Wayward Light 21k

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  1. Wayward Light
  3. Prologue: To Make an Heir
  6. The lavender and orange sky would soon be shifting to the bruise-dark shades of dusk. The air was cooling rapidly, and within the hour the first of Arkadi’s three moons would be visible. The journey had begun at the first grey-haze of dawn, and now they had nearly reached their destination. The four stout and sure footed terkas were the fleetest carriage beasts in the realm.  An animal species known for it’s endurance and hardiness; they were used for everything from pulling wagons, serving as mounts, or as beasts of burden. Many long years ago they had been raised for their meat as well, but such practices fell out of favor with time. Terkas meat was tough and stringy, after all.
  8. The typical Terkas stood around two paces at the shoulder. They had cloven hooves, and deep barrel chests.  Heavy curving horns were said to help shield their necks from other predators, and serve as self defense. Most domestic Terkas had their horns trimmed down regularly to short nubs. Their muzzles had the deceptive appearance of a mere prey animal; yet they had teeth for both grinding plant matter in the back of their jaws, and sharp predatory fangs toward the front. Terkas in the wild were opportunistic, generally eating carrion or preying on smaller animals that were weak, sick or injured. Their coats were generally a dull brown or grey. Those pulling the royal carriage however were primarily white, with heavy grey spotting. Terkas were somewhat dim-witted creatures, but generally easy to tame and took well to simple tasks. They were highly food motivated, and no doubt anticipating being well fed once they finally stopped to rest.  A bucket filled with a simple mix of grains and bits of dried meat, and perhaps a few old shriveled root vegetables, would keep them more than content.
  10. Queen Vaerdis, beloved wife of King Garmudarus of Zevalon, pulled open the woven tapestry shade beside her, as the carriage jostled down the road. She frowned slightly. A journey at this pace was mildly uncomfortable, and she had been sitting in the carriage for most of the day. They had stopped only once for a necessary break, and to give the animals a brief rest. The winding countryside had become sparse woodlands. She knew that soon enough, the scattered spread of trees would become dense forest. She would no doubt have to walk the last half mile or so of the journey, as the carriage would not make it down the slowly narrowing road at that point. Her people were a race known as the Zardirus, a species of saber-tooth feline folk, the primary and dominant race of the Kingdom of Zevalon.
  12. The Zardirus were one of the larger races of the world of Arkadi. Typically around eight foot in height, with the largest of them hitting well over the nine foot mark. Heavy framed, with dense muscles, they were rumored to have draconic ancestry. The primary evidence to support this claim, was their mild resistance to fire, higher body temperatures, and their horns. Both male and female Zardirus sported double sets of ram-like horns. Horns of males were massive and curling, while females tended to be about half that size, and sported only a simple gentle curve. Males tended to be larger than females, but generally not by a vast amount.
  14. Vaerdis was of moderate height. She stood seven and a half foot tall, with the classic broad shouldered and strong frame her people were known for. A slight taper at her waist flared into wide hips and thick thighs. The Zardirus did not hold slender willowy bodies above others. Size and power were valued in physical form, for both men and women. Her husband the king, was a little more than a foot taller than her, and more than half-again her weight.
  16. Her fur was a dark golden cream, with a heavy amount of thin mahogany stripes. Standing out against that, was a thick mane of hair, white as newly fallen snow. Her eyes were the palest yellow; not unlike the color of the soon to be rising first moon.  Her horns were a faded rose-tinged shade of brown. She sported a double pair of them, as most of her people did.  Her canines hung down past her lips, just past her lower jaw. They were a bit smaller and more slender than her husband’s, but that was quite normal. Much like horns, females tended to have slightly smaller fangs as well.
  18. Her upper torso was clad in a light suede leather, the trim studded with tiny pale yellow gemstone cabochons. The front portion was embossed with an intricate tree design. Her lower half bore a layered skirt. A layer of wine-colored terkas wool, over fine cream silks. At her side, a small gold filigree hand axe, and matching dagger. Her hair had been fixed into a simple loose braid for the journey, and she did not wear her crown, merely a lovely golden hair ornament slipped through either side, near the base of her horns.
  20. Like most of her people, she wore nothing on her feet. Thick paw-pads protected her well enough. Coverings on the foot would merely harm mobility. On occasion, those who had to spend long hours in the snow and ice would wear protective gear on their feet, but this was generally just a sort of waterproof dense wool sack-like sock kept in place with leather laces wrapped around one’s ankle.
  22. She had brought with her only two of her ladies. The first was her primary lady in waiting, a woman only a handful of years older than herself, with a heavy broad muzzle and warm grey eyes. The second, was a thrall who was not a Zardirus, but a smaller feline of mixed origins. Glora had dark fur and a dainty muzzle, but carried a bladed spear and a long slender sword, and could have easily held her own against some of her Husband’s top ranking Knights. Glora’s status may have been thrall, but she served as a bodyguard of sorts, and was an honored member of the Queen’s personal circle, and like Akaravena, her Lady in Waiting, rarely far from the Queen’s side.
  24. King Garmundarus had wished for her to take with her at least a small company of soldiers, and one of his Knights, but Vaerdis had insisted she was just going to visit her cousin, and there was no need. The driver of the carriage, an elderly fellow who had served her own family since she was a child, herself, and the two women she had brought along, were plenty.
  26. However, the King was not aware that she was not going where she said she was going. She could not have brought anyone else along, as she could not have trusted that many people to remain silent. The King’s loyal warriors and any Knight would have felt obligated to report directly to her husband. While she had left the castle, heading west on the same road that would have taken her to her Cousin’s manor; the carriage veered off on the first fork in the road, to the south-west.
  28. King Garmundarus would never have approved of what she planned on doing, but his approval was not what she was looking to find. She was looking to find a solution. Desperation had driven her to form a plan that was not only dangerous, but threatened to soil the Queen’s lofty reputation.
  30. For many a long year, she and her beloved husband had been struggling to conceive. While they were still considered in their prime, the King longed for an heir, and she had long since dreamed of becoming a mother.  Even with the guide of a wise-woman to help her better understand her cycles and most fertile period, nothing had come of it. Even with charms and potions to help her become pregnant, she never had.
  32. Rumor had reached her of a powerful witch living deep in the dense forests. She spent months consulting and conspiring with her most trusted. Glora served well as a spy, and was over her eyes and ears elsewhere in the realm. She learned of the witch’s powers, as well as her location.
  34. As the first moon rose, and the sky darkened, the world outside of the carriage was darkened further as they entered the forest properly. The Terkas were forced to slow from a plodding slow gallop, to a walk.
  36. Akaravena leaned forward slightly, and touched the Queen’s arm. Her brow furrowed. It was clear their destination made her uneasy. Her brow furrowed. She seemed to be offering comfort, but the Queen knew that inwardly, she was also silently asking for the same.
  38. “We will be there soon.” She said to the other woman, and reached out to squeeze her arm lightly. “All will be well.” Despite her own nerves, she tried to make her voice as reassuring as possible. Doubts had been plaguing her the entire day. What if the Witch could not help? What if the darker rumors of the powerful magic user were true? After all, she lived alone in isolation.
  40. She knew Akara did not approve, not really. While she mourned alongside her Queen each cycle when there was no sign of pregnancy, she did not like the idea of visiting a Witch for a solution. But, she knew Akara would remain silent. The woman would hold a secret to her grave.
  42. Glora’s expression was one of grim determination. She was guarded, suspicious of their surroundings. The woman did not think it her business to approve or disapprove of the Queen’s choices. Her loyalty was even more fierce and intense than that of Akara’s. Vaerdis owed her life to the thrall on more than one occasion, and she had no doubt that the women would dive, screaming, into an impossible fight without an instant’s hesitation to defend the life of her Queen.
  44. Before she had joined the Queen’s inner circle, Glora had been a pit fighter and slave in a smaller kingdom to the south. The King had sent a band of Knights to squash a rebellion against one of his allies, and they had found in that time a fighting pit, where men, women and animals alike were forced to fight for sport. Glora, was not even a woman yet, still considered a child by the standards of most. Despite her smaller stature she had been a savage combatant, and one who had constantly rebelled against her captors. Most of the slaves had been freed, but some of the ones who seemed they would have difficulty adjusting, or were perhaps targets for recapture were taken back to the castle. Some were given jobs in the stables or fields. The Queen saw something special in the young and wild-eyed Glora however, and insisted on taking her.
  46. Slavery as a whole was not illegal in Zevalon, but the treatment of ‘thralls’ (the term preferred over slave) was heavily regulated. It was much more like an indentured servitude. A Thrall would be well provided for, given anything they required for health and comfort, in return for their service.  Although Glora on some level ‘belonged’ to the Queen, the younger woman was much more like a little sister to her. She had mothered the girl early on, and earned her trust. She had defended her from those who would treat her poorly because of her species. She had seen her educated, and had insisted on more regimented combat training for her. Suspicious and nervous at first, Glora had become somewhat enamored with her Queen, and deeply devoted.
  48. “If the witch is a threat, I will take her hide and make the Queen a lovely mantle.” Glora said suddenly. Her hand moved to the hilt of her sword.
  50. “I doubt that will be necessary, dearest Glora.” The Queen said, with gentle patience. “But, there is no one I trust more to fight for me, should it come to that.”
  52. They spoke little for the next hour, as the carriage slowly rolled down the gradually narrowing trail. The twin lanterns hanging from either side provided a small amount of light, in what was otherwise near-blackness. At last, the driver pulled his team to a stop.
  54. “This is far as they will be able to go.” He called back over his shoulder. “Not unless we want to risk getting the wheels stuck.”
  56. Vaerdis assured him he had done well. It was agreed he would wait with the carriage, while the queen and her two attendants walked the rest of the way to the Witch’s cottage.
  58. Her nerves rose, anxiety and dread threatening to take hold now that they were actually out of the carriage. It made the whole thing seem all the more real. She carried no lantern, but rather used a small amount of magic to conjure a tiny glowing orb floating over the three of them. Most of her people could perform simple ‘tricks’ like that.  Minor magics such as that were fairly normalized.
  60. Glora stuck close to her side, hand never straying far from her sword. Akara walked behind her, occasionally jumping at some sound or another. They walked for what felt like an hour or more, but was probably only a fraction of that. Just as Vaerdis was beginning to worry there was either no cottage after all, or that they had missed it, she finally saw it.
  62. Just off the trail was a small house made of stone and clay. Moss had grown over the sides of it, and thick brush, and some smaller trees grew all around it, save for a narrow path with an overhanging canopy leading to the door. There were signs of a clearing and small garden behind the cottage, but it would have been easy to overlook, had one not been specifically looking for it.
  64. She quietly scolded Glora when the woman started to draw her sword. It would not do, to put the witch on edge because she felt threatened. Her heart was pounding, but she reminded herself of what was at stake. With her closest companions to either side of her, she stepped forward, steady and determined, and knocked lightly at the door.
  66. There was a soft rustle, and the door creaked as it opened. The Queen was not sure what she had been expecting, but it certainly was not what she saw before her.
  68. The Witch was small by the standards of her people, but still stood a bit over six foot in height. She was canine, with a long narrow muzzle and bright blue-green eyes. She was far more slight of build than a Zardirus, but had gentle curves and a subtle willowy strength to her. She had small upright horns, with a slight spiral shape to them, and only two of them. She was difficult to put an age to, Vaerdis could not decide if she was a young woman, barely on the cusp of adulthood, or one old enough to be a mother twice over or more. Then again, it was sometimes difficult to judge age. Her own people lived for several centuries easily, more than most of the species of Arkadi.  Her fur was a deep dark iron grey, with lighter brown and rust markings, slow fades between the colors. Her fur was paler at the throat, fading to a softer tan. She wore a simple grey and green gown that seemed to be woven from soft plant fibers, with accents of hide and fur at the hemlines and cuffs. Her long hair, black fading to a gentle brown, was tied back with a braided strip of leather around her head. A few baubles and bits of bone hung here and there, no doubt these were charms of some sort.
  70. “I have been expecting you, Your Majesty.” The woman did not bow, but did incline her head. Still the Queen had never been one to insist everyone kneel and bow every time they were in her presence. That was fine in formal ceremony where it was expected, but she had shown up at the woman’s home. She was the Queen, but she was also a guest. She would not force the woman to grovel for her.
  72. “Expecting me.?” She asked, confused. How had word spread? Who had told the Witch she was looking for her? Akara pressed to her side. She had a feeling the woman wanted to hide behind her, but forced herself not to. Glora, on the other hand, seemed to be fighting the urge to place herself between the Witch and her Queen.
  74. “No one told me.” The witch said with a knowing smile, as though she could read her thoughts. “I read the bones, and saw in my crystal ball.” She stepped back. “Come in.. Come in. I would offer you tea, but I do believe you may be in a hurry to get back before you husband expects you are not where you say you are?”
  76. For a moment, she almost wanted to back away and run back for the carriage. The woman knew too much. But, at the same time, didn’t that mean she was truly powerful? She was real, and not an impostor that just wished to take coins from those who needed her help? But, she had not come this far to turn and flee. She stepped inside the small cottage, with Glora squeezing in the door just before she did.
  78. Once the three of them were inside, the door was closed behind them.  The cottage was a bit more of what she would have expected. The floor was hard packed dirt, although much of it was covered with rugs. Bones, wooden charms, herbs, glass orbs and several wooden wind chimes hung from the ceiling, making it a bit difficult to navigate without running into something. The roof was low enough that the Queen’s horns nearly brushed it. There was an old worn wooden shelf packed with old books. There was a shelf full of various bottles and clay pots. There was a table with alchemy related items on it, one full of stones and various small animal skulls, feathers and other objects used for her craft. A small wood burning stove in one corner, and a table with a bench to either side in the middle. In one corner, was sleeping quarters, half-hidden by mismatched scrap-material curtains of felted wool, plant fiber and animal hide.
  80. The place was dimly lit, only by a few candles and small lanterns. It smelled of countless things. Soil, herbs and old parchment, incense, and a hint of dried blood. There was the scent of woodsmoke and something almost sickly sweet as well.
  82. “Have a seat. I know what you want, but it is best to hear it in your own words.” The witch gestured to the table, and only took a seat once the Queen had settled herself. She watched intently, waiting for her to begin.
  84. At first Vaerdis was not sure where to begin. After a slow stammering start however, and a reassuring hand on each shoulder from her two companions, the words came, and were soon flowing out of her in a rush. She spoke of her sorrow of being unable to conceive, which in itself was terrible enough, as she longed so for children. It made it far worse that she was suppose to produce an heir for her husband, and that the King as well, longed so for strong sons. The people as well, expected the King and Queen to produce an Heir, it was well past time, and the whispers had already began. They had even spoke of other options, perhaps letting another woman carry the child in secret. Vaerdis could not bare that. Bad enough that another woman would need to bed her husband, something she would not ever want to come to pass, but although she would still have a child to care for, it would not be her own child, it would not be her blood.  She also felt it would be an insult to her as a woman, to have another woman do what she should have been able to do for her King. Then there was the sorrow of having to fake a pregnancy, while another woman actually carried the child.  Furthermore, if word ever got out, then that would bode poorly for the child, and might threaten his or her claim on the throne. Worse, if they merely adopted a child in secret who was not related to either of them, but was passable in appearance. Rumors would spread in time.
  86. She told her everything, the practical reasons, but mostly, of her own desperation to be a mother. Tears welled in her eyes as she spoke of years of disappointment, each time when she failed to get pregnant. The witch listened in silence, fingers steepled.  She felt Akara’s hand on her shoulder squeeze a little tighter, and heard the woman sniff quietly. She told her of all the attempts to help her conceive, the herbs, charms, changing her food, making sure she timed intimacy with the King on nights she would be most fertile. She had even tried different ways of coupling with her husband. Speaking of personal matters in such a way, brought a flush of heat to her face, but she felt that it should be included.
  88. For several moments after the Queen finished, all was silent. The witch stared at her with those intense bright blue-green eyes. At last she finally spoke.
  90. “Yes.. I know how I can help you. However. I will need space, and quiet to work my magic. Your two friends will need to wait outside.”
  92. As expected, it was Glora who protested the loudest. She squared her shoulders.
  94. “I am the Queen’s protector. I stay with her.” She said, stubbornly. Vaerdis turned to her.
  96. “It will be fine, Glora. Step outside with Akara. You will still be close by.” This was too important. It was well worth any risk. Akara furrowed her brow with worry, but tugged at Glora’s arm. The warrior woman hesitated a moment longer, before following her out.
  98. “First. The price must be paid. What do you have to offer? Coin is good, but something of true value, value of the heart and not simply fortune is worth even more.”
  100. The Queen had expected something like this. She had been told that the woman would charge a price for her work. She had been told that one must bring coin, by several and by others that an item of personal significance would need to be sacrificed.  This mattered more than anything to her, so she brought forth two pouches.
  102. “A small fortune in coin.” She said, and with slightly more reluctance set down the second. “My.. Mother’s jewelry. Several of her favorites. And her comb.. She died several years ago.” The witch examined the coins first, and then the contents of the second bag. She nodded. “This will suffice.”
  104. “… I must use my crystal again.” The witch rose, and brought over a melon sized orb of smokey quartz. It was kept upright by a stand that seemed to be made of a mixture of wood and bone. She placed it on her side of the table, and then brought over a brazier and a candle, as well as several jars of herbs. Those were arranged around the crystal. The third trip, she returned with a few potion bottles, and an earthenware cup.
  106. The third trip she brought a drawstring hide pouch, and a dagger, as well as a round stone tile, covered with dozens of strange glyphs and runes.
  108. Vaerdis knew little of magic, beyond the small tricks she could do, such a making a small light, or making a candle flame flicker. She could make a feather dance and spin over her hand. None of these things were proper, real magic, mere cantrips that half of all children could do by the time they were old enough to play outside without a caretaker watching their every move. She watched, but she understood little of what the woman did as she gazed into her ball, lit the brazier, and filled the air with pungent smelling smoke from various herbs and resins. She returned her attention to the ball again, and then dumped the contents of the bag out onto the circular tile. She frowned and swept half aside, then gathered up the remainder and dumped them again. She began carving on a small piece of wood, etching some sort of rune into it with the knife.
  110. “I need a few drops of your blood.” She said suddenly. “And a lock of your hair.”  Vaerdis flinched slightly, discomfort welling in her, But she leaned forward, offering out the end of her braid so the witch could cut a small slender piece, only a few inches long from it. She then extended her hand.
  111. With no ceremony or hesitation, the witch sliced her finger with the knife. It only stung a little, the cut was short and shallow, and quite neat. It was just enough to bring blood welling, several fat drops. The witch collected it neatly in a small vial. A small trickle from another bottle was added to it. A streak was added over the rune she had carved, and with another drop, smeared on her finger, she drew a symbol on the tile itself. Her tongue, black-ish purple, flicked out from her muzzle as she licked up the rest from her palm. Vaerdis felt a twinge of revulsion.
  113. “A link must be made.” She said, without looking up, as though she had sensed the reaction.
  115. The hair was laid on top of the wooden rune, and then the small delicate ivory hair comb was removed from the bag as well, and placed on top of the rest.  The canine woman began to chant words in a language the Queen had never heard before. Strange, coarse and somewhat guttural, her voice rasped through whatever incantation she was speaking. She held the rune aloft, and for the final time, turned her attention back to the crystal ball. For a few moments she continued to whisper the chant hoarsely over and over. At last she raised her eyes to Vaerdis.
  117. “The price has been paid. If you accept, you will return home and bed your husband by tomorrow night, by the time the second moon becomes visible. You will conceive only once, never again.”
  119. Her heart hammered, with a mixture of hope, and sadness, that she would have but one child.. but she expected the witch was not done.
  121. “You will carry to term, and give birth to two healthy sons.” She continued, and hope outweighed the sadness, within the Queen’s heart. Two sons. Twins. But, then she realized there was more.
  123. “One of your sons will be good and fair and just. A boy with the potential to grow into the finest ruler the kingdom has ever seen. The other will be wicked, a heart filled with darkness from the moment it begins to beat inside of you.”
  125. The Queen froze. “What..?” Her pulse began to race. Surely that could not be true? How could a mere child be evil from before it was born?
  127. “Do you accept this price?” The witch asks. “There is no bargaining Accept, or remain barren and childless.” The witch’s voice had gone cold.
  129. “I .. accept.” Vaerdis said, after only a few seconds of silence. How could she not? If even a supposedly wicked child was raised with kindness, she firmly believed such could be changed.
  131. “Then it is done.” The rune, was cast into the flames.
  133. Thick smoke rose in two dense clouds, so thick they seemed to almost have solid substance. One silvery-white, the other dark. The smoke churned together and the grey mass lashed out toward Vaerdis.
  135. With a cry, she tried to pull away, but the smoke forced itself into her. She felt it pushing into her nose and mouth, shoving itself into her chest, and even, tendrils of it entering her body from more intimate places. A scream rose in her throat, but it became only coughing. She could hear Glora shouting, and heard the sound of wood splintering as the door was shouldered down. Blackness enveloped her.
  137. She came to, perhaps only moments later, feeling strange. Light headed. Her throat was raw, her eyes stung, but nothing seemed wrong. Glora and Akara sat to either side of her. Akara looking worried, and Glora, furious.
  139. “We go now?” Glora asked, looking from her Queen, and casting a spiteful glare toward the witch, who was quietly clearing away her things from the table, ignoring her.
  141. “Go now.” The witch commanded simply.  Her two companions helped her to her feet. Vaerdis remembered little of the walk back to the carriage. Her mind was in a daze. They spoke little until they were back inside the carriage, and roughly half an hour into the trip back home.
  143. After drinking a bit of wine to calm her nerves, Vaerdis told them everything the witch had said, and how she believed that how her children were raised, would matter more than any sort of prophecy. She also knew, she would need to tell her husband the truth, regardless of how angry it made him. This effected him. The only reason she had not told him from the start, was because she feared (and rightly so) that he would prevent her from going, for her own safety.  She knew him well, and no matter how badly he wished an heir, he would not have put her life and safety on the line for such. But, he was also more willing than she was to consider other options, such as letting another woman carry his child. He had understood that such would have upset her, but he perhaps did not see from her perspective clearly enough to realize just how deeply it would have affected her.
  145. She slept in the carriage that night until the early hours of the morning. With Akara’s help, she re-braided her hair, and smoothed out her dress. She was famished, and again Akara came through for her, producing some dried sausages and hard cheese that she had brought for the trip. They ate in silence, and within the hour, the castle could be seen in the distance.
  147. She was thankful in a way, that The King was busy when she returned. He was speaking with his advisors in the council room. She saw to it that a servant relayed the news of her return however. She dismissed her companions, asking them to go rest. She could tend to her own bathing for once, it would not kill her. In truth, she wanted to be alone with her thoughts for at least a few hours.
  149. Her private bath was a lovely place. Pale stone with accents of silver and gold, a pool that was waist deep on one side, and more shallow at the other end, only mid torso when she was sitting. It was large enough to accommodate both herself and her husband, although she rarely managed to get him to spend lengthy time in the baths. He preferred a quick dunk in his own large brass tub, a hasty scrub-down, and then leaving puddles of water for his servants to mop up.
  151. She laid out a clean gown, this one light and airy, more suitable for being in the castle, rather than traveling. She also liked how it accented her figure. The skirts were parted, showing a flash of her thigh when she stepped a certain way. It was one of The King’s favorites too, for the way it clung and accented her chest and backside, and how easily it was to simply slip out of.  It was mostly white, with delicate golden flowers embroidered along the sleeves and neckline, and not something she would have worn outside of their own chambers. But, she did not plan on leaving, and if she did need to, she could slip on an overdress so she looked less like she was trying to attract lustful gazes.
  153. She spent half an hour or more slowly brushing out her long hair, and scenting it with a bit of perfumed oil, one she recalled her husband enjoyed. She left it down and unbraided. She did, briefly slip on a robe so that she could step into the halls and request a servant bring her a late afternoon meal. Tea, and some roasted fowl, that some of the Knights had brought in on the last hunting trip, as well as a bit of dried fruit. She did not wish to eat too heavily, as she did not wish to feel drowsy or bloated.
  155. When at last the King came through the doors of their chambers, she was in bed, leaning against the pillows, and reading, trying her best to look casual. She had loosened the front of her gown beforehand suggestively, and saw to it that one leg was left bare up to mid thigh. She smiled and put the book aside.
  157. “Dearest..” She held out a hand. “Come to bed.”
  159. He was dressed quite typical day to day attire; a long tunic of deep dark purple, heavily accented with bronze and gold reached down to nearly knee length. Simple breeches were worn beneath. He had not worn the royal crown, but a simple solid gold circlet was on his brow, holding his wild mane of pale golden hair back from his face.
  161. King Garmudarus was broad shouldered and thickly muscled. He stood a full eight foot, nine inches tall. Most of his fur was the color of pale sand, with small rosettes of a slight rusty tone lightly sprinkled over his form. His muzzle was broad and heavy, and saber fangs hung down several inches past it.  His eyes were a rich golden brown, a shade Vaerdis had associated with old bronze. His horns were the color of aged ivory, heavily ridged, both sets curling dramatically, one pair arching downwards to either side of his head, and the other curling back behind.
  163. He took in the sight of her, brow raising just a little. Realization seemed to dawn, and teeth flashed in a grin. “Did you miss me that greatly, Vaerdis? You were only away for a single day and night.”
  165. “It felt as though I were away three times that, easily.” She replied. She cut her eyes up toward him in that way she knew he loved, her tail giving a few slow flicks beside her.
  167. They had been married for forty seven years. He had ruled for nearly twenty before that. While he had not taken a Queen before, the man had been known for his habits behind closed doors. King Garmudarus had been near legendary for his appetite for women. Early in his rule he had been reluctant to settle down. He had been pressured to finally choose a Queen, and to choose based on what would benefit his kingdom the most, rather than what he wished to keep in his bed.
  169. At first, she had not even been sure what it was about her in particular, that caught his eye. She was the only daughter of a mid-ranking Lord, quite a distance to the North-west, near the borders of the Kingdom. She had not been the most beneficial pairing, she was not the one who would gain him the most land, or the biggest army, or any sort of grand trade deal. She was also not the most stunning of his suitors.
  170. Most had expected the King to choose either the biggest political gain, or perhaps Lord Zekarven’s eldest daughter, who was thought to be one of the most beautiful Zardirus women in the entire realm. But, it was Vaerdis who captured his attention the most at those royal parties.
  172. Later, a few years into their marriage, he had confessed what it was about her, that had caused him to pursue her above all others. All the others, he had told her, did one of two things.
  174. “They either threw themselves at me harder than someone expecting coin for being taken to bed.. Or they looked at me like they were afraid I was going to eat them right then and there. So, they were willing to act outside of who they were, in order to be Queen. Not because they wanted me, but because they wished to rule. Or.. They were afraid. What sort of man who calls himself a man would desire a woman who feared him? But then there had been you. Staring at him, wineglass in hand. Watching him like a wild creature stalks prey. Observing him through shrewd eyes.”
  176. He had laughed at that point and seemed to reflect back on the memory of that first meeting.
  178. “You were studying me, as though you were trying to sort out if I was worthy of you. You were analyzing who I was as a person. Everything I said. You had heard stories I am sure, but you wanted to make your own decisions. I realized I would need to impress you, not the other way around. And from that moment, there was no one else I wanted.”
  180. She had not exactly been keen on him at first. But, he had quickly won her over. When they had first been wed, she had not been in love with him. Political marriages were not for love, much of the time. But, she had respected the man. It was a good match, and being Queen, just happened to be a rather large benefit of that. She had taken to being Queen, like a fish released back into the water, as though it had always been her purpose. She had considered herself Queen first, and the wife of Garmudarus second.
  182. But her love for him had come in time. His boldness, his humor, his sense of justice. He was not a perfect King, the man did have his flaws. (Quite a few of them, actually) But, she loved him. His more wild nature had been tempered, and he no longer sought out other women, instead channeling that energy all into her. It had awakened something in her she had not known was there, and she found herself sometimes coaxing and tempting him into their bed, instead of the other way around.
  184. He removed the circlet from his brow and tossed it aside onto the cozy reading chair in the corner of the room. His tunic came next, pulling it up over his head and tossing it casually aside.
  186. Vaerdis never got tired of looking at him, the broad expanse of his chest, and the way his short fur faded to a slightly lighter color along his stomach. His hair had been grown out nearly to his waist, free of the circlet, it spilled out in slight waves, down the side of his heavy skull.
  188. He moved to the bed with quick strides, and all but dove in. She let out a small shriek as the bed-frame shook, laughing as he moved over the top of her. Mindful of his large saber fangs, as always he nuzzled against her face, her neck, and chest. Claw tip hands, that appeared more suited for crushing that any sort of gentleness, roamed her body in ways that had her breath catching. She clung to him, nipping an ear, digging claws lightly into his shoulders.
  190. He growled low, playfully biting at her throat, and began tugging the front laces of her gown impatiently. Another giggle rose in her as she wriggled herself free and the garment was pulled down.
  192. “You say you love me in this dress, but any time I wear it, it’s never for long.”  She smacked his shoulder, and tried to bite him again. The gown was stuck on her hips, and she squirmed to try and free herself from it completely, a small startled sound escaped her, followed directly by a moan. The King’s jaws clamped down around her exposed breast, a broad tongue stroking over her nipple.
  194. She managed to kick the dress off of her legs, and brought a foot up, hooking a toe-claw along the waistline of his breeches.
  196. “Take those off now..” She breathed out, as he gave her other breast similar treatment, inflicting sweet torment with those slow teasing flicks of his tongue, while he playfully pinned her arms over her head.
  198. His breathing had grown faster and heavier. “Why?” He asked, once he finally released her breast. “Is there something inside that you need?”
  200. He shifted his weight and position slightly, so that he could press his groin against her thigh. Through the material of his pants she could feel him, the rush of heat, and the firmness of his fully erect length.
  202. It was often like this. Her husband was a terrible tease, and had grown into one over time, as he adapted and matured, and learned what his wife enjoyed. In the beginning, he had understood little of what foreplay was. Now, sometimes he would draw things out even longer than she wanted, just because he loved getting her that worked up. She sometimes claimed she ‘hated’ it, when in reality she loved every moment of his teasing.
  204. Their mouths and hands explored each other feverishly, passion as heated as when they were young. Her confession of where she had really been, faded into the background of her mind. She had considered telling him first, but had decided it was better to wait. He would be much more reasonable after he was spent. While the King had never once been violent with her, the man had a volatile temper and could be quite headstrong and stubborn. He was not going to like the fact that she had hid where she had gone from him. Nor that she had dealt with a mysterious witch in order to get pregnant.
  206. But, that night in the witch’s cottage felt like it had happened weeks ago, and all of her was wrapped up in the sight and feel of her husband.
  208. She got one of her hands free and gripped one of his curling horns, and bit at his lip. He insisted on continuing to toy with her until she nearly couldn’t stand it. Only then did he finally finish undressing and join with her.. Shifting positions halfway through to put her on top, so that he could gaze up at her.
  210. She panted, her hair now a wild mess as she moved her body in time with his. His nails dug slightly into one hip, the other hand squeezing a breast.
  212. When at last they were both spent, she lay cradled against his chest, trailing fingers through the short fur. He talked a bit about what had happened at the council, and she was mildly startled out of her daydreams when he asked her about her visit with her cousin. She had to tell him now, or continue with the lie.
  214. Slowly, she sat up, and turned, tucking her legs close. She faced him. He blinked, frowning slightly.
  216. “What is it? Did.. something happen while you were away?” He pushed himself up slightly.
  218. “No.. Well.” She sighed. “I did not go to my cousin’s as I said. I went to see a witch in the woods.”
  220. He took it better than she had expected, at least the first part of it. His brow had furrowed, and he seemed disapproving, but, at the same time he understood how desperate she was. But then she got to what the witch had told her just before the magic was cast. Twins. One Good. One Wicked.
  222. “Who is this witch..?” He said, tone shifting to a growl. “I will go there with my men, and we will have her change it.” He was already sitting up, ready to charge headlong into action. This was one of the many traits she loved about him at times, and other times found deeply frustrating.
  224. It was all she could do to convince him to not storm out looking to hunt down the witch. He was angry.. Mostly over the witch’s meddling and inflicting them with a ‘curse’ and angry at his Queen as well.  She knew him well, and she coaxed his anger from a flame down to a smoldering ember. She poured him a strong wine from the cabinet, and brought it to him. She reminded him, that even if there was an ominous cloud hanging over the matter, they still would now finally have children. Two sons. Was that not worth the price?
  226. “I cannot make myself believe that one of our children.. will be wicked. Can that not be changed?” She said, sitting beside him. She was convinced, but a spike of dread began to rise in her when she realized he was not.
  228. But, in time, over the next few weeks, his brooding faded.  She began having strange cravings, requesting everything from fresh greens, to raw meat to be brought to her. When she began to show visible signs of being with child, only then did they finally announce it publicly to the people.
  230. They had done well to keep rumors at bay. None outside of the small circle who were directly involved knew of the Queen’s dealings with the Witch. Her pregnancy was a healthy one. Even the castle’s healers and wise-women were surprised at how well things were progressing.
  232. She had given up wine, but had been less lax on sweets. Her body had filled out somewhat, but she hardly minded. Much of the weight that was not the two growing sons she was carrying, was in her hips, and of course a bit in her chest, which her wonderful husband, Garmudarus certainly made note of.
  234. It was known that the Queen was expected to have twin boys, just not the reason she would be having twin boys.
  236. But, having conceived in just before spring, put her at being full term in the heart of winter. The chambers were prepared for her. Two small beds beside the massive royal bed. Extra furs and rugs, heavier curtains on the windows. Extra wood for the fireplace.
  238. Gifts poured in, for the soon to be born royal children. Toys, clothing, more things than the two would ever be able to make use of. One of their allies sent them each a pair of exotic hunting birds, even though the two of them would not be able to even interact with them until they were at least five or six years old. The animals were long lived at least, but also tended to bond to whoever cared for them.
  240. A snowstorm was raging outside when the queen at last went into labor. The bed had been prepared for her to give birth on, several layers of dense felted Terkas wool protecting the mattress. There was some concern with it being twins, but the first was born after only a few pushes. The blood and fluid was cleared away, and the infant let out a squall of fright and indignation. He was wrapped in a blanket, and passed to Vaerdis, while she caught her breath for a moment. It would soon be time to push again.
  242. Her firstborn son was large. He would be built much like his father, she suspected. For a moment she could only stare in awe at him, before covering his tiny velvet furred face is kisses, tears leaking from her eyes. White as the blanketing snow outside, with eyes as blue as crystalline waters. He was perfect. She almost did not want to hand him back to one of the midwives attending, but she had to in order to bring his brother into the world.
  244. There was some mutters of alarm as she began pushing the second. She tried to peer over to see what was wrong, but could not. Something did not feel right however. Finally she heard the word ‘breech’
  246. There was a frantic crowding and she felt a sharp pain and strange pressure. Fear gripped her. What was wrong with her baby? She was told to push again, and the pain increased. The pressure felt, different this time.. She felt she was pushing him out, but suddenly, right at the end it felt harder, rather than easier. Exhausted, she bore down, pushing with everything she had, screaming as she felt like she was tearing open on the inside.
  248. Dizzy, she slumped back on the bed when she realized it was over. She waited to hear the cry, but none came. Despite being on the edge of passing out, she forced herself to sit up, reaching out.
  250. “Where is he? What is wrong? Why isn’t he crying..?”
  252. The next moment seemed painfully long, there were no fewer than five women crowded around the tiny form one of them held, and then it came.
  254. A sharp intake of breath, and then a wailing shrill cry. The women all seemed to half-slump in their standing positions, with relief. Her tears flowed freely, and she realized some of the other women were crying as well. Her second son, was quickly cleaned up.
  256. “He was breech. Came out feet first. We were not .. sure at first if he was all right otherwise, but he seems fine. A little smaller than his brother is all.” Said one of the women.
  258. “Strange how different they are.” Mused another, as the newborn Zardirus was wrapped in a blanket and brought to the Queen.
  260. Her second child, was the night to the first one’s day. Pitch black, with only a faint hint of dark grey rosettes on his fur. His downy soft beginnings of the hair on top of his head, also looked black. His eyes were squeezed shut, and as she cradled him close, kissing his small face tenderly, his eyes opened.
  262. They were a startling ruby red, almost like two drops of glistening fresh blood.
  264. There was a twinge of foreboding as she held him, even though her heart swelled with love. Fear lurked there as well. What would happen when others saw his appearance? Would they suspect as well he was meant to be something wicked? His polar opposite twin was brought over and she held them both, as one of the mid-wives helped her with positioning them for feeding, while the others quickly stripped away the bedding beneath her that had gotten stained with blood and other birth fluids.
  266. It was a few moments after this, that the King entered the room. He had been pacing nervously outside the entire time. She had heard him threatening to demand entry while she was in labor and struggling, but a hard faced elderly wise-woman had given him a lecture.
  268. She smiled up at him wearily, and he kissed her before gazing down at the two newborn princes. She could see the way he radiated pride at the pale, larger son.. and how his smile faltered a little at the sight of the other.
  270. “I know what you are thinking.” She began. “But I will not let him be treated any differently.” She held her two sons close, and met her husband’s eyes. His expression darkened subtly as he returned her gaze. It was small, but she felt the beginnings of a tiny rift that had started to form between them, a hairline crack in a pristine surface. She would stand by her words however, no matter what.
  272. She would love both of her sons equally, no matter if one of them was born with a shadow in his heart.
  274. “Khourvyn.” The King said, not commenting on his wife’s ultimatum. “He will be called Khourvyn.” Of course he meant the fairer son. She knew that he had been wanting to name his first son that for a long time, ever since they had first spoken of children.  She smiled, and gave a slight nod.
  276. “Drael.” She said in turn, eyes falling on the smaller inky furred infant. His own nod of acceptance was slightly curt. When her two sons had finished feeding, and drifted off to sleep, she too settled down to rest, holding them close. She had two sons, but she feared her husband had already decided he had merely one.
  283. Part One
  285. Rhex
  288. From as far back as he could remember, young Rhexivarius of House Khronasi he was to be pledged to Prince Khourvyn. His father was a Knight, pledged to the King, one of his most trusted allies and defenders. He was near retirement now, and had wanted nothing more than for his son to carry on the legacy. House Khronasi had served the royal family with unwavering devotion, for the past six generations. There had always been at least one Khronasi near the side of a ruling King and Queen, always as a Knight. Rhex had been raised to see this as his whole reason for being.
  290. It had been taken as a sign when he had been born less than a week after the Queen had given birth to twins. It was decided the two of them would more or less grow up together. Rhex’s training began when he was a mere four years old. He learned how he was expected to speak to a young Prince. How he was expected to watch over and protect him, and what his duties would be as he grew up.
  292. At five he was given a wooden sword and axe, sized down for his height. His father began the foundation to train him for combat. Just after his seventh birthday, he was brought to the castle for the first time.
  294. The seat of House Khronasi was a smaller castle about thirty miles to the North of the Royal Castle. It was made of a dust colored stone, low and squat in structure, with only two stout towers. There was a wall surrounding the grounds, which included a small cluster of huts and cottages, several farms, a stable, as well as several other buildings. There was an area for practice and training, where he had been going twice a day for the past several months.
  296. The Castle was nestled at the foothills of a narrow mountain range, flanking it from behind. The mountains were just tall enough to keep snow on their highest peaks year round. Soft golden-peach grass grew tall and wild on the open rolling plains that stretched around the castle in all other directions. A large, dense orchard of Tala fruit trees sat just outside the walls, well maintained by it’s workers, and patrolled by a pair of guards at all times.
  298. While Rhex’s childhood had hardly been a traditional one, he still considered it a happy one. He had been allowed time to play with the other children, and even explore. So long as he was under the eye of someone trustworthy, he had even been allowed to explore past the orchard, and as far as the base of the mountains. Often it was one of the older retired Knights that was sent to watch over him, and any other children he had brought along in tow.
  300. In the months leading up to being sent to the royal castle, he met a pair of children, one a year older than himself, one a year younger. The siblings were the children of a family of farmers, indentured to his family.
  302. Zevara was the oldest of the two. Her fur was a foggy, smoke-like grey blue, with a mixture of darker striping and paler spotting. Her underside faded to a darker tone. Wild curls the color of iron framed her face. Her hair had always reminded him of storm clouds.  Her horns were a mixture of ivory yellow and brown, a double pair, slender and delicate as horns often were in youth. Her eyes were the most striking thing. One was a near impossible shade of pale blue, the other a deep rich verdant green.
  304. He was quite taken with her from the start. She was bold and brave. Once, they had encountered a pack of feral hounds while they were out exploring, having snuck away from the watchful eye of the guard who’d been sent to keep an eye on the three of them.  Rhex had drawn his wooden sword, ready to defend them, but he had frozen up as the hounds began baying and growling. They were all small and lean slat-ribbed things with wild hungry eyes. Too small to ever be a threat to an adult Zardirus, but the children were still fairly small.
  306. Her brother, Yuvar, had climbed up into a half-fallen mostly dead tree, and started to cry. Zevara began shouting and flailing her arms at the hounds, and picked up several rocks, throwing them. It was enough to make the pack think twice, and they retreated. However, it could have gone far differently had she not taken action. Only half a moment later had the guard finally caught up to them, and given them quite the scolding. Yet, he knew he too could have gotten in trouble for letting the children out of his sight. He had given them each a small gift in return for keeping their mouths shut.
  308. Rhex had been given a small wooden shield. It was the size of a dinner plate, and more or less was merely a buckler even for a child, but it was glorious for playing pretend. Zevara, who always pretended that she was a witch, or sorceress of some sort, was given a ‘staff.’ It was basically just a nice looking branch from the orchard that the guard had trimmed up and put a simple glass bauble on the top of. For Yuvar, there had been a wooden carving of a Terkas that the guard had made while he was on duty watching over the orchards. It was actually fairly nice and detailed, and the boy would hardly let it out of his site for the next year or so.
  310. Yuvar was colored somewhat similarly to his older sister, although the foggy grey of his fur darkened to a sooty tone on his arms and legs, and he lacked the darker underbelly. His stripes were heavier, and his spots almost non-existent, just faintly dotting his shoulders. He had the same wild cloud of hair, but it was a few shades lighter, and his eyes were a dark green.
  312. Rhex himself was large for his age. He already topped other children in his age-range by more than a head’s height. Although he had not started putting on the mass he no doubt would as he matured, the boy was broad shouldered for his age, with a heavier bone structure than most children.  His fur was orange, with broad rust colored splotches, his chest and stomach area was a light cream. His hair was a thick mane of dark mahogany, appearing almost black unless it was caught in the light. His horns had begun growing in large and heavy early in life, and were quite impressive for a boy of his age, ridged and a metallic bronze-gold. His eyes were the color of flame, striking and bright, seeming at times to almost be lit from within. His tail was exceptionally thick and heavily furred. It was nearly the size of the rest of him, and he had been told that he would ‘grow into it.’ While that seemed to generally be the case from others he had observed, he often found it bothersome, as it had a tendency to end up full of bits of debris; leaf litter, twigs and burrs from his ‘adventures.’
  314. His saber fangs had grown in quickly as well, growing larger than most children his age, which had resulted in a mild speech impediment that he was only just now starting to outgrow, after two years of daily lessons.
  316. He had been both looking forward to, and dreading being sent away to live with the Prince and continue his training. It was exciting, but it meant he would not see his mother and father as much, and he would be away from his two closest friends. Some of that dread lessened, when a couple weeks before he was set to leave, he learned that Zevara and Yuvar would also be going. Zevara’s had always been fixated on magic, for as long as he had known her. She had been tested and it was discovered she possessed an aptitude and potential for it, far beyond the minor magics the average Zardirus.  It was decided that Yuvar would go as well, even if his magical potential was not as strong as his sister’s. He was an exceptionally bright child, and there was talk of having him study to become a scribe.
  318. He had convinced his parents, and the parents of his two friends to let them all ride together to the Castle. His mother fussed over him, and told him she would come to visit often. She did her best to hide the brimming tears. It was too early, for her child to be going to live somewhere else, but it was often the case in noble families. It was considered a part of growing up, to be educated outside the home, for at least several years in childhood.
  321. In the wagon, alongside him was a trunk with his clothing and other personal items, and an overloaded pack with a few things that had not fit into the trunk, and some boiled eggs and ‘haerves’ A traditional food that was a mixture of grains, finely diced meats and a bit of honey, pressed into long strips and dried. It was often carried on long journeys as it kept well, and was fairly hearty. He sighed, as the trip would only be taking perhaps three or four hours, and he had enough food for a two day trip. A water-skin filled with chilled milk was given to him as well, also a good bit more than he needed, but he accepted it and returned his mother’s embrace, who placed a cloak around his shoulders, despite the morning being only mildly cool.
  323. Zevara and Yuvar joined him, crawling into the wagon, excitedly. They each carried only a small pack, and had not been given food for the journey. Rhex found himself glad he had been given extra, and he wondered if that was one of the reasons at least, his mother had given him so much. His friend’s family, while not quite poor, did not often have an excess of anything.
  325. As the wagon pulled away, he opened the pack, passing out a generous portion of his food. Both the siblings tried to protest being given so much, until they saw the amount that had been stuffed into the pack.
  327. There was much excited talk between bites of food, and gulps of the milk as it was passed around. They all spoke of what they thought life would be like, once they were older. Zevara wove a wild tale of the three of them going on adventures and quests for the Prince, once he was King. This included slaying dragons, despite Yuvar’s insistence that no one had seen a dragon for decades in the lands of Arkadi.
  329. “Just because no one has seen a dragon, doesn’t mean there aren’t any.” She insisted sullenly. Rhex added that just because one might exist didn’t mean they had to go and kill it. Dragons, he felt were best to be left alone. If they were keeping to themselves, there was no need to go seek them out.
  331. Eventually the quest talk moved on to fighting other ‘wicked’ things. Stopping evil wizards, saving maidens, and similar fairy tale fodder. Zevara scoffed and interjected that maidens could be heros too. Rhex argued that while they could, it didn’t mean that some might not need saving also. As a Knight, it would be his duty to rescue ones that did need it. Zevara vowed that one day she would rescue him instead. Yuvar, was less heroic than the other two, and promised he would write about them and their adventures, because there needed to be someone to do that. All the great heroes had stories passed down through the generations.
  333. Far too quickly, the castle loomed up in the distance. It was easily seven times the size of Rhex’s home castle, and made of pale grey stone that had a faint shimmer when the sun caught it just so. There were six towers, stretching so high they seemed to nearly brush low hanging clouds. There was a massive outer wall surrounding the area around the castle itself, manned by regular smaller guard-post towers. The gates were kept open, save in times when there was some sort of threat to the Castle. Within the walls, was an entire small city, several small manor houses, all surrounding the actual castle itself.
  335. Farmlands flanked either side of the walls, and several small villages and farmhouses mingled with the various crops. Within the walls, was a marketplace larger than the village the three were familiar with.
  337. As they drew closer, several large birds of prey circled the castle and swept out toward the approaching wagon, circling a few dozen paces overhead, before heading back to their masters. Such birds were heavily used for scouting, hunting and battle. Some of the more magically inclined sorts, had a link with their personal animals, able to see through their eyes.
  339. Rhex hoped that he would one day have a bird of his own, most Knights, were often given one to raise during their training. He had not had a pet before, unless one counted the few small wild creatures he had ‘adopted’ and one of his family’s smaller Terkas, that he had gotten fairly attached to, even if it was mainly a pack animal. He had been allowed to ride it, and had only recently started to get a little too big for that, especially since the Terkas, which he had insisted on naming Sooka, was getting on in her years.
  341. All three of them were on their feet, holding onto the sides of the wagon as they passed through the gate. Several servants came to help with their things, and getting them where they were suppose to go. For now, Rhex and his two friends would part ways. Rhex would have a room near the Prince’s. While Zevara would be staying in one of the towers. Yuvar would be staying in a different tower. Rhex found himself hoping he would still be able to see his friends regularly, and they cast backward glances at each other as they were taken down separate hallways.
  343. Rhex’s room was somewhat small and simple, but still quite nice. It was a little smaller than his room back home, but he found it quite cozy. There was a bed, smaller and low to the ground to be more suitable for a child. There was a half-sized armoire, with a simple geometric design carved along the sides.  A decent sized chest was against one wall, and there was a mildly sized down writing desk, and a bookshelf with a few volumes on it. In the center of the room was a large woven rug, green and gold. The room had it’s own fireplace, although it was small and plain, made of earthen bricks.
  345. He put away all his things, and changed into one of his nicer outfits. It was a doublet of rich reddish brown wool with bronze trim, and some embroidered vine and leaf designs. He wore it over a cream long-sleeved shirt, paired with dark brown pants. For meeting the royal family, he needed to be well dressed, but not so over-dressed it looked as though he was trying to match him. That was what his mother and father had both impressed upon him.
  347. He was brought before the King and Queen. To either side of them sat their two sons. He had almost forgotten that there were two Princes, as the second one was rarely mentioned. He had asked his father before why he was only to serve Prince Khourvyn and not Prince Drael as well. His Father had told him to not worry about it. He assumed that, perhaps Drael would be getting a companion as well.
  349. He felt a bit intimidated being in the presence of the King and Queen, and he bowed low as he had been taught. The King had given him a critical once over, while the Queen smiled warmly, and invited him to come closer. Drael sat on her side, he had moved his chair over closer to her. Blood red eyes watched Rhex with a guarded expression. The smaller boy seemed wary, almost suspicious. He was quite a bit smaller than his brother, who was nearly as tall as Rhex was, and only a bit less heavily built.
  351. The King called for Khourvyn to step forward and greet his new companion. The boy did so. He had looked bored, and impatient, but he grinned as he approached and sized Rhex up.
  353. “You know how to fight? I need a sparring partner.” The grin widened. “And someone to carry my stuff. You look strong.”
  355. There was a short time spent on going over Rhex’s duties. There was not a great deal expected of him at so young. Primarily he would be the Prince’s playmate, but he was expected to follow his orders. Arrangements were being made for his training and continued education, but it would be weeks before any of that would begin.
  357. By the following day, he and Khourvyn were sent out to the gardens to play, and get to know each other better.  Khourvyn seemed eager to show off, as they play-sparred with wooden swords. Rhex had more experience, but the young Prince was rather fierce, swinging a bit wildly and pressing the attack. The young Knight to be was placed in the first of many awkward situations, as he was not sure if he was suppose to ‘win’ against the Prince, but at the same time, he needed to demonstrate he was skilled as well. He kept mostly to the defensive side of things, deflecting and dodging the flailing strikes, until the Prince began taunting him, encouraging him to fight back. Rhex attacked suddenly, and disarmed him with a wrap across the knuckles.
  359. Suddenly furious, the young Prince flung himself headlong at Rhex, and the two ended up rolling around on the ground. Rhex had the weight advantage, and finally managed to pin him. He couldn’t help himself however, and in the midst of winded panting, began to laugh.
  361. Khourvyn shoved him off, irritated but soon grinned.
  363. “All right. So you are a good fighter. My Knights will only be the best, anyways.”  He said, as his anger somewhat faded. It had taken a fight to break the odd tension between them, and from that point on, a friendship started to develop.
  365. Khour was headstrong and quick to give orders, but after a while he stopped treating Rhex like a servant half the time. Rhex supposed his new friend and future King was simply used to answering to no one apart from his parents.
  367. He saw less of Drael, who seemed to be a bit standoffish. The boy spent more time in his quarters, or playing alone. Khour often changed the subject if Rhex asked about him, or he would give short dismissive answers, stating that his brother was ‘weird’ and that there were some rumors about him, but he would never go into specifics about what those rumors were. Rhex suspected that he had been told to not spread said rumors, by one or both of his parents.
  369. The first time he actually spoke directly to the other Prince, he had been heading down one of the hallways, planning on going to take a bath after long hours spent in his training and schooling. He had only managed to meet back up with Zevara and Yuvar a handful of times since his arrival, both were fairly busy with their new lives.
  371. He rounded a corner and saw Drael seated on the bare stone, peering at a crack in the wall, where the wall met the floor.
  373. “What are you doing?” He asked, stopping and looking down at the somewhat undersized, inky furred Zardirus.  
  375. Drael looked up, and frowned at him slightly, as though considering something. The boy’s horns were smaller than any of the other children Rhex had met. His front set were nearly non existent, short horn buds that were near-black with a reddish tinge. The rear set were a bit longer, and black as coal. Rhex found the boy’s eyes a bit unnerving. He had never seen eyes that color before.
  377. “Want to see something?” Drael asked. There was no smile, very little shift in his expression. He nodded over to the crack in the wall. Rhex found himself intrigued. He crouched down beside the boy.
  379. Drael leaned forward and lightly drummed two clawtips on the stone, right in front of the large crack in the wall. Rhex noticed that while Drael was smaller and had less developed horns and saber teeth, his claws were quite a bit longer and thicker.
  381. “What are you..” Rhex began, and Drael merely made a small hissing sound to shush him.
  382. After a few seconds there was movement. Something clearly lived down in there. Rhex felt his skin crawl slightly. Was it a rodent? A beetle perhaps? A snake? So long as it wasn’t a..
  384. As the inhabitant of the small hollow behind the crack made itself known, it took everything Rhex had to not recoil in horror.
  386. A dull brown spider, over four inches across, with long legs and a fat abdomen, squeezed out of a gap that seemed almost too small for it. It hesitated, before scurrying forward toward the hand. Rhex almost reached out and snatched Drael away, but instead stared transfixed and disturbed as the Prince put his hand down flat, palm up, and let the spider crawl up onto it.  
  388. “She was here last year as well.” Drael said, looking down at the eight legged, bloated abomination. “I think she will be laying eggs soon.” Rhex began wondering if his breakfast from many hours ago was going to suddenly try to eject itself in one form or another.
  390. When he had been a mere four years old, he had been bitten by a large spider that had been hiding in one of his tunics. He had left the garment in a heap in the corner, and had carelessly, in a rush, simply picked it up and pulled it on over his head. The spider had bitten him in the center of his back, several times in a row. He had panicked, and got the tunic caught in the course of trying to yank it off.
  392. Ever since that day the sight of them made him uneasy, and brought back memories of the swelling, fever and vomiting that had followed.
  394. What if it bites you?” He whispered, not holding back his revulsion and horror.
  396. “She won’t. We are friends.” Drael said simply, leaving Rhex to wonder what sort of boy made ‘friends’ with a spider. “I can speak to them sometimes. Well. Not exactly. But I understand how they feel.” Drael cut his eyes over to Rhex, with the spider still perched contently on his hand.
  398. “Do you want to hold her?” He asked.
  400. “No!” Rhex almost shouted, and then cleared his throat. “Ah.. no. That’s all right. I ah… I should go. I have. Training.. to do.” He didn’t, he was just coming back from that, but he crab scuttled backwards, pushed himself up, and walked quickly down the hall. His flesh crawled, and he could feel the sensation of legs scuttling along his back, even though there were none.  
  402. Behind him he heard laughter, a little more than a muffled giggle, but until then, he had not known if Drael was even capable of laughing.
  405. While the event had not made him dislike Drael, it had certainly made him realize Khour’s brother was a bit odd, certainly different from any child he had met before.  But, it also seemed that Drael was a bit isolated. Rhex thought to fix that by insisting Drael come along with them when they went outside to play in the gardens and courtyard, and when they wandered the city.
  407. He and Khour often played at being Knights. Occasionally, another young Knight in training would joing them for these games, or even Zevara. They would spin wild stories, make up their own adventures, and generally cause at least a little mischief. Drael’s inclusion had Khour insisting that Drael be the villain of the story they had to defeat. Which, he supposed was fun the first time, but when Rhex asked who would be the evil wizard, or wicked rebellious Knight the next time, Khour would insist it was always Drael. This made not only Drael uncomfortable, but Rhex and the other children as well. Thus, Drael stopped joining them after a while.
  409. Rhex grew a full five inches taller than year, and began putting on more mass. He stood out amongst the others he was training alongside, being the largest child his age, and being larger than the majority of children several years older than himself.
  411. There was a small private training yard where the youngest Knights in training; boys as young as seven, or as old as twelve, gathered. It was perhaps fourty paces across, and a bit shorter than that in width. There was a single squat tree toward the middle, and a small roofed area sitting on four posts, where the wooden weapons were kept. The yard was fenced in by high walls made of wood and stone, several foot higher than the heads of the tallest Zardirus. It was somewhat closed off, no doubt to help with removing distraction. There was a wide variety of equipment, from practice dummies, to wooden beams one had to stand on while working through weapons forms. There were bags of sand to heft, for strength building exercises, as well as rounded stones to roll. Weighted jackets and other objects were sometimes worn while they trained, to simulate the weight of armor that the one day knight would have to carry.
  413. One of the older knights had taken a particular shine to him, a Zardirus with fur that was an even mixture of grey and brown. It was not simply because of his size, which was the factor that had most of them claiming he would be an exceptional Knight when he came of age. Sir Vian, as he was called took notice of Rhex’s levelheadedness,  and how quickly he picked up on the more important lessons in becoming a Knight. How well you could swing a weapon, and raw courage, were just a small part of it. Rhex retained the lessons on honor, and justice and how a Knight should conduct themselves at all times, better than the vast majority of students he had taught over time.
  415. It was during one such lesson that everything changed for Rhex. He had been enjoying his new life. While he missed his parents, they kept true to their word and visited him as often as possible.
  417. Rhex was being walked through several formations, and recited back what he had been told. When it was considered necessary to dispatch an opponent, and when one’s codes required mercy to be shown. A messenger arrived, and asked to speak with Sir Vian, who asked Rhex to continue practicing a certain combination of strike and block he had been struggling with earlier, and stepped away to read the message.  The messenger was dismissed and Vian stepped back to Rhex.
  419. “Young one, do come with me. We need to speak in private.” Vian, usually gentle and warm, a man who regularly smiled and offered encouragement, looked stoic and serious. Rhex felt a flutter of fear. Had he done something wrong? Was he in trouble? He quickly searched recent memory, analyzing everything he had done for some sort of misstep and wrong doing. Several of the other children were watching, no doubt wondering the same. A few whispered amongst themselves before catching a sharp word from one of the other Knights.
  421. Vian lead him to a small garden area well away from the eyes and ears of others, and sat down on a bench, motioning for the boy to take a seat beside him. He turned toward him, and Rhex realized Sir Vian did not look angry, or disappointed, but sad.
  423. “Rhex. I am so very sorry..” He began. Rhex’s brow furrowed. Was he going to be sent away? Had he let Sir Vian down? He could not fathom any scenario where the man’s sudden change in demeanor made sense.
  425. “Your Mother and Father..” He said with some difficulty. “They were killed, about three miles outside of the castle gates.. In a bandit attack.”  He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Rhex had stilled, staring at him, the weight of what he had just heard, the horror of it not quite sinking in right away.
  427. “No. That.. Can’t be.” He said, shaking his head and shrugging off the comforting hand. “No. There is some mistake. Go find them!” he raised his voice suddenly. “Father is a great warrior, better than you! No one can kill him! And he can protect Mother just fine!”
  429. “Rhex...” Vian began.
  431. “You are wrong!” His sudden raised voice came out more like a scream, and he scrambled off the bench, but fell.. and struggled to his feet. It had to be some other family, someone else’s parents. Or someone was making a cruel joke. Or this was some sort of test. His heart hammered and he felt sick. He had not even realized he was running until he heard shouts behind him, and a sudden jolting impact sent him crashing to the ground.
  433. “Watch where you are going, kid!” Said a man pushing a two wheeled cart. Rhex picked himself up and began running again, ignoring the scrapes and bruises he had no doubt gotten in the collision.
  435. He was at the gate before anyone could stop him, and bolted around a wagon, spooking it’s pair of Terkas, and nearly unseating the driver. He ran, harder than he had ever run in his life, lungs burning, tears soaking the short fur around his eyes.
  437. Again and again he told himself it was a lie. They were coming to see him today. They were suppose to be arriving right around the time his lessons would be over. They were going to spend most of the day together.  Father had even spoken of taking him to the blacksmith to see about getting his first real weapon, and Mother was bringing a basket of her pheasant pies.
  439. All he had to do was get to them. He could meet them on the road. Then he would know this was a mistake or a trick. He did not care if he got in trouble for leaving the castle grounds. He just needed to see them.
  441. Strong arms grabbed him and he screamed, kicking and clawing. He was wrapped in an embrace. He heard Vian’s voice.
  443. “I am so sorry Rhex. Please, no. You do not need to see.” It was not the voice of a man playing a prank, nor the voice of one who might have been mistaken. The blind stubbornness melted away. His frantic denial. His chest hitched, and a sob burst from him. Vian lifted him, as one might a child half his age, and carried him back toward the castle. He wrapped his cloak around Rhex, perhaps to better comfort him, or perhaps so other children wouldn’t see him crying, without knowing why. Even children who were raised well could be cruel, and a boy Rhex’s age seen crying so, would certainly be call for teasing.
  445. “.. Vian..?” He said as they reached the inside of the castle. “They were coming to visit me.. I.. kept asking them to come more often.. and..” His voice broke and the sobs came again.
  446. “It is not your fault, young one.” Vian reassured gently. He made no effort to try and cease, or even quiet the boy’s cries. There were times when he would, during training, if one of his students began crying over a bump or scrape, or the difficulty of a task. He was never harsh with them, but he would firmly remind them now was not the time for tears. This, however was. Vian seemed content to simply let Rhex cry, to let him mourn, as loudly and for as long as he needed to.
  448. Vian made the arrangements for Rhex to have some days ‘off duty.’ He would be allowed to do as he wished, but word spread and it seemed everyone had been informed to keep an eye out for him.
  451. Some gifts came for him over the next few days. Toys, treats, flowers. Khourvyn, brought a large spiced cake and sweetened milk. Rhex figured he had been put up to it, likely by his mother, but for once the Young Prince managed to spend five minutes in his presence and actually remain solemn and almost sincere.
  453. Only one of the gifts actually stood out, if only because it seemed really out of place. It was an old wooden puppet, that someone had clearly tried to clean up, repair and paint. It was of a classic fighting bird, the sort the Knights would use in combat. Only about a fourth of the size of one, it was made of a combination of wood, leather and ceramics. It was a finely made toy, and had no doubt been an expensive item from a master craftsman. The beak opened and closed, the wings could spread if one pressed a small leaver, and the claws would open and close as well.  The odd gift had been wrapped in some parchment paper, and tied off with string. Rhex’s name had been scrawled awkwardly over the side of the wrapping.
  455. It had clearly been loved at one time. It was well worn, but cared for. While it was a strange thing to gift someone, it seemed that it had been given with good intentions in mind. He kept it, placing it on his small writing desk. For the next several days he found himself taking it down and playing with it absently. While his mind was weighed down with grief, the bird was oddly comforting in a way.
  457. While the sorrow over losing his parents would never simply go away, he did begin to heal. Queen Vaerdis learned of what had happened, and took it upon herself to visit and spend some time with him. He had always found the King somewhat imposing and distant, and generally avoided him outside of what was required. He respected his King, but the man’s imposing size and stern scrutinizing gaze often made him feel a bit uncomfortable and self conscious.
  459. The Queen had sat with him on several occasions in the weeks following the death of his parents.  She had a rather mothering way about her, reminding him in some ways of his own mother. He had broke down into tears again on more than one occasion, and she would merely sit there, smoothing his hair and speaking softly to him.
  461. Eventually he opened up to her on more than one occasion, speaking of his experiences in the castle, what he struggled with, and some fears and concerns. He felt strange saying it, but he confessed to her about the odd dealings with Drael, and how he was not sure what to think of him. He also spoke of how he and Khour struggled to get along smoothly at times, and asked for her advice to be better friends with him.
  463. She smiled gently, and smoothed hair back from his face, before pouring him some tea.
  465. “You are a good boy, Rhex, and I think you will good influence on my Khourvyn. He is headstrong and his disposition does worry me at times. Being raised a Prince has gone to his head in some ways. His Father encourages such an attitude, but he could use a different perspective.” Seeing he had eaten the small honeyed cake she had given him, she placed another on his plate, beside the milk-heavy sweetened tea.
  467. “Promise me Rhex.. That you will continue to watch over him, and guide him where you can. You have been doing a fine job thus far.”
  469. He swore to her right then, that he would continue to serve the Prince and look out for him, and try to help him be a better person, no matter what. Of course he perhaps did not fully understand just how much of a burden he was taking on by doing so, even if what he was swearing was simply to continue doing what he had been told he would be doing all his life. Now, however he had made a second more personal Oath.
  471. “As for Drael.” She began. He was relieved she did not seem angry over his concerns about her other son.  
  473. “I cannot ask of you to watch over him as well, you already have a large burden, and many duties for a boy your age. Just, try to give him a chance. And do not take any rumors you hear to heart.”  Her expression saddened. “He has not been given an easy life, and I fear things will only get worse in the future.”
  475. For a moment, it seemed like she might say more, but she fell silent, and soon left him, to attend to other duties.
  477. It was close to another year before he overheard enough whispers and rumors to start to piece things together.  There had been some sort of prophecy before their birth. When some of the servants thought they were not being heard by others, they spoke of how Khour was destined to become a great, powerful and just King, and that Drael in turn would be wicked.  Because of this, the King had distanced himself from the darker twin. Some of the servants even theorized that if it were not for the Queen, the King would have had Drael sent away already, or perhaps quietly disposed of in some way.
  479. Some things began to make sense; the difference between how the two were treated. Only Queen Vaerdis did not seem to hold Drael’s destiny against him.  Rhex’s feelings were mixed. He was wary of Drael, yet at the same time, nothing he had done had seemed evil in any way, just strange.  He had before, wondered why the two looked so different, Khour’s appearance an idealist perception of goodness, and Drael’s coloration associated with darkness and evil, he supposed he now had his answer.
  481. Wary though he was of Drael, he could not help but feel a bit uncomfortable and guilty any time he saw him ostracized by others. True to his word, he did not join in, but he also did little to put a stop to it, which fed into the guilt he felt.
  483. The twins had their twelfth birthday party. It was to be a banquet with musicians and party games. Other noble children, and some of the castle’s resident children were invited.  Rhex of course would be going, but he was somewhat disappointed to find out that Zevara and Yuvar were not.  Still, they were all too happy to go with him into the city, and help him shop for birthday gifts.
  485. They approached some of the market stalls, and Rhex frowned. “I have no idea what to buy Khour.”  His gaze skipped over an arrangement of various pieces of jewelry, and he continued toward the next booth. “He has everything he could possibly want.”
  487. Yuvar shrugged. “Mother always told us that the thought put in, is more important than the gift. Just something he likes that shows you pay attention to what he is interested in?”
  489. “He does like weapons. I could get him a knife?” Rhex asked.
  491. “He probably has a lot of knives though. What about a small sword?” Zevara suggested.
  493. Rhex frowned.  “He has those as well, and a short sword is going to cost a lot more generally.” While he was given a small amount of money monthly for things he might want, because of his one-day position at the Castle, it was not enough for him to buy extravagant gifts. He had what he had inherited from his parents, but he had thus far, barely touched it. It always felt wrong, dipping into it, especially for anything that was not a necessity.
  495. They agreed that a knife was the best bet, even if he had many knives, he did not have one that Rhex, one of his closest friends, had gifted him for his birthday. In theory, it would make whatever Rhex chose, special.
  497. “Should.. I get something for Drael as well?.. I don’t really speak to him much..” That strange conflicting surge of feelings rose in him again.
  499. “It is his birthday as well.” Zevara noted. Her brother nodded in agreement.
  501. They found a market stall that had a collection of weapons, being run by what was most likely the weapon-smith's apprentice.  They were all given a wary eye by the apprentice, until one of them realized that Rhex’s tunic bore the royal sigil pinned to the front. The male, had no doubt expected they might steal, or just pester, and be unable to buy. He was squat and strong in build, not a Zardirus, but some sort of short tailed, hornless feline species instead. He went from scowling slightly and watching them like a bird of prey waiting to swoop in on a rabbit, to smiling and asking how he could help them.
  503. After much consideration, Rhex chose a long ivory and gold dagger for Khour. It was finely made and lovely, but not too gaudy. It was a little more than he should have spent, but it was the one he thought the Prince would like the most.
  505. He struggled more, trying to find one for Drael, because he knew far less about him. He was on the verge of giving up, when he realized one of the daggers had a small silvery spider on the pommel, that had it’s legs wrapped around a red gem. The gem was most likely glass, and the dagger was half the cost of Khour’s, but the incident with the spider was forever branded into his mind.
  507. He paid for both daggers, and at another stand, bought two small lengths of cloth to wrap them in, and some nice twine.
  509. The day of the party came, and Rhex had dressed in one of his finer outfits. He participated in some of the games, and held back mildly so that he did not best the Prince at any of them. While Khour had gotten less temperamental over such things, showing him up on his birthday would likely not go over well. Drael stuck close to his mother for most of the event, and did not play any games. Rhex noticed that the other children steered clear of him. It was time to open gifts, and while both Princes received a great deal, more people gifted Khour, and gifted him more generously. Drael’s gifts seemed to be afterthoughts out of necessity, apart from the ones from his mother, who had gotten him many fine things. Amongst those things were books, and his own hunting bird, just as fine as the one she had also gotten for Khour. Rhex knew the two already had their own, but last he had heard, Khour’s bird was temperamental and wild, and would not listen to him. It had been too old by the time he was able to start interacting with it, and training it. Both of these birds were not the small beginner hawks of before, but one of the larger species. They had feather crests, boldly patterned plumage, and massive sharp talons.
  511. Khour was pleased with the bird, more so than the majority of the other gifts he had received. Drael, when presented with his, stared at it in shock, and then turned away suddenly. A hand rose to his face, as though shielding his eyes, and he quickly excused himself.
  513. It was hard to tell what exactly had come to pass, as Rhex was at the other end of the room, but there were some whispers, hurried chatter between some of the other children.
  515. “I heard those type of birds will devour the eyes of the wicked.” A boy a couple years younger than Rhex proclaimed.
  517. Drael did come back, several moments later. His mother beckoned him over and embraced him. Rhex did notice that the birds had been taken away already, but it was a large and rather loud crowd of people, so it made sense to keep the high strung animals away from it.  He went to where he had stashed his gifts, bundled up in his cloak along the wall. Picking up the two cloth wrapped daggers, he first approached Khour, who was talking to his father.
  519. “Your Majesty.” Rhex addressed the King first, bowing his head, before turning his attention to Khour. Normally, he did not use formalities with his royal friend, but this was a major public event.
  521. “Prince Khourvyn, I have a gift for you as well.” He offered out the wrapped light colored dagger.  Khour unwrapped it, looked it over, and nodded. “It’s good. I expected you to get me something dumb.” Rhex repressed a sigh. At this point he was used to it. Khour seemed incapable of giving real compliments. He had improved, in many ways since they were younger, and at times the Prince was actually somewhat warm and generous to him. He no longer lashed out or outright insulted him, but he certainly lacked in tact.  Rhex had even gotten the impression it was not intentional, he just simply struggled to realize that wasn’t what one should say. Upbringing, was perhaps a large part of it. Still, he felt mildly deflated by the lack of reaction.
  523. He bowed slightly and excused himself, and moved over to where Drael was seated with his mother.
  525. “Queen Vaerdis.” He said, smiling up at her. She greeted him with the same gentle patient warmth she had always shown toward him. He shifted awkwardly and held the bundle out toward Drael, who had been talking to the Queen, and smiling, until Rhex had approached. His eyes seemed exceptionally bright, the crimson hue seemed almost glossy?.. Wet? Rhex was puzzled by the thought that Drael might have been crying.
  527. Was it over the bird? Had he been afraid it would take his eyes?
  529. “I.. ah.. Here.” he said holding out the bundle to Drael, and scooting back once he accepted it. Drael unwrapped the dagger, and gazed down at it, thoughtfully. Eyebrows rose when he saw the spider on the pommel. Vaerdis had leaned over curiously, and then looked back toward Rhex with an expression and emotions he had trouble reading.
  531. “Come here Rhex. Sit with us.” She said, making room to the other side of her. As he obeyed and sat down, she slipped an arm around him and kissed his brow, in a wordless thanks.
  533. “… This.. is..” Drael stammered. “Thank you.” Although his face returned to it’s usually stoic, almost flat expression, he held the sheathed dagger flat against his chest, like a child clutching a beloved toy.
  535. He removed the small decorative knife sheathed at his belt, and stood, replacing it with the new one.
  537. “I am not.. good with words, Rhex.. but this means a lot to me. I did not expect you to get me anything.”
  539. The party left Rhex feeling even more conflicted. Had Drael been afraid of the bird, or had he been overcome with emotion at the gift from his mother? It was hard to say. He wanted to befriend the other, but he could not quite shake that feeling of suspicion and wariness. It made things more difficult that he was suppose to be serving Khour and sticking close to him, and Khour wanted little to do with his brother.
  541. Two more years passed, and Rhex turned fourteen. The size difference between himself and Khour had gotten even more obvious, with Rhex standing nearly a foot taller than his friend, and being close to half-again his mass.  He just seemed naturally prone to putting on muscle and bulk, that combined with how hard he was being worked in training, made him nearly dwarf the Prince.  It was a fact that he felt Khour sometimes held against him, even though Khour himself was a bit above average in size.
  543. Zevara and Yuvar had come to watch him in one of his first actual matches. He had never done anything beyond just practice sparring.  While these were still conducted with padded armor and practice weapons, it was a sort of mini tournament for the Knights in training.
  545. His friends cheered as each opponent he faced fell before him, until at last in the final round, it was just himself, and Faenr, a knight in training who was two years older than himself, and nearly as large.
  547. They clashed again and again, Rhex’s wooden, leather-padded axe smashing against Faenr’s wood and leather sword and shield, again and again. Faenr, was perhaps a fraction of a second faster than him, and many times he narrowly escaped taking a major blow.
  549. At last, however he managed to tire his opponent out enough to overwhelm him, disarmed him, and caught him across his chest, checking the blow at the last instant so he thwacked him just hard enough to count as a winning strike.  It was still a fairly heavy blow, and it caused the other to stagger back and fall on his backside, and he needed a moment to get his breath back, the wind knocked out of him. Rhex extended a hand to help him up, and the small cluster of those watching cheered, but no one quite as loudly as his two friends.
  551. Later that afternoon, Rhex invited Faenr to join him, along with Zevara and Yuvar, for one of their regular ‘adventures.’  The golden furred, silver maned Faenr seemed like he would get along with his other friends. There were no hard feelings over the match, and Rhex, honestly liked and respected him.
  552. They managed to slip outside the castle walls unnoticed, via a tall sturdy tree with branches that hung over the wall to the outside. They were allowed to take trips outside the castle grounds, but doing so would no doubt mean they would be expected back, and questioned about where they were at best. More than likely, a guard of some sort would have been sent with them.
  554. The idea was innocent enough, they simply planned on taking about a five mile journey into the mountain’s foothills, where a strange stone gateway was said to be.  To reach it, they would be cutting through the edge of the forest, as well as crossing a stream. It seemed like the perfect adventure, a mock quest to discover something few had laid eyes on in ages.  None of them had any idea just how significant the decision would be in their futures.
  559. Melchom
  562. There was no end to it, the vast darkness that he and those who remained fell through. They had fled their world, what was left of them at least. The Others had come for them, with their siege weapons and long spears, to wipe his kind from the world, for the crime of simply existing.
  564. Death’s Head Wyverns had once been plentiful, in a time long before he had been born. They were smaller than the great dragons who had waged war against the Others. They kept to themselves, living in dense forests and deep caves. They kept to their humanoid forms most of the time, to keep a lower profile and seem less threatening. But that had not been enough. With the great dragons being long since gone, the last one dying decades before, they turned their attention on wyverns, drakes, lesser dragons.
  566. His people were strong and proud. They were not afraid to fight, but if the great dragons themselves had fallen to their enemy, how would they ever stop them?
  568. The small well hidden cities of his people had become small isolated villages. By the time he had been born to that world, there were only handfuls of those little settlements left. No matter how far they fled, no matter how hard they tried to bargain for peace, the Others still came. They slew the adults, young or old. They butchered the young as though they were vermin in need of culling. They crushed the few precious nests of eggs they could find.
  570. He grew up hunted. He grew up learning to avoid being seen. He was used to being awoken from rest, and simply told it was time to go. By the time he was old enough to even consider finding a mate, there was barely any of his kind remaining. It was merely himself, his mother, and his sister, from his own family. From another, an old mated pair, now far past the point of being able to produce another clutch. There was a single female with a newly hatched clutch, who had recently lost her mate and would not take another. They had found two young males, half his own age, who had narrowly escaped being slain along with the rest of their siblings. At last, a small and svelte adult female had joined their group. She was the only survivor, as far as she knew, of what had once been a grand underground city.
  574. He would have been quite taken with her, even if she had not been the only available female. Between the two of them, and the new clutch of hatchlings, they were more or less the last remaining hope for their species.  But, with the Others tracking them, there was no time to think on those things.
  576. It was then they decided they must flee the very world itself, as no matter where they went, the Others always came for them.  Through ancient magics long thought to be forgotten, an old gateway was discovered, and into a void they plummeted, with the vain desperate hope of finding a better world, a new home, beyond the vast space of nothingness that dwelt between worlds.
  578. But, between the words was far more terrible than they could have imagined. Debris of long forgotten dead worlds floated there, masses of stone the size of buildings, or small shards of it spinning in whirlwinds. There were flashes and pulses of color and strange energy.
  580. He could only watch in horror, as one of the young males was struck with dozens of razor-like shards of rock. Agonized shrieking roars tore from the unfortunate wyvern as his wings were shredded, and hunks of rock embedded deep in his body. Blood sprayed, and then drifted, weightless in the air, some of it caught in the same gusts that had brought the stones.
  582. His own mother was pulled away, taken off into nothingness. She fought against the invisible air currents, struggling until one of her wings gave out, bones snapping, tendons ripping. He watched her tumble end over end, until she vanished, a small glinting speck in an ocean of darkness.
  584. He clung to the female he had dreamed of making his mate, his only thoughts to shield her from the horrors. He used his wing to block her from seeing what came next, when the mother, clutching her hatchlings was caught up in the next bizarre gust. She clutched her tiny babies close, trying to curl around them, but one by one they were ripped away from her.  He had never heard such sounds of anguish; sounds that would haunt his dreams for centuries to follow, her cries of sheer helpless horror, and the terrified calls of her children, who were no more than a few months old, and the size of hawks.
  586. At last, the female was torn from him as well, as they continued to tumble through nothingess. He tried to reach her again, and she in turn stretched out to reach him.  He fought against a current that made no sense and followed no pattern.
  588. The mass of rock that came toward her came from seemingly out of nowhere. He called out a warning, but it was too late. It struck her across the back, and she was sent hurdling down, or at least, what he perceived as down. There had been a sickening crunch as she collided with another mass of rock.
  590. The few others who had not died or been swept away eventually fell too far away for him to see them again. Whatever storm had brought the pulses of energy and rocks faded and died, or perhaps he simply drifted beyond it.
  592. Time and direction had no meaning. He could not tell if he was there for days, or months. Occasionally more minor ‘storms’ flared up, but he managed to avoid anything other than minor injury.
  594. Guilt plagued him. Was it not his idea ultimately to flee to another world? He had been the one who had dredged up the ancient magics. He had been the one to translate the incantations. It had been he who had made the sacrifice to tear open a gateway large and stable enough to take them all. He had given half of his magical prowess and potential in sacrifice to recreate a portal that had not existed for perhaps thousands of years.
  596. But he had expected they would fall through one world, and straight into another. There was no peaceful world here, some utopia where he and his kind could live out their lives without being hunted for simply being what they were. There was nothing. No doors on the other side, only this horrific void that was a fate worse than death. They should have stayed behind and died. There would have been more dignity in simply choosing the manner of their deaths before the last of them were hunted down one by one.
  598. He had given up his magical prowess to leave his old world, and now here, he gave up his name. Names were of the utmost importance for his kind, and he no longer deserved his.
  600. He stopped trying to find a way out, and even found himself hoping that he too, would be slain by the dangers of the void. He drifted, barely aware of his surroundings, and had only then, after what felt like an eternity, found a way out. With little warning, he was pulled into a vortex, and emerged in a strange world, quite different from the one he had known, and yet in other ways, very much the same.
  602. He wandered the wilderness, and found himself somewhere deep in the forest, a place to hide and live out his life, even if he felt little motivation to continue doing so. He was alone, possibly the last of his kind. Miserable, yet deeply alone, he eventually set out exploring, seeking out some sort of interaction or company.  The first beings he came across, were a part of traveling feline-creatures. Large horned bipeds in bright colored armor. They spotted him, and instantly attacked. Even when he withdrew, and tried to retreat, they asked no questions.
  604. Once again he was being hunted, and this time his pain and rage and hate all rose up in him at once. As they came with their spears, fanning out to try and surround him, he attacked.
  606. Severely outnumbered, he had still managed to slay half of them, before it was they who retreated, but he had taken a grievous wound, one of their spear-points, enchanted with some sort of strange magic, had buried deep in his chest on the right side, narrowly missing anything vital. The tip of the spear had broken off, and bleeding from half a dozen wounds other that the more serious one, he fled deep into the forest. He kept moving, pushing on even when agony and exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him.  He was too injured to fly, as flying required use of his chest muscles.  If he was going to die, it was not going to be because they regrouped, and hunted him down.
  608. At last he found a cave, just large enough for him to crouch and make it through the opening. It was several times his body length deep, and further in widened out, the ceiling growing higher, high enough for him to stand with ease and still have a few foot of clearance.  Not that it mattered. He collapsed where the cave dead ended, and there he lay for days, in a delirium, and perhaps on several occasions, near the brink of death.
  610. He drifted in and out of consciousness, feverish and barely aware of anything other than pain.  His weight began to drop, as he was unable to hunt for himself. At last hunger drove him short distances from the cave, and he managed to catch small prey, and fish in a stream. It was never enough for him to feel full, but enough to keep him alive.
  612. Bit by bit his wounds healed, but the one in his chest never did, not completely. The shard buried there, it’s magic clashed horribly with his own innate magics. What little ability he had left, he found more or less sealed away, blocked. He could no longer shift down to his smaller bipedal form, not only because the shard remaining in his chest would remain in place as his body shrank, and most certainly kill him. Without magic, he could not shape-shift in the first place.
  614. In time he grew used to it. The wound would close over, but never fully heal, and would occasionally break open or become inflamed. From time to time, when he was not careful enough, it would get infected.
  616. He knew little beyond survival as days turned to months, and then to years. He lost track, but he assumed he had lived in such a way for decades. He stayed lean and gaunt, outright emaciated at times, but he survived. From time to time, he found companionship, at least briefly. A wild animal, with intelligence beyond the norm, and the occasional biped being. Often, they were clearly on the run from something as well.
  618. Once, he found a runaway slave girl, a terrified bird-like creature, small and hornless. She was deeply afraid of him as well, but he ‘convinced’ her to stay. At first, he stayed awake for days at a time, afraid she would flee while he was sleeping.
  620. He brought her food, fortunately she too ate meat, so he was able to hunt for her, or just share his kills.  
  622. She never told him her name, and he had none to give her. She did not speak much of the common tongue, only enough for him to realize that ‘common’ in this world was quite similar to that of his world. It took her a long time to fully get over her fear of him, but eventually they became close. He did his best to teach her some of his native-language.
  624. He named her Riikesi, which was a name for one of the more lovely bird species in his world.
  626. She made his cave seem more like a home, clearing out debris, and weaving herself soft rugs from plant fiber. He crept to the edges of towns and cities, and found abandoned (or unattended) things to take and bring back to the cave for her. Soon she had everything from clothing (mismatched and none of it proper fitting) to furniture (that was only usable with some repair work) even a child’s picture book that had gotten some water damage, but she enjoyed looking at the pictures.
  628. For close to twenty years she remained with him, until one day she grew very ill and weak. She had nowhere else to go. She feared going back to civilization. He feared her leaving, but had been willing to let her go, so she could get help. In the end, she chose to stay, and died a short time later.
  630. Once again, the Wyvern was alone.
  632. There would be others, from time to time, but none would ever mean as much to him as she had. None ever remained with him for long, and he was wary of most. All it took was one wrong person going to one of the feline cities and telling others of him, and where his cave was.
  634. Food became scarce for several months, and he was forced to make trips further from the cave. On one of these voyages he picked up a scent that was familiar in a way that brought a growl rumbling from his chest. He followed it, still well cloaked in trees, then he saw them.
  636. A group of horned felines were traveling toward the mountain’s foothills, less than a mile away.  The largest of them, who seemed to be leading the party, had over-sized metallic horns, and was a mixture of fiery and red-clay tones. They seemed smaller, by quite a bit, than he remembered, the last time he had a close encounter. Still, the sight of them renewed his hatred. He stayed low, and began to follow them.
  638. By the standards of dragonkind in other realms, he was not exceptionally large. He stood around nine and a half foot at the shoulder, if standing properly upright. Often, he stayed lower, slinking slightly, keeping his at the shoulder height closer to seven foot, or just above. He was primarily black, fading to a dull grey on his underside. His face had bony plating that gave him a slight skull-mask appearance, from which his species had gotten it’s name.
  640. He had golden tinged markings on his body. Those markings were capable of putting off a slight glow. The ones around his chest area tended to glow brighter, and had a slight eye-like appearance, making it look like he had sinister glowing eyes, more than a dozen of them, around his chest area. Claw like protrusions and spikes on his chest could be curled flat, or flexed and spread out to make the false eyes seem larger and more numerous.
  642. Massive horns of a dull metallic grey arched and twisted back from his skull. His eyes were yellow-orange with slit pupils, suited for seeing well in low light conditions. A large finned crest on the top of his head could be flattened or flared and raised high. His legs and tail both bore sharp spines.
  644. Unlike a true dragon, his kind could not breathe fire. They were however, venomous, and able to inflict a horrific and dangerous bite, as well as spit a less outright toxic, but far more acidic compound.
  646. His species were long lived, capable of living to be several thousand years old. He was no longer sure however, just how old he was. He had been a little over a hundred and fifty when he had left his home world. He realized the passage of time might not be the same in this world. There was no way of knowing if a year was the same length, or even if the days and nights were the same, although it seemed like they were close to the same length.
  648. He watched the group from a great distance, just enough to keep track of where they were. He watched as they approached a large stone structure, that looked like a massive doorway. He could tell they were talking amongst themselves quite a bit. Several moved forward to examine it from one side, then the other. They explored the surrounding area. They stayed there for the better part of half an hour before he began closing the distance.
  650. He circled and approached from the other side. It was a common tactic when he thought he might encounter those from this world. He had, on occasion since that first time, and if he had to retreat, he tried to remember to flee the same way. If the fight went poorly, and he could not eliminate any and all present, they would not know which way to send others to hunt him.
  652. He drew close enough to hear their talking, and to make out a bit more of their features. There seemed to be some sort of mild argument going on, or at least a rather heated discussion. Four of them. Four, he thought would be easy enough, especially since these seemed smaller than the Knights he had fought long ago, and the occasional feline being he had encountered since.
  654. They were distracted, and that worked to his advantage.  He burst from behind an outcropping of rock, and took a single bound, landing on top of another large boulder, so that he was looking down upon them, but nearly close enough to lash out and strike one. His chest expanded and he let loose a snarling roar, his crest fanned and spread.
  656. The four of them all recoiled, one fleeing a short distance to hide behind another rock. One fell over on it’s backside. The smallest of the group screamed, and turned toward him. Female, he assumed. He felt a small pinprick sensation of magic being wielded before a tiny fireball, the size of a fist perhaps, spun almost lazily toward him, before it struck the base of the rock and fizzled. Pathetic.
  658. The largest one however, drew his weapon. He could smell the terror on all of them, but this one moved in front of the others, and drew his sword. A near blind fury rose in him, and he focused his attention there. He could have simply surged in and killed them all, but where was the fun in that. Now that he had them, in the open, separated from the others of their kind, he wanted to make them pay. He wanted every member of that race to suffer.  He was hungry as well. Perhaps he would eat them afterwards.
  660. He bared his teeth, and displayed the frightening glowing ‘eyes’ on his chest. The large one was trembling, but he pointed the sword toward him, calling ‘get back, beast’ In a voice that nearly broke. Without taking his eyes from the Wyvern, he called back for his friends to run. That would not do at all.
  662. The Wyvern, tensed, ready to leap into the middle of the four of them, before something occurred to him. The size. Something about their features, just how shocked and afraid they were. The larger one was still a good bit smaller than those kind were suppose to be.  He realized something about the sword in his hands.
  664. It was made of wood.
  666. That was enough for him to hesitate briefly. Their weapons, were wooden. They were too small, too afraid.
  668. These were children.
  670. Children of a vile race, were still vile. They would grow into the sort of monsters that had ruined and broken him. The ones who had attacked him simply for what he looked like. But, something buried in his memories came rushing to the surface without warning. Those terrible cries, the mother wyvern, trying so desperately to hang onto her children as they were torn from her.
  672. But now he had already revealed himself. He had already pressed the attack. He would not retreat and look like a coward. He did not need to leave four witnesses that would report back to the city about him.
  674. But he realized, he could not kill a child, much less four of them. Another snarl ripped from him, and he snapped at the air, close enough to nearly clip the end of the wooden sword being pointed at him. The boy flinched, but stood his ground. He even jabbed the useless wooden sword toward the Wyvern slightly, in warning.
  676. The Wyvern’s chest pained him, the sudden movement and longer distance traveled had the old never-healing wound throbbing, and sharp pains were radiating through his chest and down one side.
  678. He drew in a breath and spoke.
  680. “Pathetic tiny creatures, all of you.. You are far too weak for me.” He snarled, fixing his attention then, on the leader.
  682. “I will come for you when you are older and larger.  When you are actually worthy to face me.” he sneered, not having to really try all that hard to manifest the needed malice. With that, he turned and leapt down from the rock, heading further into the mountains, until he was well out of their sight. Only when he was sure he was far enough away, they would not be sure where he went, and he had put enough distance between them that he would have plenty of time to rest, before making the trek home, did his stop.
  684. He snarled in frustration and anger, lashing his tail at a small-ish scraggly dead tree. He snapped at it with his jaws, uprooting it and flinging it aside. He laid down, shadowed by a leaning outcropping of jutting rock, and only then smelled the blood, and looked down to his chest. The wound had torn open slightly, and two thin trickles of blood were running down his chest. He was still hungry, and it was a long way back home.
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