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Posts posted by Kyo

  1. [Naruto's Daily Life] 

    "Phew...Yuri's gonna be so surprised." Jin said quietly to himself. He was crouched on top of a tiled roof, with a neatly packed carrier at his side. "I got up before dawn to make these bentos." He said gleefully. He took a length of rope and tied it around the handle of the box, pulling on it to make sure it was fastened tightly. He took out a piece of card he had scribbled a smiley face on along with the word 'surprise' and he placed it on top of the carrier. Then he slowly began to lower the carrier off the side of the roof by the rope, allowing it to descend down to a window. It was Yuri's bedroom window. He grinned in anticipation, and tossed a small pebble so that it fell down the side of the house, hit the top of the carrier and bounced, tapping against Yuri's window. Now all he had to do was wait. 

    "Oi! What are you doing there!?" A voice cried. "This is private property of the Satomi clan! Get down at once!"
    "Uwah!?" Jin gasped as one of the ninja guards of the estate came sprinting across the roof toward him. Then he felt like he was forgetting something. "Eh...ora?" He glanced down at his hands, and saw that the rope he had been clutching was gone. Then he heard an almighty crash, and scuttled towards the edge of the roof and looked down, only to see a shattered carrier, with the bento boxes lying in shreds across the ground. "AAAAGGGH!" He yelled, leaping to his feet. "My bentos!"
    "Come 'ere, you!" The ninja snarled as he leapt towards him. 
    "Ah!" Jin yelped as he leapt out of the way and ran across the roof in a panic, causing tiles to dislodge and come sliding off the roof and shattering on the ground below. "Hey leave me alone! I just wanted to have lunch!" He cried back at the ninja, 
    "I'll give you lunch!" The Ninja roared back as he sprinted after Jin, who leapt from the roof, descending to the ground. 
    "That doesn't make seeeeeense!" He called back as he fell to the ground and landed with a soft tap.

    Yawning, Yuri opened her bedroom window, scratching her head as she looked outside. She watched Jin running from one of the estate guards and smirked, disappearing back inside her bedroom for a moment to change out of her pyjamas. A minute later she emerged in a plain black t-shirt and jean-shorts and climbed out her bedroom window and leapt down onto the adjoining wall of their estate. She grinned at Jin running from the guard, then looked down at the broken tiles scattered across their garden, and the small pile of food scattered about. Amusement turned into a quiet rage as Jin came running back in her direction, quickly followed by the guard. As he tried to zip past her, she reached out and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck then thumped him on the head.
    "That's how you get ants, Jin!" She snarled, pointing at the food, "And I should know!!" The guard caught up to them and started apologising profusely for disturbing her sleep, not catching the intruder, and so on. "So, it's your fault, then?" 
    "Uh..." The ninja guard looked to Jin and then at the food on the floor. 
    "You disturbed my friend, chased him, which made him drop our lunch and break our tiles and mess up our garden." 
    "Uh, well... now..." The guard considered his response carefully, weighing up all the things he could say. Then he promptly dropped that plan, as it was foolish, and did an immediate 180 degree turn and sprinted away in fear, as Yuri chased after him at a sprint. She was on him in seconds and kicked him in the backside so hard that he flew up into the sky, becoming a distant figure until he disappeared from sight entirely, a glint on the horizon.
    "What a mess..." She muttered, cracking her knuckles as she sauntered back.

    "Er...sorry." Jin said, scratching the back of his head. "I made bentos for a picnic but that guy spooked me." He added, letting out a sigh. "I guess that was all for nothing...."
    "It's alright. I'm not exactly sure what goes where, but..." Yuri held up her bare arms and they turned black, the swarm of insects expanded further and further until it looked as though she had two beach ball-sized groups and then they scattered. A number of them descended on their lunch, while the other swarm flew to the broken tiles. The tile swarm lifted the tiles up and carried them back onto the roof and fitted them in, one after another, while Yuri directed them. Meanwhile, the other swarm lay thick over the bento, obscuring it entirely. When the tiles were finished, Yuri sighed and held out her arm for the bugs to return. They swept down from the roof and returned to her arm where they disappeared and then she leant over and put her hand into the swarming cloud of insects on the ground and pulled out two seemingly untouched bento picnic lunches. The second swarm whirled around her arm and disappeared inside as she held up the lunches to Jin. "There you go." She said at last, "All fixed!"
    "Hmm...guess I should have known you'd clean up my mess." Jin said with a smirk. "So...I was thinking we could go sit up on top of the monument." Jin said, pointing off in the distance towards the large mountainous rocks with faces carved along it. "You get a nice view of Konoha from there, and we'll get some peace and quiet."

    "Sure." She nodded with a smile, then as they started walking she quickly excused herself for a moment, and walked over to where she'd kicked the guard up into the sky. A distant screaming came hurtling ever louder towards them and then Yuri reached out and grabbed the man a second before he hit dirt. She put his feet firmly on the ground and patted him down, apologised for going overboard and walked off, "Okay, let's go!" She smiled to Jin, and they walked off. The guard stood there in silence for a few seconds longer, holding his backside. Slowly, he fell onto his side, still frozen in the stance he'd been placed, a scrunched up stunned look of pain and fear etched on his face.

    [Little Song]

    "Ah!" Jin sighed as he dropped on to his backside and fell backwards so that he was lying down, staring up at the sky. "I missed this sky." He said with a smile. "I looks the same as the rest of the sky's hard to explain, I guess." They were now on top of the Hokage Monument, facing out on to the large valley Konoha was built in. 
    "Mm..." Yuri sat down beside Jin and looked up at the clouds.
    "So..." Jin said. "You must have seen and done a lot this past year. Anything you can tell me about?"
    "Well, i'm not an ANBU, we took a couple of high-rank missions in the last few months but nothing I can't talk about." Yuri thought for a moment, "Oh!" She fell onto her back and stared up at the sky, "This is my favourite," She grinned, "Once, we captured a rogue ninja, which wasn't too hard I guess, with my sister there, but here's the good part," She leant onto her side and supported her head with her arm so she could look at Jin, "We were on our way back with him when his brother attacked us! We had no idea he had a brother who was also a ninja, turned out he was from a smaller village who had learnt of his brother's capture and came to stop us, but get this--" She paused for dramatic effect, "They managed to restrain my sister, and I fought both of them!"
    "Really?" Jin asked, turning his head to face Yuri. "Isn't your sister kind of a badass? How did you beat them?"

    At this, Yuri fell onto her back and twiddled her thumbs, "Well, I mean..." She shrugged, "... I didn't /beat/ them." She flashed Jin a sheepish grin, "But I managed to distract them long enough that my sister broke free and we took them down, so..." She licked her lips and nodded, "I mean, obviously, I never let Mira live that down." Yuri started laughing. Jin smiled and looked back up at the sky. 
    "Sounds exciting." He said. "My journey wasn't really like that, at all."
    "How do you mean?" Yuri asked, "I mean, for me, it wasn't all missions. I had to do a lot of training. I know she's your sensei and all, but Sorano didn't seem like I pictured her, not from how my mom talked about her."
    " arguments there." Jin said. "Granny Sorano puts on a grumpy act, but I think there's a lot more to her. She taught me a lot of things. Maybe she went about it a little unorthodox, sometimes I didn't even notice I was being trained. She used to make me carry all of the supplies in one big sack. She never carried a thing, it used to make me so mad. Walking for miles, day in, day out. When we stopped at a village she'd sleep at an inn, and make me sleep outside in a tent. She made me catch, prepare and cook all of our meals. I felt like a glorified slave, and never once did she lift a finger to help me." Jin thought about it and he couldn't stop the wide grin from spreading across his face. 

    "One day, after about 3 months, I had finally had enough, and I lost my temper." He said. "I yelled at her, and told her this wasn't what I signed up for. I told her I left Konoha to become stronger, and told her I wanted to go home. She seemed her usual self at first, told me to suck it up, scolded me for being weak and complacent. But that night she woke me up, and told me to spar with her. I...couldn't believe it. I hadn't sparred in months, but I was better than I had ever been. Stronger, faster, and tactics came to me much easier."
    "That's pretty cool." Yuri nodded, "I'm not sure i'd want to carry around a pack all day as part of my training, but I guess I had my own walls to climb."
    "It got better after that day." Jin replied. "I still had to do all of that stuff, just like before, but every day we'd spar. She started showing me how to control my chakra, and helped me harness the wind element. Oh, and this one time we met this huge toad." Jin held his arms out wide for emphasis. "He was bigger than a house. I've never seen anything like it before."

    "Wow..." Yuri tried picturing this enormous toad Jin mentioned but it was difficult to imagine a creature like that even existing. Though, she found herself being reminded of the snake that had attacked Konoha, and it gave her chills. Suddenly, a large toad wasn't so hard to picture. "I'd love to have seen some of the things you did..."
    "Well then I'll show you someday, when we travel together again." Jin said, smiling. Then his smile faded as he remembered the one thing he didn't want Yuri to ever see. Images of the terrifying mural he had seen at the hidden temple of Sorano's ancestors. The menacing stare of the nine tailed fox flashed in his mind and he visibly winced, and shifted uncomfortably. 
    "Hey you okay?" Yuri asked, frowning.
    "Hm?" Jin turned to look at Yuri, and forced a smile. "Oh, yeah...I'm fine. I was just thinking about this time where Sorano lost all our money gambling and we had to eat nothing but rice cakes for a week." He felt a tug of guilt immediately. He hated lying to Yuri. 
    "Oh, alright..." Yuri turned back and stared up at the clouds.

    "Hey..." Jin said, changing the subject. "...Do you think we'll be able to do this? The chuunin exam, I mean. Some kids die on these exams, you know?"
    She let out a long sigh, "I think we have a better chance than some, and maybe less than others. I'm not worried about dying..." Yuri caught her lower lip between her teeth and chewed absent-mindedly.
    "And...what about killing?" Jin asked. "How do you feel about that?"
    "That's what i'm worried about." She replied quietly.
    "Hmm..." Was all Jin could say as a reply. For a moment they sat in silence, a gentle breeze blowing over them as they stared up at the sky. Then, after a while, Jin suddenly leaned back on to his shoulders and vaulted up on to his feet. 

    [The Last]

    Jin folded his arms and looked out over the horizon of Konoha, taking in the entire village in all it's glory. The wind rushed through his hair and he felt a rush of excitement, and a confident grin spread over his face. "I guess it can't be helped..." He said with a short sigh. He turned on his heel to face Yuri, with his arms still folded. "Satomi Sayuri!" He said with an authoritative snap. "Looks like you're not as ready as I thought you were. I can't let you compete in the chuunin exams in your current state."
    "Let's not break this pleasant afternoon by you forcing me to beat you into the ground." Yuri sighed pleasantly, staring up at the sky. "I could stay here forever..."
    "Talk is cheap!" Jin said with a wide grin. "If you can't rely on yourself, then I'll have to show you that you can rely on me!" He raised his head up high. "Tonight, just after sundown, we settle this! I'll show you that if you're ever in danger of doing something you'll regret, I'll be there to smack you in the face. Yuri...your next me!"

    Yuri sat upright and looked Jin up and down, studying him to see if he was being serious, after a minute she stood up and walked over to a nearby boulder. "Alright, we'll spar." Then she turned, brought her arm back and struck the boulder with her bare fist, the enormous rock split from the centre, cracks striking out like lightning bolts. Then it collapsed into a dozen pieces, kicking up a small cloud of dust. She turned back to face Jin with a wide smile on her face, closed her eyes and gave Jin a double peace sign, "Can't wait!" She cheered, and sauntered off. As she walked off Jin stood strong, with a fixed smile on his face. 
    "...She scared me so much I can't move my face..." He said through clenched teeth. 

  2. The little I have experienced of online anime communities is that it's full of disgusting people. That maybe doesn't represent the community as a whole, but the online community is certainly rife with angry young men with a lot of opinions, have poor understanding of women. 

    I find it depressing so I just don't get involved in communities like that. Which is a shame because there's lots of very nice people but they are drowned out by the louder, more obnoxious minority. 

  3. The Old Major was the bar of choice for Darkpine's working class. Unlike the plethora of preppy student bars that had popped up as the local College's popularity grew, the Old Major had been around for 3 generations. It was small, and furnished with a warm timber finish, it's walls decorated with old photographs, neon beer logos, a stuffed stag's head and various other oddities. Three older men sat on stools at the bar, nursing their drinks and watching a football game on the small television behind the bar. A few groups were sat at the tables, and three men still dressed in their overalls were playing pool, talking quietly among themselves. When Shaun entered the bar he received little more than a few cursory glances before people went back to their business, entirely disinterested in him. When Rose entered behind him, a few of the male patrons started paying closer attention, but once again went back to their drinks, but continued glancing over at her when they thought she wasn't looking. 

    "Nice little dive bar you picked..." Shaun muttered under his breath to Rose. 
    "Where did you picture us going when I said we were going to a bar?" Rose smirked, "Why don't you get a feel for the room, and pick someone out, while I order a drink." Then Rose left and walked up to the bar counter. "Hi, can I get a sweet sherry, please."
    The barman looked her over and held his hand out, "I.D. Miss?" 
    "Oh, right." Rose shook her head, getting a little embarrassed. She started to take out her wallet when the man next to her cleared his throat. He had a large beer belly, was in his fifties and had a beard that had seen better days. 
    "What you need that'fer, when you're so sweet already." He grinned at Rose, showcasing a missing front tooth.
    "Well you have to admire moxie - and one for him." She put the money on the counter and watched Shaun in silence, thanking the barman for the small glass of sherry, she discreetly pierced her thumb and let a few drops of blood into her glass, giving the drink a pink hue. Then licked her thumb to heal it and took a sip, waiting for Shaun to return to her.

    After a brief survey of the bar Shaun went over to Rose and sat on a stool by the bar. "So." He said quietly. "The guys over at the pool table. Their eyes are glazed, and they aren't sweating very much. That's uh...dehydration, right? I remember learning that in school. So I'm guessing they're pretty far gone. Easy pickings, probably, but safe? I guess not." He turned his gaze to a couple who looked to be in their 30's who were sitting at a table chatting with each other over drinks and a bowl of fries. 
    "They're basically sober." He said. "The guy smells...sick. I can't quite explain that."

    "If they're dehydrated, it's probably because of alcohol. Better to leave them be. And yes, he's sick. A lot of human disease won't transfer, but if he's compromised it would be better to leave him be." Rose opened her mouth to say something further but was forced to stop when a man walked up to the bar right next to her and ordered a pint. He took one look at Rose, then glanced at Shaun, and his eyes lingered. He was tall and slim, with short dark-brown hair, wire-frame glasses and a scar that ran vertically through his lips, though he was otherwise a handsome man in his early thirties.
    "Are you old enough to drink?" He had a deep voice, but his tone was more curious than accusatory.
    "Do you see a drink in my hand?" Shaun replied sarcastically, holding his empty hands up and wiggling his fingers.

    "You should respect your elders." The man replied with a smirk.
    "You should respect anyone, provided they earn it." Shaun replied, rolling his eyes. 
    "I like this one." The man replied, nodding and pointing at Rose.
    "Do you want him?" Rose grinned and then they both erupted into laughter and hugged one another.
    "Think I might have missed something here..." Shaun said, folding his arms. "But hey, I'm just property, apparently, so what do I know." He frowned at Rose. 

    "Oh cheer up, would you." Rose muttered. 
    "Give the kid a break." He patted Rose on the shoulder and extended his hand, "My name's Jacob, by the way. As you can probably tell, Rose is an old friend." Shaun took his hand, and frowned slightly as he felt a small glass vial in the space between their hands. When Jacob removed his hand he left the vial in Shaun's, who quickly pocketed it. 
    "Sure, nice to meet you." Shaun said. "I'm...I'm Shaun. When you say old friend...just how old would that be?"
    "Uh, well, i'm thirty-four, as you ask." Jacob raised an eyebrow with an amused grin.
    "Not exactly what I meant." Shaun said. "So...I take it you didn't just happen to be in the neighborhood, then."

    "He's thirty-four." Rose repeated, chuckling as she took a sip of sherry.
    "I'm not..." Jacob frowned with a smile as he searched for a discreet word, "I'm not like you guys. This face," He indicated it, "Ain't gonna be pretty forever." 
    "I've known Jacob since he was a baby." Rose explained, "I've known a great many of his family over the years, actually. No, it wasn't a chance encounter, I wanted you to meet him, because he's the President of Darkpine Valley college, and I wanted to get you enrolled." 
    "It's a tough job." Jacob mused.
    "No, it's not." Rose laughed.
    "No, not so much, no." Jacob admitted, joining her. "You should drink that, by the way, you're looking a little peaky." Jacob nodded at Shaun's pocket.

    "Uh, right." Shaun said with a nod. He leaned on the counter and tried his best to casually down the contents of the vial without anyone noticing. When he was finished no one seemed to be staring at him in horror, so he assumed he must have succeeded in being discrete. Even the small dose had him feeling instantly better. He sighed a breath of relief and sat up straight again. "Wait..." He frowned. "Did you say enrol? Me!?"
    "You." Rose nodded, her grin spreading from ear-to-ear. 
    "Would you rather work?" Jacob looked to Rose, "Did you ask him what he wanted to do?" 
    "I figured he could get a better education, while I put him through his paces. Seemed like a good idea at the time, and as we're here and you kind of owe me a dozen times over..." 
    "Right..." Jacob nodded, "Well, Shaun?"

    "I...are you kidding?" Shaun said, frowning. "I mean, I appreciate the offer but..." He turned to Rose. "I haven't even graduated High School. And you know how bad my grades were. How do you think I'm going to handle College?"
    "Because you're not human." Rose put her drink to one side, "Because you've got a lot more free time on your hands. Because you have my support, and Jacob's, and because you no longer suffer from ADD." Rose picked her drink up, took a sip as though it were a little victory and then replaced it on the bar counter. "Good enough?"
    "Look I might have a bit more focus but that doesn't mean I've turned in to a genius overnight." Shaun said, slumping over the bar. "I don't even know what I'd do. I wasn't any good at anything. Nothing interested me."
    "Exactly. Past-tense." Rose downed the last of her sherry and focused on Shaun. "Nothing interested you, but you finished Animal Farm in hours. When I came home, you were already pouring over books. Did you ever do that before? Did you ever retain that knowledge?"
    "You might find an interest in literature then?" Jacob nodded in agreement.

    Shaun knew they were making good points, but he still didn't feel confident. "Neither of you get it, you're both old. You have no idea what it's like these days. Academics aside, do you know how hard it is to fit in? Even worse if you're a new kid. Plus school semesters started weeks ago. I'd already be behind on my work." Shaun stood up from his bar stool. "You know...I get you probably think this was a nice surprise, and I get it's a big gesture, really, I do. But you need to stop springing stuff on me in the moment! This isn't a fucking pop quiz, it's my life." He stormed out of the bar before Rose could say anything. When he got outside he didn't get very far before he stopped, and just sat down on the kerb of the street. He held his head in his hands, just trying to process everything. He felt like he hadn't slept in days, and really he hadn't all that much. Physically, he didn't need it, but mentally? He just wanted to curl up under a thick duvet and hide away for a few weeks. 

    "Well..." Rose sighed.
    "Come on, give him some time." Jacob smiled at her. "Don't you remember being like that?" 
    "I don't remember..." Rose muttered.
    "You can be a terrible liar sometimes." Jacob laughed and took a sip of his pint. "He's trying to understand a hundred things at once, and you're not making it easy on him."
    "That's the life, Jacob. You know that." Rose growled at him.
    "He's not there yet." Jacob patted her on the shoulder, "Look, i'm gonna stay for another, if he changes his mind, you can give me a call. You should go talk to him."
    "Yeah I know, i'm just giving him a moment." Rose let out a long sigh, "How is everyone?" She turned to Jacob.
    "They're fine, I imagine. It's not like i'm keeping track of everybody." 
    "Now who's a bad liar?" Rose nodded to him, hugged him goodbye and stepped outside.

    Shaun turned to look at Rose as she came out, but only shook his head and turned it away again, sitting in silence. 
    "Hey," Rose said simply, and sat down beside him.
    "...Hey." Shaun replied eventually. 
    "Want to talk?" Rose asked, staring off into space.
    "No." Shaun said. "I want to listen. We've been on the move since you dug me up but, well, we're here now. You keep telling me this is a hard life, so tell me about it. College, well, I'm sure I'll probably want to do that, at some point. Maybe even soon. But right now I want you to tell me everything I need to know. If...if those assholes come looking for us again, then I want to know how to deal with them. I don't want to be some scared kid you need to hide in the bathroom every time trouble comes our way."
    Rose drew her legs up to her body and hugged them, "I'm sorry." She said sullenly, "Your inability to help is my fault, I wanted to protect you because you're so young, and I didn't know the extent of the abilities of our enemy. If you want to know everything you need to know, then let's find somewhere nicer to talk about it than on the curb. Because my backside is getting cold."

    "Home, then." Shaun said, and he stood up. "Nobody will bother us there."
    "That's a pleasant fiction." Rose replied, laughing. Then stood up and dusted herself off. "Y'know, there's one good thing that came from today..."
    "And that is?" Shaun asked. 
    "You called it 'home'." She smiled at Shaun and then pulled her car keys out and walked back to the car with a little skip in her step.

  4. I'm having to do a series of surveys to collect data for uni. First one is dead simple and requires input from creative writers!

    Fill it out please, if you've got some spare time. I won't actually give you anything, but I will appreciate it!

    I think a few of you have probably done this already, actually, in which case you're off the hook!

  5. I'm having to do a series of surveys to collect data for uni. First one is dead simple and requires input from creative writers!

    Fill it out please, if you've got some spare time. I won't actually give you anything, but I will appreciate it!

    I think a few of you have probably done this already, actually, in which case you're off the hook!

  6. Decided to go back and do my honours year at university. Also went back to my old retail job part time - but I'm a manager now so I guess that's cool. 

    Other than that it's just video games and writing. I'm also working on a prototype writing app thing for my degree. I need to do research surveys. Since people are flocking back here I might just strongarm you all in to filling them out =3.

    22 hours ago, Seanzilla said:

    Somehow I became a teacher. That's about it.

    Ey, Sanzi sensei! 

  7. Shaun had walked about a mile along a road through the forest, with barely a building in sight. He noted that not many cars were driving along the road, but he supposed that was just the kind of town Darkpine was. After a while he finally spotted a dirty old posted sign that was covered in moss. He wiped some of it away to reveal a wood burned etching that read: 'Oak Place'. There was a gravel path leading in to the forest and he followed it until he reached a short, wide gate. He hopped over it and kept walking up the gravel path until he finally found himself outside an old house. The wood had been white at some point, but was badly in need of a paint job. He walked up the two steps on to the porch, where there was a little bench that faced out in to the garden. He retrieved the key from his pocket and put it in the door's lock, and opened it up. 

    Inside the house looked quite different. The cleaners had clearly kept the place in good condition. The hardwood floors were spotless, and every shelf and counter was clean and dust free. He walked down the hall and turned right in to what looked like a large study. The back wall was a giant book case, and every inch of it was filled with old books. There was an armchair and a two seated sofa nearby, and an old oak desk in the corner. The other side of the room had one of those built-in benches under the window, so that people could sit and look outside. Curtis left the room and entered the one on the opposite side of the hallway. This room had two sofas and an armchair, all sat around a coffee table. There was a large fireplace, with some ornaments sitting above it. The walls were decorated with paintings that looked old and quite expensive, and in the corner was an old record player, with a large chest next to it. 

    Shaun went over and opened the chest, to find it filled with a bunch of old records. Lots of music from the 40's, right through to the 80's. Despite their age, the records looked unused, like they had only been put here for the sake of appearances. Perhaps this was the case, since Rose had claimed she hadn't been here in two centuries. He closed the lid of the chest and went further in to the house. The back of the house was a large kitchen and dining room area, and a door that led to the back garden. Upstairs there was a bathroom, three bedrooms, the master bedroom having it's own en suite. Rose's room, of course. He left and went to the bathroom and turned on the shower. Fortunately the plumbing all seemed to be working. He stripped down and got in to the shower, and let out a sigh of relief. 

    He hadn't showered properly in days now. Finally cleaning off all the dirt and grease felt rejuvenating. All the stress he was feeling was washed away along with everything else. Well, almost everything. As the stress of everything else was relieved, his hunger became a more primary irritation. He turned the hot water off and gasped at the sudden change in temperature, but it was necessary. His skin was starting to feel hot and prickly, and even in the cold water he could still feel it nipping at him, like tiny little mosquito bites. After ten minutes or so he got out of the shower and wrapped himself in a towel. He considered putting his clothes back on, but he'd been wearing them for days, and so he picked them up and took them downstairs. He found the washing machine and put them in, and fortunately there was some washing detergent nearby. He put them on a quick rinse and then went back to the study and sat down on the armchair. He closed his eyes for a moment, and almost felt like he could go to sleep for while. But every time he began to drift off, the prickling need roused him like someone was occasionally jabbing him with a hot poker. Hopefully Rose would return soon. 


    Not an hour or so after Rose had left, Curtis Archer heard a knock at the door of his office. "Come in." He said. The door opened and a woman in her early 40's came in. She was attractive, with dirty blonde hair that fell down her shoulder, and a wild grin on her face. "Hey, kiddo." She said with a smile. 
    "Hey Claire." Curtis replied. Claire was his aunt, the wife of his uncle Dominic. While she wasn't a great deal older than him, she had a habit of calling him 'kiddo'. "Dom with you?" Curtis asked. 
    "Just clearing up a few things, he'll be in shortly." She said. "How's things?"
    "Same old, same old." Curtis replied. "What about you? How's the kids?"
    "Elijah's doing fine." Claire said, "and Jonah is...well he's 13 so you know how that is?"

    "Moody, quiet and prone to temper tantrums?" Curtis asked. 
    "Yup." Claire said with a smile. "He's getting very hot tempered lately. I'd say he's got about another year."
    "14?" Curtis said. "That's way too early. The change didn't hit me until I was 16."
    "A mother knows, dear." Claire said. "Anyway I'll leave you be for now, oh, here's Dominic now." Claire left, and Dominic took her place in the door of the office. He was a dark haired man with tanned skin and tired but gentle eyes. 

    "Come in, close the door." Curtis said. Dominic did, and then leaned against one of the filing cabinets. 
    "How are you doing, Curtis?" He asked. 
    "Pretty good." Curtis said. "Sold a couple of cars today. Full amount in advance."
    "Really?" Dominic said. "Didn't know we had any high rollers in town."
    "Vampire." Curtis said. "Gotta be a fair age to be throwing money around like that, too."

    "Should I be worried?" Dominic asked. 
    "No." Curtis said. "At least I don't think so. She's a nice lady. Very...I can't describe it. Very vampire if you know what I mean."
    "Oh, yeah." Dominic nodded. "Talk at you in that way your grandma does?"
    "Yeah, kind of." Curtis said. "But she's harmless, I think." 
    "Well, if you're sure." Dominic said. "Anything else I should know?"

    "Nah." Curtis said. "It's been pretty quiet otherwise. Oh, some homeless girl tried to steal cash out of the register, but Justin stopped her."
    "Homeless?" Dominic said. "Don't get a lot of homeless people here. That's kind of odd."
    "Mm, she's young." Curtis said. "Runaway perhaps, or she got kicked out."
    "Damn..." Dominic sighed. "What kind of parent does that?"
    "A shitty one." Curtis said. "Feel bad for the girl, really. Hope she doesn't get in to any more trouble."

    "Hm, yeah I hope so too." Dominic said. "Anyway I need to get going. Need to feed the kids."
    "Okay, Dom." Curtis said with a nod. "I'll see you in a couple of days."
    "Ah, yes." Dominic said. "Full Moon, my favorite time of the month."
    "Just don't forget the beer this time." Curtis said. "You know how much of a bitch Justin is without alcohol to calm him down."
    "Total bitch." Dominic said with a grin. "Don't worry, I won't forget." And then he left and Curtis got back to work. 

  8. My signature is gone D=


    But yeah, yeah, much pretty. 



    Is there a way to open a full page reply box. Fast reply is great and all but when I'm writing for rps I don't really like operating in a tiny box at the bottom of the page. 

  9. The bus took Shaun and Rose through the night, and then through the next day, and through the night once more. They had stopped several times at roadside services, and had spent about 6 hours total just waiting at various bus stations. They had travelled through New Hampshire, Massachusets, then up through New York and Ohio. They had not long passed the State line for Indiana when they pulled in to another depot. As soon as the bus doors opened Shaun was out of there without a second's hesitation. He whinced at the bright light that the buses tinted windows had somewhat shielded him from. Rose came out after him and stood next to him on the sidewalk. "Oh, god...." Shaun sighed. "Nothing like 8 hours of collected farts to make you really hate having super senses."

    Rose grinned, "Y'know, as a vampire, you don't need to breathe, so there's no reason you couldn't have held your breath, like me. Maybe I forgot to tell you that..." Rose mused, then shrugged it off with a chuckle.

    "Yeah, well, I'm just glad to stretch my legs." Shaun said as he walked away from the bus. "There's a little travel store over there, let's have a look."


    The store was mostly stocked with overpriced candy bars and the kind of processed junk food normally reserved for gas stations. There were also a couple of shelves of books and magazines, as well as a bunch of cheap travel junk, thermos flasks, travel pillows and various other things. Shaun stopped by a small counter stand of sunglasses and inspected them. He picked up a few off the rack and turned to Rose. "What do you think?" He said as he placed the classic, black Ray Bans over his eyes, "Suit me? Or maybe..." He replaced them with a pair of aviators. "Or these." He said with a grin. "Or..." He took them off and placed on a pair of white, plastic shades that had no lenses, and instead had a series of plastic lines over the eyes. "...Kanye made these cool, right?"

    "I have no idea." Rose replied, "But I suggest you pick up a pair or you could easily get dazed." She tapped the rim of her sunglasses and then moved over to the sweets aisle.

    "Can't go wrong with a classic I guess." Shaun said as he put the black ones back on. He walked over to the sweets counter and looked at all the chocolate bars. "I used to love Reece's cups." He said. "But the thought of eating peanut butter now...eugh."


    "Well, if you're lucky, you'll find a food your new taste buds still enjoy. Thankfully, being a vampire," Rose picked up a large bag of bon bons, "I don't have to worry about my weight." She grinned to herself, then grabbed a large chocolate bar on the way to the cashier. Shaun went to follow her but took a quick detour by the magazines. He flicked through a few of them but grew quickly disinterested. He was about to leave when a book on the next shelf over caught his eye. It was a black covered paperback of Animal Farm by George Orwell. He thought about the fact that they were only just approaching the halfway point of their journey, and the crippling boredom had been driving him crazy, not to mention how hungry he was getting. He picked up the book and took it to Rose at the counter. "Mind if I get this?" He asked as he handed her the book. 

    "Well at least you picked something worth reading." Rose muttered, looking at the cover of the book. "A great allegory for capitalism and humanity as a whole. It doesnt really apply to us but a fantastic tale, Shaun."


    "Never really liked books." Shaun said. "But unless you've got a gameboy handy it's the best I'm going to get."

    "A gameboy is a poor substitute for imagination. Even the most bloodthirsty and nomadic of our people enjoy books. I think a great many humans struggle with books because of their attention span. After all, they're rather short-lived. I know I never read books before I turned." Rose walked up to the counter and paid for everything.

    "Clearly you've never played Skyrim." Shaun said rolling his eyes. "Look I have ADD, okay? I tried books, but it's's like a mental fog. I get bored." He waved the book in front of him. "But hey, worth another shot I guess."

    "You don't have ADD, Shaun. That's a human condition, and you do not suffer from the... Well, human condition."

    "Well I used to, okay" Shaun said. "But I take your point. Speaking of which. I'm getting a little hungry, and I don't think it's for Cheetos."


    "I'm feeling a little peckish myself, why don't you select someone? But before you do, what do you think you should take into consideration?" She pocketed her sweets and opened her chocolate bar and took a large bite, waiting patiently. Shaun paused for a moment. "Well..." He said. "...We need to do it somewhere quiet. Somewhere that we won't be interrupted. Maybe in the bathroom? We could knock someone out, take what we need, and then leave them in a stall to sleep it off?"

    "Well that protects us, but what else?" She raised an eyebrow expectantly.

    "Well...I don't know." Shaun said with a shrug. "I mean...try...not to kill them?"


    "Obviously." Rose shook her head, "You also need to detect things like silver, disease, alcohol and you also need to take into account if the person might drive. Y'know, like in a service station," She held her arms up to indicate their surroundings, "No point in being careful if they end up hurting themselves or others ten minutes later on the road."

    She then started counting things off on her fingers, "They can't be pregnant, too old, too young, have a weak heart, the list goes on but you get the idea." Rose smiled at Shaun and put her hand on his shoulder, "It might seem like a chore but you can't ever break those rules. Never take a life unless you absolutely have to, Shaun. Killing is wrong and never let any vampire tell you otherwise."

    "All right..." Shaun said, putting his hands in his pockets. "So who do you suggest then, Miyagi-san?"

    "You tell me." Rose replied with a grin.


    "Yay, I love a pop quiz that has someone's life on the line." Shaun said, rolling his eyes. He scanned the service station, looking at the various people working there, and other travelers who were stopping by. After a moment he nodded his head towards the automatic doors. Outside another busload of passengers had just gotten off and were ambling inside. "They won't be driving." He said as the small group came through the doors. "One's an old lady, might be dangerous, plus...gross." He stopped and tried to focus on his other senses. "...Guy in the NASCAR shirt heading for the bathroom. No jewellery, heart's beating fine, I think. Couldn't tell you his blood alcohol limit, you haven't showed me that trick."

    "You can smell his breath. Not exactly rocket science. But yes, as far as I can tell, he'll do fine."


    " I take it I just breath on the guy, like you did before?" Shaun asked. 

    "Yeah, like a breathalyser. Don't just blow air on his face. Unless he's into that." Rose laughed and then followed Shaun, "Don't worry, I'll be nearby." Shaun nodded, and waited for a moment, trying to get himself ready. Then he walked off to the bathroom and stepped inside. The man in question was standing at one of the urinals. Shaun walked over to one nearby him and pretended to pee, since he didn't need to. The two stood in silence as Shaun tried to think about how to go about this. If he just approached the man, then he'd probably be, quite naturally, alarmed. But if he left the bathroom then Shaun would have lost his chance. 

    "Heading far?" He asked, and he continued to stare at the wall in front of him. 


    "Kentucky." The man replied. "You?"

    "Uh...Minnesota." Shaun said. "Hey so...uh....your shoelace is undone..."

    "What?" The man replied, and he gave his shoe a cursory glance, "No it ain't." He said as he zipped himself up and went to walk away. Shaun turned around, and felt a slight wave of dizziness. He was more hungry than he thought. But the dizziness had given him an idea. He allowed himself to fall over, hitting the floor with a crash. The man turned back around and walked over to him. He knelt down and grabbed Shaun's arm. 

    "You okay, kid?" The man asked. Shaun looked up and grabbed the man by the collar of his shirt, pulling him down so his face was level with Shaun's. Then he breathed out as hard as he could, and for a moment the man just stared at him. He thought he'd messed it up, until finally the man stopped fighting his grip, and slumped forward. Shaun caught him and lifted him up easily, moving him in to one of the cubicles and sitting him on the toilet. "Uh...I'm done." He said quietly, knowing Rose would likely hear him. 


    Rose walked into the men's bathroom and stared at the unconscious man in the cubicle, "'Your shoes are untied'?" She frowned at Shaun then stepped into the cubicle with him, shut and locked the door behind her. "So, your fangs have yet to come in, but do you know why we don't bite, Shaun?"

    "Um..." Shaun thought for a moment. "Is that how you, well, turn people?"

    "That takes a fair bit more than a bite. No, because these--" Rose opened her mouth and suddenly her teeth elongated, each one turning into a fang with particularly prominent canines, "--are not designed for precision surgery. They are killing tools." She retracted her fangs and then held out her thumb, pointing to the black nail which extended into a sharp claw. "This on the other hand," She pierced the man's vein like an expert surgeon, leant over and drank for a long minute. "Mm, refreshing. Very sweet, he's diabetic."


    "Oh...okay." Shaun said. He switched places with Rose and took a much needed drink. He still wasn't used to it. It felt strange to do, but he couldn't ignore how satisfying it was to drink blood. He pulled away after a minute and wiped his mouth. He licked his hand and then placed it over the man's neck to seal the wound. "Is that it then?" He asked. 

    "Pretty much. Like some general anaesthetics, it has an effect on short term memory, so as long as you're quick about it they won't remember. He'll wake up, a little tired, but fine."


    "Great, let's get going then." Shaun replied. They left and Shaun closed the stall door behind him and they made their way back to the bus. When they got on Shaun sat down on a seat by the window and put his feet up across the other one. After a short time the bus got going again and Shaun opened up his book and began to read. He didn't stop reading until the sky outside had gone dark. He put the book down on his lap. He had read it from cover to cover in one sitting. "That...really was a good book." He said, as the bus passed a sign outside that read: Welcome To Colorado.

  10. After a brief stop to clean himself up and rinse the blood out of his mouth, Krios returned to Ash and the pair left the Wolves' Den and walked through the streets of the noble quarter. They walked across the clean, cobbled road. The buildings were constructed with stone, and properly treated timber. A rare sight, and quite different from most of the quaint little hamlets he had passed through over the years. And he had only really seen such refined architecture from a distance before. There was an air of calm about the quarter, it all seemed very clean, and wholesome to him. Much unlike what he knew to be real life. "Pretty, isn't it?" He asked Ash as he looked up at the houses they were passing. 

    "Pretty?" Ash repeated the word, and looked at the houses, "They are not 'pretty'. They are structures." She looked at them with indifference.

    "Yes, true I suppose." Krios said, although he shook his head in disagreement. "But there's more to it than that. Look at the craftsmanship. These townhouses serve more than just a practical purpose. People held in high regard are paid vast sums to design these things. Experts of aesthetic and beauty, architects. It's not just a structure, it also serves to be pleasing to eye of those who behold it. This whole street is the same. A variety of skilled artisans working together to create a little piece of beauty. A place that feels safe, like a home."


    "Pointless. Apes give other apes yellow metal for beauty of structure exterior, but live inside. Senseless." She made a clicking noise that sounded suspiciously irritable and then walked on. She caught sight of something that stopped her in her tracks, "What is that?!" She exclaimed, pointing at a dog. Her eyes widened in surprise and fascination. Krios raised his eyebrow, a little surprised by her reaction. 

    "It's a dog." He said. "Mastiff, I think." He walked over to the dog and held out his hand. The dog, clearly a family animal, showed little fear as it ambled over to him, sniffing at his hand, it's tongue hanging out of it's mouth. He knelt down and stroked the dog behind the ear and it panted contently for a moment, before giving a little chuff and looking away from him, apparently disinterested all of a sudden. 


    Ash clicked with curiosity and mimicked Krios' posture, kneeling to approach the dog. She held out her hand and the dog cautiously approached her and smelled her for a moment. Then it barked at Ash, who jerked back in surprise. The mastiff then took a few steps forward and licked her on the arm and Ash looked at Krios with genuine amusement.
    "What is purpose of 'dog'?" She asked, a quizzical expression etched on her face as she nervously patted the dog on the head. 
    "Well, it depends on the breed." Krios replied. "Mastiffs are often kept as guard dogs by game keepers and owners of expansive lands. They are quite strong and loyal, they make an excellent companion. However this particular dog is probably just a house pet, an extension of a family unit." He patted the dog along it's back. "It's quite a lot to explain, really. We believe they share ancestry with wolves, but nobody is quite sure why and how it happened. But we've bred them selectively over the years, to exhibit traits useful to us, like for hunting, as an example. Don't get me wrong, they are happy creatures." Krios stood up. "But they require consistent leadership. Humans have essentially kept them in a very dependant, child-like mind even as they mature to adulthood. They lack the wise nature of a wolf."
    "We like this 'dog'." Ash replied, turning her head to examine it, "It serves no purpose..." She scowled, but then her mood quickly lightened, "But, it is loyal, and soft." She patted it on the head again, and then stood up. "Dog is good." To her surprise the dog woofed at her appreciatively and then trundled off. Ash turned to Krios with the expression of a child that thinks they have just been the first to discover something wonderful.
    "Aye, dog is good." Krios said with a slow nod. "Ash, your's not very nearby, is it?"
    "It is..." She paused, considering the question, "... far." Krios nodded. 
    "Come on." He said, and he began walking again. "This pretty ward is easy on the eyes, but it's devoid of life. Let me show you the real Vialice." 

    As they walked away from the noble quarter the architecture slowly began to change. The cobbles beneath their feet became dirtier, and were cracked and in disrepair. The houses became less attractive, less masterfully crafted. The smoke billowing from the chimneys overhead became thicker, darker and it left horrible soot stains over the buildings. The people also began to change. The denizens of the lower quarters were dressed in similar clothing, but it was old and tattered and the deeper they went, the more dirty it all became. Before long the cobbled road was all but gone, leaving only a path of wet dirt through the streets. The houses became more comprised of wood than stone, and the streets became busier, and more cramped. There were no less houses, but there were far more people residing in this section of the city. A woman sitting on the ground held up her hand to them as they passed her, her eyes hopefuly for some coin or food. Krios kept walking. He was no a heartless man, but he knew all too well that if you stopped for one beggar, they'd all start flocking to you. And if you flashed your coin in these parts you'd attract the attention of thieves and greedy merchants trying to pawn off cheap trinkets as fine jewelry. 
    Ash followed Krios, her eyes darting in a dozen different directions, witnessing a hundred different confusing and alluring sights. She watched the rapid change of their surroundings degrade until at last she spoke. 
    "Humans are like us." Ash looked around again, noting the beggar for a moment, as she kept pace with Krios.
    "How so?" Krios asked, sounding amused. "I thought us apes couldn't be more different than your people, what was it you called your race? Hive?"
    "Some are Queens. Some are warriors. Some are drones." Ash replied, "Many drones work for one Queen. Do much, but have little." She pointed at their surroundings, "Humans like us."
    "Do these people look like workers to you?" Krios said. "Resources are scarce, the people here struggle to find work, to make coin to survive. They resort to begging and stealing. They do not understand the burden their leader bears, they only know fear. And the only reason they stay here, is they fear monsters, and the Walkers, more than they fear famine and homelessness."
    "We do not understand." Ash replied simply.
    "Neither do I." Krios replied. "Let's get you some food." Krios sniffed the air. "You smell that? The air is full of spices. The food of the commonfolk is, in my opinion, a lot more interesting."
    "What is 'spice'?" Ash asked, smelling the air.
    "Like I said, resources are scarce." Krios said as he continued walking. "That means the ingredients used for foods are...not the best. But the common folk use spices to heighten the flavour. They bring roots, plants and salts from all over Ao and use them in their dishes. You'll see." Krios led Ash to a large, rickety, old building that looked like it had been cobbled together from a bunch of other buildings. As they reached the door there was a dulled, rhythmic sound of drumming. Krios pushed the door open, and they were assaulted by a sudden concerto of noise and smells. The pub was packed with people, all talking loudly at their tables, over the whooping and music coming from a troupe of minstrels. Suddenly there was a whooping cry and one of the minstrels, a slender young woman, stood up and began twirling round and round, her skirt swishing around her as she danced to the drums. Another began playing a fiddle, and yet another began plucking on a large string instrument he kept in front of him. 
    "This..." Krios waved his hand at the scene in front of them, "Is the Prickly Hatchet. Best pub in all of Vialice."
    "We like this place!" Ash yelled over the noise. She found comfort in this tight, loud environment surrounded by activity, smell and unusual sights. "Why?" Ash asked, pointing at the woman gyrating and dancing around. But before she could get an answer she scented the air and ignored all other stimulus and walked past the bar area and into the kitchen.
    "H-hey!!" The barman growled at her, but she ignored him. She walked into the kitchen and saw a half dozen women working in a large room. A rainbow assortment of meats, vegetables, soups and all manner of foods caught her attention. Ash walked over to one of the large pots sat simmering and smelled it's contents hungrily.
    "Sorry, Morty." Krios said as he walked up to the barman. "She's a bit backwater, but I'll make sure you get coin for whatever she eats."
    "Krios!" The barman bellowed, and he threw his hands in the air, before energetically shaking Krios' hands. "You're a sight for sore eyes. You've got old."
    "And you've got ugly." Krios said. "Oh wait, you were always ugly, Morty." He smiled at his old acquaintance and they followed Ash in to the kitchen. 
    "Ash, usually you make your order at the bar." Krios said as he entered. "The kitchen is off limits for patrons." The women were staring at Ash, clearly quite alarmed at her appearance. "Ash." Krios said, trying to get her to tear her face away from the cooking pot. "This is my friend, Mortimer Lundt." He motioned to the barman she had just barged past. 

    "This is ours." Ash replied, picking up the entire pot of meat stew. As she tried to take it, the woman in charge of the kitchen - a matronly sort - marched up to Ash and took the pot from her grasp. Ash opened her mouth to hiss at the woman, but she slapped Ash on the back of the hand and walked off, leaving Ash with a dazed expression on her face. "Warrior drone..." She muttered.


    "Why don't you take a seat...uh...Miss." Mortimer said as he ushered Ash back to the front of the pub. "I'll bring you a mug of Ale while you wait. Or perhaps whisky, to warm your belly?" Ash looked to Krios for guidance as half of the words coming from the Mortimer's mouth went over her head. Krios grinned and led Ash to a free table. "Two of each." He called back to Mortimer as he sat down. In a few moments they were each given a mug of frothing ale and a smaller cup filled with an amber liquid. "This is ale." Krios indicated the mug. "It's a little sweet, and quite full bodied." He explained. "And the other is whisky. It burns going down, but it's good, trust me."


    Ash picked up the mug of ale and studied it for a moment, took a sip, and then took a long, deep gulp. A pleasant expression washed over her and she put the mug back down and looked at the smaller cup. Picking it up, she smelled it before gulping down the contents as quickly as she had done the ale, and then proceeded to cough and choke, gripping onto the table in surprise.
    "Lies!" She croaked, "Poison!" She knocked the cup off the table with the back of her hand and quickly finished the last of her ale, and looked at the bottom of the mug with a regretful stare. Krios laughed and motioned for the Mortimer to bring Ash another mug of ale and quietly sipped his own. After a moment he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. 
    "So, Ash." He said. "I've told you many things about myself. Tell me about you."
    Finishing her second mug of ale, Ash paused, ignoring Krios' request. She held up her hands and muttered, "Fingersh tingle..." Then wiggled them with a surprised expression on her face. "What?" She asked, looking up at Krios, as she realised he'd asked her something.
    "Nevermind, lightweight." Krios said with a smirk. "Here, your food is coming." The matronly woman from the kitchen placed down two steaming hot bowls of the meat stew, along with a couple of small bread loafs, and a wedge of cheese. 
    Ash scented the meat stew and lifted the bowl to her mouth and drank from it thirstily, chewing the meat with satisfaction. She reached over and tore off a chunk of bread and shoved it in her mouth, and then grabbed the wedge of cheese and took a bite from it and continued chewing. After a moment, a fraction of doubt appeared on her face and she looked at the cheese in her hand, "What is this?" She asked, holding it up to Krios.
    "Cheese." Krios said as he plucked a piece of his own, and put it in his mouth with a piece of bread and chewed it. "It's um...well It's milk, from a cow, which is..." he shook his head. "It's good. It melts when it's warm. Try putting some in your stew." He took the rest of his cheese and crumbled it in his bowl of stew and stirred it in with his spoon. 
    "Milk?" Ash looked at the yellow block in her hand, "This," She held it up, "Lactate of mammal?" She put the block down and pushed the contents of her mouth out onto the table and shivered with disgust, staring at the small pile of chewed food with disdain. "Why?!" She moaned, eating more of her stew as much to get rid of the flavour of the cheese as anything, genuinely upset at being fed something she considered so heinous.
    "Tastes good." Krios said with a shrug. "You said to me once that you'd feast on my marrow. That sounds pretty disgusting to me."
    "We like marrow." Ash grumbled, pushing the cheese away like an ungrateful child. She finished the last of her stew and sat at the table nibbling on a piece of bread.
    "Well we..." Krios motioned his arms to show he was referring to the entire room. " cheese. So deal with it." Ash sulked in silence.
    "Oh, come on." Krios said as he lightly punched her arm. "Don't mope like a child. You said you liked it here." He motioned to the other patrons. "Good food, good music, good people. Just get more ale down you and have some fun. We deserve some rest before that teenage knight errant girl decides to put us to task, hm?"
    Ash nodded and let out a long sigh before accepting a third mug of ale. She took a long swig from it and watched the minstrels play their music. Krios frowned as he sipped from his cup of whisky. 
    "Hey...what's wrong?" He said. "Talk to me."
    Ash thought for a little while, studying the amber liquid in her mug with a sullen expression, "We miss home." She said at last.
    "I see..." Krios said, nodding. "Well, tell me about it. Your home, that is."
    "Not like this place..." Ash muttered, "Your lands are barren compared to our own. But no dogs. No... cheese," She said the word through gritted teeth, "No humans..."
    "Mhmm..." Krios nodded again. "And what of your culture?" He asked. "You know, I've travelled beyond the King's borders. I've met men and women who live very differently from how we do."
    "We do not understand." Ash replied, shaking her head, "But we are... complex. Hierarchy. Birthright. Unity. We seek strength above all else."
    "For what purpose?" Krios asked. "Do you have an enemy?"
    "Yes." Ash replied, nodding, "Us."
    "Hmm." Krios said, nodding but showing little in terms of expression. "...I understand. Your people don't sound all that different from us, not really." He sighed. "The things I have told you about us.'s just a fraction of what we are. It would be impossible for me to explain it all to you, as I am sure it would be for you to explain your people to me. But...I think we can find common ground in the things that are similar. You know?" He paused for a moment. "Unity. Just like you said."
    "You care for grubs. You have wise leader, only makes war when he must. You have things with no purpose but to make human happy. You have much... we /are/ monsters." Ash finished her drink and then slumped down on the table.
    Krios took a deep breath and sat for a moment. Then he let out a long sigh and drained his whisky, feeling it burn his chest as it went down. He leaned forward on the table, and he looked down at his hands as he spoke. "That is just one side of it, Ash." He said. "The King has allowed horrible things to happen to his people. But, at least he acknowledges that of himself. When I was a grub..." He paused. "A child." He continued. "...I was subjected to a great deal of pain and suffering. The goal was to harden me, and make me stronger and more capable. That goal succeeded, but at a terrible price. So many children were robbed of their innocence. In times past our people have warred with each other, and it was only the King who managed to unite us, and he could only do that by giving us all a common enemy to fight. An enemy that...are not the evil barbarians the King wishes us to believe. Not all of them...not even many of them, really." Krios muttered to himself and then trailed off. He let out another sigh before continuing. "My point, Ash, is that we are all capable of great and terrible things. We can become monsters without even realising it."
    He looked up so that his eyes were locked with Ash's. "But we can choose." He said. "We can be more than what we are expected to be, more than what we were meant to be. You come from a different land, with different rules, different teachings. yet, despite that, you are not so different from me. Perhaps your people are monsters, just as many of mine are. But you are not a monster, Ash."
    Ash watched Krios for a long while in silence, unsure of what to say. In the end, she remained silent, but nodded in acceptance of what he'd said. When she eventually chose to speak, she did so not of her country, or her people, but of her intentions.
    "We will return... then things change." Ash spoke the words with conviction. Krios simply nodded at that. Then he stood up. 
    "Well then, We've rested long enough." He said. "Let's see where we are needed."


  11. Shaun sank back in the armchair. Silence fell over the room, and with it his heightened senses began to focus more clearly on the ambient sensations that had previously hid in the back of his head, in the corner of his eye. A gentle rumbling reverberated through the cheap motel walls, a man snoring. He felt the wetness of the man's mouth as he smacked his lips, as if the man was doing so right by his head. Shaun shifted uncomfortably at the sensation, his arms gently wrapping around each other, a self-soothing gesture he and so many others often did subconsciously. He looked at a blank area of the wall intently, as if it had suddenly become the most interesting part of the room. In truth, doing so allowed him to avoid Rose's haze. He let his tongue roll over the roof of his mouth. It was dry, perhaps telling of his thirst, which had begun as a dull sensation at the back of his mind, but was now becoming a little harder to ignore. "I can wait." He said finally. "I...I can hold out a bit longer, until....until you get more blood packs, or something."


    "Yeah, that's a great idea." Rose replied sarcastically, licking her lips. "No, I think we can just take what we need from the man in the next room..." She paused, listening in silence for a moment, "He's in his thirties, and he's in good health. There's no reason not to drink from him. Come on." She pulled herself off the bed and cleaned herself up best she could. She changed shirts in the next room and came back in, "Ready to go?" She asked, smiling. Shaun didn't reply, he simply stood up and waited on the spot, nervously scratching his elbow. He still couldn't look at her. He didn't really get Rose. How could someone be both wise, and understanding, yet also come off completely cold and soulless. Maybe that was just what she was. What he was now. 


    "I've never seen a child sulk after being told they're going to McDonald's." Rose laughed at Shaun, "Come on, kid. Let's get you something to drink." She patted Shaun on the back, opened the door to the apartment and led him outside. The cool night air touched her skin and she sighed pleasantly, looking up at the stars and drinking in the view. "Much better." She stretched and worked her shoulder, it was stiff and still stung but it was much better. Rose turned and walked a few steps until she stood in front of their neighbour's door and then examined it for a moment. "Okay kid, here's your first lesson about feeding: Act natural." She rapped her knuckles on the door and heard a startled coughing as the man inside woke up. Suppressed grumbling, as he made his way to the door and looked through the peep hole. Rose could see the shadow of the man as he enveloped the peep hole, and she smiled pleasantly to him with a pained expression. After a moment, the door unlocked and swung open a couple of inches until the chain on the door stopped it.
    "Hey, what do you want?" The man asked, he was indeed in his thirties, with short brown hair, a slight gut, and dressed in a robe. He had obviously been watching television and fallen asleep.
    "Hi!" Rose replied, "D'you mind, I can't seem to get my TV working...?" 
    "Oh... Bill... hey, it happens all the time." Bill closed his door, removed the chain and opened it fully, "Super doesn't care. Get what you pay for, he says. I'll take a look." 
    "Thanks!" She smiled at him and they walked back to Shaun, "This is my son, don't mind him, he just wants to watch his cartoons and whatnot." 
    "Right..." Bill frowned at Shaun as he passed and walked into their apartment. Rose turned around and mouthed, 'Close his door!' and then followed Bill into their room. Bill turned the television on and of course, it came on without an issue. "Uh... your TV works fine?" Rose walked up to Bill and came within inches of his face. Bill froze and tightened up, and then Rose leant in and breathed heavily on him. Bill's eyes rolled into the back of his head as his eyelids closed and he collapsed. Rose caught him as he fell and then delicately laid him on her bed as Shaun entered the room once more.
    "Wh...what did-" Shaun quickly closed the door behind him. "Did you just kill him!?"
    "Why would I kill him?" Rose frowned, circling the bed. "He's just sleeping. Besides, you might be a fledgling but if you can't hear that," Rose held her hand up and snapped her fingers to a rhythmic, steady beat. The sound of the man's heart, pumping blood, "Then you're fighting your senses." She smiled and let out a deep breath, looking the man up and down, "So, go ahead..." She grinned and nodded at the man. Once Rose had brought it up it all seemed so clear. The man's heartbeat was thumping away quite normally. However, this didn't overly affect his reservations. He looked at the man, lying there in just a robe, and the thought of sucking blood from him like a juice box was just...
    "..Gross." Shaun said. 
    "Gross...?" Rose frowned at Shaun, she was getting a little exasperated. "Let me put this in perspective. Which is more gross... drinking blood directly from a living creature, something that animals the world over do as part of a natural predatory instinct, or..." She held up her hands as an unbalanced set of scales, "Processed turkey drummers." She weighed her hands and shook her head, "Yeah, would you just drink from him, please." She shuddered, thinking about processed human food and then sat beside Bill, waiting for Shaun.
    "He's not a fucking cheeseburger." Shaun said bitterly, his fists clenching. "Just.." He turned around, pacing the short length of the motel room. "...just stop being so god damn casual about this..."
    "Well how else am I supposed to be about it?" Rose asked, "It's just food. Drink up, and then we can wait it out here for a little while, hopefully the hunters will pass us and then we can be on our way."
    "It's not  just food!" Shaun snapped, and he thumped the wall in anger as he passed it, and recoiled as he watched the weak drywall crumble, leaving a large dent in the wall. He stared at the wall, and then his hand, which was now coated in powdered drywall. He let out a heavy sigh and bit his lip, trying to calm down. "He's not just food...not to me." He said quietly. He had only been a vampire for, how long had it been? Five hours? Six? Rose was substantially older. He wondered how long it had taken before she had learned that cold separation. Before she had apparently forgotten that she was just human once. Just food.
    Rose sighed, leant down and licked the wound on Bill's neck, the flesh quickly knitted together and he was good as new. "Alright then." Rose picked Bill up and put him to the head of the bed, and then sat on the end beside Shaun. "Talk to me, Shaun. Do you think it's right that people should eat meat from a packet? Not knowing where the meat came from, or how it was harvested? Have you ever given a pig a moment's thought for what it wanted to do with it's life. Even if that life was to eat slop and roll around in mud, doesn't it have a right to do that? But you want to eat bacon, so you rationalise it's death. I drink blood. I don't kill anything for it. I don't hurt anyone for it. It's tasty, it's responsibly-sourced..." She shrugged her shoulders.
    Shaun sighed and leaned forward, holding his head in his hands. "I know..." he sighed. "I'm not...I'm not saying it's wrong, or doesn't make it any easier, though." He sat up and shrugged. "I'd be just as pissed off if you'd expected me to start suddenly speaking fluent Japanese." He said. "...I need time, okay? I thought that was one of the advantages of being a vampire, y'know? Lot's of time to work things out."
    "Sure, but we're being chased by hunters, so it's baptism by fire right now." Rose replied, then took a deep breath, "And you haven't had anything to drink in a while, and you're a fledgling, you need a lot of blood right now to help your body process and fuel the change. Besides, hunger makes a sane man do crazy things. Vampires more so. I don't want you hurting yourself, or someone else, because it feels like your entire body is on fire." She paused, studying Shaun's face, "Your body is already tingling? Feels itchy? Give it a little while, you're going to do anything to satiate that hunger. I won't let you go that far, Shaun..."
    Shaun sighed. He didn't like it at all. All he wanted was a little more time to adjust. Everything was happening so quickly, and he already felt suffocated by it. Like he was drowning. For some reason that prospect felt more terrifying to him than it ever had before. He fidgeted with his hands, examining his nails which, he had only just noticed, had become black, much like Rose's. He lifted his right hand and examined it for a moment. Then, as he flexed his fingers, his nails suddenly popped out, longer and sharper. He flinched a little, like he had expected it to hurt, but it hadn't. He looked at his claws, and then he looked at Rose. He sighed, and then with a great deal of resignation, he leant over to Bill, and gently pressed his index finger on his neck, piercing it just as he had watched Rose do. He took a deep breath, and leant down, and pressed his lips against the man's neck. 
    He fought the momentary sensation of disgust at putting his lips to a chubby, middle-aged man's neck, and he instead focused on the warm liquid that was now dripping in to his mouth. He let it slide down his neck, gulping slowly every few moments. And with each gulp he felt like he was drinking a hot cup of coffee on a cold day. As he drank, he felt the tension in his shoulders subside, and the hot prickling sensation began to slowly fade. And before long, he felt much more calm. He released to man's throat and sat up, holding his finger over the hole. He wasn't quite sure how to deal with that, just yet, and so he turned to Rose expectantly. 
    "Lick the wound." Rose nodded at Bill, "Two things you won't read about Vampires in modern fiction - we have a natural anaesthesia in our breath, and our saliva can heal wounds."
    "I am not licking him." Shaun said, raising his brow in amusement. "That's where I draw the line, teach." Then he licked his finger and pressed it against the man's wound. "There...that'll do, pig."
    "That'll do." Rose repeated, ruffling Shaun's hair. Then she stood up and stretched, "Now, you can take Bill, and put him back in the chair in his room." She walked over to the TV and changed the channel and then sat back down on the end of the bed. Shaun went to lift Bill up, and found him surprisingly light. 
    "Super strength..." He said with a smile. "Well, I can't complain about that."
    Shaun opened the door, carrying Bill quite easily with one arm. He stepped outside and walked down to the next room. He opened the door and stepped inside. He propped Bill in to the armchair and then took a moment to adjust his robe. Nothing flattering about a man with his bits hanging out. He turned around and opened the door to leave. "Later Bill." He said with a smirk. "And go easy on yourself, didn't anyone ever tell you? You'll go blind..." He chuckled to himself as he closed the door. He turned to head back to the room, when quite suddenly, his senses turned right up to ten. His eyes became sharp and focused, the distant sound of tires crunching over gravel was crystal clear in his ears. 
    Before he even knew what he was doing, Shaun suddenly dropped to a crouch, pressing himself against the wall of the motel. Instinctively he kept to the shadows, and watched the roadside. The crunching of gravel grey louder and louder in his ears. Then he saw it, a black car pulling in to the motel. It's headlight's were out, but Shaun could see the light and heat emanating from them, from when they had been lit only a few minutes before. Fear gripped him, and adrenaline took over, forcing him in to action. He moved fast, even though it was only a few feet to the door, he cleared it in an instant, and the door to their motel room opened and quickly snapped shut, and suddenly he was on the inside again with Rose. He pressed his back up against the door. "...They're here." He whispered. 

  12. Krios had never entered the throne room of Die'welden before. Yet when the main doors opened out on to a large hall with a marble floor and a red carpet, pillars lining the path towards the throne, and rich tapestries adorning every wall, he felt that he knew the place. Such a place was, of course, the subject of many artworks, and so the scene felt strangely familiar to him, which he supposed was a testament to the artists who had painted the works. They walked with an entourage of guards, as well Dieter, Marcus and Captain Teresa who walked ahead of them. As they drew closer to the throne, the guards parted to either side, and Krios turned his head ever so slightly towards Ash, and whispered to her; "Follow my lead."


    "Introducing His Majesty, King Matthew Arturo Villiard, The Immortal!" One of the guards declared. As he spoke Krios took but a step forward, the first step in a practiced maneuver he had known his whole life, one that until this moment he had never had to implement. He moved with his arms behind his back, but when he came to a stop he dropped to one knee, one arm remaining behind his back, the other brought forward and held tight at his chest. He bowed his head so that he was now staring at the crimson carpet beneath them. He dared not raise his head, until instructed to do so, by the only man in the room who could do so, the King. Ash studied Krios' movements and then turned to face the King, she looked at him in surprise and confusion, "Hunter..." She knelt next to Krios, "Why you bow? That not Queen, that is ape with yellow hat?"

    " me." Krios said, and then he fell silent, awaiting instruction. 


    Ash hissed irritably. There was that term again, 'trust'. He expected her to do something based solely on their 'relationship'. Something they hardly had to begin with. However, she looked around the room, and saw a great many men and women wielding dangerous-looking weapons, and the one sat upon the throne seemed important. Eventually, her top lip raising in distaste to reveal her fangs, Ash mimicked Krios' unusual form as best she could. 
    "Please, stand." The King looked them both over, "I hope your journey was without difficulty but I must dispense with polite small talk. You know why I have called you both here?"
    "Yes, your Majesty." Krios said as he stood up, placing his arms behind his back once more. "I believe you wish me to have one of your shiny jackets." Krios said, inclining his head towards the White Wolves. 
    "You're a perceptive man, but I think..." The King swiftly swept his gaze over the White Wolves present, "... you are not speaking your mind. I asked that small talk should be cast aside, but perhaps I should have asked for true words instead."
    "What is 'King'?" Ash asked him. The King turned his attention to Ash for a moment, looking her over, after a minute's silence he spoke.
    "You are unusual." He said simply, then smiled, "What would you call your leader?"
    "Queen." Ash replied.
    "We had a Queen once, and we may yet again. I am male, and so I am a King."
    "Only female leads..." Ash growled.
    "In your land, Ash, with women like you, I believe it. As plain a speaker as any I have met. Fearless of consequence," He mused on her words as his attention returned to Krios.
    "Perhaps I misunderstand?" Krios asked. "You asked if I knew why you called me here, and I responded in truth. You wish me to wear your brand, and walk with your..." He eyed the three who had brought him here, "...wolves." He smirked at the word. "So far it has been my understanding that I have been given a choice, provided that choice is in agreement with your own. In other words, no choice at all. Tell me, your Majesty, am I wrong?"
    "I would like to say 'yes', Krios. But I cannot." The King stood and came down the few stairs to bring him on level with the room, "Our neighbours to the east want to invade and slaughter my people, crops turn to ash in their mouths, their livestock grow sick and die, they succumb to the Blight and turn on their friends and family, becoming monsters. Were you their leader, could you turn your back on such suffering without a fight?"
    "You know very little of your neighbours, your Majesty." Krios said testily, the comment had clearly irritated him. "But in answer to your question; No, I would not turn my back on them. I understand your efforts, but why recruit me? To fight monsters? I do that already, and at less expense to your treasury."
    "True. I speak in generalities. I do not know The Walkers as I would like. I know only of what they do at the edges of my kingdom. Rape, pillaging, murder, slavery. These are things I cannot excuse, Krios. But The Walkers is not a subject for us to discuss right now. I would focus on where your talents lie. That of the slaying of beasts." The King stepped forwards and took Krios' shoulder, "Will you walk with me, both of you?" He asked, and as he started walking, the guards followed him, but he swiftly waived them off. They walked outside, into a courtyard, and the King took a deep breath, enjoying the fresh air, "I know you hunt beasts, Krios. I think coin or titles would mean little to you. You seem an honest man, so I will give you an honest request. Do it because it is the right thing to do. I have formed the White Wolves as I have done this country - unifying the monster hunters so that they may better respond to the threat we face. Wolves are strongest in the pack, so it shall be with this. The Wolves have only been formed for a few short months, but already they have killed thousands of beasts, far more than has ever been recorded. The repercussions of which is spreading far and wide. Tens of thousands of lives have been saved, Krios."
    "I see." Krios said with a nod. "And has the Blight lessened?" He asked, frowning. "The monsters are an effect of the Blight, not the cause. How long will it be before you decide that slaying monsters isn't enough? How long before I am ordered to stop the Blight at it's source? How long before I am asked to burn men, women and children cursed with the black spot?" His voice trembled with an anger that did not seem to be directed at the current topic. Something else about the King had bothered him, something far more personal. "That's what you do with that which you cannot control, is it not, your Majesty." He said the last word with bitter venom, as if saying it was something he could not stop himself from doing, and the very fact made him hate himself. 
    "Yes." The King nodded, his tone and expression were neutral, betraying none of his feelings, "If I must, I will do such things and I will weather your hate, and the hate of thousands if I must. If I am remembered as a tyrant King, or a cruel King, then that will be the legacy that I must bear." He let out a deep breath, "A great many years ago, Krios, I choose my crest, and it is as relevant today as it was then. A crown of thorns weighs heavy upon my brow. I have to ask, though I may know the answer, why you carry such a title, Krios? 'of Elisee'."
    "Because I am of Elisee." Krios replied through gritted teeth. "I watched as my brothers died, all but myself and my rescuers. I watched my mentor's take blades through the chest from the very men who they served. I watched as children, some no older than two summers, burned in the fires. Is your thorned crown such a burden that you fear the wrath of babes, your Majesty?"
    "You think me a monster because I gave an order, and I am. I regret ever giving the order to train children as soldiers, Krios. I felt the only way to protect children was to arm them as I would my own - with the ability to survive the world we find ourselves in. I thought that with the right training, they would grow to overcome the monsters caused by the Blight, and by that time, we might have found a cure. At the very least, we would limit casualties caused by monsters. I would like to blame my advisers for our reaction to the uprising at Elisee, but in truth, it was my choice to react as harshly as we did. Any that were trained by us, and revolted in such a violent manner, could not be allowed to live, and risk training others in such a manner. However, I never meant for my soldiers to kill children as young as they did, to kill civilians and innocents." The King let out a long breath, as though for a moment, he lifted a weight from his shoulder, and then accepted it upon himself once more, "Of the 400 soldiers I sent to Elisee, 180 were arrested, found guilty and tried for their crimes."
    "Not good enough." Krios growled. He breathed for a moment, closing his eyes and slowly but surely he began to calm himself. When he opened his eyes again, his temper had all but dissipated. "But, there is no point dwelling on the past. Your methods may have been barbaric, but they bore fruit." He turned to face the King, and folded his arms. "My skill was forged in the fortress of Elisee. But so too was my rage. You bred a small army of very angry men, your Majesty. It is no wonder they revolted." Krios looked away from The King and looked out on the horizon, toward a land that was so far off it could hardly be seen. "But rage is a beast that can be tamed. You have your neighbours to the east to thank for that, for if they had not tamed my anger..." Krios turned back to the King and looked him dead in the eyes. "...then one of us would be a dead man right now."
    "I would not wish your death, Krios. I am glad you have found a measure of peace, in spite of what you have been through." The King paused for a moment, "So I must now ask you - fame and fortune have no place in your heart, but you are clearly motivated to do what is right. I need people strong enough to know what is right and wrong. Not all of the Wolves understand this. They need to be controlled, focused."
    "Captain Teresa seems capable." Krios said. "You cannot expect me to believe you would have me lead. I doubt your Wolves would stand for it."
    "The White Wolves are unlike anything else in my military, Krios. Their rank is dictated by their strength and ability in combat. I can allow no weak links in this pack, and I encourage conflict between the Wolves, so that those who are strongest have the greatest assets at their disposal, and so they are able to maintain control over the lesser Wolves. I would have you join the Wolves, and rise through the ranks. Prove that you are the strongest among them, and you could save thousands of lives." The King stopped and turned to face them both.
    Krios thought about it for a moment. The prospect was not particularly appealing in and of itself. He had nothing to prove to anyone, and no desire to lead. He had operated alone for a long time, but it had not always been that way. He knew the advantages of teamwork, and what's more he found himself agreeing with the principles of this unit. He had been taught that in order to slay a beast, one must become a beast. To gain power and position through dominance and strength, that was the natural order of things. Perhaps he had something to offer the White Wolves, something they themselves had not yet realized they lacked. Yet they at least knew the way of this world, and there was another who he knew would likely struggle without an ally to support her on her path. He turned to Ash. He was still angry with her, but he also knew that one such as her would have no place in this land, no place except with the Wolves. 
    "Ash?" Krios said as he approached her. He tried to consider his words, to use them in a way that she would understand. "...Do you understand what the King is offering? He wishes you to hunt the...the greatest predators. There is no challenge greater in this land. will need to hunt with others. Apes, like me...or, actually, worse than me. You will be a...grub." He scratched his head for a moment. "You will need to hunt, and fight, and prove yourself worthy. Then you can" He didn't really know what word she would use. He didn't even know if her kind had warriors of status. 
    "This one will hunt. We do not serve--" Ash made a short, shrill sound, a mixture of clicks and chirps, "--no word in ape speech. We serve none. We are--" She made another unique noise she had never used before, "But we join great hunt. We will lead. Then apes will see our strength. Then apes will see this one as kin, not monster."
    "Some will not follow you unless you prove yourself." Krios explained. "Can you do that?"
    "Prove how?" Ash asked, confused. The hunt was proof. What else was there?
    "If you join...then you are a wolf." Krios said, deciding to work with the analogy. "If you wish to lead the pack you must do more than hunt. You must protect your pack. You must guide them. You must punish those who oppose you. If you do this, all apes will be your pack. You cannot just show them force, you must show them kindness, patience. Show them that if they follow you, they will flourish. Do you understand?"
    "Krios willl show Ash," She replied indignantly, "This one is--" She made the same noise as before, "Made to lead. We understand."
    Krios just looked at Ash for a moment. He hadn't quite understood what she had meant, but he felt like she might have just complimented him. He nodded in approval, finally, and turned back to the King. "We join on one condition." Krios said. "Ash and I, we...compliment each other. Where Ash goes, I go. That is not up for negotiation."
    "So be it." The King nodded, "The White Wolves are granted three things upon acceptance. Do with them as you will. The coat is a symbol of the Wolf, as are these..." The King opened his clenched palm and held out two small gemstones, each one on the end of a chain. "Magicite. It is rare and dangerous, and so it's supply must be controlled. Take it," He turned to Ash, "This is a gem, which grants our people the use of magic, if you are to wield it, we have mages who are masters in its use and can teach you. I give them to you as a sign of trust." 
    "Trust..." Ash growled the word as she took the gemstone, examined it for a moment and then pocketed it without a second thought. She ignored the jacket entirely. 
    "Lastly, see the royal blacksmith, he will weave a shard of Magicite into any weapon of your choosing, or forge one to your taste. That, I suggest, you do not refuse."
    Krios took the gem, examined it for a moment, and then tossed it to Ash. "I have no use for that." He said. "Nor your coat. Don't know if you've seen your kingdom lately, but not a great deal of white in nature. Unless the objective is to become a beacon for monsters to prey upon." Krios thought for a moment on the final offer. "And what, pray tell, is the advantage of magicite within a sword?" Krios drew his own sword from it's sheathe. The steel was darker than that of conventional blades. "Have yet to find a mineral more durable than Rhaegalia, but then again, I've been gone from the city for a long time."
    Ash took Krios' Magicite gem without complaint, but the King stepped forwards, "I'm sorry, Ash. You can't use more than one stone. Magicite draws from your own energy and converts it into magic. To use more than one would mean almost certain death." Reluctantly, she let the King take back the second stone.
    The King then turned to Krios and smiled, "While Rhaegalian steel is no doubt impressive, Krios, it does not hold the properties of Magisteel. Weapons forged in such a manner do not dull, and are far lighter."
    "Really?" Krios said, looking at his own blade. "Now that sounds like something useful, finally." He sheathed his sword. The King returned the stone to Krios and he pocketed it. "Very well then. I'll see about this sword." He said as he turned to leave, but quickly stopped. "Actually, perhaps you should have someone show me where to go. And I'll need quarters, of course."


  13. As he made his way upstream, Krios' purple eyes watched the riverbed, while he listened carefully around him. The red sky had very quickly turned to a dusky blue, and the forest became black and treacherous. His eyes, something he knew to be called Drau, allowed him to see quite well in the dark, among other things. Through his sight the darkness was easier to traverse, but it came at a disadvantage. While his vision was clearer, his perception of colour was severely diminished, and so the world appeared to him in a scale of greys, tinged with the slightest of yellow. All things had a cost, but he considered it a fair trade. 


    He stopped by the edge of the stream, noticing a trail of damp earth leading up the bank. He inspected the dirt, and saw a few faint footprints in the dirt. He moved his hand over one of them, noting the sharp edges to the print. "Clawed feet..." He muttered to himself, "Pressure's on the front, no heel print...walks on her digits." He stood up and walked up the bank, following the trail of damp earth, but soon found it was drying up. He looked ahead and surveyed the area. There was a dirt path nearby, not a good place to hide. On the other side of the path there were thick bushes, but they'd be too dense and noisy for a larger creature to favor. Further up the bank, on the opposite side of the path, there was a large thicket of thinner, more supple trees that swayed more heavily in the wind. The grass in that area was long, easy to hide in, and it had been disturbed. 


    He went at a light jog across the path and slowed down as he stepped in to the long grass. He carefully drew his sword in preparation, and walked as quietly as he could through the grass. Each time a heavy gust blew, the leaves of the trees rattled, and Krios' eyes darted around the area, watching, waiting. As he tread deeper in to the grass, he couldn't help but feel he was being watched. And yet, the beast was keeping itself camouflaged well. His augmented sight was not helping him very much at this point. No doubt the creature was watching him, and waiting until his gaze was not on her, before re-positioning. But he'd have heard her, surely. The wind blew again and the leaves rattled in the night once more. Of course, Krios thought to himself. The creature was using the noise of the leaves in the wind to mask her movements. That was the trouble with monsters born of The Blight. Even the fledglings were incredibly dangerous, their instincts fully formed from almost the point of inception. He felt terribly exposed where he was, and his own instincts urged him to move, to flee and return when the conditions were more in his favor. 


    But he was the bait. He didn't like that prospect. He had spent his life training to ensure he would never be prey, and yet here he was. He had to trust in the mysterious creature, Ash. Standing out in the open, exposed, he began to wonder if that was such a good idea. However, he had seen her capabilities first hand. Her reflexes, the way she fought, it was built in to her biology. Her capabilities were far transcendent of humans, closer, in fact, to the dangerous beasts he spent his life fighting. Perhaps it was that fact that had led him to taking an interest in her in the first place. Her kind, wherever they came from, had learned to fight like beasts, or perhaps they had always done so. Yet at the same time he had sensed something in their brief duel. At first he had thought it simple hesitation, but speaking with Ash had led him to believe she wasn't particularly capable of that. Was it inexperience, perhaps? A strange thought, considering how capable she was. 


    Another blast of wind and another rustling of trees occured, and this time Krios closed his eyes, shutting off that particular sense, and he whispered, "Voorhes!" in to the night. The shapes of the area materialized in his head, nowhere near as sharp as his vision, but it offered a 360 degree image. Voorhes was much more accurate when he closed his eyes, for it's power lay in his hearing. This time he caught the difference between the rushing winds, the rustling grass and trees, and the quick, precision movements of the creature. It had positioned itself well, coming at him from behind. His heart leaped as adrenaline surged through him. He tumbled to his left, rolling until he was back on his feet. He held out his blade, sensing that the creature had come within inches from him. But no sooner had it came, it had disappeared back in to the brush with incredible speed. 


    Ash watched from the branch of a tree, as still as the trunk itself. She watched as the monster dashed through the long grass, timing it's movements to the howling wind and the rustling leaves. For something so young, it already had everything it needed to kill. In teeth, claw and wits. She did not envy it, she empathised with it. However, as she moved into a more favourable position, she decided to take her time and watch their exchange play out. Just a little longer.


    "Shit!" Krios swore, bouncing his sword in his grip. The monster had disappeared again, but therein lay an interesting question. When it struck again, would it strike from behind as it had before? Or would it try a different tactic? He might have found it amusing if his life wasn't on the line. He closed his eyes again, sending out another pulse of Voorhes, and listened for the creature's advance. The wind howled again, and he braced for another assault, but then nothing came. He frowned, opening his eyes. He hadn't sensed any movement at all. He found himself more disconcerted by that fact than anything else. Perhaps the creature was being more cautious, but it could not possibly know the full extent of his abilities, or exactly how he was tracking her movements. If he could only catch a look at the creature, then he would know what it was, and how to proceed. He had to provoke it, and to do that, he fled. 


    He took off at a sprint, running in a straight line back the way he had came. He heard rapid, sharp rustling cutting through the grass behind him. Even a clever creature can react poorly to the fear of losing it's prey. He took a dive, hoping the feint would work, and went in to a forward roll, turning himself sharply as he went back to his feet. As he turned he saw the creature coming at him at full speed, taking advantage of his supposed stumble. She was humanoid, sort of. Her skin was as black as the night, and her eyes were black orbs, with a thin ring of yellow. Her hair was long, and lank, her her head still similar to a humans, but with a set of sharp, predatory fangs, and a long, prehensile tongue. She was charging at him, her long claws held locked near her waist, ready to spear him and heave upwards, her preferred method of killing. 


    Knowing his foe, suddenly all the cards fell in to place in front of him. The poor woman had become a Shaek, a monster of the night, a silent and deadly predator that feasts on the flesh of men. Her prehensile tongue was coated with a toxic venom that could paralyze a man if it so much as touched his bare skin. He had but a moment to react. Her body was almost horizontal with the speed she was running. He waited until the last moment that he could, and then he spun and moved to his left, allowing her to pass him, he brought his sword up and there was a sickening thunk as he cut clean through her right arm, severing it at the shoulder, causing her to shriek in pain. But in her rage she turn her body and lunged at his quickly, raking her remaining claw at his throat. He moved to deflect it, but he hadn't had time to prepare, and the Shaek knocked the sword from his hand, and then with a satisfied snarl, She shot her tongue at him like a frog trying to catch a fly, too quick for him to react to. 


    The tongue whipped across Krios' chest and face, paralysing him. The Shaek hissed in victory and bent over Krios, sniffing him expectantly. She clambered over his body, pinning his arms and legs to the ground. Thick, stringy glops of saliva dripped down onto his face in anticipation. She brought her head back, and her jaws cracked as they widened into a maw of razor-sharp fangs. The Shaek reared it's long neck back and then plunged downwards for the killing blow. A thick spike erupted from the depths of her mouth, an inch from Krios' face, but then fell short. The Shaek groaned, and reached out to rake his face, but as it did so, it was pulled back, until he could see that the spike was in fact one of Ash's stingers. She yanked the stinger from the back of the Shaek's head and whipped it through the air, cleaning it in sending a smattering of blood across the grass.
    "A most successful hunt." Ash growled with satisfaction, then grabbed hold of the creature by the neck with both hands and yanked the head from it's corpse and cast it aside. "You are unharmed?" She asked, leaning over Krios.
    "Mo...mostly." Krios managed to say, although it was a struggle. "" He said each word slowly. "Green...vial..."
    "You are in pain?" Ash asked, bending down and rooting through his belt. She found several tiny vials, each one containing liquids and powders of a rainbow assortment of colours. She found the green one and plucked it from his belt. "Is toxin fatal?" She asked, holding the vial out of reach.
    "" Krios replied. He was struggling to breath.
    "Pain not matter, die not matter," She began, uncorking the vial and smelling it's contents, "No vial." She sat back on her haunches and waited, studying him like a curious bird, her head flicking from side to side expectantly. "Make you weak." She twirled the vial across her fingers like a coin, "You live, you are strong. Dead one's strength is yours."
    "You..." Krios gasped, his eyes wide with anger, but otherwise his expression was neutral. He gasped, trying to breath, but then he became very still, and finally lost consciousness. 
    --- --- ---
    Krios awoke to a crunching noise and opened his eyes to the morning light shining through the trees. He sat up, taking a deep gulp of air, and winced. His chest was stinging, and each breath was raw and painful. He turned his head to see Ash sat by the remains of the Shaek, and she was eating it. His nostrils flared as he let his anger simmer, before he pulled himself off of the ground without a word. He looked around for a moment, until finally he found his sword that had been knocked away in the encounter with the Shaek. He picked it up off the ground and wiped away the dirt and debris that had accumulated on it, before placing it back within the sheathe on his belt. 
    For a moment, the crunching stopped. Ash turned, looked Krios up and down, and then returned to the femur, clenched between her teeth. She bit down and the bone shattered with ease, "Good. You are not dead." She finished the mouthful of bone and marrow and then stood up, casting the bone aside.
    "No thanks to you." Krios growled, turning his back on her. "Do you have the head?" He asked. 
    "Head is there." She jerked her head in the direction of the Shaek's dismembered head, it's long tongue lolled from it's mouth. "You are stronger now."
    "You are wrong." Krios said. "Take that head to the king, and you can get yourself some of that shiny metal us apes covet so much. Or you can give it to the village, let them collect the reward. Or you can eat it, for all I care. Most importantly, you better remove yourself from my presence, and make sure you never cross me again. Do you understand?"
    "You are wrong, hunter." Ash replied, picking up the Shaek's head. "We see strength. You are stronger. Take head, trophy of hunt." She threw the head to his feet, "We save blood of prey for hunter," She turned back to the partially eaten corpse of the Shaek, bent over and pulled something from it's cavity. Then she cradled it between her hands like a newborn, and then held it out to Krios, "Take." She offered it with open palms, "Take." She repeated, holding aloft the black heart of the beast. "Eat."
    Krios angrily batted the heart from Ash's hand. "Humans cannot eat that which is tainted by The Blight." He said testily. "You know nothing of us, and presume to know everything. I am exhausted, injured and very, very angry. I am not stronger, in fact you have weakened me, fool. For a creature that shares the mind of it's kin, you are surprisingly cold, and ignorant. I'm sure you will fare far better on your own." And with that Krios turned and walked away from Ash, making his way down to the dirt path nearby and walking back in the direction of Cambra. 
    A low growl rumbled up from Ash's throat as the heart was knocked from her hands. Anger grew into rage as Krios turned his back on her. A moment later something cold and wet struck Krios' back and made a thick, squelching noise as it struck the ground.
    "Human stronger." Ash snarled, and jerked her head to the ground, indicating the long length of the Shaek's tongue that she had torn from it's mouth. "We knew this place when apes still live in trees!" Ash turned her back on Krios and walked away from the village, away from Krios. In response he only shook his head, and continued walking. 
    A few hours later he arrived in the village, tired and hungry. As he walked through Cambra the villagers slowly stopped what they were doing and simply stared at them. He ignored them for the most part, until he was faced with the village Chief. "You have...returned." The Chief said, "You left so suddenly...we weren't sure if you were coming back."
    "Just came to get my horse." Krios replied. "Your monster problem is taken care of. I'll be on my way."
    "'s done?" The Chief asked. "I...thank you."
    "Don't mention it." Krios said. "Where's my horse?"
    "Oh...we had it put in the stable." The Chief said. " I ask-"
    "No, you may not." Krios said, and he walked away from the Chief and made his way towards the stable. When he had reached the doors he heard footsteps moving quickly behind him, and he turned to see a woman, who looked worried. "You're...that hunter who came to my house." The woman said. Krios eyed her for a moment. 
    "Lydia, was it?" He asked. 
    "Yes...and you're Krios." She said. "Um...where is Ash?"
    "Gone." He replied simply. 
    "She...she was killed?" Lydia asked, holding her hand to her mouth. 
    "No, gone, as in left." Krios said. 
    "But where is she going?" Lydia asked. 
    "Don't know, don't care." Krios replied. "Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get going."
    " look exhausted." Lydia said. "Please, you've taken care of that's only right that you stay. We'll get you a good meal, let you bathe and rest." Krios sighed. The offer was tempting. 
    "I never arranged a fee with any of you." He said. "You don't owe me anything."
    "Oh, don't be silly." Lydia said. "Please stay, just until the tomorrow. You can set off at Dawn."
    "...Sure." Krios said finally. "Thank you."
    By the time he had bathed himself, eaten, and cleaned his armor the afternoon quickly disappeared. The blacksmith, Johan, offered to clean his sword, which he gratefully accepted. As darkness descended once more he found himself sitting in the tavern, sipping on ale that tasted like watered down piss, but packed a healthy punch. The ale gave him a warm feeling in his chest, and he felt a lot better after having a meal. Fortunately, he felt like he would recover fully before long. A night's rest, perhaps, and then he would be right as rain. As he drained his mug of it's remaining contents, a fresh one was placed before him, and the blacksmith, Johan, sat opposite him at the table. 
    "Looking a bit lonesome there." He said cheerfully. "Need a bit of company?"
    "Not really." Krios said. "But if you keep the drinks flowing I'll tolerate it."
    "Uh...right." Johan said. "So what happened out there?"
    "You don't want to know." Krios said. "We found the monster, killed it, end of story."
    "You and...Ash." Johan said. "...Lydia said she never came back."
    "Probably for the best." Krios said. "She was making people uneasy, right?"
    "Well, yes...but." Johan sipped his ale. "Well, it might have gotten better. She won't have as much luck anywhere else. I mean...most folk will try to lop her head off before getting to know her."
    "...I suppose." Krios said, drinking a large gulp of ale. "...She can take care of herself, though. I wouldn't worry about her if I were you."
    "Right...I suppose not." Johan said. "So...where are you from?"
    "Elisee." Krios said. 
    "Where's that?" Johan asked. "Never heard of it."
    "North." Krios replied. "About as far North as you can go. Way out in the middle of nowhere. Doesn't get a lot of visitors."
    "Ah, right." Johan nodded. "So is that where you're headed then? Back home?"
    "It's not my home." Krios replied. "Not any more."
    "Oh...okay." Johan said. Then he fell silent. The two men continued drinking, neither really knowing what to say to one another. 
    Johan looked like he was working up trying to say something. Krios ignored it, despite noticing. He hoped that perhaps the blacksmith would give up and leave him alone. However, Johan found his words eventually, and spoke up. " you play Kabak, by any chance?" Krios looked up from his ale, a sudden intrigue in his eyes. 
    "Play it?" Krios said with a smirk. "I dominate it."
    "So you'll play me then?" Johan said with a grin. "Nobody in the village can beat me."
    "I never say no to Kabak." Krios said. 
    Hours flew by. Krios and Johan engaged themself in the game of Kabak, a game that involved a board, pieces with different rules, playing cards, and dice. To anyone who had never played the game, it must have seemed nonsensical. The rules constantly changed depending on the roll of a dice, or a combination of cards played. Not to mention the rules and conditions seemed endless. At one point, as part of the game's rules, Krios had to go outside and pick precisely 13 white petalled flowers from outside. The flowers were then immediately discarded on his return. The ale flowed, and soon a crowd began to gather to watch the two men play the game, although most people weren't entirely sure who was winning, or indeed what the conditions of winning actually were. The game dragged on for so long, that soon the crowd had gotten tired and left. And then, finally, Krios placed a card down and moved a piece, and then he stood up and yelled; "Kabak!" as he held his hands in the air, celebrating his victory. Although there was no applause or cheering. Nobody really cared by that point. He recalled very little after that, but needless to say he awoke at dawn the next day with a blinding headache, still on the floor of the tavern. 
    "You be having some breakfast, love?" Asked the woman who ran the tavern as she stepped over him with a tray of dishes. 
    "Aye...that'd be grand." Krios muttered, and closed his eyes to dull the blinding pain of the light. 


  14. Krios knelt by the river, he had removed his gloves and was washing his face with the water. A few feet from him his newly acquired horse waited patiently. Krios stood up and turned to the chestnut coloured mare and laid his hand on her neck. "Not half bad, lass." He said with a soft smile. "You made good time." He turned back towards the river and his gaze followed along it. Upstream, a small village sat by the river, a homely little place that seemed to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine. "What do you think, lass?" He said to his horse. "Is that Cambra, hm?" The horse, unsurprisingly, did not respond. Krios gave another soft smile. "Looks peaceful enough. Hard to think they're having monster troubles." He said. And no sooner, a woman's scream cut through the forest, coming from the town. Soon other cries followed. Something was wrong. Krios pulled his gloves back on and leaped on to the horses' saddle, digging his heels in to her side. "Hya!" he cried as the horse went off at gallop. 


    The horse carried him over the hill by the river and back up on to the path, and made a beeline for the village. In moments they had breached the gates and skidded to a halt at the sign of a small crowd. The villagers gasped at the sight of a stranger amidst their troubles, and backed off from his horse. Krios came down from the beast and stepped forward, his eyes scanning the area for any signs of a threat. "I heard a scream." He said to the crowd. "What troubles you?"

    "It's Roderick!" A young woman cried, "Oh, Gods, it's horrible!"

    "Show me." Krios said calmly. 

    "I...I found him in the barn." She said, "Please, follow me!"


    Krios walked with the woman, a few villagers tagging along behind him. They walked across the square and down a small wynd, until they reached a large barn. The woman stopped at the door, too fearful to go any further. "He...he's in there." She said hysterically. "Oh, Gods..."

    "I'll go take a look." Krios said, and he stepped passed her, slowly opening the barn door, and he stepped inside. As he breached the threshold of the barn, his eyes had taken a mystical purple hue, as he swept his gaze over the scene. After a moment he seemed satisfied, and his eyes turned to their usual blue. He walked further in to the barn, where the remains of a man lay within the hay stacks, the ground around his soaked with blood. There were a few gasps of horror behind him as other villagers entered, but he paid them no mind. 


    He squatted down over the body, examining the scene. The man, Roderick, his chest was soaked in blood. Bits of viscera were strewn about him, and his face was stuck in an expression of horror. 

    "Someone's murdered him!" An older man said, who was clutching an old staff. 

    "Not someone." Krios said softly. "Some thing."

    "Wh-what?" A worried villager stuttered. "What do you mean?"

    "The wounds." Krios explained, and he moved his hands over the chest of the corpse. "No blade did this. It's a mess, I know, but...look closely." Krios moved himself over the man, holding his hands at the waist of the corpse, making a clawing motion. "He was impaled here, by very long claws. It dug in deep, and raked upwards, slashing his organs along the way."

    "Oh, Gods..." Another villager whispered. 


    "I saw him only last night." The elderly man said. "He was fine." Krios removed one of his gloves and dipped his fingers, the the crowd's disgust, in the eviscerated guts of Roderick's corpse.

    "Cold." Krios said after a moment, and he removed his fingers. "It probably happened before dawn, perhaps later."

    "This's terrible." The elderly man said. "I...this is my fault."

    "How so?" Krios said, as he stood u to face the man. "Do you know what did this?"

    "I...I should never have allowed such a creature to stay within our midst." The man said. 

    "Creature?" Krios repeated, his head tilting. "You've been keeping a beast? Here, in the village?"


    "Not a beast! A woman!" Someone else yelled. "If you can even call her that! She's a freak!"

    "I...don't understand." Krios said. "Is it a woman, or a beast?"

    "Both." The elderly man said solemnly. "One of the children found her down by the river. Lydia...she cared for the thing, nursed her to health."

    "Not a very wise choice, the blight has no cure." Krios said gravely. "Why didn't you call the King's Guard? Who's in charge here?"

    "I am." The elderly man said. "I am the Chief of Cambra." 


    "Then this man's life, it might well be on you." Krios said sourly. "Where is this woman? How bad were her marks? She must have transformed last night."

    "She had no marks at all." The Chief said. "At least...not that we could see. She's...she's not human, sir. She is...something else."

    " strange." Krios said, nodding. "Perhaps she was transitioning from human to beast...although I've never heard of such a thing."

    "And who are you, exactly?" Chief asked

    "Krios of Elisee." Krios replied. "I came here to hunt your monster."


    " seems you were too late." the Chief said sadly. 

    "Perhaps not." Krios said. "Is it still here?"

    "I...oh dear." The Chief said. "Lydia...oh no, she was in her house!"

    "Where!?" Krios snapped with a tone of urgency. 

    "Uh...up the hill." The Chief said. "The house that face out on to the river."


    Krios stepped away from the Chief, and metal screeched as he drew his sword from it's sheathe. "Get your people indoors." He ordered. "Do not let anyone follow me, it'll only slow me down." And with that he pushed through the crowd of villagers and left the barn, running through the village as fast as his legs could carry him. When he reached the top of the hill he vaulted the gate that lead to the house, and stopped dead. There was nobody to be seen outside the house, and the whole scene was deathly quiet. He fought the urge to run in and kick down the door, he had no idea what he was walking in to. But this Lydia woman could be in danger, and she had a child with her. He stepped lightly as he approached the house. He stopped outside the door and paused, listening. Not a sound. 


    He lifted his right hand up to the door, and he held it a few inches from the oak. He closed his eyes, concentrating intently. "Voorhes!" He whispered, and a sensation of force travelled up his arm and out of his palm. The sensation passed through the door like a ghost, and made it's way through the house like a ripple. A vague image projected in his mind, shapes he could identify as normal household items. Tables, furniture, some sort of vase on a table with flowers. He could see the layout of the small home, but it was entirely still. Then, for the briefest of moments, something disturbed the ripple. Something small. A child, perhaps only shuffling in place out of discomfort. They were hiding. "Hello! I know you're in there!" Krios yelled at the top of his lungs. "Please...please don't move. Stay where you are...don't let it find you. I'm coming in to help...just hang on!" He reached for the handle of the door with his outstretched hand, and carefully turned the handle. 


    Claire looked up to the rafters, where Ash lay motionless atop a wooden beam, she held a single finger to her lips, motioning for silence and Claire nodded and stood perfectly still. The door slowly opened and a man stepped inside. For a few moments, Ash studied the man, taking in his stride and the weapon he kept. Then, silently, four long, thin arms extended from her back, each one ended with a deadly-looking stinger. She rolled her shoulders as though she was getting comfortable, then stretched out her extra limbs and they gently pressed against the rafters on either side of her, taking her full weight without issue. Then she lowered herself to the ground, touching the flooring with her bare feet without making a single noise. Her additional limbs retracted into her back quickly and quietly, and then she paused, waiting as she watched the human venture further into the house.


    Krios moved purposefully, each step one of precision, as he listened for any sound of movement. As he stepped further in to the house he moved his gaze to the stairs, and went to go up them. As he did, however, the slightest of movements from behind him caused him to turn. It was then that he spotted the little girl, who had once again shifted uncomfortably. When he saw where her eyes were locked, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and he spun around with a deft swing of his sword. 


    Surprise was almost the end of her, she had not accounted for the little one. But her instincts saved her faster than her reflexes could, and Krios' blade sang with the sonorous ring of metal as it bounced off one of Ash's extra limbs.
    "You are weak." She hissed, and brought one leg up to kick Krios in the chest. Krios moved his body with his deflected sword, spinning around, he swung his sword from the other side as Ash's foot came at him. At the last moment he turned his blade on it's flat edge and took the force of her strike with his blade. The force that came from her slight frame surprised him and he stumbled backwards, his arms ringing with pain from absorbing the force of the strike. He stepped backwards from her, keeping his distance with his sword in front of him, keeping his weight on his back foot as they began to circle each other, both waiting for the other to leave an opening. 
    "I won't let you hurt these people." Krios said firmly, his brow furrowed, his eyes locked intently on Ash's own black orbs. 
    "Empty words!" Ash hissed and advanced on Krios. She had to admit, his sword skills were impressive, and she was in a cramped space which made using her stingers unwieldy at best. She deflected several of his attacks, but one managed to slice into her shoulder, and she shrieked in pain and fell to one knee, she felt the kill blow coming and let him get just close enough, and then she whipped her stinger up with enough force to knock the blade from his hands and send it into the ceiling where it lodged permanently. But as Ash tried to stand, Krios used the hilt of the embedded blade to vault over her and land behind her, but as she felt his arm wrap around her neck, something stopped him.
    "No you can't hurt her!!" Claire cried, and ineffectively thumped Krios repeatedly.
    "It matters not, we are many. Finish it, ape. The Hive will feast on your marrow." She hissed.
    "No, let go of her!!" Claire continued to beat her fists against Krios' leg.
    "Get back!" Krios said to the child, "She'll kill you!"
    "No she won't!" Claire screamed. "She didn't do it! She didn't, she was here!"
    "Is..." Krios paused for a moment, but kept his grip firmly on Ash's neck. "Did you kill that man in the village?" He could feel her pulse in his grip, but it was unusual, not like any human's. His eyes hardened as he tried to remain focused. Questions kept passing through his mind. Who were this Hive she spoke of? How could this monster speak? He had never encountered anything like that.
    "Does it matter if we did?" Ash asked, her lips curling back into a snarl. A long black tongue snaked out, tasting the air and then retreated back between her lips, "You cared not if we did when you attacked us."
    "The creatures I fight do not typically allow me to question them." Krios replied coldly. "I seek the beast that killed that man. And you..." Krios released his grip and stepped away from Ash. "You are not it." He said, in a tone suggesting that he had only just realized it himself. 
    Ash remained still for a few seconds, her prehensile limbs stretched slightly and relaxed, and then quickly folded in on themselves and disappeared into her back. Suddenly, however, she whirled around and charged Krios, pinning him against the nearest pillar and lifting him a foot from the ground.
    "This one would eat your tongue!" She screeched in a fit of rage.
    "Release me." Krios growled angrily. "I have no quarrel with you."
    "This one has quarrel with you!" She hissed, tightening her grip. However, a thought occurred to her. While satisfying this indiscretion was perfectly reasonable, she was accused of killing the ape who had named her 'monster'. This hunter was likely the only one who could alleviate their hive's lust for revenge. She resigned herself to releasing him, and did so, taking a step back she stalked over to his blade and grabbed the hilt. The floor creaked under immense tension, and then suddenly splintered as the blade was pulled free. She walked back to Krios and pushed the weapon to his chest, "Take your precious metal stick." She snarled, and then walked outside.
    Krios sheathed his sword and followed Ash out of the house. "Hold on." He said as he caught up to her. "You said that your people?"
    Ash seemed perplexed by the question, "We are Hive."
    "I...see." Krios said, he paced around her, inspecting her body in the light. "...Like an insect." He muttered to himself. "Still..." His eyes flashed purple for a brief moment and then reverted. "Not a scrap of the Blight on you. You're...something else." He could hardly believe it if it the evidence was not standing in front of him. He had travelled up and down the known regions of Ao. He had crossed the Sand Sea. Yet he had never encountered a sentient race like the one who stood before him. 
    "We are Hive." Ash repeated her statement, "You are one, we are many. That is why you are weak." She growled with pride.
    "I only see one of you." Krios said. "And in case you haven't noticed, there is a lot of my kind."
    "There is many, much chaos. No unity." Ash stalked around Krios, examining him thoroughly, "Weak, /fleshy/ body. Teeth of /prey/. You see one, but hear many. /Stupid/ mammal." She seemed more annoyed at what she perceived to be weaknesses, than anything else. Krios' eyes moved around her, giving each part of her a cursory glance. 
    "Your body is your armor, and your weapon." He observed. "A natural predator. Skill based entirely on instinct. I'm impressed, but with nature, not with you." He tapped his fist twice, firmly, on his shoulder. "Our flesh is soft, so we harden it with armor." Then he placed his hand on his sword. "No claws, no fangs, so we forge our own." He gave Ash a stern look. "Our bodies are weak, but our minds and hearts are not." He explained. "We observe, we learn, and we train." He continued, pacing around Ash. "We endure. We survive."
    He stepped away from Ash and and folded his arms. "Tell me...Hive" He couldn't think of anything better to call her. "You hunt prey, but have you ever hunted a predator?"
    "The others call us 'Ash'," She replied, "'Hive' is accurate. Call us what you will." Her top lip curled in distaste, "Inefficient, metal is weak, can be taken. Broken..." She paused, considering the ape's meaning, "All are prey. We are apex."
    "Yet we survive." Krios said with a nod. "Let me ask you this, then. Do the Hive know of debt?"
    "What is 'debt'?" Ash asked, staring expectantly at Krios.
    "Those people." Krios nodded towards the house. "They took you in, gave you shelter. Our culture dictates that you return their favor, if you are honourable, at least. Those people are in danger, as are all of the people in this village. They cannot defend themselves against the monster that lurks nearby, and so you, as one who is capable, and who owes a debt, should help them." Krios turned his back on Ash and walked back towards the village. "I too owe a debt, to you. I attacked you without cause. Allow me to repay you in the form of a greater challenge, and allow yourself to pay your debt at the same time."
    "Debt is reciprocation?" She queried, matching pace with him.
    "No, debt is what you have if you do not reciprocate." Krios explained. "Those with a heavy debt will suffer in the next life, or so The Way teaches." Krios smirked at himself. He was hardly the type to be preaching The Way to anyone. 
    "Debt is irrelevant. This one will come for hunt." She growled softly, then she noticed Krios smiling, "Why that face?" She asked, pointing at him, "Like clingy grub of Cambra hive."
    "We smile when we're happy." Krios said, and then he paused, "Or...sometimes when we're sad, or when we are lying." He shook his head awkwardly from side to side. "It involuntary reflex. Does that make more sense?"

    "You are three-tongued and seven-faced." Ash squirmed uncomfortably, "Do not speak mind. Speak like riddle, say thing, do other. Call us 'monster'?" She made a chittering sound with her throat.


    "Haha!" Krios gave a short roar of genuine laughter. "'re right about that, unfortunately." Krios said. "We are not perfect, and some are worse than others. But we try." Krios led Ash to the barn door and opened it. The village was now empty and quiet, all of it's inhabitants hiding in their homes. Krios nodded for Ash to enter the barn. "Come see what makes these gentle people so frightened. We call it The Blight..."

  15. Rain poured down on the the small hamlet of Henley as the dawn began to breach. Villagers trotted through the thick, sludgy mud, for the poor weather would not care to feed them. Work still had be done. The distant but rhythmic sound of a hammer hitting steel echoed through the rain, moving in time with the purposeful steps of King's Guard as he strode through the town's square with a squire boy in tow. He grimaced from the overwhelming smell of piss and shit, covering his nose with his gloved hand, as the boy struggled to keep up with him through the thick mud. The young lad was poorly dressed for the conditions, and he had not spent years marching up and down the country to harden his resolve like the guard had. "Slow your stride, tread with purpose, lad." The King's Guard called back to him. "If you keep fightin' it you'll end up on your arse."

    "Yes, Sir!" The boy said timidly, "Sorry, Sir!"


    "Grow a spine, lad. I'm giving you advice, not a bollocking." The Guard said as he reached the large board placed in the centre of the square. When he reached it he turned to the squire and held out his hand. The boy fumbled in his pockets for a moment and then retrieved a piece of rolled up parchment, which he dutifully handed to the officer. He rolled out the parchment and placed it on the board, holding out his hand again and the boy handed him a hammer and nails. The Guard hammered the nails to the parchment, keeping it pinned to the board. In no time the villagers had begun to flock, keen to read the new notice, 


    "By order of the King..." One of them murmured to themselves as they read. "...1,000 gold coins for the head of any monster? What a crock of shite! How are we supposed to kill one of them awful creatures!?"

    "One of em's been giving us grief for weeks!" Another protested. "We've only got three pigs left!"

    "All the more reason to be vigilant against this threat." The Guard said calmly. "Just think what that kind of gold could do for Henley. You could buy 10 pigs for that, and still have enough left to buy a couple of sacks of grain."

    "Better using that gold to build a fucking wall if you ask me!" One of the villagers cried. "Only thing that'll keep that bastard out of here."


    "If you slayed the beast, you wouldn't need a wall." The Guard pointed out. 

    "And who's gonna do that then?" Came the response. "That bloody hunter we hired has been gone three days. Reckon we'll find his bones in a ditch somewhere by now."

    "Hunter?" The Guard asked. "A hunter of monsters?"

    "Aye." Said one woman who was carrying a toddler in her arms. "Came in from the West Marsh about a week ago. Said he hailed from Elisee."

    "Elisee?" The Guard repeated. "Tell me, was there anything unusual about this hunter?"


    "Plenty." The woman said. "Funny accent. Doesn't sound like he's from around here. Doesn't sound like he's from anywhere really. An' if scars were gold he'd be a rich man."

    "Scars? Did he have one on his face?" The Guard asked. 

    "Aye, like claws." The woman said, and she made a raking gesture over her left jaw and cheek, and up past her eye. "Three big slashes up his face."

    ", it couldn't be." The Guard said, shaking his head. "So this man hasn't returned then?"

    "Well, obviously." The woman replied. "Else I'd introduce you."


    Just then there was a commotion down the hill from the square. What startled as a gentle rumble of discontent, eventually turned in to gasps of shock and awe. Soon a small crowd had gathered, moving up the hill, whooping and cheering praise. The King's Guard watched as the crowd moved up to the square, obscuring the person that held their attention. The Guard step forward, yelling for the villagers to calm down and move aside. Slowly, they began to part away, and a man emerged from the centre of them. 


    He was tall, and broad. He wore light, leather armor, a dark brown colour. His shoulders, upper arms and abdomen were covered with silver mail, and on his  belt was a single, sheathed broadsword. His boots were caked in mud, and a long dagger was sheathed and strapped around his right thigh. His hair was a mess of shoulder length, brown hair, with a single thick braid at the back that reached the length of his back. The man looked up at the guard, his eyes were a pale blue, but for a brief moment they flashed a cool shade of purple, before returning to their natural state. His cheeks and jaw were covered in a thick, dark stubble, and across the left of his face were three deep, claw-like scars. But the reason the villagers had been cheering was because of what the man carried in his hand. He held, by tufts of it's fur, the head of a monstrous wolf-like creature with fur as black as night, and teeth as big as daggers. It's lifeless eyes were a pale red, and blood dripped from it's tongue which hung loosely out of it's mouth. The man dropped the creature's head on the ground in front of the guard, who instantly recoiled. 


    "What in blazes is that!?" The Guard grimaced. 

    "Blutwarg." The man replied, his voice gruff but well spoken. "Don't see much of them up this way. Took a while to track him on foot."

    " killed this monster?" The Guard asked. 

    "I bloody well hope so." The man said with a smirk. "Thing's been terrorizing Henley for a few weeks now. Still, it won't be bothering anyone now."

    "And...who are you?" The Guard asked. 

    "Krios." The man replied. "Krios of Elisee."

    " I was right." The Guard said. "You're the one they tell stories about. Krios of Elisee, The Bane of the Blight."


    "Krios will do fine." Krios said, raising his brow. "Do you have business with me?"

    "It appears you have already done what is required." The Guard said. "The King will grant you a hefty reward for this creature's head."

    "Oh." Krios said with a nod. "No thank you." He added, and he turned to walk away. 

    "Wait!" The Guard said. "Are you mad, man? The King has issued a reward of 1,000 gold coins for any monster head he is brought."

    "That's mighty generous of him." Krios said, stopping in his tracks. "I'd surely take his gold if I had a head to give him. That one belongs to the people of Henley."

    "But you killed it." The Guard said


    "Aye, I did." Krios nodded. "But I don't work for free. I already set my price for this head, it's not mine to claim any more."

    "What did the villagers offer you? It can't be more than the King's offer." The guard walked towards Krios to face him again. 

    "A good horse." Krios replied. "My old girl took a nasty fall a few miles from here. Need a new one if I'm going to get around quickly."

    "You could buy 3 horses for the King's reward, sir." The Guard said

    "And that would be superb, if I had a head to give him." Krios said. "In saying that..." He looked around at the villagers. "I wouldn't say no to a bath, a hot meal and a pint, if you're willing to stretch to that."

    "Oh I think we can sort you out with that, laddie." A stout older gentleman said excitedly. "You deserve that much. Come along I'll get you sorted out."


    --- --- ---


    Krios was soaking in a tub when the Guard from earlier entered his room at the local inn. Krios nodded at the man, gesturing that he could come in. The guard came further in to the room so he could speak to Krios. "Sorry to intrude." He said. "The name's Ford, by the way,"

    "Nice to meet you, Ford." Krios said with a polite smile. "What can I do for you?"

    "Is it true? What the stories say about you?" Ford asked. 

    "Depends what stories you've been listening to, I suppose." Krios replied. 

    "Well, I heard that you killed a monster up in Bruisa. Some sort of...serpent...uh...thing?"


    "Sythgaul." Krios said plainly. "Yes, I remember that. What of it?"

    "Well...I..." Ford looked uncomfortable. "That language...Blutwarg, Sythgaul. That's not from our tongue, is it?"

    "It is not." Krios said with a nod.

    "It sounds like..." Ford looked a little nervous. "Like the tongue of the Walkers."

    "Well, that's because it is." Krios said. The he stood up out of the tub and walked across the room with his back to Ford. The guard stared at the mess of scars across Krios' arms and back. He looked like he'd been in many tough battles. Yet the man seemed unfazed by his wounds. 


    "So the other stories are true then?" Ford asked. "You travelled with the Walkers? Learned how to fight like them?"

    "At one time, yes." Krios said as he began to put his clothes back on. "I like to travel. I wouldn't read any more in to it than that."

    "So you're still loyal to the King, then?" Ford asked. 

    "As long as he's paying me." Krios said. "And with the price he's offering, he might be seeing my business quite a lot in future."

    "Ah, so then you're going to hunt more monsters, then?" Ford asked. 


    "Hard not to for that price." Krios said, smirking. "You sound like you have a lead."

    "Uh, maybe." Ford nodded. "A few men were killed chasing down a creature who fled on horseback. We only received news of it today, but it was a few days ago."

    "A monster? On horseback?" Krios scoffed. "Can't be much of a monster if it rides a horse?"

    "Why's that?" Ford asked. 

    "Because the monsters I've met eat horses." Krios said. "A monster has no need for a horse, or a blade for that matter. They've got claws, and teeth, strong enough to shatter a blade, well, most blades."


    "Still, those men were found dead." Ford said. "The creature they were hunting is still on the loose. The King would be handsomely for it's head."

    "Fair enough." Krios said with a nod. "Where?"

    "The nearest village from the attack is Cambra. It's a day's ride from here." Ford explained. "If I was to start looking, I'd go there."

    "Right, well I suppose I can head that way." Krios said. "If only for a laugh. Can't wait to see the monster that rides a bloody horse."


  16. "We shouldn't have come here." Said Vincent. He was sitting at the edge of a large four-poster bed in a lavish room made of crystalline ice, the room he had been given during his stay in Winter's realm. Claire was dressing herself in to more comfortable clothing, a pair of blue jeans and a green turtleneck sweater. She stopped what she was doing to look at Vincent, smiling. 

    "It will be fine, Vincent." She said reassuringly. "Besides we're here now, we might as well get it over with." Vincent didn't look terribly reassured by this, however. 

    "I feel like I'm on edge constantly here." He grumbled. "That Isoleth...she's pretty intimidating."

    "Yes, I suppose she can be." Claire said with a nod. "It's just the way of things here. We are twins, but entirely opposite."

    "I still don't really understand that." Vincent said. "I mean, you're not twins. You're parents aren't the same."


    "Yes, and that would matter in the mortal world." Claire said. "Blood is not a relevant factor for Faeries. Our society is all about balance. For every Faerie of Winter there is an equal and opposite Faerie within Summer. Isoleth and I are reflections of the same thing, seen through a filter of summer and winter."

    "But you're a changeling, you're part mortal." Vincent protested. "That doesn't make sense. I mean, aside from the hair and eye colour, your features are identical. How can that be?"

    "And what of a changeling that becomes a troll? Or a Dryad?" Claire proposed. "Our appearance changes, sweetheart. Isoleth and I are bound through a magic that is beyond the any singular understanding. That is how we maintain balance."


    "Balance? Yeah, sure..." Vincent rolled his eyes. "She's the Queen of Winter, and you're just an emissary for Summer. Tasked with helping mortals like me navigate your realm."

    "So you would see me as Queen of Summer, then?" Claire asked, an impish smirk on her face. 

    "No, that's not what I meant..." Vincent replied. "It just doesn't make sense."

    "Balance isn't always about power and titles." Claire explained. "Isoleth is Queen because she represents everything that mantle requires. She is fierce, unyielding and vengeful. I am none of those things, as already mentioned, I am the opposite. Do you think those are the qualities of a Queen?"

    "I don't think you need to be a bitch to be a Queen." Vincent replied.


    "True. But you do need to be strong, and fearless." Claire said. "That is why Aurora is Queen of Summer. However, Aurora's twin is a timid little Spriggan that tends to Isoleth's sculpture garden. See? Balance."

    "I'll just have to take your word for it." Vincent said with a sigh. "So how does balance fix things if Isoleth finds us out and we both end up dead?"

    "Isoleth could not kill me even if she wanted to." Claire said confidently. "We are the same. While we may not see eye to eye on virtually anything, we have a bond. We could not bear to kill each other. It is a rule." Vincent didn't challenge that. Faerie rules were never broken. Oaths and bonds were sacred and there was no Faerie that could hope to break them. 

    "So if I die, at least she'll have her mother." Vincent said, looking over to the crib on the other side of the room. 


    "Let's try and keep both of us alive, hm?" Claire said. "The palace sleeps. It's now or never."

    "I guess so." Vincent said as he stood up. "So how do we break in to an impenetrable prison?"

    "Only a Sidhe of Winter can open the doors to Arctaeros. And now will open it for us, it would be treason. Winter Sidhe could never do such a thing."

    "Can you get to the 'but' part?" Vincent said impatiently. 

    "However..." Said Claire, as she took his hand. "An agreement with a mortal is binding. That's where you come in."


    "You want me to make a bargain with a Faerie to open the way to Arctaeros? What would I have to offer?" Vincent asked

    "I daresay you have little to offer most Sidhe. However, there is one. She requires something you have, something that will difficult for you to part with."

    "...I'll do it." Vincent said with little hesitation. "Whatever it is, I'll do it to get him out of there."

    "This is your last chance to change your mind." Claire reminded him. "Is it really worth it?"

    "It is." Vincent said. "Let's go find my father."


    --- --- --- 


    "Wakey, wakey, boy." Isoleth whispered harshly in his ear. "Time is of the essence. Do you remember anything else?"

    "...Claire...she was your sister." Vincent said weakly. "Together we came here, pretending we wanted to celebrate the birth of our child with you. But we broke in to Arctaeros to free my father. Because you imprisoned him."

    "I assure you I had little choice in the matter." Isoleth said. "Bargains with mortals, and all that."

    "Who?" Vincent coughed. "Who wanted him imprisoned?"

    "Oh, dear boy. I'm afraid you already know the answer to that." Isoleth replied. "I suppose we still have some work to do..."


    --- --- ---


    "This is ridiculous..." Meredith grumbled. She was walking in the lead of the large group, making sure not to drift too far away from them. The veil she had cast had concealed them from any passing Faeries as they made their way across the frozen forest, towards the palace. Concealing herself and perhaps Violet and David wouldn't have been a problem. However, casting a veil over the motley crew that had come together, which included a giant, flame-wreathed cat, was proving to be taxing even to her intricate senses. "I'm not sure how long I can keep this up..."

    Violet looked to Meredith and smiled, placing her hand on the girl's shoulder.
    "Are you alright?" Violet asked.
    "Not likely." James replied, each of his huge, loping strides were equal to several of their steps, "You should lessen the veil, it would be better to approach in fog, than in plain sight because we tried to be invisible."
    "For goodness sake, I don't see why we can't just blast the lot of them into ash." Vael scowled as she walked alongside the group, giving casual glances towards her ex-husband.
    "Not a good idea." Al piped up. He was looking around the area with his wizard's sight. "There's abou' five thousand Faeries makin' their way to tha' battlefield. The magic in the air is cracklin' like damn electricity. Not to mention some of 'em are just as ancient as you."
    "Besides if you go on the warpath Isoleth will know we're here, and then we're done for." Meredith said. 
    "Boring..." Vael sighed.
    "Shush, mother." Violet scowled at her.
    Dee looked around the group, "So, what's the plan when we get into Isoleth's castle? Do we know where we're going from here?" She raised an eyebrow in expectation, "You /do/ know where Vincent is, don't you, Meredith?"
    "Arctaeros is a labyrinth." Meredith said. "I only know what Vincent remembers. And well, he had help from my mother. I don't know where he'll be once we get inside."
    "I think right now we should worry more about gettin' inside." Al said. "How do we get in, darlin'?"
    "We have to find a certain Sidhe. She's called the Leanan Sidhe." Meredith said. 
    "Are you out of your mind!?" Eve snapped suddenly. "Do you even know what she is!?"
    "Not really." Meredith said, shaking her head. 
    "Leanan Sidhe, the witch of the Aos Si." Eve clarified. "The more romantic legends speak of a beautiful woman who would lure in men, and they would have wonderful but incredibly brief affairs."
    "That sounds like most Sidhe." Meredith admitted. "Mortals are often taken with their beauty."
    "You don't know what I know, though." Eve said. "She's one of those legends that comes in many forms. Leanan Sidhe comes from the Celtic mythology. She was considered a muse, providing inspiration to talented mortals."
    "Again, that's not really surprising." Eli said. "Sidhe constantly make bargains with mortals, providing them power, in exchange for something else."
    "Don't make light of it." Eve said gravely. "The Leanan Sidhe is the muse to mortals, and in exchange they become her pets, literally."
    "What do you mean?" Meredith asked. 
    "She transforms them, twists their souls to become something else." Eve explained. "Banshees, Sirens, Hellhounds, all abominations of her creation. Perhaps her most famous beast, however, you would know as Vlad Dracul."
    "So what, are you going to say 'thank you' when you meet?" Vael asked of Eva with a knowing grin, "Look, from your perspective there's no other way, so we'll simply /have/ to meet this Fae." 
    "I hate to say it, but my mother's right." Violet nodded.
    "I agree," James nodded."
    "Much as I would have liked to avoid her, there's no other way." Dee sighed.
    "That's...a little worrying." Meredith said, scratching her head nervously. "In order to get inside Arctaeros, Vincent had to make a deal with her. In exchange, he offered her his son, to be hers to own."
    "But he doesn't have a son." Eli said, frowning. 
    "Exactly. He tricked her." Meredith said. "She...probably won't be happy about that."
    "She can be mad at him all she wants, it has nothing to do with us." Vael muttered, "So who's going to make the deal?" 
    James stepped forwards, "I'll do it." 
    "You can't." Dee shook her head, "I'm sorry, James, but you're a familiar. You simply can't be bound to such terms. Neither can I. And I have a sneaking suspicion that because of Vincent's transgression, there will be only one person she wants to make a deal with..." Dee turned to look at Violet, her eyes were wet with tears that refused to fall.
    "Of course it's me..." Violet sighed.
    "I think not." Eli said. "With all due respect, I hold more responsibility here."
    "Let's not do this now." Meredith said to him. "You can tell her later."
    "No." Violet interrupted Meredith, "This has to be decided now. I won't let my friends and family sacrifice anything to this creature. I chose to save Vincent, you're all here at my request. If a payment is due, it is mine to give."
    "Thas' even if she'll want it." Al said. "You're from the Void, Violet. In her eyes, you migh' not be any more important than the creatures she's created."
    "Will you all stop it!" Meredith snapped. "Nobody is sacrificing themselves. We'll find a way, like we always do."
    "Damn shame when a lil' kid's got more spirit than all o' us combined." Al said. "How much further do we have to go?"
    "The Leanan Sidhe is one of the most ancient Sidhe. As such she is given her own realm to mark her status." Meredith pointed to a small grove on the other side of the forest. a gentle, emerald glow shone out from the gaps between the trees. "That's where she is."
    "Well alright, we're almost there." Al said. "C'mon then, all y'all, let's get to it."
    "Fantastic." Vael groaned sarcastically.
    "This should certainly be interesting, at the least." James pondered, as they made their way towards the emerald glow of the Leanan Sidhe's realm.
    --- --- ---
    Inside the grove Meredith let the veil fall away. Despite the downright arctic weather they had walked through, the grove itself was untouched by snow. Instead it was a lush, green forest, filled with brightly coloured chirping birds, and the trees were decorated with crawling swirls of flowering ivy. Each of them looked around tentatively, but they saw no sign of the Leanan Sidhe. "She should be here." Meredith said out loud. "This is where they found her before."
    "Let's introduce ourselves." Vael muttered, bored of waiting around for everything. She raised one hand and sent out a strong pulse of magic. "If she can't sense that, she's simply not worth our time." Violet stared at her mother in disbelief.
    "That's my professional opinion," Vael added, smiling and then sighed, expectantly and impatiently awaiting a sign, any kind of sign that she had found them.
    "Very, very good." The voice purred from behind Vael, but before she could react, the Leanan Sidhe had disappeared, and then reappeared next to Violet. "Good genetics, too. Ooh, yes, this one is marvelous. Very strong. I'm sure she'll crumble a few nations before her light goes out." The Leanansidhe was a beautiful, pale skinned woman, with long, curly hair the colour of maple leaves. Her lips were crimson, and when she smiled she showed a pair of small but distinct fang-like canines. Her eyes were yellow and cat-like, and she was dressed in an emerald gown that hugged her slim but curvaceous figure, and fell down past her feet and trailed along the ground. "Haven't seen a Nagloshi in...oh, millenia perhaps. Very nice, I've always been quite jealous of whoever made you."
    "Back off, lady." Violet growled. "I'll crumble more than a nation if--"
    "Charming!" Vael interrupted Violet, patting her daughter's head dismissively, "My name is Vael, the Void is my dominion. This is my daughter, who is coming along quite nicely, and her cat, James." She grinned as the insult landed on James' face,"Al, a wizard, he's alright. Eli, he's my ex-husband, and not a complete idiot. That creature is Eva, and this is Dee, who is... i'm not sure... oh, and that's David. He likes to make tea."
    "--Mother!!" Violet barked, "Listen to me," She continued, turning back to address the Leanan sidhe, "We need to reach Isoleth's prison, the one which holds Vincent Hallow."
    "Oh, really?" The Leanan Sidhe's eyes glinted as she heard the name spoken. "And not one Fae among you. How brazen. But whatever makes you think I should help you?"
    "Because we can give you something in return." Meredith said. The Leanan Sidhe's eyes glinted again as she looked at Meredith like a fat child looks at krispy kreme donuts. 
    "Well aren't you sure of yourself." She said with a smile. "And what have you brought to offer me? I sincerely hope it isn't this reject." She eyed Eve somewhat contemptuously. "Really, I didn't quite expect such a by product. So disappointing. What is it you call yourself? Vampire? Such a brutalisation of the correct vernacular."
    "The Dhampir are brutes." Eve said dismissively. "They have no finesse."
    "They are brutes just as I intended them to be!" The Leanan Sidhe said, her eyes flickering with anger. "Perfect brutes. Shame they produce such...dainty byproducts."
    "Why don;t you just tell us what you want?" Eli said frustratedly. "We have no time for games."
    "You remind me of the last mortal who made such a request of me." The Leanan Sidhe said as she approached Eli. "A cocky little child who cost me dearly, who happens to be spending his last days in the prison he sought so fervently. And now it's your turn to save him, is it? Interesting role reversal."
    "Do not test me." Eli said, frowning. 
    "Or...what?" She replied, smiling. 
    Everything after happened very quickly. Toxic green shards of magic rose out of Eli, crackling like lightning. The energy moved organically, like an extension of him. Sensing how dangerous it was, the Leanan Sidhe quickly backed off, hissing in anger, and her forest reacted to her, darkening. The colourful birds instantly morphed in to large, black, winged harpies that flocked to their master, snapping and snarling. One of them got too close, and the green lightning shot through it's flesh, growing out of the creature like a spore, tearing it in to shreds in seconds. There was a long silence, the only sound being the hissing of the harpies, and the crackling of Eli's magic. In the end it was Meredith who reached out and touched Eli's arm. "Please...we need her." She said softly. 
    "I could force her!" Eli snarled. 
    "You can''s their laws." Meredith said. "They need to make a deal, or they themselves are unable to act."
    "Listen to the little girl." The Leanan Sidhe said, her grin returning. "Even if you can break your own rules, you can't break mine."
    "I wouldn't bet on it, dearie." Vael retorted, grinning at Eli's outburst. James tried interjecting, Dee joined in, soon everyone was talking over one another. Threats were aimed at each side, the forest darkened until it became twisted, and malevolent. Violet pushed her way to the front of the group.
    "I'll make a deal with you!!" Violet called out from amongst the cacophonous noise. Again, the Leanan Sidhe's eyes glinted in excitement. Eli's magic dissipated and the forest returned to it's original form, the harpies becoming cute little birds once more. 
    "And what makes you think you have something to offer?" The Leanan Sidhe approached her quickly, breathing deeply as if she was inhaling Violet's very essence. "Not mortal...but not not mortal...very interesting."
    "What is valuable to you?" Violet asked, trying not to snarl at the woman's approach, "What would you have of me?!" She asked, clenching her fists.
    "Oh, child." The Leanan Sidhe cooed. "My only desire would be to have you reach your full potential, as I do all my pets. And then I would set you to purpose."
    "Keep your grubby hands off my daughter, wisp." Vael muttered, looking down at her with predatory eyes. "You can try it, but i'll kill you before you do."
    "I can do nothing without an agreement, I'm afraid." The Leanan Sidhe replied. "But when one is made, there is nothing you nor I can do about it."
    "Violet." Meredith spoke up. "Don't do this. If you do won't be you any more. I didn't come here to save one person and lose another."
    "Kid's right." Al said. "Ain't no good gonna come from makin' deals with Faeries."
    "And yet you have no other option." The Leanan Sidhe said, grinning. "I don't do favours."
    "We could always go back to my option." Eli growled. 
    "No. Stop." Meredith said, holding her hands up. "All of you just stop! If it has to be someone, then it'll be m-"
    "Me." Eve interrupted. "I'll make the deal." 
    "Eve..." Meredith whispered, quite surprised by the turn of events. 
    "And why would I want a reject like you?" The Leanan Sidhe  asked. "Are you even mortal any more?"
    "Excuse me," Dee stepped forwards, holding her scythe in one hand and resting the other on her hip, "Eve is not a reject. As a Vampire, she is a product of your own hand, and so any failing on her part is not her fault, but your own. This is not up for debate, when you create life, you are bound to it's actions." Dee then levelled her scythe at the sidhe, "More importantly, as bitten against her will, Eve has a soul, and so free will, her mortality is irrelevant." She paused for a moment, studying the sidhe, "If you know what I am, then you would /best/ accept my council." She levelled her scythe, and touched it to the ground, and a menacing ringing sound filled the glade for an uncomfortably long moment.
    "Oh..." The Leanan Sidhe looked quite calm, except for her eyes which seemed suddenly filled with terror. Then she clapped her hands together and smiled. "Okay then, Vampire. So in exchange for safe passage for all of your friends you agree to be...mine. You give up your free will, in order to be my play thing. Do we have an accord?"
    "Eve...are you sure?" Meredith asked. 
    "...I've lived a long life." Eve said. "The closest thing I can recall to a parent was the vampire who made me. Even he discarded me, ultimately. Lucia was kinder, but only to manipulate me to do her bidding. That is just how my kind are. Even now I am only here because I was ordered to do so. I will agree to this without regret, with only one extra condition."
    "And that is?" The Leanan Sidhe asked. 
    "Whatever I become...I wish to see the sun." Eve said. "If I can walk in the sun, then I agree to your terms."
    "Well, that's easy enough." The Leanan Sidhe said. "Alright then, it is agreed." There was a strange hum of energy in the air, the peculiar sensation that always happened when magical contracts were made. "I am afraid you will not be able to go with your friends, you're mine now."
    "Eve...I'm sorry." Meredith said. "I...I wish we had time to say goodbye."
    "Well, you don't!" The Leanan Sidhe said. "Safe travels, oh and just FYI, you never said anything about leaving Arctaeros. Byeee."
    "No, wait!" Meredith cried, but before she could finish speaking, she disappeared in to the aether along with everyone else, leaving only Eve and the Leanan Sidhe alone. 
    "Well, well, well..." She said, folding her arms. "And just what shall we make of you? I have so many ideas."
    "You cannot." A rasping voice said. The Leanan Sidhe turned around to see where the voice was coming from. Yet she could not see anything. 
    "What's going on?" Eve asked. "Who's there?"
    "It is I." The rasping voice said, and then a large, black cat appeared at Eve's feet. "Eldest."
    "Summer Fae!" The Leanan Sidhe screeched. "How dare you encroach in my domain!?"
    Once again the forest transformed in to a dark reflection of itself, and the harpies descended on Eldest. The Cait Sith pounced, and disappeared, and in a flurry of teeth and claws he ravaged the creatures, while they squawked in horror, until finally they were just a pile of flesh and feathers on the ground. Eldest landed with a soft tap and spat a few small feathers from his mouth. "Weak." He said simply. "Disappointed. I expected beterrr frrrom the mother of demons."
    "What do you want, cat!?" The Leanan Sidhe hissed. "You have no right to be here!"
    "The wizzzard has done as asked." Eldest said. "He has brought a rrrightful heirrr. A corrronation is at hand."
    "What are you talking about!?" The Leanan Sidhe shrieked again.
    "One who loves life. One who loves the sun." Eldest said, turning to look at Eve. "One who has now, through sacred bond, become Fae."
    "I...I don't understand." Eve said nervously. "What do you mean coronation?"
    "All in time, Lady Spring." Eldest said. "Come, the horn of war is sounding. Summer's forces reign down on Winter. Come with me, to safety." Eldest leapt up as if to land in her arms, but as he reached her they both disappeared. Her rage boiling over, the Leanan Sidhe let out a final, blood curdling screech. And before she had finished, her screech was dissipated by the booming sound of a horn. Brilliant light cut through the dark clouds over Winter, and from the skies, Summer descended. 
    All manner of creature poured out from the light, gnomes riding pegasus, goblins on drakes, faeries, pixies, Sidhe, and much more peculiar creatures. And ahead of the pack, a woman with hair the colour of fire, dressed in form fitted silver armour, descended on the back of an enormous, black dragon. From the dark and icy depths, the legions of Winter roared their battle cry, and war was finally upon Winter.



  17. The sound of the shovel cutting through dirt rang through Shaun's ears like a gunshot. He awoke so suddenly, as if he had just had a shot of adrenaline injected in to his heart. He leaned forward to sit up, and immediately smacked his head against something hard. He winced at the throbbing pain in his head, and felt around the container he was in. It was lined with a soft fabric. He didn't know where he was, or how he had got there. He tried pushing on the surface that was only a few inches above his body. He tried pushing it, but it appeared to be sealed up tight. There was another sudden and close scraping noise above him, followed by a more distant drumming, like heavy rain drops, or when someone drums their fingers along a table. "H-help!" He screamed, hoping someone could hear him. "Is anyone there!?"

    "Shut up!" Rose whispered, knowing the boy would likely still hear her despite being under several feet of dirt. "This is the last time I'm digging something up. I am so over this." 


    Shaun froze as he heard the voice, a little in disbelief. "Miss....Miss Walker!?" He yelled. 

    Rose winced at the boy yelling, and in response, she stamped her foot on the ground. "Keep your voice down!" She said as loudly as a whisper would allow. "Relax, you're in a coffin."

    "How is that supposed to relax me!?" Shaun snapped, although he'd lowered his voice to a hiss. "What's going on!?"

    "You remember getting shot?" Rose asked, "Well, you're in a coffin. You do the math." She heaved another shovel full of dirt over her shoulder. She was almost there now.

    "I..." Shaun went to argue but he paused, as memories of the shooting flashed through his head with a sudden, piercing clarity. "I...I died." It wasn't a question. He knew it now. He moved his hand up his chest, feeling for any sign of a heartbeat, but he already knew there wasn't one. All so suddenly he realised how still his body was. No heartbeat, no breathing. Just what was going on?


    "Well the bad news is, you're dead." Rose set the shovel to one side and started clawing the dirt away from the top half of the coffin, "The good news is, you're undead."

    "So, like...I'm a zombie?" Shaun asked. The sound of the dirt being scraped away was deafening from inside the coffin. 

    "No. That's stupid. But you might be a Ghast or Ghoul. That would be bad though. You would be horrifically disfigured for one thing. Hopefully you're a Vampire, but to be honest I've never sired before and I might have fluffed the process. Let's see..." Rose grabbed hold of the coffin lid and yanked it open. "Oh...  Oh no...  It's awful." Rose stared down at Shaun, "I'm so sorry Shaun... your face..."

    "Wh-what!?" Shaun sat up, finally, and his hands instantly went to his face. It didn't feel any different. "What's wrong with my face?"

    "It's completely the same. I'm so sorry." Rose flashed a toothy grin and grabbed Shaun, pulling him out of the coffin. "Rise and shine, kid."


    Shaun emerged from the hole in the ground and, as he looked around the graveyard, he looked a little surprised. "" He turned his head suddenly, hearing something. It was like a rustling noise, quick. He was struggling trying to process it in his head. It was as if the noise was close enough to be only a few inches from his ear, but somehow he could tell that it's source was much further away. "I feel a little..." He looked skywards. "Whoa..." The night sky was more alive than he had ever seen it before. It was an explosion of colour and light, each star bright and clear, and there were more of them than he had ever imagined. 

    "Not bad, huh?" Rose smiled. "How do you feel?"


    "Cold, mostly." Shaun replied, his gaze still pointed skywards. "Although it doesn't really feel bad, you know?"

    "Yes," A lop-sided grin spread across her face, "I know." Rose chuckled and for a few moments she studied Shaun in silence, "Well, I've heard of violence, disbelief, begging, confusion, but I've never heard a fledgling quietly accept their situation.

    "Maybe give it a minute." Shaun said, and he couldn't help but smile. "Part of me still thinks this is a dream. I mean...I'm dead, and that seems like a scary thought. But I feel..." Shaun took a deep breath and closed his eyes, savoring his silence, listening to the cacophony of sounds that made his dull little town feel more alive than he had ever known before. "...I feel clear. whole life there's been this fog in front of me. I've struggled to concentrate, to really even care about anything very strongly." He touched his face where his glasses normally sat. "To see like this, it's pretty exhilarating for a kid who can't see anything but blurred shapes three feet in front of him without glasses."


    "You think that's something, you should have seen me." Rose got lost in her thoughts for a moment, "So, congratulations on becoming a Vampire." She smiled at Shaun, then bent over and picked up the shovel and threw it to him, "Close that hole."

    "Uh...why?" Shaun asked after catching the shovel. "I mean, I have no idea how I'm going to explain this to my mom, but she's going to have to find out somehow."

    "Shaun, you were in a grave. You were a corpse. You had a funeral. Is any of this sinking in?" Rose frowned at him, "Everyone you know, including your mother, believe you're dead. That's the way it has to be."


    "Wait..." Shaun frowned. "But...where the hell am I supposed to go now? I'm 17 years old, I'm still in school." He shook his head. "Look I know this is hard to explain but, if I show them, they'll see...I just..." He sighed.

    "There it is." Rose nodded, smiling. She put her hand on Shaun's shoulder, "Everyone thinks their friends, their family, will accept them for who and what they are, no matter what. Often because, those people have been telling you this all your life. But words are easy, Shaun. Actions speak for themselves. It's always the same. Believe me, I know." Rose paused for a moment, "You're not in school, that doesn't matter right now. What's important is teaching you how to be a good Vampire. Without that, you won't live very long."


    "But I'm already dead, right?" Shaun said a little heatedly. "What, did you think we'd just skip off wherever you want, that I'd just nod my head and go with it? What about what I want?"

    "Alright, Shaun." Rose sighed, "What do you want? Do you want to stay in this town? Do you want to live with your mother? Do you want to watch your friends age and die around you, while you live on? How long before people around you start to wonder?" Rose paused, letting it sink in, "That man that lives up the road, he's what, 60 now? He doesn't look a day over 20. Nothing strange there."

    "I don't know!" Shaun said angrily. "I never asked for this! But it doesn't matter, because you basically just said it. I don't have a choice, I never did." Shaun went over to the pile of dirt by the grave and started shoveling it back in to the hole. "Just forget it. I've been doing what my mom wants my whole life, guess this isn't any different."


    "The difference, Shaun, is that without me, you'll die. I tell you what to do now, so you can survive. I'll help you, so that you can thrive. Life isn't easy for Vampires, but we like it like that. You'll come to understand that one day, I think. It was difficult for me to understand, to come to terms with abandoning my family and friends, but it was for the best..." Rose rummaged around in her leather jacket pocket and pulled out a small, clear bag, full of red liquid. It was, of course, a blood pack. "Here, drink this." She threw the bag to Shaun. He caught it and examined it. The thought of drinking blood repulsed him, but holding the bag seemed to bring forward a slumbering thirst he hadn't quite been aware of until that moment. Angrily, he threw the bag back at Rose. 

    "If life's so hard for vampires, why didn't you just leave me dead?" He threw the shovel on the ground and stormed off, turning his back on Rose. 

    Rose snatched the blood pack from the air and spoke, but her voice was different. It was a command, one that couldn't be refused, "Stop." She watched as Shaun came to an abrupt halt, she sauntered over to him and opened the blood pack. The sweet, metallic scent of blood filled the air. She took a long gulp from the blood pack and swallowed it.
    "Smell that?" Rose asked, holding the bag up to the static boy's nose, "Rule No.1 - You need to drink blood. Not just to survive, but to protect those around you. I'm not going to command you to drink it, I forced you to become a Vampire because I wanted to offer you a second chance at life, but if you choose to die, I won't stop it." She pushed the bag into his hands and stepped back. "You can move now." She said finally.
    Shaun stepped back from Rose, for the first time a little fearful of her. "H-how did you do that?" He asked. 
    "It's the bond." Rose replied simply, "As your Sire, you are bound to me as much as I am to you. If I give you a direct command, you will be forced to follow it or suffer the consequences." Rose curled her lips in distaste, "I don't like doing it, so when I ask you to do something, it is out of your own benefit. I would ask you listen. I am not your teacher any more, and you are not my student. We are so much more."
    "Yeah, master and slave springs to mind." Shaun said, shaking his head. "Fine, since there's clearly no point in arguing, we'll do it your way." Shaun took the blood bag from her and poured it in to his mouth, holding his fingers over his nose. He swallowed it's contents hungrily, and to his surprise, found it to be not just bearable, but actually delicious. He tried to hide his enjoyment of it as he handed the bag back to Rose. "I hope you know what you're doing. I'm a 17 year old who hasn't even finished high school. I'm not sure if a career in Taco Bell is really befitting of the glamorous vampire lifestyle you see in the movies."
    "Alright, you obviously have a lot of questions, and you think that because you won't live a human life, that you won't live a good, happy life. I want to dispel that, so we'll talk about it." Rose looked over Shaun's shoulder as she saw a light come on in the grounds keepers house, "But we'll do it somewhere else, fill that in quickly, and we'll talk after." Shaun did as he was told, and after a short time, he tossed the shovel on the ground and wiped the dirt from his hands on to his trousers. He was wearing a suit that clearly the undertakers had dressed him in. It was now quite filthy, he'd need to change. For the time being though, they left the graveyard and made their way back to Rose's car and got inside. 
    "So where are we going?" Shaun asked, "Hopefully somewhere with an Urban Outfitters." He said, looking down at his dirty funeral attire. 
    "Here," Rose reached into the back seat and handed him a small bag, "It has a couple of things to keep you going until we stop. They're your clothes." Rose started the engine and pulled out of the cemetery. After they'd been driving for a while, she noticed a small roadside diner and pulled in. "Come on, i'm hungry. We can talk more inside."
    "I don't think they serve blood." Shaun said.
    Rose laughed with a snort, "I guess i'll just have to make do with a slice of pie." She then got out of the car and walked into the diner and up to the front counter.
    "Hey," The waiter smiled, "What can I get you?" 
    "Can I get a piece of apple pie, and some coffee." Rose thanked the waiter and then went down and sat in the far corner booth.
    ", please." Shaun added. He had changed in to a pair of jeans and a dark grey t-shirt. Once he had stepped in to the diner, he had been hit with a wall of smells, none of them particularly pleasant, and most far more overpowering than he had experienced before. Not to mention the light. It was so bright inside the diner that he was squinting his eyes. 
    "Come on, sit." Rose nodded at the other side of the booth, "You'll get used to it." She added, seeing him squint, "But it's difficult to get used to very loud noises, just one of the downsides i'm afraid." She smiled and thanked the waiter as he brought the pie and coffee over to their booth before leaving them in peace. Rose studied the pie for a few seconds, twisting the deep dish plate around to examine it from different angles, then she jabbed the end of it with her fork and ate it slowly, savouring the flavour. After a few minutes of eating in silence, she emptied several packets of sugar into her black coffee, took a sip, and cleared her throat. 
    "So, you have questions..." She said at last, "Go ahead." She continued eating her pie, watching him intently as she did so.
    "Let's start with the basics." Shaun said. "Sunlight, garlic, wooden stakes, silver bullets, and turning in to bats. What's true, what isn't?"
    "Alright." Rose took a deep breath and then exhaled, "Most of the things you've seen or read about Vampires comes from facts being passed from one person to another until they became misinformation. We don't burn up in sunlight, but as you've noticed," She nodded at the artificial lights overhead, "Our eyes are very sensitive, so without eye protection, we're at a great disadvantage. Garlic is not something I wholly understand. Unless maybe a hunter found a Vampire with an allergy. It's not unheard of..." She drifted off in thought for a moment, "Anyway... wooden stakes won't do us any more or less harm than anything else, but if our heart is pierced or our head removed from our body, that's it. Lights out." Rose licked her lips and had another sip of coffee, "Now, about silver. If you were wearing any right now, you'd know. Vampires are severely allergic to silver. It burns us terribly, and weakens us. A silver bullet, if not removed, would eventually kill us. As for turning into bats, most Vampires have secondary abilities. I don't know any Vampires that can turn into a bat, however, I know Vampires who can shift into certain animals. I, myself, can do so, and because I Sired you, it is likely you will have my power."
    "Wait." Shaun rubbed his forehead, still squinting under the light. "You can turn in to an animal?"
    At this, Rose grinned wildly, "Yes, I can turn into a wolf. And in time, so shall you. Which..." Rose held a piece of pie on the end of her fork, "... you will come to appreciate a great deal." She then stuffed the pie into her mouth and chewed with a hungry appreciation.
    "Great, vampire and a werewolf." Shaun said, smirking a little. "Alright so, next question, tell me about you. Who are you? old are you?"
    "No." Rose pointed a finger at him, "But... well, maybe that's a conversation for another day. Who am I? You know who I am, Shaun. My name is Rose Walker, i'm a teacher of History, i'm a Vampire, and i'm over 400 years old." She ate the last piece of her pie and then leant back with a satisfied smile.
    "Super." Shaun said. "I guess teaching history is pretty easy when you've lived it." Shaun looked around the diner. Everything was just turned up to ten. The noise, the smell, the light. It was starting to get overwhelming. "Okay so, a more immediate question." Shaun continued. "How can you eat that pie? It smells like vomit."
    "It smells lovely to me," Rose replied, "Contrary to popular belief, Vampires can eat human food. But most of it smells and tastes like rot. Mostly because it is, but humans don't have a very strong sense of taste or smell, and its important that they aren't as picky, else they would starve. However, some Vampires acquire tastes for certain things, its usually only one taste, and its usually quite strong. Not every Vampire enjoys human food, but if you do, there's no reason not to. I have a bit of a sweet tooth, so..." She grinned, shrugging.
    "This whole place smells awful." Shaun said as he slumped over the table. 
    "You learn to tune it out." Rose replied, "Do you smell everything in your house? Everything in your room? What about all the smells on the street? No, only the strongest of smells will grab your attention. In time, you'll adjust. Eventually, you'll be able to tune most of it out until you need it."
    "Yeah, great. But what about now?" Shaun held his head in his hands. "...I want to go home." He said quietly. He noticed Rose's expression and added, "I know...I just last time. My mom will be sleeping...she won't know i'm there." He looked at her in the eyes, his own filled with pleading. "...Please."
    After a long, brooding silence, Rose nodded, "I have conditions."
    "Which are?" Shaun asked. 
    "First, you are not to wake your mother, or speak to her." Rose licked her lips and considered, "Before we go, I want you to drink another blood pack. It might not seem like it, but you're only recently turned, you need a lot of blood right now, and I will not let you harm anyone because of a misconceived notion of disgust or morality." She paused again, thinking carefully, "Thirdly, you will do as I say, if you do not, I will be forced to command you to do so for your benefit, as well as for your mother's." Rose took a long sip of her coffee and nodded to the waiter for the bill, "The rest is common sense. Don't make me regret this, Shaun." She paid their bill and they left.
    --- --- 
    The front door to Shaun's house opened quietly. Fortunately his mother had left the spare key under the stupid fake rock they had on the porch. He stepped inside, allowing Rose to come in with him. The living room was deathly quiet and still. He could hear his mother breathing heavily from somewhere upstairs. Her steady, rhythmic breathing, and her slow heart rate were crystal clear to him. "She's asleep." he whispered quietly. He walked over to the sofa and sat down, running his hands over the leather. "...She's going to be all alone here."
    "Yes, she will." Rose crossed the room and sat on the sofa beside him.
    "She won't cope well with that." He said. "My dad...his office is in Seattle, but he's mostly overseas. He's basically never home. He did that so my mom could take care of me and not work."
    "I'm sorry, Shaun. If I could have given you another option, I would have." Rose crossed her arms and looked around the quiet room, she could hear the gentle ticking of a clock, and the clear, steady breathing of the woman upstairs. Her heartbeat was slow, but regular. "It's not a life I would have chosen. It's not an easy life, as i've told you."
    "I'm not worried about that." Shaun said. "I know I struggled at school but...I just found it boring. Willow Creek is nice, but I don't think I want nice."
    "What /do/ you want?" Rose asked. "If you had all the time in the world, what would you do with it?" She turned to look at Shaun and then chuckled, "Hypothetically speaking." Her grin widened.
    "I don't know." Shaun said, shrugging. "But I guess I have time to find out." He stood up from the sofa and walked over to the stairs. "I'll only be a minute, then we can go." He walked up the stairs and through the hall. He stopped as he passed his mother's room. For a moment he was tempted to go in, but he shook his head and kept going, stepping in to his room. 
    It didn't look any different to how he left it. Even his bed was still unmade. He opened the door to his closet and removed a single, black jacket and put it on. Then he picked up the electric guitar in the corner, and looked around his room one last time. Then he went back downstairs, guitar in hand, and met with Rose again. "Okay." He said. "We can go now."
    "Alright. Go out to the car," Rose followed Shaun outside, and once the door was closed and locked, the key returned to it's hiding place, and all was left as it was. She looked over her shoulder to see Shaun getting into the car, and then turned back to face the front door. With a sudden strike, Rose smashed her hand through the glass in the door and opened it from the inside, then swung the door open. She could hear a startled cry from upstairs, a quickening of a heartbeat, and then a second later, Rose was inside the car and starting the engine. They drove away moments later.
    "I'm going to put the radio on..." She said, leaning forwards to turn it on and tune it to the local station. "How are you feeling?" She asked, keeping one eye on the road.
    "Better." Shaun said, "Thanks." They drove along listening to the radio. Shaun really did feel better. He was a little scared, and he was pretty sure he still had a long way to go in processing everything. Yet, much like he felt at the shooting, this whole thing made him feel alive. Perhaps things were going to turn out okay. 


  18. Shaun Meyer was not having the best of years. In fact, it was fair to say that Shaun was not having the best of decades. Not that he had any particular reason to complain, mind you. He had been a pretty average kid his whole life. When you're eight years old, there's nothing particularly wrong with being average, in fact it's probably the best thing to be. But for Shaun, things started to go down hill when he hit his teens. Suddenly everybody had to be somebody, everyone had something they were good at, even if that something was having a really rich father. In High School the popular kids were the athletes, the cheerleaders. Even being a smart kid got you far, after all it wasn't the nineties any more. Although it was still important that you weren't nerdy smart. Although, Shaun often thought that even nerdy kids had it better than him. At least they had something to be passionate about, and friends to share it with. 


    The worst thing you can do in high school is be average. Not too dumb, not too smart, not unhealthy enough to be a pariah, not fit enough to be an athlete. No matter what you are, there are always people to share it with. Unless, that is, you're a 17 year old, short sighted, averagely intelligent, lanky, awkward kid with ADD. And when you're mother is a slightly controlling, god-fearing, anti-vaccine advocate, well, you can forget medication. He didn't necessarily blame his ADD for the fact he was failing Math, but it certainly didn't help. In truth the reason he was failing was because he didn't care. He didn't care about, well, anything.


    So he sat on his second-hand, beaten up, old Vespa, staring at the note Miss Jones had written him, which required a signature from his parents. 'Shaun is struggling to engage with the coursework' - Yeah, no shit. He pulled his helmet over his short, brown hair and adjusted his glasses. He stuffed the slip of paper in his denim jacket pocket, and turned the ignition on the scooter. To say it roared to life would be a gross exaggeration. The engine whined like a particularly upset cat, and he took off out of the school parking lot, passing by all the other students, hanging out in their various cliques. Nobody paid any notice of him. He might as well have been invisible, which he supposed was better to being actively bullied. If only he could make himself visible at home. 


    --- --- ---


    "I just don't understand." Avery Meyer said to her son. "How many times have we had this conversation already?"

    "Too many, I guess." Shaun replied moodily, leaning against the wall of his mother's kitchen. 

    "And yet here we are again." She said with a sigh. "You'll father won't be pleased."

    "Well I guess he can give me a piece of his mind when he get's back from Seattle." Shaun bit back with a scowl, "Whenever that'll be." He added. 

    "Young man do not bring your father's work schedule in to this!" His mother snapped back. "This is about you not  doing well in school. This is on you, dear."

    "Well I don't know what you want me to tell you." Shaun said with a shrug. "I suck at math."

    "Your teacher says you aren't applying yourself." His mother replied. "She says here that you have potential, Shaun."

    "That's what they say about all the dumb kids, mom." Shaun said. "It's not like they can just call us retards and be done with it."

    "Watch you mouth!" His mother shrieked at a pitch that could shatter glass. "We don't use that word for people."

    "Yeah, whatever." Shaun said, shaking his head. "Just sign the paper please, Mom. I need to hand it back tomorrow."


    "I will, but in the meantime you're grounded." She said flatly. 

    "Oh, no, anything but that." Shaun replied sarcastically. "What with my active social life, and all."

    "Keep it up and I'll have you clean out the garage as well." His mother snapped. "You know this attitude won't fly when you go to college."

    "Yeah, college, right." Shaun said, rolling his eyes, and he turned around and left the kitchen, passing through the living room and up the stairs. When he reached his room he slammed the door shut behind him. 


    He threw his things on his single bed, and followed them, slumping down at the edge. Shaun's room was about as ordinary as he was. Blue walls, a couple of posters of rock bands, a desk and a laptop. In the corner there was a surprisingly pristine Fender Stratocaster his father had bought him for his birthday a few years ago. Like any teenager, Shaun loved music, but not to the extent that he had any drive to play. His father had latched on to any interests Shaun had and had tried in vain to turn them in to skillsets. Not that Shaun was ungrateful. He loved the guitar, and he had tried to learn. It just seemed like a lot more work than he had first anticipated. Even if it just sat in the corner of his room collecting dust, it was still one of the few possessions he had that he valued. He lay down on his bed and reached for his phone in his pocket. However he found his pocket empty. 


    "Shit..." He cursed quietly, remembering that he had left it in his locker at school. Not having many friends, Shaun wasn't one of those kids who had his phone glued to his hand 24/7. So it wasn't the first time he had left it somewhere. He supposed he could have gone without it, but he had been using it to record a few of his lessons. It was something he often did, in the hope he might pick up a little more on a second or third listen. He supposed he had better go get it, and try to do some of his math homework before school the next day. It wouldn't have been an issue if he hadn't been grounded. He'd have to wait until his mother had went to bed before he could sneak out. The school would be locked up, but there was a busted door at one of the side entrances. He knew because it had been busted for about 3 years. Like anyone would want to be in school after 5pm anyway. 


    --- --- ---


    The hallway was dark when Shaun reached his locker. He put in his combination and opened it up. Sure enough his phone was sitting on top of a small pile of books. He picked it up and checked it. It was dead. "Great..." He said with a sigh. He put the phone in his pocket and closed his locker, ready to make the trip back home. As he wandered down the hall in the dark, he noticed a light coming from the door of one of the classrooms. Curious he walked over to it. Inside there was a teacher at her desk. What was her name? Miss...Walker. That was it. He looked at his watch, it was after 11PM. What was she doing here this late?


    "Are you going to stand there all night, or are you going to come in?" Miss Walker asked, as she rummaged in her desk, sorting out the notes she'd kept filed away.

    "Uh..." Shaun stammered, he hadn't realized she'd noticed him. "Sorry...I came to get my phone...and..."

    "It took you half the day to realize you didn't have your phone?" Miss Walker shrugged with a smile, "I thought kids these days were chained to them."

    "Uh..." Shaun scratched his head. What the hell, it's not like she could get him in more trouble. "...Grounded. Had to sneak out when my mom went to bed."

    "You're such a rebel." Miss Walker replied with a tone of mock sarcasm, "Even so, Shaun, you shouldn't be out this time of night." She held up the local newspaper without looking up from her work, "The streets are a dangerous place to be after dark, it's not worth it to see if your girlfriend has sent you a text."


    "Yeah, right." Shaun said, rolling his eyes. "Some crazy lunatic coming to get me just might be the most interesting thing that would ever happen to me in this town."

    "Do you know why I teach history, Shaun?" Miss Walker asked, stopping for a moment to look at him through her tinted shades.

    "Not a clue." Shaun said with a shrug. "Because it interests you, I guess."

    "I suppose that's a fair answer." Miss Walker nodded, with a toothy grin, "History is a chronicle of our choices as a species. We need history to remind ourselves of where we've gone wrong, in the hopes that we don't repeat those mistakes. Now," She stood up, packed the last files into her bag and slung it over her shoulder, "Your mistake was going to school for a dead phone in the middle of the night, when you're grounded, and you let a teacher stop you." She crossed the classroom and put her hand around his shoulder, "Come on, i'll give you a lift back to your house."


    "Uh, thanks?" Shaun said uncertainly. He'd left his Vespa at home, the noise would have woken his mother. A ride home sounded good, but equally, if it meant Miss Walker was going to knock on his door and wake his mother up then the prospect didn't sound quite as appealing. "Y'know my mom will pitch a fit if we wake her up."

    "Then you should probably be quiet when you go in." Miss Walker replied, chuckling. "Quieter than stomping around here, anyway." She pushed him out of the class, "Come on, we're getting you home."

    "Okay, thanks." Shaun said with a nod. He followed Miss Walker out of the school and they walked along the parking lot towards her car. They walked in silence side by side, until Miss Walker stopped in her tracks. Shaun turned to her, raising his eyebrow. "Everything okay?"

    "Everything's fine, Shaun." She replied, then stepped in front of him. A few moments later a man emerged from behind her car. She could smell the booze on his breath, and saw he was holding something. He was holding a pistol, and raised it to her chest.
    "Gimme your wallet, lady." The man wore an old dark blue tracksuit, and had short scruffy brown hair, "You too, kid. Now."
    "Whoa." Shaun said shakily as he held his hands up. "What the fuck, dude!?"
    "It's alright, Shaun. Just give him your wallet," She pulled out her own, and offered it to the man. She glanced down at the pistol. "You don't need that, just take the wallets and go."
    "Wait, what!?" Shaun spat. He couldn't quite believe he was saying it, really. He was scared, scared out of his mind. He wasn't a brave kid, or anything like that. However, amidst all the fear he was feeling, the adrenaline seemed to trigger a sense of bubbling indignation about the situation. He didn't have the faculties at present to really consider it, the words just came out. "No way, I'm not giving him my wallet!"
    "Shaun, give him your wallet. Remember our conversation about mistakes? Well this isn't one you get to make twice."
    "Give me your god-damn wallet, now!!" The man levelled the pistol on Shaun and pulled the trigger back. He was serious.
    "Ah...fuck!" Shaun cursed. "Just take it easy man, alright?" He sighed. He went to reach for his wallet, fear beating down the anger that he felt. Just another in a long line of ordinary, cowardly things for him. He wondered if Miss Jones ever found it, maybe she'd tell him he should have just applied himself. The thought of it gave his anger another jolt. Before he could think, his feet were moving. Suddenly he wasn't reaching for his wallet, he was rushing the gunman, his hands outstretched to take his gun. 
    Miss Walker held her breath and tensed, launching forwards. She was between them in a second, and stretched out her hand as the gun fired off twice. She was like a blur, and with her free hand she struck the man in the chest with her palm and he flew across the car park like a rag doll. A superhuman strength, speed and reflex hidden beneath a small, unassuming frame. She came to a stop a few feet away and grimaced, holding up a clenched fist. Slowly, her fingers unclenched, revealing her bruised fingers which were healing even as she realised the terrible reality. A single bullet lay in her palm. She turned back to see a little red dot in the centre of Shaun's chest. The red began to spread outwards in a circle, then it began to pour down his shirt.
    "Shaun!!" Miss Walker ran to Shaun, dropping the bullet as she caught him just before his legs buckled. "Shaun?!" She patted him on the cheek, he looked like he was about to pass out. "Shaun, you have to stay awake!!" She scrambled for her phone.
    Shaun, for his part, wasn't quite sure what he had saw. Everything had happened so quickly. Now, though, everything seemed to have slowed to a crawl. His head felt light, his body numb. He tried to remember where he was, what he was doing. Miss Walker looked worried, but he wasn't sure why. Right now, all he wanted to do was sleep. It occurred to him, quite suddenly, but without alarm, that he was dying. He couldn't bring himself to be upset about it, though. He just felt like he was slowly slipping away, and that didn't seem so bad. The last thing he could remember was thinking that, as morbid as it might seem, he had found the whole situation quite exciting. He'd never felt a rush like that before. Moments before his death, he had never felt so alive. And then, with less fuss than he expected, he was gone. 

  19. For a long time Eli was still as Violet sobbed on his chest. It was clear that he hadn't quite expected that particular reaction. However, after a moment his expression softened to a resigned smile. He took his daughter's hand, to stop her from beating him any further, and he lead her to the sofa and sat her down, sitting next to her. Meredith joined him and sat down nervously at the other side of him. "Hi, Gramps." She said, nervously pulling her hair away from her face.

    "Yes, hello Merry." Eli said, giving her a smile and patting her hand, Then he turned his attention back to his daughter. "Violet, I know I left you. Please believe me that it was the last thing I wanted. There is so much I have to explain to you, both you and Vincent. I promise that I will tell you everything, but first we have to save my son." 


    Violet took a deep breath and exhaled. Then her smile dropped from her face, and what was left behind was red hot rage. "Thank you, i'd had just about enough of that." She muttered. She looked her father over once more and closed her eyes, as though willing herself not to do anything.
    "Well done." Dee put her hand on Violet's knee, "That was like a 6/10 for effort." Violet shot her a furious look, "6.5?"
    "Violet..." Meredith said, biting her lower lip. "I'm...I'm sorry."
    Violet's expression remained, she looked as though were she to try and move, it would be to level the entire block. But despite her pained expression, the words coming out of her mouth seemed strangely level.
    "It's alright, Mere. We'll get over it, just don't, y'know... invite any more family members." Then her mouth closed and her jaw tightened.
    "So, I suppose I should explain a few things." Eli said, looking a little uncomfortable. "Violet, before I do, I need you to give me the Grimoire. Merry said Vincent left it with you, is that true?"
    "I can't give you the grimoire." Violet replied simply, her face tensing. Eli gave a short sigh, but he did not show any frustration. 
    "I understand, you made a promise." Eli said with a nod. "But I need to use the Grimoire. I need to speak with Vincent, or well, his consciousness within the book. He is the only mortal who knows the way in to Arctaeros."
    "I love you, dad. That's the only reason we haven't gotten off this couch yet, because it's taking all my willpower to stop..." Violet trailed off for a moment and approached her response from another angle. "I love you, dad. But I don't trust you."
    "Violet, I have held that book before." Eli said. "I know all of it's contents, except Vincent's. But only a Hallowed wizard can access it's contents. I...don;t deserve your trust. I wouldn't ask for it in any other circumstance but...there simply is no other way."
    "Yes, there is." Violet replied.
    "Vi, you can't use the Grimoire any more," Dee interrupted, "You don't have any blood, which is a specific requirement of the ritual pact."
    "No, but you do..." Violet looked to Meredith.
    "Me?" Meredith said, looking a little shocked. 
    "No, you can't." Eli said, shaking his head. "She's too young, it's far too dangerous for her."
    "I'll do it..." Meredith said, ignoring Eli. "If it's for Vincent, then I'll do it."
    " would be easier if I did it." Eli protested. 
    "Auntie Vi told you she won't." Meredith said sternly. "First lesson about your daughter; She doesn't back down, okay?"
    "Don't kiss ass, dear. It doesn't suit you." Violet replied, stretching her jaw, "Ah, that's better! Finally. Now, i've been patient enough with the lot of you mayflies, so..." She stood up and faced her father, "You don't have any rights here, you walked out on those. You don't get to tell me what to do any more. We're in agreement on that. You're just another gun." Violet grinned, "It's nice to have full use of my faculties again." Then she looked to Meredith, "I'd smite you if you weren't so damn sneaky." She gave her a playful wink as she reached into her own chest, her hand phasing through her body as if it was nothing. A moment later Violet heaved the Grimoire from her chest. "Here, knock yourself out. You're a good kid." She said smiling as she passed Meredith the large tome. "I feel like i've shed 5lbs, it's wonderful - you should try it." She added, giving Eve a cursive look at her figure.
    Meredith held the book in her hands, opening it up to blank pages. She turned to Eli for instruction. "Just a few drops of blood and your full name, given willingly." He explained. 
    "Okay..." Meredith said. She held up her thumb, and ran her finger over it, reciting a spell she used for rituals that Vincent had taught her. A small cut appeared on her thumb, and she allowed the blood to drop on to the pages of the book. She gasped a little as she felt a sudden thrum of power emanating from the Grimoire. Then she spoke her name out loud. 
    "Meredith..." She paused for a moment, looking at Violet. "Meredith Violet Hallow."
    "Charming little scruffbag, that one." Violet raised her eyebrow at Dee who smiled back at her, "No, I won't." Violet added to the air, "Because i'm done hugging the fleshies. That's why."
    "Blood has been given. A name has been given." A booming voice thundered out from the book. "What do you seek, Meredith Violet Hallow?"
    "Um..." Meredith hesitated. 
    "Careful." Eli warned. "Speak only to Vincent. And only take the knowledge we need. His knowledge of The Ways, and the path to Arctaeros."
    "Right..." Meredith said, taking a shaky breath. Then she spoke to the Grimoire. "I want to speak to Vincent."
    "Do you agree to bind yourself to this Grimoire?" The book asked. 
    "I do." She said. 
    "Then it is done." The book said, and suddenly Meredith felt herself being pulled away from the sofa, the apartment melting away from her. 
    Suddenly she was stood outside a door to an office. On the door there was a sign that said; 'Vincent Hallow - Paranormal Investigator'. Meredith stepped forward and put her hand on the door. She took a deep breath, and then she pulled down the handle and pushed the door open. Sitting with his feet on the desk, across the room from her, was Vincent. He was smoking a cigarette and reading a trashy romance novel. He looked up from the book, and smiled at Meredith when he saw her. "Hey, what can I do for you, Grasshopper?"
    "Vincent?" Meredith asked. 
    "In the flesh, well, actually not so much." Vincent said, shrugging and putting the book down. He stood up from his seat and walked over to her. "It was weird for me too, when I went through this."
    " you know what's going on?"
    "Yeah, you allowed your consciousness to enter the book. Since I'm part of the book, I know what you know, and so I know what's going on."
    "Even..." Meredith whispered. 
    "Yeah, even that." Vincent said. "But the real me doesn't know, or at least I don't think he does. He didn't know the last time he held the book, that's about as much as I can tell you."
    "This is...confusing." Meredith said
    "I know, right?" Vincent said, rolling his eyes. "At least you have me to talk to. I had to talk to a weird British guy."
    "I..." Meredith sighed. "You're not really Vincent. I'm sorry but...I want to find the real thing. I don't have time to chat."
    "Well time here isn't a factor..." Vincent then noticed Meredith's worried expression. "Okay, I get it. Don't worry, we can cut to the chase. You want my power, right?"
    "Just the Ways." Meredith said. "And the way to Arctaeros."
    "Right, that's what you need, but it's not what you want, at least not the only thing." Vincent said. "Look, to be honest I don't even like that you're here. I don't want you to put yourself in danger...I'd rather you just left me."
    "But...I need you." Meredith said, feeling another fit of tears coming on. 
    "I know..." Vincent said, smiling. "Which is why I'm going to help you."
    "Why...why are you so happy?" Meredith said, frowning. "Vincent doesn't act like that."
    "He did, once upon a time." Vincent said. "The thing is, since you came here, I know some things that Vincent doesnt. Things that will make him happy."
    "...You mean?" Meredith asked
    "He thinks his daughter is dead, Meredith." Vincent said. "That's bound to make a guy a little grumpy."
    "...Okay." Meredith said with a nod. "Then when I find him, I'm going to tell him everything."
    "I think he'll like that." Vincent said. "Now it's about time you get what you came for."
    "The Ways." Meredith said. 
    "Come on, kid." Vincent said. "You can't lie to me in here. You can't lie to yourself, either. What do you want?"
    "...I want to be able to do what you can do." Meredith said, and her eyes were filled with a sudden fury. "Screw the illusions, and the veils. I want to hurt Isoleth."
    "That's my girl." Vincent said with a smirk. 
    Suddenly Meredith was back inside the apartment, and people were yelling. 
    "Don't give me tha' bullshit, Eli. I'm yer best friend, an' ye couldn't even let me know ye were alive!" Al had arrived in her absence, and was currently standing in the kitchen, livid, and about ready to burn Eli to cinders. 
    "Al...look you don't understand." Eli said calmly, holding his hands up in protest. 
    "Ye left those poor kids without a father!" Al roared. "D'ya have any idea what ye've put them through, Eli!? An' I defended ye, all this time! Thought ye'd died tryin' ta protect 'em!"
    "You think I don't know that!?" Eli yelled back. "You think I wanted to leave my own kids!?" 
    Meredith had seen enough. She got up from the couch, and before she could think, her hand raised and she snapped her fingers. "Ignis!" She barked, and suddenly a burst of fire exploded in between Eli and Al. Nothing huge or destructive, but it was enough to drive them back from one another, and they both turned around to face her, their eyes wide with surprise. 
    "Merry..." Eli said. "What are you-"
    "Have you forgotten why you're here!?" She yelled. "You two are bickering while Vincent is stuck in some cell somewhere!"
    "She gets that from you." Dee turned to Violet with a stern glare.
    "I know!" Violet replied, positively brimming with glee.
    "Merry, I'm sorry." Eli said. "Look, did you get what you need? Let's get going, hm?"
    "You know what?" Meredith said fiercely. "I'm tired of being told what to do. Vincent didn't answer to any of you...and...neither am I!"
    "Girl's all fired up." Al said, smirking. "Alright, hoss. You lead the way."
    "Wait, Al...I..." Eli began
    "Save it, Eli." Al said. "It's time to save yer boy, so saddle up." 
    "Where are we going?" Eve asked. "Is there a portal?"
    "A Way." Meredith said. "It's not exactly close, but it's the only Way that goes in to the heart of Winter. It's as close as we're going to get. I can get us the rest of the way."
    "Well at least someone here has a spine. Put the kettle on, David, we'll all be back in time for supper." Violet walked out with Dee close behind her.
    "I think not." David cried after her, somewhat indignant. As he went for the door he grabbed his broadsword and his coat and disappeared after them. 
    "Well, guess it's a suicide mission." Eve said, crossing her arms. "Better get it over with." She added, and she left as well. 
    "Come on then, let's get this over with." Al said.
    "Let's go get my boy." Eli said with a nod. 
    "He's our boy, an' don't you forget it." Al said. They grabbed their things and left. 




    Blood stained the crystalline ice floor. Somewhere, there was a baby crying, but Vincent couldn't quite place where it was. Before he could begin to search, he felt a chill in the air, and suddenly he was lifted from the ground, his body wracked with bitter winter chill. The ice had encased his body and lifted him skywards, holding him, immobilized in a jagged, chaotic sculpture of ice, with only his head and neck free from it. A deathly shriek echoed through the courtyard, and the skies above began to rumble and shudder as if in response. The wild, pain-filled screaming rattled through his head. What had he done? He felt dread, and despair like he never thought possible. He had done something awful. But what? What had he done?


    "What have I done?" He whispered. 


    Suddenly reality came crashing down on him. Vincent opened his bloodshot eyes to find a pair of icey, blue cat-like eyes peering back at him. He was trapped on a bed of ice, his arms and legs outstretched and encased in it, and he has naked, his skin turning a pale blue, with purple marks slowly forming around his feet and hands. His chest was soaked with blood, the result of sharp, icey nails that had been raked over his body. Isoleth straddled him, a wicked grin on her face. She leaned down so that she was but an inch from his face, and she let her tongue caress across his neck and cheek, before she moved to his left ear. "Starting to remember, I see." She hissed in his ear. "Still, a long way to go." She sat back up and placed her hand on his chest, her sharp nails penetrating his skin and bringing fresh, cold pain. He went to scream, but his voice had long lost the ability to do so. 


    "The thing is, boy..." Isoleth said, as she closed her eyes, relishing the pleasure, and she plunged her hand deeper, tearing deep in to his chest. Vincent's eyes were ablaze from the sheer pain of it, but still he made nothing more than whispering moans and gasps. "...I'm afraid, as much as I would love to take my time with this, there is a matter of impending battle with Summer. I'm going to have to speed things up a bit. But just think, the sooner you remember, the sooner this ends. How many times have I brought you to the brink of death now? Is it seven or eight times? I'm going to keep healing you, bringing you back to good health, and then I'm going to do it again, and again, and again. And when you remember, only then will I kill you." Vincent spoke something, but it came out as an inaudible whisper. 


    "What's that?" Isoleth said, holding a hand to her ear. She leaned closer to him. "You're going to have to speak up, dear." Vincent made an effort to swallow, but his throat was dry, and stressed from the screaming. He opened his mouth as she put her ear to it. 

    "I..." He croaked. "I remember...a little..."

    "Oh? Do go on..." Isoleth said, smiling gleefully. 

    "...Claire." He wheezed. "...You're not Claire."


    "Oh, very good!" Isoleth cooed as she sat up and clapped excitedly. "So where is Claire then?"

    "...Dead." Vincent said. 

    "Right again." Isoleth replied. "And who killed her?"

    Vincent paused, closing his eyes from a moment, the memories flashing through his head. They felt far away, like they did not belong to him. 

    "Who. Killed. Her?" Isoleth said again, slowly. 

    "...I did." Vincent choked, a single tear shedding from his eye. 

  20. Riff and Dax sat in the back of a taxi speeder as it cut through the busy skies of Nar Shaddaa. The sprawling, vertical city was bathed in a golden glow, with plumes of murky, polluted air glinting in the bright neon lights that bombarded them from every direction. The Ecumenopolis was smaller than Coruscant, but still managed to be one of the wealthiest planets in the Galaxy. Yet the two were in stark contrast to one another. Nar Shaddaa was an ancient city that had stood for millenia, controlled by the Hutt Cartels who had managed to maintain their neutrality throughout almost every galactic conflict. Yet even with all of it's riches, the city was full of poverty. It was the very embodiment of corruption. 


    "Strange." Riff said as he looked over the edge of the speeder, down to the depths of the city, watching the layers of busy traffic go by. "To think that anyone would find hope here, in this dump."

    "Hope is a luxury." Dax replied, folding her arms and looking out over Nar Shaddaa, "And a dangerous luxury to cling to."

    "Hope is necessary, Dax." Riff said, shaking his head in disagreement. "All beings hope. It is needed to conquer fear, to achieve anything beyond mediocrity."

    "You're wrong, Jedi." Dax sunk into her seat and stared into her lap, "You don't conquer fear. You come to live with it. You accept it as a part of your nature, and you live in spite of it. You use it if you have to, to survive. Fear helped me more than hope ever did. Down there, hope gets you killed." Dax nodded her head at the ground below.


    "Correct." Riff said with a nod. "Although, I think you probably misunderstood me. Do you not think hope plays a part? When your life is in danger, you have fear, which is natural for most. But in those moments, what drives you to even act, if not hope? Fear is...easy. Hope is not."

    "Fear drives you to survive. That's all i've ever known. Hope drives you to..." Dax struggled to find the word to finish that sentence, and eventually after a minute's silence she let out a breath and abandoned it altogether. "What happened to the Jedi? You're nothing like I imagined..." Riff drew in his breath and thought for a moment. He leaned back and closed his eyes, remembering that time of his life. 


    "You would have been a child at the time." He said, "We were well in to the war when it happened. The time before the war had been peaceful, and for the Jedi this was a time of learning, a time of contemplation. Our Order had finally began to reclaim the knowledge that had been lost to us over the centuries prior. I am told that the Jedi were different back then, but I was born in a time of turmoil. The Jedi were guardians of the Republic, we had a duty to protect. When the Empire emerged, there was a call to arms. In times past a Jedi's training was difficult, and there was no guarantee of passing the trials for many." Riff opened his eyes and looked at Dax, a sombre expression on his face. "Younglings were trained far more quickly. Knights would take often take on two padawans at a time, and the focus of our training shifted more towards combat, and strategy."


    The Taxi began to descend as Riff continued. "It was not the wish of the Jedi Council to do this, but it was something of a necessity. I am a child of that era, I am no sage in search of wisdom. I am not a teacher. My life as a Padawan was spent in conflict zones, and when I became a Knight I became a watchman, a solitary position that kept me away from home most of the time. I wasn't there when the Empire came in force, and took Coruscant for their own. I wasn't there when they systematically travelled through each system, wiping out every temple and academy they could find." The taxi finally pulled over on street level and Riff paid the driver and climbed out of the speeder. "I felt it, the death of all of my comrades, all of the younglings within the academies. Fear was a towering presence at that time, had I succumbed to it, well..." Riff shook his head. "I would be something far less than the broken man you see now. I'm not a Jedi, Dax. Not any more."


    "Well, that's about enough sob stories for today. I need a drink." Dax coughed to ease the tension and stepped out of the speeder and looked around. Riff followed behind her, quiet. How could Asha even consider the prospect of training Dax? Sure, she was smart and capable. The Force was strong in her, too. Yet she had grown too old, perhaps impossible to teach. Fear clouded her judgement, she was quick to anger, quick to use force. He shook his head. It really was impossible. 

    "So." He said, finally, "Where to?"

    "I don't know /all/ of Nar Shaddaa, Riff." Dax laughed, "Despite what some of my friends might tell you." They started walking and Dax occasionally glanced at the ragtag stalls and shops they passed. "No, not there." She added, shaking her head. Despite the place looking clean and pleasant inside. "You probably won't come out of there with all your organs on the inside." She let out a smile, despite the comment and then saw something at the end of the street. "Hey there, look!" She nodded at an old alien with red skin and horns. A zabrak. "Hey old man, you cookin' Parth?"
    "'Ey, depends, you got money?" He asked, looking up at them.
    "Uh..." Dax turned to look at Riff expectantly.
    Riff reached in to his pocket and retrieved a handful of gold coins. "I always carry Wupiupi." He said. "Credits won't get you very far in the Outer Rim."
    "They'll get you dead is what, I tell you what you..." The old Zabrak rumbled off into muttering and grabbed a handful of something that looked like green string. But as he brought it towards the large steaming pot in front of him it writhed and wriggled and became frantic, sending out little green tendrils in all directions as it fell into the pot and a thousand little screeches echoed inside the metal container for a couple of seconds. "So, what you here for then? You're a local." He said, nodding at Dax, then looked at Riff, "You ain't." The Zabrak frowned.
    "Nowhere's local for us." Riff said, folding his arms. "Just stopping by before heading to Nal Hutta for a shipment."
    "Spacer, eh?" The Zabrak said. "Looks like you're in for a long stop over."
    Riff glanced up at the sky, where the Imperial destroyer still sat on the edge of the atmosphere, and tiny moving objects whizzed around the sky. TIE Fighters. "Yeah, you don't have to tell me." Riff said, shaking his head in annoyance. "If I catch the sorry low life that's pissed off those Imps I'll put a blaster between his eyes. Some of us have a job to do, you know?"
    "Oh, I hear that." The Zabrak said with a nod as he stirred the pot. "Word on the street is something went down at Veshka's hangar. The Cartel ain't gonna like that, that's for sure."
    "Even the Imps would think twice about crossing the Hutts. Must be a big deal." Riff said. "Just one destroyer, though. If it was that big a deal you'd think there'd be a bigger fleet."
    "Well don't ask me, I ain't know Moff." The Zabrak said irritably, and he slopped the food in to two bowls. "Here you go, enjoy."
    "Thanks." Riff said as he took a bowl from the Zabrak. Without pause he poured some of the contents in to his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. "Mm, Haven't had Parth this good in years."
    "You'll just keep surprising me." Dax stifled a laugh as she watched Riff eat, taking the second bowl and thanking the street vendor before drinking from the bowl as if it was a cup. Most off-worlders would turn their nose up at Parth. It wasn't exactly a visually - or even audibly - pleasant dish. But it tasted pleasant, it was hot and it filled you up. That's all that mattered. "When did /you/ last eat Parth?" Dax raised an eyebrow in curious amusement. Riff motioned for Dax to follow him and the two wandered a little out of earshot of the Zabrak. 
    "A few years in to becoming a Knight I was stationed as a Watchman on Kal'Shebbol. A Watchman's job is to live discreetly as a guardian of their assigned territory. Gathering intel, protecting the innocent, and identifying potential initiates. Truth be told I haven't left the Outer Rim since. I've spent almost half of my life out here."
    "Well, for a watcher, you seem to have done a lot, i'll give you that." Dax replied with a grin, enjoying her food with relish.
    "You have to blend in." Riff replied with a shrug. "It's not really that difficult. Cultures change but people are the same, deep down."
    True. They'll fleece you given half the chance." Dax reached out and managed to snatch the collar of the old man as he was trying to leave. She hadn't given him as much as a cursory glance. "This weasel charged you about ten times the cost of Parth on Nar Shadaa. And he was just about to sneak off."
    "What are you talking about?! I turned around, that's all!!"
    "You were practically running!" Dax barked, holding her empty bowl in her spare hand, she pulled her arm back ready to throw it at the vendor.
    "Stop." Riff said in a calm but authoritative tone. "Let him go."

    "Why?!" Dax yelled. Her raised voice barely registered to anyone around them, as disagreements were commonplace on this planet, and nobody wanted to get involved. "This scum-sucking thief was going to run off with our money!"

    "Am I to assume you were a Judge all this time?" Riff said, shaking his head. He turned to the Zabrak and held up his hand. "You should go home. Best to forget all about this."

    "I...I'm going home!" The Zabrak said nervously, and he ran off in to the crowd. Riff turned back to Dax, frowining. "What exactly would hurting him accomplish?"

    "He was stealing from us!" Dax threw the bowl at Riff.


    "He gave us food, I gave him money." Riff said. "Do you think you can sense deception where I do not? You, who doesn't even know how to use the Force in the way I do?" Riff looked around, noticing that people were beginning to stare. "The Force is strong in you, and as such your attuned senses come naturally, but without discipline you also cause, well, this..." Riff inclined his head to the staring people. "Even ordinary beings interact with the Force, innately, in small ways. When you feel strong emotions, you project it outwards, through The Force. They sense it."

    "Stop talking to me about your--" Dax stopped almost immediately when she saw a man staring at her over Riff's shoulder. It was only then that she realised that in their little corner of Nar Shaddaa, the street had all but come to a stop. "W-what..." Dax frowned, and took a step back, looking like she was ready to bolt at any moment. "This isn't normal..."


    "Calm down." Riff said, closing his eyes as he did. He began to breath slowly, and methodically. And with each breath he took, a sense of calm washed over the area. At first nothing happened, but slowly, after a while, people began to go about their business. And then after a few more moments, there were no more eyes on them. Riff opened his eyes and nodded to Dax. "Walk with me." he said, and he lead her out of the street and on to another, walking swiftly. "Through The Force we can impart our own emotions on others. Strong emotions ripple through The Force, and all living creatures take notice. It's actually the basis of the Jedi Mind Trick." Riff waved his hand in the same gesture to show what he was referring to. "With the right training, and discipline, a Jedi can bring a room of angry men and women to silence. The Watchman used this technique to manipulate local governments in their sector, for benevolent goals, of course."


    "Wait--" Dax stopped Riff by putting her hand on his chest and she walked around in front of him, "Have you ever waved your hand at me?" She asked, eyeing him critically. Riff smirked in response. 

    "If only I could." He said, shaking his head. "Your eyes are open to the effects of The Force. You can sense it happening, and as such you cannot be affected." Riff paused for a moment but lifted his hand for Dax to keep listening to him. "Well, I could, but not without you knowing. I would have to force you, by chanelling my own strong emotions, and the process would be very painful. Such an experience is what will await you with Baal, should he find you."

    "I feel like I don't understand anything any more." Dax replied, rubbing the bridge of her nose, "Jedi, Sith, the Force... it's too much."


    "That is why Jedi are trained at a young age." Riff said. "But...your power is greater than I have ever seen in a Force Sensitive. No doubt Baal wishes to use that power for his own gain. I truly wish that you could just walk away from all of this, but there is a good chance that it won't be possible. Jedi see glimpses of the future through The Force, and yours, despite your power, is clouded."

    "Clouded how?" Dax asked, looking slightly concerned. "Anyway, and i'm not saying I am... but if I am, but i'm not--" Dax corrected herself, and gave Riff a look that said 'Don't say a word'. "If i'm really a... a force-sensitive? How would that help Baal?"

    "He will bring you to the Dark Side." Riff said. "You would not be given a choice. The Sith use torture to bring you pain and fear. He would provoke pain, and anger from you. Turn it in to hatred. He would make you Sith." Riff sighed. "Being a Jedi is the harder path. The Dark Side would be easy for one such as you."

    "One such as me?" Dax pushed Riff and pointed at him, "What are you trying to say, huh?"


    "You're too emotional." Riff said, showing no sign of anger at the gesture. "For any normal person, that would be fine. But The Force flows through you, and if you allow it, it will corrupt you. The Dark side is very alluring. It can achieve things that a Jedi cannot, things that we are not meant to harness."

    "But emotion can be a positive force as much as a negative one." Dax shook her head in disbelief, "I understand that hatred or, or... pain could lead to a dark path. But feelings like compassion? Love?" Dax shrugged, "Listen, I might be a cold-hearted, space-bred smuggler, but i'm not heartless."

    " you have someone you love, Dax?" Riff asked. "Have you ever lost someone that you loved? Without discipline, and understanding, the pain of such a thing is unimaginable. Now consider that you have power, power so great that perhaps you could even conquer death itself. Look at that outburst back there. Sure, that man may have been overcharging, but look at your reaction. Even out of decency, emotion is very dangerous for people with power."


    "Right..." Dax sighed, "It's about balance. I just don't think the Sith /or/ the Jedi are right. You talk about one group of people harnessing emotion to an extreme, and the other abandoning it to almost the same downfall. If balance is really what is sought, then it needs to allow both..." Dax took a deep breath and fell into quiet thought.

    "Dax, I'm not saying you can't have emotions at all." Riff said. "I'm just saying you need to control your emotions. Part of that is looking at things a different way, and through understanding The Force. For example, it is wrong to say I do not fear. I have fears just like everyone else, but I have conquered them. I do not fear death, like most would, because I know there is nothing to fear. I do not mourn those I have lost, because there is no need. They have become one with The Force, something which should be celebrated. But, there are other fears we all still wrestle with, and in truth that is what makes us weak. There is no stronger Jedi than one without fear, I promise you of that."


    "Trying to remove any part of you absolutely, even fear, doesn't make you stronger. You'll never convince me otherwise. But I understand what you're saying, Riff." Dax nodded quietly and then after a long silence she added, "Thanks. I feel better now." She let a smile appear in the corner of her lips.

    "Oh good, you feel better." Riff said, rolling his eyes. "Next time see a shrink, I'm not telling you these things to make you feel better." Riff shook his head, turned, and began to walk away. "Come on, we better get your ship. The sooner we get you out of here the sooner you can go back to whatever you did before."