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The Halidom sits in near silence at night. Of course, many of its eccentric residents are up and about on any number of strange and interesting errands, but not Pia. Exhausted from a day of strenuous vocal rehearsal, she finds herself in a deep, but troubled sleep.

The entire experience seems bleak and faded, and although the dream is centered around her, Pia finds herself as an observer rather than an active participant. She watches herself sing before an enormous crowd, and although the performance starts out mesmerizing and the people applaud and cheer, it soon takes a dark turn. During the final song, the Pia on the stage hits a sour note, and it makes Pia the dreamer cringe. The audience notices it as well, and angry and disappointed voices begin to fill the room.

“I was promised a flawless performance!” shouts one man.

“I expected far better from a former member of the Harmonia Choir!” agrees another.

“Pitiful for her to make such a simple mistake,” scoffs a well-dressed woman. “I guess she didn’t take her practice seriously.”

The Pia on the stage tries her best to keep the performance going, but the growing resentment of the crowd begins to break her down. Tears well in her eyes, and it only seems to feed the darkness in the room.

“How pathetic, can’t she even handle some criticism?”

“What a weak child, she can’t possibly make it as a singer.”

“I certainly won’t be coming to see Pia sing again, and I’ll tell everyone I know to avoid her performances as well!”

Most of the crowd begins to leave their seats and exit the venue in disgust, but some approach the stage instead. They stand just beyond the edge of the spotlight, shouting their disappointment and hatred at the other Pia, who gives in and flees back behind the curtain, tears flowing freely now.

Pia watches as her dream self disappears, feeling numb and afraid as the crowd begins to mount the stage and pursue the crying singer.

Her eyes snap open, and she sees the first light of dawn streaming through the room’s only window. She stays still, letting her heartbeat slow down gradually, performing familiar breathing exercises in an attempt to relax.

It was just a dream, stupid! She tells herself over and over, but she can’t seem to let it out of her mind. She gets up and washes in the nearby basin, hoping that the cold water will shock her back to reality, but the images and voices remain. It isn’t the first time she has been afflicted with nightmares, and maybe that’s why she finds it so unsettling. She finds herself dressing and wandering out of her room, finding some relief in the familiar castle corridors.

“It’s safe here,” she says out loud. “No one would ever say things like that to me here. Everyone is so nice. Even Elias is nice to me since we joined the prince.” Her footsteps, though soft, seem to ring out loudly on the stone floor. “But I guess we can’t stay here forever, can we? Euden is nice enough to let us stay, and we’re doing everything we can to help him fight the Empire, but we’re just kids. I guess eventually I’ll have to leave this place.”

The thought is an uncomfortable one for Pia. She has not lived in the Halidom all that long, but it had become her home. The idea of moving on, leaving behind all the friends she had made there, makes her anxious. Everyone at the Halidom is kind and supportive of her goals as a singer. Even in the middle of their war with the Empire they make time to listen to her and make her feel important. But would their patience with her run out eventually? If she failed to become a great vocalist, would they turn on her like the crowd in her dream? The thought makes her shudder. She imagines Cleo and Ranzal in the venue she saw in the dream, shouting their anger and disappointment at her through the curtain.

“Man, the future is scary,” she laments. “If I don’t know what’s coming, how can I be ready? How can I know if I’m good enough to make my dreams come true?”

Pia stops dead in her tracks. “Wait a second, there’s a way to find out!”

. . .

Verica’s morning routine is a simple one. She likes to rise with the sun and prepare a cup of tea to sip as she meditates, opening herself to the energy that fuels her magic. She mastered the art of divination long ago, and that makes it easy for her to pick through the vague glimpses of the future that flash before her eyes during this daily ritual. None are as specific or vivid as they would be if she were telling the fortune of a single person, but they help to give her a first impression of what the day holds for the people of New Alberia, and it typically gives her comfort and reassurance that joining Prince Euden’s ragtag group was a most excellent decision.

But this morning her routine is interrupted, something that she had not forseen There is a knock at the door, and she sets her cup and saucer down on the small table beside her chair and rises to answer it. Outside is a small, blonde-haired girl wearing a white dress. She recognizes the girl, although they have never had the occasion to speak before.

“Pia. Now this is a surprise. Please, come in.”

Pia, who has begun to lose her nerve, enters the room and freezes up. Verica shuts the door and gently guides her to a second chair near the mantle.

“Would you like some tea? I quite enjoy a cup in the morning.”

Pia stares at her, eyes wide, and then nods stiffly. “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am. I know we’ve never actually met, but I had a dream…” She trails off, and Verica waits for the girl to regain her train of thought while she pours a second cup of tea. “It… was bad,” Pia finishes, head hanging down as if to examine the rug.

Verica hands her the cup and simply asks, “How so?” It is not uncommon for residents of the castle to come to her with questions about the future or to ask for her take on a dream or vision they had. Such visits were once her livelihood, but now she offered her services free of charge. It is her contribution to the Halidom and its people. Everyone here has something to offer, even if you have to dig a bit to find out what it is. Telling fortunes and being constantly aware of the tides of fate was something only Verica could do, and she took great pride in it. Getting background information from the subject of a reading could often help in the divination process, so she had become skilled at making her customers comfortable enough to open up to her.

“Well, I was singing on a stage, and at first it was going really well,” Pia began.

“Not surprising,” Verica interjects. “You have a lovely voice. I’ve heard you sing around the castle grounds.”

Pia blushes and stutters, “Th-thank you! But… eventually I hit a wrong note, and everything changed. The people started to say that a great singer shouldn’t make a mistake like that, and they got angry. A lot of them left, said they would tell everyone what a bad singer I was. But some of them stayed and chased me off the stage!”

Verica sees tears begin to form in the young girl’s eyes, and she puts a hand on her shoulder. “Shh, child. There iss no need to be afraid. It was only a dream.”

Pia sniffles, “Was it though? It was like what happened before the choir concert, when everyone started to have nightmares at the same time! If those dreams meant something, what if this one does too?”

Verica nods, “You mean when Sabnock invaded the dreams of the children in the choir? I thought he had primarily targeted Elias.”

“Elias had it the worst I think, but he talked to all of us,” Pia begins to shiver, despite the warm sunshine flooding through Verica’s window.

“Likely so he could find the child who was most vulnerable to his influence. Does this dream you had truly remind you of those caused by Sabnock? I can guarantee you that no such fiend can touch your slumber here. Prince Euden and the others would never allow it.”

Pia shrugs, “I guess it isn’t the same, but it makes me wonder if it was some sort of vision or something. Maybe that’s what my future is going to be like, and if it is I might as well give up now.”

This is not going to be so simple as giving her a fortune and moving on. Verica thinks. Luckily, she has no plans today. She stands and extends a hand to Pia. “Come, let us continue this discussion over breakfast. Things never seem so bleak with a stomach full of good food after all.”

The two make their way silently down the winding hallways of the Halidom until they reach the main dining room. Verica thinks that it was renovated when Prince Euden and his company took up residence in the castle because it was unlike any dining room in any castle that she had ever seen. She had offered her services in the residences of nobles and royalty on more than one occasion, and when she had taken meals in those houses, the layout had been much different. The lord of the house, his family, and their honored guests of noble blood ate apart from the rest of the gathered folk, sometimes even on an elevated platform to reinforce their social status. But here, the dining room was a crowded and clumsy collection of small tables and chairs strewn about haphazardly. There were no distinctions or segregation based on class or position in the prince’s favor, and as far as Verica could tell, everyone here was in equal favor with the prince anyway.

The atmosphere of the room lightens Pia’s mood a bit, and she waves at some of her friends, puffing up a bit when they see who she’s with and look impressed. She follows Verica to one of the larger tables laid out with food, and the two of them pile plates with meat, bread, and fruit. After Pia gobbles down a few sausages and half an apple, Verica brings back the topic of her dream.

“So you think that your dream may be a vision of your future? That you may be destined to fail as a singer?”

Pia takes a few more bites before she responds. “I guess so. It seemed so real. Usually my dreams are way crazier, that makes it easy to tell that it’s a dream, you know? But this one could have been real life, and that made it way scarier.”

“Of course. You’re growing up, Pia. That means that you’re undergoing a transition from the more imaginative world of childhood to the more certain and serious world of adulthood.”

Pia stares forlornly at the hunk of potato on her fork and says, “Is adulthood always so depressing and scary?”

Verica laughs, “No, not always. In some ways, adopting a more realistic view of the world around you is a beautiful thing. You come to understand things that you never thought you could understand. As long as you never lose your curiosity, there is no reason for the real world to be a boring or frightening place.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound all bad at least,” Pia replies. “But do you think my dream was a vision of my future?”

“It is very difficult for me to say for sure. I can certainly tell your fortune if that is what you want. It may help answer some of your questions about your future, but I need you to understand that the future is not necessarily set in stone. Even if your dream is an omen, there is a chance that it can be changed. That is what I consider to be the true mission of a seer like myself.”

Pia’s eyes brighten. “You mean you try to help people change the future? That’s so cool!”

“It is no different than what most of the people in this castle are doing, especially Prince Euden,” says Verica. “When you think about it, everything that we do is an attempt to change the future. We try to eat healthy foods so that we will live longer. We try to use our skills to survive or make others happy. We make friends and fall in love so that we will always have joy and companionship. I may have an edge because I have a limited ability to look into the future, but everyone around you has goals and ambitions that they are doing their best to push toward. They are trying to change their future, and the future of the world, little by little.”

Pia sits quietly for a moment, trying to wrap her head around Verica’s lesson. “So take the prince for example. He didn’t like how the Empire is hurting people, so he founded New Alberia to fight against them and make the world a better place. And that’s how he’s trying to change the future?”

Verica smiles, “Exactly. And everyone gathered here believes in his vision of the future, so they are doing everything they can to help. Even you and I.”

“Well, at least you’re doing something to help,” Pia says, sinking down in her chair. “I don’t think I’m doing him much good.”

“Why would you say that?” asks Verica, putting down her fork and focusing her attention on the girl.

Pia squirms a bit before answering. “Well, I came here because the prince was nice enough to help me with a music test and I ended up staying. They let me help fight a little bit, but I don’t think they like putting me in danger because I’m a kid. And if I can’t fight, I don’t think I can do much to be helpful.”

“I think you and all the other children do wonders for this place,” Verica replies. “There is a certain magic in the presence of young people like yourself that keeps everyone’s spirits high. You remind us why we are fighting this war against the Dyrenell Empire. And let us not forget that you bring the gift of music to this place as well. It is plain to see how greatly Prince Euden values it, after all, he assisted you with your test, did he not?”

“I… guess that’s true. But in my dream-”

“Forgive me for my interruption,” says a new voice. Verica and Pia turn to their visitor and see a dark-skinned young woman in the garb of a far-off land. “You discuss dreams, do you not?”

Pia looks to Verica, “Indeed we do, did you wish to join us?”

The woman sits, placing her own plate on the table. “I hope I have not made you uncomfortable. I have great interest in the subject of dreams, and I understand that our young friend is troubled by a most unpleasant one.”

“Indeed,” agrees Verica. “Pia, this is Nefaria. She was once the queen of a desert kingdom far to the south. I have heard some of what your people theorized about dreams in my years as a seer, Nefaria. It is a shame that much of that knowledge was lost when the kingdom fell, but I am pleased that you are willing to share your wisdom with us. Pia, would you mind telling Nefaria what you told me about your dream?”

Pia recounts the dream once again, and Nefaria listens intently, taking only a few small bites of her breakfast. When the young girl finishes her story, Nefaria nods and asks, “In your dream, were you standing on the stage performing and enduring the audience’s ire, or were you an outsider observing another version of yourself?”
“I was watching it happen.”

“That is most interesting to me. My people were of the belief that dreams do not come from inside of us, but instead from another place. I found it strange when I took up residence in this castle that many refer to dreaming as something they do rather than something they experience. My own dreams are akin to yours, in which you observe yourself from an outside perspective. This leads me to the same conclusion that my people reached long ago, that we are merely visitors in dreams, and that they do not truly belong to us. We can but watch as events play out, and can do nothing to change them.”

“What an interesting perspective,” says Verica. “If the dreams are not of our own making, then where do they come from?”

Nefaria shakes her head, “That, I do not know. Perhaps that knowledge was lost when my kingdom fell, or perhaps they never unearthed it to begin with. Perhaps they were merely doing what we are doing today and speculating on one of life’s greatest mysteries. But there is some merit in the theory, yes? Why else would our dreams not happen through our own eyes? Why else would we become part of the audience rather than a player?”

Pia begins to rub her temples, “This is all getting a little confusing. So you’re saying that the dream isn’t something I made up, right? That it came from somewhere else? Isn’t that like what Sabnock did to us?”

“I have heard the story of Sabnock, and though there is some similarity in concept, I do not believe that the fiend’s power over dreams is a common one, nor do I think that he or any other fiend is the source of dreams that my people theorized,” explains Nefaria. “Forgive me, I fear I have made the discussion too abstract and distracted you from your goal.”

“Not at all,” replies Verica. “The perspective is an interesting one, and I think there is a lesson for us all to learn from it. If we accept that dreams come to us from someplace else, or that we are somehow able to enter them from the outside in our sleep, then there is something or someone that guides us to the dreams that we end up in. Otherwise it would be unusual that we tend to experience dreams that involve us as a central character, would it not?”

Pia and Nefaria nod, although Pia still looks as if she’s struggling to follow.

“If we assume that we are somehow guided to the specific dreams that we experience, we can also assume that there is some sort of reason or design behind it. We are meant to view those dreams for one reason or another.”

“But if that’s true, how do we know what the reason is?” asks Pia.

Nefaria drums her fingers on the table. “Perhaps the reason is irrelevant, or perhaps it is something that can only be deciphered in hindsight. And to do so we must simply do our best to glean useful knowledge from the dreams we are allowed to witness.”

“So we just have to figure it out? That’s so hard, and how can you ever be sure that what you do figure out is right?” Pia whines.

“Well,” says Verica, “Maybe we are not meant to know. Or maybe the act of deciding something makes the decision right on its own. Maybe our dreams are merely what we make of them. If we find them pleasant, they give us something to look forward to, something to believe in and give us hope. If we do not like them, they give us the willpower to make changes so that they do not come true. Remember what I told you about the future?”

Pia thinks back on their earlier conversation. “That it isn't set it in stone, right?”

“That is correct! The same may be true of dreams. Your dream has no power over you, but what you decide to do now that you have witnessed it is vital. Are you afraid of failure, Pia? Will that fear keep you from singing?”

“There is no shame in being afraid,” adds Nefaria. “Nor is there shame in avoiding a course of action that seems doomed to failure. The course of action that one chooses is their own, and each of us can only do what we think best.”

Pia considers it all for a long while, and eventually a small bulge works its way up her sleeve. A mouse emerges from the cuff of her shirt and scampers out onto her hand, nuzzling her affectionately.

“What’s that, Mister Mouse? You say that I shouldn’t give up?”

The mouse lets out a quiet squeak before delving back into Pia’s sleeve and out of sight.

“Maybe you’re right,” she finally says. “It’s possible that I won’t ever be a famous singer, and maybe I’m as good now as I’ll ever get. But singing is what makes me happy. It’s what I want to do more than anything in the world!”

Verica and Nefaria exchange a quick smile before returning their attention to the meal before them.

“Thanks so much for your help, I feel so much better now!” Pia exclaims, energy bubbling and spilling from her smile. “I’m going to practice now, but if I have any more dreams I’ll make sure to let you know!”

As Pia rushes down the hallways of the Halidom, she reflects on everything she learned this morning. The future can be scary, and dreams can be too, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad. Everything is what you make of it, and she decides that she’ll make it the best it can be!

Chapter Text

INTELLIGENCE FOR THE EYES OF PRINCE EUDEN OF NEW ALBERIA
GATHERED AND RECORDED BY NOELLE, VISITING MESSENGER AND AGENT

REPORT: History and intentions of Victor, former general and Shadewolves commander

It is understandable that one would have many questions about Victor, and I took it upon myself to answer as many of those questions as I could. Although I began this line of investigation in service to my own kingdom far to the north, I soon crossed into areas that were not included in the objectives of that assignment. I began to ask questions for my own benefit, to better understand a former commanding officer who I had come to respect. Eventually, I believe that I achieved that goal, and now with to pass on my findings to his highness, Prince Euden of New Ableria. I hope that this information, contained and sealed herein, will be of use in future dealings with Victor.

Dutifully,
Noelle

. . .

My first meeting with Victor (hereafter referred to as “commander,” “the commander,” or “Victor” as needed) was during my recruitment interview for the position of messenger in his military outfit back north. I will not bore his highness with the details, but I was impressed by the commander. He was a powerful man, obviously intelligent, and yet surprisingly contemplative and open-minded for one of his rank and stature. Although I lacked many of the required skills, he chose me as his messenger because I was passionate about the philosophy that the position embodied. Under his guidance, I made great strides in my personal and professional development.

Then came the day that he disappeared. I was told by another superior officer that he had run away and abandoned his duty to our country. That was the official account of what had transpired, but even then I had my doubts. I continued my service to my country, and eventually my doubts were confirmed, and the nature of my work changed as well.

I was given the task of investigating the whereabouts of the commander, and was finally told the truth of his disappearance. It is the same story he told his highness during his time here at the Halidom. When the royal family of our country caught wind of the political turmoil here in the former kingdom of Alberia, they decided to use the unrest to their advantage and sent agents here to gather intelligence in preparation for an invasion. His highness is well aware of what happened after that, but I shall summarize for clarity.

The commander formed a mercenary band known as the Shadewolves, which he led to great success until they were wiped out in a Dyrenell ambush. The commander thought he was the only survivor, and set about exacting revenge on the Dyrenell Empire out of grief for his fallen comrades. It was later discovered that there was a second survivor, a man named Robelle who also hailed from our homeland to the north. Robelle was carrying out a similar plot of revenge against Dyrenell, although far bloodier. He did not care about collateral damage or the morality of his actions, and thus harmed many innocent people. With the help of his highness, the commander tracked down and neutralized Robelle, preventing the further shedding of innocent blood.

Shortly thereafter, I had another encounter with the commander. I was assigned to deliver new orders after reporting the truth of the Shadewolves’ destruction. Rather than remaining to act as a spy in Dyrenell, he was to return to military command. I suspect that he was to play an important role in the eventual invasion, but that is merely speculation. However, he tore up those orders and asked me to report his death to my superiors, even giving me his sword to serve as proof of his demise. He would not tell me what he planned to do next, but he told me never to return to Dyrenell again. I delivered the message, and soon found myself ordered back into this country to gather intelligence, an ironic situation given the commander’s insistence that I never return. This, of course, led to my next meeting with his highness, and the invitation to return to the Halidom.

Up until now, this report has been primarily a summary of what his highness already knew and suspected, but after discovering that Victor had left the Halidom, I became more and more dedicated to locating and understanding him. It was plain to me that his actions were well thought out and tied to some code of honor, but it was difficult to pin down and explain. I wanted to understand more than anything, I wanted to connect with him the way he had connected to me. He always knew what to say and how to explain things in a way that would make sense to me. I was unique and he was able to see that and communicate to me anyway. He needed someone to do the same for him, and I was the only one who knew enough to do so.

I set out to gather intelligence, doing so while on other assignments both back in my own country and here in Dyrenell. This might help his highness understand my many visits to the Halidom over the last several months. Rest assured, I was not gathering intelligence with which to harm his friends and retainers here, but merely gathering information on Victor. I had conversations with many former mercenaries who are now in the service of New Alberia, and I have included the transcripts, along with my commentary on them, below.

. . .

TRANSCRIPT: Conversation with “Berserker” about Victor

Noelle: Th-thank you for meeting me, here.

Berserker: No thanks are necessary, it is no trouble, child.

N: You mentioned that you had met Victor before he joined up with Prince Euden, correct?

B: Indeed. I had the pleasure of running into him more than once. Mercenaries, even competing ones, have a bond of sorts. We congregate and converse often.

N: C-can you tell me what you know about him?

B: Very few facts, as it were. He led the Shadewolves until they fell to an Imperial ambush. *Berserker slams his fist on the table between us* THOSE COWARDLY WRETCHES FEARED TO MEET HIM ON AN OPEN BATTLEFIELD NO DOUBT!

N: You th-think they were afraid of him?

B: Yes, and with good reason. The man was more than he appeared. He led the Shadewolves in a way that no one else could. His execution in battle was his greatest strength. While many mercenary bands rely on the skill of their members, or on sheer numbers, the Shadewolves might as well have been an army. Make no mistake, their numbers were small. I’ve seldom seen a group so miniscule. But their coordination was a sight to behold. They could engage a host ten times their size and walk away without a casualty.

N: That’s very impressive.

B: They were certainly a band I wished to cross blades with. Which is why the news of their defeat came as a shock to me.

N: You were already in service to Prince Euden at the time, correct?

B: For quite some time, yes. Imagine my surprise when Victor appeared at the castle gate, no worse for wear! We shared a drink that night for his fallen men, others joined us as well.

N: Would you mind to tell me their names? I would like to speak with them as well.

B: I shall write them down for you. Might I ask you a question in return?

N: O-of course.

B: Why are you so interested in Victor? Surely your superiors know far more about him than a mercenary who had some chance encounters with the man. I am inclined to believe that this investigation is not sanctioned by your country.

N: No. I suppose there’s no harm in telling you that everyone back home thinks the commander is dead.

B: Hmm, and I have a suspicion that you have not given them reason to doubt that. Very well, I will pry no more. You have gained permission from Euden to do as you wish, and our discussion today is no stranger than the other daily happenings here.

N: Thank you. I have one final question. You said that you wanted to cross blades with the Shadewolves, even knowing their deadly reputation. Why?

B: HA. Such a challenge is the only treasure I have any interest in. Just imagining the clash of blades so well trained and ruthless makes my blood boil! HOW I LONGED TO MATCH MY STRENGTH AGAINST THEIRS ON THE FIELD OF BATTLE! CURSE THE EMPIRE FOR THEIR TREACHERY!

N: Ah, I s-see. Well thank you for your time.

. . .

Berserker, though odd and somewhat horrifying, provided me with a list of other mercenaries who had at least been passing acquaintances of the commander. It was plain from the start that he was respected, even feared, among his peers. It did not surprise me that he was a highly effective leader because I had served under his command, but I had never expected such reverence from sellswords. Perhaps I had too little experience dealing with their type, or maybe even I had underestimated Victor’s influence.

I began to seek out the other men on Berserker’s list, one of which was exceptionally easy to locate. Below is the record of my conversation with Ranzal.

. . .

TRANSCRIPT: Conversation with Ranzal about Victor

Noelle: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I know that you have many responsibilities here.

Ranzal: Aw, no problem, kid. Are you writing down everything we say?

N: I like to keep an official record so I don’t miss any details. I-is that okay?

R: No problem! Just seems like a lotta work is all. Whaddya need to know?

N: I understand you know Victor, former commander of the Shadewolves.

R: Sure do, helluva guy, helluva merc! We fought together a few times back in the day.

N: How would you describe your experience with him?

R: Well I’m glad we were on the same side for starters! The guy isn’t just good with a sword, he’s smart too. That’s the one thing that gave him and the Shadewolves such a leg up on everybody. And even before he put together the Shadewolves, he was a terror on his own! I’ve never seen someone so calm and collected in battle! Every move he made was so matter of fact, you’d never expect that his life was on the line!

N: How many assignments did you take on together?

R: Not that many. Around that time was when he started assembling the Shadewolves. I had half a mind to join ‘em, but I didn’t think I was the kind of guy he was lookin’ for.

N: Why do you say that?

R: Well, the guys that joined up were a pretty serious bunch. I’m a damn good fighter, make no mistake, but I don’t do things like Victor does. Him and his men were no-nonsense, all business, and that ain’t really my style. No disrespect of course. He’s a man who knows what’s important to him, and he took care of his people. I heard stories about him personally settling the score when someone had a beef with one of his men. If any of ‘em got into trouble, you can bet Victor would bail ‘em out.

N: So even though he ran a tight ship, he was there to help when someone broke the rules?

R: For the most part yeah. A real man understands that people make mistakes and isn’t afraid to forgive ‘em! There were some things that he wouldn’t overlook though. If anyone put innocent lives in danger, they were out. No questions asked.

N: He would kick them out of the Shadewolves?

R: You bet. Happened to a few of the guys who just joined for the reputation. Wasn’t long before every merc got the message though. The Shadewolves weren’t just another band of mercenaries. They were special, and they weren’t for everyone. I really admire Victor’s dedication to what he thinks is right. Even back then it got me thinkin’ about what really matters to me, and eventually I was able to figure it out. If I’d never met Victor, I might have never joined up with Euden.

N: And why is that?

R: Like I said, I might’ve joined the Shadewolves, but it wasn’t a good fit. I respected the way they worked toward a common goal. People are stronger when they work together and believe together, that’s what I think anyway. Well, eventually I found a group that was a good fit. A group that shared a dream. Euden’s dream. And I’ll fight for it until we win or I die trying.

N: Thank you for your time, Ranzal.

R: Any time, kid. You should stick around for dinner if ya have time!

. . .

It was more of the same after that. I spoke to Irfan and Jakob as well, and they too spoke highly of Victor, though their comments were based more on reputation than personal experience. The only thing that truly surprised me was actually what helped it all make sense. It was the commander’s dedication to his subordinates that motivated his actions. His hunt for revenge was impossible without sacrificing the principles that the Shadewolves had clung to so tightly until the end, so he had to find a new path. Perhaps his highness is privy to more details of that path than myself, but based on the final conversation I had with him, it seems that it is more important than anything waiting for him back in our home country.

I did some more asking around while out on more official errands, and it seems that a man matching his description has been making stops in many towns throughout the area. Searching even deeper, it seems that he stays longer in towns where someone has lost a son in battle with Dyrenell soldiers. I assumed that he was simply tracking down the families of the former Shadewolves, but I discovered that is not always the case. It seems his interest is widening to all families grieving the loss of a loved one whose death can be traced back to the Empire. It still is not clear exactly what his purpose is, but most people I speak to seem to think highly of him, and the towns in which he makes longer stops seem to feel bolder about standing up to the Empire as well. It almost seems as though the commander is fanning the flame of rebellion that his highness started by declaring the sovereignty of New Alberia.

I thought for a time about tracking him down so that we could speak face to face. I have a loose trail that could be followed, and my theory seems sound enough. But I have decided to leave him alone for now. Though I want nothing more than to see my old commander and teacher again, I know that the time is not right. I keep thinking back on something he said to me during my messenger training:

“If you have time to worry, you have time to work on bettering yourself.”

That is what I have decided to do. The path that I started down when the commander selected me as a messenger has been a winding one, and I have come far. I realize now that I am an asset to those I serve because of my dedication and new skills I have picked up along the way, but there is always more to learn. The commander proved that to me when he decided that there was something more important to him than his duty to our country, a duty that he had spent his entire life performing without question. If he can give up his distinguished career, the possibility of becoming a war hero, widespread recognition and a place in history, then I can leave behind my role as a messenger for a treacherous and conniving country.

The role of a messenger is to connect people across wide distances, and spoken word is not the only way to do so. I see now that actions are messages as well, and the commander’s message is loud and clear. Doing what is right is more valuable than political allegiances or the duty of one’s office. It may be the most valuable thing there is. Instead of participating in my homeland’s invasion of this land, I will fight against it. These people are suffering already, and I cannot be party to adding more suffering on top of it.

Consider this report my official request to join his highness’s company here at the Halidom. I wish to offer my services as a messenger and intelligence agent, as well as what combat ability I can offer. What Ranzal said to me rings true. In many ways, his highness reminds me of my commander, and I trust the people of this castle to do the right thing because they share a dream of a peaceful and prosperous nation. And if my theory about VIctor’s goals is correct, it is likely that he will return, bringing word of thousands of people across this country who share that dream as well. We are all connected by this dream, this message, and I will help carry it to the ends of the earth.

Sincerely,
Noelle

Chapter Text

Prince Euden had presented Lea with the sword during the induction ceremony. “A unique weapon worthy of the first knight-commander of New Alberia,” he had said. Of course it had been forged by the blacksmith sisters who supplied nearly all of the weaponry used by those in the Halidom. It is indeed a remarkable piece of work. The blade is slender and maneuverable, yet unyielding. The hilt and guard, though ornate, sacrifice nothing in the way of practicality. It fits perfectly in Lea’s hand, as if it had been tailor-made. Its balance is impeccable, and the mana infused within is ample and resonates with Lea’s body. By all accounts, the sword is perfect.

But for some reason, Lea is hesitant to use it in battle.

At first she thinks it’s simply the result of habit when she belts on her old sword in the weeks after receiving the beautiful new one, but soon she finds herself eyeing it in the morning and deliberately picking up the other weapon instead. Eventually she begins to feel guilty and purchases an ornate mount to place the sword prominently above the mantle in her quarters. Such a place of honor seems appropriate, and the guilt about not putting the sword to use slips away.

Until this morning that is.

The Legion’s morning drills are interrupted by an alarm, and Lea leads an impromptu sortie to wipe out a pack of fiends that had been spotted outside a nearby village. It’s routine work, and the Legion eliminates the fiends without a hint of trouble, but several knights’ weapons break in the battle. Upon her return to the castle, Lea requests a meeting with Ramona the blacksmith in order to secure new equipment.

To her surprise, Lea hears a knock on her door shortly after dispatching the messenger. Outside is Ramona, who extends a hand eagerly and all but shouts, “Heard I could be of service, knight-commander!”

Lea stands in stunned silence for a beat before returning the woman’s grip. “I had not intended to bring you here in such a rush. I intended to visit you at the smithy later today if you had the time. I apologize if my message was misleading.”

“Aw, it’s no problem! When the knight-commander needs weapons, any castle smith should jump to serve ‘em!” Ramona strolls in without waiting for an invitation and reclines in one of the nearby chairs. “So, what is it I can do for ya’?”

Lea bristles a bit at the informality, but reminds herself that Prince Euden had asked her to lighten up about such improprieties when he brought her into his service. Ramona was clearly eager to help, and such enthusiasm should be encouraged rather than chastised.

“Ah, yes. Several of my knights had their weapons break on a mission this morning.”

Ramona is surprised by the news, “Now that IS unusual. Any weapon will wear out eventually, but I’m embarrassed that so many of ours would break at once. Was there anything strange about the fiends?”

“Nothing obvious to the naked eye,” responds Lea. “But I had a few of the carcasses brought back for examination just in case. I also thought it strange that so many weapons were broken in such a short time. I have no doubt about the quality of work that you and your sisters do.”

Ramona smiles, “I appreciate ya’ sayin’ that, commander! I’ll get in touch with the eggheads and see if there was any explanation for the breakage! In the meantime, what do you need from us to resupply?”

“On that note, I believe this is the perfect opportunity to enhance our armory.” Lea crosses to a small desk in the corner and retrieves a piece of parchment, which she unfolds and places in front of the blacksmith. Upon it are a wide variety of crudely drawn diagrams and scribbled notes about materials and properties of weapons. Ramona’s eyes fly over the information and a wide grin spreads over her face.

“You want a diverse supply of weapons and armor suited for battling specific varieties of fiends. Now yer talkin’!”

Lea nods, “It will become a necessity sooner or later, and I would prefer to get ahead of it now if you and your sisters aren’t otherwise occupied.”

“Oh we can handle the volume for sure. You got another bit of paper?”

Lea grabs another piece of parchment, along with a quill and ink, and Ramona begins to draft up diagrams and notes of her own. “It’s true that fiends aren’t all the same, and that different equipment is better suited for different types. The magical varieties are especially tough. You never know what properties their blood is gonna have for one thing.”


“I remember the tale of the rustfiends.”

“A prime example. We managed to wipe ‘em out, but it took everything we had. We weren’t ready, and look what happened. I’m ready to make sure that never happens again, and this order of yers is the perfect opportunity.”

“It certainly is fortuitous that our goals align.”

Ramona finishes her frantic writing and turns the parchment to face Lea. “This is a good start at least. A variety of weapons with a multitude of properties. I’m especially interested in some of your ideas for weapons that won’t be destroyed by rustfiend blood. I haven’t made many non-metal weapons, but it’ll be good experience for us to experiment with ‘em.”

Lea slides the parchment back, “Thank you for being open-minded. I know that much of this is unconventional, but I hope that by starting now we can iron out any unforeseen wrinkles and be ready when we need such equipment.”

“I’m gonna grab Rena and Renee right away so we can start brainstorming!” Ramona extends her hand again, “Been a pleasure, commander! I can’t wait to work with you goin’ forward!”

Lea shakes Ramona’s hand once more, and notices the blacksmith’s gaze has fallen on the sword at her hip.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but that isn’t the sword we made for ya’,” she says, trying to hide the hurt in her voice.

Lea blushes, “Ah, yes. The sword you forged for me is over there,” she says, gesturing toward the mantle.

Ramona looks to where the sword is hanging and stiffens. “Why aren’t ya’ usin’ it, commander? Did we do somethin’ wrong?”

“No, of course not!” Lea feels her face heat up even more. “It’s just, I’m so used to this one, and the one you made is so beautiful! For some reason it seems wrong to sully it with fiend blood!”

Ramona cocks her head to one side and squints slightly, “But that’s what swords are for.”

Lea suddenly finds herself speechless. The statement is correct, and yet she finds herself reluctant to admit its truth. “My uncle forged this sword for me, along with the rest of my equipment.”

“Is it better than what we make? Let me see it!”

“No, I’m not saying… I…”

Ramona’s gaze doesn’t waver, and she extends her hand politely yet firmly. Lea has no choice but to draw the sword and hand it to the blacksmith. Ramona examines it closely, even nodding approvingly several times. She takes a few steps back and proceeds to swing it, tentatively at first, but becoming more and more vigorous. Eventually she seems pleased and hands it back to Lea.

“It’s a fine piece,” she admits, “But it’s seen a lot of action. If you hadn’t taken such excellent care of it, it would be fallin’ apart right now. It may seem self-servin’ to say so, but I think it’s time for an upgrade, commander.”

Lea doesn’t respond, instead she looks at the marvelous sword hanging above the mantle. “The logical part of my brain agrees with you, Ramona. But there’s another part that feels like that sword is exactly where it belongs. I find it hard to explain, but I consider it my badge of office. A sacred and ceremonial item. I apologize if that wasn’t your intention when you forged it.”

Ramona looks thoughtful for a moment, then nods vigorously. “I just make the weapons, ma’am. It isn’t my business to tell you what to do with ‘em. But if you’ll allow it, I want to include a suitable replacement sword for you in this order. You have my word as a blacksmith that it’ll be perfect for the job!”

Lea lets out the breath she didn’t realize she had been holding and nods. “I appreciate your understanding, Ramona, and I look forward to the results of your work.”

Ramona rushes out of the room, clearly excited by her new assignment. Lea stares at the door as it slams shut, then examines the sword in her hand. The leather on the grip needs to be replaced again, and constant sharpening has taken its toll on the blade. The once polished metal of the guard and pommel are beginning to show their age as well, despite her best efforts to prevent it. Ramona is right. It is time to move on.

“Thank you, uncle,” she whispers as she slides the blade back into its sheath.

. . .

Ramona and her sisters waste no time in experimenting with the Legion’s armaments. Lea feels like she’s being called down to the smithy nearly every day to inspect and test a new weapon. Lances designed to pierce hides, blades designed to slip precisely between armored plates, even experimental weapons made of wood and lightweight stone designed to resist the blood of rustfiends. The successful experiments are set aside for later duplication, and the failures are examined to see how they can be improved.

But Lea begins to see an ulterior motive in the questions Ramona asks about the weapons. The blacksmith sneaks in questions that seem related, but feel out of place. Questions about design and balance, about the attunement of the mana, about the length of the blade…

She’s probing me. Lea finds herself thinking after leaving the smithy one day. Should I feel honored that she’s putting so much effort into making the perfect sword, or guilty that I put her in this position?

Lea can’t reach a conclusion on the matter, and it begins to make her feel uncomfortable every time she visits the smithy. She finds herself surprisingly grateful when an official order arrives from Prince Euden, dispatching her and the Legion on an extermination campaign far from the castle. She orders that many of the experimental weapons be brought along with the rest of the necessary supplies, and the Legion mobilizes.

It takes several weeks to reach their destination, and longer still to track down the fiends they were sent to destroy. Eventually the Legion’s trackers are able to discover the trail, and Lea begins to feel anxious about their reports.

“The tracks are… inconsistent, commander,” one tracker tells her. They’ve set up camp early, believing that they will overtake the fiend horde the next day, and hoping to give the knights plenty of rest before the engagement.

“How so?” Lea asks. The command tent is lit only by a few candles, casting strange shadows against the canvas walls.

The trackers exchange glances, all of them seeming reluctant to answer. Finally one speaks up. “We’re used to seeing fairly uniform tracks for a single group of fiends. They tend to travel with others like them, without a lot of diversity.”

“And that isn’t the case here?”

“No, commander,” the scout replies. “This horde is not only large, but it’s full of many different types of fiends. We’ve seen enough different types of tracks and other signs to suspect at least ten varieties.”

It is unheard of, even to Lea. It’s common enough for a single powerful fiend to lead a large horde, but it would take a formidable leader to gather and hold together such a force. It could drastically alter the strategy she had intended to use.

“Tell me everything. Even if it’s only conjecture. I need to know what we’re dealing with.”

It takes a long time to sort out the information that the scouts had collected into a usable summary, and Lea sits awake for many hours after the scouts left attempting to plan for every possible scenario that could play out when they meet the fiends in battle. She thanks Ilia that training with the new weapons is already underway, because it’s likely that it will come in handy tomorrow.

. . .

Lea eyes the fiend horde as it trudges slowly across an empty plain. The pace had been a factor in how quickly they had been able to catch up after picking up the trail, and now she sees why. The horde includes several fiends of massive size, towering over the other monstrosities in the ragtag coalition. She also sees the fiend that is doubtless leading the horde, a vaguely humanoid figure with bulging slabs of muscle stretching its discolored skin. The scouts had been correct about the diversity of the fiends as well. Though most of the varieties are fairly non-threatening, together they pose the risk of chaos on the battlefield. Facing down a uniform group of fiends is dangerous, but predictable. This horde has the ability to surprise them, and Lea does not like that one bit.

“This is the most favorable terrain we’re going to get,” she whispers to the others around her. “Make ready to charge, and once the engagement begins, be ready to execute defensive maneuvers. I would rather cede some ground and take a drawn out fight than get reckless and give them the upper hand.”

The knights around her salute and make the necessary preparations. Before long the Legion is in formation, and all eyes fall on Lea. They always expect some sort of rousing speech before battle, but Lea never feels prepared to give such an address.

“We’ve all been here before,” she begins. “I’m sure by now you all understand that this is a new type of horde. A diverse and likely coordinated one. While this fact should be remembered, there is another more important fact that should be at the front of your minds. Fiends are our enemy, and we are sworn to destroy them in whatever form they take. For the safety and prosperity of our kingdom and its people, I bid you fight!”

The Legion lets out a shout, and Lea draws her sword. Pointing it at the fiend horde she cries, “Charge!” but the word is quickly drowned out by the Legion’s cries. They flood over the small ridge they had been hiding behind and advance on the fiends, who hastily attempt to form ranks.

It’s true then, this horde is coordinated.

But Lea has little time to contemplate the implications. The two hosts meet and suddenly the field is filled with the sounds of battle. As instructed, the Legion immediately locks down a defensive position while Lea and several of the most capable knights meet the foe head on. The first fiend to approach her is nothing more than a standard grunt, and she dispatches it with a few swipes of her long blade. More of the weaklings come forward to meet the knights, and are quickly cut down. Lea has time to note the positions of the gargantuan fiends, and is relieved to see that for now they’re hanging back.

It will be best to deplete the fiends’ numbers as much as possible before launching an attack on those behemoths.

Lea is pulled from her thoughts by a shift in the enemy host. The standard fiends part to let a new group advance, brandishing long, scythe-like arms and chitinous armor. She quickly raises her arm and throws up a signal, which the Legion relays without delay. Immediately the knights at her side are replaced by lancemen and the formation tightens around her, forcing the fiends to approach a few at a time. As she engages the nearest scythe fiend, the lancers use the opportunity to make precise jabs between the plates of its armor from a safe distance. They take down a handful of the fiends in this fashion before the horde adjusts once more.

They’re even more intelligent than expected.

Instead of sending another wave of fiends their way, the horde backs off. The two forces stare each other down for a time, each waiting for the other to make a move. Finally, the fiends break the standstill. With beastial roars, the entire horde lunges forward. A chill goes down Lea’s spine as they approach. “Hold!” she shouts to the Legion, hoping that they can hear her over the cacophony.

The next moments are lost in a frantic clash of steel, claws, and fangs. The Legion is able to hold its position, but fiends of all shapes and sizes press in and throw themselves into the formation like waves crashing against a cliff. The shield bearers up front are able to push back charge after charge, supported by the lancers and bowmen behind them. Lea and those beside her become a whirlwind of spinning blades, and she loses count of how many fiends she cuts down. Eventually she realizes that they’re losing ground.

Giving up too much will break the formation!

She finishes another fiend with a sharp flourish and raises another signal, this time an all-out attack. The swordsmen behind her let out a rallying cry and follow her as she charges forward, sword at the ready. They push through the fiends’ frontline, and the enemy advance grinds to a halt. More of her knights press into the space of the felled fiends, and soon they form a spearhead formation that continues to thrust into the heart of the horde. At long last, Lea sees the form of the fiend leader hulking behind its minions. It watches, seemingly unconcerned, as the legion pushes closer and closer.

Why is it so damn confident?

In the blink of an eye, the fiends in front of her back away to reveal a line of rustfiends, which throw themselves at the knights with reckless abandon.


A suicide attack? The leader doesn’t care if these fiends die, it just wants to ruin our weapons! But we’re ready for this!

“Draw stones!” she shouts over the din of the battle, at the same time reaching down to grab the short blade fastened to her boot. It’s little more than a dagger, but made entirely of a lightweight stone Ramona discovered and fashioned by hand. Lea had tested its sharpness herself, nearly cutting off her thumb in the process. She slashes at the closest rustfiend, and feels a surge of fierce pleasure as it severs the creature’s flesh. She hears victorious shouts all around her as the other knights successfully take down their enemies with the strange new weapons, and she looks back at the fiend leader to find that it has abandoned its arrogant posturing. It gives a signal of its own, and the fiend horde begins to scatter and part as the goliaths at the back begin to stagger forward.

Now’s the time to divide and conquer.

“Light infantry, pursue and exterminate! Captains, lead the rest against those behemoths! Stick together, use all the tricks you can muster! The leader is mine!” The knights leap to obey. The tasks before them are not easy, but she trusts the ability of her Legion to complete them under the leadership of the other officers. It is her task as commander to cut off the head of the serpent so to speak.

As the battlefield devolves into controlled chaos, Lea approaches the fiend leader. It stands several heads taller than her, and is easily three times her size. As always, she remembers the terrible ebonfiend that killed her father, and feels new strength flood into her body.

“Prepare to die, fiend!” she snarls, throwing herself forward and letting loose a flurry of blows. The fiend, graceful in spite of its size, dodges and parries before taking a swipe at her with its massive claws. Lea catches the blow with her sword and slides it away, leaving the beast exposed and off balance. She hurries to follow up on the opening, thrusting at its chest. To her surprise, the blow is turned away on impact, and the tip of her sword snaps off and flies away, landing on the nearby grass. She stares at the now-misshapen weapon for a moment before the fiend unleashes a counterattack.

Finding herself on the backfoot, she cedes ground and frantically searches for an opportunity to strike. She attempts to examine the fiend in search of a weakness or any clue as to how its body had broken her blade. Though imposing, the fiend did not appear to be armored or anything more than flesh and bone, and yet it had turned aside a killing blow.


Is there some sort of foul magic in play here?

Finally she’s able to knock aside one of the creature’s sweeping blows and find another opening. She quickly focuses some mana in the broken sword and watches as flames ignite along the blade. Her hands move purely on instinct, letting loose a barrage of slashes intended to cripple the fiend. To her relief, the blows strike true and are not turned by whatever stopped her previous lunge. The best howls in pain and fury, pulling back to swing down hard on Lea. She can do nothing but raise her blade in an attempt to block the blow, managing to catch it and sliding back several feet from the force. She feels her heels dig into the dirt as the fiend continues to press against her, making it more difficult to escape from the blade lock they now found themselves in.

Then, to her horror, Lea watches as the blade of her sword bends under the pressure of the fiend’s attack before snapping once more. The lock ends and she barely slips to one side as the fiend lurches forward. Now with only half a sword remaining, Lea attempts to force more mana into it, the task becoming more difficult in the weapon’s diminished state.

There’s not enough mana left in the blade to help focus!

She lets out a shout and feels sweat bead on her face from the effort, and finally a flame flickers to life along the blade. Lea thrusts at the fiend before it can regain its balance, getting closer than she’s comfortable with thanks to her loss of range. The reduced sword sinks to the hilt in the fiend’s back, and for a moment it seems like the fight is finished. The fiend falls to the ground, pulling what’s left of Lea’s sword with it. She stands above its form, breathing heavily and watching it closely. When it begins to stir, she instinctively reaches down and grabs her stone dagger again, and attempts to force mana into it like she would any other weapon, but the stone resists it.

Oh hell.

In desperation, Lea throws herself at the fiend anyway, bringing the dagger down on its prone form over and over. Its hide turns away the first blow, and bits of stone go flying through the air, but Lea doesn’t stop. A second blow barely punctures the skin, and a third sinks deeper. The dagger is slowly torn to pieces as it does its work, and soon Lea is holding just a small chunk of stone in her hand. She grips it hard and watches for any more sign of life in the fiend. When it fails to move for an entire minute she allows herself to relax slightly. After another minute she sinks to the ground and drops the stone fragment, noticing for the first time that her hand is bloody from the flying bits of rock.

She looks around her and watches as the last fiend behemoth falls under the combined strength of her knights. Soon, others return from the surrounding forest and report that the fiends that fled had been eliminated. Typically she would raise her sword and declare victory, but today all she can do is raise a bloody fist. The knights around her don’t seem to mind, and they imitate the gesture as they let out a loud cheer.

. . .

The journey back to the Halidom is even slower than the journey out had been. Lea was not the only knight who had been wounded, and was far from the worst. A few had nearly been crushed by the behemoths, and others suffered more routine though no less serious injuries. She allowed time to get everyone back on their feet, then set a slow pace as they headed home.

She had managed to retrieve the shards of her sword from the battlefield, and now they were wrapped in a parcel. She feels naked without the sword at her hip, and although she had grabbed a temporary replacement from the supply wagon, it did little to make her feel better. She had carried the same sword throughout her entire career as a knight, and losing it dealt a blow that she had not expected.

The Legion encounters no trouble on their journey, and they reach the Halidom in the night a few weeks later. Upon their return, Lea submits her official report on the mission to the prince, then stumbles to her quarters with the intention of sleeping until late morning

But when she approaches her door, she is surprised to see a light on inside. She cautiously opens the door and is greeted by Ramona, slouching in the same chair she had sat in the day they had discussed the experimental weapons.

“I heard the Legion made it back and wanted to surprise ya’,” she explains. Then her eyes fall to the sword on Lea’s belt. “Somethin’ happen to yer old one?”

Lea pulls the parcel from her bag and sets it on the table. Ramona gently unwraps it and sighs. “What a shame. And it was so close to a peaceful retirement too.” She somberly wraps the blade again. “Sorry about that, commander. I know you used that one for a long time.”

“Is it silly to become so attached to a weapon, Ramona?” Lea sinks in to another chair facing the blacksmith. “I feel like a fool for being so upset about a sword breaking.”
Ramona shakes her head, “I understand more than most I’d expect. Weapons are my life, ya’ know? They’re kinda like my babies. I think all the best fighters get attached to their weapons, and why wouldn’t they? You use the same one for long enough that it becomes a part of you.”

“I suppose it just seems ironic to me that we become so emotionally invested in an instrument of death.”

Ramona gives her a puzzled look, “Is that how you see them? As death bringers?”

Lea considers the question. “It’s hard to say. My view is not so jaded as that, but my passion that led me to becoming a knight was my hatred for fiends after all. I learned to wield a sword so that I could destroy them all, and I hold to that purpose still today.”

“That makes sense I guess,” replies Ramona. “And it isn’t totally different from how I look at it I guess.”

“And how’s that?”

“Well, I see weapons as a means to an end. Some people will use ‘em for bad things of course. Just look at the Empire! They couldn’t do near as much harm as they do without a steady supply of weapons. But I put intention and care into the ones I forge. I make them for a reason.”

Lea looks at her questioningly, “And what is that reason?”

“To bring peace to Alberia,” Ramona says. “I can’t change how people use a weapon, just like I couldn’t stop you from putting that one on a wall instead of usin’ it.” She nods toward the sword over the mantle. “But I can put weapons in the hands of the right people. I can make sure that the weapons I make are gonna be used for reasons I’m okay with. And that’s why me and my sisters joined Euden.”

“So what happens when the prince’s war is over? There won’t be a need for so many of your weapons then.”

Ramona shrugs. “I’ll make somethin’ else I guess. Who knows! For now, I have a job to do. And speakin’ of which…” She reaches behind her chair and pulls out a long parcel. “I promised you a perfect sword, and it looks like my timing was spot on.”

Lea takes the parcel from the blacksmith and slowly unties the knots securing the cloth. She reaches inside and grips the hilt, immediately feeling a surge of mana.

“Wow,” she says out loud, and Ramona laughs.

“Yeah, I think Rena nailed it. You should be able to blast some real strong fire with this one.”

Lea pulls the sword fully out of its wrapping and admires it. The blade is exactly the length of her old one, and nearly identical besides. Slender and elegant, it will be ideal for the style of swordsmanship she practices.

“You prefer a duelist’s blade, right? Long, but quick and precise. You never seemed to care for anything shorter or wider or heavier.”

Her eyes fall on the hilt, and the intricacy of the metalwork there takes her breath away. Although it lacks the ornate stylings of the sword on the wall, it features a single marvelous decoration: a rose in full bloom on the pommel.

“I know you prefer function over form, but I couldn’t resist at least a little showmanship,” Ramona grins. “Whaddya think, commander?”

Lea stands and twirls the blade around. Perfectly balanced, like an extension of her arm. Ramona hands her a matching sheath adorned with roses, and she accepts, sliding the sword into it with a satisfying click.

“I’ve never seen a finer blade. Thank you, Ramona.”

“You won’t be putting this one on the wall then?”

Lea laughs, “Of course not! And I’ll not forget the reason that you forged this blade. I carried my last sword for all my years as a knight sworn to destroy fiends. Although that is still my purpose, I do so now for a nation that values peace above all. You forged this sword in an effort to bring lasting peace, and I will bear it with the goal of doing just that. I’ll need all the help I can get based on the new level of coordination the fiends showed this time around.”

“Now yer talkin’! Well, I should let you get some rest, you had quite the battle by the look of things.” The blacksmith stands and approaches the door, but Lea calls out to her.

“One last thing. The stone daggers worked perfectly on the rustfiends, but I had a dreadful time trying to channel mana into them.”

Ramona scratches her head sheepishly, “Yeah, about that. We don’t have much experience working with materials other than metal, so Rena couldn’t get the mana quite right. We’ll work on it, I promise!”

“Very well. See you in the morning, Ramona.”

“You got it, Lea.”

As the door comes to behind the blacksmith, Lea examines the sword one last time.

A sword to bring peace to Alberia, and it was made just for me.

“A new sword,” she says out loud, “and a new purpose. So be it.”

Chapter Text

A sizable crowd is gathered in one of the Halidom’s parlors, and it sits in enraptured silence. Human and sylvan, young and old, all are enchanted by a single speaker who sits near the room’s hearth, back turned to the flames. Her shadow falls over those gathered to hear her tale, flickering and dancing along with the roaring fire. Her story is accompanied by many actions and gestures, which are enlarged across the walls and ceiling, making her seem larger than life. Her cadence is hypnotic, her pace never slackens or breaks, and as her story approaches it’s climax her voice crescendos to a volume that doesn’t seem to match her slender frame. 

“The beast howled in fury as its swipes failed to connect! I dodged left, then right, barely escaping the swift and sure death its claws would bring! It was too close to bring my sword to bear, and I backed away in an effort to make enough space to act!” The speakers hands came together as if holding the hilt of a sword, her eyes alive with the spirit of the life and death struggle. “At last I found my opening and let loose a flurry of slashes to the creature’s chest! It staggered back, and I advanced, now sure that I would be victorious! The beast, once monstrous and menacing, was reduced to whimpers and cries as I pressed the advantage! Its feeble attempts to deflect my blows all failed, and with one final blow it fell lifeless to the ground!” 

The children sitting at her feet let out a shout as she swings the imaginary sword in a wide arc, signaling the end of her foe. Others in the room let out an audible sigh of relief. But the tale is not finished yet.

“I sagged to the ground, exhausted by the encounter, but did not take my eyes from my fallen adversary. I had to be sure that it was truly slain. I rose to my feet, faltering slightly on my tired legs, and inched closer to the beast. I extended my sword to prod the hulking form,” once again she raises the imaginary blade, pointing it forward and slightly down toward the children. “The tip makes contact with the creature’s body, and-” she leaps up from her chair, making a beastial cry. The children scream, and even the adults in the room jump backward in fright. “The dark magic that gave the beast life was not yet extinguished! Purely by instinct I began to channel mana into my blade, unleashing a bright flash of light that staggered the beast long enough for me to thrust, sinking the sword deep into the monster’s chest! I could feel the beating of its heart as my blade penetrated it, and I held my breath! I was all but defenseless if that blow failed to do the deed!” 

The speaker stands still in her mock battle position for a few agonizing moments, counting softly. “One… two… three… how many seconds did I wait, wondering when my life would come to an end? I forget how long I counted, but at last the beat of the creature’s heart slowed and stopped. I removed my blade, now sure of its demise. The beast, like the evil man who had created it, had met its end. It would never more trouble the little village at land’s end.” 

Odetta, breathless from telling the tale, sinks back into her chair and closes her eyes as the room erupts in cheers. The crowd begins to thin, many of them giving their compliments to the storyteller as they go. Odetta smiles and thanks them graciously, the very picture of elegance.

“Though a bit grisly for the children, I cannot deny the quality and power of your speech, Odetta,” says a pink haired sylan. “You had me on the edge of my seat. I only hope I can sleep tonight.”

Odetta places the fingers of one hand on her chest and bows slightly, “Thank you for your kind words, Cleo. And I apologize for frightening the children, although they seem rather invigorated as of now.” She motions to the group of boys and girls across the room, reenacting the story with exaggerated pantomime.

“True enough,” admits Cleo. “I hope you will regale us again soon. Good night, Odetta.” The sylvan woman curtsies and leaves the room, which continues to empty out until a single figure remains in the shadows by the door. Odetta turns her chair to face the fireplace, unaware of the other’s presence.

“Ye tell a good tale, lass!” the other shouts.

Odetta jumps a bit, looking over her shoulder as the figure emerges from the dark corner of the room. It’s a woman, slim and muscular. Long blonde hair flows out from beneath a large black hat adorned with a skull and crossbones.

“Karina,” Odetta breathes as she sinks back into her chair. “You startled me.”

“Apologies, miss,” the pirate says, grinning. She pulls up another chair and sits beside the storyteller, her posture far less elegant. “Ye’ve done yer fair share of travelin’, haven’t ye?”

Odetta nods, “It is my greatest source of joy to find and explore new worlds.”

“A feelin’ I can understand,” Karina replies. “Nothin’ quite like settin’ eyes on somethin’ few have seen before.”

“I had never considered it, but you’re right. Exploration is certainly an interest we share.”

The two women sit in comfortable silence. The fire crackles and snaps, and Odetta leans forward, extending her hands to feel its warmth.

“I’ve made up me mind,” Karina says, “I’m gonna make ye a pirate, Odetta!”

“You’re going to… what?” Odetta finds herself at a rare loss for words. 

“Make ye a pirate!” Karina repeats. “Ye certainly have what it takes! Yer handy with a blade and ye want to explore the world! I’d kill to have ye on any ship o’ mine!”

“I… appreciate the compliment, Karina, but I doubt that I would make as good a pirate as you seem to think. I’m a bit of a loner, you see.”

“Ye mean you were a loner. I don’t think ye can still say that after all the time ye’ve spent here, lass.” Odetta’s face flushes. She can’t deny the truth in the pirate’s words, and Karina’s eyes sparkle, recognizing that she’s gaining ground.

Odetta’s compussure continues to falter, “I… don’t know if a life at sea is for me.”

“It ain’t that different from a life on the road. A well run ship has more o’ the comforts o’ home than a campsite even!”

“...I don’t much care for seafood.”

“We bring plenty o’ food with us, no need to eat a lotta fish. Yer graspin’ at straws now, miss. What’s the real reason you don’t wanna set sail?”

Odetta’s expression twists into one of consternation. “I… don’t much like sailing.”

Karina cocks her head. “Are ye afriad?”

“O-of course not! I’ve faced my share of dangers! I dare say I’m more courageous than most!”

Karina shakes her head. “I’m not sayin’ yer not a brave woman. Ye can’t always control what scares ye though. Ye’d not be the first to fear the sea, and to be frank I think it’s wise to be afraid.”

Odetta relaxes a bit. “That seems a strange thing for a pirate captain to say.”

“Oh don’t get me wrong, I love the sea more than anythin’. But it’s foolish to think she’s safe. Settin’ sail’s a dangerous business that ain’t for the faint o’ heart. That’s why I think yer perfect for it.”

“That’s very kind of you, but I really must decline. I… reacted rather strongly the last time I boarded a ship.”

“Got sick did ye?”

Odetta puts her face in her hands, “Really, Karina, you’re quite insufferable.”

“Yar har har!” Karina laughs. “Or maybe yer too proper fer yer own good, miss! Ye put up this classy facade when yer really as tough as they come! What’s that all about?”

“I suppose I shouldn’t have expected manners from a pirate. I don’t see what’s wrong with trying to keep things classy.”

Karina stares at her for a moment, then straightens up in her seat. Her entire demeanor changes, and aside from her attire Odetta thinks the woman would not look out of place at a state dinner. 

“My apologies, lady,” Karina says earnestly. Her voice has taken on a different tone entirely. “Pray forgive me for my uncouth behavior, I simply wish to understand the discrepancy between your wanderlust and your elegance.”

“Wh-what is this? Are you mocking me?”

“Of course not, lady.” Karina responds in that same, classy voice. “This is what you want, is it not? What makes you comfortable? I simply wish to meet you on common ground, as women of noble blood.”

Odetta narrows her eyes, “Noble blood? Are you saying that you are high-born?”

Karina nods and drops her act. “Indeed I was. Feels strange to me as well if I’m bein’ honest.”

Odetta crosses her arms and scowls at the other woman. “It seems more than a bit hypocritical to hone in on my duality when you are a noblewoman turned pirate, Karina!” 

In contrast, Karina slouches down further in her chair and shrugs. “Aye, I suppose I should explain. Long story short, I didn’t like the noble life. It was phony. They told me to do things I didn’t wanna do and I had no choice. I decided not to let anyone take my freedom away, so I left. Became a pirate by accident and liked it. That’s the story.”

Odetta gapes momentarily before snapping her jaw shut. “You make it sound so simple, but surely the story is more nuanced than that.”

“Nah, that’s the long and short of it,” Karina replies. “I may not have yer knack for spinnin’ a yarn, but the facts all be there.”

“And over time you became the Karina before me today I suppose?”

Karina laughs, “I think this be who I was all along. Me family tried to make me a proper lady, somethin’ more like you I imagine, but it didn’t stick. Ye can try to change people, but in the end they be who they be.”

“I… agree with you,” Odetta says, sounding surprised by her own words. “I confess that you have taken me by surprise tonight, Karina. I apologize if I reacted in anger. Although you appear to be one thing on the surface, I realize that there is far more to you underneath.”

“We’re both made up of a bit o’ both worlds, Odetta.” Karina scratches her chin for a moment, looking contemplative. “On second thought, I don’t need ye to explain yer snazzy clothes to me at all.”

“You think you’ve figured me out on your own, hmm?”

Karina waves a hand dismissively, “Nothin’ like that. I decided that it don’t matter. I like ye the way ye are, so I don’t need to understand everythin’.”

Odetta blinks once. Twice. “Um, thank you. To be honest I’ve grown rather tired of people questioning the way I am. This response is rather refreshing.”

“People like to  make somethin’ outta nothin’, miss. And even though the prince and his friends mean well, they be nosier than bloodhounds when the mood strikes ‘em.”

“They certainly do like to get involved in… everything,” Odetta admits. “But…” she trails off, leaving her thought unfinished.

“But there’s somethin’ about them, right?” Karina offers. “Somethin’ about this place that makes ye wanna stay.”

“Indeed. I’ve never stayed in one place this long, and yet here I am. I feel as if I’m caught between worlds. My heart aches to continue my travels, but when I leave I can only think of returning to this castle.”

“This place and these folk made a pirate captain retire and become a landlubber,” Karina says wistfully. “I hear the sea callin’ me home, but I keep tellin’ it no. This be my home for now, at least until the fightin’s done. After that, who knows?”

The women lock eyes in a moment of mutual understanding. Silence falls over the parlor again, and the pair move closer to the warmth of the dying fire. Finally, Odetta speaks. “Perhaps when this is all over I could give sailing another go. There’s much to explore beyond the sea. Maybe even things that no one has ever laid eyes on.”

Karina shows her teeth in a fierce grin. “Now yer talkin’! Somethin’ tells me that a peaceful Alberia will get borin’ real quick for gals like us anyway!”

Odetta giggles, covering her mouth with a hand. “And I suppose we’ll have a reason to come back here every now and then.”

“Aye,” agrees Karina, sinking back into her chair. “It be our home after all.”