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In Loco Goblintis

Chapter Text

They say everyone who looks into their family history will find a secret sooner or later. A long-lost cousin that no one ever speaks of, a dalliance that bears a child outside of holy wedlock, an episode of adultery, a fit of madness the family tried to hide, a previously-unknown relation to some great philosopher, scientist, author, warrior. Some secrets are draped in misery and shame, some in scandal, some in the dust-laden cloaks of forgetting. But one law holds true: all family histories hold a secret, whether it be insignificantly benign or earth-shatteringly disastrous. It is, after all, the risk that comes with keeping such records, and with resurrecting things that are better left forgotten.

Of all the beings in the world, it is humans and goblins that attach most importance to these records. Humans because they have a sense of sentimentality, of attachment to their ancestors, even ancestors they have never had the chance to meet. Goblins because their ideals of honor and family are such that forgetting an ancestor is akin to sacrilege: family is meant to be honored and revered, no matter how many generations ago they lived and died. To strike someone's name from the family tree is to disown them in the most injurious manner, for it deems them unworthy of remembrance and condemns them to being soon forgotten.

The making of family trees in the form of tapestries has become an art in goblin culture. Oh, humans have them as well: pale imitations, that is. But goblins have developed this art into a science, and a complicated and beautiful science at that.

A hundred gold coins could buy you a basic tapestry, without any bells or whistles, that had to be edited by hand whenever there was a new addition to the family. Two hundred, now that's a step up: iron and silver decorations and embroidery. Three hundred, and gold threads make their appearance. Five hundred and upwards, and various spells can be stitched in the thread: self-editing, the tapestry keeping up to date with the status of the family on its own; protective spells to keep it intact during fires or other disasters; defense charms to help protect those whose names are written on it. 

Any goblin family worth its salt has a tapestry. The richer the family, the more elaborate, beautiful, and magical the tapestry. No matter their means, however, even the poorest families devote great amounts of care to the handling of the tapestry, and even the cheapest tapestries could last for generations. 

But that doesn’t stop the richer families from indulging a little, weary of the effort that comes with constant maintenance. And while it can be a great saving of time, when your tapestry is the kind that makes its own entries...well, sometimes it can be a bit more revealing than you’d like.

~=~

The Orix line has a social standing similar to the humans’ ‘bourgeoisie’ - reasonably well-off, but not excessively rich, with a leaning towards practicality instead of mere excess. This is reflected in their tapestry: while it contains a veritable arsenal of enchantments, the tapestry itself is rather plain-looking. Gold is entirely absent, and threads of silver and iron are reserved merely for outlining the tree itself, silver for blood descendents and iron for adoption via blood ritual.

This tapestry outlines a confusing history, but with some effort it can be discerned. Let us begin at a point approximately two generations before the present. Asb of Orix married Olse of Veeszee. Much more than their names is irrelevant to us. Enough to know that they had a child, Dolde of Orix, who married Klolac of Cysherd.

Here is where things become...confusing. At first glance, it seems Dolde and Klolac had a child by the name of Mordon. But a closer inspection will show that the thread that ties Mordon to the bloodline is iron, not silver: adoption. Dolde's true son is represented in the very corner of the tapestry, as if he'd been shoved out of sight, the silver thread that binds his name to hers about the diameter of a human hair. 

The silver cursive letters that spell his name are dulled and tarnished, but can still be read: Manannan.

The lack of attention given to his section of the tapestry is a deliberate snub, one with its own set of reasons. The details are unimportant: suffice to say that Manannan is more or less the outcast, the black sheep of the family. Not so disliked that he was struck from the tapestry, but enough that his entry is practically hidden from view.

Perhaps it's the reason that no one noticed a new entry made one September night, for years and years and years.

~=~

Manannan is a curious goblin. Throughout his life he showed none of the propensity towards marriage and family that most goblins do. Instead of furthering the bloodline and allowing the Orix name to endure, he dedicated his life to intellectual pursuits - and, eventually, a set of rather strange and morbid ambitions. But more on that at a later date.

For many years, it seems he had no interest in having a family of his own. Love was foolish to him, children irritated him, both would distract him from his goals. He grew into his thirties, pushing the boundaries of marriageable age, and continued to show every indication of remaining a loner for the remainder of his natural life.

Which makes what happened in September all the more remarkable. 

On September the fourteenth of...well, some year, a new name was etched into the fabric of the tapestry, a frail line of iron forming between it and Mannanan's. Slowly, letters were weaved into the fabric, the tapestry showing a strange reluctance.

'G' was the first letter, written in shaky cursive. Followed by an equally shaky 'r' and 'a'. It was as a new letter was forming, one that could have been an 'l' or perhaps a 'd', that a very peculiar thing happened.

As if an invisible hand had stayed it course, the tapestry stopped writing. Its threads were still glowing, signifying that it wasn't yet finished with its work, but there was no activity, as if the tapestry were nonplussed.

Finally, it erased the shaky letters, the iron dissolving into nothing. With new confidence it wrote in thick, bold font: LUTHAIN

Luthain. Mannanan's newly-adopted son. It seemed impossible, and yet it happened. The tapestry proved it, and continues to prove it to this day.

~=~

(Far away, Sir Hereward of Daventry is mourning the loss of his youngest son, Graham. The boy, no older than five, has disappeared from the face of the planet. It will be many years before this wound heals, for the pain that comes with the loss of a child is a shattering, lingering thing)

Chapter Text

"I will not tolerate disobedience. I am your father, and, until you are an adult, you are mine. You belong to me."

"If it weren't for me, you'd be out on the streets and destitute. You want to leave? Feel free! Sell yourself to strangers in dark alleys for a few gold coins to pay your rent, if that's the life you want to live."

"If you were sorry, you wouldn't have done it."

"It's not a question of love. Nothing can make me stop loving you, because you're my son. But I just can't trust you after what you've done. I don't know if I ever will again."

"Don't…! Stay away! I'm scared of you."

"I don't know anymore."

"I know you hate me."

"I was so looking forward to having a son."

"I love you. You know that, right?"

~=~

The forest, when they finally reach it, is...beautiful. 

After so long holed up in a cave, Luthain drinks in the sight of the trees swaying gracefully in the wind, branches overflowing with red and orange leaves; the sound of the birds twittering and the gurgling of a nearby stream; the smell of autumn and earth that fills his nose. Each helps to chase away the cold, musty, dark qualities of the cave that has been impressed on his mind for so long - a more than welcome replacement.

Not that he's ungrateful. He knows that they were living in the cave for his own safety, and his father sacrificed just as much as he did by remaining underground for so long. But still, despite the fact that the sunlight makes his weak eyes water with just how bright it is, he refuses to shy away.

Stars know when he'd return above ground, if they failed their mission.

Sighing contentedly, Luthain leans forward in the saddle and pats the neck of his steed, with a murmur of 'good girl, Kryla'. Kryla snorts a little, a small cloud of mist forming before her nostrils, despite the fact that the day is reasonably warm. She tugs at the bit in a brief assertion of her independence, but apart from that shows no protest, a huge improvement over her constant buckings and skitterings and fighting when Luthain first met her.

He's lucky to have her. Kryla was a gift from one of Father's friends, a shifty man by the name of Malek. Half arion, a quarter énbarr, both of which gave her exceptional speed and agility. But it was the quarter of lungta blood in her veins that made her such a special find, that gifted her with swiftness and endurance and an uncanny intelligence.

As well as enough stubbornness for a whole herd of snutes, apparently. He had bruises for weeks after he finished training her. Although, it was more than worth it.

"Luthain?"

He's pulled out of his reverie by his father calling his name, and, like a dog responding to the call of its master, he lifts his head and gazes at Father.

In front of him, Father is balanced precariously on his own steed, twisted around in the saddle to look back at Luthain. Luthain was never allowed to see his face (Father was horribly disfigured by an accident many years ago, and feels self-conscious) but he's learned to read Father's moods through demeanor and tone and stance. 

Right now, things seem calm. But Luthain has learned from experience that that could change in a heartbeat. Father has been through a lot in his life, and gets nervous easily, so Luthain has to be careful not to stress him.

"Yes, Father?" It's a response honed over the years, devoid of emotion, just a toneless acknowledgement. Again, designed not to stress Father. Unseemly shows of emotion are things that Father has little patience for.

In response, Father stops at the crest of a small hill, his énbarr lumbering to a halt. Luthain comes abreast of him, Kryla likewise gliding to a stop, and watches as Father points to something ahead of him. 

"There."

~=~

"Is that it?"

He's aware he sounds reverent, fascinated; and those were things his father never liked to hear. But, faced with the beautiful castle nestled in the hills across from him, he can't help but feel a certain thrill. He's never seen something so fantastical in all his life, having spent most of his childhood in dark caves and corridors, and his usual calm, trained facade cracks somewhat at the sight before him.

Thankfully, however, his father is in a good mood today, and points out neither his unseemly show of emotion, nor the stupidity of the question in...well, question. For that, Luthain is relieved.

He can't see his father's face behind his helmet, but he can sense the approval directed at him, approval that he treasures for its rarity. "Of course, Luthain. Look," Father says as he makes a sweeping gesture, "the site of our oncoming victory."

Victory--?

Oh yes. In the excitement of finally arriving topside, he's nearly forgotten. The knight tournament is in a couple of weeks, and together, they've constructed a plan that practically guarantees a win for one of them. He remembers nights of poring over plans and notes, tossing ideas back and forth as they figured out how to overcome the various hurdles.

So far, they've determined that Whisper and Acorn are in the running, as well as an unnamed fifth participant they know little about. Father, of course, chafes at the idea of such an unpredictable variable, but there’s little they can do until the day of the actual tournament, when they can gather more information.

Whisper and Acorn however…

Whisper is fast, and Acorn is strong, but neither of them is of exceptional intelligence. Whisper especially is a coward of the first degree, and with a little intimidation he can be put out of the running. As for Acorn, his temper could be used against him. 

But that fifth candidate is still a blank slate, and there's no telling what he (or she, he supposes--nothing in the rules explicitly states that a woman couldn't participate) would bring to the table.

Well, they would figure something out. They always did. The end goal is to have both Father and himself make it to the Duel of Wits, and after that point, it wouldn’t matter who won. All the winner has to do is put a good word in for the other, and they would both gain a position in King Edward's court.

A knight of the king. Luthain likes the sound of that. Knights always had glamorous adventures, and Luthain loves adventures.

He's pulled out of his daydreaming as Father speaks, instantly hanging off of Father's every word (Father hates having to repeat himself).

“We’ll find an apothecary in the town,” Father is saying, “and buy some hypnosis powder, as well as a few other necessities. And then we’ll pick up the eyes we pre-ordered from that magic shop.”

Luthain nods, ignoring the small stirrings of doubt in his chest that tell him that this is wrong, underhanded, cheating . It'll be worth it, he tells himself. He'll get to be a knight, and see the world, and he won't have to hide anymore, won't have to spend days, weeks, months at a time in a cave without ever seeing the sun.

And maybe, just maybe…

If he succeeds, maybe Father might be proud of him, for once. And that would be the most precious treasure of all.

Chapter Text

“Hypnosis powder?” repeats the apothecary owner, frowning in thought. She’s restocking some of the shelves behind the counter, lining up bottles in neat, military rows. The bottles contain a clear, emerald green liquid, their labels reading Healing Potion in a twisted, convoluted script. Luthain is intrigued by them, but he has neither the time nor the courage to ask her the myriad of questions he has. 

“Oh no, sirs,” she continues. She’s an affabile young woman with long, brown hair in braids, who looks like she's seen many adventures. Luthain thinks her name is Anna. “I don’t sell anything nearly that fancy. You’ll want the Hobblepots for that; I just sell general potions, not specialty items.”

Father sighs, disappointed. “Oh well. I suppose it’s not much of an inconvenience - we were on our way there anyways. Could you kindly give us directions?”

She frowns, displeased. "Hm. I suppose it's eyes you're going to them for, for the tournament. Not sure how I feel about that - too much like cheating for my taste - but I suppose it's none of my business...Head to the town square, and it'll be the ramshackle shop on the second floor.”

They both thank her, Father with effusive charm, Luthain with more shyness and uncertainty. She gives them both a fake smile and a farewell before ducking into a back room, doubtless to fetch more inventory.

It takes but a few moments to find the square - Daventry is hardly a large village, after all, even if at times, the geography of it feels a little disorienting for some odd reason.

(Luthain suspects that the ley lines embedded deep underneath the streets of the town may have something to do with it, but that’s something he’ll have to investigate later)

Once they’re in the square it takes but a moment to find the magic shop, and they ascend the stairs and make their way inside.

Luthain’s first impression as he enters the shop is one of relief, the darkness of the room alleviating the pain pressing at the back of his eyes. It's comforting without being oppressive - the shop otherwise bears no resemblance to the horrid cave, filled as it is with knick-knacks and bottles and strange, fantastical objects.

He can feel the magic pouring off some of the items in this room, and in response, his own magic surges slightly, a small amount of mana condensing around his hands like a blue-green mist. Pain flickers up and down the scars on his hands, causing him to wince, and Luthain hastily suppresses the mana, though not without a small amount of regret.

(It’s so rarely that he gets to use his magic, and it itches and burns under his skin like wildfire. But he knows what will happen if he gives in to the temptation, and he knows the results won't be pleasant)

Cautious, he takes a few steps forward, examining the shop owners. They’re a couple, old and wizened, who seem to exude a kind of eccentric wisdom. The old man looks up as they approach the counter, and Father moves to exchange the usual pleasantries.

Before he can speak, however, the old man interrupts, a hint of mischief in his tone. “You seem to be new to our town. Are you tourists?”

Luthain opens his mouth, a denial ready, but the old woman cuts him off. Her eyes are sharp and discerning, and send shivers down Luthain’s spine.

“Ah, horsefeathers, Chester,” she says, eyes glittering. The conversation between her and her husband feels a little staged, and Luthain has the suspicion that this was planned. “They’re no sightseers. They desire a position in King Edward’s court!”

How on earth did she…

“They are clever gentlemen, with certain special weapons on their side. They stand a good chance in this year’s knight’s tournament.” She glances at Luthain then, and when she looks at him, Luthain has the unpleasant feeling that she’s examining his every thought and can pluck them out like feathers from a chicken.

She’s someone to watch out for.

“However,” she continues, her tone laden with meaning, “this young man needs to learn to make his own decisions. He’s clever, but wit means nothing if you’re too frightened to use it.”

Luthain blinks and finds that his hands are shaking. Hastily, he clasps them behind his back, feeling embarrassed. What she says is false, he knows this...but at the same time he feels like his soul has been laid bare, placed on a silver platter for all to see and judge. 

He doesn't like this woman very much. 

Father gives a small, fake laugh. "Are you fortune tellers?"

"No," says Chester. "We're just very old and very judgemental people."

This time, Father's laugh sounds more genuine. As he engages the shop owners in conversation, Luthain tunes out the words, allowing himself to fade into the background. He trusts that Father will handle the negotiations, and in any case, it’s not as if anyone is interested in what he has to say.

Instead, he takes to examining every item in sight, intrigued. A glowing blue lantern catches his eye, more for its beauty than its power, since whatever magic it contains is feeble. A warding charm, he thinks, designed to drive away danger, although the spell is too weak to do much more than drive away wild animals. 

His attention wanders to the bubbling cauldron near the counter, filled with a watery rust-colored liquid. He can't tell what it is - potion-making was never his strong suit, even though he finds some of the theory behind it fascinating - and he's itching to ask. But, same as at the apothecary, shyness and uncertainty stay his tongue, and he remains silent.

He's broken out of his reverie when he notices Chester leading Father into a back room, probably to fetch the eyes. Instinctively, he moves to follow, used to always staying at Father's heels.

But the woman gives him a look, and, despite himself, Luthain's steps stutter and halt. For several moments, he between the two options, like a pendulum shoved into motion. Follow, or stay? 

The pricklings of anxiety hasten the rate of his breathing. Somehow, he knows that if he chooses to stay, to speak with this woman, it’ll change...something. He’s not sure what, just that it’s big and imposing and frightening. It’s like he’s teetering on the edge of a vast precipice, with only a small list to either side needed to decide his fate.

He knows what choice Father would want him to make. But he hesitates. And hesitates. And hesitates, until the door to the back room closes behind Chester and Father, and his decision is made for him.

Several seconds pass, the woman observing him as if trying to read his thoughts. Luthain finds himself fidgeting, plucking at the hems of his blue cloak. He forces himself to stop, and unconsciously starts tugging at his sleeves instead.

Finally, the woman sighs, breaking the silence. “I’ll have you know, I never handled a situation like this before. But I doubt anyone else will notice what’s wrong.” Without giving him time to respond, she changes the subject. “What’s your name, dear?”

“Luthain,” he replies, automatically. “And yours?”

“Muriel.”

“Muriel,” he repeats, doing his best to commit it to memory. Now that the formalities are dispensed with, he decides to get straight to the point. “What do you mean by ‘a situation like this’?”

Muriel, much to his irritation, ignores his question. “Who’s the other man?”

“That would be my father. Uh, his name is Manny.”

Muriel frowns, puzzled. “You two don’t seem very much alike.”

That’s an observation he’s used to hearing. “I take mostly after my mother,” he begins to recite. “She died a couple of years after having me. I’m very lucky that Father decided to continue caring for me.”

“Lucky?” she raises her eyebrows. “Seems to me something that any half-way decent father would do.”

That trips him up for a second, and he stutters, feeling ill at ease. “Uh, well, still, it wasn’t easy for him.” 

His gaze flicks to the still-closed back door. What’s taking them so long?

“Being a parent never is,” she says, as if speaking from experience. “But that’s no reason to make you feel guilty for it.”

The uncomfortable feeling is worse now - he feels his skin crawling. He barks a small, nervous laugh that sounds wrong even to his own ears. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

There’s an awkward pause, and then Muriel sighs in a sort of resigned disappointment, as if expecting such an answer. “Of course you don’t. He's trained you too well for that."

"Who's 'he'? What are you talking about?" He has his suspicions as to the answer to the first question, of course - who else could she be talking about, except Father? - but the second one still has him stumped. Father never 'trained' him for anything, except success as a sorcerer and quick thinker.

Unless…

No.

But…

No.

"Oh, never mind, dear,” Muriel responds in the most annoying fashion. Luthain notices her glancing at the door to the back room. “Just...two pieces of advice. May I bend your ear for a bit?”

His curiosity is almost overwhelming. “Bend away.”

“First of all, don’t trust that father of yours, no matter how your instincts say otherwise. And, secondly, if you are in need of help, there are plenty of friends to be made in Daventry.”

I'm sorry?

Luthain gapes. "Why shouldn't I trust hi-"

He's cut off when Muriel shushes him, the motion frantic. A moment later, the door to the back room opens, and Father enters, a large glass jar filled with eyes in his possession, Chester following behind.

Too much like cheating for my taste. Anna’s words ring in his mind, unbidden. 

"Come on, Luthain," orders Father. "There's still much to do."

Felling bewildered, Luthain finds himself following Father. He's not sure why he's so confused, the answers to his questions are so obvious . Father is right, and everyone else just...doesn't understand. Or misunderstands. Whatever.

But, despite himself, he glances back as he's going out the door, back at Muriel, who's staring at him as if she's trying to will him into comprehension.

Don't trust that father of yours, no matter how your instincts say otherwise…

He's past the door frame, Father pulling him onwards...

….if you are in need of help...

The hinges creak, the door swinging closed. 

...there are plenty of friends to be made in Daventry.

The door clicks shut, and Luthain is left feeling alone, for a reason he can't put his finger on.

Chapter Text

“You’re distracted.” 

Luthain blinks, Father’s resentful words pulling him out of a whirlwind of thoughts. 

It's late in the afternoon, several hours after the incident with the Hobblepots. Father insisted on leaving the eyes at the inn, storing them in a corner of the tiny room they rented. As adamantly, he insisted on keeping the hypnosis powder on his person, and Luthain had long learned never to ask questions.

But after this round of 'shopping' as Father called it, there was still much to be done - they had to find out as much about the tournament as possible, the systems and rules so that they knew how to bend them to their advantage. Learn the rules before you break them, is their motto, and it has long served them well. 

So, in a dance that was long familiar to Luthain, the dance of hunting for information whilst denying that you were doing so, they explored and investigated and tried to pry out every little secret they can. The trick, as Father always says, is to watch and listen without looking as if you're doing so. As long as you keep yourself to yourself and fade into the background, most people will be too focused on their own agenda to pay much attention to you. And there's a lot you can find out when people are ignoring you.

Within a couple of hours, they scoped out the 'Fantastical Floating Island' where the Duel of Strength would take place, as well as the race track that would be the site of the Duel of Speed (an obstacle course kind of setup, he noted distractedly). They also tried to initiate conversations with the guards in an attempt to glean some information, but all they are able to determine is that the Daventry Royal Guard operated based on a complex and convoluted system of addendums and red tape.

("How inefficient," Father sneered when he heard of it. "It's a surprise the fools manage to get anything done.")

(Luthain merely nodded, not really registering his words)

Throughout the day, however, Luthain has felt...restless. He’s trying to push it aside, he really is. But despite his best efforts, Luthain finds himself preoccupied, unable to focus on anything except the skittering half-thoughts in his brain. Anxiety prickles with unreasonable persistence in his chest, as his mind spirals in ever-smaller circles, and several times he catches himself fidgeting with the hems of his cape or, worse, picking at the silver embroidery. 

It’s disrespectful, and annoying, and inconsiderate. And he does try to focus on the world around him, to pay attention to Father’s words...but his thoughts keep returning to the conversation he had with Muriel. The more he tries to dismiss the memory and shove it aside, the more it nags at him, refusing to let him ignore it. Repeatedly throughout the day he’s phased out of conversations, lost in his thoughts, his mind not registering questions or comments that Father sends his way; and several times he was forced to ask Father to repeat something he just said a moment before.

And he knew Father would call him out on it eventually, he knew this was coming...but he can’t help the way his skin crawls, the way he flinches and cringes, the way shame boils in his chest. It's what he gets for so severely trying Father’s patience - he knew from the outset that if he continued drifting, then the consequences would be dire. 

But he just...can’t focus. At all. His limbs feel shaky and his breathing is rapid and there's too-familiar shivers of anxiety raking at his insides, as his thoughts spin and spin and spin. And damned if he doesn't try to push it away, to shove his thoughts aside like he usually does, but this time it simply isn't working .

Even now, as he waits for Father to scold him, his mind keeps flickering back to the conversation he had with Muriel in the curiosity shop. 

Father stares him down, hands on his hips, and though Luthain can't see his face he can still feel the glare directed his way. It makes him want to shrivel and sink into the ground, and he can feel his resolve wilting.

When Father finally speaks, his tone is acerbic. "You know, you could stand to be a little more attentive. This tournament will decide our futures, after all. I did a lot of planning for us to get this chance, the least you could do is pay attention. "

Luthain shrinks in on himself, and mutters an apology. He knows it's useless - Father never believed in apologies - but something still compels him to try.

As expected, his apology goes ignored. 

"But, since you seem to have difficulty focusing," Father continues, "maybe we should change our plans to something more exciting. "

Luthain freezes. Because he knows exactly what those words entail, and he knows he won't enjoy it one bit.

"It's been a while since you've gotten some sparring practice. Can't have you getting rusty, can we?"

~=~ 

The leaves crackle sadly under Luthain's feet as he follows Father deeper into the forest, in search of a secluded place. The longer he walks, the more he seems to vibrate with nervous energy, until it feels like his very soul is quivering in his chest. Not even the rich smell of soil and trees, or the beautiful sounds of birdsong and river water, or the spots of sunlight dancing on the ground can distract him from his plight.

Luthain hates, hates, hates sparring lessons. 

He hates it for much the same reason as he hates Father's magic lessons: because he’ll never be good at it. He'll toil and dodge and fight until bruises paint vivid patterns on his skin and his bones ache with deep-set weariness, but he never gets any better. He'll keep failing and failing and failing, chipping away at Father's patience and his own resolve until finally the lesson is cut short in a burst of raised tempers.

And he tries, he always tries so hard to be better, to do better. But it's never good enough. He's never good enough.

His eyes drift to his hands, which are tugging at the hems of his cape, and he winces. Somehow, in the light of the autumn sun, the scars are more visible. He can clearly see every inch of the intricate web of pale lines that weaves up his arms and hands and wraps around his fingers, the strands condensing at his fingertips.

A reminder that he'll never succeed at magic.

A mage's magic is channeled through their hands, mana localizing at their fingertips. Usually, this causes no pain - unless the mage overexerts themselves, and even then, the pain is brief and of little consequence. 

Usually. 

But in Luthain's case, magic makes him bleed. Go too far, do too much, and the scars will crack open, skin splitting down the pale lines until blood drips with dogging persistence from his fingertips. Push it further, and the cracks will travel up his hands, his arms, the old wounds reopening further with every pulse of mana he summons.

Father says it’s because he’s messing up somehow, that somewhere in the process, he’s channeling it incorrectly. That there must be a way to fix it, if Luthain just tried harder.

But Luthain has resigned himself to the fact that he can’t fix it. He’s spent years trying, over and over and over again, until he’s lost count of the number of times that he’s watched his hands come apart at the seams of scars. And each time, the result is no different. There is no change.

He’ll always bleed whenever he performs more than the simplest of magic, same as he’ll always fail when practicing sparring.

“Here.”

Luthain blinks out of his depressing reverie, and the surroundings come back into focus. They’re in a quiet, darker section of the forest, far from prying eyes. In front of them lies a small clearing, barely large enough for sparring. 

Father strides into the center, motioning for Luthain to follow. With an imperious gesture he begins weaving a spell into existence, oily green mana gathering around his fingertips.

(Luthain watches with no small amount of jealousy as Father commands the magic with ease. At his sides, the skin of his hands itches, ghostly sparks of old pain traveling along the scars. He’ll never have that dexterity, that effortless confidence. His casting will always be painful and difficult and bloody)

The mana bobs and shudders, condensing into a darkened figure. Luthain watches with trepidation as it forms into a snarling, vicious creature, more shadow than substance, that glares with malevolent purpose in its ice-colored eyes. Almost instinctively, he reaches for the knife at his hip, pulling out the sharp blade, settling automatically into a fighting stance.

“Begin,” says Father, and the shade rushes.

~=~

"Focus, Luthain!"

Luthain snarls soundlessly, frustration boiling over. With rushed, choppy movements he parries the blow and dodges to one side, panting as he circles the shade. The shadowy creature glares at him, pure hatred in its blue-white-grey gaze, and though he knows the creature won't seriously injure him, still he finds himself recoiling.

His grip on the knife is sweaty and clammy, his breaths short and sharp and painful. His muscles feel like they're made of strawberry jelly, and his heart is pounding harshly in his chest, stabbing into his chest. Though sparring might be his weak point, still he’s learned how to hold off Father’s shades, if only he keeps his mind sharp and is quick on his feet...but today, that’s well-nigh impossible.

No matter how he tries, he just can't concentrate .

The shade hisses and pounces with misshapen grace, and Luthain dodges, turning and swiping at the creature's arm with the knife. His timing is off, however, his strike a moment too late, and he misses by a hair's-breadth. From the edge of the clearing, he can hear Father tsking in annoyance, the sound making him cringe.

He has no excuse for this pathetic display. It's just that he's incapable of keeping his mind on task. Each and every time he tries to focus on the fight, his thoughts keep returning to Muriel and her cryptic advice, or Anna and her disapproving gaze.

It's stupid, and pointless, and moronic, and it haunts him.

The shade swings its sword at his head and he blocks the blow, his arms buckling slightly under the force of the strike. Hands shaking, he shoves the shade away, darting backwards when it makes another swing, this time for his throat.

(He knows Father promised not to hurt him, but this seems a little excessive for one of their usual sparring sessions)

He's not sure why there's so much anxiety bubbling in his chest, making him fidgity and restless and so worried that he just wants to scream. It causes him to mistime his strikes and trip over his own feet and flounder and stagger and fumble even worse than usual, and it's driving him insane.

Even now, as the shade lunges, his thoughts drift.

If you are in need of help, there are plenty of friends to be made in Daventry. Her words dog his footsteps. 

Why would he need help? What did Muriel mean? He doesn't understand.

Of course you don't, he's trained you too well for that.

Shut up.

Don't trust that father of yours.

Then who else should he trust? Some strangers--

"Luthain, LOOK OUT!"

He's snapped out of his thoughts in time to see the sword bearing down on him, swift and sharp and menacing. With a yelp he hastily attempts to block. But there's something wrong in the angle, or maybe the shade is just too strong, because…

Snap.

The knife just breaks in half. The blade splintering in two, a shiny piece of metal flying to one side and landing in the grass, leaving him with naught but an empty handle.

There's a sparking kind of weak pain, like pins and needles, as the shade's sword 'slices' into him. It's not truly cutting into his flesh, merely giving the illusion of doing so. But the shame of it cuts deeper than any sword could.

Shaking his head, Father snaps his armored fingers, dismissing the shade which flickers into nothingness with a whirl of green mana and a final, vicious snarl. Luthain can feel the disapproval wafting off of him, and he hangs his head, waiting for the inevitable lecture.

There's several moments of nerve-wracking silence before Father sighs, sounding incredibly worn out and weary. Luthain knows that sound all too well, and hates it.

"Luthain," Father says at last. "What am I going to do with you?" 

Luthain says nothing. At his side, his right hand curls into a fist, flesh digging into the handle of his broken weapon.

"Luthain. Look at me."

With an effort, Luthain complies, fighting the overwhelming impulse to stare at his feet. What he sees makes his skin crawl. Father's demeanor is one of resigned disappointment, and Luthain never likes these kinds of conversations. He'd take anger or resentment any day over this kind of...lingering sadness.

“Listen,” says Father, and now he’s using that sympathetic tone, the one that means he’s making all sorts of assumptions and worrying over nothing, the one that makes Luthain terrified Father will lock him away or restrict his already-limited freedom out of some misguided concern. “I know this can’t be easy for you. It’s a huge adjustment, and there’s a lot of pressure for you to do well.”

Luthain nods numbly.

“But I need you to get a hold of yourself, Luthain. We’re taking a huge risk here, and whether we succeed depends on both of us doing our parts. I’m working very hard to make this work, but I can’t do this all on my own. I need you to take some responsibility.”

Shut up, please shut up. 

“If you don’t do well in the tournaments, this plan will fail. We’ll be ruined . All of this effort and time and money, wasted. Do you want that to happen?”

Mutely, Luthain shakes his head.

“I thought so. That’s why I need you to focus, Luthain. Keep your mind on the world around you, don’t drift away on random thoughts. It could save your life.”

That last sentence catches Luthain’s attention, stated as it is with a grim purpose. “What do you mean?”

 “I mean that you need to watch your back. You never know who could betray you.”

 

“...I see.”

Father looks at him for a moment, before sighing. “I don’t want you getting hurt, Luthain. You need to become more capable."

“I’ll try.”

“Good. Then, as a starting point, you should fix that knife.”

Luthain blinks, glances at the broken handle still in his hands. “I’m sorry?”

“You heard me. Fix it. Or replace it somehow. A proper knight knows how to take care of his weapons, so show me you can do the same.”

He stares at Father, eyes wide, a shudder of dread in his heart. He can't...he doesn't have the abilities to fix it using magic, or to transfigure a blade out of some random object. Nor does he have the money to purchase another. 

But he says none of these things. He merely nods an understanding, and meekly follows when Father walks out of the clearing, making his way back to the village.

And, as they weave their way between the trees, the light of the setting sun filtering through the leaves, Luthain is plagued by one, urgent question.

How do I get out of this one?

Chapter Text

Daventry has a blacksmith in the town square, neighboring the Hobblepots. Though he knows it's useless to try, nevertheless he finds himself in front of its door the morning after the sparring incident, wavering on its doorstep. 

He's...not used to talking to people without Father present. Normally Father is always there, a buffer between himself and the outside world, a constant source of advice and wisdom. On the rare occasions that Luthain is alone, he usually retreats in a corner, isolating himself from others. These kinds of one-on-one conversations are a beast he's entirely unused to, and he needs careful preparation lest he simply fumble and stutter in an anxious haze.

For a few moments, he rehearses his speech to himself. Can the knife be fixed, and if so, how much would it cost? Be polite, don't forget to say 'please' and 'thank you'. And don't break down into tears if the blacksmith names too high a price.

(Nevermind that if that happens, he's stuck . He's already tried all night to fix it with magic, until his fingers bled with the pain of it, and to no avail. He doesn't know what he'll do if he can't get the blacksmith to help him)

Releasing a shaky sigh, he raises a newly-bandaged hand and pulls at the door handle, hands shaking with both nerves and pain. He hisses as he does so - his fingers still spasm and ache with throbs of fiery pain, the scars burning and stinging with every move he makes. The bandages, wrapped around his fingers and hands so that not one inch of skin is visible, are spotted lightly with dried blood. He knows from experience that the scars won't completely stop bleeding until tomorrow, and it would take another week before the pain stopped.

(He must look an alarming sight, with his bandaged hands and his cape still faintly splattered with blood)

There’s a paralyzing moment, in which Luthain both hopes that the door is locked, that no one is home, and prays that the door will open to allow him inside  - his desire to avoid human interaction warring with the need to get the knife fixed. And then the door is swinging open, creaking ever-so-slightly on its hinges, and he is inside the shop, and face to face with the blacksmith.

As before, the darkness of the shop is relieving for his sensitive eyes. But there’s no sense of comfort as with the alchemy shop. Instead of a curious place filled with interesting magical objects and potions and a strange friendliness, this place is filled with sharp swords and shields and defensive anger.

(It reminds him of the cave)

The blacksmith doesn’t help. She’s clearly a stern, no-nonsense person, with a hard glint in her eyes that unnerves him. Almost immediately he finds himself intimidated, feeling small and insignificant beneath her gaze. 

(She scares him)

For a moment, he contemplates leaving. But the broken knife in his cape pocket seems to burn there, scorching through his clothes, and instead he walks, slowly, hesitantly, towards the counter.

“Welcome,” she says, as he approaches. Her tone isn’t hostile, but it’s not overly friendly, either. “If you like sharp things, you’ve come to the right place. We have over twenty-three knives and swords from any part of the world you can name, and then some.”

...Well, that’s a bold claim to make. One he’s not courageous enough to challenge.

“Uh,” he starts, unintelligently. He clears his throat. “I’m actually here for repairing a weapon?”

“...Oh?” she seems surprised. “Hand it over, I’ll see what I can do.”

He’s quick to do so, placing the broken remnants of the dagger on the countertop. She raises an eyebrow at his bandaged hands but doesn’t comment, instead focusing her attention on the weapon, picking up the blade and handle and examining them closely.

Her surprise seems to grow. “Hmm...this was good craftmanship. Goblin-made, I’ll reckon. Didn’t know they sold stuff like this to us humans.” She flips the handle over, and her eyes widen briefly, shock flickering in her eyes. 

“...What’s wrong?” he asks. Father always claimed that his curiosity would be the death of him, but Luthain can’t resist the urge to ask.

“You really don’t know?” She seems disbelieving, something like suspicion in her face. “Hm. Well, then I’m probably wrong. Don’t worry about it.”

Liar. She knows she’s right about her assumptions, whatever they were. And the thought leaves a nasty taste in Luthain’s mouth. He’s not used to people deliberately trying to mislead him.

At least Muriel, while cryptic, was honest.

“Well,” she continues, “unfortunately, you’ve broken this blade clear through. I can’t reassemble it - it’ll be too weak afterwards. I’d have to melt down the whole dagger and reforge it.” She gives him a knowing glance. “And I doubt you have the coin for that.”

“...Oh.”

She’s right - he likely doesn’t. It would certainly be more expensive than buying one of the already-made weapons, and he can’t afford even that.

“However.”

A glimmer of hope on the horizon.

“I’ll be honest with you - it’s rare I get to work with this kind of material. Goblin steel is stronger than what we humans can make, and I think I could turn this into a formidable blade. I’d be grateful if you would give this to me.”

...Sure? Not like he can use it, anyways. He tries to say yes but she cuts him off before he can speak.

“In return, I’d be willing to give you…” she glances around the workshop, considering, before her eyes fall on a vicious-looking weapon hanging off of a hook on the wall, looking suspiciously similar to a particularly thorny scythe. “My gardening tool.”

Luthain isn’t sure he heard correctly. He’s seen the thing, and is pretty sure it could poke out his eye if he sneezed at it. “Your what?”

“My gardening tool. I use it to trim my hedges,” she says, as if it were a perfectly normal thing, to use such a lethal-looking object for something as mundane as hedge trimming. “Seeing as my place is all tended to, and my petunias are most lovely, I’d be willing to part with it in exchange for the remains of your knife...I’m not sure what you’d use it for, mind you, but I’m sure you’ll find a prickly situation that needs attending.”

...People in Daventry are so odd. 

Still, he hesitantly accepts it as she places the monstrous hedge trimmer in his hands. It feels heavy in his grasp and it’s bulky and inconvenient and it’s the most inefficient tool for trimming hedges he’s ever seen, and he wonders briefly how he’s going to carry it, how he’s going to hide it from Father. A moment later he stops that train of thought - hiding things from Father never ended well. 

But. A part of him, a childishly stubborn part, wants to keep the trimmer. He’s paid for it, after all, with the remains of his dagger. And in any case, it appeals to him, its eccentricity kind of intriguing.

Surely Father wouldn’t mind terribly much if he kept it, and there wasn’t any need to annoy him with such a trivial matter. Besides, who knows when he might need the ridiculous thing.

“...Thank you,” he says, already plotting how he’ll conceal the trimmer. He has several half-ideas, but nothing truly concrete. He’d need to plan this very, very carefully - Father has a knack for figuring out the things Luthain would prefer to keep hidden.

( Stars, what on Earth is he doing, this is a horrible idea- )

Movements clumsy and awkward, he gently places the scythe to one side, leaning it against the wall. With it out of the way, he starts examining the weapons displayed on the wall. He still needs a replacement for his broken weapon, after all, and he doubts Father will accept a hedge trimmer as a replacement.

His gaze falls on a minimalistic dagger, with a blue-grey handle and a fine blade. "How much for the blue dagger?"

The blacksmith names a hefty price, and Luthain swallows nervously, before pointing at another dagger. "Uh, and how much for the silver one?" 

The blacksmith names a second, higher price.

Stars.

Half-frantic, he scans the remaining ones, and doesn't even bother to ask for the prices. The blue and silver ones were the only ones more simplistic - the rest are ornate and ostentatious and definitely far, far outside his extremely limited price range.

He's about to excuse himself and leave, tail between his legs, when his gaze falls by chance on what seems to be a rough, unfinished knife, twisted in shape. Perhaps it would be cheaper, considering that it's unfinished?

"How much for that twisty dagger over there?"

“It’s not for sale. Needs a bit more work.”

“...Are you sure?”

“I make it a point not to sell half-finished weapons,” she replies, in a tone that shows she will not be persuaded. “That’s asking for an injury.”

"Oh," he says, disappointed. With one last glance at the dagger, he steps away. "Then...I suppose I'll be going."

"Have a good day," says the blacksmith. Luthain nods stiffly, feeling a little bad for not giving her any actual business. But that feeling is overshadowed rapidly by a host of anxieties and worries of his own. If he doesn’t find a new knife by tonight...

One thing at a time. First of all: the trimmer.

He eyes the thing warily, unsure how to hide it. Of course, he could just carry it...but if Father saw…

On the other hand, he can’t transform it into something else. He doesn’t have the skills. The best he can do is some sort of feeble illusionary magic, and even then, he couldn’t hold such a spell for long -

...The ley lines.

He noticed them when he first entered the town and felt them bubbling beneath his feet, noticed that they tended to confuse and mislead those who entered Daventry, making it difficult to navigate the town and its surroundings with any kind of surety. He never had the time to investigate them fully, but perhaps he could use them, twist a small corner of the massive magical structure to his purposes. And their effect reached deep into the forest - if he could make an illusion last long enough, he could hide the trimmer there undetected.

Resolute, he summons a wisp of blue-green mana and begins shaping it to his purposes, weaving it into a spell designed to disguise the trimmer as a small trinket. It’s not a particularly complicated spell - many beginning mages could perform it with relative ease, as Father likes to point out - but he still finds himself struggling greatly, the strands of magic fraying and tangling and twisting out of shape, despite his best attempts to keep them organized and neat. 

Still, it does the job. The trimmer seems to warp and shrink until it takes on the appearance of a small, oval stone, that would fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. It's far from perfect - if you gave it more than a cursory glance, you would see how the illusion seems to boil and churn at the edges, as restless as the wind. 

But it's the best Luthain can accomplish, and it would have to do. 

He tests the weight of it in his hand. It’s just as heavy as before, and under his fingers, he can feel the outline of the trimmer’s handle. It’s an illusion, after all, not a true stone, and he’ll have to be careful in how he carries it.

Cautiously, he lifts the trimmer, arranging it so it’s balanced in his grip.

And he pauses.

Because the blacksmith is staring at him, surprise, shock, and intent concern in her gaze, all three mingling into a frightening mess. Automatically, he casts his mind back, wondering if he’s somehow done something wrong -

...Wait. No, she’s not looking at him .

She’s looking at his hands.

He follows her gaze, and notices with sickening understanding that his bandages are staining with large amounts of fresh blood, the white melting rapidly into deep, deep red. For several long moments he’s transfixed, trapped in a haze of morbid fascination, as he watches the blood spread and spread and spread until it begins to pool at his fingertips, thick crimson drops falling with gentle plips onto the wooden floor.

Then the blacksmith makes a choked sort of sound, and he snaps out of his trance, scrambling back as his mind abruptly rebels. For some reason, he finds himself frightened at the thought of her, of anyone finding out just how much of a mess he is. This...this is always something he kept to himself. To share it with someone…

And of course she’s going to ask questions. People like her, pragmatic and stubborn, always asked far too many questions and never kept their nose out of other’s business. And then, after she gets what she wants, she’ll gossip, because of course she’s going to gossip, everyone gossips in a town as small as this-

(A part of him notes hazily that he’s breathing far too quickly)

“I-I have to go,” he stutters, unnecessarily, his words cluttering and mangling like shards of breaking glass. He thinks he hears her begin to protest, but he doesn't stop to listen, already pushing the door open and making his way out of the shop, the trimmer cradled in his grasp.

" Wait-"

The door slams shut, cutting off her words. Luthain doesn't pause, making a rapid beeline for the gate that led into the forest, heart beating madly in his throat all the while.

(His heart rate doesn't calm until he's deep inside the forest, and even then he feels frayed at the edges, shaky and nervous as if his soul were shivering in his chest)

[his fingers are still bleeding]

 

Chapter Text

Despite his best efforts, the illusion breaks down while he’s in the forest, decomposing into scattered wisps of mana that fade into nothingness like flickers of blue-green smoke, the image of the stone melting into wood and metal and thorns. He watches them vanish with a sort of weary disappointment - he expected no better, experience having taught him that his spells are weak and incapable of enduring, and yet the taste of failure is as bitter as ever.

The knot of anxiety in his chest has loosened since the Incident, but only somewhat. In hindsight, he probably overreacted. He shouldn’t have fled in such a panicked manner, as if there were packs of wolves at his heels. It was just a little blood, nothing more. He could easily have lied if she’d asked too many questions. 

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The blacksmith must think him a coward. Or worse, mad. She’ll probably gossip as well, come to think of it, and that would come with its own painful set of repercussions.

Lost in his thoughts, Luthain stumbles over stones and branches, wandering deeper into the forest. If he weren’t so depressed, he’d be enthralled by its beauty, by the white birch trees sprinkled heavily with red and orange and yellow as if their leaves were splattered with paint. Perhaps he’s slightly biased, having spent most of his life in a cave…but Daventry is one of the most beautiful places he’s ever seen, and he thinks he’ll never get tired of it.

But now, his mood is like a dark fog hovering between himself and the outside world, blocking and dulling everything around him, until it feels like his surroundings are soaked in grey.

Sighing glumly, he fidgets with the trimmer in his grasp, switching it from one hand to the other nervously. He’s forced to stop a second later, the motion causing pain to spike in his fingertips like tiny blades of fire, and there’s a flash of surprise before he realizes with dull resignation that the force of weaving the illusion has significantly worsened his injuries. By now, the bandages are heavily stained with red, only small spots of the original white remaining, and in places they’ve unraveled, exposing the mess of torn flesh beneath. 

(there are bloodstains on the trimmer, thick swathes of red, as if some overenthusiastic artist had swept paint over it with excessive generosity)

He should…probably change the bandages. He might still have spare ones in some pocket or other - he’s made a habit of carrying them.

But first, to conceal the trimmer. And for that, he needs to find a ley line. 

One step at a time.

~=~

He stumbles across one eventually. That’s where his good fortune ends.

Because the line is nestled on the outskirts of a dark, menacing part of the forest that practically oozes a vicious, sharp magic. This close to it, breathing is painful, as if he were inhaling rusty chips of iron that bite at the insides of his throat and lungs; and the air feels gritty and harsh on his skin, like it’s polluted with miniscule flecks of jagged glass. 

It’s awful, and he can barely bring himself to remain in its presence. The urge to turn tail and flee is almost overwhelming - he feels like a rabbit staring up at a ravenous wolf, like the forest will lash out at him with something sharp and violent and rip him to small, bloody shreds. 

Stop it. You’re being ridiculous. It’s a spell, nothing more.

An ancient, dusty spell, flaking at the edges like old yellowed paper, but it’s powerful enough to have maintained a tenacious hold on this piece of forest for a long, long time. The rays of the sun seem to markedly avoid the dark patch, not a single stray morsel of light cutting through the swathes of darkness that drown the forest.

…even the trees seem menacing, hollow mockeries of what should be cheery, welcoming birch trees. 

As shameful as it may be, he is afraid. A senseless, primal fear. He wants to leave. 

But, as much as the haze of violent, grimy magic drives him away, pushing him to leave as quickly as possible…something just as powerful inches into his consciousness and compels him to stay. 

The ley line.

He can sense the spells woven into it, spells of deceit and concealment and confusion, can almost visualize them drawing energy from the ley line. Waiting to be twisted to his use. He just needs to pull and tug and weave in the right places, and the job will be done.

But…even more so, he can feel the line’s own magic vibrating under the ground, like the thrumming of some great pulse, enticing and alluring.

It’s…indescribable. Being so close to the line, to the point where he can almost taste the magic pouring off of it, is something that sets his skin a-tingling, raising goosebumps on his arms despite the relatively mild temperatures. He can feel shivers crawling up and down his spine with the force of it, and a strange thrill vibrating in his heart, his mana flaring to the surface in reaction and setting his fingers bleeding anew.

(But the pain seems meaningless)

And, despite his fear, he just can’t turn away.

The line seems to positively boil with power: a rich and heady sensation that makes him giddy. He can…he can feel the magic wafting off of it, a thick mist of magical static, almost maddening in its intensity. It draws him towards itself like a fisherman reeling in his line, beckoning him with calm insistence. Offering him magic and mana, as much as he could ask for and more. 

The urge to tap into it…

No…

That’s…that’s a bad idea, isn’t it?

Unconsciously - an old nervous tic - his free hand snatches at the blue cloth of his cloak, fingers winding into the fabric in a futile attempt to ground himself, leaving small dark smudges of blood behind. He doesn’t…where did this even come from? He knows how much of a horrible idea it is. Knows how dangerous ley lines really are. 

(In theory, they may seem relatively innocuous, nothing more than a small stream of pure mana that flows beneath the earth’s surface. Like veins of precious metal buried in worthless stone. No strings attached, it seems.

But the problem with ley lines is that they are simply far too strong. To tap into one is to unleash a tidal wave of raw magical power. He’s heard stories of people burning themselves to ashes, or melting their own bones, or frying their brains trying to harness ley magic. 

The sheer amount of power they possess…it’s no wonder that people have died trying to tap into them, succumbing to the resulting overload of mana that they unwittingly summoned. Only experienced mages dared to tap directly into one, and Luthain is far from experienced: the scars on his hands are more than enough to prove it.)

No. This is a terrible idea. He knows that. 

So then why…

Why does he want it so badly?

~=~

He can’t move.

It sounds ridiculous when he puts it that way. Physically, nothing stops him from moving. He’s not restrained, or injured, or paralyzed by some potion or spell. Movement should be as simple and fluid as ever.

But it’s almost as if something has severed an important part of his brain, the part that sends commands to his muscles, and despite the utterly illogical aspect of it all, the fact remains that he can’t move. His mind will not allow him.

He can’t explain it. He can’t even really describe it, except as a collection of differing forces acting upon him, pulling him in several directions. So that the net result is that he stands, frozen in some delicate balance, feeling as if he were about to be torn apart. Waiting for some imbalance that would free him from this nebulous state of indecision. Like a coin balanced carefully on its edge, so precariously placed that even a breeze would be enough to tip it to one side or the other.

It’s like…it’s like his mind is clouded and muddled, like he’s wading through a dense fog with no way of knowing where he’s headed. Everything feels dull and obscured and so so wrong. And the longer he stands still the harder it is to make sense of anything, and the more trapped he feels, and the more panicked he gets, and the more his thoughts muddle, and the more trapped he feels, and, and, and, and, and–

Stop.

Think

He…he can’t stay like this. He has to do something, even if it’s as simple as moving a step forward or backward. But he can’t remain paralyzed in this haze, he can’t, he can’t he can’t he can’t he can’t he can’t

Heart pounding harshly in his chest, mind racing with all the furor and rage of a lungta, he moves, numbly, almost without any conscious control. He can’t think about consequences or repercussions, can’t think about the implications of the action. He can only step forward in an attempt to pull free of this fog.

(He can’t feel the impact of his steps against the soil, like he’s hovering instead of walking, like his feet are made of cotton and string instead of flesh)

And the coin tips.

~=~

Once he starts, it feels almost impossible to stop. Like that one step pushed him into unstoppable momentum. His thoughts are crystalizing, settling into a rigid, sensible pattern that spirals outwards from some gleaming, flawless center. The path in front of him, the decision he should make, it all seems so clear, so perfect, so simple. It makes so much sense, to the point where he wonders why he ever doubted at all

Because at the heart of it all, he wants that power. Wants it more than anything else in the world. More than air or water or a steady heartbeat. The need for the ley line’s magic is almost suffocating in its intensity.

It would frighten him just how much he wants it, if it weren’t so thrilling as well. 

And it would be all too easy to get what he wants.

In spite of himself, he takes a step forward. And another. And another, and another, and another, his original purpose forgotten as he walks with a slow, stuttering gait. The world blurs around him, drifting out of focus as if there were tears in his eyes, quivering and wobbling. But there’s no burning in his eyes or trembling in his breathing, and when he lifts a hand to brush away the tears, he finds that he isn’t crying at all.

[there’s something deeply wrong in all this, like he’s forgetting something that’s horribly important, but he can’t figure out what, the thought dissolving and slipping away from him like a mist between his fingers.

And the niggling at the back of his mind, the vague premonition of danger, feels very, very far away…surely it’s not that important, surely he’s just being paranoid…]

In the corners of his vision, the shadows seem to churn restlessly, twisting themselves into fantastical shapes, filled with teeth and fur and snarls. But he barely notices them - or maybe he does and simply doesn’t care - for he’s enthralled by the song of the ley line, giddy with the sensation, as if he were intoxicated by the wisps of magic emanating from it. It’s like a soothing balm to his soul, like a caress to his wounded heart, a promise to take away his pains and cares and sorrows and give him something beautiful and wild and sharp in their stead. 

It leads him on, as if it were a spirit taking him by the hand, luring him ever onwards inch by inch by inch. Before he knows it, he’s standing directly above it, the sudden darkness of his surroundings forgotten, the feeble, faraway sound of growling melting into blank static in his brain.

(He realizes with dull surprise that the trimmer is no longer in his hand, probably lying somewhere behind him. He might have dropped it, he isn’t sure. He doesn’t remember doing so; he doesn’t much care)

All he needs to do is to tap into the soil. Break the ground, open a fissure to the vein of magic beneath, and pull. As if he were removing the cotton stuffing from a children’s toy. 

It would be so laughably simple.

Headless of his bloodstained hands, he summons a flare of blue-green mana. He doesn’t even need to shape it for such a simple purpose as this. No need for spells when he could simply crack open the soil with a well-placed hit.

(It’s child’s play)

He braces himself, allowing magic to build under his skin, calculating just where he should strike. The magic from the line feels especially strong near the roots of one of the trees, and it’s that spot he chooses, lost as he is in carefully precise madness.

(Another moment, and he’ll have what he wants. He’ll be free)

Once he judges the magic to be strong enough, to the point where it seems to spark and writhe and snarl, he takes a deep breath, closing his eyes as he raises his hands in front of himself.

Just one blow and-

“…Grouuuu.”

~=~

His eyes snap open as he is jarred out of his trance-like state, the menacing, all-too-close growl cutting through some of the fugue, prodding at some instinctive impulse that demands his attention. He feels confused, disoriented, the world tilted on its axis and blurred out of focus, his thoughts spiralling like a spool of thread unravelling.

He tries to trace the growl, but all he sees are misshapen shadows and glowing pinpricks of yellow light. Nothing that truly concerns him. 

…No, wait.

The image seems to warp, change, condense, the longer he looks at it, shadows solidifying into substance and form. Almost as if his eyes were adjusting to the lack of light.

(But his eyes are sensitive, a subdued part of him notes, years of living in the caves giving him an uncanny talent for seeing clearly in the darkness. He shouldn’t be making these kinds of mistakes…)

Slowly, the shadowy creature - the source of the growl - seems to melt into a lanky, spindly creature, one he’s never seen before, but it’s reminiscent of a timber wolf, if of smaller, lighter build, made up mostly of limbs and fierce antagonism. Its fur is a solid dark grey hue rather than mixed patches of grey and white, with a thick ruff around its neck and shoulders and tiny, almost invisible ears above small yellow eyes. It gives him pause, mana hovering around him like a blue-green aura, as he stares, dumbfounded, at this creature.

The wolf glares back: teeth bared, lips curling, partially hunched as it growls a stern warning. It takes a stumbling step towards him, growling all the while, and he notices - in a detached, distant manner - that there’s something wrong in how it carries itself. As it limps partially out of the shadows, he sees that its front leg is twisted, the limb bending awkwardly as if the bone were brutally snapped - likely the source of its aggression.  

The animal staggers, trying its best to keep its injured leg off the ground. The growling rises in pitch and intensity with every second that Luthain remains still, the wolf clearly wanting nothing more than for him to go away, immediately.

It would be wise to comply, he thinks. No sense in seeking trouble for trouble’s sake. But it’s a distant, shallow thought that is as insubstantial as air, and he can’t seem to push himself to act on it. His mind is still addled by the ley line’s influence, and the world feels oddly distant and far away.

And before he can come to his senses, a second wolf enters the scene. 

Snarling, its hackles raised, it jumps out of the shadows, rage and aggression boiling off of it. The reasons behind its belligerence shortly become clear: in a telling sign, it darts in front of the injured wolf, positioning itself like a shield, teeth bared in a warning for Luthain to stay away. It’s an intimidating force, bigger and more heavily built than its companion - probably the wounded one’s mate, if he had to guess. It’s also far more hostile, clearly determined to protect its mate at any cost, waiting for one wrong move from Luthain to give it a reason to strike. 

The larger wolf snarls, slowly advancing upon him. Reflexively, Luthain takes a step back. And that proves to be his undoing.

In the blink of an eye, like a tightly-coiling spring that’s abruptly released, the wolf gathers its hind legs underneath itself…

And leaps.

~=~

The rest goes by in a blur of blood and magic. 

As the wolf lunges for his neck, Luthain instinctively raises his right arm, flinging it across his throat to protect it. The wolf crashes into his chest with the force of a furry cannon ball, eighty pounds of bone and muscle, its teeth snapping for his jugular and instead sinking into the flesh of his forearm.

Had he been prepared, he might have stood his ground. But the surprise and pain - as well as the lingering confusion from the ley line’s aura - takes him utterly aback, and he falls backwards, his head slamming against a rock. Stars explode in his vision, pain pounding in his head, but it’s swiftly overshadowed by the feeling of the wolf’s teeth digging further into the flesh. It’s adjusting its hold on his arm, seeking better purchase, tearing into the skin with every shift of its jaws and drawing copious amounts of blood.

The pain is a consuming thing, half-drowned-out by the adrenaline pulsing in his heart. In a desperate move to save himself, magic flares from his hands almost without his conscious input. 

“Get off me!”

(He has no spell in mind, no strategy, only a panicked fear and the desire to get it away, get it away, get it away now now now now NOW)

The magic…it’s difficult to describe, uncontrolled and wild as it is. Like blazing fire and cold steel blades, that lash out at the wolf, paying back its viciousness tenfold. He’s blinded by the blue-green flash of mana, pain flaring in his sensitive eyes, and he hears a snarl, followed by a muffled thud and a medley of pained whines and whimpers.

And then nothing, for several long moments.

Blinking rapidly in an attempt to clear his vision, and still shaky with adrenaline, Luthain slowly sits up, taking care to prop himself solely on his uninjured arm. Chest heaving with fearful breaths, he squints past the dark spots in his sight, a remnant of the bright glare of the mana, that left an imprint etched in his sight as if it were burned there. It takes a long, nerve-wracking time for the spots to fade, during which his heart pounds madly, and when they do he sees that there are no wolves among the shadowed trees. Just blessedly empty space and telltale smears of dark blood on the ground.

It’s gone. It’s gone. You’re alright, you’re alive. It’s gone.

He sags, almost beside himself with relief. His heart is still fluttering madly in his chest, and he’s shaking as if with exhaustion, every muscle trembling. The urge to cry, sudden and inexplicable and profoundly unwelcome, is almost overwhelming. With an effort, he suppresses it.

It’s alright. He’s alive. 

Thank the stars.

He closes his eyes, tries to control his breathing.

(He’s safe, for now)

~=~

Slowly, bit by bit, the adrenaline fades, draining from his system with every calming breath. And, with its departure, a host of pains begin to make themselves felt.

Ow.

The arm is the worst of it by far, the pain burning relentlessly, the phantom pressure of the wolf’s jaws remaining as if it were still digging its teeth into his skin. He can feel the wound throbbing angrily in time with his heart, the warm blood coursing down his arm. When he opens his eyes to steal a glance at the wound, the sight of the teeth-marks etched in his flesh - half-concealed under rivulets of blood and the torn remnants of his white shirt sleeve - sparks nausea in his throat, and he quickly looks away, his breathing on the wrong side of panicked.

(He’s used to the sight of his own blood, having seen his hands and fingers oozing blood more times than he cared to count, but he’s never seen his own skin quite so mangled. It almost feels unreal, as if this arm can’t be his, can’t possibly be a part of himself)

With sloppy, uncoordinated movements, he grabs at a fold of his blue cloak and presses it against the injury, trying to stem the flow of blood. The pain spikes when he does so, rising to almost unbearable heights, and he has to force himself to cling to whatever remnants of self-control he possesses. 

He can’t fall apart now, can’t allow himself to lose his head, because there’s no one around to help him. He has to get out of here, has to leave the dark area before something else decides to attack him, and then he has to stop the bleeding. Every second spent panicking is a second of lost time.

With an effort, he forces himself to his feet. The edges of his vision go dark for several seconds, and he feels drained and dizzy and more than a little nauseous. Whether it’s due to the blood loss or to the head injury or some unholy combination of both, he isn’t sure, nor does he much care.

(He tries closing his eyes, tries shutting out the outside world, but it doesn’t get better) 

He adjusts his grip on his wounded arm, putting more pressure on the wound, blood smearing into the blue fabric and littering it with dark, purplish stains.

(He ignores the memory that resurfaces, the displeased snap of Father’s voice telling him to ‘be more careful, Luthain, that cloak wasn’t cheap, you know’)

He catches sight of his hands as he does so, and for the first time he notices just how badly the scars on his hands are torn open, how much that the magic that he used took a toll on them. It’s gotten to the point where the wounds reach his wrists, a spiderweb of gashes that drip blood with steady persistence. The bandages have almost completely unfurled, so soaked that they no longer stay in place, instead trailing uselessly, limp and bedraggled.

He hasn’t seen them so bad since… since… 

Don’t think about it.

He doesn’t.

Instead, with increasingly unsteady movements - his head spinning and the nausea mounting with every minute - he pushes on, intent on leaving the dark area behind. 

(He won’t notice until much later that he left the trimmer behind, lying amongst the black, crumbled leaves that litter the forest floor)

Chapter Text

The wolf didn’t bite too deeply: Luthain was able to push it away before it could tear into his muscles, tendons, bones. But its teeth must still have severed something fairly important, because dark blood is pouring at a steady, dripping pace, and it shows little signs of stopping.

The pressure he’s applying to the wound is helping, somewhat, but not enough. His cloak is already damp and warm with blood, stained with ever-growing patches of dark purplish-red. The flow of blood isn't particularly rapid, but it's persistent , and he can’t make it stop, he can’t fix it, he doesn’t know how, and quite frankly he’s more than a little terrified.

(He's not a healer, far from it, and he's fully aware of the fact. He's never shown any kind of affinity towards healing magic - he was always too high-strung, too nervous. Such magic required the user to channel an aura of calm, of soothing; without it, spells were useless and potions were inert. And Luthain could perform it - with adequate preparation, of course - but it was too inconvenient for him to practice regularly, and before long it became just another unsuitable field of knowledge that he had to abandon.

As a result, his knowledge of the subject is limited to the bandages and mana-laced tinctures he uses for his scars, and anything outside that narrow scope is foreign and frightening territory. He has no idea what to do, how to heal himself; all he knows for sure is that this amount of blood loss is very much not good )

Hands shaking, he adjusts the pressure, wincing as pain spikes in the gashes. He's breathing a touch too heavily, the fear oppressive and thick, like he's inhaling mud. For a moment he rests, leaning against a nearby tree, trying to catch his breath. He’s startled when he realizes that he’s smeared blood into the white trunk, the sight of the dark red smudges more than disconcerting.

But he’s still trying to be rational, he can still think relatively clearly, and though his immediate reaction is to panic, he pushes it down in favor of making a plan, trying to organize his messy flailing thoughts into something resembling coherency.

There's a thought that rings in his brain like a church bell swinging violently to and fro - FIND HELP, it shrieks with the strength of a banshee - and it drowns out almost everything else with remarkable ease. It's overpowering. It's insistent. It’s making a variety of excellent points, and he wants to give in and yield to its (unfairly) persuasive arguments.

But in this forsaken place, he's alone and isolated. And that raises the question of where to find help...an issue that’s far more difficult to resolve.

If he were an idiot, he could just wander into the village and hope for the best. Maybe he could scavenge something from one of the shops. The woman - Anne? Annie? The owner of that apothecary - had healing potions. He still remembers the ornate bottles of clear green liquid, arranged in strict rows. He’s not entirely sure how they work, admittedly - his knowledge of potions is middling at best - but the name seems self-evident, and well-suited to his purpose. It would be risky and stupid, but it would get the job done.

Or, if he were even more of a moron, he could go to Father for help, and endure the inevitable questions and suspicions and accusations that passed for Father’s concern and worry. He could lie and evade questions and overall behave like a despicable human being, which, while unpleasant, would be preferable to telling the truth. Father was strict in his instructions, and if he found out about Luthain's little 'detour'...well. The consequences would be dire.

All in all, the village seems a better option.

But some small corners of his brain, the parts that are tainted with fear and suspicion and far too much paranoia, are mewling in a half-hearted but nonetheless urgent manner. This is a terrible idea, they say. Strangers can't be trusted, they murmur. And, of course, the biggest concern of all: what if Father finds out?

He must look a terrible sight, soaked in blood and sweat and fear. He'll attract attention for sure if he enters the village the way he looks now. And attention means gossip, and gossip means higher chances of word going back to Father, and, and, and…

(It's not that Luthain is scared of Father. Of course not. He just doesn't want to go through the questions and the suspicion and the anger and the yelling. But that doesn't mean he's scared. That would be ridiculous)

[After all, what kind of child is scared of their own Father?]

As terrifying as the thought of seeking any form of help is, however, the thought of staying out here, with naught but the wolves and the badgers and the wounds in his arm for company, is even more so. The more he thinks about the alternatives, the less he's convinced that there even are any, and the louder the church bell rings. It's a cacophony, so loud it gives him a headache. And maybe it's the confusion and the bloodloss and the fear that are talking, but yielding feels like the only possible decision. 

He pushes away from the tree, his movements stuttering as he wobbles, taken aback by the resulting surge of pain and dizziness. He will...he will go into the village, and he will find something to help. That is his plan, his decision. It's almost a relief - it would be a relief, if it weren't for the fear still gnawing at him.

(Maybe if he kept to the shadows and made himself scarce, he could avoid any prying eyes. Maybe he could simply steal any materials he needed. Maybe he didn't even need to show his face at all-

...Oh, who is he kidding.)

~=~

By the time he reaches the village, standing in front of its back door, he's feeling...significantly worse. The exertion, coupled with his poor attempts at stemming the bleeding, has led to a frightening loss of blood and an even more frightening deterioration in his physical state. He's woozy, lightheaded, nauseous; his heart thrums with shallow rapid beats, and he feels like he's drowning. No amount of panting can alleviate the sensation of suffocation, the feeling that his breaths are too short, too weak, that he can't get enough air into his lungs.

He's worried, of course. Any sane person would be. But there's little he can do, so for now he ignores it in favor of more pressing matters.

The door doesn't budge an inch when he tries to pry it open, bloodied fingers scrabbling against the wood, and after a moment of confusion he realizes that it's still firmly shut and bolted. Just the way he left it, wary as he was of the deep claw marks etched in the surface of the door. He still remembers the decisive thunk of the door bar falling shut behind him.

It's a paranoid, foolish precaution that he curses himself for indulging in now. 

Tired and dizzy, he scans the wall, seeking a solution. There are some ledges near the top which he could climb...but no. If he weren’t a mess, he might have been able to, but not with his arm in its current state, not with his hands still raw and weeping blood. 

( You're astoundingly useless. The thought flickers in his head, snarling at the back of his mind, and he tries not to flinch and fails only a little)

No, climbing would be foolhardy. He needs another method, one more within his capabilities. 

Unfortunately, his options in that regard are limited.

...He really, really, really doesn't want to use more magic if he can help it. Because it'll hurt and the scars will be worse and although he should be used to it by now, the sensation of his flesh splitting open at the seams is always horrible unpleasant. But the more he examines the door, the less he sees any other options.

(It's exhaustion more than anything else that stops him from kicking the door out of frustration)

Sighing in defeat, he summons a wisp of blue-green mana. The spike of pain is a sudden and disconcerting thing, as if the tiny bones of his hands were being slowly pulled out through his fingertips, as if his nerves were being scraped with sandpaper. He grits his teeth and endures, forcing the magic to do his bidding, and the mana squeezes through the gap between the door and the frame, like a phantom limb.

Pain is not conducive to precision, and the fact that he can’t see what he’s doing doesn’t help. It takes several minutes before he’s able to ‘grip’ the bar with his magic, and two failed attempts before he manages to push it up, the squeaking of the moving hinge grating on his ears. But it’s worth it: relief washes over him when he pushes the door and feels it yield under the pressure, swinging inwards with gentle creaking sounds. He’d grin if he weren’t so tired.

He thinks he might remember where to go, if he concentrated hard enough and forced down the nausea and the vertigo. In any case, the village isn’t particularly large, and even with the ley lines befuddling his sense of direction, he should be able to find the apothecary. Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.

Well. No sense in wasting time. Best to get a move on.

The door thunks shut behind him as he limps into the village.

~=~

This was a terrible idea.

He's deteriorating. Rapidly. He can't think straight - everything is foggy and indistinct, like he's in a dream, or possibly drugged. The physical sensations - pain, nausea, dizziness - all feel so very far away. Like there's a heavy curtain hanging between his mind and his body, or rather like he's drifting out of his own body, wandering off into the ether.

The sharpest sensations are the cold and the suffocation. The cold, that bites into his skin and drains all the warmth, the life away. The suffocation, that has him gasping and wheezing and choking for the air that always feels like too little, no matter how deeply or quickly he breathes.

It's so difficult to think. Every time he tries to get a grasp on his thoughts, they seem to slip away like grains of sand between his fingers. And he does try, he tries so hard, but he can't, he can't…

There's blood, blood everywhere, blood on his hands and his sleeves and splattered on his cloak in thick smudges and trailing on the ground in wandering smears. He should probably be more worried about that than he is, but all he can muster in that regard is a vague, troubled feeling: the type you get when you notice the overcast sky that tells of rain to come, or when you misplace something of semi-importance and have to go looking for it. A trivial, oh dear, isn’t that inconvenient kind of concern. 

He's not sure where he's going anymore. All the streets are blurring. His world consists of endless stretches of cobblestone street flanked by ramshackle houses (and blood, of course, but that's a separate issue). He's stopped trying to make sense of it.

(And he's tired, so tired, all he wants is to lie down and rest, but he can't, he won't, because if he sleeps he's not sure he'll wake up again)

[And maybe he's just being silly, paranoid, but all the same, he's not going to stop and rest until he finds what he needs]

~=~

Of course, at some point, the choice stops being entirely his.

It happens as he’s stumbling down one of the featureless narrow streets, tripping and staggering with all the natural grace of a newborn colt. When his world abruptly begins to tilt and spin, his surroundings fragmenting into disjointed chaos, melting into bright white spots floating over blurred images. A crushing sensation of vertigo has him reeling, careening into a nearby wall. His muscles feel like water and he realizes with a numb jolt that he’s falling, slowly but surely, his legs refusing to bear his weight.

He reaches out blindly for something, anything to stop his fall. He doesn’t find it. Instead, he slides down into a pathetic heap on the ground; leaving a wide smear of blood in his wake, like a stripe of crimson paint splattered haphazardly on the wall. He registers pain as the movement jars his wounded arm. More pain, as he slams roughly into the unforgiving cobblestones. Going down, down, down until he's lying prone on the ground, with precious little grace.

(He feels like he’s sinking into the ground.)

For a little while, he does nothing except lie there, nearly insensate. Lying down is a relief, a comfort; infinitely better than tottering along winding streets. But he feels weak, and shaky, and exhausted, so much so that the desire to sleep is nearly overwhelming.

Maybe...just for a few minutes…

No. No wait.

He’s not supposed to sleep. He’s supposed to be doing something. Something important. More important than sleep.

He shouldn’t be here.

Dazed, he props himself on his arms, trying to struggle to his feet, trying to force his limbs to function. But, now that he's no longer walking numbly, carried forwards by lingering momentum and a perverse stubbornness, returning to that state seems an insurmountable task. His body is flat out refusing to listen to his orders.

His elbows give out, and he collapses onto his side, the hard edges of the street digging into his ribs. His blurred vision slowly comes back into a broken focus, shuttering and flickering like candlelight. With feeble surprise he notices that there’s blood on the cobblestones, a significant amount. Too much. It’s oozing between the stones like little dark rivers, pooling into the cracks and crevices. If he brushes his hand against the stones it leaves a broad sweep of red like the swipe of some grisly paintbrush. 

Toomuchtoomuchtoomuch.

He has to get up. He knows as much. But it’s like everything was held together by a frail, tattered string and now it’s unraveling and he can’t push it back into place. And it’s stupid, so so stupid, he was able to walk a moment ago and there’s no reason for this, but no amount of denial can change the fact that he can’t force himself back upright. His limbs are heavy and slow like he’s submerged in molasses, fighting the pressure that confines him.

(like he’s in one of those nightmares where you try to run, you have to run, but your legs refuse to obey and all you can manage is a slow, weak, shuffling shamble)

The world is slipping out of focus once again, a frightening darkness gathering at the corners of his vision, and it feels like a struggle just to drag air into his burning lungs, and he’s drifting further and further and further away and he still can’t move. All he can do is scrabble weakly at the cobblestones, smearing more blood into the stones.

At some point, a thought flickers in his mind, sharp and cutting - maybe I’m dying - and it takes but a spasm and a wave of dizziness for the word maybe to melt away. The thought should be more frightening than it is. Perhaps it would be, if he were in full possession of his senses. Perhaps he would be panicking, struggling tooth and nail, snarling like a trapped creature.

(He's always been scared of death)

But Luthain just feels terribly, terribly calm. Disconnected. He watches through half-shut eyes as blood trickles down his mangled fingers, and all he feels is numb. Numb, and cold, and short of breath, and so tired he can barely keep his eyes open.

He almost doesn't notice when his eyes slip shut. And when he does, he's too dazed to really care. He’s sliding down a steepening slope into unconsciousness - one that he knows he’ll never wake from, but that he can't convince himself to try to fight. 

(It doesn't hurt anymore)

[...It should hurt, shouldn't it?]

~=~

The sound is distorted when it reaches his ears - warped and muffled, as if his head were stuck underwater. It echoes and reverberates in his skull, scrambling whatever shallow thoughts he still possesses, and due to this, it takes him too many minutes to recognize the sound.

Footsteps.

The realization chimes half-heartedly in his brain; the word footsteps drifts feebly in his mind, searching for something to connect with. He has a feeling that it would be significant, perhaps, but he can't figure out why. Did it even matter? He thinks it might, but he can't be sure, and he can't be bothered to look more into it.

The sound fades easily into the background, blending into the static in his brain - he loses track of it within seconds. Until it changes. He hears a sudden halt in their step, a gasp of horror. Some noises of concern that his muddled brain can’t be bothered to decipher. Then, silence, interrupted only by Luthain’s own ragged breathing. 

The footsteps wander closer to him, slow and careful, until all of a sudden they seem to echo mere inches from his face. He flinches, taken aback, and hears a noise of surprise from...whoever the person is.

(Bizarrely, he thinks he smells fresh bread, and cinnamon)

And then there are hands on his shoulders, turning him over, gentle and careful and warm , and a voice is speaking, rapid with near-panic but still trying to be level and reassuring. He can’t focus enough to glean meaning from the flurry of words, but he can identify the notes of concern and sympathy, and that is far more important.

It's too much. A shout, echoing and distorted, and hands pulling the folds of his cloak away from his mangled arm, and a never-ending litany of words that ring with worry and panic. There's too many things to process, so instead it all drowns out, and he drifts aimlessly and allows everything to wash over him.

He’s jarred out of this reverie when someone holds his head up, accidentally prodding at the lump on his skull. Someone else is pressing a flask to his mouth, glass knocking against his teeth. The flask reeks of magic, of the calm, cold aura that accompanies a healing potion.

He drinks, and the moment he's finished there's pain, as if he'd swallowed shards of frozen metal that have begun slicing at the insides of his throat and chest, hacking through the flesh. Then the shards are melting, oozing into his blood, oppressive heat bubbling in his chest and spreading into his limbs. He'd felt so cold before, numb and chilled and lifeless, and his muscles now ache and sting and itch with the rush of renewed blood and warmth. A horrible wave of pain hits, his various wounds and bruises flaring up, and he hisses and curls in on himself. 

He feels...better, however. Much better. The world is snapping back into focus instead of twirling and drifting like some haphazard spinning top. The dizziness, the nausea, are fading slowly but surely. He feels more present, less like he’s slipping away. 

It’s not a complete recovery - breathing is still a challenge, and the pain is only getting worse, not better - but it’s a marked improvement.

He opens his eyes.

Everything is blurry, from the wall he'd slouched against to the two fuzzy faces hovering over him. He blinks, confused and tries to will the image back into focus, with somewhat limited success. Still, it’s enough to make out important features.

The man, he doesn’t recognize. The woman, however, is another matter. He’s still a little sluggish, so it takes him a minute, but when he connects the face to a memory he stiffens in surprise, breath catching in his throat.

The blacksmith.

Oh, stars.

Chapter Text

"Well," she says, tone faux-casual. She doesn’t seem ruffled, as if teenagers bleeding out in the street were a regrettable but everyday occurrence. But there’s a note of curiosity in her expression, mingled with frustration that grows the longer he stares up at her, apprehensive. "Fancy seeing you here."

Her voice grates unpleasantly on his ears, scraping against his nerves like sandpaper, and he winces in spite of himself, feeling dazed. His mind is struggling to catch up with recent events, his thoughts sluggish and lazy and threaded with scraps of residual panic, and his head is pulsing with horrible waves of pain.

On impulse, he tries to sit up, propping himself on his elbows - which proves to be a remarkably poor decision. The pain spikes in response, as if his skull were splitting in half; he hisses and curls in on himself, his hand flying up to the source of the pain, fingers prodding at the lump on his skull. The rising swell of bile in his throat nearly has him choking, and he has to force himself to breathe evenly, in an attempt to calm the nausea. 

...That’s right, he hit his head at some point, didn’t he? When the wolf...the wolf…

(When the wolf knocked him down, trying to rip his throat out, and he fell and nearly bashed his head open on a rock)

His breath catches in his throat.

He almost doesn’t notice when the blacksmith snatches his wrist, pulling his hand away from his head - so lost and numb is he. She places a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back down, and he gives in, feeling distant and tired. 

“Stay still,” she says, and her words sound like she’s speaking underwater, muffled and distorted. It’s incredibly unnerving. “You shouldn't be walking around just yet.”

It takes him a little too long to respond, to put his thoughts in order. Rather like herding cats - every attempt at coherent thought slips from his grasp, melting away like snow.  “...I’m fine.”

(It’s an instinct, to raise his arm in front of his face and glance at his injuries, to try and assess the damage. There’s blood everywhere, making it difficult to figure out precisely what’s bleeding and what isn’t, but he can see that the scars on his hands are no longer oozing, and the assortment of wounds torn in his arm look to have closed. Thank the stars.)

(It seems...wrong, somehow, like the gashes in the skin have merely been glued shut instead of properly healed. But it's better than the alternative-)

[The mental image of himself lying in a pool of blood is sudden, vivid, and unwelcome, and although he immediately tries to push it aside, it still sears into his brain.]

[...He nearly died, didn’t he?]

[Oh. Oh stars. He nearly died.]

Unfortunately, the blacksmith doesn’t seem to agree. In any case, she doesn’t allow him to sit up, which is kind of the important thing. “Well, I hate to break it to you, but you aren’t,” she says, tone sharp with suppressed impatience.

(It’s the oddest thing - he can hear her, clear as day, but the words feel distant, foggy, as if they’re washing over him.)

(How is he not dead, he should be dead-)

“Amaya,” her companion says disapprovingly.

“What?” she asks innocently. When the man gives her a look, she relents, though with clear reluctance. “Fine, fine.”

She turns back to Luthain, her voice flat. “The potion that we gave you is just an...emergency measure. It stops the bleeding and gives you lifeforce, but it doesn’t do any real healing, and it’ll wear off soon enough besides. You’ll never make it out of the village walls.”

“...Ah,” Luthain hears himself say. He’s heard of potions like that, to be sure. It takes him far too long to connect the dots, but it does explain some things, in reflection. Like how his skin is still clammy, and it remains difficult to breathe. He's still suffering the effects of blood loss - it's merely that the symptoms have been somewhat repressed.

It also explains the odd appearance of his skin, as if it was glued together - because it quite literally was. If he remembers correctly, this kind of potion forcefully stops the bleeding by fusing the skin closed, but nothing about its effects mirror the natural healing of the body. Or the latter's permanence - once the potion wore off, the wound would tear open and bleed once more.

That doesn’t help him feel any better. More...helpless than anything else. Trapped.

"I’m sure I'll manage," he thinks he says. He's not sure what he says. He wants to be somewhere else, anywhere but here. It's not reasonable, or logical, but Luthain has just avoided death by the very skin of his teeth and logic feels very overrated all of a sudden. 

(So does breathing, incidentally)

There’s a sound of snapping fingers, sharp and abrupt, and he jumps, yanked out of his train of thought. When he glances up, he sees Amaya looking at him, the frustration on her face melting into muted concern. “You alright? You were kind of spacing out for a minute or two.”

Was he? How strange. He doesn’t feel like he’s spacing out - rather, his thoughts are racing out of control, flashing by him so quickly he can’t begin to absorb them.

It’s all too much, is the problem. He can’t do this. He feels numb and shaky and tired and his heart is racing a mile a minute and he can’t. He can’t.

Amaya prods his shoulder, and he shrinks away before he can stop himself. Everything is too much, too much, he feels trapped, closed in, and he's surrounded by people with a brick wall at his back and there's no escape and there are hands reaching for him and all he wants is to leave, to flee, to be somewhere alone-

(He can’t stop thinking about the sensation of teeth ripping into his arm)

He's breathing too quickly, he realizes, and he's starting to feel floaty. Amaya looks at him with open concern. She doesn’t seem shocked or taken aback, however, and a small part of his brain that isn't consumed with numb panic wonders how many times she's dealt with a situation like this.

Her companion taps her shoulder, gesturing with his hand, and she nods and backs away, giving Luthain some space. "Hey," she says, voice steady and insistent. "Hey. Calm down, breathe. Inhale for five seconds, hold for four, exhale for five. Come on."

He follows her instructions blindly, unsure what else he could possibly do. It's difficult at first - he keeps losing his place when counting, unable to focus on the numbers. But the more he tries the better he’s able to focus, and after several minutes he’s able to breathe semi-regularly. His vision is still swimming, but he feels less distant. He wraps his arms around himself in a self-hugging motion, seeking comfort from the gesture - it doesn't help much. 

(Not for the first time he feels a strange hollowness. A craving, perhaps, though for what he isn't entirely sure. He curls further in on himself, for once not caring about the pathetic spectacle he's surely making of himself)

“Not the adventuring type, then?” Not particularly courageous, are you? goes unsaid, partially buried under the lightness of her tone.

“No,” he mutters. “Not really.” Please change the subject.

She seems to debate with herself for a moment, frowning as if trying to make a difficult decision. The old irritation is returning - Luthain isn’t sure what he’s done to annoy her so.

Finally, she sighs, apparently coming to a decision - though the glare her companion was steadily aiming at her might have had something to do with it. "You know," she says, like someone trying to hide that they’re deliberately avoiding an unpleasant topic, "I don't think we've ever been properly introduced. What's your name, kid?"

"...Luthain."

"Luthain?” He nods in confirmation, and she continues. “My name's Amaya. Amaya Blackstone. And this is Wente."

Ah, so that’s his name. He glances up at Wente, studying him.

His first impressions of the man haven’t changed much. Wente still looks harmless and...kind. There’s something intrinsically comforting about him - he looks like he'll ply you with hugs and support if given half a chance. Luthain stares blankly at him, at this ridiculous man who looks about as threatening as a rabbit, and for the moment he’s completely unsure what to do with him.

Wente smiles, a genuine, warm smile that's quite different from Amaya's awkward grimaces, and Luthain grows to like him a little bit. He can't help it - Wente looks incapable of causing any form of serious harm. One would find it easier to be frightened by a gerbil. 

"Hello," Wente says, and Luthain finds he recognizes the voice, linking it with the frantic speaker who'd found him half-dead in the alley. The smell of butter and cinnamon. The warm touch of hands on his shoulders.

Somehow, the craving seems to gnaw with greater strength. He digs his fingernails into his arms, the motion half-instinctive and thoughtless from years of doing much the same, and he has to bite back a hiss when pain flares in his abused fingertips.

"Hello," he forces out, noting with no small amount of pride that his voice is almost perfectly steady. His skin is still crawling, and he can’t quite shake off the memories of growling, but the numbness is fading, little by little. 

“You alright?”

“...Yes.” He thinks so, at least. His voice is still rather quiet, however, and it takes a surprising amount of effort to raise it above a whisper, for some odd reason -

There’s a dizziness creeping in, and he remembers. He’s still technically dying, after all, and it seems the potion must be wearing off. You’ll never make it out the village walls, Amaya had said, and he knows she’s telling the truth this time.

He definitely should do something about that.

“...Uh, where could I find the healer?” Stars, his voice is raspy. “I think the potion might be wearing off.”

There’s an awkward silence before Wente starts to flounder. “Ah, well, about that…”

“We don’t exactly have one,” Amaya cuts in, rather bluntly.

Luthain stares at them both. “What?”

That’s unheard of. Every town always has a healer, even the smallest, poorest of hamlets. They’re a staple, right up there with farmers, merchants, and tax collectors. Not having a healer is ridiculous, did these people want to die like flies?

“Well,” Wente clarifies, “we do, technically. His name is Oliver. But he’s kind of...terrible. Healers get a rather hefty subsidy from the king, you know, and the moment he got his paperwork in order and received the money, he left for Tanalore. No one’s seen him since. I don’t think anyone has bothered to stop the payments, either.”

...This town is a disaster

He’d ask more questions, such as how this is even possible - surely someone must be checking where these funds are going? But the dizziness is slowly getting worse, and he’s starting to feel lightheaded, and he’s clearly running out of time. “Where should I go, then?”

Amaya considers. "We both have supplies at our shops, and Wente is decent at healing. But that would involve moving you."

“...Ah.” Well, it’s not like he has any other choices.

"Where should we take him? My shop?"

Luthain looks up sharply at Wente's words, suddenly anxious. Yes, maybe Wente might seem harmless, comforting, even a little trustworthy. But he's still very much a stranger, wanting to take Luthain to a place he's never been.

Come to think of it, there’s no reason why Luthain should trust Wente at all. He’s met people before who thinly veneer false kindness over cruel thoughts and deeds. Who pretended to have only your best interests at heart. Appearances mean nothing.

He’s probably just being paranoid, but he feels distinctly...ill at ease.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Amaya says, as if reading his thoughts. “Maybe mine would be a better choice. What do you think, Luthain?”

“Yours,” he responds almost immediately. It’s the obvious choice - the more familiar the place, the better. “No offense,” he tacks on as an afterthought, directing the statement at Wente, a little afraid of offending. Sometimes people didn’t react well when you refused their help, no matter how politely you declined them.

(Surprisingly, Amaya seems pleased by his choice. Or at least less openly exasperated)

Fortunately, Wente doesn’t seem to be hurt in the slightest. “None taken. Do you need help - no, wait - ”

Ignoring Wente's various noises of protest, Luthain tries to rise - the key word, of course, being tries. He overestimates his own strength, and his legs wobble treacherously underneath him the moment he attempts to stand, as insubstantial as jelly. 

Amaya, thankfully, grabs his elbow and braces her free arm under his shoulders, supporting him with seemingly little effort. The contact is strangely warm and soothing, and he leans into it almost unconsciously, before he can stop himself.

“Next time you try something like that, I’ll let you fall flat on your face,” she says without much heat. She slings his arm over her shoulders. “Come on, it’s not too far. I’ll help you. Wente, please run ahead and grab the supplies we’ll need.”

Wente says something in confirmation before running off - Luthain misses his exact words, distracted by the vertigo that’s becoming properly overwhelming. He’s taken aback a moment later when Amaya starts walking, and stumbles before regaining his balance.

“Try not to faint,” is all she says. Thankfully, Luthain has zero intention of doing so.

~=~

"This is for restoring lost blood," Wente says, holding up a flask. Luthain watches him through half-lidded eyes, feeling dizzy and tired. "Careful, it's cold."

‘Cold’ doesn't begin to describe it. It’s bearable when he first gulps it down, no worse than if he’d swallowed an ice cube. But halfway down it lodges in his chest, and there it begins to freeze.

It’s like a vice tightening around his heart. The very air is freezing in his lungs, his throat; his bones are turning to ice under his skin, brittle and sharp and cold. It's one of the most disturbing sensations he's ever experienced, and he hisses and pants and curls into a ball, whimpering softly through clenched teeth before he can stifle the sound. Wente places a comforting hand on his shoulder in response, the touch burning hot against his own frozen skin, worry and sympathy rolling off the man in waves.

(It feels so sincere.)

Thankfully, it doesn’t last long. After a few minutes, the chill starts to fade in pulsing increments, warmth slowly oozing into his skin, and slowly he relaxes, relieved. He feels exhausted all of a sudden, as if his strength has melted away along with the cold - it’s stupidly difficult to keep his eyes open.

He hears more than he sees Wente leave his side, his departure sparking an odd feeling of disappointment that Luthain doesn’t bother to try to quash. He’s too tired to muster the energy - as much as he knows that he should be keeping his guard up, it’s surprisingly difficult to remember to distrust Wente.

And then Wente is back, another flask in hand. “Last one, I promise! Uh, this one is nasty.”

It’s like swallowing lightning. He chokes and spasms and jolts wide awake, magic crackling uncontrollably over his skin. He feels like he’s burning, like he’s been thrown into a fire, a scream bubbling in his lungs like smoke… and then the magic is burrowing into his skin and sinking into his flesh and fading into a subdued prickling, still unpleasant, but bearable. The brewing scream instead deflates into a shaky sigh, mingled with some half-incoherent muttered curses.

Another thing he’s quickly realizing: all healing potions were apparently created by sadists.

Still, it did help. At the cost of a great deal of suffering, mind, but he’s no longer bleeding out like a stuck pig in an alley, so. Thank the stars for small mercies.

Curious, he rolls up his blood-encrusted sleeve to look at the wound beneath. It no longer looks like it’s been glued shut - the wound is properly healed now, the flesh raw and pink, some areas still speckled lightly with miniscule flecks of blood. It looks...healthier. Less unnatural. He doesn’t know how to describe it.

His hands are much better as well. Almost completely healed, nothing remaining but old silvery scars. On a whim, he tries to summon some mana, not really expecting it to work. Small wisps of blue-green appear at his fingertips before vanishing, and he sighs. Of course. It’ll be a while before he’ll use magic again - this escapade with the trimmer and the wolf has sapped his mana down to mere dregs. Oh well.

He flexes his fingers, bends his arm, testing for any lingering pain. Some of the muscles feel oddly stiff, like new leather boots that you haven't had a chance to break in. He remembers hazily from his studies long ago that this was common when regrowing muscle, and that the sensation should fade with time. 

He could probably stand up if he wanted to, he realizes. He could say goodbye to Wente and walk right out the door and never think of him again. A part of him itches to do just that, manners be damned - this is a strange enough situation already, one he doesn’t know how to handle in the slightest, and he’s frightened of messing things up more than he has already.

He doesn't leave, though.

“...I don’t think I’ve said it before, but...thank you,” he says, trying to be dignified but probably coming off as pathetically grateful. He feels awkward, tremendously so - he’s not at all used to being sincere - but he tries his best to be a little more open than usual. With, probably, very limited success.

Judging by Wente’s smile, however, he doesn’t seem to mind. “Of course! None of us would leave someone in distress.”

The why not is hovering at the back of his mind, though he knows better than to utter it. But he’s been puzzled for a while, admittedly, his doubts growing by the minute. Somehow, as much as he’s drawn to Wente’s kindness and care…

He can’t really believe it’s real.

“How do you feel?”

It feels real. Wente seems genuinely concerned. His words don’t ring with falsehood or deceit or even polite disinterest.

And Luthain has no idea what to make of it.

There...there has to be some sort of catch, right?

"Better," he rasps, when he finally emerges from his train of thought and notices that the silence has stretched for too long. "Much better."

Wente beams, a bright, shining thing, and Luthain feels it again. The strange urge to trust this man. The knowledge that Wente means no harm, far from it.

Stop it. You can never be too careful.

(There are plenty of friends to be made in Daventry)

If it weren't for the fact that Wente's magical aura is about as strong as the average toothpick's, Luthain would assume a geas was at work. Some sort of perception-altering spell, designed to lure you into a false sense of security. Any number of magical tricks and traps to lower your guard. 

But it's just Wente, sincere and caring, the only magic on his person being the lingering traces of the healing potions. Either he's a spectacular actor, or…

He's genuine.

Luthain doesn't know which option is more frightening. 

The back door swings open - thankfully distracting him from his muddlesome thoughts - and Amaya sweeps in, arms laden with bandages and tinctures. Before he can blink she's kneeling beside him, already uncorking a small bottle that smells of mint and swamp. 

Without much warning, she grabs his wrist, pulling his injured arm towards herself. It catches him off guard, and he flinches and cowers before he can stop himself.

There’s a silence. Wente is glaring at Amaya. Amaya, for her part, looks a mixture of vexed and contrite. She lets go of Luthain’s arm, eyeing him. There’s again that feeling that she’s debating with herself, waffling on whether or not to say something.

It’s starting to get on his nerves. Stars, she’s even more cagey than Muriel was.

“...Luthain?” She says at last. “You do know that I wouldn’t hurt you, right?”

“Uh.” No, not really. But somehow, he has the feeling that saying as much would be a bad idea. “Yes?”

That’s apparently not a good answer either. She looks frustrated again, and with a sigh she drops the subject, instead holding out a hand. “...Nevermind. Can I see your arm?”

(Wente just looks disappointed)

He holds out his arm, pushing aside the tattered remains of his shirt sleeve. Speaking of which, he’ll have to explain that to Father somehow. Oh, joy.

...Maybe he could say that he tore it on some thorns?

Amaya doesn't seem surprised at the remaining specks of blood, wasting no time in applying a black, congealed paste over the new skin. It stings and burns like alcohol poured over a wound, but it pales in comparison with the potions, and he does little more than flinch and hiss. 

"It'll help with the bleeding and stop infection," she says, in response to his questioning glance. She unravels a roll of bandages and starts wrapping it around his arm, a little clumsy, but competent enough. "Magic can only do so much, and Wente isn't the best of healers. He’s too emotional."

"You're worse than I am," Wente retorts. Luthain can’t tell whether he’s teasing or genuinely offended. "The worst healer I've ever seen."

"Magic is a load of hogwash. I've no patience for it."

Wente coughs, a noise that sounds suspiciously like you just say that because you're bad at it. She rolls her eyes as she ties off the bandage, before finally letting go of Luthain's arm. "There you go."

He pokes absently at the bandages. They're reasonably well done - a little sloppy in places, but serviceable. "Thank you. You're...good at this."

He flinches immediately, afraid that his tone is too dubious, condescending. But she doesn't seem offended, instead beginning to roll up the leftover bandages. "It pays to know medicine. Far from the first time that someone's been attacked by a wedzel wolf."

...Ah, so that's what they're called.

"Wedzel wolves, huh? Do they give you a lot of trouble?"

She hums, thinking. "Not if you're careful, I guess. If you steer clear of dark places then they'll leave you alone. But get too close and they'll attack anything that moves. They’re super aggressive, especially this time of year."

Would have been nice to know that earlier. Although he doesn't think it would have changed much in the end. 

"But the worst," Amaya continues, "is when they find their way into the village. They're a menace. They'd tear the roofs off the houses if given half a chance."

That's terrifying. 

"Now, Amaya, you're being unfair," Wente argues immediately, probably noticing the look of dawning horror on Luthain’s face. "The wedzels need our compassion. They suffer alone, and are terrified every day."

Are you insane, Luthain very considerately and politely doesn't say.

"Terrified or no, I still don't want them in my petunias," Amaya retorts. She stops, as if remembering something. “By the way: Luthain, which entrance did you use?”

“...The back one, I think? The one with the door that’s bolted shut.”

“Did you close it after yourself?”

He blinks, trying to remember. “I...think so? I’m pretty sure I did.”

Amaya is openly relieved. “That’s good. It keeps them out, you know, otherwise they’ll be wreaking havoc. Try to keep it closed, if you can - otherwise I’ll have to drive them out, and as much fun as chasing the wedzels is, we want to keep this town ready for tourists.”

“...I’ll be sure to remember that.”

It’s an open statement, neither a promise nor a denial. But Amaya seems to take it as confirmation. “Good man, knew I could count on you.”

It’s a small thing, not even truly a compliment. But it sparks a bubbling feeling of warmth in his chest, and Luthain feels himself smile involuntarily. He ducks his head, grinning nervously, feeling rather self-conscious.

It's not the bad sort of self-conscious, however, the one where he feels small and insignificant and worthless. He's not entirely sure what it is, just that it’s...not unpleasant.

(It’s nice, actually. Really nice.

He thinks he might like Amaya a little as well)

By chance, his gaze wanders over to a nearby window. The buildings outside are awash with yellow-gold light, deep and burning, as the sun begins to set. And that’s when he realizes something, and the warm feeling freezes in his chest.

It’s getting dark.

It’s getting dark.

It’s getting dark.

Stars

He should already be heading back to the inn, the dagger in hand. He’s going to be late.

He’s rising to his feet before he realizes it, the world tilting briefly to one side with a vicious sting of vertigo before he recovers. Dimly, he hears Wente’s protests, Amaya’s noise of surprise, but he’s too engrossed in his own rising panic to pay any attention to them.

Father is going to be furious, and terrible things tended to happen when he was furious.

He needs to leave, now. 

"You can't mean to leave-"

He's not sure what, exactly, he says in response. He babbles more than anything else, his mouth running without much input from him. He mentions the lateness of the hour, and his father, and the knife, but the concepts aren't linked in any coherent manner, and he's sure that he confuses his hosts more than anything else.

"Calm down, you're shaking-"

...He is? Oh, he is. His hands are trembling, and he clasps them hurriedly behind his back - a useless gesture, but instinctive. He digs his fingernails into the skin and tries to breathe.

"I have to leave," he insists. He notices, pleased, that his voice is far steadier. On the downside, however, his head is swimming, and his chest hurts. It's a mystery why, until he realizes that he's breathing too quickly, too harshly.

"Are you sure?" Wente's voice is calm, grounding, non-judgemental. "More rest would be helpful, I think."

Tempting, but Luthain shakes his head, a bit more frantically than needed. "No, no, I have to leave." His voice is shaking again - he tries to force it to stop, with limited success.

Amaya opens her mouth to protest, but Wente gives her a look. To Luthain's surprise, she shuts her mouth, teeth snapping with a faint click.

"Alright," Wente says, voice steady and comforting and warm. "Alright. But... promise you'll come back? Those wounds still need tending."

Luthain stops to consider, still half out the door. He...he wants to accept, he thinks.

“I will,” he says - a promise which, despite his track record, he does intend to keep - and gives the two a parting nod before darting out the door and down the street, the shopkeeper’s bell jingling merrily behind him.

~=~

It was...probably stupid, to panic so easily, to bolt from Amaya’s shop without even a proper farewell. The sun is low in the sky, burning bright and gold, but he still has a couple of hours before the sun sets. He has time, in other words - plenty of time to carry out a plan.

But it’s the lack of any sort of plan that makes him so restless, fear burning quietly in his chest, skin itching with the need to do something, mind racing with all the possible, terrible consequences of failure. He’s painfully aware of the seconds slipping away, of needing to act now, yesterday - except he doesn’t have a clue what to do.

(He’ll apologize to Amaya and Wente later, if he ever gets a chance - right now, he has higher priorities)

Wringing his hands, he keeps walking, directionless, as he tries to cobble up some sort of vague plan. Calm, calm, he needs to stay calm and collected. He needs to think. 

...He has to have that knife by sundown. There’s no way around that. Father was very, very clear on that front, and he’ll be furious and disappointed and all sorts of terrible things if Luthain fails - again. And there’s nothing that Luthain wants to avoid more. Father tends to take these things hard, and more likely than not he’ll agonize over it for days, and it’ll be awful. Luthain can’t allow that to happen.

Where could he possibly get a knife, though? There’s no other blacksmith in town, and he already knows that Amaya’s knives are far outside his price range. He doubts she’d be willing to haggle.

Unless…

He stops in his tracks, considering, a horrible idea blossoming in his mind. Maybe...maybe he doesn’t need to pay.

His memories of what happened after the attack are rather cloudy, but he remembers that he was prepared to steal a healing potion. And while he hadn’t needed to...maybe he could-

No.

-steal a-

No.

-knife. 

(...What is this heavy feeling in his chest, stop it-)

A moment later, he dismisses the idea, shaking his head. No, Amaya is probably still in her shop, and he has a feeling that she would notice if he tried to blatantly steal a weapon right under her nose. Perhaps he could have done something with magic - a distraction, for example - but he’s so drained of mana that doing so would be foolhardy at best and fatal at worst. He’s not stupid enough to attempt that.

No, this plan doesn’t pan out.

(There’s a microscopic feeling of relief which he does his best to ignore)

Pain sparks lightly along his arm, and he looks down to see that his fingers are worrying at the bandages wrapped around his arm - so lost in thought was he that he hadn’t noticed he was doing such a thing. He notes idly that they’re spotting lightly with blood - he probably damaged the still-healing skin somehow. Damn that wolf; no matter what Wente might say about the creatures ‘living in fear’, Luthain still resents having his arm torn open-

Oh.

Oh.

Wolves.

If the door were left open, the wolves would wander into the town; Amaya had said so herself.

It’s the perfect distraction.

It would be terribly easy. Just leave the door open, wait, and watch the chaos unfold. Under the cover of the wild beasts attacking anything and everything, he'd be free to do what he wished - no one would pay the slightest attention to him. Amaya would be out driving away the wolves, and other townspeople would be either hiding in their homes or helping Amaya. It's perfect. It's flawless. It's almost guaranteed to work, bar some freak accident. 

And no one would ever need to know it was him.

(His arm stings in protest as he yanks at the bandages, feeling strangely...upset. There's a confused muddle of emotions that he can't begin to parse, layered with a screeching insistence that he not go through with this wild scheme. That he find a different solution.

But the sun is setting, and time is running desperately short. And Luthain has been ruled by fear for so long that he now bends to its will with minimal hesitation)

He talks himself into it with little difficulty, convincing himself that there are no other options, that he has no choice - a surefire method for dealing with a troubled conscience. And, once decided, it takes but a few moments to put his plan into action. As confused as he was when half-unconscious, not able to tell one cobblestone street from another, the back door is neither far nor difficult to find.

From there, it's just a matter of flinging the doorbar up and pushing the door open. A mere child could do it. He listens as the hinges creek forebodingly, and tries not to look too hard at the deep gouges carved into the door’s surface, tries not to think about what caused them.

(Don’t look, don’t think)

He’s quick to hide - it wouldn’t do for anyone to see him. Backing into a nearby alley, where the wolves aren’t likely to find him.

And then all he has to do is wait for it all to play out.

He doesn’t have to wait very long.

~=~

Luthain had expected chaos, violence. He’s seen firsthand that the wedzel wolves aren’t to be trifled with, far more confrontational than their northern counterparts. Wolves do not belong in a village, especially not ones as vicious as these, and it was obvious to the meanest intelligence that nothing good could come of opening the gate.

It’s one thing to imagine something, however, and quite another to see it with your own eyes. He’d imagined a flurry, a whirlwind of fur and snapping teeth, but the hazy mental images he’d created don't quite live up to reality.

The scene, for lack of a better word, is properly horrifying.

Maybe he’s just nervous, still on edge after nearly having his throat ripped out. But the presence of the wolves in the village is far more nerve-wracking than he expected. They’re unstoppable, wreaking destruction and havoc as they try to tear the very houses to pieces. He can’t see them, hidden as he is among the side-streets, but the terrible sounds of growling and snarling and things being torn to shreds are enough to set his heart beating madly with fear.

(Why did he go through with this?)

He can hear yelling, the sound of glass breaking. Amaya’s voice, ringing and authoritative, echoing off the walls: “Get out! Shoo! Get off that hay bale. Out of those flowers. PUT THAT SACK LUNCH DOWN!”

It’s almost ridiculous. She sounds like she’s chastising some misbehaving puppies instead of a pack of wolves. Then again, almost everyone in this village seems to be afflicted with some sort of madness, her included. Perhaps it’s not really a surprise.

(He realizes that he’s giggling quietly, sound soft and hysterical, and he snaps his teeth shut to stop it. Stress, it’s stress, just stress. Focus on the task at hand. Don’t think about who you’re hurting and betraying by doing this. This is better than the alternative)

He tries very hard not to think as he wanders down the streets, using as roundabout a way as possible to reach Amaya’s shop. It wouldn’t do to be spotted - not that most would bother to notice him over the sight of wolves prowling the streets, but better to be safe than sorry.

A left turn here. A right turn at the end of the alley. A left, and a left, and another right. A meandering path winding down abandoned, empty streets. Better safe than sorry. Two more turns and he should be at the shop. 

(Why, why, why, why, why-)

The sound of snarling, nearby, threatening, deadly, stops him in his tracks. He’d know that sound anywhere, tied as it is to the memory of teeth tearing into his flesh. It’s a risk that he knew would come with opening the gate - wild animals are unpredictable, as much as he tried to stay out of their way - but that does nothing to dull the knee-jerk reaction of panic.

There is a wolf in his path, no more than a handful of paces away. He can see it now, as it glares at him with fire-orange eyes, unmoving, a hulking figure in the shadows of the alleyway. Its teeth are bared, glinting yellow-white in the darkness, lips curled back in a clear threat. The thin, reedy growl is unceasing - whether a warning or a promise, he isn’t quite sure, nor is he inclined to investigate.

Luthain, for his own part, feels frozen. Dead. He stares at the creature and breathes and tries not to think about forests and ley lines and shadows moving in the shadows and blood dripping down his arm. Every inch of him wants to either run or fight - to do something, anything to escape - but he’s locked in place and unable to move. 

Unable to run.

(Wedzels will attack anything that moves, Amaya had said. Which means that if he stays still, he’ll be safe...right? Right?)

Time passes. Is it minutes? Seconds? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t care. All that exists is the wolf, and the beating of his heart, and the tingling, burning feeling in his arm. Its eyes burn in the shadows like bits of wood glowing in a fireplace, and he watches, spellbound.

At last, it turns away, small head swinging to one side, and it’s as if some spell has been broken, snapped in half like piano wire. It growls to itself, a gravelly, broken sound, raspy and harsh, before beginning to lope away, paws padding rhythmically against the cobblestones. Dumbstruck, Luthain watches it vanish, still frozen with fear. He keeps watching even as it’s disappeared down some street or other, even as the noise of its steps have faded away, even as the shadows have long ceased to flicker.

Eventually, he manages to force himself to move. One step. Two. Three, four, five, his gait stuttering and uneven. His hands are shaking, he realizes distantly. Come to think of it, all of him is shaking. The urge to laugh has returned, more powerful than before, and he has to choke down the sounds bubbling in his lungs for fear of finally giving in to uncontrollable hysteria. 

(And his arm won’t stop stinging with the remembered pressure of phantom teeth)

He can’t be hysterical. He has a job to finish. He has to go through with it, because the alternatives are worse. He has to remember that, and think of nothing else, or else he’ll lose his nerve, and then where will he be?

(Where, indeed)

Shivering, he moves forward, feet heavy and numb. Left. The second right. The back door to Amaya’s shop is practically in front of him. He’s almost there. He’s almost finished. It’s too late to back out now. He has no choice.

(He’s always had a choice)

He opens the door, and he doesn’t think.

~=~

It takes a minute or two, no more. And then the dagger is hidden in the folds of his cloak, burning through cloth down to the skin, and he is running, running, running as the sounds of yelling and growling fade behind him.

He can barely feel anything over the shaky feeling in his chest, as if his very diaphragm were vibrating. He can’t feel his feet thudding against the ground. He can’t feel the wind on his face. He can’t feel regret. He can’t feel guilt.

There's just the heavy weight of the dagger hidden in his cloak, and a bitter taste boiling at the back of his mouth that he tries not to pay too much attention to.

(It was inevitable)

[It was not]

Chapter Text

“I found a replacement for the dagger.“

The words come out more laced with exhaustion than he expected, and he has to fight the urge to yawn. Fatigue is tugging at his muscles, weighing him down, and there’s nothing he wants more than to sleep. Today has been…eventful.

(His thoughts stray unbidden towards wolves and back doors and stolen knives, and he has to restrain the automatic wince)

Father hmms, not looking up from the papers strewn across the desk in front of him. At a glance, Luthain can see written correspondence in a variety of handwritings and styles, interspersed with Father’s own messy, rushed notes. They’re still looking for information regarding the mysterious fifth participant, and Father has been communicating with every possible connection he’s made who might know something of Daventry’s inner workings. 

Judging by what Luthain can see, his attempts have not been fruitful.

The smart thing to do would be to hide, to sneak away without offering any of the lies that he’d cobbled together during the journey here. Father is distracted and likely won’t pay much attention to him - he wouldn’t have to explain his torn, damp shirt sleeve (from washing out the blood) or his missing cloak (given to a laundress for cleaning) or the blood leaking from his arm (he tore off Amaya’s bandages in a panic, having no good explanation for their presence, and he’d been so hasty in scraping off the black paste that he’d torn more gashes into the skin with his fingernails).

He hesitates briefly, curiosity still burning, but another wave of exhaustion is enough to dissuade him. The letters might look intriguing, but he’s done enough stupid things for the day, he thinks, and he doesn’t have the energy for more.

Yawning, Luthain stumbles off to his room. Father doesn’t even look up as he leaves, too engrossed in the letters - Luthain doesn’t know why he even worried, this is far too easy.

Of course, tomorrow there will probably be questions. But for now, Luthain can sleep. Sleeping actually sounds like a fantastic idea right now - he can barely keep his eyes open.

He shuts the door behind him, peels off his boots, and practically collapses into bed, falling asleep almost before he hits the mattress.

~=~

(His dreams are choppy, indistinct things, interspersed with splintered, terrifying images of gnarly beasts with blue-black fur and hundreds of yellowed teeth. Several times he wakes up in a cold sweat, trembling, and all things considered it’s a relief when morning finally arrives)

There are some questions the next day - of course there are, there always are - but Father is far more lenient than he would normally be. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care too much, too engrossed in his own work.

(Luthain tries not to feel disappointed at the thought. This is good, he needs to remember that. Better indifference than anger)

The questions are few and easy to head off with memorized falsehoods, and they’re accepted with little fuss or suspicion. Luthain lies through his teeth, spouting nonsense about tripping and catching his arm on a branch and tearing his shirt in the process - a slightly lame story, but the best he could come up with on short notice - and Father merely nods thoughtfully and doesn’t pursue the matter further. He doesn’t even ask why Luthain took so long to finish his task.

(Did he even realize you were gone for hours?)

[That’s not important.]

And then, the matter is laid to rest. So simple.

It feels too good to be true. The next few days are fraught with a vicious anxiety that bubbles in his chest, making him nervous and irritable - the fear of being caught is a poisonous thing that consumes his thoughts and leaves no room for other considerations. He jumps whenever he’s spoken to, his heart leaping into his chest, fearful that now is the time he’s going to be called out, exposed. That finally, Father has found some gap, some inconsistency in Luthain’s rahter shoddy tale, and that an explosion is shortly forthcoming. 

(Lying is a dangerous business, because as much as Luthain has tried to learn cunning and subterfuge, he’s also learned from bitter experience that Father will always be smarter than him. And Father despises being lied to - the last time Luthain was caught doing so…well, he’d prefer not to remember it.

Generally, then, lying isn’t worth the trouble. But in this case, telling the truth was far from a viable option. Father would have killed him for wandering off on his own, and Luthain would do almost anything to avoid that)

It never happens, however. He waits, bracing for the moment that the other shoe would drop, cringing whenever he’s spoken to as anxiety flares and makes his hands shake. Father is smarter than him, and Luthain’s story wasn’t foolproof to begin with. There’s bound to be something he hadn’t thought of in his hurry.

But nothing happens. One, two, three days pass, and everything is normal - or at least, as normal as it can be considering the circumstances. There’s no accusations or anger-fueled insults - just the usual indifference that Father normally holds towards him.

He can relax, he thinks. He’s fine. He’s in the clear.

The thought isn’t as relieving as it should be.

~=~

By all rights, things should be back to normal. Should be. The more time he spends cooped up in the inn with Father, the more life settles back into its old rhythm, into the dance of fake smiles and awkward conversations and pretending to be invisible, unremarkable. Nothing worth paying attention to.

It’s almost habit at this point. Familiar. Comforting, even, because if Father is ignoring him, that means no yelling or harsh words. Being invisible is good, and safe, and normal, and Luthain can feel himself start to fall into his usual state of mechanical apathy.

But he’s distracted, unsettled, and he can’t bring himself to properly relax. Now that he’s no longer waiting to be caught, his brain is quick to pick up other lines of thought, and rather unpleasant ones at that. 

For one thing, the heady, anxious fear in his blood is a new and unpleasant thing. Luthain is good at recovering quickly from upsetting events - the trick, as always, is simply to avoid thinking too much about them - but his mind somehow seems stuck. Fixated, even, on memories of teeth and snarls and a heavy weight dragging him to the ground, pinning him down. Once or twice he catches himself staring into space, memories replaying in circles in his head. It’s…disconcerting.

(The shadows make him nervous, now, and he isn’t sure how to feel about that)

Harder to deal with is the muddle of emotions clouding his thoughts. Emotions he keeps trying to ignore, with limited success.

The fact is that if he thinks about it, if he pulls himself out of the morass of denial for just a moment, it becomes abundantly clear to him that he feels guilty - that this confusing, heavy mass of emotion weighing in his chest is remorse. The dagger seems to burn within the folds of his cloak, his fingers whenever he’s forced to handle it, and he can barely look at it without shame rising in his throat. Anything that reminds him of what he’s done will send him into a small spiral of regret and self-recrimination, before he sharply stops that train of thought in its tracks.

And he keeps dwelling on it, his mind returning to the subject like a scrap of iron tugged towards a magnet. He can’t stop himself from thinking about it, no matter how much he tries. 

It’s silly. It’s stupid. He shouldn’t care. He doesn’t care.

…Somehow, he’s not as convincing as he’d like.

~=~

The stables are warm and shadowed, filled with the smell of snute and hay. It’s quiet for the most part, the only sound being the gentle shifting of various steeds, the puffs of their slow, regular breathing - so that the sound Luthain’s steps seems almost overly loud in the silence, echoing off the walls. 

Most of the beasts ignore him. A few swivel their ears in his direction, listening with a casual curiosity. One or two even deign to turn their heads towards him, sniffing absently as he passes by.

But Kryla is the only one who whinnies a greeting. Her white coat starkly visible in the shadows, she reaches her head over the stall door, stretching towards him eagerly, too-small ears perked up with sharp interest. In the stall beside hers, Lugh - Manny’s enbarr - gives Luthain a bored glance, and Luthain catches a whiff of seaweed before Lugh snorts and retreats deeper into his stall, green-brown coat blending seamlessly into the shadows, a clear dismissal.

Well. That’s fine. It’s Kryla he’s here for, anyways. Luthain has long ago given up on getting Lugh to warm up to him; the enbarr has no interest in him. 

(Or anyone, for that matter. Not even Manny is in Lugh’s good graces - Lugh will tolerate him, but nothing more)

Instead, he devotes his attention to Kryla, immediately beginning to dote on her. He’s making a frankly embarrassing series of noises as he runs his fingers through her mane, littering his speech with ridiculous endearments that would probably make any reasonable person cringe. But it’s Kryla, so it’s okay. 

She clearly loves the attention, at any rate. Luthain doesn’t think he’s seen another horse manage to look as self-satisfied as she does now. Unsurprising; Kryla has an ego that is easily the size of the moon, and there’s few things she likes more than to be admired and fussed over. 

He really should visit her more often. She must get terribly lonely in these stables, with no one but the antisocial Lugh for company. But it’s just been such an eventful few days, and he’s lost track of time, what with the…

…Ah. 

He really shouldn’t be thinking about that. He’d sworn to himself that he would forget it, that he would push it to some forgotten corner of his mind and leave it to rot. Then again, Luthain has never been good at following his own advice.

…The stables are rather uncomfortably dark. And in the corners of his vision, if he tilts his head just right, he thinks he might see movement in the shadows.

He’s being ridiculous. He’s being silly. But, suddenly nervous, he finds himself shrinking a little, his side pressing against the stall door as he inches back. His thoughts are drifting once again to wolves and sharp teeth, shivers of fear forming in his chest; and though he knows logically that he’s safe, that there’s no way a wolf could be hiding in the stables, still his heart hammers in his throat.

(There’s a terrifying moment when he thinks he hears a growl)

Thankfully, he’s jolted out of this unfortunate train of thought by a pressure against his shoulder, cold breath puffing on his collarbone, and he nearly jumps out of his skin before he realizes that it’s Kryla pressing her nose against his arm, as if offering reassurance. The sight makes him crack a small smile in spite of himself, and with a murmur of good girl, Kryla he reaches up and begins scratching her behind the ear: her favorite spot for scratches. 

He still feels somewhat numb and shaky, however, and he wants Kryla close - the stall door is blocking his path with frustrating ease. After petting her a little longer, he moves her out of the way, guiding her with tongue clicks and gentle shoves to her nose until she moves away from the door, and then it’s a simple matter to clamber over the door and drop down into the stall proper.

In here, inside the enclosed space where he can clearly see that his only companion is Kryla, he feels far safer. Kryla welcomes him with a pleased snort, evidently happy to have him close by. She must really feel lonely down here without him nearby - they’ve always been more or less inseparable, and this new state of affairs prevents him from spending much time with her. Through the remaining haze of draining panic he again resolves not to forget to visit her - a tournament isn’t a good reason to abandon her. 

Some of the dejection, of the fear he still feels must show in his demeanor, because Kryla pushes her face into his chest, making worried horse sounds. He doesn’t hesitate to wind his fingers into her mane and start to speak, the words tumbling out of his mouth. 

(It’s an old mantra: whenever Luthain is saddened or frustrated, Talk To Kryla. If nothing else, the act of voicing his thoughts makes him feel better)

He tells her everything about his adventure into the forest, about his stupid decision to hide the trimmer and his encounter with the ley line and the wolf and his near brush with death (and oh stars, it still makes his heart shiver when he thinks how close he came to dying). He tells her about the two people who saved his life, and he tells her how, in return, he set wolves on them and stole their property.

And, halfway through, a realization seems to crystalize. Luthain has known for a while that what he did was wrong, of course, but he always thought of it in nebulous, vague terms that were easier to ignore. But, now that he’s voiced his thoughts, they’ve taken a concrete form - it’s no longer a washy mess of ‘but I had no choice’ and 'it doesn’t matter anyway’. All that exists, all that matters, is that they helped him and in return he kicked them in the teeth. 

And he feels really, really terrible about it. 

Sighing dejectedly, he leans against the stall door, suddenly feeling exhausted. "I guess I messed up, didn’t I?”

Kryla gently bumps his forehead with her nose, the contact both cold and comforting. Luthain smiles, a feeble, weary thing, and wonders not for the first time what he’d do without her. 

“Do you think it’s worth trying to apologize?” he asks, obviously not expecting any sort of answer. But it helps to ask these sorts of questions aloud, to verbalize his thoughts even without outside input. Kryla is a fantastic listener. 

“I feel like I should,” he continues, and he can hear the doubt crawling into his words. “It feels like the proper thing to do. But…I don’t know. Maybe it’s better just to forget about them. Better safe than sorry, right?”

This time, the nudge she gives him is less comforting and more impatient, throwing him off guard. Sometimes, he forgets that Kryla is no ordinary horse, that she possesses a greater intelligence and understanding than other steeds. 

“You don’t understand,” he says. “They’ll be furious. Amaya especially. I can’t - what if I just make everything worse? It might be better to leave them alone, they probably don’t want to see me anyways- ow!”

It’s a small nip, not nearly harsh enough to draw blood, or even do much more than sting a bit, but Luthain still rubs his ear, giving Kryla a nasty look.

Kryla snorts in response, somehow managing to convey far too much scorn than a horse has any right to have. Of course, what was he expecting.

“You’re too smart for your own good,” he informs her grousily, and isn’t the least surprised when she preens under the praise. “I guess I see your point. I’ll…I’ll talk to them.”

She nudges him - get on with it, then - but he feels reluctant to leave so soon. Instead he pets her neck and plans what he’s going to say.

He’ll visit Wente first, he thinks. That should be an easier conversation to have.

~=~

The bakery looks somewhat worse for wear, having evidently suffered during the wolf attack. One of the windowpanes is partially broken, glass splintering along a web of cracks, and the door has garnered a small collection of claw marks etched into the wood, ranging from shallow scratches he can barely make out to deep gouges that look as if they’ve been carved by a knife.

The sight sparks another jolt of nauseous guilt. Luthain forces it down and opens the door, trying not to look at the scratches.

The jingling of the shopkeepers bell feels forlorn, depressing; though it’s probably a product of his imagination more than anything else. Luthain hovers briefly on the bakery’s threshold, hesitant, before squaring his shoulders in resolve and marching inside, door swinging shut behind him. He’s made his decision - he’s not about to back down now. 

Wente is behind the counter, and he looks up as Luthain approaches. Luthain can’t decipher his expression - it’s an odd mixture of what might be suspicion, disappointment, possibly other things as well. He doesn’t let himself think too much about it. If he thinks too much, he’ll lose his nerve, he knows it.

Instead, he sucks in a shaky breath, and blurts out the words before he can think to stop himself. “I did it. I let the wolves in, on purpose, so I could steal a knife from Amaya’s shop.”

He stares at the wall behind Wente, not wanting to make eye contact; and he talks, the words pouring forth in a flurry, with very little input from him. He’s not sure exactly what he says, just that it’s rambling and somewhat incoherent and involves maybe more apologies than strictly necessary. 

(He doesn’t know what Wente’s expression looks like - he’s too nervous to look)

The moment he’s finished, he practically bolts for the door, turning sharply away from Wente without giving him a chance to speak. It’s cowardly and stupid, certainly, but he can’t. He needs to leave. He feels like he’ll vibrate out of his own skin if he stays much longer.

(This was a mistake)

His hand is already settled on the door knob by the time Wente speaks: “Wait.”

To his own surprise, Luthain does, freezing with his hand still on the door handle, his back to Wente, staring at the wooden door in front of him. Every muscle in his body feels tense, rigid with barely-controlled panic.

(This was a mistake, this was a mistake, this was a mistake-)

“I might be wrong,” Wente continues, voice calm and surprisingly non-accusatory, “but it sounds to me like you were pressured into…doing what you did.”

Was he? Maybe. He was frightened, certainly, and he felt trapped and out of options, but that doesn’t mean he was forced. He could - should - have found another solution. 

“Not as such, no.” His mouth feels dry, and the words come out stiff and overly formal. “I just– I panicked. I think. I’m sorry. I should have thought.”

“You should have,” Wente agrees, still in that same level voice, and Luthain wants to shrivel up and die. “But I don’t think you were trying to be cruel, and that’s the important part. Fear does funny things to a person.“

That’s…that's…

That’s not what he was expecting at all, actually. 

Luthain carefully turns to face Wente - or at least, an approximation. His gaze is still trained on a point in space about two feet above Wente’s head. 

"What are you trying to say,” he hedges. 

(Stars, why must people be so complicated. It would be a lot easier to handle matters if Wente would shout at him and demand he leave. Not more pleasant, mind, but easier)

“I don’t think you’re cruel,” Wente repeats, for once surprisingly forthright. Maybe he can tell that Luthain needs straightforward answers more than he needs vague prattling. “I think you were misled. And frightened. But there’s plenty of good in you, I’ll wager, and with a bit of effort I think you can find the right path.”

“I’m not-” There really is no way to say this eloquently, is there? “No. I’m not. I’m not…like that. No.”

(Good people don’t steal things, or set wolves on people. Good people don’t lie to people. Good people don’t cheat and manipulate and connive their ways through life.

Luthain isn’t a good person. Just a sad, scared, pathetic waste of space. He’s come to terms with this a long time ago)

“Hearts can change,” Wente says, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world. Luthain is seized with the savage desire to laugh in his face. “It’ll take time, of course, but if you keep trying, you’ll succeed. I promise you.”

It says something for his obviously-deteriorating mental state that he actually considers Wente’s words. It’s all meaningless fluff, of course, insubstantial, but it’s compelling. Very compelling.

(Out of habit, he searches for signs that some spell might be messing with his head. But no, it’s just Wente being himself, of course)

“…I’ll consider it,” he says. Again, a noncommittal statement, neither confirmation nor denial. Yet Wente, much like Amaya did before, seems to take it as a ‘yes’, if his smile is any indication. 

“That’s good.”

Luthain merely offers a weak smile in response, unsure what to say. Thankfully, Wente changes the subject. “Have you seen Amaya yet?” When Luthian shakes his head, Wente continues. “You ought to apologize to her as well, you know. Although, fair warning, she might already know it was you. It didn’t take me long to realize, after all.”

…What. “How did you know?”

“Well,” says Wente, “you were rather obvious. The door being left open right after Amaya told you about it? Amaya’s knife going missing after you inquired about it? Rather convenient timing, don’t you think?”

…oh stars, Luthain is a moron.

Perfect. Everything was perfect. A flawless plan that anyone could be proud of…except for this giant, extremely obvious blind spot that he’d somehow never managed to notice. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Gods, how is he this dumb.

“…I never realized,” he says, acutely aware of how stupid he sounds. Then again, considering his decisions up to this point, he probably is just that imbecilic.

(That’s odd - he didn’t know it was possible to lose every ounce of self-respect in the span of about a minute)

“Happens to the best of us,” Wente says, not noticing Luthain’s turmoil. “Consider it a learning experience, to do better next time.” It takes him a moment to realize exactly what he said. “Or don’t. Actually, please don’t steal any more things.”

Despite himself, Luthain can’t help but chuckle, a slightly cracked sound. He regrets it almost immediately - how can he laugh in a situation like this? - but Wente doesn’t seem too upset, wearing a small smile of his own, so maybe it’s not so bad.

“I won’t,” he promises.

“Good,” says Wente. His tone is good-natured but stern. “Because, between us, I don’t think my shop could withstand another stunt like that. These damages were bad enough.”

Damages?

“I didn’t notice many damages…?” he says carefully, still afraid of upsetting whatever delicate truce he’s formed with Wente. He wouldn’t say anything if it weren’t for his damnable curiosity reminding him that there was only one broken window, hardly something to make a huge fuss over.

“Not here, no,” Wente says, “but one of the wolves made it into the back room, and ruined some of my ingredients. I’d say about a third are unusable.”

There’s another jolt of guilt in his chest - and isn’t that becoming a familiar feeling - as Luthain utters a single, eloquent 'oh’.

Say something, you massive clod.

Easier said than done. He doesn’t know what to say, really. Somehow, 'oh, right, sorry again for inviting wolves into the village and destroying half your stock in the process’ doesn’t seem quite like it’ll cut it.

He has to say something though. Or maybe do something - 

The sudden idea is bright and glittering and golden, and he blurts it out without thinking twice. “I could help you.”

Wente looks rather taken aback. “I’m sorry?”

“I could help you,” he repeats, ignoring the part of his brain that’s busy screaming what a terrible idea this is. “Get things back in order, I mean. I - I can’t pay you back for the damaged goods, but maybe I could help around…?”

No. No, scratch that. This is a horrible idea, why would Wente want him within a ten-mile radius of the bakery after he destroyed everything. Luthain, you moron, apologize to the poor man at once. And then leave and never come back, it’s the least you can do, you dumb-

“That would be a great help.”

What. 

“Thank you for offering - I’m happy to accept.”

What. 

Briefly, Luthain wonders if he’s having a vivid hallucination. But no, Wente is there, welcoming him with the utmost sincerity, as if Luthain hasn’t destroyed half his stuff. 

Part of Luthain is astonished at Wente’s complete lack of sense. The rest is deeply relieved. 

“I’ll be back tomorrow, then,” he says, more of a question than a statement. Wente smiles in response and says that that would work perfectly. Goodbyes are exchanged, polite and friendly despite the lingering stiffness, and then Luthain is walking out the door, shopkeeper’s bell ringing behind him.

On a whim, Luthain snaps his fingers, and with a flicker of blue mana the shattered windowpane melts and warps and solidifies into unmarred glass, as if it were never broken.

~=~

Amaya’s door is locked

He wishes he could say that he’s surprised, but as it is, he just feels…bad. Sighing heavily, he raps on the door with his knuckles and waits. Hopefully, she won’t be in a bad mood.

As if on cue, Amaya chooses that moment to dash his hopes. “If that’s the thug who stole my knife, you’re in for a world of hurt!”

…Damn it. The words may be muffled through the wooden door, but there’s no way to mistake that tone for anything approaching ‘hospitable’ or ‘understanding’ or ‘unwilling to stab Luthain in the face’.

It’s too late to do the sensible thing and run for the hills, however. Already, he hears the clicking and clacking of several locks being undone (accompanied by mutterings about serrated blades, just his luck) and then the door pries open with a faint squeaking sound, revealing Amaya.

To his distress, Amaya hadn’t escaped unscathed from the wolf attack - white bandages now wind up her right forearm, ragged and spotted with pale splotches of blood. It’s a small thing, probably a minor injury, but the knowledge that he’d been responsible for it causes bile to rise in his throat. 

She looks frustrated, distinctly so, and this only seems to mount when she sees Luthain. Still, her expression smoothes a second later, to be replaced with a kind of manufactured politeness as she opens the door further, ushering him in. “Sorry, those locks weren’t meant for you.”

…Why does he have the impression that she’s not being strictly truthful?

“An act of cowardice,” she continues. “If I… when I catch those thieves, their kiesters are gonna get a walloping from me and Missus Crumbler. Speaking of, have you seen anyone carrying my missing knife around town?”

There’s a brief thought of who on Earth is Missus Crumbler before his mind catches up with the rest of the sentence and he frowns, puzzled by a completely different question.

Did she really not know who stole her knife? Luthain has difficulty believing that. In retrospect, Wente was right - his plan was clever, but he hadn’t factored just how obvious he was. Anyone with half a brain would have known the thief was him.

But she does seem sincere, and as much as Luthain suspects that she’s lying through her teeth, he can’t be sure

Why would she lie, anyways? What could possibly be her motive? To trip him up? To catch him off guard? If he denies knowing anything, will she call him out on it or play along?

Not that that’s important - it’s not like you’re considering lying anyways.

(True enough, but still, he’d like to know what Amaya is playing at. She’s just so…difficult to read, to make sense of, and it’s driving him up the wall.

Focus. This isn’t his priority)

“I stole your knife,” he says at last. Sheer, unadulterated bluntness seems the only way to go - he doesn’t have the presence of mind for anything more. “And I let the wolves in. To distract you. I’m sorry.” Please don’t stab me, he doesn’t say. 

He gives it back without any prompting, practically shoving it into her hands - as stupid as it may seem, he wants it as far away from him as possible. She takes a moment to examine it, checking for any scratches or marks. It’s the twisty dagger, rough and unfinished - in a useless show of clemency he’d chosen it in the hope that it would be less of a loss - and the blade shines dully in the dim light of the shop, one of many signs that marks it as incomplete. 

“Huh,” she says, tone pensive, “I’m standing here telling you I’m gonna crumble the person who stole my knife, and you come clean right to my face? Now that’s boldness I can admire. Maybe you’ve more courage than I thought. Although,” and here she gives him a scathing look that has him shrinking in on himself, “considering your past decisions, that’s not saying a lot.”

…Yeah, he probably deserved that. 

He resists the urge to wince, forcing himself to stand tall. “I’m sorry,” he says again, although he doesn’t believe it’ll help. What would help, anyways? He can’t tell. He’s never been a 'people-person’ to begin with, and Amaya is harder to read than most.

(He was right - the conversation with Wente was easier)

“You know,” she says, tone falsely casual, “if it were just the theft, I’d let you off easy. No harm, no foul and all that. But deliberately leaving the door open is another matter. Those wolves caused a great deal of havoc, and you’re lucky no one got hurt.”

(The apart from me goes unsaid)

“You’ve caused a lot of harm and distress, and for what? A blunt knife? If it weren’t for your little apology I’d think you were trying to be malicious.”

"I wasn’t,” he insists, feeling numb and distraught. “I just - It’s complicated. I was scared - for reasons I don’t want to get into - and I didn’t think.”

“I gathered as much,” she comments dryly, and he flinches. Right. He hadn’t exactly been his most composed when he fled from Amaya’s shop in a panic. “Though I do wonder why. You’re not a coward - don’t give me that look, you know I’m right - so something must have spooked you pretty badly for you to lose your head. The question is, what?”

Luthain doesn’t answer, seeing no reason to. Amaya nods to herself, as if expecting such an answer - or lack thereof.

“But I’m getting off topic. We were talking about the harm you caused. And what you’re going to do to fix it.”

“I know that property was damaged,” he says. “I’m - I’m actually going to help Wente for a while. We have an agreement.”

“Is that so?” She seems surprised, though not displeased. “That’s good. He was hit the hardest, I think.”

He nods, unsurprised. “I’d like to do any repairs I can, if you’ll let me. Broken structures and things like that.”

She seems pensive. “That…could work. Yes, that should work well. Fix what you’ve broken and we’ll be square as a sledgehammer.”

He nearly sags in relief. Thank the stars. That should be doable - half a day’s work at most, assuming of course that his flaky command of magic doesn’t peter out halfway through. 

Although, a part of him is disappointed about losing the dagger. He’ll need to find another elsewhere, and he doesn’t know where to find it. 

“I’ll tell you what.”

Luthain looks up, cautiously curious, to find the blacksmith staring at him, looking as if she’s read his mind. He’s not sure what to think of her tone.

“If you want it so badly,” Amaya continues, “you can keep this.” She holds up the knife, twirling it between her fingers so that the light reflecting off the blade shutters and flickers like candle flame.

What? 

No. She can’t be serious. There must be a catch.

“On one condition.” 

There it is.

“What is that?” he asks warily, not sure if he’ll like what he hears. Amaya is like that, he’s quickly learning: either she’ll say something that’s bizarre and makes no sense, or something that you won’t like hearing in the slightest.

He immediately regrets asking when she smiles, a sight that’s frankly a little unnerving.

“On the condition,” she says, still smiling, “that you help me finish it.”

Chapter Text

Well then.

This is...odd.

The terms of the bargain are straightforward - all he has to do is help in finishing the forging of the knife, and once it's complete, he’ll be allowed to keep it. That’s not the problem.

The problem is why. Because it’s a very silly bargain, if it could even be called that. Bargains are meant to make both parties better off - this feels more like Amaya is going through a great deal of trouble for no real gain. For heaven’s sake, Luthain doesn’t know the first thing of metalworking, and that certainly won’t work to his advantage.

But, when he tries to bring up this (very valid) point, Amaya actually dismisses it.

(“You don’t want me to help,” he’s quick to say. “I don’t know what to do. I’m useless. I am, quite possibly, the worst person for the job.”

To which she merely says, “Listen, do you want the knife or not?” And, of course, he says yes, and Amaya seems to think no further discussion is needed, but it is needed, just what is she playing at-)

The only conclusion that Luthain can reach is that Amaya is trying to achieve a different goal, one he doesn’t know about. She’s getting something out of this that extends beyond knives.

If only he could figure out what.

("Why are you doing this?" he eventually asks. He's emboldened some - Amaya's mood has greatly improved with the return of her knife and Luthain's promise to repair whatever damages he caused, and he no longer fears that she'll scoop out his insides with a pipe wrench - and the burning of his damnable curiosity is outweighing other considerations. 

Unfortunately, Amaya is reluctant to provide any useful information, making a vague comment about 'following the suggestion of a friend' before moving on to other topics, much to Luthain's frustration.

The most irritating part, in his opinion, is that he genuinely can't tell whether she has something to hide or is merely trying to annoy him)

He’s quick to reach the end of his rope and...all right, maybe he’s slightly rude. Slightly. Enough so that Father would give him a verbal lashing if he knew. But, in his defense, Amaya is sorely trying his limited patience. He wants answers, for once, and all this secrecy is getting on his nerves.

(“That’s not an answer,” he snaps. “The real reason, please.”

She’s not irritated, not the way he expects. It takes her a moment to think about her answer. “Maybe I’m just curious,” she says at last. This is information, this is something he could work with - he just needs to figure out what, precisely, she wants to know.

Luthain can’t help but think back to his first visit to the smithy, when he gave her his old broken dagger. The clear shock he saw in her expression before she brushed off his questions. There must be a connection, but he can’t piece it together.

“And how, exactly, is this supposed to help?” he asks skeptically, to which she shrugs.

“Just humor me,” is all she says. Luthain doesn’t bother with any further questions. He knows he won’t pry any more information out of her)

~=~

Thankfully, after that, the conversation moves to less irritating topics. Amaya is quick to put him to work, eager to repair the destroyed property, and Luthain isn't inclined to disagree with her. The guilt is a nagging thing, and the sooner he makes amends the sooner he’ll be rid of it, he's sure of it.

She drags him outside, pointing out whatever repairs need to be made. Most of the damage was done to the outsides of houses, consisting of broken windows and torn-up flower beds and shattered trinkets, but a couple of people were unfortunate enough to have the wolves enter their house proper, wreaking variable amounts of havoc. Luckily, none of these repairs are complex. Most of the concern lies in the fact that the number of them is excessive - his scars will bleed for sure if he uses so much mana in such a short amount of time.

It might be a good idea to space them out, probably, over several days or even a week. But he wants to be done with this as quickly as possible, and besides, the bleeding is nothing that he hasn’t dealt with before. 

He’ll be fine.

~=~

He's nervous at first, to be sure. No one has any reason to be hospitable to him after what he did, and he's fully expecting antagonism from every side. 

It turns out, he needn't have worried.

Predictably, most aren’t happy to hear that he’s responsible for the wolf attack, and some are more vocal about it than others. He receives some harsh words that has him flinching, hugging his arms close. He can’t help it - it’s pathetic, but he’s always reacted badly to sharp reprimands.  

But many are charitable enough to keep their mouths shut, and some are even nice to him, for some unfathomable reason. One memorable older woman - Mrs. Hathaway is her name, if he remembers correctly - is especially kind, thanking him for fixing her shutters and trying (unsuccessfully) to ply him with soup.

It's all very odd. Not unpleasant, mind, but odd. Luthain is used to either indifference or hostility, and this sort of kindness, freely given, is disorienting. He could at least understand if it were only Wente who displayed compassion so freely - an outlier as it were - but this is something else entirely. 

(He doesn't know how to react - you can say 'thank you' only so many times before you begin to sound like a broken record, and he's certain that he's surpassed that limit a while ago.

[How do they make it seem so natural?])

He's so bewildered that he doesn't even notice when his fingers start to bleed - until the pain sets in, that is, which is usually a good indication. He looks down at his hands to see blood spotting the bandages, red harshly outlined on white, and has to stop himself from hissing a bitter curse.

Distracted, he doesn't notice Amaya approaching from behind him, doubtless to check on his progress. And she must notice him staring at his hands and the (very obvious) bloodstains, because she doesn't even bother with a greeting before beginning with the questions.

"What happened?" are the first words out of her mouth. It's a perfectly reasonable question, the correct response to seeing someone develop a minor case of bleeding out. It still takes him by surprise, however, and he finds himself fumbling for an answer.

"Nothing," is the response he settles on, but it isn't the good one, if the expression on her face is any indication. So he backtracks, instead choosing platitudes. "It happens sometimes when I cast magic. Nothing to worry about, I'm fine."

"Doesn't look fine to me. Blood isn’t usually a good sign."

"It's fine. This is normal."

She gives him a look. "I might not know too much about performing magic," she says dryly, "but I'm fairly certain that you're not supposed to bleed while doing so."

Something about that sentence - the tone, perhaps, which rings with faint condescension - grates on Luthain's nerves, prodding at an old wound. Before he can stop himself he snaps back, voice turning cold and offended. "I'm not incompetent."

"I never said you were," she says, unflappable. It's a brisk statement of fact that does wonders to quell his irritation, replacing it with faint embarrassment. “But it’s my belief that if you’re bleeding, then there's something wrong.”

"...Right," he says, feeling abashed. "Sorry. I guess you have a point. But really," he rambles, wanting this conversation to end as quickly as possible, "you don't need to worry. This is fine."

Amaya gives him a searching sort of look that has him squirming, and then something steely appears in her expression, as if she’s just made a decision. "That's it, we're going to Muriel. She knows more about this magic tomfoolery than I do," the admission seems to physically pain her, "and she can probably help. You're nearly done anyways, I can take care of the rest of the repairs.”

There's a lot of questions begging to be asked - what on Earth are you even talking about, for example - but his brain takes that moment to place where he’s heard that name, to connect it with a dark shop and ambient magic and a little old lady who’s far too perceptive, and the resulting click of realization has him blurting out an entirely different question. “Muriel Hobblepot?”

Amaya looks mildly surprised. “You’ve met her? Good, that’ll make this easier. Follow me, you're going to go see her right now."

“I don’t need - I can keep working -”

“Are you coming along, or do I need to drag you?” she interrupts. “Don’t think I won’t.”

He doesn’t need much more persuasion after that - the look in her eyes means that she’s entirely serious, and Luthain still has some sense of dignity, thank you very much.

~=~

It's with a certain amount of trepidation that he climbs the stairs to the shop. His last meeting with the Hobblepots - or rather, with Muriel mostly - was confusing and distressing, and he's not looking forward to any more cryptic advice or vague warnings. Such 'help' is more stressful than anything else, he thinks.

But he continues onwards nonetheless...for reasons which, of course, have nothing to do with the fact that Amaya is waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, tapping an impatient foot and glaring at the back of his head. Of course.

The door is unlocked, thankfully - it seems only Amaya took that particular precaution. This time, he's somewhat prepared for the crackling of ambient magic in the air as he enters the shop. Somewhat, that is. It still makes him slightly giddy, and he can't quite push down the mana that bubbles under his skin. His fingertips sting and more red oozes into the bandages - he stubbornly ignores both of those things.

"Hello again."

It's Muriel who spoke from behind the counter - for some reason Chester isn't beside her, and doesn't seem to be anywhere to be seen. Luthain mumbles a vague greeting as he looks around, searching for him.

"Chester's in the back room reorganizing," she explains helpfully. "We tend to get more orders approaching the tournament, and it's good to make sure that everything is in order."

Ah, that makes sense. 

"Now," she continues, her gaze entirely too sharp and discerning, "how can I help you? You don't seem to be here for socializing."

"Amaya sent me," he explains, the words carefully rehearsed during the short walk here. "She noticed that my hands tend to bleed when I cast, and she...recommended that I come to you."

"I believe the word you're looking for may be ordered, knowing her," she comments dryly, surprising a small laugh from him. She then makes a small beckoning gesture, and Luthain holds out his hands to her. With nimble, precise movements she unwraps the bandages, revealing the scars beneath, and tsks at the sight of split skin oozing blood. "You should have had this issue addressed long ago - these scars look to be years old."

"I wasn't exactly able to." It's not a lie, not really - just a statement which says entirely too little. No need to answer questions that weren't asked.

"Hmpf." She holds one of his hands and turns it gently from side to side to examine the wounds, seemingly unbothered by the drops of blood falling on the wooden counter with gentle plips. Her next words are in a completely different tone, sharply changing topics. "By the way, did you ever apologize to Amaya for stealing her knife?"

He jolts, heart jumping into his throat. The look in her eyes is too knowing for his taste. "How did you know?" he asks, somewhere between shocked and curious.

Muriel hmms as she prods at his scars, her own fingertips coming away bloody. "Well, I could answer any number of ways, really. I could say that I saw it in my crystal ball. Or read it in my tea leaves. Or," her eyes twinkle with mischief, "I could answer honestly, and say that I saw you through the window."

"...Ah," he says, feeling defeated. The more he realizes how much of a hash he's made of his plan, the more he feels like a fool. 

He's pulled out of his momentary funk when Muriel flips his left hand over, making a small angry sound at the sight of the scars carved into the back of his hand, as if by a knife. She doesn't mention it, however, instead continuing the conversation. "So, did you?"

It takes him a moment to remember the question. "...yes, I did. I'm supposed to repair the damage I did."

"Hm, that's good," she says absently, still examining the scars. At last, Muriel lets go of his hand, her brow furrowed in thought, and she marches over to the door leading into the backroom and opens it, poking her head inside. 

"Chester," she says, voice sharp and commanding, "bring out the adeasia blossoms, will you? And a touch of ruby bay leaf oil. Adeasia helps with these sorts of shallow wounds," she explains, closing the door and returning to the counter, "and the bay leaf will hopefully do something for the scars."

He's about to say 'thank you' when he freezes, suddenly remembering a pressing issue: his lack of funds. He doesn't have any gold on him - Father is strict about these things, after all - and the...adeasia? Is that its name? Would certainly come at a price, as would the oil. 

"...I don't have any money," he says helplessly, a sinking feeling in his chest. "I'm sorry, I should have told you earlier. But I can't pay you."

He half-expects a swift rebuff, and is taken aback when Muriel doesn't even blink. "That's fine, dear," she says in an unreasonably casual tone. "You aren't allergic to cinnamon, are you? Because patients with cinnamon allergies tend to react badly to adeasia."

"No, I'm not," he answers mechanically, still reeling. His next words are probably a little incoherent, but he's too floored to care. "I'm sorry, did you - I said I was broke -"

"And I said it was fine," she retorts. "I'm not leaving this untreated, money or no. Much more of this and you'll damage your hands permanently - if you haven't done so already, that is. Can't have that, can we?"

"You don't have to do this-"

Muriel interrupts him with a harrumphing sort of sound that is more derisive than strictly necessary. "Oh yes I do! I might prefer to use my brains, but I'm not heartless. And, in any case," and here her tone shifts to something more serious, that knowing glint appearing in her eyes again, "you look like you need a good deal of help, and if no one else is going to step up, I suppose I'll have to be the one to supply it."

There's a lump in his throat and a warm feeling in his chest, both of which Luthain tries to ignore. He doesn't know what to say, so he settles for a soft 'thank you', unsure how else to respond. Something in his expression must reveal his pathetic confusion, because Muriel's expression softens a little. 

"You have potential," she says after a pause, seemingly out of the blue. "You're cunning - that little scheme of yours proves it. You just need to learn how to apply it properly, and a little more confidence would do you a world of good."

He's spared from answering when Chester returns, carrying tiny bottles of a red, oily liquid and handfuls of blue-and-purple flowers. Muriel is promptly distracted, and she and Chester debate briefly in an undertone, before Muriel begins mashing the flowers into a gloppy, bruise-hued paste.

A mild boredom is quick to set in, and Luthain looks around the shop for anything that might catch his interest. His gaze again falls on the boiling cauldron near the counter - he can’t help but note that the potion is now milky-white in appearance, where before it was a muddy, rusty sort of color.

The curiosity is burning again - only this time, Father isn't here to hold him back. “You know, I never got to ask. What are you brewing there?”

Muriel seems only half-invested in the conversation as she focuses on her task. “Oh, that? That’s a little thing of Chester’s invention.”

“Truth potion,” Chester supplies helpfully. “It’s meant to put the victim in a trance, you see, so that they'll answer questions more readily. We're a little low on ingredients, though."

“It needs flax flowers,” Muriel continues seamlessly. “And dear Chester over here,” she glares at him, and Chester gives her a perfectly innocent smile, “ate the last of our supply, if you’ll believe it.”

(He ate...why. Why. Luthain isn’t going to ask, of course, but why)

“...Flax, you say?” Luthain repeats, an idea slowly forming. 

Muriel waves a hand dismissively. “And a couple other things as well. But don’t you worry about it. Here, let me show you how to apply the adeasia properly.”

~=~

The adeasia paste - evenly applied over his wounds and tucked underneath fresh bandages - swiftly numbs the pain. It's an odd feeling: as pathetic as it might sound, Luthain has long become used to the aching in his fingertips. For it to be suddenly absent is...strange.

The Hobblepots send him off with tiny bottles of ruby bay leaf oil and jars of adeasia paste, along with strict instructions to change the bandages and reapply the paste no less than twice a day - that's non-negotiable, and I don't want to hear that you've been skipping doses, Luthain - until the wounds are healed. Once healed, Muriel continued, he should start applying the oil, which should help to reduce the scarring. 

(To be honest, his hopes aren't high - he doesn't see how the scars could have a chance to heal when he has to perform magic almost daily, and he's long ago resigned himself to having them for the rest of his life. But he'll try, at least. Maybe this time there'll be a miracle)

…He should repay them somehow, he thinks. His pathetic words of thanks don't feel like enough. 

Flax flowers were what they needed, right? He could find flax flowers. Flax isn't a rare plant - he could gather a handful for them easily. Yes, that sounds like a good plan.

(Lost in thought, in building up vague fantasies and fleeting half-plans, he wanders back to the inn, only partly aware of his surroundings. 

He'd do well to be a bit more thoughtful - for one thing, the hour is rather late. For another, he'd forgotten to tell Father he was leaving. Neither of these promise anything except a painful conversation)

~=~

"And where have you been?"

He freezes on the doorstep, heart battering wildly in his throat. He knows that tone all too well. That’s the tone that means that Father is angry, and that Luthain is the target for his rage.

But he doesn’t know...why would Father be angry with him? Luthain told him he was leaving, right?

...Right?

Oh gods. He didn’t forget. He didn’t. There’s no way he’s that stupid. Please, no.

“I worried,” Father says, his voice dripping with that special mix of disappointment and reproach - and right there is confirmation that yes, Luthain is that stupid. “I didn’t know where you were. You can't just do these things, Luthain. How was I supposed to know what happened to you?"

By trusting that I can handle myself, he doesn't say. He can't be irritated at Father - he is only worried, after all, and Luthain has no right to feel so angry, so suffocated. He certainly has no right to feel trapped. 

With effort, he pushes down the old impulse to snap a retort. That way only led to painful arguments that would escalate further and further and further until Luthain lost his nerve and backed down, after which it would peter out into days of resentment and tension - an exhausting process that did far more harm than good. 

No, the only way to survive these kinds of conversations is to keep his head down and say nothing (apart from the occasional monotone lie, that is) and hope that it'll blow over. Silence is safe - no one can pick apart his words and look for something to anger themselves with if he says nothing at all. 

"I'm busy enough without worrying over you," Father is saying, and the words sting like a punch to Luthain's gut. "This is difficult work as it is, I can barely handle it all on my own. And to top it all off, you vanish for hours on end? Shame on you."

Luthain wishes he knew how to tune out those words. But, adept as he is at fading into the background, allowing words to wash over him, he can never do the same when Father is scolding him. He can't ignore it. He listens to and remembers each and every poisonous word until he wants to sink down into the ground with the weight of them.

"I'm sorry," he croaks, even though he knows it's a terrible, awful idea to say anything. "I forgot-"

"You forgot." The palpable disbelief in Father's voice is like a whiplash to the face, and Luthain flinches and hunches in on himself, nails digging into the palms of his hands. "You forgot. Of course you did. Utterly brainless, you are."

Luthain doesn't say anything, merely bites his lip and waits. 

"I swear," Father mutters under his breath, calculated to be just loud enough for Luthain to hear, "you wouldn't last a week without me. You're hopeless. What will you do when I'm gone?"

(Luthain has asked himself that question before, though for entirely different reasons)

The rant that follows is a monologue that Luthain could recite in his sleep. Jabs at Luthain’s intelligence, compassion (or lack thereof), general worth as a human being - he’s heard it so many times it’s practically ingrained into his brain, seared into his skin like a brand reading useless. He stares at the wall opposite him and tries not to think too much.

(You would think it would hurt a little less after hundreds of repetitions. You would be wrong)

“Where were you?” Father repeats, finally getting to the point, more of a demand than a question; Luthain stops breathing and wonders what he could possibly say. He doesn’t feel upset, just numb and foggy and as if he can’t properly breathe - later, he knows, he’ll be hurt and depressed, but for now he’s just floaty and distant and he can still somewhat think.

“I was talking to the villagers,” he says, or rather, hears himself say. It feels like it's a different part of him that's speaking, a disconnect between his hazy, nebulous thoughts and his actions.

"What for?"

And again Luthain speaks, the words reverberating inside his own skull. "You know as well as I do the importance of having good connections, Father. Having friends in the village could be useful."

(It's the oddest thing - he doesn't remember coming up with that excuse)

There's silence, long and drawn out - Father seems to be considering, perhaps taken aback. Something in his posture makes Luthain nervous - he’s long learned how to read Father’s mercurial moods, and right now there's something that has alarm bells ringing in his head, a grim warning of you have misstepped and the consequences will be dire.

He's already mentally bracing himself, hands twitching with the urge to grab at the folds of his cloak, when something strange happens; Father laughs. It's an ugly, barking sort of sound, sharp and fractured in all the wrong places, rattling inside metal armor. Luthain can't help but stare askance - he's never heard Father make a sound quite so gleeful before. It feels...odd.

(For some reason, ‘gleeful’ doesn't seem like the right word. There's something wrong with it, something knowing and mocking that sparks a certain dread he can't explain.

He doesn't get much time to think about it)

Still chortling, Father places a hand on Luthain's elbow - when he speaks, his voice is laced with cold approval. "Good, good. You're learning."

(It takes longer than it should for the words to sink in, but when they do, the relief is overwhelming.

[And underneath it, a small, broken part of him can't help but glow pathetically at the praise, even if he doesn’t understand where it’s coming from])

"Maybe I can still make something of you," Father continues, and Luthain smiles and nods and doesn't think about the dread building in his chest, doesn't think about anything at all.

Chapter Text

The rest of the conversation happens in a sort of daze, Luthain still feeling numb and distant. He's able to focus enough to try to take advantage of his hasty excuse - he needs the freedom to visit the town square, and he's still present enough to realize that this is an excellent opportunity. Better to pry an agreement out of Father now, while he's still in a good mood.

Thankfully, Father seems to be in excellent spirits. Words of praise are a rare thing from him - his standards are exacting and Luthain rarely lives up to them - but for once he’s...actually supportive. His approval is a hard-won prize and Luthain basks in it greedily, the way a parched man gulps down water. 

As a result, he's far less stubborn than expected, and receptive to the idea of giving Luthain some free rein. Luthain has to agree to some conditions, of course - he can't just waltz away whenever he wants, after all - but they're not too restrictive and he agrees to them with little fuss. Father makes a show of reluctance, but it takes only some cajoling and a few more lies before he gives in.

("Well," he sighs, "I trust you know what you're doing. But the first sign of a problem and you come straight to me, understand?"

"Of course," Luthain says with the utmost sincerity. Father will be the first person he turns to...if there’s a problem. But Luthain doesn’t anticipate that there’ll be any issues urgent enough to bother him with)

Everything passes by in a confused blur that requires all of his scattered attention. It's only after the negotiations are finished, and Father has returned to his letters and Luthain has hidden away in his room, that the numbness starts to fade and he finally stops to process everything. 

He sits on the edge of the bed, fairly dizzy with relief, hovering in that odd place between exultation and dejection. Exultation, because he's still glowing with the effects of Father's praise and the thought that he's now free to visit town whenever he pleases. Dejection, because he still can't quite shake off Father's earlier harsh words, about incompetence and stupidity and thoughtless arrogance

The dejection is creeping further in, souring his mood - he tries to shove it down with limited success, tries to focus on the good parts and stop his mind from wandering in unwelcome directions. It's difficult, however, to cling to the warm feeling of receiving praise when guilt is oozing into the mix as well, thick and frozen. 

Because when it comes down to it, Father complimented him for an accomplishment he lied about. He has no scheme to use the villagers as pawns. He has no intention of garnering connections. His sole goal was to have the freedom to visit them so he could pay off his debts, not to trick them into serving his interests. 

(And he doesn't think he could do that, really. Luthain doesn't have Father's manipulative skills, for one. For another, the mere thought leaves a nasty taste in his mouth, for reasons he doesn't want to delve into)

Figures. The one time Father is actually happy with him, and it's for something Luthain didn't even do.

Any scraps of elation are quick to evaporate after that. Shivering, he wraps his arms around himself, hugging tight, as if that would help chase away the creeping despondency. It doesn't really help much.

(It's a feeling he's long become acquainted with, this leaden sort of exhausted bleakness; but that doesn't make it any more bearable)

He needs to stop this depressing train of thought; wallowing in self-pity isn’t going to help anyone, least of all himself. He's made his bed and now he must lie in it, and try to find a way to salvage this situation.

So. First of all, he needs a more concrete form for his cover story. More details. Father might ask all manner of prying questions at any time, and Luthain doesn't want to be caught off guard when that happens-

Wait. Wait, wait, wait. 

...There's something very odd about all this.

Why is it that Father asked next to no questions about the villagers? About Luthain’s (nonexistent) plans? About anything at all?

Luthain freezes in place, thoughts whirling at a mile a minute, as cold fear starts to creep in. Somehow, he has the feeling that Father accepted his half-baked explanation just a little too easily. And he was acting strangely, all mysterious and snide, as if he knew something that Luthain didn't.

As if he recognized Luthain's story for the pack of falsehoods it was.

The thought is chilling and terrifying, and the surge of fear has him stiffening. Gods, if that's the case, he's dead-

Calm down, he tells himself, trying to force himself to think objectively. If Father knew, he would have confronted (yelled at) Luthain at the earliest opportunity. Father doesn't take lying lightly, considering it a terrible breach of trust: some of their worst arguments began with some fib or other that Luthain told. He would know if he were caught. He’s fine

(Somehow, that’s not as reassuring as it should be, not even close. No matter how he tries to persuade himself otherwise, he can't shake the impression that things will go horribly wrong)

~=~

He does very little planning after that, instead pacing around the little room as he worries and frets, his anxiety-driven imagination warping the truth into some horrible facsimile of reality. So rattled is he that he doesn't calm down until late into the night, and it takes even longer to relax enough to fall asleep. 

His dreams that night are bad ones - not as bad as the previous night's, thankfully, but still plagued with sharp shadows and the metallic scent of blood. He wakes up several times in a cold sweat, his arm stinging with phantom pain. 

It's still early - so early that there's just the barest hint of sunlight over the hilltops - when, sick of tossing and turning, he finally crawls out of bed. He's tired, to be sure, and wrung out emotionally, but his nerves are bad enough that he knows he won't be able to sleep, no matter how much he wants to. 

With ease born of practice he slips out of bed and gets dressed in silence - Father is surely still asleep in the next room, Luthain knows from experience that he rarely wakes before eight or nine in the morning. His thoughts are foggy, and it's only at the last moment that he remembers to change his bandages and reapply the adeasia paste. 

(He notices to his surprise that the wounds look far better than he expected them to, already scabbing over and well on their way to healing. Perhaps there are such things as miracles after all)

There's a growing itch under his skin, a nagging buzz, a need to leave this room which suddenly feels cramped and confining.  As he finishes rewrapping the bandages, he wonders if it would be a good idea to leave. A walk might help calm his nerves. 

(Also, he needs to visit Wente today, he remembers - and as much as he doesn't want to, he knows he has to go through with it. Luthain promised, after all, and he doesn't feel like disappointing the man a second time.

[Nevermind that he'll probably disappoint Wente anyway, sooner or later - living up to others' expectations isn't his strong suit. But that's a pointless train of thought that'll do nothing but depress him, so he doesn't think about it too much])

The problem with that plan is, of course, Father, because Luthain might be forgetful at times, but he isn't stupid. Disappearing without a word of warning isn't a mistake he's likely to make again soon. 

By that logic, the safest choice would be then to stay, and wait for Father to wake up, and make sure that he has explicit permission to leave. Indeed, at any other time, he would have done just that. 

But Luthain is tired and frustrated and he can barely keep himself from fidgeting. Staying here in this tiny room, alone but for Father's sharp words echoing in his skull, is a pill that's hard for him to swallow. 

He shouldn't do anything rash. He knows this. But he feels trapped and closed in and he needs to go out, and that compulsion is starting to outweigh his learned caution. 

A compromise, then, perhaps. Father won't be worried if he knows where Luthain is, and a note would do the job well enough. 

Now decided, he grabs a piece of paper and a quill from Father's desk and begins to write, slowly, agonizingly. It takes longer than he'd like - Luthain’s handwriting is messy at best and illegible at worst, courtesy of permanent, feeble tremors in his fingers, and he has to be very careful if he wants to be understood, especially since Father rarely has the patience to puzzle through his chicken scratch.

(It's a point of contention, his inability to write neatly. Luthain blames the damage done by his own magic, while Father blames his innate incompetence and lack of motivation to improve himself)

With excruciating care, he scratches out a short sentence explaining where he’s gone and when he expects to return - the letters are somewhat lopsided and shaky, but they're readable without much trouble, and that’s all he really needs. Careful not to smudge the ink, he leaves the letter on Father's desk, on top of the clutter of papers and notes, where he's sure to see it. 

With this issue sorted, he slips outside the room, closing the door carefully behind him.

(The relief of finally being out of that room is instantly worth it)

~=~

(It's only once he's outside that he finds that he's not really sure what to do, where to go. A walk seems like a good idea in theory...at least until he remembers that the forest is filled with ravenous wolves, and. No. No, thank you; he'd like to keep his limbs, seeing as he's rather attached to them and all that. 

On the other hand, it's probably still too early to head to the square. None of the shops would be open at so early an hour. 

He's at somewhat of a loss, to be honest, and as glad as he is to be out of that room, he feels rather foolish now. It doesn't help that it's cold, a proper chilly autumn morning, and the longer he stands still the more the chill seeps through his clothes.

...Come to think of it, there was something he wanted to do, wasn't there? Flax flowers, for the Hobblepots. Now is as good a time as any to gather some)

~=~

Thankfully, unlike everything else that he’s had to cope with lately, the task of finding flax isn’t riddled with life-threatening complications. He stumbles across a patch relatively close to the village, on the outskirts of the forest - the sight of the shadowed trees makes him slightly nervous, but there’s no sign of gritty, cloying magic or vicious wolves, so he figures it’s safe enough.

He’s careful to choose only whole and unwilted ones - a monotonous, mindless task that helps to soothe his frazzled nerves. By the time he gathers a respectable number of flax blossoms, the sun is peeking over the hilltops in a manner which could, conceivably, be considered dawn. 

(He realizes a little belatedly, a little stupidly, that now that he has the flowers, he needs to actually visit the Hobblepots. A silly thing to forget, perhaps, but the prospect still stings him with faint anxiety. All manner of silly thoughts are plaguing him - what if they aren't the right kind, what if there aren't enough, what if he's being insulting - and he has to forcefully tell his brain to shut up for once)

The shops are probably open by now; with this in mind he makes a beeline for the village and Muriel's shop, flax in hand, taking the stairs two at a time.

He's right: the door yields, and he strides into the shop, trying to fake an appearance of confidence. The shop is a little messy and disorganized - they're still getting ready for the day, probably - but both Muriel and Chester are at the counter. They look up at his approach, Muriel wishing him good morning as Chester grins.

(Something about their demeanor - as if they were genuinely happy to see him - sparks a strange feeling he can't explain)

"Good morning," he offers, stilted, awkward. He tries to ignore the doubts gathering at the back of his mind, hissing that he's being silly and that this is a bad idea. 

"The adeasia worked well," he continues, floundering. "So. Thank you. I wanted to. Well."

The need to leave, to escape, is sudden and choking. Without any ceremony he practically dumps the flowers on the counter, inches away from losing his nerve entirely. 

"...you mentioned needing these," he says somewhat despairingly. Gods, how is he so bad at this. "Flax flowers. So I brought some."

He’s messed this up already, hasn’t he. Oh stars. He must look like an idiot, he handled this so clumsily, gods- 

"That's very nice of you," Muriel says gently, and some of Luthain's nervous energy melts away. She begins picking through the flowers, examining them. "Chester, don't you dare," she snaps, and Chester snatches his hand away from the bundle of flowers.

Luthain shifts his weight, fighting the urge to pluck nervously at his sleeves. "I don't know if this is enough? Or if they're the right kind or if they're damaged or. If there's something wrong with them, I can find others-"

"These will work perfectly," she says, cutting through his anxious chatter. She gives him a small smile. "You have an eye for this sort of thing."

Something warm bubbles in his chest at the praise, strong enough to chase away his lingering dark mood, and he has to fight a dopey smile. "...Uh. That's. That's good."

(He's not at all sure what to say. What did people do in such situations?)

Luckily, it turns out that he doesn't need to say anything further. Muriel snatches up four or five of the best-looking flowers, leaving the rest in a bundle on the counter, and she and Chester huddle around the bubbling cauldron, ignoring him completely as they lose themselves in their own little world. Luthain, bemused, lets them, but he can’t help but watch as they work, his curiosity burning. 

She tears off petals one by one and drops them into the potion - with each new petal, the color of the liquid changes, shifting slowly from milky-white to a kind of pale blue. "That should do it," she says at last, when the potion is a nice periwinkle. "The smell's a bit too sharp, though."

She's right - the smell emanating from the cauldron is feeble, but it irritates his nose and makes him want to sneeze. Muriel frowns. "Something's out of balance. What do you think, Chester?"

Chester sniffs the fumes from the cauldron, seemingly unbothered by the reek. "Needs a wyvern scale or two, I should think. To even out the anise."

"Hm, you're probably right. I'll look in the back room for them." Her eyes narrow, and without glancing up from the cauldron she speaks, voice stern, “Chester Hobblepot, I can see you eyeing those frog tonsils. Don't even think about it."

Chester, who'd been staring somewhat hungrily at the aforementioned disgusting jar of tonsils, looks away and begins whistling an innocent tune. Muriel scoffs but doesn't comment, instead turning to Luthain. "Thank you for getting us these. You've saved us a good idea of delay and trouble."

She seems genuinely grateful and happy, not just pretending for the sake of politeness. It gives him an odd feeling he’s not entirely sure what to do with. Not unpleasant, far from it, just...odd. And nice.

“Is there anything else I could help with?” he blurts before he can stop himself. He could, he thinks, as long as they don't send him after dangerous beasts. Maybe. He'd definitely try his best, at any rate.

She raises an eyebrow at that. “...You do realize that you don’t have to? I did mean what I said about not having to repay me."

And that...that brings him up short, makes his thoughts stutter and trip; because the truth is, he hadn't really been thinking about his debt to them at all. Not in the slightest. He's not sure what impulse drove him to offer help a second time, but it certainly wasn't out of any feeling of obligation.

“I want to,” he says lamely, after some brief floundering. He doesn’t have a better explanation then that, honestly. But it doesn't look like he really needs one, because Muriel gets an odd sort of look on her face, and then she consults briefly with Chester, and before he knows it Luthain has a new task - gathering some blister vine. Be careful when you slice it, Luthain, the sap stings and causes boils. 

(The concern they hold for him is oddly touching, and he leaves the shop with a warm feeling glowing steadily in his chest, his mood far brighter than before)

~=~

It's morning, properly morning, and the town square is slightly less quiet than usual. The bakery should definitely be open by now, which means it's time to go see Wente. 

He's...slightly nervous. 

...Alright, very nervous. But, in his defense, it's not as if he knows a solitary thing about baking, or cooking, or interacting with others, or dealing with Wente's apparent determination to be nice to him. So he has the right to a bit of nervousness, he thinks. 

Well, on the bright side, at least he won't have to worry for long. Wente will probably get sick of his presence within the first hour and kick him out, and then he'll be absolved of his responsibilities. 

(Shush, you're worrying too much)

So engrossed is he in these silly thoughts that he barely notices Amaya - if it weren't for her calling his name, he would have walked right into her. As it is, her voice snaps him out of his musings and he looks up sharply, nearly tripping over his own feet. 

She's standing front of him, her expression arranged in something like concern. A set of shiny keys jingle in her hands - she's probably here to open up her shop. 

"...Amaya," he says, feeling more than a little awkward. He attempts a smile, though judging by the look on her face, he's not very successful. "Good morning."

"Good morning to you, too," she says warily. "Something wrong?"

"No, why?" 

"You just looked kind of out of it, is all."

"Oh, nothing much, just thinking," he says dismissively. Amaya gives him an unimpressed look, clearly not believing a word he's saying, but thankfully she doesn't pursue the subject further. 

"How're your hands?"

He blinks, startled by the sudden change in topic. "...Better, I think? The Hobblepots gave me something to help the bleeding. It's not so bad now."

He can't quite keep the incredulity out of his voice, and Amaya gives him a well duh sort of look. "Well, well," she says, tone dryer than a desert, "imagine that. Sometimes people will help you if you ask them to, who would have thought."

"Shush," is his imaginative and inspired reply, and even that comes out stilted and awkward. He can feel anxiety creeping in at the edges, and prays that Amaya won't notice. 

And of course, she immediately does. "Alright, what's wrong?" she asks, once again using that stern, 'you're not walking out of this one' tone that Luthain is rapidly learning to dislike. 

Luthain gnaws at his bottom lip, thinking. Briefly, he considers just not telling her, but she won't leave him alone until he does. 

(That...should probably bother him more than it does)

“I just feel...nervous, I guess," he says finally. His gaze flickers involuntarily towards Wente's front door. "I don’t know.”

(Which is really just shorthand for I'm afraid of being a failure and making everything worse, but eh. Brevity is the soul of wit and all that)

"Hm." She gives him another one of those searching looks - incidentally, Luthain is learning to dislike those as well. "Well, Wente's a good enough man. A little too...huggy, I suppose, but he's got a good heart. I don't think you have much to worry about."

"...Are you sure?" he asks, and winces at his own tone. He doesn't mean to sound so uncertain, but it happens anyways.

“Of course,” she says, with the utmost sincerity. A small smile splinters across her face. “Just dodge if he tries to hug you. The moment he looks like he’s raising his arms, elbow him in the side and run.”

Luthain snorts, and feels just a little lighter.

~=~

There's a sweet, bready smell of something baking, and absolutely no Wente to be seen. Luthain allows the door to fall awkwardly shut behind him, and considers briefly what to do - waiting seems the best option, so he stands in front of the counter like an idiot.

The first time he came here, he was bleeding out on the floor. The second time, he confessed to a crime. Neither of these events were conducive to really...well, paying attention to his surroundings, but now he's free to do so. 

And there's a creeping sense of being horribly out of place. 

Not for any glaring reason, except that this place practically exudes Wente, and Wente is an anomaly that Luthain doesn’t understand in the slightest. And while it was easier before, to just ignore him, now Luthain is squarely faced with this...atmosphere he doesn't understand. 

He doesn't know how to explain it, just that this cozy, friendly place that seems to emanate warmth and comfort is setting his nerves on edge. He feels completely out of his depth. 

Like he doesn't belong. 

"Luthain!"

Ah. Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Luthain scrounges up a small smile. "Hello, Wente."

“Hello,” Wente chirps with an entirely-too-large-smile. His hands are lightly dusted with flour. “I was just setting up for baking a custard pie. Should be easy to start with, I think.”

“...I see.” He can kind-of-sort-of tell where this is going, unfortunately, but that doesn’t stop him from asking, “Uh, where do I start…?”

He was expecting - hoping - to be given some small, menial tasks: fetching and carrying and such, to befit his lack of skill. But he’s apparently nowhere near lucky enough for that, because Wente gives him a rather odd look and says, as if it were perfectly obvious, “Well, with baking the pie, of course. You’re going to help me.”

...Alright. Alright. He can do this. He can. It’s a pie, not the end of the world. He’ll figure this out, somehow.

(Stars, this is going to go so badly. So badly. He’s going to ruin absolutely everything and upset everyone and there will go whatever semblance of an acquaintanceship he’s been forming with these lunatics. Gods)

“I’m not sure - I don’t know anything about baking,” he says in a helpless bid for escape, which he can already tell is doomed for failure. 

As expected, Wente seems entirely unfazed. “Well, then now is as good a time as any to learn.”

And Luthain could come up with any number of valid and pertinent counterarguments to that statement, but he can tell that it's not going to help  his case - not unless he wants to disappoint Wente. So he plasters on a smile that feels remarkably forced, and gives a stiff nod. “...Alright. Let’s go bake a pie.”

Wente smiles brightly, inordinately thrilled. Luthain keeps his own smile frozen on his face and steels himself, hoping that he didn't just make a terrible decision.