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Alternate titles include:
  • certifiable mess
  • afraid of people
  • just doing my best
  • (but hey, at least there's pizza)

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LOCATION: The Refuge

The door to Kaspar’s room shut again, though the boy did not begin trembling this time as he had the last.

He’d been trembling before he opened it; before they even departed the camels. Though he couldn’t recall it himself, the boy was sure Yalen could tell him he’d been trembling for some amount of the ride home.

The demons that haunted him now were not the same as the previous night, nor this morning. He was not beset with visions of his past and thoughts of unwanted children, trying to find the sense of where he fit in between those images.

What… the fuck?

Was this normal? His life as a noble afforded him safety that others often didn’t have, sure, but… This was nothing like he’d encountered or even heard of in the eight years that preceded it. In less than two full days—Less than one? How long have we been here?, his mind offered—he and his companions had very nearly died twice, and been endangered several more times. Not to mention the notion that had been vaguely working in his mind, quite possibly placed there by his classmates, that the students were not meant to survive this encounter. If he had less training in smoothing over his urges, he’d…

Well, he’d want Warden Ortega dead.

He took a deep breath, centering himself. What would Willa do?

A snort of laughter erupted from him, unbidden, as he imagined his tutor’s presence in this Refuge. If she knew the circumstances the Warden had put the tethered children in? A grand usurping, he was sure—and certainly no shame if the Warden happened to perish because of his own actions. If Kaspar (and, to a lesser extent, his classmates) had been endangered as well?

Nothing short of death in a manner most cruel and unusual, he imagined.

Gods, that woman scared him. He’d have to keep the shared details of this mission minimal, or she’d be liable to try and track down Hugo for a beating, too.

He shook the thoughts from his head. There was no use in imagining it now, when there was much work to be done. Someone had taken care to make sure he knew they would be meeting with Amanda tonight, though his mind lacked a clear picture of exactly who. Blonde hair—Yalen, or perhaps Jocasta?—seemed to prevail, but he was uncertain if it pertained to the message or simply to the ride back.

He was glad to see a bath had been prepared, and wasted not a moment more peeling the bloodied clothes from his skin. The water was still hot, and he sank into it gratefully. He was tired of heat, but this was a cleansing burn—the heat of the desert only served to soil.

Kaspar took care the scrub the blood where it had begun to stain his skin; his chin and throat seemed a mess, though he knew it was the nature of lip injuries to bleed and he’d not been damaged elsewhere. Other splatters of the crimson liquid lay on his shoulders and arms, his chest and stomach and thighs, and he was sure his back was tainted too.

Froabase blood, or that from his camel—the latter which had suffered a painful death, and the former which likely lived, but had lost a good portion of its face to his Gift.

He was glad to find a small selection of clothes available in the room; his own were likely ruined, and the boy was grateful that he hadn’t brought his precious cloak along. Though these articles were looser and flowier than his own, and lacked any sort of vest to go overtop the tunic, it would have to suffice. He wasted no time setting to the meal that had been left for him, handily cleaned of drugs by Jocasta’s quiet work, and finished it in mere minutes.

As Kaspar prepared to step out the door, he schooled his face into a neutral expression. There was much to discuss tonight, and likely emotions that would run high, but he would not let himself fall victim to the disturbances the Refuge had offered thus far.

Closing it softly behind him, crimson eyes sweeping the area just in time to meet with Jocasta’s gaze.

Turning toward her, he nodded softly and began to approach.

L O C A T I O N | The Witch Woods
I N T E R A C T I O N | Kol, Death’s Hand @Th3King0fChaos; Mentions of Nettle @A Lowly Wretch

Where Kol’s heavily armored form left its mark upon landing, Vali left nothing; his feet were light upon the ground, barely-there as he pulled the energy from the movement, practically instinct by now. His eyes scanned the cliff before them, senses reaching out with the Gift for any sign of danger among the rocks. Though these steep walls would make good shelter for seabirds, there were few that remained; with the scent of blood and storm on the wind, a few more dove, wings sweeping the air as they cawed raucously over the waves. He felt rather than saw them vanish into the darkening air, eyes already scaling the stone.

"Brother, go an take this group and scout ahead. Any hidden mages or groups will need to be dealt with."

Vali turned towards Kol, lips curving in a predatory grin. His blue-green eyes looked past the king, towards the men he was being given, and the ranger nodded sharply. ”Better climb quickly, Brother, or there’ll be nothing left for you,” he replied, gaze locking with the Death’s Hand. He slung his bow around his chest, seeing many of his rangers doing similar, and jogged towards the cliffside.

Looking to either side as his small force lined up against the stone, Vali barked out, ”Quick, but quiet! We don’t want to startle our prey.” He reached up, fingers digging into the rough stone, and began the ascent. Though Vali was known for using his Gift to sense and track while softening his movements, he was no stranger to climbing. More often trees than cliffs, but the strength was there—and was boosted by his Gift, letting him move a little faster and reach a little farther. He pulled a little ahead of his followers, though many of them were capable of similar feats.

Vali reached the clifftop and pulled himself over, staying low to the ground as he reached his Gift out across the small bit of open land that rested between the cliffs and the forest. There was nothing in that grass, the only nearby movement that of rangers pulling themselves over the cliffside onto their feet or their bellies, staying low and watching Vali for a sign.

”If they’re hiding, it’ll be in the woods. Spread out, but stay within sight of someone else. Kill any stragglers, but hold off on attacking anything larger than us,” he ordered, voice low as the Eskandr around him nodded. They crept forward, low but swift, crossing the grass and road into the first brambles of the Witch Woods. The mists of Eskand were at their back, but rain began to pour heavily upon them as they made it to the shelter of the trees.

The woods seemed to grow dark and darker still, and Vali halted. Was it a trick of his eyes, or some unknown Gift at work?

He breathed out, closing his eyes and reaching. It was faint, here at the edge of the woods, but the trees moved more than the should—swaying softly to and fro in the winds, but moving upward too, it seemed. The forest was thickening like something from a story meant to scare children.

His eyes scanned to the right and found the ranger on that side had paused, watching him. Vali gestured over him, and the woman on his left. As they neared, he stated quietly, ”The trees are not with us in these woods. Best not to climb them.” The pair watched him for a moment, glanced toward each other, and then nodded. The picked their ways through the bracken to either side, to pass the message along.

Vali continued forward, awareness spreading around him like a pool of water. He could feel the ripples of his own force. Occasionally, he would sense something else—some small group of fighters, perhaps lookouts or perhaps those who had simply strayed from the herd. Twice he saw them with his own eyes and twice ended them with his own arrows, but others were taken out further down the line.

The magic seemed to grow, much like the trees, as they made it deeper into the forest. The rain still poured, dampened by the canopy but seeming to only grow heavier. The ground was wet with every step now, but Vali did not splash in the rivulets that ran beneath him. He felt as though he could hear singing, just on the edge of awareness, but it was too hard to tell with the noise of the rain.

He sensed the edges of the encampment long before he would’ve been able to see them, and paused the advance once more. Pulling his flanks in, he explained the plan that would be passed down the line to either side.

They were to circle the force, staying hidden within the trees. Once the ends were in place, they would give a signal—following Vali’s own, the rangers were to open fire on the camp, staying hidden and staying in motion. The goal was to harry and confuse them, using illusions if anyone was skilled, and keep them guessing as to how many were here and on the attack. Keep them occupied and uncertain until Kol’s men—who Vali was sure would not be far behind—arrived and started the fight in earnest.

If the senses of the force in the Witch Woods were not keen, the only warning they may have would be a few seconds of birdsong before the rangers attacked; some might realize this was strange in such a storm, or that the birds were not native to Relouse but rather to the lands far south—but noticing this would only give them a moment to brace.

LOCATION: The Desert

The conversation with Ayla kept playing through Kaspar’s mind as the group traversed the sands of Torragon. Some part of him felt guilty to be so selfishly distracted when the threat for danger was so high, but the larger part of him couldn’t be bothered—there were nine others in the convoy, three of whom could sense farther with the Gift than he could ever hope to. They did not need him.

He wished he could say, at the very least, that his distraction had been productive—but the boy wasn’t sure that it had. He kept trying to imagine what it was he wanted, but found so much of this “ideal” life in conflict with itself.

He loved his parents—the Elstrøms—greatly, and he knew they loved him. He had more opportunities than would have ever been available to him Kerremand… But less freedom. The path before him was set as the heir of a noble family, and he didn’t mind terribly much most days. But there was an immense pressure, like an executioner’s ax hanging above his neck. Above his whole family—above the lineage he purported himself to be from.

If it was discovered that he was not the legitimate, blood-born heir, it would have dire consequences for the Elstrøm name and family. Even if the discovery was centuries from now, it could throw into question the continuation of this family.

By right of blood, the Elstrøm line would die the day he took the title of Marquis. No child he sired would be legitimate; no blood of his, no matter how distant into the future, would truly belong in the seat of the Marquis. This was the true danger of his past, the reason why this secret needed to be so closely guarded. The last morsel of knowledge of his past would need to die with those who knew it now. No written history, no great secret passed to another, no matter how deeply he trusted them.

For the first time since he had arrived at Ersand’Enise, Kaspar found himself longing for Willa. Not even the tutor knew the truth of him, but she had consoled him from nightmares he could not explain many times in his childhood. She may not understand why he needed the comfort, but she would provide it nonetheless.

But… there were others capable of that, too. Ayla had seen his stricken face earlier and offered him comfort though he could not tell her what had shaken him. She had offered words of encouragement and kindness.

He wondered if she would be as kind if she knew he’d lied—that his whole life was a lie. If she knew how dangerous he was.

His eyes scanned his collection of classmates, and with a sharp jolt of pain in his chest, Kaspar wondered if they could ever forgive him, were they to learn the truth. For being so dishonest, for impersonating someone of importance when he was anything but, for being a monster who had nearly killed because he had lacked control. Would they forgive the blood on his hands, when his own birth mother could not?

He shut his eyes tightly, breathing as deeply as the stifling air would allow. There was good reason he could never reveal the truth to them—not even to the kind and bright Ayla. It would be the undoing of his family, and the undoing of himself.

Choking down the pain and forcing his mind to other things, Kaspar Elstrøm von Wentoft continued on into the sands.

By the time they had stopped to eat, Kaspar was on edge, focus so tightly coiled that he felt like it might burst. The halassa had been a less than welcome sight, reminding him of the charcoal one he’d left on the wall of his room—with double the fighting force they’d had the previous night, the boy had faith they could handle it. But stopping to fight among these sands would undoubtedly bring trouble of its own kind.

He’d been relieved when Escarra had scared them off with the rifle, though his mind wondered what sort of attention the noise would attract, if any. Did sound travel well here in the desert, or did the wind and the sand choke it before it truly got a chance to live?

The rhinodon was a surprise to the boy. He didn’t know much of desert wildlife, and all that knowledge stemmed from the previous night’s experience. He steered his camel out of the way, pulling on his knowledge of riding horses, but the movements were strange to Kaspar and he hadn’t been reacting as quickly as he hoped to, feeling off-balance.

He’d noticed Zarina’s attempts to distract the creature, and was grateful even if they didn’t seem to have much effect. He managed to avoid the first charge, narrowly avoiding a nasty spill off the back of his steed, and had tried to move himself out of the way of the next charge—until the beast suddenly gave up its quarry, making a brisk retreat.

Kaspar at least knew that it wasn’t a good sign, his fears being confirmed heartbeats later when the ranger called for them to flee to the safety of the hoodoos. As he had spurred his camel toward the cliffs he saw the great wall of sand approaching and felt his throat tighten. It had reminded him of the snow squalls that would sometimes pass through Wentoft in the coldest months. While this sand squall would likely be free from the dangers of hypothermia, he could only think of the abrasiveness of the particles—far rougher than that of snow.

They’d found shelter enough among the hoodoos, and the sand squall had revealed a good enough shelter to rest.

As he ate, trying to let his mind rest for a time, Kaspar was grateful for the shade. The heat out here was monstrous, and part of him thought a snow squall might be refreshing now. He certainly preferred the harsh chill of Helbahn to the hell that was this desert, but knew there was no real point in wishing for something that was a continent away.

Lunch was a quiet affair for the noble; he preferred to observe conversations most of the time anyway, and the classmates who might try to drag him into one all seemed occupied with their own discussions. It didn’t bother him, though a piece of the boy was curious to know what they talked about as words failed to reach his ears. That was, perhaps, by design—noting this, and not wanting to intrude unless invited, the Helbahnese spent most of his time passively watching the card game, occasionally glancing up to observe Escarra’s movements.

Kaspar could not say he was pleased to be moving again, as they shuffled away from the ruins and back into the sand, but he pushed his growing discomfort away in favor of focusing on the task before them. He did not have long to contemplate the potential success of the journey, as the tethered among them finally noticed the aberration. Despite the heat in the air, Kaspar felt a small shiver go down his spine.

They moved further along the cliffs, and there was no room now for distraction; his crimson eyes were constantly scanning the movements above, the froabases looking for any opening to swoop down upon them. As they rode, Kaspar drew from the sands around them, letting something of a reserve build up in his manas in case he needed to act quickly. Quietly, his fingers slipped into the pocket of his vest and he clutched his wand in one hand, preparing for the peace to rupture at any moment.

When Marceline finally rode back to tell the majority of them that a wyrm had been sensed a mile off, it felt in some ways like rainfall after a drought. The threat was known, and though it had not yet attacked, Kaspar felt the anticipation bleed from him. He nodded, unsettled but prepared. He followed Escarra as they made for the rocky ground near the cliffs, senses on alert but breathing calm.

But the calm could not last, and as the tension, thin wire that it was, snapped into chaos, Kaspar’s heart beat into his throat. Some of his companions may be able to hasten their beasts with the Gift, but he had no such talent—he arrived at the rocky outcrop among the last of the convoy, barely outpacing Zarina despite her detour to save the supply camel that had spooked.

For a moment, they were safe among the rocks, but it could not last—not after the wyrm had stirred up the sands and the creatures of Eshiran’s Throat. As blood began to spill and soak into the sand, Kaspar felt his camel startle and tensed with expectation.

He’d enjoyed riding horses over the past five years at Wentoft, lessons frequent—but he’d first been put in a saddle at eight, shortly after he arrived there. The boy still remembered walking around the training yard, clutching tightly to the mane of the horse as he rocked back and forth, legs already aching. It had been merely a harmless garden snake that spooked his steed, but enough to send it galloping across the yard in a panic, poor Kaspar unable to keep his grip as he slid from the saddle, landing harshly on the ground and barely avoiding the back hooves of the beast. Willa had consoled him then, too, holding his hands as he’d sat in the grass and sobbed, startling every time the horse snorted from a few dozen feet away.

He felt a similar sense of helplessness now, as his camel bolted from the scene. Try as he might to control it, the noble couldn’t calm the beast—and though he was unhappy with its behavior, he could not say he blamed it.

It would not be enough to save them, though. As he felt the froabase descending, shadows of its wings upon the sand, Kaspar turned in his saddle and swung his wand out, a barrier of stone slamming into the creature.

It was closer than he had expected, though, claws already grasping at his camel. He felt a pang of guilt at being unable to save the beast, but his life was more important. He pushed off, sending himself one direction as his steed was ripped from underneath him, horrific screeches coming from both it and its predator. He hit the sand and rolled, more by force than by choice.

Stopping on all fours, teeth bared and bloodied red from biting his lip and tongue in the fall, there was something wild in the face of the boy. As another predator swirled in the sky and dove toward him, he reached out with his manas and pulled.

It was like the creature’s face had burst, but there was no flesh spraying out from the impact—blood spilled on him and the sand around him as it screeched, and Kaspar felt the pressure building in his blood as a harsh spear of rock appeared in the air, only half-conscious of his casting it. The froabase rolled to the side mid-air and took the jagged weapon only half in the throat, tearing at the flesh but not outright killing it.

It circled, preparing for another dive, and Kaspar felt the pressure building again—but this time, he was not the one drawing.

With a start, he realized his attacker had stopped moving, hanging from the air like one of Ysilla’s puppets against a darkening sky.

He would’ve hit his knees if he were not already on them, and his blood-soaked hands came up to clutch tightly to his head, nauseous from the immense pressure. He felt like he was going to explode, and for half a second wondered if this was the price of using Blood Magic.

Then it stilled, and turned stranger still—Kaspar glanced up, expecting to see the Paradigm himself among the sands, but instead saw Jocasta in the air, emanating power in a way he’d never felt so directly. And the froabases were gone, and he questioned if they’d ever been there at all.

Jocasta dropped to the ground, but Kaspar fell forward onto his hands, fingers digging into blood-soaked sand as he panted out harsh breaths. When he finally looked up again, blood dribbling down his chin, Jocasta was being tended to.

Curiosity prickled at the boy, but he could shove it aside easily enough. Right now, he didn’t care what sort of forbidden magic she had tapped into—it had saved their lives. He hardly had room for judgement or disapproval, given his own attempt to escape death, though an internet in her and her abilities would certainly grow from here.

Kaspar pushed to his feet, blood-splattered and looking worse-off than he actually was. His mouth tasted of copper but the wounds were not terrible; bothersome, but they would heal up fine. As he made his way to the group, exhaustion settling deep in his bones, the boy noted who had been lost. None of his classmates, thankfully, but two of the guards—it was sad, though he couldn’t spare the energy to be truly upset by it now.

Much of the journey back was a blur, Kaspar’s awareness shifting in and out. He found a camel somewhere, though it was definitely not his own. He wasn’t sure if he was dozing or simply losing awareness from the stress, but when he truly noticed his surroundings again, the blood on his shirt was dry and it flaked from his chin and throat. The walls of the Refuge were in sight, and for a moment a sense of safety overwhelmed him.

It was tamped down by a bitter, amused remembrance of what had happened the previous night within sight of those walls. There were nearly done, but Kaspar would not truly believe it until they were well within the walls.

And he doubted he would truly feel safe until they were back in Ersand’Enise, far away from this hellscape.

L O C A T I O N | Northern Eskand
I N T E R A C T I O N | None

Several Weeks Prior

The pale sunlight dappled over Vali’s eyelids between the swaying leaves, and he groaned awake. Rolling away from the harshness of daybreak, the ranger reached a hand out in search of his waterskin, palm pressing into cool grass as it slapped against the ground. He groaned again, stretching further out but refusing to open his eyes and search for it.

He felt a pouch of leather kicked into his hands and heard a laugh from somewhere above. ”Searching for this, O Great Hunter?” a woman teased, finally plying the ranger into opening his eyes.

He rolled over, staring up at the dark-haired figure framed by the deep green of leaves from the forest floor. ”I see you’re up with the sun, Estrid,” he remarked groggily, bringing the waterskin to his lips and drinking from it.

She crouched, smirking down at him. ”One of us has to be. Our camp won’t uproot itself.” With that, the woman turned, stepping towards her own bed of furs across the burned-out campfire.

Pushing into a sitting position, Vali watched her begin to roll the pelts and tie them. The leathers of an Eskandr ranger suited her, though he knew she hailed from the Drudgunzean midlands. She’d gone North with some of the raiders, despite much preferring to hunt animals—and as the roving horde had turned back south, fracturing as their collective purpose came to an end, she had followed him in hopes of some worthwhile hunts.

They’d only been traveling as a pair for a few days, having finally departed from a small hunting party seeking elk and their ilk in the great green forests. Yet, she’d been much more comfortable with conversation since then. In many ways, she reminded Vali of his Bloodsister, Hildr the Red—Drudgunzean and good with a spear, but quiet in many situations.

Still, he knew there was nothing sisterly in the way Estrid felt about him.

He hoped, as they wandered farther south into the cold homelands he dearly missed, that she would turn tail and retreat to what she knew—or simply find a more appealing hunting partner.

He did not dislike her; in fact, Vali found her company to be quite agreeable. But he knew what she wanted of him, and he could not offer it to her—so he hoped someone else might, or that she might choose to search for it elsewhere.

As the sun rose, their horses ambled along the dirt path beneath it. Conversation was light as the hunters surveyed the land around them. They’d been perhaps six hours out from one of the northernmost cities of Eskand when they’d stopped the previous night, and Vali hoped to resupply and set out before sunset. He wasn’t fond of cities and preferred not to spend the night in them, instead seeking the comfort and quiet of untouched land.

Lunch was an affair eaten from horseback, tough-smoked meats and hard cheeses that kept well in a pouch. In truth, this was a common meal for the ranger; he could barely cook a meal for himself—not for lack of trying—and if someone wasn’t feeding their fellows, he’d often be eating trail rations.

He didn’t mind so much; he was used to the taste and texture, and found something in it comforting after subsisting on it for so long. It wasn’t as good as a fresh roast and full cups with his Bloodbrother and Bloodsister, as in the years past, but it held its own kind of home.

The day was at its hottest, though it held nothing against Parrench lands, when they rode into the city. It was alive in a way Vali had not expected; more than simple buyers and sellers or the denizens of the place. There was steel and leather, horses and weapons being gathered by Eskandr warriors. He wondered if another raiding party was set to go North and harry the Greenlands.

He questioned a merchant, having dismounted to lead his horse through the stalls. ”Are our armed brethren setting out for Parrence?” he called softly over the drone of the street, palming some cheeses out of a basket and laying them out on the wood for the seller to see.

The man, fair as an Eskandr but growing old in years, barked a laughing response. ”Soon enough—But first they’re South to Meldheim. Hrothgar the Black has called his banners,” he offered up, laughing at the blatant look of surprise on Vali’s face.

”Hrothgar’s called his banners? He’s marching on Parrence in earnest?” the ranger replied, something nearing hesitancy in his voice as the merchant counted the cheese and muttered a sum.

He looked up, holding a hand out for the payment, and smiled something wicked. ”Truly. To burn out the damned Pentad and reclaim what Bróðir calls for.”

Vali fished the coin out of his pocket and dropped it into the cheesemonger’s hand. ”How long ago did he call?” he asked, voice quieter but pale eyes far sharper.

”We heard it here only two days past. Most look to set out on the morn of tomorrow, but they’ll be leaving for weeks to come.” There was something in the face of the man that told Vali he’d not yet been dissuaded from joining the march himself, and a kindling of fire sparked in pride for the Eskandr blood they shared. He grasped the man’s wrist, squeezing tightly as he felt fingers wrap around his own skin. ”May Systir watch over you, my friend,” he said, voice soft but sure.

”And Bróðir you,” he replied in like, the connection flashing between them before Vali pushed on into the crowd.

He didn’t hear Estrid’s voice until the fifth call, as she pushed her shoulder into the haunch of his horse and shoved it toward the empty and narrow side road they walked past. Turning around, he found her much closer than expected, and raised a brow. Hesitant, she stepped backward, her own horse tossing its head.

”Did he say Hrothgar is going North?” she asked, nearly breathless. Vali nodded, but before he could offer any explanation she exhaled sharply and hissed, ”Gods, I’ve… I need to return to Drudgunze.”

It was not surprising, but the words stung at something in Vali, though he nodded. ”You should be safe, so long as you stay out of the fight. But your family may have need of you at home,” he said, smile sad.

Estrid studied him for a moment, something flickering through her eyes, before reaching out and grasping his forearm gently. ”Vali… Come with me. Help me protect them,” she whispered, voice desperate.

He sighed, feeling the sting grow into a prickling pressure in his chest. ”Estrid… I can’t. You’re a friend, but Bróðir calls me to Meldheim. I will not ignore him.”

Faster than a conscious thought, as though she didn’t mean to, Estrid snapped back, ”Hrothgar calls you. Not ‘Brother’.” Her face went pale as Vali recoiled like she’d slapped him, eyebrows furrowed. Hurriedly, the woman added, ”Vali, this is war. It’s not a raid. They’ll fight back. They could kill you!”

”If I’m called to Gestur’s table, I will not ignore that either,” he replied slowly, something guarded in his voice now.

”Damn your heathen gods!” Estrid hissed in frustration, her grip tightening on his arm.

”My Gods have kept me so far,” Vali snarled, yanking his arm out of her hold.

”I could keep you, too,” she whispered, guard dropping in desperation as she stepped closer to the ranger. He backed away, keeping a cold distance between them, and scoffed.

”Not near so well as my Gods. Go home, Estrid. I will not follow you there, no matter how you plead,” Vali said, voice measured but low and dangerous. ”Leave this city and head straight for the border. Don’t talk about gods until you’re safe at home in your Greenlands, if you have any wish to make it there.”

Vali Twice-Born turned, face stony and cold, and marched into the streets, already plotting the path he would need to ride to Meldheim. He’d leave within the hour and arrive long before the packs marching at dawn—and travel much faster as a lone rider.

He did not bother looking back to see Estrid standing there, tear tracks on her blessed Quentic cheeks.

L O C A T I O N | Meldheim
I N T E R A C T I O N | Hrothgar the Black @Force and Fury; Kol, Death's Hand @Th3King0fChaos; Ulfhild Ulven @Salsa Verde

The grounds where Hrothgar’s army gathered were busy, though Vali knew many more would be arriving over the coming days. He found many faces he knew and even more he didn’t, but feasted and drank with those he could count on as brethren, strong warriors who had followed the same voice that called to him.

It didn’t take long for Kol’s message to find the ranger, as his renown made him that much easier to hunt down in the crowd—even if it was not so great as his brother’s, or his host’s. Vali had never doubted that the Death’s Hand would join the crusade, but felt a keen spark of excitement at the confirmation. It had been too long since he had seen his brother in the flesh, and longer still since they had fought side by side.

Vali didn’t spend much time in the planning—though he had a connection to Hrothgar through Kol and Hildr, it was not nearly as strong. There was a respect for the man who had killed Mørkt Fjell, and he hoped the king harbored a respect in kind for him, but Vali was not partial to the tactics of all-out war. Still, he heard that Ulfhild Ulven had made herself part of the discussions, and was pleased to hear she too had answered the call. He hoped they might find time for a hunt before the longships left, but knew she may be too preoccupied.

It was news of the King of Strumreef that interested him most. When he heard that Kol’s ship was docking, Vali wasted no time in heading to the shore, seeking out his Bloodbrother for a joyous reunion. Their time was short, though, as the Death’s Hand needed to make for Hrothgar—and they would have time enough to speak.

Over the following days, as the plans became concrete and made their rounds among the growing Heathen Army, Vali chose to attach himself to Kol’s position. He was unaligned enough, having left his home over a decade prior and having no lands of his own, and archers would be useful from any angle.

Vali cherished the feasts, drinking, and merriment to be found with the gathering army, an apprehension brewing for the upcoming voyage.

And as the longships set sail from Meldheim, he tried to reflect on those memories of happier times.

Sailing had never quite agreed with Vali—though he bore it often enough to see Kol, who was often kept by his duties to Strumreef. For one who had spent so long training his Gift to sense the magical energies of movement, the constant output of the ocean was overwhelming enough to be nauseating. He was adept at tuning out the signals he didn’t need to read, but it was much different when not even the ground beneath your feet stayed still.

It took several days for the ranger to find his sea legs, all the while trying not to show his displeasure at the journey. He knew Kol would likely notice regardless, and harass him in the good-natured way his Bloodbrother did, but sought no such treatment from any other warrior around him.

It was just as he was beginning to feel almost normal that the storm hit—pelting them with rain and waves alike. Despite his aggressive sickness, Vali took a station by the railing to draw the force energy of the water and lessen the impact of any waves that struck them broadside. He was sure there were others doing similar work, but couldn’t remember anything but the cycle of water sweeping across the deck and him aiming to vomit away from his boots, the mess always being swept away by the next set of waves.

By the end, the ranger wasn’t sure if he had spent days or mere hours drenched and throwing up on the deck; if he’d taken shifts or spent the whole storm out there; if he ate, or drank, or relieved himself at all during the ordeal. He simply knew, when he woke up in a gently-swaying hammock and didn’t feel sick immediately, that it had passed.

Or he’d drowned and was arriving to Grønhalle by longship—a prospect that was not terribly disagreeable, if the Gestur’s waves were this gentle.

But as he emerged into the moonlight to see his Bloodbrother standing strong, Vali imagined he was not on his way to Grønhalle just yet.

L O C A T I O N | Attack of Relouse
I N T E R A C T I O N | Kol, Death's Hand @Th3King0fChaos

Vali had never prepared for a war of this kind.

He imagined it would be closer to hunting than to raiding, if one considered the kind of beast who fought back.

The ranger would be following his Bloodbrother, to victory or Grønhalle, and understood their purpose well. Still, an apprehension stirred in him greater than any he’d felt before. He was accustomed to a single large target, or a pack of less than a dozen—not to a mass of men with faculties similar to his own, numbering more than he could ever hope to count. It was a daunting prospect, but Vali reassured himself that he was not alone. A hunting party greater than any he’d ever traveled with would break the shores of Relouse.

While Kol tended to his armor and readied himself, Vali sought the quiet darkness of the hold and a moment with his Gods. He had no offerings for them now, having given those on the night before their voyage started, but had prayers.

He prayed to Bróðir, the God of War, of soldiers and raiders, who had called for this crusade. He prayed to Faðir and Systir, who also kept watch over warfare—and over rangers like Vali and Ulfhild, in the case of Systir. He prayed to Móðir, who watched over harbors and the seas, for her blessing as they ventured ever nearer to shore.

At last, he lit a fresh candle and prayed to Gestur, the soft light dancing in the darkness of the hold. The moons would rise soon, and Vali prayed that he would protect them in the night.

And for those who could not be protected, Vali prayed for honor and open arms in Grønhalle.

LOCATION: Sleeping Quarters

Kaspar shut the door behind him, listening to the sounds of his companions fading into the distance, hopefully off to their own rooms for the night. Feelings had been tugging at him since Jocasta had first talked about the nature of the refuge, but they’d been shoved down and away—as emotions always were, for one who was dangerous without that control.

The lightest sting in his palms returned, and the boy glanced down at them for the first time since they’d entered the refuge. The skin was scraped, though not severely so—it was still more than he’d hurt himself in years, and he cursed his lack of control. Something about this place made him feel vulnerable and weak—emotional, in a way he couldn’t allow himself to be.

He started toward the bath and then stopped, heaving out a breath. His muscles itched and he felt like he couldn’t stand still, like he was shaking. He grabbed at his dark brown hair, red eyes squeezing shut, and tried to breath deeply into his chest. He had a mission to do, for fuck’s sake—he couldn’t be this weak. Besides, this reaction would spark curiosity and questions. Maybe not all of his companions would notice, but some were far too sharp—and might be all too willing to use something they learned. No one else could know that he wasn’t Kaspar Elstrøm von Wentoft.

At that, something in his mind grabbed back violently and he jerked away like he’d been hit.

You are Kaspar. You’ve always been Kaspar. There is no one else.

He sucked in another stuttered breath, eyes snapping open, and realized he’d fallen back against the tub, crouching on the floor with his face between his knees like a toddler. He couldn’t find it in him to care much for decorum, letting himself slide down until he sat against the floor.

He needed to sketch. Sketching was what calmed him, what could tame these emotions and put them back into the locked box where they belonged. He’d not brought supplies, but the boy reached for anything nearby that could be remade into charcoal—drawing away at the nearby materials and, perhaps, at flesh. As the utensil materialized in his hands, Kaspar had the epiphany that trying to make anything else in such a state could leave him very injured and very lacking in deniability.

He glanced up, looking for a desk or some manner of paper.

His eyes found the wall first. It was flat enough, and plain enough. Charcoal was not so picky as ink.

The boy stood, stalking swiftly to the wall with a stick of charcoal clutched in his fingers. He put it to stone, hand sketching a rough line. He wasn’t even sure what he was creating until the first large, arcing line of a shell became apparent.

The halassa took shape one line at a time on the rough wall, the boy pacing back and forth fervently. At some point he grew too hot, bunching the ends of his sleeves up the elbow, but before long the fabric around the joints became too much for him to bear, and he hastily pulled off the vest and tunic alike, ignoring the prints of charcoal against the fabrics. The pale skin of his bared back glistened with sweat as he worked at the sketch, mind honing into the fine point he craved.

The face came last. He stared at the empty space in the center of this rapidly sketched piece, and his mind kept blinking to the designs—was it meant to have eyes dribbling down its cheeks, or to be choking on its own blood? Perhaps the neck was to be turned at an awkward angle, or no face at all but a gory hole where one had been, once.

He never thought of the peaceful face of the one Yalen had killed with internal chemistry.

Finally, it was a dark and smudged handprint that formed the face as he dragged his palm and spread fingers against the stone, ignoring the pain against the scraped flesh. There was enough charcoal left on the skin to coat it as he dropped the darkened nub that had served him. The boy stepped back, breathing more easily than he had since the door had closed.

For minutes he stood stock-still, taking in the messy sketch with little thought to the manner of cleaning it. Finally, wiping sweat from his brow, he noticed the black stains on his hands. He let out one humorless bark of laughter before stumbling back towards the bath, fumbling to kick the sand-filled boots off his feet.

The water was cold now, and he shivered as he lowered himself into it. The soap was not hard to locate—he noted that the bar seemed to be fresh, but was missing an uneven chunk. He tried to push down the shame of that moment and rubbed it against the skin of his hands, watching the charcoal slowly turn the water dark. Despite the chill of the bath, he found his energy draining and tiredness overtaking him down to the very bone.

He saw his parents in the dream that found him. Not the Marquis and his wife, but Ehren and Lark Weber. They looked just as they had when he was eight, young and lively and filled with joy in parenthood. He and his father were playing some simple game, sitting cross-legged on the floor and trying to tap each other on the hands, laughing the whole while.

It was Lark’s screams that pitched above his own childlike giggles, snapping the boy’s attention behind him towards the sound. She stared at him, horror in her eyes. Scared, and confused, he turned back to his father for help and—


His hands and wrists, and the floor all around him, painted in the dark crimson of fresh-spilled blood. It was icy cold and crawled up his arms as Alaric screamed, trying to scramble back from it to no avail. It climbed up and up, over his elbow and up the flesh of his arm, across the shoulder, prickling and cold against his skin all the way. Across his throat and up under his chin, passing his lips and flooding into his wide-opened mouth and reaching for the nostrils—

Kaspar woke, coughing icy water back into the tub and nearly dry-heaving. He shivered, breathing clean air and shaking his wet hair from his eyes. The boy couldn’t tell the hour, but knew he should’ve been asleep long ago—in a bed, perhaps.

He pushed himself out of the tub, arms weak but mostly clean, and shuffled toward the bed. Practically falling into it, no care for the water droplets still clinging to him, the boy wrapped himself in every available blanket, willing away the cold of the water and his mind.

He fell back into sleep, and did not dream again.

LOCATION: Breakfast Table

Kaspar would seem stoic to any who looked at him over breakfast, but it was not unusual for the boy. If there was something darker to the silence, shadowing over him, it would be difficult to notice. He was tired, but that much had to be expected after the night he and his companions had experienced.

He had more than his fill of coffee, hoping the liquid would breathe something like life back into him, and picked at most of what was brought out for the meal. He glanced at his classmates, keeping an eye on their conversations, but lacked the motivation to chip in anything—even though one of them was Ayla, the cheerful girl who seemed to be the only one he stayed around.

His plate was nearly empty when the warden began talking, but Kaspar watched the man passively and continued to chew at his Pan Con Tomate, offering up neither questions nor suggestions. Something in him disliked this man, but the student couldn’t tell if it was for specific actions and the way he spoke to Marceline, or for the knowledge Jocasta had given them about the refuge—there was certainly no love in him for a man who allowed such things to happen.

But the Warden’s visit was blessedly short-lived, and Kaspar found himself pulled along behind his classmates on a tour of the facilities. While he did not have much personal interest in the tour, it would provide distraction enough for his mind and allow him to assess the state of the refuge and those living within it.

He noted, as Zarina drew attention to the priest, that Yalen seemed even more lacking in sleep than Kaspar. With a stab of pity, he wondered what nightmares could’ve visited him in the night—and decided, a moment later, that he’d rather not know. Kaspar’s own demons were enough to deal with. But he kept an eye on the fellow student, when he could—he might be impartial to emotions, but the red-eyed boy was not heartless.

Yet as the tour went on, the group dwindled with surprising urgency—Jocasta wheeling off to some task of her own and Yalen disappearing to aid a child. Ysilla seemed to be missing entirely, and Kaspar hadn’t quite noticed her departure following breakfast. He hung behind his classmates and Marceline, listening quietly to the conversation as it turned toward the tree they were nearing.

(Also found in YummyYummy’s “Morning before the Mission”)

As his feet shuffled back across the courtyard toward Ayla, Zarina, and Marceline, Kaspar finally caught onto the body language. He realized, moments before he stumbled back into it, that he was approaching what seemed to be a heated argument. He stopped, uncertain, and stared wide-eyed as Marceline turned and began to storm away. As he processed the last of her words, trying to make sense of where things may have gone wrong, it was Ayla’s angry voice that resounded next.

Kaspar felt like a child witnessing his parents argue, standing mere steps away as they shouted and thoroughly unsure as to whether he should still be here, listening. It was Zarina’s response when he truly began to make sense of the words, bodily flinching as she mentioned the tree—though it was unlikely either of them would notice, caught up in their disagreement.

As she turned and left, Kaspar was at a loss to see the tour ended so quickly—and in such poor spirits. For the moment, it seemed Ayla was the only other student left. The red-eyed boy stood unmoving, half-raised hand still coated in juice and stinging. He blinked slowly at her, unsure whether he should announce his presence, or perhaps offer some support or comfort… Or simply turn and leave, and pretend he’d not witnessed the heated exchange.

Vali Twice-Born, The Silent Hunt

C h a r a c t e r S h e e t

P o s t T e m p l a t e

Kaspar Elstrøm von Wentoft

C h a r a c t e r S h e e t

P o s t T e m p l a t e

Fisher "Fisk" Halloway

C h a r a c t e r S h e e t

P o s t T e m p l a t e

Ș̵̨̱̮̥̘̯̟̌͊̈́̀̇̏̈́͆̑͘͝ ̸̪̮͕̀̚Ą̵̳̤̪̩̟̳̐̑͠ ̷̨̛̖̎́̀̾͛̚̕C̶̡̨͓̜̣̦̣̩̫̼̆͋̀̒̉̈́͑͐̕͝ ̸̡̳̬̩̖͇̯͙͓͍́͌̊̀̕͠͝R̴͚̠͙̼̬̀ ̷̢̪͚͓͓̖͚̃̎̈́͐͛̒̍Į̵̡̻̯̼͉̪̝̥̹̏͒ ̶̻͈͕̲̤̰͐̏ͅF̸̱̱͍̙̔̅̊̌́̔̓̚͠͝ ̶̗͌͐̓̀͜I̵̹̼͙̞̐̊̓̃̂̈́̿̋̈́̚͠ͅ ̶̯͇̝͘Ç̷̯͕̭̹͚̟̹̖͊ ̷͚̫͓͙̺͈̥̪̊͛̿È̶̘͍̳̺̞͔̘͖͊̂́͒̂̿͐̀ͅ ̶̬̼̭̅̀̽̓̄͐̊͋̕S̶̛̜̯̺͙͙̈́̊̈́͛͝ͅ

Fisher "Fisk" Halloway | Paramount | D I S C O N T I N U E D
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Kaspar Elstrøm von Wentoft | The Hourglass Order | A C T I V E
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Vali Twice-Born, The Silent Hunt | Oriflamme | A C T I V E

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