might never find out. The noose is closing around his neck and he's going to try and make them bleed for it." 

Nero sheathed Octavius. "So what? I just go and find him, and we live like one big happy family? Everything's all good and fine in the Caesar household?" He walked to Faust, patting him until the big Rahksh shook his head and began to stumble to his feet. "Gaia, you don't know what it's been like. This whole time I thought I was the last one. That we were all dead and doomed to die. You don't know what that's been like!" His words rang in the air. Zahra tilted her head slightly, pursing her lips. 

Nero rested his face in the palm of his head. Zahra sighed, and then she walked over to him. "I know. It's... hard to deal with. But if your family is to have a future, Nero - Lord Caesar. You must get over it. You have to find him. He's probably the best hope you have of finding out the truth. And of beating the ones in the shadows." 

"And then you and I talk about this." 

"And then we talk. I don't regret a damn thing. I'd do it for him in a heartbeat. And for you, anything." She brushed her hands along Faust's flanks. "Ride like the wind, Faust al-Rahksh, and ferry your master home." 

"Goodbye, Princess."

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Florica opened her eyes.

It was raining again.

She could hear it rustling against the shutters, smell it in the damp mustiness of the woven flooring mats. It was a dark morning, and would be a grey day.

The slender Banjari girl slowly sat up, hugging her knees with one arm, while the back of her other wrist wiped sleep and tears from her eyes. She let out a shaky sigh. Within a few breaths the memory of the dream was fading, but she clung to the shreds of it stubbornly. She had been on the balcony of Grey Castle, where she had last spoken to Nathaniel. He had been there too, with his broad back turned to her, and she had wanted so badly to call out to him. But every time she opened her mouth, lightning flashed and thunder roared over Rhosund Strait, silencing her. She could still feel the echo of the thunder in the undertone of trembling in her bones.

More tears welled up, and she didn’t bother to wipe them away as they fell from her chin onto her knees. Though she had slept soundly, she still felt exhausted, a tiredness shared by both her aching body and her bitter spirit. Why can’t things just be simple? Amy’s words returned to her, and she sighed heavily.

Not for me.

Never for me.

She had family, now, yet still she found herself alone. Who knew where her brothers were, or her cousin. And Claire, Nathaniel, Haidee and the Greys were as distant from her as they’d ever been.

As it should be.

Reaching aside, she grasped Frost by its handle, wrapping her fingers around it as her arm wrapped loosely around her legs again. She bowed her head, letting the cold of the weapon seep in through her fingers, bringing clarity. I am alone because I choose to be, she reminded herself sternly. Can’t keep stealing strength from others. Can’t keep throwing them in harm’s way when I’m too weak to face my demons.

The lonely girl sniffed, and wiped her face dry on her sleeve again, biting back further tears, leaving them to fester as a burning knot in her throat.

This is harder than I thought it would be, she admitted to herself, taking another shaky breath. Her grip on the dagger tightened. “Fiat justicia ruat caelum,” she whispered to herself, searching for the strength to face the quiet of the day. “I swear to live unbowed beneath the sun. I swear to always be loyal to the House of Caesar. I swear to leave no blow unanswered. By the Dance, the Road, and the Wheel. Fiat justicia ruat caelum. Fiat justicia ruat caelum…” She murmured the words over and over, like a spell, bowing her head and rocking back and forth.

Without warning, she found herself in the cozy interior of a small earthen room. It smelled of elm, and looking up, she saw that the low ceiling was formed of tree roots. Blankets covered the uneven floor.

“Fiat justicia ruat caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” the young man leaning against the door was saying. He looked like Nero - especially when he pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a thoughtful sigh. “You’re right. But the world is hardly a just and fair place. Only the justice we make matters here. I’ll stay here until you finish reading all of them. But then I’m taking them back with me, whether you can remember anything you’ve read or not. And you leave the County. If you come back, I’ll clap you in irons and let the Count decide what to do.” 

“Just like that?” asked the blond woman sitting at the low table, arching an eyebrow even as she continued to flip through the book in her hands. “No blackmail, no attempts to persuade me to thank you for your kindness?” 

“We’re not all bad,” he replied softly, his stormcloud eyes opening. “Sometimes the right thing isn’t always the just thing. I’m not blind to that. Besides, you have a reason. It seems like a good enough reason. Can’t say you’ll be as lucky if you get caught doing this wherever else you go, though.” 

She flicked a page. “Anne. Anne Hurst.”

“It’s a good name.” 

She flipped another page. “My mother is sick. It’s a wasting disease. None of our healers can do anything about it.” Flip. “It doesn’t seem to be something native to Mir.” Flip. “But I’ve heard your doctors are talented. And they write everything down.” Flip. “So I figured it would be the best place to look.” Flip. And then she set that book down and picked up another, flicking through the pages until she found what she was looking for. 

“I see,” he said. 

What?” She brought the book down. 

“Are you actually reading that?” He nodded in the direction of the discarded book. “That quickly?”

“Never had trouble remembering things. I only need a moment and then I’ll never forget it.” It was her turn to give a nonchalant shrug. “Mother always said I was blessed by Gaia. But none of your doctors seems to have been blessed with any luck. Another bust.” She dropped her book onto the pile and picked up a third, skimming through it. 

“Well, Anne Hurst. You’re resourceful. You’re smart. And you’re a gifted thief.” He smiled. “I think we could put those skills to use. And in return, I’ll convince James to grant you clemency and help your mother. The price is one year of your life.” 

She looked over at him, searching his affable face for a sign of humor, or deception, or, really, anything but that silly good-natured grin. Anne sighed, and fell back onto the pile of blankets in an exaggerated show of defeat. 

“And I’m stuck working with the most irritating lordling of them all.” She looked over at him. “That’s you. I was talking about you.” 

“There’s always the other route,” he noted. “But you don’t seem like that bad of a person, and I don’t really feel like putting you in cuffs. Really puts a damper on our relationship.” 

“I’m still considering it,” she muttered, sitting back up. “But I’ll take it. Your deal.” She licked her lips. “What do you need me to do?” 

The young man laughed, a rich and booming sound. He flicked her one of his sheathed blades - Frost. “Nothing so dramatic,” he replied. “Just a promise. So long as you work for us, you will be a shield to those in need, a sword against the unjust, and a pillar to those you love.” He picked up another dagger of similar appearance from the ground and sliced it across his hand, motioning for her to do the same. 

She hesitated for a moment. But then she slid her dagger from its sheath and did the same. He met her hand and shook it. 

“Partners,” he said.


The scene faded from Florica’s sight, and was replaced by the familiar blue walls of the Greys’ map room. It was decorated in a more utilitarian style than she remembered, and the model ships that had adorned the walls were missing. She saw the blond man again, his arm slung over Anne, who held a baby in her arms. Anne… Anne and Cato, Florica recalled the names. These must be Nero’s parents. And that must be Marcus. They were talking to two men she didn’t recognize, though one of them looked like he was related to Cato, while the other bore a striking resemblance to Count Audric.

“You have called, bannerlord, and the eagles have answered.” Cato’s smile fell away. “The absence of our serpentine counterparts is also noted. What exactly is going on, James?” he addressed the man Florica now knew was Audric’s father.

“Halland has killed Jennifer. As I feared, their old curse is back, and he is growing more powerful - and more unhinged - by the day. We must stop him, at all cost, or the tragedy at the Holt will be repeated on all of our houses, and then across Mir.” 

Florica frowned, searching her memory for the names. Halland and Jennifer? She couldn't recall ever having heard them mentioned.

“You can’t be serious,” the man who looked like Cato said sharply to the Count. “I saw Hall last week. He was fine. They both were.” 

James slapped something metallic onto the table. He slid it over to rest between them all. It was a shining ring of gold, topped with a gleaming crimson stone and surrounded by the inlaid form of a great serpent. Irregular spatters of crimson dotted its surface. “It’s hers,” he whispered. “I made this for them myself. I pulled this from what was left of her.” 

Cato moved forward, picking up the ring, an indecipherable storm of emotions crossing his face as he examined it. The iron stench of blood still surrounded it. He placed it back down almost reverentially and looked around at them all. 

“This would be murder.” His voice was low, and tinged with steel. “A murder on his part. A murder on ours. There has to be a way to save him. Gaia’s sake, James.” He leaned forward, resting his face in his palms. “Our Pact is to protect each other, to fight for our common interest. We cannot simply kill one of our own, especially when… he’s not himself. It’s that damn curse.” 

“I agree with my brother,” the other man murmured. 

Antonius, Florica thought. Nero’s uncle. The one who died.

“Who’s to say that we won’t end up triggering a blood feud between us and the Grimmholts?” Antonius continued. “Alexander’s not likely to look kindly on us killing one of his precious sons. Especially after Arthur.” 

“Even so,” James broke in. “If we do not act to stop him now, he will only grow more powerful. The curse will drive him to consume. To build his power. And eventually, to destroy us all.” 

“Can we not gain the sanction of the Grimmholts to do this? Surely they would recognize the danger.” Anne’s voice was low, just barely enough to be heard across the table. “It could be a disaster for them. And it would reflect badly on our families as well - perhaps enough to inspire our liegelords to take direct action.” 

“This is their greatest shame. Alexander’s blinded by his loss. He’s not going to believe it until it’s too late, and if Halland takes his power, we’ll all be dead before the next dawn.” James took the ring back from the center of the table, watching as the bloodstone occasionally crackled with a faint crimson glow. 

“I won’t be a party to this,” Antonius said, pushing his chair back and rising. “Please, don’t do this. Let me try to stop him. We’re friends, I can talk him out of it. Please, Cato, James. We can’t just kill him in cold blood.” 

“No.” Cato’s voice was sharp. “Antony, we do what we have to do. For the pride and prosperity of the House of Caesar. For all our Houses. We cannot allow Halland to destroy what we have built, nor can we allow him to die a monster. We move to take him down now. If you don’t have the strength to do what must be done, then stay the hell out of our way.” 

“You’ll stay here.” the Count agreed. “Along with Anne and Marcus. Someone has to protect the next generation. If we fail, they must carry on the work we left undone.” 

Anne snorted. “If you think for one moment I’m letting you take my husband to his death, you’ve got another think coming.” She glared at James and Cato. “Win or lose. I’m there.” Her amber eyes turned to Antonius, laying a hand on her sleeping baby's curly head. “Take care of Marcus. We’ll be back for him.” 

The scene faded from the Banjari’s sight, and was replaced with fire.

Edited by Song Sprite

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Cato and Anne were flying. Florica stared out the glass windows of the airship with astonishment, watching the land scroll away far beneath them. It was a dizzying sight, but Nero's parents seemed relaxed and confident, Anne manning the wheel that controlled the flying ship while Cato studied some papers - until from somewhere in the bowels of the ship there came a rumbling explosion, and the ship lurched sickeningly in midair. Anne gritted her teeth as she struggled to control the bucking and swaying ship.

A moment later, another woman joined them in the cabin, dragging a teenage Marcus behind her. She joined Anne at the controls at once, her fingers flying across the boards, flicking switches and turning dials with a mad sort of grace. 

Cato whirled around to confront his eldest son. “What in Gaia’s bloody name did you do?” He grabbed the boy's shirt, lifting him clear of the ground and smashing him back into the bulkhead in an instant. “Damn you, boy! You don’t know what you’ve done! You’ve killed us! And for what!?”

Wordlessly, his pale face set in a grim scowl, Marcus lashed out with the pommel of his sword, and it connected heavily with Cato's side as the ship lurched again.

A shard of ice pierced the wall beside them. 

“That’s enough!” Anne shouted. 

Marcus found himself sliding down the wall as his father released him. They all looked at him with different shades of disgust as he kept going, letting his head fall back against the bulkhead. “They threatened all of us. Nero and the others. Uncle’s child too. It was the only way. The only way to keep them alive.” 

The ship pitched forwards sharply, throwing him forwards across the floor. His sword clattered alongside him as he rolled into the far end and crashed into a console with a bone-jarring crunch. 

“Cato!” Anne called urgently, but Florica found her attention fixed on Marcus. The boy had rolled onto his back and was watching the clouds hurtle by above them through the glass ceiling. And he had the same look on his face as he'd had the day she met him in the Chibas' courtyard - like he knew he was going to die, and had no desire to fight it.

He seemed on the verge of losing consciousness, but as the ship leveled out for a moment, Cato strode over and hauled him to his feet again. His son slumped to one side, barely conscious.

"It’s the only way. One of us has to make sure we get it back to him. Otherwise she’ll have won," the woman helping Anne at the wheel said.

"We’d have to hide it pretty damn well. Are you sure, Elise? It’s a gamble we won’t live to see the end of," Cato responded.

Elise, Florica thought, her eyes drawn to the tall, proud-looking woman. Audric's mother.

"He had a chance to kill me in cold blood," Elise responded firmly. "He didn’t. No, she’s got him wrapped around her finger bad. And Antonius as well. What of your brother having a child? Do you think they know it’s a de Sande?”

"Probably not," Anne responded. Her face was pale but determined. "But he was willing to kill to protect her and the others. This is a one way trip. Are you sure the wards are strong enough to protect him?"

"They’ll hold," Elise confirmed. "I’ve adjusted the loading to slow him down in… gentler bursts. He’s a good boy, Cato. Just… caught up in our mistakes."

"I know. I know. I thought we’d have more time. Hoped to hold my first grandchild. Old codger things like that. I just hope we give him enough of a chance to to avenge us and break the pact for good," Cato replied. He held Marcus with one hand, discarding his black cloak with the other. Smoke began to slip into the cabin from the stairwell. Leaning in, he wrapped the cloak around his son, and whispered in his ear, "I need you to make it right."

Marcus' eyes finally snapped open, meeting his father's steel gaze for a moment before the smoke filling the cabin made him squint and cough raggedly.

“Make. It. Right. Marcus.” His father’s voice was delivered through clenched teeth. “Anne, now!”

Anne raised Frost, her expression filled with emotion as she leveled it at her son. “Shatter!”  The shard flew past him and crashed into the wide pane of glass behind him. It exploded outwards, and then a hurricane-like gale ripped him backwards, sending him screaming into the sky, the world spinning into a hundred directions, a sound like thunder deafening him as the ground came rushing up to meet him. 

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