She dreamed of blood. Hip deep in it, like she was wading into the Kaltlina.

The raid had been brief, but successful. Now, they headed south, following an old logging trail. The wounded were culled, so they wouldn’t be slowed. They hadn’t even been buried properly, left for the carrion birds to pick at, bloated and unrecognizable under thick, dark dried blood. She didn’t look back, stumbling to keep up with the horse he was tied to.

She dreamed of blood. It was whispering something, she couldn’t catch it over the splashing underfoot.

Her feet were bleeding. She could feel it soaking through the wrappings, was she leaving a trail, a clear “here, follow me, right this way” drawn along the trail like a child with paints? Don’t look back, don’t turn around- just go, go-
She’d stopped briefly, getting as close as she dared to the river, to bathe and check her wounds. The cold felt like knives. But she was clean, she was awake. She was alive. More than she could say for others. Keep going. Keep going.

She dreamed of blood. Faces appeared, distorted, ran away with the current. Netta, laying just out of reach. Her father’s braid, hanging on a belt- she knew whose but the face was blurred. The dream wouldn’t let her see clearly-

“Do you speak Gothic?”
She shook her head.
“Another refugee- poor thing.”
The woman made a sympathetic noise and motioned her inside. She was given a change of clothes. A pair of boots. Food. When she made a confused noise- she didn’t want to take it from someone who needed it more- the two women shook their heads. They tried to pray over her, tried to bathe her. She panicked and shoved them away, expecting a slap or a shout. But they just…looked at her. Like a wild thing. Like something to be pitied.

She didn’t want to dream anymore, frenzied and exhausted, trudging on towards the next settlement, the next safety.

But it came in again, like the tide, when fatigue pulled her down.

Valentin: Farewell

Valentin walks into the graveyard, a single stem of foxglove clutched in one hand. He looks for a patch of ground, before kneeling next to a grave no more than a year old. Gently placing the flower on the grave, Valentin lets out a deep sigh.

“We did it, Camille” he says softly. “We killed Truth. We went into her own home and Alex killed her with holy fire. Jullienne is safe now, all of the Veneaux are safe. If Lirael was responsible for taking you from us, then we even got our vengeance. I never thought I would hate enough to want revenge, even against a Malefic. But that greedy bitch perverted her quest for knowledge. Took you from me. Nearly caused you to kill Julienne. She toyed with Sophie’s mind, and tried to make her into another of her puppets. I am so very glad she is gone.”

Valentin goes silent for a moment, fighting back tears. When he speaks again, there is the slightest quiver to his voice. “Julienne is safe from her now. And I promise you that I will do whatever I have to protect her and Pascal and Sophie from what is coming next. I don’t know how, but I will find a way.”

Lapsing into silence again, Valentin stares into the distance for a long moment. “When you died, I thought a large part of me died too. I had my inventions, and I had Julienne. Nothing else mattered. Even when your ghost came back, it was never about anything but protecting Julienne and the community. This time from the shadow of the woman I had loved so deeply. I couldn’t allow myself to want anything more, I had learned the lesson that trying led to disaster. I did not need to be happy”

Tears now roll down Valentin’s cheeks. “But somehow, despite everything that had been done to you Camille, you found strength. You pulled back some remnant of who you had been. And you started watching over Julienne and myself again. You saw my quiet misery, and you got Juliene to give me a push to try to find happiness.”

“And I did. I opened my eyes and I saw an amazing woman in front of me. Someone who heard what you asked, and her first reaction was to offer to marry me to bring you peace. Her compassion and tireless resolve are a blessing to all of Luisant. Sophie is brilliant and inquisitive and beautiful. She brings out the best in me, and brightens my day whenever I see her.”

“I never expected to fall in love again. But I did with Sophie. And I married her at the last market, one brilliant moment of joy in a day filled with horrors. I don’t know how long we will have together, but I intend to find every moment of happiness I can.“ A bittersweet smile crosses Valentin’s face. “Thank you my love. Thank you for finding the strength to recover who you were. Thank you for giving me a push out of my shell. And Thank you for helping me find love again.”

Valentin dries his eyes and pushes himself up from the grave. “Goodbye Camille. May you find rest in God’s embrace.” With a sense of finality, he turns away and walks back out of the graveyard.

Theo: I Thought We Were Friends

Echoes of muffled cursing permeated the clearing where Theo perched, cloaked in shadows, as was his way. Few things brought Theo a feeling of safety quite like the darkness; a feeling he was searching for in this moment. His thoughts roiled like a storm within him, each curse a flash of lightning illuminating his anger and determination.

“Nothing but a broken fool through and through. You wanna make a God? Who fucking doesn’t?… Fuck, so many lost opportunities. You could have been a friend, a teacher, a mentor, who knows. If you need me to shape a God for you, why would you want to lose me? Why would you not have asked me to help with the task you gave Alphonse? Why would you fuck with my family? Why would you use magic to compel me? Do you think so little of me that you don’t think it will come back to bite you in the ass?”

He sighed, the weight of his words heavy in the silent night. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. We knew you were going to betray us eventually. That was the whole point of the obligation lab, one more thing you failed at. You cannot control yourself enough to even betray us properly! You must do these things now, your mission too urgent, your decisions tainted. You would sacrifice us all in a heartbeat given the opportunity. You do not care about relationships, your people, nor your long term likelihood of success. Your plan is to claim the power that is here, and then to destroy that which you perceive as a threat, everything else is a means to that end.

You have proven that you are a threat. A threat to more than just the Benalians. A threat to me and mine. A threat that we cannot face alone. A threat that cannot be tolerated to continue.”

He emerged from the shadows, the clearing bathed in the eerie glow of the central fire. The Undesirables were gathered around, each carrying items that symbolized their struggles, triumphs, and the history of Luisant. Theo’s gaze swept over them, a silent nod to the unity and strength they represented.

“Tonight,” Theo began, his voice low but resolute, “we stand together to invoke Primus, the Keeper of Luisant and Legacy, to empower us against Krosis, an Wayward Elf, who seeks to use and abuse us.”

He instructed them to place their symbolic items in a circle around the fire, creating a physical representation of their collective strength and history. Aryeh placed a hunting bow, a symbol of survival and resilience. Cole added a basket of foraged berries, representing the land’s bounty and their connection to it. Frank, despite his injury, offered a worn piece of cloth, a testament to sacrifice and healing. Cobalt added a broken chain, symbolizing freedom from past oppression.

One by one, each member shared a story from Luisant’s history, feeding the flames with their memories and the strength of their ancestors. Aryeh recounted the battles against marauders, Cole spoke of the famine and communal resilience, and Frank shared the wounds and sacrifices borne by their people. Each story added depth to the ritual, connecting the past to the present.

Theo concluded the ritual with a powerful invocation. “Primus, hear our plea. We stand together as one, united in purpose and in strength. Empower us to defend our home from those who would oppress and control us through your power, your wisdom, and your protection. Guide us in our fight against Krosis and his manipulations. In your name, we fight, we stand, and we prevail.”

As they finished, Theo led them in a symbolic act of unity. They each cut a small lock of their hair or a piece of cloth from their clothing, binding them together with twine. Holding hands, they formed a circle and placed the bound tokens into the fire.

As the ritual concluded, the fire flared brightly, smoke seeming to mystically hang in the air like the mists of old, a sign of Primus’ presence and blessing. The Undesirables felt a surge of energy, their spirits lifted and their resolve strengthened. Theo looked at each of them, knowing that with Primus by their side, they could face whatever challenges came their way and protect their beloved family from the Krosis’ machinations.

Nadja and Family

As the sun begins reach the western horizon, Theo paces through the woods as Aryeh checks his traps for rabbits and fowl. Cole continues to find mushrooms here and there along the hill as they continue far off the path.

Theo’s rant at the others can be heard from some distance,
“Should I even be treating Nadia like family? The more I think about it, the more I don’t think she even really cares about us. She just wants a family, friends, people to care about her after what the way her family treated her. She wasn’t really willing to turn her back on Zakhar, a man whom had wanted and tried to kill me while betraying her orders when he had given his word to her…

She isn’t really committed to this. Nadia was freaking out over Vecatrans even being in town, and yet managed to talk herself into going along with their plans so that they could make the mists expand and still couldn’t bring herself to hate Zakhar. She won’t be ready for Primus either. And you know…if she was committed to embracing us as family, that would be fine. There’s plenty of people who are Vecatrans whom I still call family and still love or don’t give a shit at all, but I just don’t think she understands what we go through. Her pain is different, our suffering is no different than anyone else’s in this place as far as she seems to be concerned. She just likes being snarky.

Maybe its the gaslighting the Benelians did to her. Its great to give up your total desire for power, but caring about the community of Luisant probably means you can’t even really bring yourself to take sides, even when you see people being wronged. I guess if you wanna be a goodie goodie and have lost your edge in the world, you probably don’t want to be like us, you probably were never one of us…

Someone will be happy to tell her stories about how its great that we are all a community of equals through their lying teeth-Ouch!”

Theo rubs his head as Aryeh points down the hill to where a large shadow seems to be. Cole shakes her head and leads them deeper into the forest, away from whatever creature may have been waiting for them.

“We should find a Willow tree soon, I gotta pee.” he mutters under his breath.

Zakhar’s End – A Roast

Theo stands before the others of the House Chanceux, formerly the Undesireables, as they eat what food they have been able to acquire, a couple of birds that Aryeh was able to hunt, some berries that Cole was able to pick, and a few bottles of wine that Theo had grabbed from a cellar.

“Zakhar, the Fallen Knight is dead. Someone might try to give him last rites, maybe they even did, but let me say a few words about him.
Some would have him believe that he was a man of many virtues, Faith, Honor, Justice, Mercy, and Courage, but the world came to know better.
A Betrayer of his Faith – He betrayed the faith he openly adhered to in order to support a Spider Crone and do its bidding.
Dishonored – Betrayed the oaths of Knighthood he had sworn to his Lady in disobeying her orders.
Cruel – Tortured and beat a man for trying to steal food for his friends because they had none.
Deceitful – When caught and imprisoned for his crimes, commanded those loyal to him to attack members of the community, nearly killing Henri.
Cowardly – Kidnapped children to lure their minders into an ambush.

Zakar, Failure of the Kruzmores Knights, we are not sad to see you go. You were long a blight upon this place and may your failures be long remembered.

Let us also take a moment is to welcome back Cobalt and Frank after a harrowing experience of being taken by this creature. Nothing about what you went through was ok, and only through his death can we see that righted. I am sorry Frank that we couldn’t get you a new leg.

This moment through is truly about Cole, the one who ended Zakhar’s miserable existence. With Primus watching, we celebrate her for standing up for those who could not defend themselves and taking that moment of opportunity rather than leaving it to chance. Here here.”

The group toasts, with the kids hooting and hollering and Frank and Cobalt smile to one another excited to have finally gotten to see a monster die.

An Apology and A Promise

Marinette steeled her spine after a long market weekend and wandered the woods Sunday evening to clear her head. She found herself at the small building they used as a Church, as was usual for her when following Bastien. She knew inside, there would be comfort–usually, inside, there would be Father Clement, too. That was comfort, but she also knew that, this time, he was not the priest she really wanted to talk to. Standing there, silently, at the door, she basked in the safety of this place. The warmth, the comfort. She looked toward the stars under the bright waning moon and she knew God was there, telling her it was okay. Tonight, she needed to talk to Isabel. She stepped off the steps and started her way through the quiet, empty streets of the town. Back through the copse of wood that grew between the Market and the residences. She hummed a soft, loving tune to the trees and rocks that had always kept her safe. She ran her hands along the outstretched bushes and vines. She sung the soft tune she’d always whispered to Karalina as she swayed, skirts catching the light and the occasional grabby branch before she stepped away. God and the Mother had always protected her. A “Charmed Life”, Colibri had called it. Perhaps. It was certainly a blessed one, but she didn’t think that made her wrong. She stopped at Isabel’s door. She knew inside there would be people asleep–Isabel’s parents, for one, so she stepped around to a window she knew shared proximity with her friend and tapped out a soft tune on it. “Come outside, please.” She said with that tune, and disappeared toward the porch to wait.

Shuffling noises could be heard for a moment and then a long pause. Isabel’s sleep-tousled red hair covered a large portion of her face as she blinked at her friend in the moonlight. “Marinette?” She mumbled through the window. “Just a moment. I’ll be right out.” Marinette only needed to wait for a few minutes, as Isabel quietly opened the door to the porch and came outside in a simple robe and shawl, yawning. “My apologies. I know it isn’t even that late. I have found that I have had difficulty sleeping the last few nights, and exhaustion claimed me. Are you alright?”

Marinette wanted to perk up at the sight of her friend–one of the most important people in the world to her, but tonight she could not manage. Tonight she came for an apology, and such a thing was so alien to her it hurt her soul. She had never truly felt hurt by her friends before, and it was strange. Marinette turned her sea green eyes away, searched for help in the distance, but even God and the Mother could not help her with this. Her posture became closed, she fidgetted with her fingers. “Isabel…” She said softly, but then her cowardice overcame her and she changed the topic, “I am sorry you have slept poorly.” “It has probably been hard for you these last few days–these last few months. A lot has been happening. Did you.. and Sophie.. find out anything?” Sophie had already told her the story. She didn’t need to hear it from Isabel, but this questioning was more comfortable. Talking like normal. Speaking as if nothing was happening in her mind.

Isabel blinked and brushed her hair out of her face, trying to smooth it. She looked closer at Marinette while the girl shifted and fidgeted and avoided eye contact. “Has something happened? Yes, Sophie and I did get her necklace issue addressed, though Thomas likely helped move things along far more than I did. I don’t…like…the Veneaux’s Truth at all. The family is being taken advantage of, and it frustrates me.” She paused to see if this was actually the thing that Marinette was worrying about. (edited)

Marinette felt stared at, and she felt dishonest. She looked to the side, back at Isabel, to the side again. Those bright, almost glowing seafoam eyes flashing around for escape and then finally closing. “Isabel… You know how I asked you not to bring Alphonse? Because he makes me feel bad by treating me like I’m stupid?” Her voice got smaller as she spoke, before finally she took a breath and even that sing-songiness left her voice as she asked, almost like tearing off a bandage, “whywouldyoujoinin? IunderstandhethinksI’mstupidbutwhywouldyoumakemefeelthatway?” She had both eyes closed, tears on her lashes, gripping her skirts tight in her fist as she trembled. She didn’t stop talking, “IdothinkaboutwhatI’mdoing. Iamsmart! IamnotjustsomechildjustbecauseIbelieveinpeople. IamNOTstupid!”

Isabel’s eyes widened as the torrent of hurt came pouring out of her friend. “Oh no.” “Oh, Marinette.” She placed a hand on her chest like it was wounded, and then extended it, open and inviting, and asking silently for permission to touch her. “I am so sorry that is what you are thinking, and that I am the cause of it. I didn’t…” She broke off, her eyebrows drawn together in thought. “Ma chere, you are most certainly not stupid. I have never thought that of you. I am so sorry.”
With a long breath, she paused to see if Marinette was seeking explanation, comfort, or something else entirely. The concern and shame and worry was evident all over her face, as Isabel had never been talented at hiding her emotions.

Marinette rushed forward at the hand and wrapped her arms around Isabel, sobbing into her chest as she hugged her. “I felt so small, Isabel.” She hiccupped between sobs, “He snickered at everything we said, and then you.. you said I did not think before I acted.. and I… I stopped hearing anything.” Another sob, another hiccup, “But I do! I was thinking!” She insisted, muffled, into her friend’s shirt, “Lysenna said something. I couldn’t even understand what it was.” She sniffled, whimpering.

Isabel silently held her sobbing dear friend. Her arms encircled her and she stroked Marinette’s dark curls while tears soaked into her robe. She leaned down and pressed her cheek against the soft hair. “I should have handled everything differently, little love. I am sorry. There was so little information all around, and there are misunderstandings. But regardless of any of that, I deeply regret hurting you.”

She spoke softly into Marinette’s hair. “Alphonse and I had been speaking off and on throughout the day about how, so often, it feels that many within Luisant act without thinking…myself included. We poke and prod at things we don’t fully understand just to do it – to interact with something, without having a greater plan. Without fully being informed and understanding the implications and outcomes.”
“And my comment was that this situation with the meeting with Thomas was another example. I had meant we all were guilty of it. Not just you.”

Marinette nodded her head, and snuffled, “It’s not just that Alphonse teases me, you know…” She muttered, before looking up, “It’s also that Thomas and he are most comfortable being misanthropic. When they are around each other, they can retreat to that comfort instead of facing us; instead of hearing us. We can’t help him if he can run. That’s why I go to him alone. Why I only bring you if anyone.” She frowns, “I thought about it. I think a lot about it. Thomas needs to feel wanted and needed; he needs connection. I thought about it hard. You.. just weren’t there to tell my thought process to, because you were busy with Alphonse.” She sounded bitter, childish even. “Did I know Thomas’ ideas would go to his powers, first? Yes. I did. Did I know where he knew his information from? Yes. I did. But I cannot just drag him out of a hole. He has to take steps. I have to let him take those steps.” She sighed, before letting go of her friend and rubbing her eyes, standing firm. “Alphonse thinks he knows so much about everything, but he is the stupidest person when it comes to people I have ever met.”

Marinette thinks hard, quiet for a long moment.
“I… don’t want you to become mean, Isabel. Alphonse has chosen to not care about anyone around him except one or two people. That’s his path. Maybe.. don’t let him pull you on it–because it’s not a good path.” Marinette tilts her head, “Just because people come to different conclusions, doesn’t mean they don’t think.. and if Alphonse were half as smart as he thought he was, he’d know this is the truth, because he is known primarily for opening hellboxes when they specifically say ‘do not open’ on them. And I think he thinks he’s very thoughtful about it.”
“Alphonse makes you happy. I like that about Alphonse. But he treats me like dirt, so please–just.. don’t learn that.”

Isabel sighed long and slow. “Come. Sit down with me, Marinette.” She disentangled from her friend, sank down to porch steps, and patted her hand on the space next to her. “There’s a lot to talk about here. Why I brought Alphonse. Thomas. Our outlooks. Relationships and change. Fear. Love. And second chances.” The rings under Isabel’s eyes are more apparent in the light on the porch as she looks up at Marinette. “Do you mind if we talk more about it all?”

Marinette sits down with Isabel, pulling her knees to her chest as she does. “I am fine with you talking more about it. I have said my piece.” She looks at her friend and settles in to listen.

Isabel nods with a slight smile. “I hope you will still have more to say.” She fingers at a woven necklace around her neck, takes a breath, and continues. “At this point you are likely far more familiar with Thomas than I am, but I have had several…confrontations? Discussions? with him. I think you are correct that he and Alphonse enable each other in many ways, and they have many of the same problems. You can see where their pain stems from. I believe that, even though he is unlikely to admit it, Alphonse is both afraid of losing his father and also resentful of him. And he has a protective streak. I don’t think he liked that I barred his father from the thicket, and he hasn’t liked the methods being employed to help Thomas back into the community. He felt like his father was forced to go to Convocation against his will, and when he asked where I was going after our battle in the tunnels of Chiropoler, I told him that I was going with a small group to see Thomas. He was upset that it sounded like a group was going to bully his father more into things he did not want to do, and he felt he had a right to be there as his son.” She paused to look over at Marinette. “I was not actually told why we were going to see Thomas, though I did want the opportunity to talk to him more as your goals are the same as mine regarding him. I told Alphonse that I agreed he should be able to see his own father but that his biting comments hurt you and I did not want him being unkind to you if he came. He agreed, though he said that he was under no obligation to not mock anyone else.”

“I don’t appreciate the fact that me asking Thomas to come and saying I’d try for him if he does come is being counted as ‘forcing’. But he has his rights to his opinions.” Marinette admits, but she’s bristling and annoyed, obviously.

Isabel reached out and rested her hand on Marinette’s. “I think that you are eager to help. You see the pain that Thomas is in. You see the self destructive behavior, and you are trying so hard. You are trying much harder than Alphonse has, and there are likely complex feelings surrounding that as well. He also has not embraced the church historically, and has been very judged by it. I once had a whole speech at Convocation that I gave about his sinful behavior.”

“Alphonse is allowed to feel conflicted about the church. He’s allowed to feel conflicted about me.” Marinette admits. “But I am not about to be accused of forcing his father into things when his father decided to hurt the Rocheaux in my head in order to protect his secret. Alphonse can think what he wants, and you are a safe person for him to vent that to,” She admits, “And that’s okay. He needs safe places. But that doesn’t mean he gets to act out that childish accusation on me. Venting and treating me like trash are different.” She exhales, “I am historically allowing people to step over my boundaries. I have protected Alphonse when people have wanted to harm him. I have stood in-between him and the people of this town’s misunderstandings more times than anyone else, I would say. I don’t deserve his admonishment. His feelings cannot be helped–that is his hurt manifesting–but actions can.”

Isabel nods. “Thomas’s actions were infuriating to me, and have colored my interactions with him since. I am still angry when I think about it. And I should have warned you that Alphonse was coming. I should have talked to you more about it and not just showed up with him. Everything was so chaotic and hurried, and I made a mistake and I am sure you felt betrayed.”

Marinette nods, “I did. But I have told you, and you have apologized, and that is all I needed. Minor mistakes are minor–and this is minor.” She assures Isabel, leaning toward her to place her head aginst her shoulder in adoration. “If it helps you to know–or Alphonse to know, if you wish to tell him–I didn’t even succeed at my end of the bargain for Thomas to show up. I said ‘if I bring your wife back, will you come’ and he said, ‘maybe’. When we talked, behind the tree, I said ‘I did not succeed; you didn’t have to come.. I appreciate you.’ and he said, ‘.. Well, you blinded a small animal for me. I felt that deserved something.'” She says, “There was nothing coerced. I asked him to do a thing. I said I would try to do something for him if he would consider it. We both did something for each other, because we’re becoming friends. That’s all. Because I’m trying. Very hard.”
Marinette fluffs her skirt, “I made that deal–with Reshtur, that weird spirit. I made it, because I asked Thomas what would make him happy. That was all. I needed nothing for me, and I wanted him to know I wanted to help him.” she says, “I didn’t force him anywhere. I asked.”

Isabel rested her head against Marinette’s “Thank you for accepting my apology.” There was a long pause. “I don’t want you to make any more deals with Reshtur.”

“And it wasn’t ‘what would make you happy so I can get you to do something for me’, though I had been asking before what could make him rejoin the community, and yes, I think convocation is for that.” She nods, “I know. I knew you wouldn’t like it. If I didn’t like it, you certainly wouldn’t.”
“I am much, much less concerned about spirit deals than you are–and even I did not want to do that.”
Marinette admits, softly, “I glossed over what I had done, because I knew you would not like it. That’s why you didn’t quite understand what deal I had made to get Thomas to convocation. That’s why, probably, Alphonse thinks I forced him.”
She sighs, “I would have explained it fully if we had any time alone together; you know I would have. But I was.. ashamed. I had thought it through, and it was not good. But sometimes, you have to make the wrong decisions to help someone make the right ones.. and I am strong, and able to find my way back to God. I have never been without his love. Colibri said I lived a ‘charmed existence’ on Saturday night.. and I cannot deny that. God has always been close to me. Always protected and cherished and loved me. Even when he tested me, he sent me people like you to make sure I would be okay.”

Isabel frowns and her eyebrows knit closer together. “Marinette…” She exhales, gathering her thoughts.
“I know that you are strong, but there is always a better way, even if we cannot see it. You may lead a charmed life, but others do not. You made a deal. Then Sebastian made a deal. And others likely did too. Your wrong decisions also affect others. Knowing that Thomas would try to solve Sophie’s necklace problem with Lazarine rites but hoping that good would come of it also potentially involves Sophie in partaking of those rites. The Triumverate and demons do not come to us when we are content and confident in our plans. They approach us when we are frightened. Lost. Unsure and feeling like we have no way out. They come with temptations and an easier way of doing things….they come when we are in pain.”
She strokes Marinette’s hair again

Marinette shakes her head, “I had no intention of Thomas using Lazarine rites to help Sophie. I was asking for his knowledge–knowledge he’d gotten from his delving, certainly, but that’s not the same. Alphonse also could have walked Sophie there, but when I prayed to God for an answer, God didn’t say Alphonse; God reminded me of Thomas.” She seems to pause a moment, before making an aside, “And I was the last to make a deal with the spirit, so, I disagree with your assessment that I had any impact on others’ choices then.” She shook her head, “But you are correct that every wrong choice has an impact. I have weighed those impacts.”

Marinette sighs, “You should probably have the whole of it–the situation with Sophie. Lysenna was the first to notice the ring. Bassy and I figured out it was connected to Truth. I walked away to pray. I sat, praying to God for an answer on how to find Truth, and in that prayer, I was reminded of Thomas. I tried to walk to Thomas right then. They stopped me. They said do not disturb him. They said Midnight at the Graveyard. That’s why I went to Thomas, Isabel. Because I prayed.” The emphasis on They was meant to convey the voices in her head, and it was fairly clear in its impact.
“Not for his Rites. Not even for his guidance. Because I prayed to God about what to do, and this was the answer I got in that prayer. Alphonse may say that is not thinking before acting, but I would have suspected you to have a different opinion. That’s why it hurt more. When we arrived, we talked. That was the answer–that was the thing that God sought. We came around to your rites in the end, but Thomas could help you find them. And maybe Alphonse following you was part of God’s plan, too. But that wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t the wrong decision, Isabel. Reshtur was.”

“Reshtur is not a spirit the way you describe them, my dear one. Reshtur is something else – and I suspect it is a demon. I think you don’t recognize the impact you have. I admit I was distracted – Alphonse had passed out, I felt drunk, and I had a terrible temptation to give in to all kinds of possibilities in that place. But from my perspective, it appeared that you were one of the first to entertain the creature- to consider its offer, even if you were the last to come to an actual agreement with it.” Isabel sighs, her stare dropping to her hands. “I know I hurt your feelings, and I certainly am not questioning your intelligence. Every single person in this town, myself included, has acted with limited information based on a dream, a vision, a prayer, a drug-induced journey, or ritualistic hypnosis. Alphonse in particular is certainly not an exception to rushing in and taking action on complete impulse. I’m not faulting you for praying and acting upon it…though I do still question at times the intentions of your…passengers. I just want to caution you that in your desire to help and save others by pulled them up, you don’t instead become pulled down. Perhaps I have the same concern for you that you have for me.” She smiles softly.

“I think it’s.. important that we both have those concerns for each other. That way, when we’re stumbling down, we can pull each other upward.” Marinette comments, before nodding again.
“I wasn’t the one who talked to the thing first, but I can understand how you thought so–I also believe that my choices have the most impact on you, specifically.” She considers, “I apologize, Isabel.” She says, finally.
“As I said before, I don’t exactly feel good about what happened with Reshtur.. but I didn’t start that. I wasn’t the first. It walked around to everyone, and the first time it came to me, I flat out denied it without a thought. I only entertained it after everyone else had–if anyone was following the leader on that, it was me.

Going to Tomas, though? My passengers just stopped me from storming off right then. Prayer told me to find him. I just waited until I knew where he was instead of walking into the woods immediately.”
She sits down on the porch and considers her thoughts. “I know I will make mistakes. But I love you, and I love God, and I will not stray from either of you. Will I fail sometimes? Certainly. But I will not turn from Benalus. On everything important to me, I swear it.”

“I love you, Marinette.” Isabel whispers.
“Thank you for coming to me. Thank you for telling me you were hurt. Thank you for giving me the chance to say I’m sorry and to hold you.”
She reaches out to pull Marinette closer to her and rest her head on top of hers.
“There is so much happening. There is so much changing, and I sometimes feel as though I cannot keep track of all the threads and how they connect. But if we hold onto each other, we’ll weather the storm – whatever the world looks like when the clouds clear.”

Canticle of Silk, Verse 1 – The Demon Within

Jakob stared at the leech as it sucked at his forearm with open amazement. It didn’t hurt nearly at all, not like he thought it would, and even if it was uncomfortable it wasn’t nearly as bad as his burning lungs. Besides, he was five now and he had to make sure the priest knew he was tough.

“Does he-.” A sudden bout of wracking coughs doubled him over, his free hand clinging to his gut as the arm with the leech stayed strapped down in the small chair. Father Tycho gave him a pitying look as he groaned and helped him back into his chair after the coughing subsided. He wiped Jakob’s eyes of tears with the handkerchief he always kept in his breast pocket with that ever-present powdery old person smell before stowing it away. Jakob, his senses regained, took a deep breath and tried again.

“Does he live there now?”

Father Tycho gave him a curious look before his eyes were drawn once again to the leech upon his arm, now swollen with his imbalanced humors, and chuckled kindly with a shake of his head.

“Oh, no child. He comes off just as soon as he’s had his fill. See?” He gestured with his withered hand and in moments the leech tumbled off into the Lurihim’s palm, completely engorged. The handkerchief was once again in hand, this time dabbing at the young boy’s ring shaped wound that bled freely in the leeches absence.

“But I think you’ll be seeing him quite a bit from here on out. Him and his little friends. You gave your mother quite a scare the other day, didn’t you?”

Jakob didn’t have to pretend at embarrassment, looking down into his lap in shame. His throat was still raw, and he tasted metal every time he swallowed.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he whispered so quietly the old priest had to lean in to hear. These past few weeks he’d learned many strategies to keep the coughs at bay, so painful were they that he’d do most anything to avoid them. He’d stopped running anywhere at all, took stairs slowly, spoke little and, when he thought he could get away with it without being rude, whispered.

“I didn’t do anything. The coughing just started, and I couldn’t stop. I fell down…and then there was blood on the carpet.”

Jakob folded in on himself, reliving the moment again in his mind.

Lord Sauber, his distant cousin he’d been told, had rode out with his retinue to the country manse a days ride from Laatzen. Jakob’s parents had moved him out there on the advice of one of the Prosecutors stationed within the Order of Enlightenment, who told them that the foul spirits of rumor and deceit might have infected him given how plentiful they were in the city, and that some time in the country might give him a chance to be away from them and not under their constant assault.

After a month his condition hadn’t improved. Lord Sauber had come to speak with his father on matters of state, but also to see young Jakob to see if he couldn’t lift his spirits. Before dinner could even be served Jakob had been weaving between the servants in the main hall when he felt a small cough coming. One cough turned to two, then three and four, and before he knew it he’d crumpled to his knees coughing blood out next to the Graf’s dinner chair. He couldn’t breathe, his chest seizing, the coughs refusing to stop until everything went black.

Needless to say, dinner had been canceled, and despite his protestations to the contrary Jakob knew it was his fault. If he’d just been…better? Stronger? Maybe then he wouldn’t have embarrassed his parents so much, caused such a fuss. And now they’d gone and called up some village Lurihim while they waited for one of the Sisters of Sorrow to arrive as his new personal doctor.

Father Tycho’s hand fell on his shoulder and gave it a soft squeeze.

“It’s alright my boy,” he said in that way elders did when they were trying to protect your feelings.

“You’ve got a demon latched onto your lungs something fierce. Too much of the phlegmatic humors, not enough of the sanguine. It’s alright, my boy, we’ll get you sorted out just right. If I can’t cast out the demon, the next one will, else Lurien will call you back to God, and you won’t have to worry about pain any more.”

There was some comfort in that, at least. Worse than the embarrassment was the pain, but he was a big boy now and had to grit his teeth against the tears whenever the coughing finally stopped. He hated the demon inside him, torturing him, ripping him up from the inside. He’d do anything to be rid of it, even read one of those big books his tutor had that had all the words in it that made his eyes hurt. He’d read it all the way through and not complain if it meant the demon would go away.

If only it were that easy.

The Cold Embrace of Death

So many of the warriors here talk about the heat of battle, the feeling of blood rushing through your veins, the feeling of time both getting longer and shorter. Clashes feel like they take hours, but moments during them feel so fleeting. I felt a different side of this when looking for the sword of this mysterious potential saint, Rannveig. Their hatred for Sveas and her minions was palpable even in spirit when I met him in my vision, but I learned just how deep that ran. When I came upon the field just outside the eternal storm, I felt…calm, peace knowing this was the place I was sent to visit, that this great warrior would no longer be lost to time or held only in respect through fallible stories, and that my long journey wouldn’t be for naught. As this peace settled, my vision darkened. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision, but when I came to, I was no longer in the warm sun of the late summer skies. Snow covered the ground, but I found no chill in my bones. In my hand was the sword I was looking for, and before me was a hoard of Sveas’s minions, the undead. My heart swelled, but again a peace washed over me. Death wasn’t something to be feared, but faced head-on. I prayed for strength, wisdom, and endurance in this battle and marched forward toward the encroaching sea of bodies.

A roar escaped my lungs as I swung my blade and immediately cut down four of these creatures, a light flashing on every connection of my blade. These were nothing. There were no weapons or armor on them, just a cold, bloodthirsty passion in their gaze. This wasn’t a battle of skill, but of endurance. I kept my wits about me as I cut down dozens, then hundreds. There was a break in the chaff, and I spotted more coming for me now armed and armored. This fight was only beginning. They rushed me this time and attacked with more coordination and tact, yet they were still no match for me. I focused but felt fatigue setting in. This was the touch of Sveas and I would not let her win. I let out another roar and took down the three that were flanking me. I rushed with determination through the ranks of these monsters and locked eyes with ones that could be considered my equal. They were much larger, and I felt the cold aura of Sveas even from the distance I was at. I rushed toward them, taking down undead left and right.

“Finally, a potential challenge. Here I thought you were toying with me, Sveas. I’ll take down your champions and whatever else you throw at me. I am not your slave. I am Rannveig the Death Defiant.”

I leapt towards the beast, and steel clashed in midair. Blows were traded, cutting down the surrounding troops, and for once, I was taking injuries. They felt cold and numb instead of the typical wounds I’ve felt before. At last, I slashed an arm off the champion, his sword arm, and took the chance to separate its head from its body. It slumped to the ground defeated, and behind it, two more warriors of similar stature approached, cleaving a path of their own troops.

“I thought that was too easy for the god of death. Let’s really see what you have for me.” I cleaved both of them, steel clashing, iron ringing, and my endurance fading. Between the wounds, the supernatural cold, and me fighting for what felt like hours, my abilities were dulling. I collected more injuries on my leg and arm. I took to one knee and felt the grip of Sveas tightening on my wounds. I took a painful breath in, and let out one final roar.

“I AM NOT YOURS, SVEAS! YOU WILL TASTE MY VENGEANCE!” I spun and cleaved the two fighting me, decapitating them in the process. I leapt at those surrounding me and continued my rampage. I knew my time was limited, but I would take as many as I could with me. A long sword slipped between my armor, a hammer battered my arm, a great axe knocked me off balance, and that was it. My injured leg gave out as I fell on my back. The hoard didn’t descend upon me, but instead one more champion walked through a part in the surrounding crowd. With a great sword in his mighty hands, I knew what was to come.

“Even in death you will not take me Sveas. My soul is not yours.” The champion impaled me to the ground as my vision again blurred.

I was back in the field, lying down as he had, sword in hand. The vision of Rannveig the Death Defiant was still humming in my mind. Even during all of that mayhem, I still felt calm. He felt calm. He did not fear death and, as such, faced it physically head on. I will make sure to honor him as best as I can.

The Silence after an Avalanche Fell

Eidr stood at the edge of the somber gathering, the weight of the cask of beer resting heavily on his shoulder. The funeral was a solemn affair, with mourners clad in dark furs and heavy cloaks, their breath forming frosty clouds in the frigid air. The bleak, rain-touched fall landscape served as a stark backdrop to the assembly, a reflection of the void left by Hallbjorn’s passing.

As he listened to the eulogies and laments of those around him, Eidr felt a profound sense of conflict within himself. It had been a long time since he had last taken on the mantle of a Skald, before his time in the unforgiving Rhimelands, before he had been forced to scavenge and fight for mere survival. In those days, he had roamed the harsh wilderness, far from the halls of poetry and song.

Now, as the Master of Coin of Runeheim, entrusted with the practical matters of the community, he felt that he had lost the right to call himself a Skald. The weight of responsibility had shifted from crafting verses, reading runes, and weaving tales to balancing ledgers and ensuring the clan’s economic stability. It had been a trade of skills, out of necessity, but it had left him feeling detached from the art of storytelling and the bardic tradition he had once held dear.

Eidr’s hands tightened around the cask of beer as he contemplated whether he had any right to stand before the assembly and recite the eddaic verses he had learned for the occassion. The verses, though etched in his memory, felt distant, like fragments of a past life. Doubts gnawed at his heart, whispering that he was no longer worthy to be called a Skald.

But as the ceremony continued, a deep sense of duty stirred within him. He could not deny the bonds of friendship that had connected him to Hallbjorn, and the promise he had made in the moonlit night, to honor his friend’s memory, weighed heavily on his soul. Eidr knew that, despite his changed role in the clan, he had a duty to pay homage to the fallen warrior in the most heartfelt way he could.

With this determination, Eidr steeled himself for the moment when he would step forward and share the poem he had prepared, knowing that even if his path had diverged from the art of the Skald, his heart remained tethered to the traditions and to the memory of his dear friend, Hallbjorn.

Eidr’s mind wandered back to the grim and fateful night previous, when he had first seen Hallbjorn’s lifeless body, surrounded by a circle of people, illuminated by the flickering firelight. The image was etched into his memory like a haunting painting. Hallbjorn’s chest bore the gruesome evidence of his demise—12 stab wounds, a grotesque testament to the brutality of his end. Worst of all, his heart had been ripped from his chest, a horrifying desecration of the fallen warrior.

As Eidr gazed upon the lifeless form of his friend, a seething rage had surged within him. His hands had clenched into fists as he watched Knut, another clansman, engaged in a one-on-one duel with the heretical enemy responsible for this vile act. The scene played out before him, and Eidr couldn’t comprehend why they allowed the wolf of slaughter the dignity of a duel, rather than descending as a united crowd to exact swift and brutal revenge.

He had expected the so-called heretic by the White Lion to pay dearly for the sacrilege of defiling Hallbjorn’s body. But as the duel unfolded, despair settled upon Eidr’s heart. The warrior, perhaps a coward in Eidr’s eyes, managed to evade the felling blows and slipped away like a wraith into the shrouds of the night, disappearing like smoke into the darkness. The grudge went unpunished, leaving Eidr and others with a gnawing sense of injustice, an unquenchable thirst for vengeance that was never sated.

In that moment, as he stood beside the fresh grave, with the echoes of the Eddaic poem still ringing in the cold air, Eidr couldn’t help but feel that the memory of Hallbjorn deserved more. His friend had been a warrior of unmatched valor, and the heretic’s vile act had gone unanswered.

After watching the enemy slip away into the night, with rage and despair gnawing at his soul, Eidr had retreated to the moonlit clearing he remembered so well. It was there that he had performed a ritual that was both an act of remembrance and a plea for justice in the afterlife.

In the quiet stillness of the clearing, he had sacrificed a fox, mirroring the gruesome manner in which Hallbjorn had met his end. The ritual had been a somber reflection of the depths of his emotions, with rage and despair mingling within him. Eidr had called out to Auvfaldr, the god of their traditional ways, beseeching the deity to grant Hallbjorn honor in the afterlife, despite the fact that his dear friend had followed the path of the White Lion God, Benalus. Eidr’s heart ached with the knowledge that their paths of faith had diverged, but he still sought to ensure Hallbjorn’s story and honor was preserved and that he received his rightful place among the Branded Men.

As he offered the fox’s life to Auvfaldr, the moonlight filtering through the trees seemed to cast an ethereal glow upon the clearing. Eidr’s voice had risen, fervent in its plea, and the very same Eddaic poem that he now considered reciting during the funeral had echoed through the woods. The words had flowed from him like a tribute to Hallbjorn’s legacy, a recollection of the Branding that had earned him the title of the Avalanche, a name that still rang through the hearts of Runeheim.

Eidr’s memories were a tapestry of emotions, intertwining with the traditions of his people and the unbreakable bond he shared with Hallbjorn. Now, as he prepared to share the Eddaic poem once more, he hoped that his story, his friend’s memory, and their shared history would be recorded among the annals of the Branded Men, so that future generations might know the tale of the Avalanche and the enduring friendship that transcended even the divisions of faith.

He spoke.

“Neath the mountain Einjallar, on the Wolfchaser river,
Winter’s ice thawing, the river-banks swelling,
As village-gates opened to spring’s first endeavors,
A wild man descended the rime-covered mountain.

He came to the meadhall, calling for guest-right.
His trunk as a barrel, limbs stout as tree-trunks.
The hair on his chest mixed with blood long forgotten.
Hallbjorn his birth-name, scion of Greywolf.

On the mountain he trained, through windstorm and blizzard,
The fire of his rage overcoming the winter.
His mentor surpassed, now he came to the lowlands
For bloodshed and glory, the hunt never-ending.

The men of the village met these words with a challenge,
The warrior’s way, a test of the stranger.
Should he prove himself strong against the warrior chosen,
Then he would be welcome, with shelter and feasting.

Seven men stood before him, the pride of the village.
As guest he could choose the one he must challenge.
Hallbjorn emptied his ale-horn and met them with laughter.
“Every one will I fight, and be done by the sunset!”

The circle was drawn, the warriors made ready,
Cast lots for the honor to be first to the blood-pit.
They took up their axes and sharpened their daggers,
Each eager to fell the arrogant stranger.

As the first fighter entered, the crowd roared to greet him.
Just as quickly the crowd fell back in stunned silence.
The mirthful great man, the wild man of the mountain,
Before them transformed to a terror of bloodshed.

The blood of the first still steaming, he pointed
To the second in line, and called him to come forward.
As a starving man given the key to the feast-hall
Was Hallbjorn when faced with the chance to do battle.

Seven entered the pit to bring down the stranger.
Seven men carted out, bloodied and broken.
Hallbjorn squinted against the sun not yet setting,
Looked to the crowd and called for more ale.
This was witnessed by Erik, the Skald branded Treehide.
In the feast after battle he stood and declared:
‘This unstoppable power that comes down the mountain,
I name thee the Avalanche, and call for the Branding!'”


Esparei had died.
She knew that with terrible clarity.
Murdered on the bridge, then hidden in the woods. How cowardly. How cruel. How- cold the world suddenly was. Like nothing she’d ever felt. There was no gentle embrace of the divine. No final comfort. Just- cold.

“You poor girl.”
She didn’t know the voice. Her limbs started to twitch. Her skin knit together.

You’ll never be warm again.

She could sit up by some miracle- her fine gown crusted in blood and dirt, her pistol still clutched in her right hand. And the feeling of absolute dread, making the back of her neck tingle. Alone? No- not this time. Not her murderers. A woman.

Then- she was at the tavern door. Then, she was speaking plainly, artlessly, feeling hollow and violated until the anger shot up unexpectedly like a viper.

She had stripped bare, showing Vernon the ugly gashes across her torso- hacked at like she was nothing more than a thing, a piece of meat. She had demanded blood for blood, as was her right. She- she-

You’ll never be warm again.

She screamed. Like something had come undone in her. Like all the grief and rage were pouring out like a storm and she couldn’t stop. Not even if she tried. Screaming and sobbing and pressing herself as far into the corner of her room as she could, until Vernon, barely awake and panicking, rushed in and held her. Soothed her. Let her cry herself out while murmuring prayers softly and squeezing her hand.
“I think you should let the High Inquisitor examine you. I’m worried about you.”

She didn’t respond. Just squeezed his hand a little tighter.