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Systematic Deadening.

Story: Systematic Deadening.
partial sequel of The Shapes Reality Takes, with character cameos from the worlds of Picturesque Madness and Angel Entrails.
type is fantasy, warnings are for life and more.

Current Word Count: 7.542/50.000

Characters: which are grouped in families.
Alan and Nigel Kane (Picturesque Madness). Kerry Bittelton (Angel Entrails).
Arianna Shinka. Leah, Corey, and Meg Price. Andrew Fanel. Erica and Kisten Braskt. Chi and Sage Beau.
Isriyu. Damien. Kurisu.
My, Ry, Ky, and Gato.
Alex and Sabi.

Chapters: 0. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

Notes:
This is a story from a story that spoke two. This is a story of a girl who grew into a woman, of a girl that hated where she came from without knowing why there was even a from. This is not the story of what came before. Of that girl's mother, and the sacrifice she made for peace. Of the ruin that that caused, and the unsettling that it created. Of the secrets kept and the secrets in keeping.

There once was a girl. Who knew naught of what she did. And she broke open what had been fixed, torn what had been closed, and ripped asunder the worlds.

There once was a world. Patchwork and precious, that gathered all those who needed to be there. A world made of everything, and ruining without balance. There once was unfinished business. And it would follow them still.

There once was red and gold. There once existed a perfect love.

And then it was gone, and could no longer be reclaimed.

The patchwork world was pulled apart at the seams, and she didn't know.

She didn't know.



Partial Prequel to the Shapes Reality Takes: Used here for comparisons.

five.

5.

“Don’t you ever pull shit like that a--”

The one screaming was an insufferable human (more or less) by the name of Corinthians. There was no irony in it; so it happened, when Nigel looked into it, was that a child was faeried away to a cheerful little cult where they brainwashed the boy into thinking he was a warrior angel for them for his lovely little bird wings. Fit to match with his bird brain skull. Of course, because all stories have happy endings, the child was reclaimed and healed, and raised alongside of the child of the one who broke him free-- That was to say that Arianna’s mother saved him, and he was raised as Arianna’s foremost playmate after being returned to his parents. It was only after he grew up, it seemed, that he started getting too big for his britches.

Nigel sighed from his position on the ground, shifting his gaze to focus to the side. This, of course, enraged the other man, and as he took a step closer, likely to physically threaten like the ape that he was, the flat of a hand came down on the back of Corinthians’ head, the sound loud, the man wincing.

The woman looked to Nigel expectantly, and feeling her gaze, he turned back to Corinthians, smiling cheerfully. “You’re an idiot~”

Arianna rolled her eyes and took two steps further, lightly kicking Nigel in his shin before offering a hand to him. He took it good-naturedly, rising, then offered his arm to her as if he was an escort. She took it gracefully, an act of old habit, and Nigel only played the part set for him. “Ah, my mistake. She says that you’re acting idiotically.”

The other man made a sound of bubbling anger. “Idiotically?! Ari, if you saw what he--”

“She saw,” Nigel said cheerily. “And she said it was the correct choice under the situation. Didn’t she say to watch us while she was gone~? Didn’t she say to follow Alan’s lead in strange situations~?”

He got another kick for being so enthusiastic about his little job, but only shrugged in the end. If he had to play translator to someone who would have tried to beat him in another moment, why not, then, press it in a bit deeper?

You could almost see Corinthians attempting to restrain his anger. That was, of course, if one could see. “There wasn’t anything strange about the situation other than it was a fucking dragon! Hell, if I hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t have believed it! Ari, it was just another--”

“Obviously,” Nigel drawled casually, his own thoughts and Arianna’s aligned on this. “It was not just another beast.” To point this out, Arianna held a hand out, and the dragon shifted to her, the ruffle of scales and wings a sound of silk on rocks. Charming. Or something like that.

He was not in the mood to translate for one who played too much into fairytales and came out scathed. As alike as they could be at times, Nigel was ill-tempered currently, was likely housing broken ribs, and this was just beginning to grate. He felt more than saw her attentions shift to him. She could not read him as she could Alan, but his emotions were likely obvious for all to see. As light as a brush against a cheek, her mind fluttered against him. Thank you.

Ah. How annoying. A woman who apologized for him being irritated by something he had agreed to do. He exhaled without wholly meaning to, a quiet huff of temper. Her fingers patted once on his arm, then rewrapped there. It wasn’t as if he hated her. Or this, in particular. Alan and Nigel, per what they were, were the perfect living translators for a woman who spoke with her mind. Well, that wasn’t entirely correct. With her mind and with her will. And one could not commit to casual speech if that will carried over in every syllable.

As he stated. Arianna was one who had become too caught in fairytales. A cursed princess, unable to use her voice to her own wanting. Alan, normally, was her escort and main ‘voice,’ but Nigel was the one who was here. Fine, then. He would be the perfect little tool if she wished. They were only but hers to command at any rate.

The sarcastic thought felt got the threat of another kick.

“Did you know it was a dragon? --If he did, we weren’t told of it at least,” Nigel replied to her own question, stated in a way that made the other man step forward again. Leah, who had been dressing a wound on her arm, finally strode forward, pushing at Corinthians’ shoulder.

“Go take a walk, Corey. Nigel, less commentary right now, got it? Ari, we didn’t know what it was. There’d been injuries and reports of something shadowed attacking Home, and we were just going to check it out and take care of it.” There was a pause, an intake of breath. “…We brought a hunting party, but.”

There was tension in the air, and Nigel could taste it.

“Let us fucking kill it!” Leah’s voice held more pain that was turning to anger. All of it would be that soon. “These were good fucking people, Ari! People that followed you! Are you going to seriously let that thing go when these people were yours?!”

“They weren’t hers,” Nigel replied, and felt the quiet flash of muted emotion. The gratitude of Nigel’s bland speech that gave over no reaction. “They were their own people, doing what they thought was right.”

It was as if an explosion was present. “And that excuses it?! That thing killed six people!”

“That thing,” Nigel gave dryly. “Is a comrade. One that you attacked, and first provoked by entering her area with open weapons when she had something to defend enough to give her life for.”

There was a thick beat, the threat of violence in the air, and it was only readily apparent that Leah still did not follow Arianna wholly. “A comrade.” Said perfectly and doubtfully, scorn present. “Ari, it is an animal.”

“Not qu--” Nigel tipped his head to Arianna, questioning as well. “Not quite?” Silence crossed; a moment, far more than enough for mental communication to be exchanged. “She’s more intelligent than most of the people present, Arianna included. Dragons have accelerated intelligence and magick, and a life-span stretched out. Which is why she,” A gesture of Arianna to the dragon. “Is, in actuality, only the size of an adolescent.”

Another one of those thick beats. Three, now. It wouldn’t be long until this erupted further. Nigel would wait, would continue to provide this function until it was complete. He had agreed. And words were but bonds, in the end. There was a sudden fierce exhale, and Leah started to move away. “I’m not dealing with this, Ari. Do whatever you fucking want to do.”

The sound of feet slowly retreated in exchange for two other sets. Andrew’s voice, in contrast to Corinthians’, was low and melodious, almost soft. “I checked them over. Just in case some might have…. But they are all dead.”

The ripple of pain was potent through Nigel’s mien, and he wasn’t sure if the woman showed the expression to her fellows. He only gave what was given. “It’s regrettable.” There was a soft sigh from her, tired and old.

Corinthians seemed split-minded, likely watching as his elder sister made her way back to camp. “Ari, you know that I’m with you, but this…. How can you expect us to accept this?”

“How can she expect you to?” Nigel’s words were incredulous, and unexpected even from him. “You swore yourself to her, did you not?” Her hand dropped from his arm, a distinction of his words and not hers. Unhappiness rippled from her at what he was doing. As if he cared. “Accept it? That’s your duty. She doesn’t need to explain anything, and in the end--in wars,” he said carefully, enunciating as if for a child. “There are sacrifices to achieve goals. Don’t be a child.”

There was a quick shuffle, fabric ruffling, and it was obvious to any that Andrew was now holding the darling angel back. A repeated act, song and dance, and Andrew trying to calm the other down was a show that Nigel was tired of. He threw up his hands loosely, turning away. There existed a murmur of words, then, more clearly, Andrew sent Corinthians after his sister, likely after a nod from Arianna. Nigel stood where he was, waiting. It was likely that he’d be told he spoke in error, but as if he cared now. The energy had shifted in this place, and that point remained.

He wanted to throttle that dragon near them. He wanted to see if it could be strangled even with its scales. If the edges would cut into his hands and bleed him out even as he took away its life.

She was behind him. The other man likely as well. Nigel didn’t turn, kept looking at the cliff face. “There was some kind of building up there,” he said, as if the conversation shift was natural. Neither of the others questioned a blind man describing something. “It housed something, and it was what that was protecting.” The careful ‘she’s’ when speaking for Arianna dropped, the man’s voice only housing distain. “Alan needed to go find out what it was, and I gave him that opportunity.”

“Nigel…” The sentence cut off, likely by the woman’s hand on Andrew.

“I’ve done what you wanted, haven’t I?” Nigel spun, voice perfectly light as his expression darkened in contrast. “Perhaps not to the letter, but I’ve done it, and I’ll do it again. I’m a tool of yours, and I know it, relish it at times. So tell me. I’ve done what you wanted. Haven’t I?”

Silence came. Arianna made no move to breach the distance, touch Nigel to communicate through minds. Only watched. He could feel her watching, feel the way she stared, the pressure of it--

“I’ve done what you asked!” It was a plea, perfectly and simply, and his body shook with it. “There’s no building up there. There’s nothing up there. I’ve done what you asked. So tell me,” he said suddenly, voice light again. “…You should tell me.”

A thick pause, weighted. How disgusting to fall into the habits of that broken angel. Nigel gave a sound of unreserved disgust, and broke the silence, voice dull and flat. “Tell me," he said. "Where is my brother?”

four.

4.

The dragon dove. And instantly Leah and Corey moved apart from each other, wings bursting from the slits in their shirts, feathers falling like rain as they shot upward. A man on the ground pulled a machine gun up, shooting viciously, to seemingly no avail. A woman nearby let out an enraged shriek, unsheathing the long knife at her side. Brave. But highly likely to fall.

Nigel sighed quietly as if agreeing with Alan’s thoughts. Then added his own. “They’ll need a sword,” he said, almost sing-song. “For a dragon. A blade to slay it.”

They were in Er’Neharl without realizing, Alan thought. The dread wyrm guarding her domain jealously and possessively. If there was but a tower, they’d be in that quiet legend. He wondered, idly, what lay atop that cliff.

The third unnamed man in their group fell to nothing in the dragon’s mouth, and it was the sight of that blood, slick and bright against the teeth as large as Alan’s body, that shook him from his staring. It slammed into the ground before them with a land-shaking roar, and stumbling, Alan saw that its scales were silver. It was only that they reflected the sunset, reds and golds echoing backwards. Its wings spread territorially, and he seemed to remember. He seemed to imagine.

“All dragons with wings are girls, you know.”

He looked at her doubtfully, and she only laughed. “I don’t know if they’re real, but that’s what I’ve been taught. Only the girls have wings. Fierce and protective to protect their own.”

Annoyed, he gave, “Males can protect just as well.”

She seemed to consider this, sobering, then looked up, green eyes dark and shining. “Maybe it’s that females have more to lose. Maybe they have more reason to take to the air.”

Alan shrugged it off, agreeing to disagree, and the conversation moved on. “Are you going to tell me there are unicorns now…?”


“…It’s female,” he murmured in musing, and Nigel’s head cocked towards him. “It’s protecting something.”

Nigel turned the thought over, then pulled his hands from his pockets. “Find out what. You have seven minutes.”

Seven. The number existed as too engrained, and he wasted twenty seconds staring after his brother before Alan darted to the cliff face. In his peripherals, Corinthians’s golden-brown wings kept him out of the reach of sharp teeth, a machete and handgun in opposing hands. Opposite, Leah screamed in something like fury, bespeckled black and white wings closing to dive. On the ground, the woman who moved in bravery had been crumpled under a clawed foot. And against the chaos, Nigel moved gently, spine stiff to only those that could recognize, and began to sing quietly. In moments, it would be louder than the clash of combat--if the dragon was sentient, or at least had enough mind to affect. There had been a want within Alan, that of stopping an act that could turn irredeemable, and Nigel had moved to work towards that without asking.

Words of gratitude were beyond them by now, but the emotion existed nonetheless.

Alan closed his ears and climbed, the faintest melody falling behind him. Holding no knowledge of what continued on more stable ground.

-

His voice rose inhumanly, drowning out the myriad of sounds. Leah had shot upwards for another dive, blood streaking an arm, and recognized it for what it was. The dragon’s head swayed back and forth, as if unwilling to fully relax under the apparent siren’s call. Corey had dropped to the ground to look at his hands; the remaining man stared dumbly at a patch of grass. A furious drive filled her, and she did indeed dive again--this time at one in a human form instead of a monster.

Though she was beginning to understand why Corey believed the form held no meaning for the essence.

Leah slammed into Nigel, cutting him off as they crashed to the ground. Her fist drew back sharply, understanding full well what might happen if she was not quick, but the man only looked at her blankly, sparing her no emotion. She was but another human, more or less, holding no impact on his personal life. He spoke, and the phrase used could be translated to, “do not.” It came more fluidly, one long word, and she sat back, a part of her enraged at losing the solitary chance.

He shifted from under her, stood and brushed off his knees, moved to open his mouth--

And the tail of the beast caught him in the ribs, flinging him to the side.

Consciousness, he decided, was like a woman. Capricious and not to be wholly relied upon.

-

There was a roar as he grabbed for the top of the cliff, small rocks pelting his back as they fell. He winced in acknowledgment of his time lost, and pulled himself upward, starting forward to view--

A lighthouse. Simple and towering, it rose in fog and grays. A legend given in spotty memory and filled in by a child. As it turned out, the man was not altogether wrong in that thought. Five feet from the base, and the door opened inward, a child draped in gray moving to the doorway. You’re right, of course, came the quiet voice inside Alan’s mind. She’s protecting me.

There was pain in the look that followed, a emotion close to resignation. And she’ll die for it.

Alan glanced at the edge of the cliff in something like concern, but before he could begin to move or speak, there was a sound like a sonic boom, and a rush of air pushed over the cliff. He shielded his eyes, and behind him, he felt small arms slowly wrap around his waist.

-

There was a phrase that mentioned rain. That spoke of storms. “It came down like a religion, all anger and love and need. It showed the way and then disappeared. A little more, a little less.” In the phrase, it continued, speaking of differences and separation. “It was the middle of a forming tornado, and we stood outside and watched it form.

“They say, I brought it with me.”

-

At the edge of the forest at the foot of the cliff that housed the hidden lighthouse there existed a battle currently in motion. The dragon struck out, tail crashing into one who, if he had been a little more human, might not have continued after that attack. A clawed foot stomped down on an unnamed male, and the only two conscious became two that were like angels in form, bloodied and gasping for air, and apparently, were about to die. The dragon’s head drew back, inhaling a great influx of air, and the nearly estranged siblings exchanged glances, desperation and resolution both, and they would move as they would, as much as they were able.

Except there was singing. Albeit briefly, and perhaps not nearly as lovely. It came as a light alto, and demanded the attention of all those that heard it. The two looked downward, the dragon exhaled without flames, and the short woman moved forward, shadows flanking her. When she spoke, it was understood by all, but if asked to repeat it, they wouldn’t be able to remember the words. “That isn’t your form. Return to it.

The two graced the ground and retracted their wings, and the dragon shuddered in some kind of suffering. The woman only stared, her will in her eyes. There was an expulsion of air, sound waves raking the valley, and the dust settled to reveal an attractive woman with long golden hair. She glared contemptuously, a hand on her hip, though her chest heaved for breath. A forced shifting was never easy.

Yet the short-haired woman that strode into the field seemed to hold no mercy. Her eyes narrowed further. “Your true form.” A demand. With none left to counter.

The other woman gave a cry and shuddered again, skin convulsing over bone. There was the slosh of organs forcibly shifting, the crack of bones breaking to resettle in another position, and the quiet hiss of scales spreading over flesh. At the end, what had once been the woman lay heaving on the ground, a lesser and far less frightening mirror of what the group had already fought, the size of a child’s pony instead of a few evergreens. Eyes that held fire wearily turned a hate-filled glare onto the one whose hair held the sunset, as the dragon’s scales tried to reflect so imperfectly. Happy? came the thought, harsh and angry.

To all who viewed this, the emotion came with surprise, when the remaining woman smiled lightly, tersely. “Dai’stiho, cousin.

The phrase held something to the dragon that it did not to the humans, and the creature started, staring. Eventually its gaze dropped, and the thought echoed in resignation. …Dai.

Well met.

The woman’s hand went to the dragon's snout, and near shyly, untrusting, scale moved to touch flesh. A blush of pink washed over the dragon’s scales and vanished, a show of surprise, and the dragon’s eyes closed.

The one known as Arianna straightened, to nod briskly at her remaining followers and friends.

-

five.

three.

3.

You’ll have to forgive Alan. He’s a horrible narrator. And it’s fine; it makes sense. He’s not someone who thinks in stories, plots and narratives and audience. For all that he is, has been, will be, Alan Kane is a rational being, fueled by logic. Be it that he’s adaptable, to insanely extreme levels, there is reason, rationale, behind all that he does. He’s someone of action, and I respect that. I rely on that. But he’s not a storyteller.

I am.

I wasn’t, not before, but here is what is. Alan can narrate throughout everything. And I’ll sit behind and give you the cliff notes.

My name is Ann Marie. I don’t know why my mother called me that, it certainly held no meaning for any of her family. It could have been whim, it could have just “fit,” as the saying goes, but here it is, and here I am.

I was a douchey kid. I smoked and nicked cigarettes from my family, whined and blackmailed Corey into driving us all places, used all the people I should have cared about, and in the end, when the day was done, I only cared about myself. Nice story, huh? Right. That’s the kid I was. The kid at sixteen and counting.

The kid Corey was… Wasn’t so angry all the time. He was protective, crazy so. Studied tactics and strategy of ancient warfare as a hobby. Closet geek. That type. He was our reliable one, the one who would look out for you regardless of the circumstances. I’m not saying he’s changed, per se, just that… Things aren’t as clear as they used to be.

Leah and Meg are his half sisters, one older, one younger. We didn’t hang with their crowd, which basically consisted of… them. Leah’s world was Meg, and she was devoted to her. To Meg and to beating the ass of anyone she caught doing something they shouldn’t. That girl thought she had black and white clear, and hell if she really actually knew. And Meg, well. That girl’s a story on her own.

Erica and Kisten are sisters, and the three above’s cousins on both their mothers’ side. Starting to see a family tree here? Erica is a holier than thou bitch, though she’s mellowed out in these fine years. Kist was my best friend. In the way of I was better than her and used her to no end while she shyly took it. She had a thing for Andrew, and him for her. Things got messed up along the way.

Andrew is Corey’s half brother through their dad. Guy was always quiet and puppy dog nice, sucked up to the adults, and never let us get away with anything. Despite that, he was a staple of our little group. Corey, Andrew, Kist, and me…. We were happy once, I think. Once we were happy.

Things changed and things stayed the same. You see…. When I was little, my mom was famous, and hell if I ever knew it. There was this war, big and bad, and in the end, all the bad stuff got shut away, and my mother combined the pieces of the universes, dimensions, whatever you call it, into one big world. And that was how I grew up. “Normal.”

Except nothing’s ever… really… normal, is it?

I was naïve. And a little shit. Things happened, and…. The world’s still one big mixing pot. But there’s a little bit more dark in it than my mother intended, and things are a great deal more jumbled. I opened the door. And now things come through that are drawn to this world’s energies. Light or dark, good or bad. Gray’s a state of mind, as we say now. You can’t really judge people for their past actions if they’ll stand beside you in the long run. People that have darkness in them are as much a person as those in the light. I should know, right?

And all of that… Made a lot of things happen. People, good people, aren’t here anymore. Some dead, some sucked through that door, and some worse than either of those things. Stuff came in, the continents shifted again, the plates broke apart… Long story short, you have the basic setup for a cute, little apocalypse in a giant package. Mostly to be laid at my feet. Mine and those around me. Why was I not skinned and stoned, burned at the stake? Because it so happened that I’m the inheritor of my mother’s will, and therefore, the only person able to try to fix any of this.

Call it my atonement. As much as I can. I’m not an idiot any longer. I know things can’t just be put right.

But regardless, that was how I met Alan and Nigel. They dropped in on me, pretty literally, landing in a pile of limbs at my feet back when Home was still situated in a city, and I still had a garden to take care of. They crushed my begonias. I probably shouldn’t complain. They were half dead already. Anyway, those two drop in and instantly start bickering, when suddenly they stop and Nigel touches the flowers they’re sitting on. He looks up at me, and even then, his eyes were already clouded. But he looks up, and says, “Was it a wish or a curse that got us here? A fanciful whim or a dark entreaty?”

I had no idea what the hell he meant until I looked up the meaning of the flowers in a book. Clever guy, though his tongue will probably get ripped out one day if they can get past Alan. But, so, Nigel says that, I’m staring at them both while getting more depressed because it’s my fault they were ripped out of their world at all, and Alan stares at me, and his eyes are so damn familiar that I ask his name. At the same time he asks me the same. My name seemed to both excite and disappoint him in intervals, when I gave my nickname and full name right after. And his name… Well. Like I told him then, “I knew an Alan once. You probably had eyes like him. But that wasn’t his real name.”

And just like that Alan finally looks surprised, and right after Nigel starts laughing and laughing until his brother sat on him to shut him up. They never explained what was so funny, but it’s not that hard to tell. A few of us changed our names, and they’re fine as Alan and Nigel. I don’t need anymore than what they offer.

And anyway, I’m guilty of the same. Ann Marie? How would I inspire faith, respect, and a healthy dose of fear with that kind of name?

I’m called Arianna now. Have you heard of me?

Either way, that’s how things started. I learned later they had been in a world like this but more subtle, a place they had been kidnapped to years and years ago. So this was just another turn of the wheel. And something in them… Magick, energy pattern, waveform, aura, chi, whatever your group calls it…. Theirs resonated with me. And so I dragged them along when that city fell. And I probably owe them both more than I can possibly repay. There’s things you can share with strangers that you couldn’t possibly with--

Ah, well, anyway, I’ve held you up long enough, huh? Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of this. It’s not often I get to talk like this--

Well. You’ll see. Now, where were we--

-

four.

two.

2.

Four hours later, and the happy little hunting party was on its way, all ribbons and bows wrapped in a silent resonance. It was something still not Alan’s own that added the urge to hum obnoxiously--thankfully, he had better control of himself than that. Nigel, however, could not claim the same, and was currently singing nonsense quietly, looking pleased with himself. Was that German?

Leah glanced back for the third time, eyes alight with anger, before whipping back around, and Alan dropped back a step, shifting the pack on his shoulders so he could elbow Nigel better. “…Shut. Up.”

There was an exaggerated whimper, and a hand covered the spot Alan had ‘attacked’. The white-haired man was given a mournful look. “Now it’s abuse, too?”

Alan felt a part of his soul drain out of him, and he looked up at he smog covered sky. “…I really don’t know why I bother with you.”

It was said without thinking and without heat, and still it caused an absolute drop in silence. The only sounds were the call of strange birds, and the near constant thwak of a machete cutting a path in front of them in this forest-jungle mix. Things were certainly mixed up. Birds of paradise next to crows and archaeopteryx. The strange new fusion of land and sky had taken to itself near fluidly, with touches of skirmishes here and there. Alan, however, couldn’t say the same for any of them. This group, or even just siblings in the end. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

The response was immediate and annoyed, and Alan breathed more easily. Silence or apathy was a worse warning sign. He exhaled, then banged into Nigel casually. The man stumbled a step, giving a “tch,” then returned the motion with force. Alan swallowed the grin that recognized this as forgiveness and returned it harder. Nigel returned that with a light tap of waveform against waveform, energy cracking between them, and Alan stumbled off the path into the bushes, ass end up.

“You’re forgiven.~”

“Kane! Nigel. Stop messing around, we have work to do! Get over here now!” At Corinthians’ voice, thick with anger, Alan had the brief fleeting want to remain where he was and play dead. Instead, of course, he dragged himself from the bushes with no help from his loving brother, resettled his pack, and looked at the held up line, deadeyed. Leah spared him the briefest look of sympathy (or possibly pity), then turned and yelled for a continuance.

“You have a piece of something right….” Nigel moved to touch Alan’s hair, and the latter slapped his hand away, glaring.

“You can’t see, remember?”

Nigel shrugged loosely, hands held up in surrender. “However could I forget?”

Alan glared, his mouth a line. “…Right.” It wasn’t enough to make him more filthy than they all already were, his darling younger sibling also had to make certain that Alan would be yelled at later. Despite them both being ‘Kane,’ only one was seen as the adult. Obviously. He shoved a hand to straighten out his hair, fingers catching on a mass of grass and mud. He stared down at his fingers unhappily for a moment, then stared at Nigel--who was already starting forward and seemingly ignoring his brother.

Alan would kill him if he didn’t love him.

Exhaling on a hiss between clenched teeth, Alan caught up and moved the rest of the way in silence, trudging along.

-

Sunset had came beautifully, despite the thick air. It shone as stunning reds and violets, sharp yellows breaking through in parts. It was natural, breathtaking, and only a process. Only a continuance to end in black.

But not yet. Still yet, the evening shone, and the party moved out of the thick treeline to a clearing overlooked by a rock face indented with caves. Those in front shuffled as Corey and Leah peered upward with narrowed eyes. At the back, Alan and Nigel, apparently made up, leaned slightly against each other. Walking all day was neither’s idea of fun, and the sooner this thing that had been terrorizing the edges of Home’s boundaries was found, the sooner it could be taken care of, and then sooner they could be back. And sleeping. Or staring at the stars. Which somehow came clear, no matter the outcome of the day’s weather.

There were ten men and women on this little raid, more and enough for whatever needed to be done. All held abilities, powers, whatnot, that made them useful. None stayed at Home’s central base unless they at least bordered two or three, and no one that couldn’t hold their own remained for very long. So ten was enough.

Famous last words, of course.

The screaming started before anyone realized what had happened--one man gone, a woman in pieces, and the third man, screaming, missing the lower half of his body. Alan’s eyes stared at the sky, violet orbs locked onto what circled there, waiting for the tells that would let them know when it would drop again.

As if nothing was happening, Nigel tugged at Alan’s sleeve. Without taking his eyes away from it, Alan snapped, “What?”

Curiously, Nigel replied, “What is it?”

Alan swallowed, staring at the flash of scales in the sunset. “A dragon.”

Nigel dropped Alan’s sleeve, shoving his hands in his pockets, giving dryly, “Is that all….”

The other whipped his eyes away from it to stare incredulously at his brother. And the second he did the shouting began as the dragon dived downward, murder in its intent.

-

three.

one.

1.

The day started as it always would. There was dust in the air, smog in the senses, and an oracle muttering to the air. Dancy and her Angel weren’t listening to her anymore. “Kerry,” he groaned, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “What time is it?”

The disheveled woman crouched on the large rock near his tent turned to cock her head. Her hair fell black and matted, and the pink eyes she wore were pale in her skin. “Too early, too late. Nothing’s coming and everything’s gone. It’s a song, you know. You know the Song.”

The man grimaced, shoving a hand through his hair as he sat, slipping from the blankets piled. The air was cold outside of them, and he shivered, hands moving to his shoulders as he frowned in annoyance. Kerry kept staring at him, eyes flat and unblinking, ageless in an inhuman way. Whether or not she was…. That was her own business in the end. No one had ever managed to pry anything from her. Other than her name, her eyes, Dancy, and the Angel. And those were given with slips and slides, nothing more and nothing less than absolution in the reveal.

“I know a Song,” he muttered under his breath to her, glancing back at the camp to make sure none overheard. It was the quiet stillness before dawn still, and only sentries broke the stagnation present. “But that’s neither here or there, you know.”

It was his fault, really. For falling into a different manner of speech around her. There were similarities where he’d rather not look, and perhaps that was why he gave her kindness. She was how he once could have been.

Kerry bared her teeth in a grin; Alan briefly smiled back. “It’s everything, and all things. A Song, a slip, and a slide, and it gets under your skin, gets where you don’t want it to go. Until you give in, give in, and then you’re stained with it, stained and it won’t come off because the Song’s still singing.”

The man swallowed roughly, but only nodded lightly. “I know, darling, but why say this now? What am I missing?”

She raised her eyebrows high, something nearly comedic in the give of it. “Missing? What’s missing but what you know. You know you know. The kind of things that come in the dark.”

Yes, he knew but--

“You know,” she insisted, eyes intent. “You know where the darkness lies.”

“Is there anything we should know?” The man’s voice made Alan start, the deep tone resonating before he saw the tawny hair and large frame. (And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these--) Corinthians. Alan moved to speak, but Kerry mumbled first.

“No breaks, no shakes. There’s nothing in the air but sickness, but you know that, too. You know what ails the living will and heart.” She smiled, and Alan thought he saw something like hate pass before she fell back into cheerful madness, blank and open. “Corey, Corey, Corey-boy. The greatest of these,” she said, sweetly mocking, glancing at Alan with a wink. “Is love, you know, and love--”

“Just leave it, Bittelton. I don’t want to hear it.” The larger man shifted to walk away, calling back only once. “Kane, meeting in forty minutes. Grab your squad.”

Alan watched him go without a word, moving a hand to brush white hair from his eyes. Nothing of age and everything of genetics--he was not yet thirty and had seen enough that would likely have turned it this shade from stress. Behind him, Kerry laughed, rough and hoarse, mocking bells as they rang. “Love is outlawed,” she said, sing-song, sweetly. “For those who murdered what they held dear.”

Alan glanced at her warily. Wondered if there was a part of the oracle to distrust. “Love continues,” he said quietly in response. “For those ones tainted by blood.” Because that was all that they had.

She looked at him with something like satisfaction, then jumped off her rock, moving to scamper away. “Love continues,” she agreed as she passed him. “But only when it’s struggled for. And even then it dies.”

You know that, Alan Kane, was what she did not say. And he was thankful for her silence.

He turned to move back into the tent to get dressed before he had to meet with the rest.

-

Here we go ’round the mulberry bush.

It was a migraine, of course. What else could be had when strong-willed people with far too different ideas on what to do were shoved together? Add to that that the majority were male, full of testosterone, anger, and little else, and Alan wondered, why, exactly, he was here again? His fingers pressed into his eyes and he wondered how long he would have to endure this. Despite the fact that the current shouter was female, she likely had more of that chemical within her than any at this table.

“Fuck if we’re going to just go hunt the damn thing!” The slender blonde slammed a hand down on the circular table that took up the majority of space within the main tent. “We have civilians in this camp, children and injured people! If we leave it unattended--”

Where Corey could not interrupt (the cost of being the younger sibling to a girl now woman who would beat you for arguing), Isriyu would. A slender hand waved in a practiced motion for attention. Of those currently at Home, their current camp, Isriyu held seniority. Despite having no blood relations to those in power. “They won’t be unattended,” came the smooth voice, slicker than any incubus’s treatises. The man tilted his chin in cajolement, the mix of scarlet and silver strands in his hair falling lightly against his shoulder. Alan stared for a beat despite himself. “We’ll leave a few level 5’s,” he stated, then rotated his chair to smile charmingly at Alan.

Alan’s breath caught, and he hated that man. “Nigel and I can stay.”

Leah interrupted, her anger anything but sated. “Neither of them can do shielding! They’re swords over shields, and they should be used where they would be best--”

“Because we’re weapons. Right?”

The dark haired man strode in casually, hands tucked loosely into his pockets. He stopped some odd feet from the table, eyes dull and unfocused. He smiled, and Alan thought it was threatening. (Please don’t speak….) As if he caught that, Nigel swung his head to Alan, smiling brightly and giving a wave. Leah groaned, and Corey moved to stand. Nigel cut him off. “I’ll forgive you for not inviting me to the little party but don’t insult me by speaking on it further.”

The man stared. “I was going to ask you to leave.”

Nigel threw his hands up in a feigned dismay, mouth forming a perfect O before he lapsed into apathy. “Don’t spare my feelings now,” he gave dryly.

Corey looked over to Alan, who had a hand pressing into his temple. “Kane.”

Nigel chirped a sweet yes, and Alan overrode it. “Continue with the meeting. Andrew can fill me in later,” he said tiredly, standing and making a line to take his sibling by the arm. Nigel pretended to protest as Alan dragged him from the tent. Compared to the shadowed structure, outside was too bright, and the white-haired man squinted in dismay. Even where overcast became the normal method, this existed as too much. Next to him, Nigel gave a light sigh.

Alan glared at him sidelong. Nigel shrugged. “Now don’t look at me like that. Your face will stay that way.”

“You knew I’d come meet you for lunch.”

“What if I got lonely?~” The voice was near sing-song, and Alan raised an eyebrow. Nigel detached from his brother and sighed.

“They just need to get this settled. You weren’t helping things.”

Nigel sobered, looked annoyed. “It’s not as if I’m an invalid.”

Alan stared. “You act like it at times.”

“It’s charming,” he replied, a smile that didn’t reach his sightless eyes.

This day was only a headache and it was not even half over. Again, Alan rubbed at his eyes. “Did you eat breakfast?”

Silence came, and Alan gave a sigh of his own. “…Of course. Foolish of me to think you’d sustain yourself. Come on,” he added, making his way towards the food tent. “Maybe something’s left from earlier.”

Behind him he felt Nigel pout, and rolled his eyes heavenward.

God grant him the serenity to deal with little brothers. Who never aged past five.

-

The war party was settled and ready by the time the sun was tipping back down towards the earth. Women in harnesses sporting machetes, men in wide belts in which a mix of guns and swords hung. A sci-fi setting in a fantasy world, and Alan was glad Nigel couldn’t truly see it clear enough to label it as third-rate. Though his sibling would have words one way or the other. Sighing to himself, Alan approached Corey, trodding near to him as the man stated directions as he stabbed a map with his finger.

Alan raised his eyebrows and Corey straightened. “You two will be with us.” Two mainly for the fact of Nigel not being allowed to be left alone while Corey was maintaining leadership. Once Ari was back, things would even to a fairer trade, but the man was a bit bias.

…He had reason to be, from being on the end of Nigel’s ministrations once, but still. Alan nodded neutrally before glancing back at the collection of tents. “And guarding?”

“Kist and Erica are on shields. Isiryu will be their backing as neither are above level 3.” Kisten was 2, actually, and her elder sister was a 3. Neither would last long with a legitimate threat without a backer.

Again, the white-haired man nodded, then wondered, “Andrew?”

Corey allowed a wry smile. Both were friendly with the third man. “Went to go meet Ari on her way back. He’ll get her to Home safe.” That wasn’t doubted. Alan accepted this and went to collect his sibling and their weapons. Only to be stopped by an obvious cough. Alan glanced backwards. “Alex and Sabi are on guard duty with Bittelton. So watch your step.”

Alan grimaced for possibly the hundredth time so far that day. What was worse than two hellhounds as guards?

One hellhound and one demon dog puppy who found it a great joy to tackle him as often as possible.

Corey at least had the decency not to laugh until Alan was out of earshot.

-

two.

zero.

0.

There was some grace in madness. There were shackles that existed on blood.

The girl had hair that used to be flowing, a blond-russet that shone like the setting sun. It had been cut years ago, an inch short and no more, and that would be the way it would be. There was no use in keeping something unnecessary. Something that could eventually get in the way. Like emotions, like love, like arrogance. Flaws to be loosened and let go of, replaced by a cold burn of responsibility and needed ambition. There were goals, you see. Things to accomplish and people that needed protection. And she was no longer that flawed child.

No longer a child hiding behind her mother’s skirts.

He knew this, saw it well, and spoke nothing of it. He had not been here. He had been miles and existences away, and only served her now.

A sword rather than a shield. A fitting role for a weapon once broken.

Blood was staining, quiet and kept, and it was only right, after all. For ones who had sinned to come together. To atone for their mistakes by giving themselves.

Here lies only what could have been.

-

one.

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