Fergus snapped his jaws into empty air as Joff ducked his lunge and retaliated by aiming straight for his armored throat, her teeth digging into the reinforced leather before a surprised yip slipped out when her brother twisted and rolled, his larger body easily lifting her up and slamming her into the mat as he rolled out of her grasp and to his feet. She had barely a moment to blink before his jaws clamped firmly around her throat, a warning growl signaling his intent.
Jofrid stared up at him for a moment, her deep brown eyes warring between stubborn resistance and…no, that wasn’t submissiveness, that was violent retaliation. That did track with his sister’s typical attitude, so Fergus growled again, firmer this time. After a few tense seconds, she finally let out a defeated whine, and he let her free. Before promptly smacking her across the snout when she tried to get in a retaliatory bite.
“Hey! Joff, none of that!” Einar growled out from the nearby bench, his deep voice echoing through the otherwise empty training hall, “Bites end when the fights end.”
Joff whined again, then just flopped to the floor, grumbling as she slumped against the mat. Fergus narrowed his own amber eyes at the brat, before changing to full human form, his bones and flesh easily shifting back into a different type of solid muscle while his pale-blonde fur receded back into a thin beard and his naturally curly hair. His leathers shifted with him, settled across his skin as he started to stretch his muscles, winding down from the spar.
“You did do well,” he complimented, keeping his face neutral as one of Joff’s ears perked up, “Though you need to remember, you do have a slighter build than me. You won’t win in a test of strength.” In a slightly lower tone, he whispered. “You don’t need to.”
Joff huffed, settling again as Einar sighed in annoyance. “Don’t coddle her when she’s being stupid.” The balding lycan frowned, scratching at his black beard. “There’s a hundred ways she could’ve used her size to an advantage, but instead she dives for another test of strength. It’s damn stupid is what it is.”
“Your advice is noted. Now shut up.”
Einar frowned, then nodded to Fergus, taking one of the towels from his shoulder and handing it to him, so he could wipe the sweat and spit from his skin. All the while, Jofrid continued to mope.
Then both of them went tense at the all too familiar snarling tone that sounded out from the training hall’s doorway, along with the tell-tale thumps of steel-toed boots and faint smell of ash. “What, exactly, was that pathetic display?”
Joff visibly tensed, her tail instinctively curling under her as Fergus turned to stare at his scowling father. He folded his hands behind his back, keeping them out of sight as they clenched. “It was training, sir.”
“Shut your mouth, boy.” Father snarled again, glaring at him, then turned his cold gaze at Joff. “Get up, brat. I won’t have even my worthless lackwit of a ‘daughter’ cower like some craven pissant.”
It took a second, but Fergus did have to give his sister credit as she shifted to full human and stood straight to meet their father’s gaze. She almost looked undaunted by the prospect of facing the head of their family in one of his typical, barely restrained rages. Almost.
Father was a large man, broad and strongly built. The type of man that drew attention, if just out of fear for what he might do if angered. Joff had his dark brown hair, though not his long beard, which was braided into three “tails” down to his chest, matched by the single, steel-threaded braid dangling down to his back. Similar steel threads looped through the gambeson he wore, meant more to restrain the wolf in him than shift with him when he turned. It was black, much like the rest of his clothing.
Einar wore similar, though his was brown and lacked the steel-teeth buckles.
“Well? You heard your damn trainer. You should know how to fight by now. So why are you being a fucking moron?” Father continued, his coal-gray eyes narrowed in rage.
Joff averted her eyes, afraid to challenge him, and Fergus felt the heavy weight of resignation settle over him once again. He knew how this would go. Father would whine and rage and yell as though his petulance had meaning to it, as though every harsh bark was somehow conveying messages instead of filling silence. He’d scream insults and invectives and utterly destroy Joff’s confidence so Fergus would, once again, have to go and hold her close as she tried not to cry, because crying was weakness, and Father hated weakness.
He hated it so much that the instant he realized Fergus had grown taller than him, the insecure fool began keeping himself quarter-shifted, just barely letting his wolf out to loom only an inch taller than his eldest son. It wasn’t the first sign Fergus had seen of just how pathetic his father was, but it was the one that killed any false-respect the man had beaten into him.
Einar was looking uncomfortable, so Fergus shot him a warning glare. Their cousin wasn’t a terrible man, but he was a bad one. Uncomfortable with speaking, far too easily bending. He repeated Father’s rhetoric of strength above all and then grew surprised when Joff wanted to prove she could be just that. Strong. Physically capable. A warrior.
Fergus did not sneer. He did not scowl, he did not let loose the growl he could feel bubbling up in his chest. He did not challenge Father because he could still feel that phantom ache in his ribs.
Maybe he would buy Joff a stuffed otter this time. She seemed fond of those lately.
“Jarl Magnusson, pardon the-” Maj had the slightest moment of hesitation as she saw Father looming over Joff, the fury in his eyes turning from his daughter to his servant in an instant, yet still had the courage to continue. “-interruption. There is a woman from Inrapaba here-”
“What?!” Father snapped, his underlying growl echoing through the room and setting everyone on edge, “You let a blasted bloodsucker into my castle?!”
“Not a bloodsucker, my lord. She is human, though she claims to hold power over the vampires.”
That earned a scoff. “What tripe are you trying to feed me? A human wouldn’t have power over even the most pathetic of bloodsuckers.”
It was almost remarkable how ignorant Father could be. Maj said nothing to the contrary though. “Regardless, the Marchioness Valondrac wishes to speak with you on diplomatic matters, and bears a number of seals showing she is, indeed, a person of great importance-”
Father snarled, shaking his head. “A woman comes wearing false titles and bearing false seals and you think she has legitimacy?”
Maj did not back down, surprisingly. “She bore the marks of Plague, Blood, and Thirst, my lord.”
…Fergus didn’t actually know what that meant. Did this woman have influence with the Faith of the Three Matriarchs? He lacked experience with them. The most was meeting some Eastern clans that followed Marrow. The other two lacked interest in Olafiba.
“…” Father’s eyes narrowed further. “If this turns out to be nothing but a farce, I will not let you off lightly.”
“Of course, my lord.”
Father looked back at them from over his shoulder. “Stay.” And then walked away without another word.
Fergus watched him go upstairs, and listened, while Einar sighed in relief. Joff didn’t do the same, but he could see some of the tension slip out of her shoulders. She was trying to relax, but wasn’t there yet.
“Well, I suppose if Jarl Magnusson has ordered us to remain here, we may as well start back up with training. Joff, we’ll start with working on your-”
“We’re going, Einar,” Fergus stated. Joff looked at him without surprise, yet some trepidation, and Einar frowned nervously.
“Er, no, no, you should stay, or your father-” There was a thump and a thud as Fergus punched Einar in the jaw, snapping his head back and knocking him straight to the ground.
Fergus waited a moment, checked Einar’s still present pulse, and nodded to Jofrid. “Why don’t we go visit Astrid?
“…” Jofrid stayed quiet and walked up to Fergus, prompting him to lead the way. Which he did, exiting out a side entrance of the training hall and out into the courtyard of Ota Keep.
Winter had arrived recently, and with the season came a thick snow. It weighed on the overhangs stretching above their pathways and smothered the ground; some would have expended heat and flame to melt away such an “inconvenience”, but those of the Clan Otakin had stronger constitutions.
Fergus paused for a moment and rubbed Jofrid’s head as she shivered, earning a slight, annoyed whine from his younger sister. “Quiet. Walk naturally, with purpose.”
She huffed, yet straightened and strode out through the gates alongside him with the utmost certainty in her step. And if the guards gave them the slightest glance as they passed, a warning glare from Fergus silenced them as quickly as his teeth at their throats.
The siblings easily made their way down the winding road–past what houses their retainers had on the pathway up–to the main city under the Ota Clan’s dominion, known to all as “God Maw”. Jofrid did shift partially to wolfish form to make it down the hillside somewhat more easily, but that was acceptable.
As to the name of the city, it was dubbed “The Maw of God” for a very simple reason: the front gate they had was shaped like a massive wolf’s mouth.
No, the steep hill next to it–that the Ota Keep rested on–did not have a massive beast locked in its depths. Fergus had checked. Multiple times. Nor were there natural caves that resembled any sort of mouth. The city was set in something of a low point in a valley that formed a natural rock wall, which made it one of the easiest points through which to cross the border between Olafiba and Inrapaba, but the cliffs did not look like teeth, despite what some overly-imaginative poets may say.
Nor was God Maw specifically religious. Yes, they did naturally have a cathedral to the God of Beasts, Therian, but it wasn’t home to the Beast Church, and neither did the city have a particular connection to that deity, praised though she may be. It was not a religious site, nor a holy ground, nor were its populace even particularly pious. While worship was held and most households had altars, the commonfolk were not slavishly devoted to their deity either.
Ultimately, the name came from a simple source: When Ota Clanfounder established the city, she declared it “God Maw”, for no other city named as such had yet existed, and she wanted her new home to have an impressive name.
Thus, the city was founded, and truly, history was marvelous.
But Fergus couldn’t care less about history in that moment. He was more focused on guiding his sister through the city–ignoring any and all curious stares along the way–and to the small chapel Astrid worked at.
It was a humble place, set in a plaza near the city’s edge, yet close to the path up to Ota Keep. There were larger buildings around, homes and shops, and the fountain in the center drew far more attention than the simple, brownstone steeple, but there was still a sense of reverence to the building.
“Astrid!” Jofrid perked up as she spotted the brown-robed monk–her half-blonde, half-brown hair looped and braided into a long tail down her back while a short, thick beard, also blonde and brown, covered her lower face–sweeping the street outside the chapel, before she pouted as Fergus held her by the scruff of her shirt.
“No tackle hugs.”
“You’ll knock them over.”
Jofrid continued to pout, but didn’t try to break free as Fergus led her over to the middle-sibling of their somewhat small family, in comparison to many other nobles. The natural result of their father being an utter failure to treat his wife well or even maintain good relations with their aunts and uncles.
“Hi Astrid,” Joff said as they approached, deliberately hanging limp in Fergus’s grip so he had to partially carry, partially drag her, “Fergus is here too.”
“Heh, I can see that!” Astrid Marcusbarn was, as previously stated, the middle child of the current main branch of the Otakin family, which, as tradition dictated, meant they were to go into the Church of the Beast as one of the faithful upon their eighteenth birthday. Astrid had left home at twelve. Fergus could not blame her for the decision. “Though it’s Astrik today!”
“Hello then Astrik,” Fergus greeted his brother. The middle child of their family was two-souled. Some called it genderfluid, but Fergus thought that term was less interesting. Essentially, sometimes Astrik went by Astrik and he was Fergus’s brother. Other times, she went by Astrid and was his sister. Astrik was the same person regardless, it was just how he was. “How is your day going?”
“Delightful so far! There was a great sale at the market today, and I’ve stocked up on a month’s worth of dried fish!” Astrik was also odd in demeanor. Very chipper. Fergus was fairly certain he was the only normal person in the main branch.
“What type of fish?”
“I have no idea! Mackerel, perhaps?” Hm.
Joff raised a hand. “Can we talk about something else? This is boring.”
“Oh certainly! Might you wish to hear the word of our Lady Therian–?”
“I have stories~!”
“…Maybe. Do they have seals?”
Astrik glanced at Fergus. He nodded, confirming that Joff indeed had another fixation. “Yup! In fact, wanna hear about the sealfolk from the Frost Lands~?”
Joff’s eyes were getting wider and Fergus frowned as her tail formed and started to wag. “Sealfolk?”
“Indeed! They are a sort of kin to us, a beastfolk race from the far north!”
“Further than that! You see, littlest sister–” Joff frowned, but her tail was still wagging. “–they live all the way up in the Frost Lands, the grand, icy continent situated to our northwest, within the sea of-”
“I know where the Frost Lands are. I’ve taken geography. It’s the big horn-shaped one.”
Astrik’s lips twitched. “A horn? Really?” He glanced at Fergus. “Would you say the Frost Lands resemble a horn?”
Fergus’s frown deepened. He wasn’t annoyed. Just…annoyed. In general, not at them. Still, it would be rude not to reply. “What type?”
And Astrik looked back to Jofrid. “He asks ‘what type’.”
“…The curved type. Like goats. Maybe like ibexes?”
“Hmm…And Fergus? Your opinion?”
Fergus resisted rolling his eyes. He really didn’t understand why he had to participate in this nonsense, but it was his own fault–
His ears twitched to attention and he turned, shoving Joff towards Astrik as steam and water erupted from the fountain once behind him, now in front. A plume of steam was still rising from it as splashing and hacking coughs sounded out–Fergus went tense.
Not from the fountain, nor the familiar voice in it. He tensed from the winged woman touching down in front of him, facing the fountain, her crimson feathered wings flapping once before they burst in the familiar reek of blood. “Wow, you flew far. I’m almost impressed you survived. Then again, even the proudest vampire will admit lycans are tenacious and hard to kill, so I don’t know how much credit I can give you specifically, Mags.”
It clicked. That was his father. Not the black-robed woman; the soaked, choking shape pulling himself up out the fountain, clutching to the side as his feet fought for purchase. Father was there, dripping with water and steaming as his korei flitted around his head, chittering with irritation and utterly lacking in concern. The fire spirit had always been a callous creature, more drawn and bound to Father’s sadism than any real connection. No empathy for his pain. No loyalty should things devolve further.
“Y-You f-f-filthy bitch!” And it seemed they would. Father snarled, his teeth sharp and bared as he tried to stand. Tried. He needed to hold the fountain’s side, and even then, his legs shook. Not broken. “D-D-Do you have any idea-”
“I do, Jarl Magnusson. I know who you are, I know how you married into the Otakin family partially out of prestige in battle, and mostly because your father was a friend to Grith Sophusson of Clan Otakin who very conveniently died in the war against Vojteh Hill, leaving you to take power–” The woman held up a hand and there was a brief displacement of air as Father tried to interrupt but clutched his throat instead. “–and I’m not saying you had anything to do with it, necessarily, I’m just saying it’s a point of interest. And my point was, I know your hold is only on this border city and that the sheer lack of respect your position as a ‘border king’ garners rankles you deeply. I know this, and I wanted to have a nice chat about how to leverage your position here to make yourself greater.”
Fergus stilled. The idea of Father gaining more power–No. No, he would wait, he was composed, ignore the ache and listen to her words. Joff was still behind him, Astrik was keeping her safe, they were both fine. He was between Father and them.
The woman continued, “So calling me a ‘miserable, craven slave-bitch of the bloodsuckers’ and threatening to split my chest open and eat my heart right in the middle of teatime was stupid. Really stupid.” She lowered her hand and Father choked, gasping as he tried to suck down air. Then she looked back at Fergus. Her eyes were yellow and her skin was brown. “Aren’t you his son?”
“…Aye.” Fergus nodded. “Why?”
“Curiosity. I can see some of his face in yours, but you have your mother’s hair and eyes.”
“Thank you.” Why did he thank her. What was that response, idiot.
“You’re welcome!” She smiled easily. “Fergus Marcusson then. You inherit your surnames from the warrior-parent, right? Though I wouldn’t say this guy is much of one.”
She kept her eyes on Fergus and off of Father. It wasn’t wise. He was up on his feet, rubbing at his throat, still silent but hateful in his glare. “That is my name. And yours is?”
“Lady Claire Valondrac. Daughter of Rot, and the Marchioness of Inrapaba.”
Astrik’s voice came before Fergus could stop it. “You’re from the Plague Church??”
“Eh, in a sense.” She shrugged and continued to smile. She wasn’t showing her teeth. She was oddly relaxed. “Why are you so surprised, monk of the Beast Church?”
“Oh, er-” Astrik paused and looked to Fergus. He considered the unasked question, then nodded. “You, um…you’re not wearing white.”
Valondrac snorted. “No, I’m not. I don’t think that’s a requirement when you’ve joined up with other faiths too.” That raised further questions, but she was far too relaxed. Father was–
Her hand raised before he realized and a wall ice quelled Father’s plume of flame before it could hit her. Astrik and Joff were behind Fergus, who was behind Valondrac. Had the burst of fire hit her, passed by her–
Valondrac flicked a finger and Father screamed, collapsing to a knee, a spike of ice piercing deep in his thigh as he clutched it. “Oh calm down, you’ll survive. It’s not even silver.” She looked to them again with a wince. “Sorry.” She wasn’t looking at him.
Joff was shaking. Fergus felt a growl slip before he could stop it and Valondrac’s eyes went to him. They were still yellow. They looked like suns. He stood firm. She kept her eyes on his.
“May I ask their names?”
“…” Fergus kept his gaze locked on her, not giving an inch. He signaled Astrik to respond.
“I am Astrik Marcusbarn. This is Jofrid.”
“Hello Astrik. Hello Jofrid. I have no intention of hurting you, nor your brother.” Even as she spoke to them, she staring at Fergus. He almost felt proud there. She saw him as a threat. “I may further harm your father. Do you take issue with my actions?
“No,” Fergus answered. He hadn’t meant to.
“…No.” Astrik’s voice came quiet, but hard. Valondrac’s eyes narrowed. Her lips twitched down, nearly baring teeth. Anger. At whom?
“But-” Joff cut herself off, clutching to Astrik’s sleeve. She looked small. She was fifteen, near as tall as some adults, and she looked so small there. And Valondrac, slowly, without any hint of glow, showing both her hands, made a gesture. A simple one, a slight nod of her head, for her to continue. “…B-But…he’s dad…”
“Are you serious?!” Fergus had never heard his father’s voice sound so shocked. Father’s eyes were wide, his mouth open. “You-You are the only one to-You are my children! I am your father! And-And the bastard is the only one to-She? Of all people?!”
He was clutching at his knee, one hand still supporting his weight on the fountain. “You are my blood! My kin! And you would-You would allow an invader, an interloper to kill me!?” He looked around the plaza, at the crowd that had gathered from the commotion, the crowd Fergus just now noticed. “GUARDS! WHERE ARE MY GUARDS!? I’VE BEEN ASSAULTED!”
The guards did come at his call, spears and shields and maces at the ready as they pushed through the crowds when a horse came into the plaza, catching attention because everyone knew that speckled brown destrier. “Rescind that order.”
Mother’s voice was quiet, but it carried, and Father’s ire whirled on her in an instant. “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE-?!”
“You broke guest right.” There were gasps. Fergus felt like laughing. That, of all things, was what they took offense to.
“That…! She’s no guest of mine!”
“I was received as one and accepted my host’s offer of food,” Valondrac countered, smiling again, “By all rights, I was your guest.”
“I never agreed–!”
“Enough,” Mother interrupted, “We shall deal with this later. Guards, rescind my husband’s previous orders and lead him away. He needs medical attention.”
“What!? No! Unhand me at once!” Struggling in the grasp of the guards, Father was almost able to free himself. It was a feat that would have once been impressive to Fergus, given his father’s injured state, but as it stood, he merely wanted him gone.
As her horse approached the group and Father was half-carried, half-dragged away–his korei flitting about his head in a series of amused chirps and doing absolutely nothing to help–Mother looked to Valondrac. Her eyes were the same amber shade as Fergus’s. Her pale hair was the same shade too. Her face was narrow. She was generally narrow. She wasn’t a warrior or an athlete. She had a gentler soul than Father, who–despite every saying to the contrary–utterly failed to accept her peaceful ways to soothe his fury. “I apologize for my husband’s actions. I shall make sure he is dealt with appropriately.”
“Is that so?” Still grinning, Valondrac turned away. “Well, if that is the case, then I shall be awaiting your word on the subject in the future. For now, I do believe I had some tea left.” And without a second thought, her wings formed once more and she took off into the air, leaving as quickly as she arrived as she returned to their manor.
Hopping off her horse as soon as she was gone, Mother walked over and embraced her children.
“Thank the maw none of you were hurt. I know he is prone to anger, but what was he thinking attacking like that?” Her grip was tight. Soothing, but tight.
“M-Mom…W-What about dad? Is…Is he g-going…” Joff couldn’t help but stammer. Fergus felt a sudden apprehension, a concern Father would hear, that he stamped down in an instant.
“It’s okay Jofrid, you don’t need to worry about him anymore. It shall take time, but he will be gone and he won’t hurt you anymore.” Even with her words of comfort, his youngest sibling couldn’t help but shake in her arms.
“…Can you not banish him now? Not only did he break guest right, but if she was truly from the Plague Church, then we may anger them as well,” Astrik said, his voice low but strong.
“Were it that simple I would have allowed her to strike him down where he stood. But even with his crimes against him, Marcus has many allies, many who would be forced to intercede if we were to act too hastily. He may have failed to show her due courtesy and breached hospitality by openly threatening harm, but he didn’t leave a mark we could use to show fault.” Father rarely left marks that would show. “Though, even if he did, there’s no guarantee that would be enough for some of those…people.”
“…and what shall we do about our guest?”
“That I am uncertain about…her anger seemed to only be levied at Marcus, but if we were to attempt to negotiate with her, she would have the advantage thanks to his actions…”
“Allow me to talk to her.” Mother’s gaze snapped to Fergus, her mouth curled down in displeasure, even as she continued rubbing Jofrid’s back to soothe her. She didn’t deny him though. “I do have diplomatic training. I know how to speak to an individual of equal rank. Or superior rank, as the case may be here.”
Her eyes widened at his frank admission. Acknowledging Valondrac may stand above them in terms of hierarchy was a dangerous move. Even more dangerous would be trying to deny such a thing if she truly was more powerful. “I know you do. I helped tutor you. What makes you most qualified?”
It wasn’t a challenge. The question was honest. She needed to know he was capable. “She held my gaze. Father was a direct threat, seeking violence against her. She disregarded him entirely. When she spoke to me, she kept her eyes on mine the entire time.”
Mother stared at him, then looked to Astrik, who nodded. “He held her gaze the entire time. Even when she spoke to us, she kept her eyes on his.”
“…” Mother nodded back, and looked to Fergus. “Be careful.”
It felt like far less time passed on his journey back to Ota Keep. His mind was awhirl the entire way up the path, and before he knew it, he could see the hole in their manor’s wall. It was almost funny; Father would get so easily enraged at the slightest hint they’d even scratched something within the Keep, yet he was the one to smash an entire hole through the ancient building.
It also appeared as if their guest did not care about the hole, given how he could see her enjoying tea while she looked out the broken wall.
The servants inside the keep, however, didn’t appear to share her sentiment as they rushed around the interior, trying to set fallen tapestries and trophies back in their proper places. Whatever Valondrac had done to Father had seemingly caused a cascade of falling objects. Fergus paid them no heed though. He had more important things to take care of.
Once he arrived at the room, Fergus knocked on the door to let her know he was coming in. He waited for a moment, then let himself in.
“Greetings Fergus,” Valondrac spoke, setting down her teacup. She was smiling again, apparently unbothered by the cold. “I must say, I am surprised you came so soon. I would have assumed you’d be busy, given what happened.”
“Mother is with Astrik and Jofrid. They’ll be fine.” He took the seat opposite her. “What do you want from Olafiba?”
“Ha, straight to the point! I like it.” She took another sip, then grinned at him. “I want Olafiba.”
He paused. “The entire country then. May I ask why?”
He did not sigh. He wanted to. “Why do you seek to conquer Olafiba, Marchioness of Inrapaba?”
“Because I have Inrapaba under my control and I want to claim its chief rival next. Because I want to rule the Dark Lands. Because I want to rule the entire world.”
He considered her. She was entirely serious, and there was a zealous fervor in her eyes. “You rule Inrapaba?”
“I do. I started with Blekhon county, and then moved through every other county. I took most through diplomacy, by levying military and economic force against nobles who were very sure they could control the ‘upstart’ in their midst by giving her a pretty title.” Her teeth gleamed in the instant she let them show. “They misunderstood exactly what it meant to have a ruler. They’ve been so long without one, playing their little games of politics and hiding away when the Demon Lords come calling. So allow me to introduce myself again, Fergus Marcusson of Clan Otakin. I am Marchioness Claire Valondrac, ruler of Inrapaba, and overlord of those ‘bloodsuckers’ your people, as a whole, quite despise. Is this an issue to you?”
“…I have no interest in who you rule over. My concerns lie with my home and your intent for it.”
“But do your concerns become worries and anxieties at the thought of an Inrapaban being your superior? Our two lands have had many conflicts in the past.”
“…Why bring that up?”
Valondrac smiled. “Tell me, Fergus, what would you consider your cultural identity?”
He considered the question. “I am Olafiban nobility. A Jarl’s son and heir.”
“Jarl. That’s an interesting word, isn’t it? It bears a resemblance to the lightlander title ‘Earl’, yet the two words mean very different things in their different contexts. An Earl is a lower-end noble landowner in certain Light Land nations, commonly held to be below a Duke, but above a Baron. Now, this isn’t necessarily true in all circumstances. There are many noble titles out in the world, and the definitions behind them change with circumstances, but I’ve read a very interesting set of books on Light Land nobility, so I have this context.
“Now, a Jarl is more akin to an independent king, are they not?” He slowly nodded. He wasn’t sure where this was going. “Yet there have been what are known as ‘High Kings’ or ‘High Queens’ in Olafiba’s history. Monarchs who stood above and united the Jarls under their banner. And many times, they were known to the Light Lands as ‘Demon Lords’, though this particular ‘subset’ were sometimes known as ‘Beast Lords’. Still, in the current era, Olafiba has lacked a central ruler, hasn’t it?”
“Yes. Where are you going with this?”
“A similar situation has occurred within Inrapaba.” She took a sip of tea. “Mm. My country has lacked a central ruler and government for quite some time too. There never was a ‘High Monarch’ for the vampires, they simply used king or queen or monarch, and they were sometimes called ‘Vampire Lords’ rather than ‘Beast Lords’. The vampires of my homeland have never actually called themselves equivalent to monarchs on their own. Isn’t that interesting? ‘High King’ implies they stand above all other royalty and have other royal families under their sway. Yet vampires, arrogant and backbiting though they may be, go instead by ‘Count’. My own title even reflects this. As Marchioness, I am acknowledged as above them, but I haven’t declared myself a Queen.”
Fergus could almost hear the “yet” at the end of her sentence. Then Valondrac laughed.
“No no, no yet. I’m not going to be a queen. I’m going to be an Empress! That’s the context, isn’t it? To name myself Queen is to declare I am equal to the Jarls of Olafiba, but to declare myself High Queen is to use your context. To hold true to your culture above the one I’m already a part of. Context matters. Words matter. And I’d like to hear what you genuinely think about my rule over those arrogant Counts that have tried to call themselves equals to Jarls.”
Fergus hesitated. She was…strange. He didn’t know what to make of her. Her ambition was clear. Her reasoning was strange. “It does concern me.”
For many reasons. Not least of which was the idea that this woman was simply a mad pawn of the bloodsuckers, given a title to placate her and then sent to bring their rivals to heel. She was strong. Did that mean she could rule?
Something must have shown on his face. She giggled. “Good, I was wondering when we’d get to that. It’s a valid concern, certainly, not least because those Vampire Lords have, historically, had courts absolutely full of treachery and deceit that eventually brought them crashing down, often before any ‘hero’ could come to their door. Your people, meanwhile, have proven to stay loyal and true to those you give your loyalties to. Sometimes to your detriment.”
He frowned. “Loyalty is not a detriment.”
“No, it’s not. Loyalty is a virtue. Blind worship is. I’m glad you have your suspicions. I hope you keep them.” She steepled her fingers together, staring right at him as her smile dropped. “I came today to ask your father to join me. I picked him because I judged out of the different ‘Border Kings’ that he was the most obviously dissatisfied with his position, particularly with how frequently he is looked down upon by the more ‘inland’ Jarls.
“I wanted to get the measure of his character first, of course, and he showed me just how stupid and vicious he really was. So I beat him up and sent him scurrying away. So now we come to you. The man who held my gaze in challenge to protect his younger siblings, even when I brutalized his more powerful father in front of him. You stood straight and tall and even growled a challenge when I seemed a threat. You seem like a better choice. And even if you refuse, I offer you this.”
She reached into her robes and held out a…booklet? It had an insignia printed on the front. A sort of…staff, with a crescent moon at its stop, and a line of three more symbols underneath it. A crowned skull, a bloody sword, and a ringed mouth. “…A pamphlet?”
“Yeah, I can see why you’d think that, but no actually. It’s a passport.”
“Yeah, I know, the pamphlets are taking a while to compose and I wanted to figure out some more about Olafiba’s political situation and culture firsthand before trying to appeal to you guys. As for the passport part, consider this your complete legal protection in Inrapaba. As long as you have one of these, you are completely and utterly protected by every single official in my territory, from the highest noble to the lowliest guard. It’s essentially a guarantee of my legal authority, which I still intend to spread through your lands.”
She paused. “Was that unclear? Alright, let me try this again…Okay, so, I run Inrapaba now, and this passport means you can enter the country and be protected by its laws, which I also wrote and enforce.”
“…And…the vampires will hold to it?”
“Yup! You have this, you can enter my lands. They literally can’t stop you or else they’re in trouble with me.” Her smile showed teeth. “And they don’t want to be in trouble with me.”
Fergus shivered, reminded of how easily she brutalized Fa…Marcus. How easily she defeated and maimed Marcus. “I see.”
“If you want further proof, I could also have Jonathan come over here. I will warn you, he is one of those bloodsuckers, so if any of your people cause him problems, we’ll have a problem.”
“…You want to have me on your side, yet you add in threats at the prospect of your vassal facing discrimination?”
“Yep. I don’t have the time or patience for racial tensions, but I’m willing to admit they’re going to exist no matter what I do. So I figure I can at least work to curb them before I have to step in.”
There was a tone in her voice. One that warned of how dangerous it would be to have her “step in”.
Still. Her proposal did make him…curious. “What if I would like to meet him?”
She grinned with a genuine cheer. “Then good! I’ll get him right here!”
Valondrac raised a hand and a white fly formed right in her upturned palm. “Huh. Rather drafty place you’re at here, huh Claire?”
The fly was talking. Huh. “Right, I should fix that…Something for later. For now, would you mind getting Jonathan? I need him here.”
“Ah, course course, no issue. Well, one issue. Gates cost, y’know?”
“Yeah yeah, put it on my tab with Mama Rot. I’ll pay her back soon enough.” Tab? Was this how Plague monks normally acted?
“Very well, I’ll be back in a few.” And as the fly disappeared, Valondrac focused upon the tray of baked goods that had been left alone on the table, though it appeared some had fallen off the tray and onto the ground. Grabbing one that was still on the tray, she left out a small, surprised noise as she bit into it.
“Is this chicken?”
“Yes…meat pies are a common delicacy here. Is that not to your liking?”
“No no, not that.” Letting out a small chuckle, she continued eating. “It’s just despite my research, something like this managed to evade me. I can’t wait to see what else the world has to show me.” With an oddly fond smile, she went back to eating the food, enjoying the various meat filled pastries.
Unsure of how to respond, Fergus remained sitting there, waiting for whomever this Johnathan was. Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait long as a white gate began to form out of the floor, a series of pale branches entangling together and slowly enlarging into a swirling entryway, tall enough for someone to pass through. Though Fergus wished he had thought to ask for some forewarning about just what his guest would be like.
“Greetings my lovely empress, I’ve come to respond to your call~!” With a dramatic flourish, a vampire came through the portal, hands outstretched as if to bring all attention to him, before he flourished again, a hand extended towards Fergus. He reeked of blood. Deeply, to the point that the scent clung to his flesh like a second skin. “And you must be our newest recruit! Greetings to you, oh Jarl of God’s Maw!”
“…I am not the Jarl, nor am I a recruit.”
“Well we’ll have to work on both of those! Ah, but where are my manners?” He flourished yet again, this time into a bow. “I am Count Jonathan Terrence Bleaksky, son of Argelia Ethelinde Bleaksky, and first subordinate of my lady, Marchioness Valondrac. It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance, not-yet-Jarl!”
Fergus felt his eye twitch. “My name is Fergus Marcusson. Don’t refer to me as ‘Jarl’ or ‘not-yet-Jarl’ or whatever other title you’re trying to think of to get around my requests.”
“My, you’re an angry one.” His temple throbbed and Bleaksky grinned. “Very well, Fergus Marcusson, what do you want to know of me and my bearing within the Marchioness’s rapidly growing retinue?”
“How did you join her ‘retinue’? You said you were her first subordinate.”
“That I am! Well, if one doesn’t count the demons she most assuredly has within her power, such as the portal-making dipteran. Which one was that, by the by? Fester, Lester, Chester, or Callahan?”
“I asked a question.” Fergus did not growl. He wasn’t at that point yet. He was close though.
Valondrac just smiled while she sipped her tea, while Bleaksky sighed dramatically, letting his hand rest against his forehead. “Oh, so impatient. The tragedy of impetuous youth, how little I miss it. Ah well, it’s an interesting story, I will say, but the long and short of it is that my noble lady killed my lord and I joined on the spot because of how immensely I hated him.”
“So you’re a coward.”
Bleaksky immediately dropped his hand and straightened, glaring straight at Fergus. His eyes were red, and burning with a cold fury. For a moment, Fergus almost grinned. “What was that, whelp?”
“You’re a coward. Your lord was killed, and rather than avenge him, you joined his killer.”
“Did you forget the part where I stated I hated him? Is your memory that terrible? It couldn’t be your hearing, no, I’ve heard dogs have such wonderful senses of hearing.”
Fergus glared right back, a snarl slipping from his lips even as that feeling of…something built in him. “Then you’re an even worse coward for refusing to kill a lord you hated!”
“Really now? Is that the case? Even if I told you my ‘lord’ was my own brother? My kin? Damned is the kinslayer, is he not?”
That gave him pause. “Your brother…Why did you hate your brother?”
“Because he murdered our mother. Is that enough for you, or do I need to go into detail on just how terrible of a person he was? Every last taboo he broke, and every last crime he committed?”
“Then you really should have killed him! If he was a kinslayer himself, then your vengeance-!”
“One crime does not erase another, boy. Or does your kind lack a concept of debts? I would have thought you’d have some understanding of the idea–”
“Do not talk down to me! You can cower behind whatever justifications you want, but nothing you have said changes the fact that you are a craven who bowed to a man you hated and refused to kill, even when you knew you should have!”
“Then why is your father still alive?”
Fergus went still. Just for a moment, then everything came rushing up in a snarl of pure rage and–
He sat. He didn’t know when he did, but he was in his seat, as though he never leapt up. And across from him, Bleaksky was also sitting, back straight, in a chair picked from the floor.
“Good.” Valondrac took another drink of her tea, then gave them both very unimpressed looks. “That was stupid. Jonathan, why are you in trouble?”
“…” Bleaksky sighed. “I lost my temper.”
“You did. Why are you in trouble?”
He frowned stubbornly, then sighed again, scratching at his beard. “I was condescending to and dismissive of Marcuson, then further baited him into a rage because I was angry. Well, I was condescending to him because I found it amusing, that wasn’t out of any anger and it really wasn’t personal, I just have a tendency to act as such.”
“Mm hm. And Fergus? Why are you in trouble?”
…This was surreal. “…Why am I? I am not under your authority-”
“You are. Everyone is. Most simply fail to realize it. Yet.”
“…” He took a slow breath. The concept of an “alpha” was a stupid one, made up by an incompetent looking to justify his ideals of a social hierarchy. However, if the idiot had proposed Valondrac as an example of a naturally authoritative being, Fergus may have had to concede to him. “I provoked Bleaksky. I don’t like his attitude. I don’t like his smell. I like the idea of fighting him.
It was elation. That was what he felt. And Fergus let himself grin wide. “I want to fight him. It’s not a matter of hating him. I barely know the man. I just want to beat the shit out of him.” His teeth had lengthened as he spoke, and he could feel a jittering tension push through his whole body. He really, really wanted this fight. He wanted to fight Bleaksky like nothing else in the world.
“…Marchioness Valondrac.” Bleaksky was smiling too, his eyes burning an even brighter crimson. That bloody reek was growing stronger. “I would like to fight this young man. May I?”
Valondrac just rolled her eyes. “Yeesh, gods help me with these battle maniacs…Right, sure, but let’s actually use that training hall thing. We can save matters of war and culture and even what to do with Marcus for later. Also, Fergus, wait for me to dismiss you before you stand next time.”
Fergus paused, already out of his chair at the word “later”. “Er-My apologies, my lady. I’ll do better next time.”
Valondrac and Bleaksky both smirked, and it hit Fergus that he’d essentially just accepted her rule over him…But then again, did that really matter? He could see the strength brimming in her. In this woman, he could see the drive and power to conquer. If anyone was going to rule the continent, it was her.
And besides, he really wanted to beat Bleaksky’s face in. Becoming a conqueror’s vassal was an easy trade.
And about half an hour after that, his head snapped to the side as the vampire’s fist collided with his face in a strong right hook.
“Oh come now, boy, you can do better than that!” Bleaksky taunted, dancing on his feet with a jaunty grin, his fists held up in a boxer’s guard as Fergus tried to shake the fuzz from his brain.
“Get him Fergus! Kick his ass for clan Otakin!” Astrik shouted from the side, his hands cupped around his mouth. The two of them had taken their bout down to the training hall just in time for Mother and his two siblings to arrive. So while Mother was talking with Valondrac–discussing the terms of their vassalage and what benefits they would gain from it–Fergus was allowed to fight Bleaksky, which he was doing with great relish.
Even if Bleaksky kept punching him in the face. Hurt like hell, but he couldn’t stop grinning, even as he let out a deep growl and rushed forward, aiming to grab at Bleaksky’s throat–or, barring that, grab his arm when the bastard swung for him again.
Then Bleaksky’s fist smashed straight into his nose faster than he could see and Fergus was stumbling back again. “Tut tut, no finesse there~! Come now, if you aim to be a grappler, you’d better understand how to actually grab an attacker!”
“It would be easier if you let him be a wolf…Or wore a shirt,” Jofrid decided to point out, keeping her eyes on Bleaksky’s bare chest, which Fergus fervently disapproved of. Yes, it was a nice chest–very muscular in a lean way and actually had some hair on it, which was nice too; very pale though, to the point he could see veins–and yes, Fergus was also topless, but that was out of fairness.
…Gods, if Jofrid somehow developed a crush on a fucking vampire of all beings–
“Oh? Getting frustrated, Fergus?” Bleaksky grinned in that same jaunty, mocking way. “Would it help if I moved slower? Perhaps if I used only one arm?”
Fergus outright snarled then and shook his head. “You could try attacking me, you coldblooded fuck–”
He ducked in close when Bleaksky faked a lunge, playing along in rushing to meet him, then grabbing his arm the instant it shot for his face so he could yank him close and slam his head straight into Bleaksky’s.
There was a crack and a burst of blood and Fergus grinned wide as he twisted and flipped the vampire straight over his shoulder and to the mat, then dropped, keeping his legs around the arm as he yanked hard enough to–
There was a cracking sound, but not in the right place and Bleaksky was suddenly out of his grasp, still grinning as he got to his feet, his eyes outright glowing as his arm hung limp by his side. “My my…you are more impressive than I thought.”
“…How the hell did you…” Fergus muttered as he stood, then blinked. “…You dislocated every part of your arm??”
“To get out of your grip, yes.” Bleaksky chuckled even as a small trail of blood leaked from one nostril. He raised his working hand and gripped his shoulder, pushing it in with only a small grunt of effort, then went down the rest of his arm, smiling with each low pop as he set his bones back in place. Astrik looked ill at the sight, but Jofrid seemed fascinated. “Mmm. I must say, I didn’t expect the throw…I haven’t had much cause to fight those of the lycanthropic persuasion before. You use grappling often?”
“…Yeah. It’s a major part of our martial arts. Strength to pin your opponent and skill to force them to submit. Or kill them, if need be.” He shrugged, watching Bleaksky. “We’re a tough people. Blows don’t bring us down easily and it’s hard to wear us out, so direct pins just work better.” Bleaksky’s still rattled his head though. He supposed that was a vampire’s strength at work, though the speed wasn’t something he’d expected.
“My, that is fascinating! Those of the vampiric persuasion, myself included, tend more towards strikes and blows ourselves! Rapid hits, in and out, so you can overwhelm and brutalize your opponent before they can retaliate!”
“Huh. You don’t heal?”
“Oh we do, but we need to consume blood to really repair damage, and we can be remarkably fragile in some regards. Speaking of, one moment.” He suddenly put his thumb up to one nostril–the one that wasn’t bleeding–and blew out, spraying blood down his front.
“Eugh,” Astrik groaned.
“Woah,” Jofrid…said. Hm.
Fergus shot his sister a warning frown and received a stuck out tongue in reply. “Hrr…Right. I’m surprised you’re fine with explaining your people’s styles.”
“Oh it’s not as though I went into any deep detail. And besides, information should be shared amongst comrades.” Bleaksky grinned. “Now come on. One more go~.”
Fergus stared at him, then smirked as he got into a low stance. “Fine. I’ll try not to break you, ‘fragile’ vampire.”
Bleaksky smiled wide in return as he returned to his boxing stance. “Try it.”
And Fergus lunged straight–
“…he kicked me,” Fergus muttered to himself, blinking up at his bedroom’s ceiling. His head was still throbbing. Partially with pain, mostly with indignant rage. “The bastard kicked me!”
“That is what Jofrid said happened, yes,” Mother agreed, sitting at his bedside with her accounting book in her lap, “Thank you for confirming that sequence of events, my sunshine.”
Fergus grimaced. “Please don’t call me that, Mother.”
“Why not? You did come very close to beating a vampiric lord, much like the sunshine does to all their kind.”
“I have no need for childhood nicknames, no matter how apt. Also, that sounds vaguely racist.”
Mother paused, then shrugged. “Perhaps. I’ll need to watch that now that we’re working with them, I suppose. How are you feeling?”
Fergus bared his teeth. He wasn’t sure if it was a scowl or a smile. “I want to beat his face in. I need to be stronger to wipe that smug look off his face!”
“…Is that so? To think a vampire would be the reason you finally become a bit selfish. I’m glad.”
He paused, then looked to his mother. “Selfish? About what?”
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed Fergus,” she chided with a fond smile, “Any time I see you train, I can always tell that you’re doing it for your siblings. Getting stronger to protect them, to keep Marcus’s anger away from them. Regardless of what happened, you always thought of them first, and yet, this vampire comes in and you want to get stronger to beat him for yourself. I never thought I would find myself thankful to one of his…to a man like him, but here I am.”
Fergus stayed silent as he thought about what she said. Regardless of how he looked at it, she was speaking the truth; everytime he trained, he thought of doing his best so Marcus wouldn’t hurt his siblings. Training until the sun rose for them. But now, his blood boiled in anticipation, ready to push himself to new heights just so that he could defeat Johnathan. And he knew exactly how to.
“I’m going to perform the call to the wind.”
Mother stilled, and looked at him. He stared right back, showing his determination. “…Marcus is still alive.”
“…” Mother chuckled and shook her head. “I just said it’s good you learned to think of yourself and now you jump right to this…Well, I suppose I can’t stop you.”
“Do you want to?”
“No, not in the slightest.” She put down her book, then leaned to give him a kiss on the forehead. “Go on. Claim your birthright.”
Barely a minute later, Fergus was sprinting out of the Keep in full wolf form, rushing off into the cool night air with a fierce grin on his elongated snout. His goal was a simple one: reach the Howling Stone, out at the cliffside overlooking the Maw.
He made it there easily, bounding up the hillside to where the deceptively simple stone rested. From a distance, it looked almost like a grave; it was a standing stone, about the height of a child, with a rounded surface and a single hole piercing through its center, where a simple breeze could become a melody. Fergus had visited it before, sometimes for comfort, sometimes for guidance; every time, it was silent, even when the wind was blowing.
Now though, he could hear the light tone playing through it. So he sat in front of it, listened, and howled.
Low at first, then higher. Low and high and low again, a song meant for mourning. A passing of an age, one lost before its time; not from ruin, or even death, but from callous cruelty finally brought low. It wasn’t mourning his father. It was mourning what he could have been, had he been better. Echoed by a distant voice that came from under the gibbous moon.
A hand caressed his face, light as silk, then was joined by a second. A pair of lips pressed to the top of his head. Then a second pair of arms wrapped around his waist, and he felt a weightless body, familiar in its heat, press against his back. A giggle, cheerier than he’d ever heard it, sounded out as the heat faded into warmth, then to a cool breeze. Embers trailed into the sky as he opened his eyes.
Two spirits drifted in the air in front of him. The glow of embers still trailed from his father’s korei, but they were fading fast. Before long, her ethereal body settled into the faint, faded white matched by the borei beside her. The two looked almost like twins, born from a solid, flowing air. Nearly untouchable, but still there.
Fergus stood then, fully human as he gazed upon his…partners. “I am Fergus Marcusson Otakin. You did not know my father.” He nodded to one. “You did.” He nodded to the other. “I bear you no resentment. My name will rise above his. No one will know him for anything beyond the ‘father’ of Fergus, Jarl Otakin.”
They both nodded, one solemn, and the other giddy, a giggle echoing from her body. Her two eyes still sparkled with mirth, barely hidden. She had no mouth, yet she pressed a hand with long fingers to where one would be, wisps drifting from her “skin” like a type of hair.
“…You’ll be Aria.” She paused there, and stared at him. She looked astonished. Marcus had never named her. She was simply “his korei”. Fergus would be different, and he looked to the first one, the one who came when called, not knowing anything about him or his life. “And you…should be Elegy.”
Elegy nodded again, then folded her hands in her lap and bowed. A second later, Aria placed one hand over her heart, visibly beating through her sheer chest, and bowed as well.
And then, surprising both of them, he bowed back. “With this, I accept you into my service, and offer my own to you. Here I ask that we be tied and bound in service and camaraderie, for though I am Jarl, I have found an empress worthy to follow.”
The bors stared at him, looked to each other, then straightened and nodded in unison.
“Then we have an accord,” he finished as he stood straight too, letting a smile come to his face. Then it dropped when he noticed them both staring at something behind him. He turned, and- “Oh. Valondrac. How long were you there?”
Valondrac shrugged with a smile, her eyes gleaming in the moonlight. “For a little while. I asked your mother if there would be any issue with me visiting your ritual site once I heard your singing. She said no, so here I am.”
“I see. Thank you for not interrupting.”
“I wouldn’t. I can understand when things are important. Such as those stones and your song.” She didn’t ask a thing, but he could see her curiosity.
“The Howling Stones are gifts from Therian. The Jarls go to them to affirm their succession. By doing so while Marcus still lives, I have declared he is unfit for the position.” He glanced at Aria. “And, in doing so, it appears I have attracted a second borei.”
“I see. No other nation has these spirits, do they?”
“If they do, they do not play the same role. To us, the borei are eternal partners and confidants, gifting us with magic to stand against those who seek our submission. Often, they shift and change to suit us. Burning Korei for the fierce. Cold Zorei for the solemn. Firm Jorei for the stubborn. Thunderous Torei for the proud. Warped Dorei for the twisted. Bright Lorei for the adventurous. Reliable Borei for the protectors.” He smiled, and turned to his liege. “In my case, they shall be my partners as I serve you, my lady.”
“Heh. So they shall. Come then, Fergus, Son of Ragna and Marcus, Jarl Otakin.” She extended a hand to him. “I would hear your oath.”
Without hesitation, he walked over to her, and knelt on one knee, his head bowed. A moment later, his bors joined him in the same position.
“I, Fergus Marcusson Otakin, do solemnly swear to you, Marchioness Valondrac, future Empress of the Dark Lands, that I shall serve you in all ways. That I shall spill blood for you, whether it be your enemies or my own. That I shall use my knowledge in aid of your cause. And that I tie myself to you, in respect and oath, to the end of my days, whenever those may come.”
His words were echoed on the breeze. His bors spoke with him.
And Valondrac bared her teeth in a brilliant smile, cast in moonlight. “I hear your words, Jarl Otakin, and do accept your oath of service.
“Rise and stand proud, my general.”