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A Shadow in an Empty Shell

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He’d been cornered. It was as if he’d been waiting for him. It should have been expected, why else would he still finding that smirking pig here? Royland could feel the impending headache, his teeth already starting to ache at the sight of Lord Ludd Whitehill. His troops were still littering around, eying their stronghold with malignant glee— as if planning to cause some trouble as they left. But as he stalked by, their looks changed, a monster within a human body. Shadow-clad and burning with a searing hate, the umber orbs seeming to look straight into their souls.

Yet, the Pig gladly smirked in his face, as if they were still friends— as if he’d never betrayed him. “Royland!” Ludd’s arms lifted from his sides, he almost looked welcoming.

His chin lifted at his name, scars burning at the familiar wisp— the familiar touch that Ludd gave his name. They weren’t friends anymore. Whatever the fool saw still, it was still his imagination alone. He shifted, teeth bared in a scowl, “Lord Whitehill.” His tone was cold, empty. He offered respect when he knew he’d get none in return. It was simply his way.

“Now, is that anyway to greet an old friend?” There were snickers from his men. Royland’s jaw clenched. He was still adamant about that, wasn’t he? Using it as a way to get under his skin. But it wasn’t that anymore. Long had he gotten over the chasm, left it behind— as the fool stood on the other side, beckoning to him. Sometimes, he dared him to jump. He was almost tempted to somedays.

Steel claws scraped across his breastplate, fruitlessly trying to keep his anger to be still. “I’m not your friend anymore, Whitehill.” The look of disappointment that crossed Ludd’s features made him ball up a fist, teeth scraping painfully over each other.

A low harrumph left the pig, brows furrowed as if in confusion. “Well—” How quickly the braggart returned. “It’s a wonder you’re still around here. It’s strange, really. This house is quickly falling…”

”But the strangest thing is you, Royland,” Ludd’s grin was suddenly wide and his eyes bright with something that he could not describe. “You really think you have to listen to them!” His fingers twitched. It was getting harder to remain passive, untouched by his words. These foul and worthless words that came from the Pig. But Ludd knew him. They’d been friends— allies— for centuries. And even now, Ludd still knew how to grate on his nerves, find his weaknesses. His teeth clenched, the pounding growing steady in his head. To believe he had once called him a friend.

“You’re the one who should be in charge!” Ludd gestured at him, index centimeters from touching his armor. The Men seemed to circle around them like vultures. Where was some other fool when he needed them? His teeth began to grind, jaw clenched, and eyes narrowing. Faintly, the light of fear appeared in Ludd’s regard— he wasn’t as grandiose as he thought. But Royland was still struck by his words. “Rodrik’s been ruined, Elissa and Talia are weak-willed women, and Tuttle’s nothing more than a child playing at politics.” His fingers twitched again. Fury shot through him at the slight against the Forresters, yet his mouth was dry, his throat constricted.

Ludd knew his thirst for control, for power. He’d never been fit to be a Lord. But some part of him was wondering about the What If. What if he was in control? But Ludd knew, too, it would be his own downfall… “You’re the only one worthy of being Lord! They’re the ones who should be listening to you!” It roiled in him; snapping, growling. It was attached to the Forresters. The Beast needed to be directed. It needed to be kept in control. Or— Or… Or What? “You’re a smart and powerful warrior. If you were in control, this would be over.” His hands curled slowly. He was still waiting for that inevitable punchline, waiting for Ludd’s true colors to show through.

Yet, the look in those pig-brown eyes… He was letting it sink in. Royland was desperate to hear the end of it. To hear the jab, the jape— The Jester’s Crow, if one will. The Silence was deafening though. Endless, except for what was going on in the distance; outside. Swords clashing against each other, hammers beating against Ironwood. His jaw squared, shoulders pulling back. “If it weren’t for the fact that you’re defective…” The pain shot through him; lightning darted up his spine. The anger finally spilling forth. A Snarl.

Followed by the sound of Metal against stone, the faint crunch of bones. “Heh. Like I said…” And the Bastard moved away, a hand lifting— both a signal and a jab against him, laughter echoing from his lips. His umber watched him go.

And then everything in him crumpled. Royland stared at his fist still pressed hard against the stone of the room.

Why hadn’t he hit Ludd?

Doubt. It was Doubt.