Valentine

Outcast

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[OOC: Private RP between myself and Kyo]

 


 

 

OUTCAST

 

 

A man clad in black armour walked a white marble floor, the sound of his footsteps resonated through the grandiose corridors of Die'welden, the castle home of the ruler of all the lands of Avalon. He held the hilt of his sheathed longsword in one hand, and a rolled length of parchment in the other. When he finally reached the double doors at the end of the corridor, the two guards waiting upon either side opened the doors and stepped to one side, recognising the Captain of the guard immediately, Jacob Forrester.
The corridor opened out into a cavernous main hall, pillars lining the main walkway to the throne which itself was adorned with a crimson carpet, beautiful tapestries hung upon the walls, and an enormous stained glass depiction of Matthew Arturo Villiard - the man known as 'The Immortal King' - made up most of the far wall, the rainbow-coloured light from which illuminated the man himself.

"What news, Captain?" The King asked, his furrowed brow showed a wisdom that far exceeded his physical appearance, though that in itself was intimidating. The King was a man that appeared to be in his mid-40's, with a short brown beard and wild hair held in place by his crown. He had piercing dark brown eyes and was muscular like a seasoned blacksmith. When he stood, he cast a shadow that bathed Jacob in darkness.
"My King, the news is not as you would have hoped." Jacob knelt before his King, but despite his courage, he feared the King's wrath before anything else. "The Northern lands are taken with plague, nothing grows there any more, and with winter approaching the farmers say they won't be able to provide any additional supplies. Also, there have been two cases of Blight, but as per your instructions, the afflicted were removed and burnt."

"Damn this Blight..." The King paced in front of his throne, "... and two cases of it in the same month? It's on the rise."
"I fear as much, Sire." Jacob nodded and then remained silent.
"My people are starving because of that Blight, Captain. I cannot allow this to go on. The only reason those desert savages in the east haven't invaded is because I united the clans. I led our people against the Walkers in a hundred different campaigns and it is only the perceived strength of our nation that holds them at bay. This cannot be allowed to go on..." The King stopped pacing and faced the Captain, "Did you dispatch our soldiers?" 
"Yes, Sire." 
"And?" The King asked impatiently. 
"They've not returned, Sire. I fear they must have perished, from the elements, the Blight, or perhaps monsters..."
"Enough!" The King growled, his fists trembling, "Put out a Royal Decree - Any hunter, capable of killing any monster, and bringing me it's head, will received one thousand gold coins. I want this Blight, and it's monstrosities, destroyed." 

 

 


 

 

The heavy beat of hooves crashed through the forest. Her horse heaved from exhaustion, she had ridden it too hard, for too long. But the ones chasing her were gaining ground. She couldn't let them catch her, no matter what. She heard the sound of an arrow whistling past her head, and the dull thud of the arrow striking a tree just ahead of her. 
"She's right there!!" One of them yelled.
"Shoot her!"
"Hya!" She whipped the reins of her steed and her horse redoubled his efforts, but he was tiring. She took a quick look over her shoulder and cursed as an arrow sliced through the heavy black hood of her cloak, missing her face by inches. Watching the road ahead, she saw her chance. There was a long rope bridge, if she could cross it, she could cut it and gain hours, if not days, on her pursuers.

"One more push!" She asked of the horse, whipping the reins once more. Her voice was feminine, yet it sounded off. A little shrill, and croaky, as though she was speaking in a language her throat was unaccustomed to. As the horse's hooves met the wooden boards of the bridge, the dull thumping turned into a roaring clatter. She was almost a third of the way across the bridge, she glanced over the edge and saw a steep plummet into a river far below. Suddenly, she heard several more arrows slicing through the air. Several missed her, but one struck her horse in his hindquarters and he loosed a terrible scream as his legs buckled and she was thrown forwards across the bridge.
"No!!" She yelled, tumbling forwards and whirling around in an instant, but she was too late. The horse fell over the side of the bridge and disappeared into the inky blackness below. She couldn't outrun them now, she had to stand her ground.

Looking over her shoulder, she could see the end of the bridge in the distance, but she was too far away to jump, and she'd never make it if she tried to run. She pulled a long, lethal-looking dagger from a sheath on her lower back and raised it, ready to defend herself. Moments later, three men on horseback exploded out of the forest and charged down the bridge towards her. The first man raised his bow, nocked an arrow and let it fly.
She heard the arrow screaming towards her, she readied herself, and at the last possible moment she plucked it from the air. The rider gasped in surprise, opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, she flipped the arrow around so she was holding it between her thumb and forefinger and fired it like a dart. The arrow screamed back towards the rider, struck him in the elbow, and took the lower half of his arm clean off.
The man howled with pain and fell from his horse.
"Demon!!" One of the two riders yelled, and drew his blade.
"Hardly." She replied, in her croaking voice. Then dived to one side as the rider tried to cleave her in two upon passing her, as she dove she sliced through the legs of the horse and both horse and rider plummeted towards the river below. 

"That's fine, more for me..." The rider grinned, dismounting and pulling a longsword from it's sheath.
"Who sent you?!" She screeched. 
"By royal request!!" The man jeered, "There's a bounty on anything non-human, and i'd say you about fit the description, even if you do talk."
"This one did not wish to harm your comrades, nor did she wish harm upon you." She replied.
"Well that's too bad," He raised his blade, "Because I need the coin, so i'll take my chances."
"As you wish." She screeched, and charged. Her dagger clashed against the man's blade, and to her surprise he was a competent fighter. Yet she was the more skilled of the two. She pushed him back, her footwork as well as her blade skills had both finesse and strength, yet she was unable to predict the man's next move. Their blades clashed once more, and suddenly the man pushed himself into her, locking their blades together. Then he yanked a dagger from his boot and plunged it into her thigh.

Loosing a terrible screech of pain, the man clutched his ears in discomfort as she stumbled backwards. Unable to hold onto her blade, she dropped it and tried to grab hold of the rope bridge, but failed and fell over the side. She felt the rush of the wind around her, but then cried out in pain as her arm was grabbed at the last moment. Swinging over the side of the bridge, she looked up to see her attacker had managed to catch her.

"You're not going anywhere!" He yelled, "I need your head!!" He started to pull her up, and she quickly looked below her, to the river.
"This one is no hairless ape's trophy!" She yanked the dagger from her thigh, screaming in pain as she plunged it into the man's arm. He reflexively let go of her, and she plummeted into the darkness. She hit the water at speed, pain flushed her body, but she was alive. She turned to try and orient herself, but the water was moving so fast, then suddenly as she surfaced, her head collided with a rock, and then darkness.

 

 


 

 

"Mummy! Mummy, look!!"

She opened her eyes, but the light was so bright it was blinding her. She held her hand out over her face and realised she was on her back, looking up at the sun. It was only then that she realised that her clothes were soaking wet, she was drifting on the edge of a river bank.

"Mummy!!" 

The girl's voice was insistent, pleading. She groaned, remember the pain in her leg. She opened the tear in her pants just enough to see the dark green blood trickling from her yellow-gold chitinous skin. She needed time to heal, but she couldn't stay here. It was only a matter of time before she was found once more. She tried to stand but her head felt fuzzy, and as she pulled herself up, she fell forwards and collapsed once more.

"Mummy!!" 
"For goodness sake, Claire, what?" The mother of the young child wandered over from hanging her laundry and saw the body of the young woman. "Oh my Gods, Claire, get away from that... it could spread the Blight!" She ushered her child away but as they were about to leave, she groaned. The mother stopped in her tracks and turned back to look at the stranger. "Oh... Gods protect me, go on back home now, and get sheets and clean water ready." As her daughter rushed off - though not after looking back longingly at the stranger one last time - the mother approached the half-drowned woman.
"Hello? Are you hurt bad...?" She knelt down beside her, and pushed on her shoulder to turn her onto her back, "Gods!!" She jumped in fear and surprise upon seeing the young woman's face. It was monstrous. She had hard, cool skin. From the corners of her lips, her jaw seemed segmented. Her eyes were nothing but black, and her teeth were sharp and serrated. She was, in every aspect, a monster. And yet, kneeling over her, she was not as afraid of her as she'd once thought. 
Lifting the strange woman to her feet, she helped carry her back to her home. She'd have to keep her secret from the other townsfolk, but with enough time her wounds would heal, and then she could be on her way. No harm, no foul. Perhaps it was even a sign from the Gods? While she carried the stranger, she mused on this, unaware that she was being watched.

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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."

"That...no, 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."

"You...you 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."

"...so 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."

 

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"Why won't you listen to me!?" The young man thrust his finger at the woman stood before her front door, barring it from access. "She's harbouring a monster, I saw her pull it out of the river!" He turned back to face the small crowd of townsfolk, "It had fangs and black eyes and Lydia is hiding it from all of us!"
"I'm not hiding anything from you, Roderick." Lydia replied indignantly, "Monsters do not talk, sleep in a bed, or tolerate my little girl assaulting her with dozens of questions."
"Chief?!" Roderick pleaded, turning to the old man with a long grey beard. The elder considered their conversation for a few moments and walked up to Lydia, using a long staff as support. 

Lifting his free hand as an open gesture, the Chief nodded his head towards her home, "Lydia?"
"What?!" She demanded, aggravated, "... what?" She repeated the question with a little more patience.
"Well, do you have a monster in your home?" He asked, frowning at her.
"I-I don't--" She hesitated, but before she could find her voice, the door behind her opened. 

 

Stepping to one side in surprise, Lydia's gasp joined with the rest of the present townsfolk as the accused 'monster' stepped out into the morning light. She was tall and slender, clothed in slim-fitting black cloth, though she had cast aside her cloak. Though humanoid in shape, her skin looked hard and yellowish, segmented in places. Her eyes, lips and claws were black, though her teeth were an off-white, and more akin to fangs. She had no hair, at least in the normal sense, but a thick mane of what looked like black quills.
"We are no monster," She added, her tone calm but authoritative. Within seconds, half the people present fled in abject terror, or screamed at her. One man threw his shovel at her which she deftly knocked aside and focused on him with a curious expression on her face. "The clingy grub found us in the water, gave us time to rest and heal."

 

Claire pulled away from her mother and attached herself to the strange woman, smiling up at her. She regarded Claire for a moment with at best, indifference, though at worst little more than mild annoyance. She mimicked the little girls smile though with her fangs, it looked decidedly more sinister. This didn't seem to upset the 'clingy grub' however, who giggled at her new-found friend.
"She's not a monster," Lydia added, finding courage at last in the faces of the remaining townsfolk, frozen in fear or confusion or both. Then she marched back inside the house, grabbing Claire's hand as she went, "You could have waited inside, now you've made things difficult." She muttered to the stranger. The door closed behind them and she was left standing in the middle of the muddy street. For a moment she did nothing, unsure of what to do, then she took a step forwards and the people remaining either left in a hurry or stepped to one side, giving her passage.
"Our gratitude," She repeated the smile, and strode past them. She wanted to explore the town, she had only been in the land of the hairless apes for a few days, and it was so alien to her. She wanted to learn more, experience more. Perhaps in knowledge, she would find a key to redemption?

 

 


 

 

Two days passed with little incident, though the townsfolk had stopped running from her, she still made them uncomfortable. Once she turned a corner directly into a young woman, and she collapsed to the ground as though she'd just been paralysed and wouldn't move until she had walked on. She entered the blacksmith's home and studied all the tools of a craftsman lining the walls, and hanging from the ceiling. She picked up a pair of tongs and examined them, opening and closing them repeatedly while she studied it, engrossed in it's unusual design and wondering what it was for.
"Don't have 'em where ye come from?" The blacksmith asked, stepping into his work space. He was an incredibly muscular man in his thirties with a short brown beard and a mop of brown hair, marred only by a burn scar from his left temple down to his right eyebrow. "Name's Johan, and they're called tongs, I use them to hold the metal as I give it form."
"Why?" She asked, frowning at the tongs.
"Because i'd burn m'ruddy hands without 'em," He chortled, and she made a clicking, cooing sound that might have been satisfaction or understanding. She reached over to pick up another instrument, "That's a Graver. Use it to cut patterns into metal." And another, "Punch. Ye use it to drive pins, set rivets an' the like and--"

Johan trailed off into silence but the expression on his face said it all.
"What is this name?" She asked, looking at the object in her hand.
"T-That's... an anvil." He replied, staring at the anvil sitting in her open palm. "How the hell're ye liftin' that in one hand?! It's over 200lbs!!" He roared, and reflexively clapped his hands together and started laughing. The sound made her put the anvil back in it's spot and she watched the blacksmith in confusion. 
"What is noise?" She asked, pointing at him.
"What?" Johan frowned at her with a smile, "I laughed... oh come on now, ye might look funny, so i'm willing to explain what a pair of tongs are to ye, but ye tellin' me ye don't laugh where yer from? That's a load o' poppycock." Her blank expression slowly drew his laughter to a close. "Right... well..."

"This one will go elsewhere." She replied, and nodded awkwardly at Johan in appreciation, then stepped back out into the sunlight. She looked up at the sun for a moment, enjoying it's warmth, then something cool and wet struck her in the abdomen. She looked down to see a small, compact ball of mud. Then looked up to see a couple of young boys snickering to themselves, but the moment she spotted them they fled in abject terror. She found their mixture of bravado and fear completely perplexing. Were they afraid or weren't they? In truth, she found everything about these people fascinating. Their culture was so different from her own, it was like night and day. The only thing she'd managed to confirm as a shared belief between her people and the 'humans' was that both races believed their world rested on the back of a giant turtle. Her race had a different name for it, but the humans called it 'Baloo'. The fact they both shared this belief gave her comfort. 

"Hey! Hey, uh... hey!!" Lydia came jogging up to her.
"Yes, human Queen?" She asked.
"Q-Queen?" Lydia frowned, to which the strange woman pointed at Claire.
"Oh... oh, no... i'm not a Queen..." Lydia shook her head and chuckled at her. "I see you're getting along with our youths..." She nodded at the boys who were staring at them from around the corner of a nearby building, "A fair deal better than the rest of the town, anyway..."
"We do not understand." She replied, "This one is--"
"'This one'?" Lydia asked, holding her hand over her eyes so the sun didn't blind her, "Don't you have a name?" 
"Why?" She asked.
"Everyone's gotta have a name." Lydia smiled at her, "You really aren't a monster, are you?" She shook her head at Lydia. "Huh..." She mused for a short while and then grinned, "We should give you a name."

"Why name?" She asked.
"Why name. Of course, why name... okay, uhm..." Lydia laughed nervously and thought for a moment, "Because... because you're you, I have to call you something so I can say, 'Hello... well, whatever your name is... instead of 'Hey, you!' y'know?"

"Hey... you?" She repeated, confused.
"Yeah, y'know..." Lydia was trying not to get frustrated with her when a great idea sprung to mind, "Yew! Oh... what about a plant or a flower?"
"We are not flower." She corrected.
"No, but... you need a name!" Lydia said at last, exasperated by the woman, "Look, i'll just... Willow, Rose, Cherry, Elm, Plum, Ash--"
"Ash...?"
"Ash!?" Lydia laughed and took her hand, "You like Ash?" 
"This will suffice." Ash replied, amused by the woman's excitement. Lydia's good humour didn't last long however, as the blacksmith, Johan, came sprinting up to them moments later, he was out of breath, sweat beading his brow, and he looked panicked. 
"What is it, Johan?" Lydia asked.
"Roderick--" He started, his huge torso heaving with each breath, "--Roderick is dead -- it's a right mess!" He tried to get the information through despite his difficulty breathing, "Worse still--" He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, "--there's a man asking about the death on the outskirts of town, and someone mentioned you." He nodded at their guest. 
"We are Ash," She proclaimed to Johan.
"What?" He frowned at her, "Look, you have to hide, or leave, I don't know. But Roderick being dead, people are going to think you did it, especially after the little chat you had together, and in front of everyone."
"This one has killed no-one." Ash replied indignantly.
"Doesn't matter. I think this stranger is taking their story seriously either way. Run or hide, doesn't matter which," With that, Johan was gone, he ran back towards his home and Ash considered what he'd said for a few moments as Lydia began to panic.
"We stay." Ash said at last.
"But why?!" Lydia gasped at her, "If that man is a Royal guard, or a monster hunter, or who knows what else, he will kill you!!" 
"This one is no monster." Ash replied, with her approximation of a grin, "So if hunter come... we kill." 

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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 is...it'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."

"That...is 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."

 

"Well...it 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 Hive...is 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 is...an 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. "Yes...you'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..."

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"Blight?" Ash asked, her tone curious. She followed Krios to the entrance of the barn. Ash lifted her head and scented the air, then stepped inside. Blood and entrails were scattered everywhere. A trail of gore led up to a haystack where what was left of Roderick had managed to pull himself away and lie resting against the hay. She was surprised he had managed to survive long enough to move that far. Whatever had attacked him had obviously been interrupted. The guts strewn across the ground were partially consumed, the monster had been forced to flee, maybe it feared numbers, or perhaps it sensed the presence of hunters. Ash walked over to Roderick's body, his glassy eyes staring up at the ceiling in anguish. She bent down and scooped her finger through his guts and smelled it, then she licked the end of her finger and quickly spat it out, "Meat is spoiled." She growled.

"A warm day will do that." Krios said, folding his arms across his chest. "Do you notice anything else about this scene? Anything unusual?"
"Dead one trusted killer," She replied, scenting the air again.

"What makes you think that?" Krios asked, raising his brow with an amused smirk.

"We show you," Ash replied, "Stand there. Blade on ground. Hands at back."

"Can't say that prospect sounds very inviting." Krios said, but he obliged. He removed his sword from his belt and stood at the spot where Ash suggested, holding his hands loosely behind his back. "Well?" He asked.
"Good." Ash nodded, then quickly she raised her clawed hands, bared her teeth in a terrifying snarl, and charged Krios. Stingers exploding from her back, she was at him in mere seconds, ready to gore him before any normal person would be able to react. Krios leapt backwards and rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding the strike. Even for someone as quick as him, had he not already been anticipating it, he might not have been fast enough. Ash came to a stop and sheathed her stingers.

"Hunter flees, but is no prey, so readies attack." She nodded at Roderick, "Dead one was prey. Prey flees. Puts back to predator. But no wounds on back, no wounds on arms, like this," She held up her arms defensively, "Did not run, did not defend. Prey knew predator."

"Good." Krios said with an approving nod. "I have a hunch on what happened. We need to speak with the Chief."

 

Ash and Krios left the barn together, stepping out into the daylight, only to find a large group waiting for them. Several of the villagers held pitchforks and scythes. The Chief stood amongst them. Ash took a step forwards and one of the jumpy villagers lowered their pitchfork at her, she hissed at them and they immediately took a step back.
"Enough of this!" The Chief grunted, "I want to know the truth! What killed Roderick, hunter?!" 

"Not Ash, I'm certain of that." Krios said as he stepped forward so that he was standing only a few inches from the elderly man. "Need some information. Strange occurrences in Cambra, missing persons, anything at all."
"Missing?" The Chief shook his head, "Nobody is missing," He replied, then corrected himself, "No, well, Roderick's wife is visiting family in Duren."

"When did she leave?" Krios asked. "Let me guess, a few weeks back? Left quite suddenly I'll bet."
"Well... I-I don't know... I..." The Chief struggled to think back, but a dawning realisation was slowly beginning to spread.

 

"She had the Blight." Krios said, and his tone was apologetic. "Roderick knew, I've seen this too many times. Folks can't handle the truth, they think they can nurse their loved ones back to health, or find a cure. But in the end the result is always the same, there is no cure. And they spend their last moments in horror as their love transforms in to a terrifying beast."
"No shame in prey becoming predator." Ash added, but the Chief looked at her in disgust as he tried to process everything that Krios had said.
"I-I can't..." The Chief tried to focus, "You're telling me that Roderick's wife, Rhea, killed him? T-That's she some kind of... monster?"

"Most likely." Krios said with a nod. "She was born in the night, so it's when she'll be more active. We need to prepare quickly, or she'll kill again."
"What would you have us do?" The Chief asked.

 

"Not sure yet, need to know what I'm dealing with." Krios said, shaking his head. "What form the Blight shapes people in to... Their emotions, how they feel before they transform, can affect it greatly. This thing, whatever it is, had long claws, and killed savagely. Hard to tell, but it doesn't look like Roderick's been eaten at all. She's killing out of insatiable lust for blood shed. However, the circumstances of her transformation could tell us who she will likely target. There's a good chance men of similar age to Roderick will be in danger. "

"Not sure yet, need to know what I'm dealing with." Krios said, shaking his head. "What form the Blight shapes people in to... Their emotions, how they feel before they transform, can affect it greatly. This thing, whatever it is, had long claws, and killed savagely. The circumstances of her transformation could tell us who she will likely target. There's a good chance men of similar age to Roderick will be in danger."
Ash watched the interchange between Krios and the Chief, for much of it she had remained silent, watching them talk and debate with one another, and eventually come to an uneasy agreement. It seemed like their differences made them weaker, made it take longer for them to decide on a proper course of action. She was about to speak when she noticed something on the ground behind the Chief and she immediately approached the group. They split and parted to allow her through and she bent over and examined the ground carefully. There in the middle of the muddy road, there was a small yellow flower. On the top of one of it's leaves, there was a small, dark red splash of colour. Ash lifted the leaf up and examined it for a moment, then let it rest back down, "Hunter?" She asked, then nodded at the flower.

 

"Blood." Krios said, his eyes giving a momentary flash of purple. "Good eye. You're not bad at this."

"There is more." Ash jerked her head in the direction of the river.

"Then we follow it." Krios replied. "Don't know what we're up against yet, so we move on foot. Slower, but can't be too careful."
"Good luck." The Chief nodded to Krios, "To both of you." He added, looking to Ash with a tense expression.

 

 


 

 

They had been following the trail of blood for a while now and it had no signs of giving anything away just yet. One or the other of them would notice a drop of blood every few feet, and their search continued in silence until eventually, Ash's curiosity overwhelmed the satisfactory silence of the hunt.

"Your culture is strange." Ash said simply, inspecting the next drop of blood on the ground. It was sticky, which was good news for them. Until recently the blood they'd found had been all but dried up, this likely meant they were catching up to the blood-soaked beast. "We do not understand you."

"I don't understand you, either." Krios replied. "But I will tell you anything you wish to know that is to my knowledge."

"You fear what you do not know." She began, "You are one race, but you stand apart. But you risk life for metal. You are contradiction."

"True." Krios said with a nod. "But we do not share one mind, we can't help that. We do what we can, some moreso than others."

"You are many minds, fighting each other." Ash replied with a scowl.

 

"Can't be helped." Krios said. "But there are advantages. Sharing one mind sounds effective, but a little boring."
"What advantage?" Ash asked as she followed a steadily increasing trail of droplets.

"It's... Interesting. Exciting." Krios smiled. "Fun."
Ash said nothing in response, but the expression on her face said enough. She was not impressed. As they walked alongside the river, following the trail of blood, Ash changed direction and came to an abrupt halt as she stared at the river. "This one's eyes are strong. But we cannot follow through that." She nodded at the river, and showed Krios the trail of blood that led up to the river bank. "Hunter lead, we follow."

 

"Well, you did well so far." Krios said. "But sometimes to hunt a beast, you must hunt like one." Krios' eyes flashed purple and stayed this time. He went to the river and crouched by it, observing the water. He stayed that way for a few minutes, quiet and focused. "...its faint." He said finally, "But blood flows through the water. She's travelled upstream, attempting to hide her trail. Clever, her instincts are kicking in quickly. She likely knows she is being followed."

"Good." Ash replied, "A challenging hunt. Beast knows our scent, so we hide in plain sight." Ash walked down to the river's edge, and sunk her clawed hand into the river, digging up a cloud of mud and silt which she pulled from the river and began rubbing all over herself. When she was finished she scented the air and picked up another clump of river mud and pressed it into Krios' hands, "Great ape makes great stench." She growled, and walked on.

 

"So is that the end of your plan?" Krios said as he began slopping the mud over himself. "She'll likely find a spot with good vantage. She'll hide, and wait for us to come too close. Besides..." Krios looked up at the skies. "Dusk approaches. She'll thrive in the night, low visibility, and we'll be walking in to her chosen field, where she'll have the advantage."

"What would you suggest, mighty hunter?" She asked, a twinge of irritation in her voice.

"Set a trap of our own." Krios said with a grin. "The creature fled the village, and her tactics change as night falls. Suggests a predator with excellent vision in low light. Shame we didn't think to get supplies, and no mages to help." Krios thought for a moment. "Only option is bait. Make her think one of us has fallen for her trap, while the other gets in position."
"What is 'mage'?" Ash asked.

"Those who wield magic." Krios explained, and as he saw Ash's expression he added. "Magic is... A strange, unpredictable power. Mages channel it through special gems. Can't say I know a lot about the specifics of it all."

Ash listened quietly and nodded, trying to understand everything the human had explained. Magic was a power wielded by humans called mages. But not all humans were mages. A mage was a human that used a gem to create magic. It was a confusing concept, but one she couldn't focus on right now. Ash made a 'click' noise with her tongue to attract Krios' attention.

"Who is bait?" She asked. Reading his expression, she added indignantly, "This one is not bait."

 

"Doubt you're her type." Krios said. "She's young in her new form. Memories of her humanity will likely remain, combined with grief and guilt of what she has done. She won't understand it, she's a beast now. However, it's likely she will attack men who remind her of her husband. The guilt, the monster will turn that in to rage." Krios started walking up the stream, taking less care in his stride. "My life will be in your hands, Ash. We do not share a mind, so I don't know if I can trust you. See?" He smirked. "Exciting."

"One mind, one voice." Ash slowed her pace, giving a wider gap between them, "This is lonely to us. This is... frightening."

"That is why we trust." Krios said. "Ao is a lonely place without it." Ash released a long, low growl. She didn't like the concept of 'trust'. It seemed like an unnecessary filler for something more useful that their species lacked. And yet, she understood why trust gave them comfort. 

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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. "T-toxin...my...b-belt." 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.
"C-can...be." 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."
"R-really...it'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. "...er...might 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."
"But...you look exhausted." Lydia said. "Please, you've taken care of that monster...it'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. "Do...do 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. 
 

 

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Her stride was as strong as it had been when she first set out. Her legs carried her ceaselessly towards a destination of uncertainty. Ash looked at the road ahead of her, it swept up the side of a hill and what lay on the other side she had no idea, but she couldn't go back to that village. To the hunter. Despite feeling certain of her actions, Krios had left a measure of doubt in her mind. Her thoughts were clouded, so much so that she barely took notice of the thundering sound of hooves in the distance.
She reached the top of the hill and looked out across the next valley. It was beautiful, idyllic even. Yet alien to her. Mountains rose up on the horizon, while great hills and valleys dotted across the landscape. The early morning sun shone down, while clouds dotted across the sky cast shadows that slithered over the land. Then down the winding path, she saw the source of the noise. Two men on horseback were riding towards her, one seemed a lot larger than the other, as his shadow cast itself over the rider in front, and his horse looked laboured from the weight. 

Ash pulled the black hood over her head and held it far enough that it cast a shadow over her face. She stepped to one side to allow the riders passage. A few seconds later they charged past her, ignoring her completely. Or so she'd thought. The riders commanded their steeds to halt and they turned, trotting back to her.
"You there, woman, why do you hide your face?" The rider asked. Ash dared not look up. "I asked you a question." The large man dismounted from his horse and walked up to her, each step left a large boot imprint in the mud. He must have been seven feet tall, and built like a wall. She saw an arm reach out and the man's forefinger touched the underside of her jaw, and she tensed. "Let me see your face, woman." The man pressed below her jaw and forcibly raised her head until she looked upon them, and they on her. 

The large man took a step back in surprise, Ash readied to defend herself, "I told you it was her!" The large man roared back at his comrade.
"How was I to know?" The smaller man replied, his voice cool and neutral compared to his large, fiery friend.

"Thank the Gods, you're the other half of the duo that killed the monster in this region, are you not?" The large man asked. Ash examined him properly. He had a mane of yellow hair and a beard of similar colour. He was in his forties, and was the largest ape she had ever seen. He was so muscular he looked as though he might have difficulty moving. Her gaze wandered to the other man who remained sat upon his horse. He was small, and sickly thin. He had a mop of greasy black hair that he occasionally brushed back out of his face, and a short black goatee. Unlike the large man, who's eyes were soft and and seemingly warm, this man's eyes were thin, and piercing. They studied her as intently as she did him.

 

"Well?" The large man asked, "You are, aren't you? The report said you have an odd look about you, and black eyes. I can't think there are too many like you matching that description. Won't you tell me your name? You're the slayer of the beast, aren't you?" He asked, frowning. "My name's--"

Ash ran. She ran as quickly as she could. She didn't really know why she was running, but she felt threatened by the two men. Her instincts were right, at least in part. She heard the large man yell behind her, and she felt glee for a moment in escaping them. She was just about to turn off the main road and dart into the forest when suddenly there was a hazy blue mist in front of her, and the small, black-haired man appeared in front of her. Ash leapt over the man to avoid him, but as she cleared his head, she felt his hand grab her by the ankle, and then she was quickly slammed into the ground. She tried turning onto her back to attack, but just as quickly the man pressed her into the mud, stopping her from moving. She'd never felt so helpless and defeated, so quickly.

"Marcus, restrain her." The black-haired man waited until Marcus - the lion-haired individual - stomped over to them and promptly sat down on her back. She heaved as the air was forced out of her lungs by the large man's weight. "Alright, let's try that again. His name's Marcus." 
"Sorry," Marcus patted her on the shoulder.

"My name is Dieter." He knelt down in front of her so she could see him, "Now, why were you trying to run?"
"Let us go, apes!" Ash shrieked, and struggled to break free.
"She has quite a voice on her," Marcus grumbled.
"You've done nothing wrong, have you? Why did you run?" Dieter asked again.
"We do nothing wrong, we do as we wish." Ash growled.
"A fair response." Dieter replied, glancing at Marcus, "But we can't let you go. The King was notified of your successful beast kill, and your partner, Krios, has a long history of much the same. It's our duty to bring you both to him, alive and well. I would appreciate your cooperation." Ash snarled at them, trying to push herself up from the ground, but despite her strength, she found she couldn't do it. With the immense weight on her back, and the soft, slippery mud below her, she was pinned.
"Well if you're going to be like that," Marcus sighed, and pulled out a pair of metal thick metal cuffs.

 

 


 

 

Isabella finished clearing up after the hunter's breakfast. She thanked him for his service to the town and returned to the kitchens, when she heard the tavern door open. She smiled at the thought of new customers, although it was likely just Johan asking if he'd left something behind the night before, as he was likely to do the nights he took to drink. But when she came back into the main room, she saw two men dressed entirely differently, and yet both wore a long white jacket with navy blue trim. The colours of the King. Sure enough, on their right breast, there lay the sigil of the King. The head of a lion, with a crown of thorns atop it's head.
"Oh, good evening, Sirs!" She called to the pair. One man was tall like a tower, with a beard and a mane of golden hair. The other was thin and rakish, with a mop of greasy black hair and a short goatee. They strode inside and ignored her completely, their eyes fixed on Krios, the hunter.
"Sirs?" Isabella asked, "My tavern has wonderful food, and local ales, we have beds and--"

The smaller of the two men held his hand up, silencing her, "We're here on business, innkeep. You there, hunter, what is your name?"

"You'd think being dogs of the King would have at least imparted you with some manners." Krios replied, not bothering to look at the men. "Dear Isabella greeted you courteously into her establishment, her home. The least you could do is greet her cordially, don't you think?"

"Do you mind us, Isabella?" The man asked, raising his brow at the innkeep.
"I-I..." Isabella laughed nervously.
"We're sorry, Isabella." The larger of the two men apologised, nodding to her, "But we're really very busy, and we don't spend a lot of time around other people, so we're not as social as we should be."
"N-No, I don't mind." She smiled at the larger man, and then retreated. 
"I ask you again, Sir - your name?" The man with the goatee stepped around the table until he faced Krios.

 

"Krios of Elisee." Krios replied, turning to look at the man with the goatee. "It's a lovely place. Have you been there?"

"If I have, it was to kill something." He replied.
"My name is Marcus," The larger man added, smiling warmly, "This is my comrade, Dieter." 

"The King has requested your presence," Dieter held out a small roll of parchment with a red wax seal.

"Really?" Krios said, he looked at the parchment but did not take it. "That's very kind of him. However I make a point of not dabbling in the affairs of Gods and Kings. I'll pass."
"This is not an offer you can refuse," Dieter replied, with a cautionary tone.
"Dieter," Marcus scolded his comrade, "Krios, Sir, your services are required, your pay will be far in excess of anything you are normally offered, there are benefits, and the assignment would be your speciality - hunting Blight monsters."

 

Krios was silent for a moment, not so much considering the offer, as considering his next words carefully. "What makes you think that interests me?" He asked. "Are his Majesty's spies so inept? They see a man who exchanges services for coin and they assume it is my primary motivation?" Krios shook his head. "I have no desire to become a conscript, no matter the wage."

"To disobey the King is treason," Dieter put his hand to the scabbard of his rapier and started to pull the blade from it's sheathe. Marcus stepped in and pressed his hand down upon Dieter's, then turned to face Krios and bowed.
"Krios, if not for the King, then I ask you for yourself, for Dieter and for myself. I do not wish harm upon any of us this day, your beliefs are your own, but our orders are clear, and we will be forced to carry them out. You may not wish to do this, but we cannot always choose the path we must walk. Please?"
 

Krios smirked a little, like he had heard something quite silly. "Free men can always choose." He said as he stood from the table. "...but then again, no man is free while under the shadow of Die'welden. Except for his Majesty, of course, how nice for him."
"The King is bound in ways we are not," Dieter replied, scowling at Krios. Marcus walked out, followed by Krios and Dieter. Outside, there were four horses. Three were vacant, but one had a length of black cloth strewn across the back of the horse. 
"I am glad we could reach an understanding." Marcus replied, bowing to Krios before he pulled himself onto his unlucky horse. Dieter walked over to the horse with the black cloth and pulled the cloth from the horse's back, revealing a savagely angry Ash thrashing beneath it. Despite the cloth gag in her mouth, she screeched at the top of her lungs upon seeing them and bucked against the horse, but she was tied to it, along with manacles binding her hands and feet together. Dieter replaced the black cloth, covering Ash once again.

 

"...What are you doing with her?" Krios asked, before he could even think to stop himself. Dieter looked perplexed by the question.

"The King will make that decision, we cannot say." Marcus replied, "However, we had word that she assisted in killing the beast, and so she is in our eyes, a hunter. However unusual she might appear, she is a valuable asset. Though she resisted us greatly, so for her own safety, we bound her."

"She is not a creature bound by man's law. She owes no service to the King." Krios said as he walked over to his chestnut mare that the men had retrieved from the stables. "You know, Marcus, I think I prefer your companion. At least he is honest about being a brute."
"I'm sorry you feel that way," Marcus replied solemnly, "If I have to exert force, I will. But it gives me no pleasure. I do what I believe will ultimately benefit this land, even if it means I must sacrifice a piece of my happiness."
"I may be a brute," Dieter effortlessly pulled himself onto his horse, "But Marcus is a good man. Do not sleight him with your words, for while he has the patience and good humour for your bitter mouth, I do not. Mount up, we ride for the capital."

 

"Good men do not do that." Krios said and he pointed to the thrashing mound of cloth that Ash was under. "Ash is not from our land, she does not know the etiquette expected of meeting a King. Punish her for it... and I'll kill you myself." Krios said it as a statement of fact, more than a threat. Then he dug his heels in to his horse and she sped off through the village of Cambra.

 

 


 

 

"Behold, Vialice. Jewel of Avalon!" Marcus cheered upon seeing the city after their long ride. Vialice was a port city, built around an enormous bay, which gave much of the richest merchants and nobles a fine view of the sea. The city was mostly flat land, however the eastern edge rose up the side of a steep cliff, upon which Die'welden was built into. The grand white castle loomed over the city like a watchful protector.

"I need a bath." Dieter muttered, as they descended into the valley. "Tell me, Krios - how many monsters have you slain?" 
"Leave him be, Dieter!" Marcus cheered, "We can talk business another time!" He laughed, whooping and hollering with excitement. 

Dieter let Marcus ride on and then turned to face Krios once more, "Well?" He asked, expectantly.

"I don't count." Krios replied. "But it's enough that it's rare that I encounter ones that are new to me." The answer didn't seem to satisfy Dieter, but he made no attempt to further the line of questioning.

 

They rode on in silence until they came to the gates of the city. Even in today's dark times, the city gates were open to all. Soldiers lined either side at all times of the day, and the gates could be shut at a moment's notice, giving an air of protection. Their small group rode into the city, exchanging muddy lanes and grassy hills for white stone cobbled streets and an eclectic mixture of architecture. As a port city, business was always in full swing and every manner of item came by on carts. The smell of sweet dates, figs and oranges were most dominant, though at times you could also smell smoked meats and fresh fish. As they rode into the city, many of the villagers whistled and clapped and waved at Dieter and Marcus, elated at their presence. Dieter ignored them, but Marcus smiled and waved as he passed. 
"We're going to the Nobles District, in the east quadrant," Dieter explained to Krios, "Die'welden is there." It took a few minutes to cross the city, but eventually they came to a long stone wall, and a heavy black gate. In front of it stood two guards.

"Passes?" One of them asked.
"24th Seat, Dieter, and 32nd Seat, Marcus." Dieter handed the guard a small slip of paper, "We have passage also for Krios of Elisee, and Ash." 
"Alright, everything's in order." The guard banged on the gate, and it was opened wide, allowing them in, "You can leave your horses at the stable, there. Go on on foot." They thanked the guard and passed him, stabling their horses, and uncovered Ash at last. Marcus helped her down from the horse and the moment her feet found the ground she became quiet still, watching Dieter quietly. 
"We should move, or we'll be late and--" Dieter moved past Ash, and noticed too late the malice in her gaze. She surged forwards and smashed her forehead into his nose and then collapsed to the cobbled street as she was still bound. Dieter screamed and gurgled as blood trickled down his broken nose and he recoiled in pain, cradling it delicately while Ash released a purring satisfactory growl.

 

"Well, I think you probably deserved that." Krios said to Dieter as he stepped forward and grabbed Ash by her arm and pulled her back up to her feet. "That said..." He added, now talking to Ash. "The people here will not hesitate to kill you. Tread carefully, and keep your pride in check."
"Fucking bitch broke my nose!" Dieter spoke through gurgling breaths as blood splattered down onto his white jacket. Ash inclined her head, watching Krios in silence, and then looked away from him, her expression unreadable.
 
"Why are you late?" 
The voice belonged to a woman, but she spoke with such authority that Marcus and even the wounded Dieter, both snapped to attention. The woman in question was tall and slender, and she wore the armour of a knight, yet it sat on her like a second skin, as though it weighed nothing at all. Over which, she wore the long white jacket identical to Marcus and Dieter's.
"Sorry, Captain Teresa, we were waylaid, we had difficulty finding--"
"I don't want your excuses, Marcus." Teresa replied, her sharp eyes scanning over the motley group. She had long white hair with a fringe cut directly horizontally across her forehead and light blue eyes. She had an otherworldly presence to her. "Clean yourself up, Dieter. Your blood is spoiling your uniform." She turned her gaze to Krios as Dieter and Marcus slunk away, "You must be Krios of Elisee," Then she pulled a key from her jacket pocket and began unlocking Ash's restraints.  
"I am." Krios replied. "And I have no idea who you are, but I wouldn't let that get you down. I don't visit the Capital much."
"Your knowledge of me matters not, only your sword and your wits, neither of which have yet to impress me. I am Captain Teresa, First Seat of the White Wolves." Teresa finished unlocking Ash's restraints and then walked on, "Come. The King awaits your presence. You had best not disappoint him as you have me."

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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?"

"Just...trust 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. But...you 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 become...um..." 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."

 

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Ash, Dieter, Marcus and Krios left the castle together. The sun was shining, though dark clouds loomed in the distance. Marcus was content to whistle a tune as they walked, but Dieter growled in irritation. He was confused as to why he had changed duties suddenly. From monster hunter, to runner, and now he was a babysitter. He looked over his shoulder, glancing at Ash and Krios and then turned back to Marcus. 
"What are we doing here, Marcus?" He asked.
"What do you mean?" Marcus frowned and then looked back at Krios and nodded with a smile at the man, "They seem alright, if a little odd." 
"We're supposed to be monster hunters." Dieter replied, "But instead the King ordered us to find them quarters and get their equipment readied."
"If the King says it is important, Dieter, then we shall do it." Marcus patted his large stomach, "Although, I think a meal will be in order before we set off. And I fancy another crack at the Captain. I'm sure I can solve her today." 
"You're going to get another bruise..." Dieter muttered, then they both slowed to let Ash and Krios catch up, "So, you want a Magisteel weapon? I need to know what kind of weapon. Give me the details. But hurry up, will you? I've got better things to be doing than pandering to your sorry hide."

 

"I'll talk to the craftsmen directly." Krios replied. "No sense in rushing the forging of a fine weapon. It would be wasteful."

"I'll waste you--" Dieter snapped, but Marcus patted him on the shoulder.
"Come on then, let's see him. He's a funny fellow, but i'm sure you'll all get along swimmingly." Marcus took the lead and the group followed. 
They walked down to the bottom of the noble quarter and saw a large building without walls, the roof supported by wooden pillars. Equipment of all shapes and sizes scattered across the working space, including an anvil and a furnace. Ash ran up to the tools and picked one out of the pile at once.
"Tongs." She said, examining it with a curious gaze.
"Know your tools, do ya?" A man asked, he pulled himself out of his chair from beside the furnace. He was smoking from a long pipe, exhaling clouds of wispy purple smoke. "So, my name's Grant. I'm the King's blacksmith. I take it you want something, else you'd not be here. Mornin' Dieter, Marcus."
"Good morning!" Marcus replied, Dieter just nodded.
"And who are these folk then?" Grant asked, raising an eyebrow at the odd-looking pair.

 

"New recruits, I suppose." Krios said to Grant, "Only the best is suitable for a King, and so I am to assume that you are the best at your craft." Krios removed his sword from his belt and laid it down on one of the work tables. "Been a long time since I've been to a smith in the city, and never a smith worthy to craft the King's weapons. My blade..." He removed it from it's sheathe and laid it back on the table. "Rhaegalian steel, forged in Elisee. It's seen it's share of battles, but I've made sure it has seen good care in return. Recent events, however, inform me that the weapon has become quite obsolete, in many ways."

"Oh, well..." Grant picked up Krios' weapon and studied it for a moment, "Well kept. Forged by an expert..." He practised with the blade a little, thrusting it forwards and slashing it through the air, and judged it's handling and weight. "Well, I could make you something with Magisteel, as I imagine that's what the King would want for ye, but honestly, your weapon is in fine condition. What are you planning on fighting exactly? Beg your pardon, but I don't know your faces, nor know a Royal Captain from a White Wolf. What are you gonna use your blade on? Much of what you hunt will affect what I should make." 

 

"Monsters." Krios replied. "A fairly diverse opponent, as it happens." He added. "At first I simply wanted a new sword, much like this one, but..." Krios looked at Ash as he spoke. "Recently I've found myself involuntarily separated from my blade... twice." He turned back towards Grant. "This sword was forged to fight men, and I will keep it to serve that purpose. What I need is a weapon to fight monsters... do you understand?"

Grant looked from Krios to Ash, and back to the hunter, "Alright. So you want a weapon that you can't lose. Something powerful, that protects your grip." He paused and looked at Ash, "And what about you, funny-lookin'?" Ash turned her head in confusion at the blacksmith, "Well what weapon do you want?" 
"We do not require one." Ash replied, looking from the blacksmith to Krios, "Metal stick is weak. We are stronger." To punctuate this, Ash released her stinging limbs from her back and stretched them, showing they could jab further than any sword. Grant recoiled, but though wary, remained rooted.
"Good as those things might be, they're still a part of ye," Grant studied them for a few moments, "Harder'n steel, but I reckon there are monsters out there that could slice through 'em, plus Magisteel is stronger than they are. Are you sure you don't want them?"
"If metal stick is stronger, then we use." Ash replied, intrigued. 
"Alright then, well we're getting somewhere then. Do you want a sword, or dagger, or a bow or--" Ash walked past Grant and grabbed his anvil and lifted it clear off the ground, "Huh... alright. Then a mace, or a greatsword should suffice. Well that should be interesting, aren't many wielders of the great blades any more."
"When is ready?" Ash asked.
"Mornin', come back for them then." Grant smiled to Krios and Ash, "Oh," He lifted Krios' sword, "Shall I keep this and use it for the base, or do you want to keep it?" 

"Keep it for now, and make any necessary repairs, please." Krios said. "But I'd like it back as is. Like I said, it was forged to fight men, and men can be just as troublesome from time to time in my line of work."

 

 


 

 

"When you're in the city, you can bunk here." Dieter stopped in front of an enormous building. It looked like some kind of mansion. Ash stared up at the height of the building, it was several stories high and dwarfed most of the surrounding architecture. "This is the commons for the Wolves." Dieter explained, leading them inside. The interior was fairly sparse, but a lot was going on. Two people were having a fist fight in one corner, while a group of the Wolves cheered them on, placing bets and drinking. A couple were stood near the fireplace, warming themselves and talking in hushed voices. One man was reading a book on a comfortable looking chair at the far end of the room, and a dozen more were dotted around, talking amongst themselves. When Dieter and Marcus entered, there was a general shift in the tone of the room. They acknowledged them both, but it was more the two new recruits that brought silence to the room. But only for a few moments. 
"Your room is on the second floor. First door on the left." Marcus patted Ash and Krios on the back, "Welcome to the Wolves." He added, and then walked into the throng of men and women. Dieter looked at them both for a long moment and then rolled his eyes and walked over to the fireplace.

"What now?" Ash asked, looking to Krios.

"Now...we get acquainted with our new... friends." Krios said, and he looked around the room. His attention lingered a little too long on the bare knuckle brawl going on in the room. He watched them for a moment, gauging their form and technique, and observing the bets being placed. "...Hm... I like a challenge." He said to himself. Ash followed Krios over to the group of onlookers and tried to get a better viewpoint, but as they got closer, one of the Wolves stepped out of the pack and pushed them both back. She was a short, petite woman with a scruffy mop of fiery red hair, but from the tank top she wore, they could easily see her defined muscles. 
"Hey!" She growled, pushing Krios, "If you want a turn, you get in line, pal. And you put the coin down first. Them's the rules." 

"Just observing, for now." Krios said. "Besides, I'm a little light on coin. So, what are the rules?" He asked, looking past the woman at the group that were quickly getting back to their business.
"Rules, tch," The woman scoffed, "Don't pass out, newbie." She turned around and as if on queue, one of the fighters managed to land a solid hit on the underside of his opponent's jaw. The man was knocked to the ground in an instant, and there he stayed. "We have a winner!" She cried, clapping and everyone else joined in. 
"Where's the money, Ruby?" The victor asked. 
"Here, Michael." She replied, handing the bald-headed muscular man his share of the winnings.
"Who's he?" Michael asked, nodding at Krios, "He my next fighter?" 
"No, he doesn't have the coin, he's--" 
"He's fighting me. Come on, I don't care. Come on, newbie, get in the ring." Michael lifted his blood-soaked, skin-cracked fists. "I'm waiting on ye now, come on. Show me what you got, everyone takes a turn when they join. That's my rule."

 

Krios eyed the man, Michael, for a moment. A wry smirk appeared on his face, and he began removing his regalia. After a short moment he was stood bare chested, the scars over his arms, back and chest all on show. His armor had been folded neatly on the floor next to him. Then he stepped in to the circle of watchers, and took his place facing Michael. He lifted his hands in front of his, guarding his face, and he stood with his legs apart, giving himself more balance. "When you're ready." He said to Michael, and he smirked again, but his eyes were focused on his opponent with a fierce intensity. 
Michael smiled back keenly, and then he came at Krios. He swung his fist in a wide arc, and Krios weaved away from it's trajectory, causing a soft wave of excitement from the crowd of Wolves. Michael moved quickly to keep on top of him, clever, Krios thought. He brought his fist in from the other direction, and Krios waited. At the lost moment he stepped to the side, letting the fist graze past his chin, feeling it breeze against his beard hair. He jabbed with his right, hammering his fist in to Michael's exposed ribcage. 
Michael recoiled from the blow and back off, bringing his guard up again. Despite his momentary whince, the man was smiling when he looked back at Krios again. "So, you're not completely shite then, are ye?" He said. 
"Aye, not completely." Krios replied. "Now stop fucking around, or the next time I'll put you on the floor."
"Your funeral." Michael said confidently. 
He charged at Krios again, this time he was quicker. Gone were his predictable, wild swings. He struck with precision, and it was no longer enough for Krios to merely side step him. Krios brought his arms right up, letting them take the brunt of the onslaught. He waited, taking the hits again and again, until finally he saw an opening. He ducked low, as Michael's fist flew over his heat, and he held his arms out and barged forward. His shoulder slammed in to Michael's waist, and he grabbed his upper legs in his arms, and heaved, lifting the man up off the ground, and slammed him hard on the floor. 
Krios stood up and turned his back on the man. He went to leave the ring, but he had taken two steps before he heard a soft thump, and turned back around to see that Michael had vaulted back on to his feet. "You're not done, newbie." Michael said. "Not until one of us is out for the count."
 
"We understand this." Ash muttered.
"Hmm?" Ruby turned to look at Ash.
"Fight for dominance. One called 'Michael' will fall."
"I know Michael, and he's strong. What makes you think that he's gonna fall to that guy?" Ruby asked, nodding at Krios.
"We are strong." Ash replied, "We kill Michael, if we wish. Krios stronger." 
"Hm..." Ruby turned her gaze from Ash to Krios, and quietly added an additional wager in Krios' favour. As the fight continued, the onlooker's wagered coin grew into a pile.
 
"Good." Krios said with a grin. "I was beginning to doubt the effectiveness of you Wolves."
"Don't act like you haven't bent knee and presented arse to the King like the rest of us." Michael said with a laugh. "That overconfidence will soon get beaten out of ye in here."
"Had that beaten out of me before I had hairs on my bollocks." Krios snarled. "Now, if you've finished presenting yourself, let's finish this."
"With pleasure, newbie." Michael said. 
The two men came to blows again. They were a flurry of punches and kicks, each of them matching each other perfectly. Every strike dodged, blocked, and countered with knowing precision. Then Michael suddenly got the upper hand, as his fist connected with Krios' jaw, sending him backwards, swaying from side to side. He hit him again with a right hook, and blood splattered from Krios' mouth, across the dirty floor beneath them. Then he grabbed Krios by his hair and held the strands tight in his fist. 
"See what I mean?" Michael taunted. "Fucking newbie thinks he's hot shit. I warned ye, didn't I?" Michael held his free hand in the air, gaining a round of raucous cheering from the crowd. Then he made a fist with his raised hand, and began to bring it down on Krios. But Krios suddenly rose, ignoring the pain of Michael's grip on his hair. He caught Michael's descending arm in his hand, and then he swung his right fist into Michael's ribcage once more, in the same spot, and there was a sickening crack, and Michael let go of him, howling in pain. 
Krios grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him back, bringing up his knee and driving it in to Michael's stomach, before hringing his elbow down on his back, right on his spine, causing Michael to cry out again, before slumping to the floor. Krios breathed for a moment, and then he bent down and grabbed Michael by the hair on the back of his head. "Might have had me there..." He said breathlessly. "If you hadn't been a fucking showboat." He added, and then he brought Michael's head up, and then slammed it back down on the floor again, leaving Michael out cold, and with a broken nose. 
Krios stood up and wiped his arm across his sweating brow and took another deep breath. "...Fun." He said with a grin. "Think I prefer Kabak, though..."
"Fuck your cards," Ruby sneered, "That's not the last time you're fighting." She held up a large bag of gold and then poured a fair amount into a second pouch and handed it to Krios, "Just be careful not to challenge Michael for rank. Because nobody is going to showboat when they might die."
 
Krios took the gold and placed it on the floor, as he began putting his armor back on. He couldn't help but smirk as Ruby mentioned the ranking system that he'd heard about from the King. "I couldn't give a shit about some arbitrary number." He said as he fixed his leather chest piece. "That's not to say I won't stick a sword in the sorry bastard who tries to cross me." He began putting on the chainmail shoulder guards. "To be honest, it's her you have to worry about." He said as he nodded to Ash. "Ash isn't content being a humble nobody like me."
Ruby turned her attention to Ash, who gave her approximation of a 'smile', baring her fangs. Ruby frowned at her and shook her head, "Well anyway, welcome to the Wolves, both of you. And listen, whatever you do, don't bother him." She nodded at the man sat at the far side of the room, reading a book in a comfortable-looking armchair. He had dark blue hair tied back into a ponytail and wore spectacles. He looked harmless. "Just leave him alone, alright?" She glanced at the man sat in the chair and then walked away, leaving Ash and Krios with their winnings.
"We can get food with yellow metal?" Ash picked up the bag and shook it expectantly. "We are hungry..."

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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 home...it'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. "...like 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. It...it'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."

 

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