A Den of Vipers

 

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A Brief Explanatory Note

Fable, the game for which the following story was based upon, is an action-adventure/fantasy RPG in which the player’s actions impact the world, Albion, around them. There is no singular way to play Fable, nor one definitive version of Albion; this is merely one interpretation out of many. You do not need experience within Fable to read the following chapters, though it may help. The choice, as the game states, is yours. But, for now…

…the adventure awaits.

 

 

(This is Book II of the Shattered Albion series.)

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Chapter One: Death and Taxes

Nails—talons, clawing chasms into her flesh. Rivers of scarlet drenching her limbs in warm stickiness. Long fingers clenched tightly around her throat. She could see her reflection in the gilded mirror to her right: nightgown clinging to her sweat-drenched body, heels digging into her mattress, and fingers scrabbling to claw at the hands of an invisible tormentor.

“There is nothing left for you,” it crooned, grip tightening with every effort she made to struggle. “Poor lost lamb…embrace the Darkness...ours is the way of love…ours is the way of death….”

No! No, get out! Get away! You’re not welcome here!

“It is you who is unwelcome, tainted, worthless…hush now…why must you try so hard? We are inside you…we have brought you peace. Death is so easy and soon there will be nothing left…”

Her Will filled her veins, adding to the painful pressure at her throat. There was nothing to direct it to. Her vision began to ebb—fog swirling before her eyes. No….

It chuckled, low and euphoric, as it murmured, “Do you feel the joy the Darkness brings you? Do you feel it crawl through your veins? Tell me…tell me how it feels….” It loosened its grip just enough for her to cough on a breath. “Tell me….”

“It…it feels…it feels like this.” Will pooled in her hands, exploding outwards in a burst of pale, bright light. The pressure on her throat and chest vanished. Screams of agony tore through her mind, making her head throb and ears bleed. Her body burned as though she’d been lit aflame.

When the light faded, she was left alone and weak. Breaths coming in short gasps.

“I warned you…I warned you…,” she whispered over and over again, panting as she collapsed against her mattress; dampened with sweat and blood.

And there she lay, alone and bleeding in the dark, until the dawn finally came.

~ * ~

“Stop shoving!”

“Quiet down!”

You shove off!”

Dusk in Bowerstone and the stars were already out—silvered freckles glittering through a haze of cloud. Though those that lived in the expansive manors perched along the road to the castle were beginning to settle in for the night, those who dwelled in the city below were showing few signs of quieting down. The pubs were full to bursting with patrons—both travellers and Bowerstone residents. A fisherman was making a futile attempt at selling the last of his spoiled wares. A baker in the Old Quarter was handing out the last of their unsellable bread to a beggar. For the moment, everything seemed to be proceeding as usual…with the exception of the crowd gathered outside Bowerstone Castle. They’d been gathered there for a few hours and were making no attempts at dissipating.

“Her Royal Majesty is not holding court today!” a guard finally managed to proclaim over the din of the group gathered at the base of the stairs. He was an unremarkable-looking man with a bored voice that suggested this was not the first time he’d made such an announcement today. “Please disperse and go about your business elsewhere!”

Jericho sighed, edging through the disgruntled crowd. Men and women in their simple work clothes stood almost shoulder-to-shoulder with nobles draped in opulent finery and beggars clad in rags; every one of them clamouring to be heard by their Queen. Jericho was of mixed opinion on the crowd’s presence. On one hand, such a varied group of people kept attention away from her and her work leathers. On the other…they disconcerted her, setting her nerves on edge. She did not have time for this. Back home, there were cases to be solved—people she knew for a fact were in trouble—and suffering through this mob just to speak to Queen Victoria for a few moments wasn’t entirely worth it. However, she also had vital information for Her Majesty, so she had little choice but to endure.

“Why not?” someone called to the guard.

“Because Chamberlain Hobson has declared that today is a good day to take care of important matters of state,” the guard replied evenly, looking as though he regretted every moment of his life as fresh complaints arose.

“Then you can tell Chamberlain Hobson to kiss my hairy arse!”

“Excuse me,” Jericho murmured to the guard as she finally reached his side. “I understand you are busy, but I need to go in. I need to speak with Her Majesty.”

The guard grimaced, tobacco-stained teeth gritting as if she’d just insulted his mother. Exasperated, he replied, “Ma’am, I’ll tell you what I’ve told everyone else: I can’t let you in unless you work here or have an invitation.”

“I have an invitation,” she informed him briskly, reaching into the pocket of her woollen cloak and retrieving an envelope bearing the Queen’s personal seal. Jericho handed it over carefully, making an effort not to touch him, and stuffed her hands into her pockets once the envelope was safely in the guard’s possession.

He opened it and looked it over, ignoring the shouts and insults being hurled his way, before turning his gaze warily back up to her. “What did you say your name was?”

“I did not state it, but it is Serafina Dubois. I assume you were informed I might arrive?”

The guard glanced questioningly over at his counterpart—a thin, pockmarked man with enormous mutton chops—and waited as he flipped through a pamphlet. After a few moments of exceptionally slow page turning, the thin guard looked up and gave a short nod.

“Right,” the first guard said, knocking hard on the castle’s door exactly twice. “Seems in order.”

“Hang on! Why does she get to go in?!” someone in the crowd fumed.

“Because she has an invitation, you daft chit!” the guard snapped, temper clearly beginning to reach its limit.

“I have an invitation!” a man put in hopefully.

“Your mum’s knickers, you do!”

The door cracked open just enough for a servant—who appeared no more pleased by the crowd than Jericho or the guards were—to poke their head out and frown at the guard. “What?”

“She has an invitation and needs to see the Queen,” the guard explained, gesturing towards Jericho almost helplessly. The detective was beginning to wish she truly was invisible.

“They’re still arguing,” the servant replied dryly, moving to close the door.

The guard sighed, rubbing at his eyes. “Just take her in. Her Majesty said petitioners with an invitation could wait in her study.”

“You sure you want to come in?” the servant queried, turning her frown on Jericho instead. “They’ve been at it since breakfast. Even Cook’s about fed up.”

Jericho glanced up at the sky. It was swiftly growing darker, stars growing more pronounced. She didn’t mind the night—it was actually her preferred time of day to do anything—but the air was quickly growing colder, reminding Albion’s residents that, despite the snow having melted, it was still technically winter. Perhaps the petitioners and courtiers will have no choice but to leave soon. She would not have bet on it, though. “Then they should be finished soon, should they not?”

Muttering under their breath in blatant disapproval, the servant straightened up and pulled the door open further. Jericho thought she caught the murmur of “on your own head be it” as she began her ascent up the last of the steps. A commotion swelled behind her once more and, alarmed, she half turned toward it, wishing she’d thought to bring her walking stick. Her concern was for naught. A man had attempted to follow her but now found a guard and his rifle standing much too close for anyone’s comfort. Sighing, Jericho followed the servant inside.

“Look here,” the guard barked. “I’ll only say it once more: the only way you’re getting in here today is if you’ve got an invitation, you need to get in for work, or…maybe if you’re an accountant.”

“I’m an accountant!” someone called out.

“Then…could you…maybe help me with my taxes?”

~ * ~

“No; absolutely not!” Victoria snapped, barely managing to keep from putting her head in her hands and rubbing at the bridge of her nose. She was exhausted…and furious. To this day she didn’t understand what Walter had been thinking when he’d hired Hobson. The man reminded her of a toad—short, fat, and slippery—though he was greedy enough to put a magpie to shame. Not to mention he had the worst ideas for how to run a country…and that was even taking into account the ones Reaver—whom Victoria had long ago come to regard as bad decisions in a good suit—came up with. “Firstly, that is absolutely repugnant! Secondly, even if I could find enough merit in this to even consider suggesting it to the Court, everyone in this castle would be dragged into the streets and hanged!”

“But, Your Majesty, if we taxed the people per every child in their household, it would—”

“I don’t give a damn what benefit you think it might have! I have no desire to alienate my people or make things harder for those whose lives are already difficult!”

“Then we have no choice but to raise the tax further!” Hobson insisted, ruddy jowls wobbling slightly in his fervour. Victoria had never seen him so adamant before, but it did nothing to sway her position. If anything, it made her wonder if someone was paying him to push their views. Reaver? No, it didn’t sound like him. One of the other noble families, then? Perhaps someone else who had supported Droogan’s failed campaign? That sounded a bit more likely, but still raised a question of exactly whom.

“We will do no such thing!” she shouted back, feeling a faint stirring of her Will in response to her growing ire. “Even without collecting taxes for this year, the treasury is full enough that we could renovate much of Albion and Aurora without risk of running out of gold—much less what’s needed for actual upkeep. There is no reason to raise the tax levels or implement extreme measures. And there will be no further discussion on this.”

They both fell silent—Victoria seated on the stairs leading up to her currently empty throne, documents littering the ground around her in neat stacks, and Hobson standing to her left, balancing several sheaves of parchment atop a slate. They both glared at each other, their egos clashing as they both silently willed the other to give in. And then Hobson seemed to remember himself and who he was challenging and the moment passed. He quickly tore his gaze away from her to stare down at his papers. Victoria couldn’t help but take a measure of pride in that. There was only one person her glares had no effect on and she had no desire to expand the list to someone who was supposedly intending to help her.

“Very well, Your Majesty,” Hobson finally replied in a tone like an oiled serpent, though something in his words suggested he wanted to sigh at her as he made a note. “I will ensure the policies remain unchanged.” For now. Though he didn’t say it, Victoria could hear the words clearly. She knew perfectly well the argument would resume next year and already was beginning to dread it. “And what shall I put for the school and academy budgets this year?”

Victoria picked up a few documents, rifling through them in an attempt to find the records of previous budgets. “What are they asking for?”

“The same as last year, I’d imagine.”

“Then that’s what we’ll give them. As usual, set aside a buffer in the event additional funding is needed.”

“I will do so. Ah—Bowerstone’s University is requesting assistance in renovating its laboratories for their medical students.”

Victoria frowned, rifling through her documents quickly to try and find the estimated sums. “Where—?”

“Page six, Ma’am.”

“Oh! …oh.” Frown deepening, she bit her lip. “How long would it take to refurbish…?”

“Structurally, I believe the estimation was nearly six months—the laboratories are in the oldest wing of the university, or so I’m told.”

“Alright, then,” Victoria said with a sigh. “Let them know we’ll help with the structural repair. If they can’t afford new equipment, they may petition once more when the wing is repaired.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

The sound of Hobson’s writing filled the room and Victoria stretched, wishing she were anywhere but there. So tired. Sleep refused to come most nights and the potions meant to help no longer did. Stress and overwork, she was certain, played part of the reason for her insomnia. Being possessed by a creature of the Void that wanted to use her as a puppet and delighted in making her relive her worst memories probably also had something to do with it. But it wasn’t as though she could go tell anyone about that. If she was lucky, the citizens of Albion would call for her removal from the throne. If she was unlucky, they’d call for a removal of her head. Neither option was one she really favoured. What she really needed was a way to get the Crawler under her control—to either silence it for good or to ally it with herself. However, none of her research into the arcane had thus far provided any useful results.

Yawning and pushing several long strands of mahogany hair behind her ear, Victoria straightened up. A shiver slid down her spine as an icy breeze hit her bare neck. A…breeze? None of the windows or doors were open and there was no one else in the room but them. Something felt wrong. The big room was as stifling and oppressive as always—the wood panelled walls were stern and severe even with the portraits of people Victoria would never know hanging before them. The violet rugs were too thin to even hint at comfort and the suits of armour lining the hall—each mounted before a column—seemed like a solemn funeral guard. At this hour, the room was shadowy and the stained glass window heading the room was dull and almost lifeless. Nothing seemed to be out of place. But still her skin prickled as though she were under observation as she slowly scanned the room.

“Getting back to business, Ma’am; I believe Lord Reaver has an—” He paused at the finger being held up in his general direction and frowned. “Whatever is wro—?”

“Someone’s here that shouldn’t be; we’re being watched,” she replied, casually dropping her hand to reach for the long dagger in her knee-high boot. Her reach was interrupted as she flung herself to the side, only narrowly avoiding a throwing knife. She’d barely had time to spot a dark-clothed figure clinging to an alcove near the ceiling when she was pushed into action once more—stumbling almost to her feet to shove Hobson down and out of danger as another knife was loosed. “Hide!”

She shifted easily into a crouch and wrenched her dagger free of her boot just in time to see the figure drop down to the floor of the throne room, yanking his scarf from his mouth with one hand and drawing a sword with the other.

“What, by Avo…?” she murmured, trying to both ready herself and wrap her head around the intruder.

“Am I too late for an audience, Your Majesty?” he snarled, spitting out the honorific as though it tasted disgusting. As he slunk closer, she noticed his head had been poorly shaved and what few teeth he seemed to have were rotting.

“Who are you?” she enquired, mystified. Perhaps it was wrong of her, but she felt more bewildered than she did angry or afraid. She’d never had someone sneak in with the intention of harming her before—which, if she really thought about it, was surprising in itself. At the thought, a rush of fury swept through her; burning with ire that someone would dare attack them. No. No, not us. There is no us. Just me. I am myself and no one else, she told herself furiously. But there was an echo of laughter that was not her own behind her thoughts and the words felt uncertain.

Even knowing it was coming, she was not prepared for the ferocity with which he attacked her. He lunged and she attempted to dodge. It wasn’t entirely successful. She felt a sudden, burning sting in her shoulder, but ignored it in favour of continuing to move. Eager to end this quickly, Victoria attempted to duck under his guard—if she could disable his sword arm, then she stood a chance of forcing answers from him. But it didn’t work. He dropped his reach, swinging low, and Victoria was keenly aware that, had she been fractionally slower in stepping back, she would have been dead.

She finally managed to interrupt his sword with her dagger on the next strike, driving it away from her with less strength than she should have had. She could feel the shock of the impact reverberate through her arm. Worry followed it. Clearly this man was skilled, but he couldn’t be skilled enough to best a Hero…could he? She didn’t want to find out. This was getting far too risky. Stop fighting me, she thought, searching for the presence clawing at the back of her mind. He wants to kill us.

Yes…and why would you believe I desire you alive? the Crawler replied with a dragging hiss as Victoria countered another strike.

Because you won’t survive without me.

She slashed at the would-be assassin’s neck, driving him back and freeing up more room for her to manoeuvre . They were both out of striking range now, but Victoria was glad for it. She stepped away from him as he attempted to close the distance between them and skirted around him, looking for an opening. Spotting it, she angled her blade low and lunged forward. She’d been aiming for his left hip, but, only a split-second before she could connect, he brought his sword down on her dagger, forcing it away from him. The impact was jarring. Her hand throbbed, nearly causing her to drop her dagger. Distracted, she wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way as he moved once more. His sword pierced her shoulder, biting deep. She could hear Hobson’s concerned shout from wherever he was hiding as she bit back a scream. Pain seared through her veins, spreading through her shoulder blade and down her arm.

Her dagger slipped from numb fingers.

She felt a tug at her shoulder as he tried to free his sword. Arms protesting, she reached up and clamped her hands around the blade, holding it in place. Her breath returned to her. With as much calm as she could muster, she demanded, “Why are you doing this?”

He pulled once more at the blade and Victoria winced at the sting of sharp metal against her bare palms. Hurts….

Finally, he snarled, “I’ve waited years in a cell for this moment. It’s time for Albion to truly be free. Will…it doesn’t need the crown or the throne—it doesn’t give you the right to rule the country! You’re not a god! You’re a relic! An’ your monarchy has no place in this land!”

What the fuck is he going on about? The thought floated blankly about Victoria’s head and she was uncertain whether or not it was purely her own. She…didn’t understand. Certainly, some of her policies had not gone over well with the nobility, but she hadn’t heard any complaints from ordinary citizens about things she had specifically done. Not even in the form of anonymous letters. Even Page seemed somewhat more trusting and content with her as of late. Had she been terribly wrong? Had she convinced herself that everything was going well in an effort to feel better whilst remaining blindly ignorant of true problems? What was she missing?

The Crawler, in contrast, was writhing—raging, struggling to be released. We are not relics! it swore, and Victoria could feel its darkness seeping into her Will; tainting it until the power building beneath her flesh felt almost uncomfortable. The Darkness was here first! More than gods! We are eternal!

Great, now I have two of them lecturing me, Victoria through dryly. To the Crawler, she added, I would much rather have some help right about now instead of inane babbling!

The stranger ripped the sword from her shoulder, cutting through her internal argument and slicing into her palms. Her vision swam. She sank to her knees, gritting her teeth against the pain and lamenting the loss of her suit. The blood would probably never wash out.

“I only wish General Turner was here to watch you die.”

Victoria flung her hands up, tapping into her Will and pushing it outward just in time to halt the sword descending towards her face. She couldn’t help the surge of satisfaction that swept over her as her would-be assassin’s expression slowly turned from rage to confusion.

She’d had a theory, many months ago now, that the spells she already knew could be adapted to other uses depending on the intent and energy behind them. For example, by using only a small amount of energy, she could use her fire spell to automatically light candles as she entered a room (or reheat tea that had  gone cold) or use her ice spell to numb a wound. On the other end of the spectrum, she could turn her lightning spell into a thunderstorm with enough energy behind it (it hadn’t worked in full yet; she’d only managed to summon a very small cloud that had followed her around for most of a day and had drenched the carpets with rain—no one had been especially pleased by that development). In theory, the more spells she stuck together, the more results she could get from each attack. And, as wonderful as she was sure it would be the day that she had them all figured out and perfected, she was sure nothing would ever beat the feeling she’d had upon realizing that a low-level force spell maintained indefinitely was a shield.

She kept her eyes trained on the man, trying to think through her options. Time was running short. His confusion was already turning to frustration and fury once more as, again and again, his sword failed to penetrate her shield.

“I truly don’t understand what it is you’re accusing me of,” Victoria told him, working to keep her voice even and civil, “but I can assure you, I haven’t done anything.” She pulled at her Will and let her spell loose with as much power as she could summon.

Her shield exploded outwards. The stranger was lifted off his feet and the unhealthy thud that echoed through the room as he hit a pillar across the hall almost made Victoria wince. The almighty clang! As he dropped onto the suit of armour at the pillar’s base, completely ripping it from its stand, really did result in a wince…and additional pain for her already aching head.

Victoria could hear running footsteps and shouting in the hall, but paid them no heed. About time. She slowly retrieved her dagger and clambered to her feet, watching the now limp body warily.

“Is he…dead?” Hobson choked out and Victoria looked over to find him peeking out from behind her throne. His hair and ascot were dishevelled, but there was almost no other indications that he’d been panicking. Another time, she might have been impressed by the speed of his recovery.

“I doubt it,” she replied. “Most likely unconscious…if we’re lucky.”

She crept forward, blade at the ready. Her heart pounded, annoyingly loud, in her ears. She was dimly aware she was holding her breath, but made no effort to release it. His chest moved steadily. His right leg, however, was clearly broken. His nose, as well. There wasn’t enough blood for her to think his injuries were fatal. Good. She knew it didn’t really mean anything—she wasn’t a physician and there could easily be injuries she just couldn’t see—but it gave her a small measure of comfort. Answers would be short coming.

Lowering her guard fractionally, she half-turned toward the throne. “Hobson, go fetch Nanny and—”

A gunshot. The bang made her ears throb. The pain in her side was minimal. Good, it went straight through. Hobson was screaming. Funnily enough, it somehow hurt more than being shot. The assassin now had a dagger buried in his clavicle. A gun she’d not previously noticed he’d had slipped from his fingers. And, in the now-open door between the throne room and the hall, Jericho stood horrified; her long braids a mess and her dark skin oddly ashen.

Oh no,” she heard Jericho lament as Victoria crouched down beside the dying man.

“You think you’re safe now?” the man croaked, blood speckling his lips. “I came here alone, but I represent legions. You’ll never defeat us all. We will kill you in the end.”

“Perhaps…but you will not live to see it,” Victoria countered, trying to ignore the trepidation that followed his words. Instead, she buried her dagger in his skull.

The room fell into an uneasy silence. Hobson seemed unwilling to crawl out from behind the throne. Head pounding, Victoria stood up once more, already feeling guilty about the blood now soaking into the carpets. Hobson and Jasper will be pleased, she thought absently. We might finally get new carpets. It didn’t really make her feel better, though. Perhaps she’d offer her staff a bonus and a formal apology…but, first, she needed to get the room to stop spinning. With almost drunken steps, she made her way back to the short stair at the base of her throne and lowered herself until she was sitting on them—a good distance from what few of her papers were not scattered about the room.

“I apologise,” Jericho murmured, having crept up to her side. “If I had not—”

“There’s no need to apologise, Jer,” Victoria replied, staring at the ruined room in dismay. “I should have anticipated he’d have more weapons than just a sword. I should have been more careful. And…thank you. For trying to keep me safe.”

Jericho didn’t smile, but her expression did momentarily soften. A minute or so passed before she finally said: “I think he was who I was intending to warn you about. One of my informants told me a strange man was looking for weapons and a way into the castle—I knew it was relevant, but it seemed unlikely.”

“I’m surprised Rowan didn’t try to beat you to me.”

“Rowan…might have been the one who informed me.” Jericho looked uneasily away. “I believe she is experiencing some manner of family drama.”

“I know—her elder brother is my psychologist.”

“…pardon, but I cannot imagine how those sessions must go.”

Victoria hummed noncommittally, rubbing absently at the scar stretching from her brow to under the right side of jawline. The action was soothing and familiar but did nothing to help the situation. Hobson and the Crawler had both fallen silent, but that wasn’t helping either. This was a mess. She was going to have to make a statement. There was going to be so much research and investigating to discover who else may want her dead. Inquiries would be made into her staff. New training would need to be scheduled for her guards. And…oh, Avo, I don’t want to think about it.

Her heart was beating oddly, fluttering and unsteady. Her head was still pounding and her limbs felt like jelly. When she finally opened her eyes, the room was spinning worse than ever.

She licked her lips, mouth dry, and cleared her throat awkwardly. “Hey, Jericho?”

“Yes?”

“I think I need some help getting to Nanny.” At Jericho’s enquiring stare, Victoria added, “I think he may have poisoned me.”

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Chapter Two: A Revolutionary Idea

A soft moan reached his ears, alerting him with the knowledge that his sleeping partner was now awake a split second before a warm hand splayed across his waist. Once, the sensations both evoked were erotic—causing anticipation to shiver through his thoughts and tendrils of desire to curl into his gut. Now, however, they were evoking nothing more than mild annoyance. He stifled a reaction, feigning a lack of notice, and kept his attention on the documents spread on the sheets before him. Tax forms, business records, ledgers, lists of sales and acquisitions—Reaver was fairly certain his lawyer was meant to have all this in order. It didn’t matter. Ever since she’d become queen, Victoria had been cracking down on a great many things. The most recent: taxes and ensuring everyone paid fairly according to their income. And, while that meant the poor could get by paying a very small amount of gold, it also meant that the wealthy were now paying ridiculously large sums. While that in itself wasn’t a problem, it had raised a very serious one on its own. He now had to be careful about where he was stating he got his money from. And, if a single piece of his less-than-legal earnings showed itself on any of these forms, that would be the end of everything. No amount of bail money would save him from prison and he had no desire to be arrested today, thank you.

It was still dark outside—dawn had not yet come to press slivers of light against the heavy velvet curtains—and a chill had crept into the room in absence of a fire. Everything was oddly still and quiet. By the light of a single oil lamp, the large room felt eerie and somehow morose. Shadows collecting on every surface like travellers at a roadside; waiting for something that was probably never coming. And then his companion gave a sleepy sigh and the spell seemed to break.

The hand at his abdomen slowly snaked its way up his torso, bringing unwanted warmth to his cold skin. The bed shifted slightly and, only seconds later, he felt a kiss press against his shoulder blade. His companion’s head dropped to his shoulder and Reaver half-turned to send a probing glance in their direction.

“You’re up an’ working already,” Cillian observed, his brogue slurring slightly as he woke up further. “Everyone’s going to think you’ve gone boring on them.”

And who, exactly, is going to be telling the others how I begin my day, hmm? Or is discretion no longer a part of this…arrangement? “Then perhaps they should stop leaving me to clean up their messes, shouldn’t they?”

“Here I thought you enjoyed cleaning up my messes.” Cillian kept his words light and almost playful as he slowly crawled out of bed, but it wasn’t enough to keep Reaver from internally bristling with an annoyance that only just faded as he added, “I should probably leave.”

Cillian would make a pretty accessory for someone, of that Reaver was certain. He had the sort of features that solely belonged on a painting or sculpture and green eyes far too vivid in colour to be anything other than eerie. He was a man whose entire skillset consisted of picking the perfect waistcoat to wear to a dinner party and how to sit at just the right angle to accentuate his features—at best, he was an amusing distraction; at worst…insipid and foppish were both adjectives that came readily to mind. And, had Reaver not been using him to steal information about his father’s business, he would have had no use for him. He knew what lied down the path Cillian walked. To some degree, it mirrored his own. However, where Reaver’s path had been calculated and then orchestrated, Cillian’s sprung from only his faults. Reaver knew perfectly well the unsatisfying ending Cillian had awaiting him and there was really no point in lingering to watch Cillian reach it. Such a pity…and all those pretty words. At least he was decent in bed; surprisingly…receptive, as well.

“Oh? Weren’t you just accusing me of being boring?” Reaver drawled, feigning affront. He was more than inclined to wish Cillian well and send him on his way, but the game still had to be played and he wasn’t willing to forfeit his edge so easily. Not yet, anyway. “And yet you’re in such a hurry to run back home.”

“No…not a hurry, per se,” Cillian remarked, picking up his scattered attire from wherever they’d been thrown. “I—it’s just that…there’s been a lot of rumours, you understand, that are going about right now.”

That got Reaver’s attention. He hadn’t heard any big rumours lately that would be enough to put him in such a hurry. Cillian’s tone and lack of desire to look at him was enough to spark his suspicion. It was about him, then. There was no one else it could be about. Which meant he needed answers. Immediately.

What rumours?” Though he tried to keep his tone conversational, Reaver couldn’t help the edge that began to creep into his voice. He knew the way to address it was to pretend the rumours were baseless and meaningless—which would help them to end their course all the faster—but he couldn’t help his ire at the sudden sting of betrayal. All he’d done for those ingrates…all the playing buffer between them and the monarchy, all the good words put in, and the not-at-all-legal  deeds preformed on their behalves…and this was how they thanked him? By once again attempting to smear him and his name into the mud? Oh, yes, there needed to be a reckoning…but first he needed to know who, exactly, had started the rumours.

Cillian still wouldn’t look at him as he pulled on his under-things and trousers. Annoyance growing, Reaver set aside his documents, rose, and, in almost an instant, had crossed the room to reach the younger man. Games and playing set aside, Reaver forced Cillian’s chin up, giving him nowhere else to look but at the man before him. With an icy tone the people of Bloodstone were more familiar with than those of Bowerstone, Reaver all but purred, “I believe I asked what rumours you are referring to…my sweet.”

The younger man simply stared a moment, eyes wide with a flicker of anxiety and almost innocent confusion. Clearly this wasn’t working; perhaps, he thought, he needed to try a subtler, more encouraging route of persuasion. The thought had barely crossed his mind when Cillian finally answered quietly: “There are rumours…about yourself and…and Queen Victoria. That you…still have a relationship. That you’re both manipulating us to be pawns for the crown. That you no longer care about the strength of the nobility as a class and that…that…you’re…breaking.”

Though the last statement had been delivered as a nervous whisper, Reaver could feel his temper growing in response. It was a miracle, he decided, that his features remained unchanged and perfectly blank. Cillian running away in terror would not help to settle things. Allowing his tone to thaw a bit, he enquired, “And…what do you think?”

“I don’t know what to think,” he admitted. Then, slightly more hopeful, he added, “But none of it’s true…is it?”

The problem was that some of it was, in fact, true. He and Victoria did indeed have a “relationship”—or had one. Until a year ago, it had mainly been physical in nature; sex interspersed with bickering and discussions about the kingdom. And somehow lacking in truly meaningful conversation even when they had both craved it. Now, however, it was non-existent.

—if he was honest with himself, in the dead hours of the night, he longed for the scent of her hair and the feel of her skin. The way she’d once looked at him when they spoke of personal matters, and the curves of her smile when she was amused, was etched into his memory and he missed it like home after a long journey, even if its absence was his fault to begin with—

He knew perfectly well that they were both manipulating the nobility, though it had rarely ever been to a shared end. Some might have called that dangerous—playing a game with so many other players—but…well, no one could ever accuse him of shying away from danger. If only he didn’t still need information from these…people.

“No,” Reaver lied, if only because this was one of those few times when the truth would not benefit him. He turned his hard grip on Cillian’s chin into a soft caress. “Not a word of it is. Would you like to see proof?”

Cillian was soft and he melted when Reaver kissed him. Only just leaning into his touch, taking it with the gentle care of a first time seduction. So soft…as if Reaver could break him with breath and thought. He vaguely wondered how many people were fooled by that—how many people thought Cillian was delicate and so treated him as though he weren’t a threat. Reaver didn’t trust softness—there was far too ample danger in it. Once, many years previous, he’s had an ex-wife much like Cillian. She’d been so delicate, so frail. To touch her was to fear she’d fall apart in his fingers like wet paper. She’d seemed all the more beautiful for it—like a crystal figure on a mantle. Not six months after they’d married, she’d tried to kill him in an attempt to voice her displeasure at his continued vocation.  They had divorced quite soon after that. And, while he  didn’t think Cillian would try to kill him, he didn’t believe the youth was as innocent as he played, either. After all, poisoned chocolate lost none of its pleasure.

But, at that moment, his kisses were timid and indulgent. Feather-light brushes of flesh against flesh. Deliberately teasing, taunting, postponing that moment where it would turn to something more.

Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.

The last of the noise at the door died down as Reaver pulled back to frown at the door. As curious as he was, this was terrible timing.

“Ignore it,” Cillian sighed, his voice no longer nervous, but needy and almost demanding.

Deciding he would look into it later, Reaver obliged him. Trailed kisses up his neck with affected slowness. Cillian’s nails scraped against his scalp, demanding him to come even closer.

Knock. Knock. Click.

“My Lord, th—oh, by the Light!

Internally sighing, Reaver pulled away from Cillian to face the maid that had just walked in. Ella had been in his service almost a decade now—her parents had sold her into the service at the age of eight and he’d managed to procure her from another noble (a man with far more…peculiar and distasteful interests than Reaver’s own extended to) before any irreparable damage could be done—and it still amused him that, though she walked in on him nude on almost a daily basis, she still flushed and immediately looked away. Revulsion, she had always claimed, not modesty. Given she looked at everyone in her presence in those situations in the exact same way, he was inclined to believe her.

What is it, Ella?” he drawled, feigning far more exasperation than he actually felt.

She kept her eyes trained on her feet, a hand at her brow as though she were trying to avoid accidentally looking up at him. Even with the distance between them, he could see her face was bright red. “I…erm, there’s something important you need to see, Sir.”

“Then where is it?” he returned. He didn’t even try to keep from rolling his eyes. If this was more tax rubbish….

“It’s not…exactly here, Sir.”

“And still you saw fit to interrupt my business.” He watched as the flush drained from her face, leaving her cheeks splotchy and several shades paler than usual. And, though Reaver knew perfectly well that it would be counterproductive to beat her over the disruption (she was far too loyal to deserve it and far too good at her job, unlike the very rare few whom had actually crossed him in the past), the insinuation had the pleasant side effect of making Cillian gather up his clothes that much faster.

An unpleasant silence filled the room as Cillian grabbed his jacket and, only glancing back once, slipped out of the room. The door closed behind him and the tension went with him, leaving the room comfortable, if rather poorly illuminated.

“Was that completely necessary, My Lord?” Ella enquired, finally lowering her hand as Reaver shrugged on a dressing gown. “I only interrupt in an emergency.”

“Ella,” he cut in, trying to keep her from running off on a tangent, “what did you find?”

“There…was an attack, Sir,” she began uncertainly. “At the castle, I mean. Someone tried to kill the queen.”

And the world came to a halt around him.

~ * ~

Victoria lay in her cot, staring up at the carvings of ivy and flowers along the edges of the infirmary ceiling. She’d spent the night there, under “observation”…which didn’t quite make sense to her, for everyone else had retired to bed by midnight. Nanny had given her enough potions for sleep and healing that Victoria was certain she’d be injury resistant for the next four years, disregarding the fact that potions didn’t work that way. Jericho had lingered nearby, sleeping on the next cot over after retrieving some of Victoria’s research and some books from the library along with her dog, Nero, from where he’d been begging scraps and attention from the kitchens. Though Nero was still asleep—snoring little doggie snores—Victoria was fairly certain that Jericho was awake, but in no hurry to have a conversation. Given the infirmary was empty but for them and a single occupant at the far end of the room, Victoria was completely fine with allowing the silence to remain.

It was the first time in two years that her thoughts were as silent as her surroundings.

Dusty morning sunlight streamed in from the large, arched windows, illuminating the old tapestries and pastel landscapes that hung at intervals around the room. Victoria could smell sea salt and damp earth through the single open window; birdsong trickled in with it, carried on a cold breeze. The last of the snow had finally melted only a week or so previously and Victoria was looking forward to the dead plants slowly returning to life. The castle seemed sombre without them.

An hour or so passed before a maid finally brought up a breakfast tray for them. They ate in silence. A lot of being in Jericho’s company was sitting in silence. Words were extremely important to her and socialization was painfully uncomfortable, as consequence Jericho didn’t often speak. Though Victoria wanted to ask her more about herself, Victoria also respected her and was willing to try…if only for Jericho’s sake.

They slowly finished eating—Nero having eaten more than his fair share of black pudding. Jericho returned to her books, relaxing against her cot’s headboard as though she weren’t trying to make sure no one tried to sneak in and finish the assassin’s job. Victoria simply sat there, alternating between stretching her stiff muscles and petting Nero. She wondered if it was fine for her to leave or if Nanny would hunt her down for doing so. Granted, if Nanny had it her way, Victoria probably would spend more than half of her life stuck in the infirmary, so it was most likely for the best if she crept out before Nanny came to check on them.

Rolling her shoulders and neck, Victoria felt her spine crackle pleasantly but froze as Nero gave a low growl. The growls became soft woofs as Victoria turned towards the infirmary’s door. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jericho slowly set aside her book. Hurried footsteps purposefully heading towards the infirmary –more than one set, Victoria thoughts—and raised, muffled voices. Victoria rubbed Nero’s neck in an effort to calm him as she and Jericho exchanged dubious glances.

The voices abruptly quieted just before the door swung open, revealing a concerned Walter and a harried Reaver. For once, they didn’t look like they wanted to kill each other. Victoria found that oddly more concerning than the previous night’s assassin.

“Walter!  …and…Reaver,” she began, faltering on his name as though uncertain she wanted to say it. “Not that this isn’t…erm…thrilling, but what are you both doing here? Walter were you not observing troop movements? And…I have neither an idea nor a care for what or whom you were doing, Reaver, but I highly doubt coming all the way to Bowerstone was worth it.”

“I suspect we both have entirely different ideas of what is worth our time—”

“We heard about your near accident,” Walter calmly stated, neatly cutting off Reaver before he could begin ranting. “And your attacker.”

“We? As in both of…?”

“Your shoddy security measures aside, this is an issue that simply must be addressed!” Reaver chided, firmly rapping his walking stick twice against the tiled floor.

“You’re not seriously blaming me for someone’s breaking into my home and attempting to kill me?!” Victoria shot back. She was well aware she was a little too eager to start a fight, but…so was he. And this was how they’d always been, right? Residual anger couldn’t be affecting her in any way, right? Everything is fine. Right…fine.

“Before this progresses, we need to focus on what is actually important right now,” Walter intoned, stopping them both in their tracks. Even with his enormous goatee in the way, it was obvious he was frowning. “Are you alright?”

“I am, Walter. I’m…I’m more angry than anything, really.”

“What happened?”

“…Hobson and I were arguing about—” she hesitated, unwilling to go into detail with Reaver and Jericho listening in and tried to detour around the unhelpful truths— “stupid tax stuff,” Victoria finally said. Staring down at the stark white sheets, she carefully relayed the events of the previous night. With equal care, she left out the Crawler’s whispers in the back of her mind. None of them needed to know about that; perhaps, one day, she would be comfortable enough with the idea of letting them in on her secret. But it was not currently an option. She also elected to leave out Jericho’s involvement in the assassin’s death, aware that it almost sounded as though the assassin had almost magically attracted a dagger to his neck. As far as she was concerned, Jericho was more than capable of bringing it up if she felt the need. Otherwise, there was no point in inviting Reaver’s commentary on the subject. Not that it mattered; Reaver commented on anything he liked, regardless of its subject.

By the time she’d finished speaking, an uneasy silence had filled the room. For once, Victoria was certain she knew why. They’d had creatures come to attack the crown before, but this was the first time a human enemy had attacked them since Victoria had taken the throne from her brother. No one had ever made such an obvious grab for control before. And every single one of them was invested—either personally or financially—in the success of the current regime. If someone was making a bid for power, that could only mean one thing: war.

The thought alone made her blood turn to ice. She didn’t want to think about having to put the country through that so soon after the ordeal with…her brother.

After a beat, Walter proposed: “If we’re looking for an assassin, we should contact the Conclave; they may be able to tell us who this man was.”

“I don’t think it was the Conclave ,” Victoria confessed. “I don’t think they had anything to do with it. The Conclave aren’t the sort to have one of their people just…walk up to me. If the Conclave wanted me dead, they would have been much cleverer and I doubt I’d be speaking with you now.”

“I concur. It’s so very unfortunate there’s no more information on exactly who was responsible for this…gruesome attempt on your life.” If Reaver had been any more sarcastic, Victoria might have contemplated chucking a pillow at him. But what, she wondered, was the sarcastic part? Their lack of information or that someone had attacked her? As far as she was concerned, where he was directing his humour probably meant something important.

She almost wondered if Reaver was to blame for the assassin, except…it lacked his sense of style and drama. If he was going to kill her, she had no doubt that he would be the one to do it, not some hired hand. And it would have been far better planned out. Most likely, it would have lacked witnesses, as well. He would have made an art of it—messy, horrifically painful, excessively drawn out art. It would not be a peaceful passing. As such, this mess couldn’t have anything to do with him…could it?

“He didn’t…have anything to say about who hired him, did he?” Walter added, sounding fractionally more intrigued than concerned as his words sliced through her inner monologue.

Victoria paused, trying to search her memory. “I-I don’t…wait. Now that I think on it, he might have. He mentioned some…General Turner. Does that name mean anything to you?”

“Oh, Avo,” Walter murmured, dropping down into the chair nearest Victoria’s cot. He looked as if he’d suddenly aged a decade as he and Reaver exchanged knowing, almost foreboding, looks. Her concern began to build once more. It was concerning enough the few times that he and Reaver both agreed on something, but for them to both act as though they were in on the same secret? That was bad.

“What is it?”

“If Solomon Turner is involved, this goes far beyond anything I could have anticipated,” Walter admitted.

“I…am afraid I must, once more, concur,” Reaver said soberly, mood shifting faster than Victoria could keep up with. Though it wasn’t as if she were making much of an effort to try.

“Why?” Victoria enquired, impatience leaking into her voice. The name sounded oddly familiar, like something she’d heard as a child and had forgotten about. “Who is Solomon Turner?”

“He was a good man…at one time,” Walter began. He enlisted in the army around the same time Swift and myself did. He helped see your father to the throne! We served together for thirty-five years and he was immensely well respected—”

“And then he launched a coup against Logan,” Reaver interrupted. Something in his tone reminded Victoria of a gossiping old woman at tea and it almost made the news sound less grave.

“I had never heard of such a thing,” Jericho intoned, once more reminding the room of her presence.

“Neither did I,” Victoria agreed. She found it very strange. Prior to their revolution, she had rarely left the castle. Surely the servants would have been whispering about it near her at some point or another. And yet…she had no memory of it. “What happened?”

Walter rubbed at his temples, clearly trying to rid himself of some stress. “Everything went to hell. It was shortly after Logan returned from Aurora; you were…indisposed.”

If by indisposed he meant “you were lying in a hospital bed, recovering from running away from home and nearly losing your face to a balverine”, then that explained quite a bit. Still, it was strange to her that something so important had missed her entirely. Then again, Logan had clearly taken greater pains to hide things from her at that time.

“Logan was different when he returned,” Walter continued. “We all saw it, and, of course, not one of us knew why. Swift and I were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt—blame it on the stress of being a newly appointed king and the hardship of having a mission fail for the first time. Solomon, however, had different ideas. He became convinced that Logan, and the monarchy by extension, was evil. And that the monarchy needed to be destroyed. Swift and I didn’t want to help him—we didn’t know just how bad everything would become. We saw a scared, overly-ambitious child…and Solomon saw a throne that needed to be empty so the people could create their own government.”

“Only it didn’t quite work out as planned,” Reaver cut in. “I’d heard of it second hand, but wasn’t he ousted by his own soldiers?”

“I don’t know who told Logan,” Walter replied. “All I know is that the coup was destroyed in a single night. Dozens of men were lost; Solomon was arrested and sent away.”

“Sent where?” Victoria asked.

The look Reaver gave her was almost chiding. “Where else do you send a traitor? Ravenscar Keep, of course.”

Victoria and Jericho exchanged confused frowns. “What’s Ravenscar Keep?”

It was Reaver’s turn to look confused. “You don’t…?” He paused, turning to frown accusatorily at Walter. “In all this time, you didn’t tell her?”

“What didn’t you tell me?” It sounded distantly familiar to her, but, as with General Turner, she couldn’t recall where she’d heard it. Something to do with Logan….

Walter roughly dragged a hand through his short, grey hair with a heavy sigh. “I didn’t want it to become a crutch like it did for Logan. You’ve seen her give judgments—she does perfectly well without the Keep holding her back!”

“Oh, yes, and we can see how perfectly well that—”

“What aren’t you telling me?!” Victoria half-shouted, trying desperately to get them to stop bickering and to start answering her.

“Your father took it over,” Walter finally said. “Ravenscar Keep is on an island to the south. When Sparrow came across it, he decided it would be a perfect deterrent. A place to keep the worst criminals away from society. For a time it even worked. Would anyone really want to risk being sent there?”

“So what went wrong?” Victoria enquired.

“Logan returned from Aurora…and everything changed. He had changed. Suddenly, everyone who showed the smallest hint of threat was sent to the Keep. Dozens, if not a couple hundred, of prisoners over the years,” Walter elaborated. “There’s a lot of unjustly imprisoned people there. I didn’t want you to fall into the same trap. It’s too easy to rely on a simple fix.”

Victoria remained silent, thinking it over. She’d not imagined something like this existed. Disappointment that Walter hadn’t seen fit to entrust this information to her sooner put aside for the moment, she was at a loss for words. What was she supposed to say? She certainly wasn’t alright with it. However, she couldn’t say she completely objected to the idea, either. She was well aware there were people that were too dangerous to keep in a simple prison; such an isolated location…surely it was better to place them there than near others? At the same time, how could they hope to rehabilitate them from so far away? “Why not try to appeal his verdicts? Try to get the people that don’t deserve to be there out?”

“The documents were nowhere to be found,” Walter scratched at the back of his head, frowning. “I checked everywhere in the castle, but they’re not here.”

“Not that it matters now,” Reaver interjected. “Clearly the only thing to do is speak with Turner. See if he’s really involved or if your attacker was merely pointing fingers.”

“Whether or not Mr. Turner is involved, I doubt he will be willing to speak to Victoria. He has no incentive to consider it,” Jericho observed, her voice almost soothing.

She was right, Victoria knew. There was nothing they had to offer him to insure he’d be truthful. She knew she couldn’t offer him a pardon. There was no guarantee that he’d abandoned his desire to destroy the monarchy and she wasn’t cruel enough to lie about the possibility of freedom.

“Then offer him a harsher sentence for refusing,” Reaver drawled, waving his hand dismissively.

“That would do the opposite,” Walter shot back. “Solomon is an experienced soldier; he knows what to do when he’s interrogated by an enemy—which is very nearly what you’re suggesting,” he added to Reaver with a disapproving glance.

“I was not suggesting it,” Reaver interrupted. “I was stating that it’s the best and most logical course of action…especially when Her Majesty’s life is being threatened.”

“I think we all know perfectly well what your history of ‘logical’ and ‘well thought out’ courses of action is,” Walter snapped, rising from his seat. He wasn’t even close to Reaver’s height, but he made up for it through sheer strength of presence.

My history?” Reaver began almost delicately, taking a half step closer. His lips curled derisively and his posture possessed none of its usual grace—brawlers and bar fights came immediately to Victoria’s mind. “Why don’t we talk about your history…and how the last major decision you made nearly resulted in Victoria’s death?” Dropping his voice in pseudo-sympathy, he went on: “It must bother you so much to know you swore to protect her, and yet she was far safer with me than she ever was with you.”

Walter’s hand twitched as though he were repressing the urge to deck him. Instead, he lowered his voice and replied, “I might take what you have to say more seriously if you weren’t the same man who gave up his shot at the crown because you didn’t find the engagement fun any longer. You lost your chance to order me around. Tell me, how often does that sting, Reaver?”

Reaver had gone paler than usual, jaw tense. His throat worked a moment before, almost inaudibly, he said, “Every day. It stings every day.”

“As it should.”

“This isn’t helping!” Victoria snapped, trying to ignore the discomfort in her stomach. She didn’t want to see them fight. And, while she understood why she was concerned for Walter—she’d long since come to terms with him being as close to a father as she currently had—she didn’t understand why she felt so protective of Reaver. He was powerful, he was capable, and she was utterly furious with him behind the politeness and focus on the matters at hand. He didn’t need protecting and she should have no desire to offer it. So why couldn’t she let it go?

“What isn’t helping,” Reaver asserted, making no effort to calm down, “is that we’re standing here, listening to crack-pot theories dissecting hearsay history lessons when we know exactly who has answers and we could already be off to see him.”

“Reaver, if you’re going to keep antagonizing Walter, I will have you escorted off the castle’s grounds. By your hair, if my guards must,” Victoria cautioned, letting the challenge linger in the air between them. She could feel Jericho staring at her, but didn’t move to return it. Someone needed to keep Reaver in line. Just because she didn’t want to see him hurt didn’t meant she was going to let him play the bully.

He stared at her a long moment, body tense, as though he were debating whether or not to keep arguing with her. All at once, he relaxed and stepped back to lean against the far wall. Once settled, he waved a dismissive hand in Victoria’s direction, as though telling her to commence with whatever she had in mind.

She resisted the urge to sigh at him, not willing to egg him on, before turning back to Walter. “Unfortunately, there is some urgency to finding out whether or not this was a planned attack or just a coincidence. Do you think you could find any of the files on Turner’s arrest?”

“I might,” Walter conceded with a slight frown. “But there’s as good a chance those files are wherever the missing ones are.”

“If you can’t find them where the majority of the archives are, then don’t bother,” Victoria instructed. “As much as I’d like to research before making a move, there’s no point to us wasting time when I can go to the Keep myself.”

“I will assist him. That will be the quickest way to find them, it they are there,” Jericho murmured. Though her voice was soft, her eyes were not. Calculating, observing, piecing things together that they didn’t say through their body language alone.

“Thank you,” Victoria responded as Walter did the same. She turned to Reaver, hoping she wouldn’t come to regret this as she began, “Reaver, can you—”

“E-excuse me, Ma’am?” a nervous voice interrupted. A small, thin soldier stood in the doorway as though unsure of himself. As four sets of eyes turned to him, he seemed to hunch in on himself as though he wanted to be anywhere but there.

“Yes?” Victoria replied, patience beginning to wane once more.

“Y-you’re wanted at the—at the Industrial docks, Your Majesty,” the soldier stammered, his ears going red.

Reaver scoffed. “We’re in the middle of—”

“Did something happen?” Vitoria interrupted, pushing her blankets off her legs. Her nightgown had bunched up around her thighs and she found herself wishing for warmer clothes.

“I…I don’t know, Ma’am,” he replied. “I was told something ‘bout a strange ship and Captain Finn says it’s urgent you meet him. Armed, he said. Immediately, he said!”

Victoria slowly got to her feet, trying not to look at anyone but the soldier as she thanked him and sent him back to his post. Her thoughts were racing. Not for the first time this morning, she wondered if the assassin had only been the beginning of something far, far worse.

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Chapter Three: The Keep

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Chapter Four: A Slow Day at the Office

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Chapter Five: Science and Industry

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Chapter Six: Unnatural Laws

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Chapter Seven: Dead End

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Chapter Eight: Noise

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Chapter Nine: What Makes A Hero?

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Epilogue: An Unopened Letter

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~

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