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The Ruins of Marlboro Keep

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Tink. Tink-tink-tink. Tink-tink. 

The rain pattered against the Outsider's warplate, chiming musically as it rang off the dark and polished metal. Kneeling beside a skeleton, or at least the scattered remains of one, he called back to the dry alcove he left his companion under. "It's fairly recent." He said, casting a quick glance in her direction before looking back at the bones. The rain was beating on him, a torrential downpour that buffeted in from above through the broken panes of the domed glass ceiling. Combing hair back, he studied the bones for several long, quiet minutes before he stood to his full stature in a rhythmic purr of well-maintained servos and fiber bundles. He had taken to his armour again, the dreadful fiend, and seemed less and less inclined to remove it as the weeks turned to months. An avatar of war he seemed, walking back to his companion's side beneath the archway with a horrid piece of evidence in hand. Lifting it up in a gauntlet for her scrutiny, the Outsider revealed a yellowed cracked skull, stringy with decomposed flesh and cartilage. Its mandible long since gone, he turned it over in his hands to indicate where he assumed the deathblow had been. "Look." He said, indicating indentations along the sides of the skull, where the thickest of the bone had ruptured. He fingered the edges, the metal of his gauntlet scraping. "Teeth marks. They're definitely here." They. Them. They had talked about them on the journey here from Biazo Island, after finding nothing but ghosts and hearsay in those desolate wastes. She had told him of her dreams beneath the duress of his torments, and with her dreams also the knowledge of the one who sent them. His curiosity piqued, he had done his own research and had come to an ambitious conclusion. They had departed Biazo and laid course for Terran mainland, or more specifically, the Ruins of Marlboro Keep. And he told her his plans, and what they would require. 

Known officially as Grotesqueries in the annals of Terran history, there existed a species or aberration of monster that haunted the lands this side of the Day River. Wretched things of undeath, they roamed the land in chittering packs to descend upon the unwary and foolish, and with most of their gruesome kills, added more bodies to their unseemly ranks. They were emotionless monsters, devoid of sense or reason, and they were to be destroyed on sight and their remains put to the flame. And they were the Outsider's own unwitting creation. Ten years ago, before the advent of wisdom and a broader control of the sorceries he employed, Roen had conjured the first of these abominations in far away Patia, and through his negligence, allowed them to flee into the wilds beyond his domain. He had never confessed this to anyone before, but made Irene Gabriela Du'Grace privy to that secret. Exhaling through his nose a superfluous sigh of satisfaction tinged with regret, the Outsider cast the skull in his hand aside where it struck the floor with a dull thud and rolled beneath a cracked and overturned table. Negligence, yes, it and inactivity marked the greater part of Roen's tenure on Valucre, and it showed more clearly here than anywhere on this world. Marlboro Keep, once a proud outpost of his fledgling empire, had been abandoned in his pursuit of other, baser desires. The knights stationed here, brave men and women all, had either deserted or been killed by the Terran empire, who he wasn't sure if he was even at war with anymore. Though truth be told, he suspected they had been attacked and overrun by Grotesqueries.

Though it was too dark for Gabriela to see, human as she was, he had spotted the remains of armour in distant rooms, where doors had been smashed and torn asunder. Pitted, cracked plates of gear he recognized. There were streaks of blood in the halls, signs of pitched fighting and withdrawals. It was all too easy to piece it together. He had abandoned this place, and it had died without his guiding hand. It had died because of him in more ways than could ever be reconciled for. The thought of it made him turn his head away from Gabriela, his stern face going taut in a rictus of brief anger and grief and not a little self-loathing. Though he was a hard man and greater monster, he valued the lives of those he groomed and selected to stand by his side, and while he might not have ever expressed it, he lamented their fates and tormented himself for the part he played. But before he would let his melancholy drag him back to those depths of inactivity, he set that grief aside and steeled himself, whispering a cautionary reminder under his breath that he had come here with purpose. Extending a hand and flexing his will, the Outsider summoned Hræðilegr into his waiting fist. Immediately, the wicked blade lit up with lambent psyk-light, the runes along its flats coming to life with burning light that soon grew incandescent, then dimmed. Humming, the blade snag quietly as it cut the air, its length vibrating with an almost musical peal. He looked at Gabriela, his generous mouth pulled into a frown. "Stay close." He said. "And keep your eyes open. They'll be coming for us 'ere long." 

And they would be, yes. The ruins of the keep, quiet save for the echo of thunder the came from above, seemed to stir at the immediate onset of the Outsider's blade summoning. In truth, he was provoking the current occupants of the once proud citadel. With a flex of his will, he had all but announced the presence of life to them, and soon those monstrosities, whatever their number, would snuff and chase the light of his mind. No matter that he was their creator, no matter it was by his magic they had found life: they saw and knew him only as prey, and within the bowels and ruins of this castle, things of infinite predation and unreasonable hunger began to rouse from their fitful slumbers, tasting life in the air. That he should have left Gabriela behind on the Everlinde as it patrolled the sky above was a truth he was not blind to, but he had brought her here tonight to witness this turgid start, this dreadful endeavor. She was beloved and his companion besides, and he felt she must be inured to these horrors and violent delights. She was in peril, of course - there were few places more terrifying and dangerous than the haunt of Grotesqueries - but so long as she stood beside him, so long as he kept her shackled to him, she would ever be imperiled. Either here or aboard the Everlinde, Gabriela was unsafe, and so he felt it best to keep her with him at all times, where he could protect her best. 

She needed no weapon and possessed no armour. He was her shield in the dark and the sword at her side. A dark knight indeed, he drew her deeper into the ruined keep, where fractured moonlight and lightning lit their path, and waited for horror to find them both. 

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“Look,” he said but she did not. The gold of her eyes turned elsewhere, down to the dirt and blood stained floor, to examine what little detail she could make out of the tile design. But she knew better than to deny him, and after a moment or two -- long enough to strengthen her resolve -- she did look. Her horror was visible in the way her eyebrows pinched and the press of her plump lips into a hard and unhappy line. “Teeth marks,” he went on to say after she had examined the skull he had presented to her, “...They’re definitely here.”


They. Them.


She shared his sentiments and turned her gaze upon the ruins and the artful arrangement of bones left out, near the center of the one-grand gallery room. It was dark and therefore difficult to make out the more subtle details of the horror found here within. She wasn’t necessarily grateful given how freely her imagination could run. 


“But…” her frown grew deeper, her unhappiness all the more apparent as she walked beyond the armored fiend and stepped into the rain. She walked back to where the devil had taken a knee just moments before, and with her small hands buried deep in the warm pockets of her coat, she extended a booted foot to toe at the rounded end of a femur. “...I thought they were supposed to change if they were killed by one of them?”


Behind her, she heard Roen throw the skull to the side and shuddered at the hollow sound it made when it hit the ground, rolled, and settled somewhere in the darkness. She loathed him for it -- for his disregard and cruelty. 


That was someone’s child, she wanted to say.


That was someone’s little baby…


She hated him for feeling nothing but could not have imagined the agony that he truly felt. Nor would she have believed it if he had confessed it -- or even seeing it, plainly written, upon his face. Such was the devil’s power after all, to fit so flawlessly into those familiar and worthwhile emotions that might have endeared him to her. No, Gabriela in her cruelty could not fathom that the devil knew anything of remorse, of regret, or of guilt. 


And while the careless toss of one of his own follower’s broken skull had not given her cause enough to turn and regard him again, the sound of his voice chanting incantations and the sudden brush of magic that made the hairs along the back of her neck stand-on-end, was all that was necessary for her to glance over her shoulder. He had called upon his blade, and vaguely she wondered when he had taken the jewel-studded ribbon back from her. That damned thing had become the very physical representation of the strings that bound their souls together -- of the tether that kept her bound to him. 


“Stay close,” he warned, “...And keep your eyes open. They’ll be coming for us ‘ere long.”


As a vampyre, when she was fully capable of surviving such a harrowing adventure, he had never extended the invitation. He had in fact gone through every possible means to keep her from participating in ordeals he considered too dangerous -- ordeals she had every right to risk her life in. Even the very human bandit, Rou, had been granted more honor and trust in that respect, going so far as to be given the opportunity to fight and bleed for Orisia, while she was bound in magic chains and forced into a small closet, closed off with magic charms, in an abandoned wing of the DuGrace Castle. For days he had kept her there, unwilling or unable, to allow her the dignity to fight for her own country. And upon his victorious return against the undead monstrosities that had fled into the Ellwood Forest, he returned only to claim his prize and spirit her away. 


That had been the beginning of the end. 


Her reputation had never really recovered after that. 


She winced at the memory and forcibly pushed it out of the way. The only important question now was why he had brought her along. She was human now and susceptible to so many more forms of death. It seemed counter intuitive. And without the simplest means of defense. It didn’t make sense.


Water dripped from the hem of her hood, framing her in droplets of darkened crystals that caught and reflected only the vast blackness of their surroundings. And through this curtain of gathering rain, she watched as Roen called to her to stay close, and like a compliant child that he wanted to make out of her, she returned to his side, under the archway. He walked and she followed, pulling the heavy coat that lay around her shoulders closer around her midsection. 


It was cold, and her fingers were already starting to hurt. 


“Shouldn’t we at least have...someone with us? You’re the one who told me -- royalty never walks alone. I can’t see an instance when that statement should be more true. We shouldn’t be here alone.”

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“...I thought they were supposed to change if they were killed by one of them?”

“Most do.” Roen said, after a time. They were walking down a long, wide passage. Marlboro Keep, once a fortification for the Terran military before it fell to the Outsider’s ruinous touch, was a spacious affair of wide avenues and opulent courtyards, courtesy of the Gaianists that patrolled its halls. They were movers of earth, and they had shaped this place to match their grand, lofty view of the world. Tonight, only ghosts and monsters called these pathways home. Lightning flashed and the wind blew  through a shattered window beside them, spattering Roen in rain and harmless splinters of broken glass, striking his armour like so many tiny hailstones. He didn’t seem moved. “Some do not.” 

Glancing over the rim of his shoulderguard, the Outsider leveled the weight of his scrutiny on Irene. After a moment’s consideration, he decided not to insult her intelligence and explain the phenomenon as he understood it. Looking away, he faced down their path and spoke to her as he might a peer or contemporary, or someone he respected enough to treat with candor. “They will not convert a host body if it is genetically predisposed towards sickness. Cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders..,” he trailed off. Slowing to a halt, he reached out an arm to stay Gabriela’s advance. The corridor was dark, as black as velvet and just as suffocating, but his sight pierced the night with preternatural acuity, and what he saw gave him pause. 

It was just a shadow against the pitch, but it was unmistakable: a grotesquerie, bounding from one end of a junctionway to another. He frowned, turning and looking at Gabriela and beyond her, down the path they had taken. There were two more scuttling down the corridor towards them, the sound of the rain, thunder and the grinding purrs of his armour all but masking the steady thunk-thunk-thuds of their hands and feet slapping against rotted carpet and greasy stone. He did not let his face betray the sudden flush of adrenaline that coursed through his veins on tides boiling blood. The abominations were laying a trap for them. Wrapping his hand tighter around the lathed hilt of World Splitter, Roen led Gabriela back from whence they came. 

“Shouldn’t we at least have...someone with us? You’re the one who told me -- royalty never walks alone. I can’t see an instance when that statement should be more true. We shouldn’t be here alone.”

“You are the only royal here, Irene Gabriela.” Roen replied, his words somber in spite of his rising temper. He stoked it as one might would a fire, breathing new life into his dormant aggression. Vengeance. Victory, no matter the cost. Hatred. Vindicta. There were many words for the sentiment, but none encapsulated it quite so much as the spirit of vindicta. He had found it somewhere, sometime between the death of his son and the reunion with the child’s mother. Rage like that left a taste in the back of his throat not so different from fear. Guiding beloved along, the Outsider found a door along the wide corridor and took it, putting them into a narrower hall that led deeper into the keep proper. 

Darkness enfolded them like the blanket of death, until the Outsider flexed his will and spoke a word of power. With a sputter and a brush of warm wind against their faces, a pair of Will O’Wisps flickered into being above their heads. Incongruous of the perilous situation they were summoned into, the pair laughed quietly together in little peals of tinkling mirth as they bathed the corridor in their guiding light, circling above Roen and Gabriela. Incapable of speech and possessed of only the vaguest intelligence, they obeyed the will of their master insomuch as they could, and illuminated their immediate surroundings. “But we aren’t not alone.” He told her, though whether he was commenting on her earlier statement or something altogether more sinister remained in doubt, until he glanced at her. 

Just a brief look, one of concern and dare say even love, before he put himself between her and the doorway they came through. Calm, so perilously, dangerously calm, he spoke to Gabriela through the horror of the night. “We have eachother.” He said, his boots scraping along the ground as he took a position in guard: right foot leading, left foot back. He took World Splitter in two hands now. The blade shivered. With a hoot and a chitter, the first of the abominations burst through the door so hard it broke from its hinges. The heavy wooden door hadn’t finished clattering across the floor before the monstrosity, some God-awful amalgamation of a man and woman conjoined at the hip, pounded across it in ghastly pursuit of Roen and Gabriela. 

He didn’t need to tell Gabriela to stay behind him. Holding his ground, holding Hræðilegr steady, the Outsider met the charge with an upraised blade and caught several blades of descending bone on the flat of the weapon. The whole of him, from root to hand, seemed implacable and unmoving; his arms didn’t bow, his torso didn’t shift, his feet did not slide. He halted the monster as redoubtable as a stonewall, and then he pushed the beast back. The monstrosity stumbled one step, then another, and Roen followed it with a pivot of hands and wrists that cut the Grotesquerie from shoulder to hip with a clean stroke of smokey-gray steel. Blood spurted against the wall while the thing shrieked, three more coming through the broken doorway after their murderous kin. 

There was no display of blinding alacrity, no gesture so swift nor footwork so fast it could not be countenanced or espied. Hræðilegr moved deftly in the well-practiced hands of a warlord, flicking in tight fields of severing that came his considerate, measured stride. The first Grotesqueire, no more than a steaming pile of meat hacked to bloody pieces at the Outsider’s armoured boots, was dead when Roen stepped over it. The second and third followed suite, bisected and truncated respectively, while the last broke and fled from the hall with slapping limbs and long, whinnying hoots that echoed into the corridor and keep beyond. Roen caught it with a telekine grip, and keeping himself juxtaposed between its writhing mass and the Gabriela’s sight, squeezed it with an outstretched hand. 

It compressed so sharply and so completely the wretched thing burst, coming apart at the seams to spill offal and messy detritus across the floor. Not a splatter of blood touched the Outsider, though. Not a speck marred his armour or the queen behind him, so neat was his bladework. Hræðilegr was drenched, however. Exhaling a slow, easing breath and turning, Roen rolled his wrist and flourished the blade sharply, spattering the corridor wall beside them with a flick of dark coagulated blood, then wiped the rest of the blade down on the sodden cloth of his heavy cape. The Will O’Wisps circled above them still, seemingly delighted by the bloodshed if not the consummate skill of a martial fiend. “We are all that need to be here.” He said to Gabrila, nonplussed by the steaming piles of meat laid before and behind them. He turned to her, imperiously lit by the warm glow of the Wisps above them. 

The fiend looked almost hawkish, with his hair pulled back and plastered to his scalp. Hawkish, brutish, even almost feral with the slow, steady throb of light behind his eyes. It was there, that preternatural glow, like embers lit in his skull behind his dark gaze. They burned with a slow, noxious pulse, like fires being blown on every so often, flaring with his moods and tempers. His blood was up, his ire a drum in his chest, being pounded again and again. He wanted more. He needed more. But the battle lust did not master him, and it showed in his baring. He was Lord here, in spite of all. “We will burn this ruin out of infestation,” he told her, passion giving color to his words. He let his cape fall and the tip of his sword drop, reaching out for Gabriela’s wet cheek. He brushed her smooth, supple skin on the cold surface of one metal-wrapped digit. 

“Don’t be afraid.” He said. 

The Ruins of Marlboro Keep echoed with the howls of monsters. 

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