And Then There Was Silence: Part Five
V: A Hint of Recognition
Finneus hops carefully over the foggy waters of Bogshot Swamp, trying his best not to fall into the nasty, seemingly-gelatinous marsh. It's difficult, however, to maintain his balance when he's got tired, achy wings drooping behind him and his hands are full of treasures. Still, he is determined to keep his clothes dry and free of swamp gunk; after all, he just changed, he feels fresh and clean, and he really doesn't want to deal with the nasty feeling of muck between his toes again…
Finneus is positive there's a village around here somewhere — he's been there a few times before — but he just can't seem to find the torch-lined path that leads to it. Maybe it's because this weird, greenish fog is too thick? He doesn't know, but he presses on, trying to keep his spirit's up. He'll find the village eventually. He's got to. It's the only place he can think of right now that has villagers shady enough to possibly be interested in buying his obviously stolen goods.
The trees weep with slime-covered vines and moss, and the rickety old bridges that cross over the larger portions of the waters, connecting the sludgy, sodden banks to each other, seem like they could break at any second. Speaking of… it looks like the only way across the stretch of swamp Finneus has just approached is by crossing one of the decrepit bridges. If this were any other day, Finneus could easily fly his way across the waters, but right now, his wings are too sore, and he needs to save his energy in case that crazy assassin shows up again. He has no choice but to cross if he wants to find any semblance of society. He tests each step with his toes before pressing his foot down, not wanting the planks to snap from underneath his awkward, bulky frame. If he got his leg stuck halfway in the bog, trapped by the splintering wood of a broken bridge, that would be so embarrassing.
Luckily, he makes it to the other side, unscathed and un-wet. He pushes his way through a wall of dry hanging moss and, finally, sees what looks like the remains of a stone temple in the distance, its collapsing walls illuminated by a few lonely, solemnly burning torches. Carvings in the likeness of large, open-mouthed Hissis are hewn into the pillars that hold up the dome-like roof, though it looks like the top of the building had caved in long, long ago. Still, it definitely looks like a place where people would live — or, at least, would have lived years ago. Maybe it marks the entrance to the village? It's worth a shot. Finneus checks the waters for any signs of danger — left, right, left — then begins to hop gingerly across the fallen stone slabs and tiny islands of grass that lead to the pavilion.
When he finally arrives at the gazebo, the inside looks like it hasn't been touched in centuries. The walls of the building are just as nasty and slime-covered as the trees that surround it. Overgrown vines creep their way across the floor, taking all the rubble that's scattered across the ground prisoner in their tight, leafy grip. The pavilion's every corner is covered with Spyderwebs, thick and seemingly-solidified, with a few egg nests broken open. Ew. Finneus hates Spyders. He doesn't want to wait around in this creepy place and end up accidentally smushing one. He checks the ground around his feet for any signs of creepy-crawlies — left, right, left — then tiptoes on towards the other side of the building, where, through the swamp's mysterious green fog, he sees more torchlit walls and what looks like the remains of a worn, dirt path. It's gotta be the path to the village. What else could it be, right?*
Kamen laces his fingers and kneels, placing his hands on the ground palms up. Ember gently places one foot in his cupped paws and tucks the toes of her other foot into a nook in the jagged rocks beside her. Effortlessly, Kamen lifts the tiny human up, onto a ledge that seems to be mostly clear of the muck from the bog. There, Apsy takes Ember's hand and helps her find her footing on the mossy rocks. She slips a bit, but manages not to fall, giggling at her own clumsiness while Apsy shakes her head. "Thanks, guys," Ember says, singsong, smiling much brighter than whatever light manages to find its ways through the trees and fog.
This whole place is miserably dark and creepy. The sun wars desperately with the blanket of fog that's woven throughout the trees, thick as clouds, and some sparkling rays manage to fight their way to the marshland below. Unfortunately, all the light does is make the disgusting thickness of the blackened backwater seem all the more obvious. The water seems just as solid as the lillypads that polkadot its surface.
Kamen pauses to sniff the air, just to make sure they're still headed the right way, then begins to lead the girls deeper into the swamp. It's almost impossible to see, so all the three have to navigate them through the haunted blackness is faith in Kamen's sensitive Werelupe nose. A mutant Mortog's many faces croak wearily at the prince as he steps in a small puddle of slime, making a loud splashing noise, but he keeps going with nothing more than a quick shake of his leg. Ember stumbles again, but continues walking dedicatedly along the ledge, Apsy following close behind. "Dude, how can you even tell the thief's stank apart from these gnarly waters?" Ember asks as she holds one arm straight out to the side and drags the fingers of her other hand along the cliffside to help maintain her balance. "That's seriously impressive."
"Wildly different scents, Ember," Kamen says with another sniff. "The stench of bagguss and bogberries may be overwhelming, but it's still very different from the smell of fish." He's approached a seemingly impassable stretch of bogwater, but he doesn't look at all discouraged by the distance between where he now stands and the bank where he needs to be. He gets on all fours, backs up a few paces, then takes a giant leap. He lands perfectly on the other side of the bog — not a single drop of water on him. He stands, looking completely emotionless despite his impressive feat, then continues walking slowly. "Not to mention," he continues while the girls gawk, "the faerie's wand is the only… aromatic thing in this terrible place."
Apsy almost loses her footing while she isn't paying attention. She catches herself by grabbing at the rocks beside her, her claws leaving deep gashes in the cliff and the grass she walks on, but she manages not to plunge into the waters below. Ember laughs evilly as she watches Apsy stumble, but Apsy ignores her — tosses her hair over her shoulder, huffs angrily, then turns to Kamen. "You're so incredibly calm all the time," she muses, trying to make small talk to distract herself from the reek of the waters (and her embarrassment.) Kamen looks up at her with an eyebrow cocked, giving her a grin that reads "are you serious?" Her expression turns nervous, and she crosses her arms. "W— what! I've been thinking this for, like, ever. I'm just trying to make conversation, sheesh."
Ember giggles at her daughter's flustered blush. She always gets a kick out of Apsy being disgruntled. "It's true though, Kay," Ember says, taking a huge, gawky step to avoid crushing the entrance to a Symol's burrow. "Like, when your dad was, er, scolding you… you didn't even flinch. It's incredibly impressive. How did you even manage that?"
For a second, Ember worries her words might strike a bad nerve with the prince, but the worry subsides when Kamen responds with a delicate laugh. "Well, he gets more angry if I cower," the prince says, fiddling with his hair. "Years of practice and experience, I guess, have helped me learn to stay calm in the face of aggression. It helps me get out of… unpleasant situations, being able to be so impassive. People fear confidence more than hostility." He leaps over another patch of stagnant waters. "I just wish Father understood that…"
The cliff ledge the girls have been walking on ends abruptly, so Apsy and Ember leap down behind Kamen, their feet making unpleasant squelching noises on the muddy grass. They follow the prince closely, crossing rickety bridges and trying to avoid the many clouds of buzzing Moquots that are scattered throughout the fog. Their conversation's cadence lifts and lulls regularly, coinciding with the level of the three's confidence in being able to make it through the swamp. Eventually, though, their chatting comes to a halt as the two approach a torchlit gazebo that's standing proudly among the trees and mist. Kamen sneezes and shakes his head at the sight. "Blech, yeah, he's over there, somewhere."
"Sweet, so he's close?" Ember asks, nudging a stranded scrawnyfish back into the waters where it swims away excitedly.
"Can't be too much farther now," Kamen replies. "But…" he coughs into the crook of his arm, then looks around, seemingly distressed. "This clearing ahead smells oddly… poisonous."
"Wait," Apsy begins, stopping dead in her tracks. The other's turn to look at her. "Do you mean, like, metaphorically poisonous, or, like, we should go pick some bagguss in case we actually get poisoned poisonous?"
"Hmm…" Kamen sniffs twice, then sneezes again. He shivers. "Er, just to be safe… let's pick some bagguss," he says. "I don't know what lies up ahead, but it can't be good. Better to have an antidote on hand just in case."
Ember sighs. "I don't like the sound of this…"*
The assassin is finding it harder and harder to breathe the thicker the strange green fog gets, but he's not about to turn around now. He can see the Scorchio's shadow hopping awkwardly over the waters, only a few dozen feet in front of him. The thief is so close… but not yet close enough. Though he wants nothing more than to charge and leap on the bumbling Scorchio, the assassin knows it would only give the thief an opportunity to get away again. He just needs to be more tactful in his approach this time, then everything should work out alright. Hopefully.
The problem is… where the heck does that wannabe crook think he's going? Doesn't he realise he's wandering into the most dangerous part of the swamp? The assassin has only been through this particular stretch of slimy woods once before, back when he had been hired by that faerie… but, even then, he never dared travel this deep into the bog. This is the Plague Serpent's territory, after all…
But he doesn’t have a choice. He has to follow if he wants his stuff back — and, at this point, it isn't so much a want as it is a need. He feels like he's spiralling further into insanity the longer he goes without his necklace's comforting presence around his neck. He needs it back, and he needs it back immediately, but this fog is just so darn sickening…
He covers his mouth and nose with his hand and presses on, careful to stay in the shadows. He just needs to get close enough that he can use his teleportation spell to appear right behind the Scorchio and, hopefully, finally catch him completely off guard. It's only a matter of minutes now. He just needs to be patient… patient… patient…*
Ember is now carrying a handful of small bagguss fruits tucked into her coat's pocket, just in case the three need to use the plant's odd poison-curing abilities later on in their journey through the Bogshot Swamp. At this point, "just in case" seems like it's almost definitely going to be the case — this venomous fog is downright sickening! She's having a hard enough time breathing correctly, and she's just a boring old human — she can't imagine what the Werelupes, with their sensitive and sometimes-hyperactive senses, are going through.
Kamen eventually claws through a tangled mess of low-hanging, leaf-covered branches, revealing, in the distance, what looks like a collapsed pavilion similar to the one they had just passed by. In the area directly surrounding the destroyed building, the fog has cleared enough for the sun's sultry light to shine without hindrance upon the rubble. In this curious ring of light, and expanding a few feet beyond, the water looks clean and pure — a few petpets swim in slow circles throughout, disturbing the water's surface, making it glitter, all the while nibbling on some aquatic plants that are flourishing around the rocks. A few dropped coins and what looks like a broken wand can be seen deep at the bottom of the sparkling pool. It's a calming sight… at first. It's very obvious, though, that it's all too good to be true. The three can all tell it's probably a trap, with beauty as the bait, and whoever happens by as the targets…
Kamen holds his hand up, gesturing for the girls to hold still. His ears perk up and he looks back and fourth quickly, searching the shadows in the distance for any sign of movement. A few seconds pass, then he crouches, hackles raised, and backs into the shelter of the trees, trying to restrain the growl that's now beginning to tear at his chest. "There he is; do you see?"
Kamen nods his head quickly to the left, and the girls look over to see the Scorchio thief stumbling over the bridges and stones, trying not to get his feet and tail wet. He's heading towards the tempting rays of sunlight and the crystal clear waters they dance upon, obviously not concerned with — or, maybe, completely oblivious to — the obvious threat that lurks there.
A painfully long minute passes. The girls are waiting for Kamen's cue to strike — or, at least, for him to start making a plan — but he seems like he will never break his silence. "Dude, how long do we have to wait before we go after him?" Ember asks, her voice practically a whisper, watching the thief closely. "Shouldn't we get him before he reaches that weird patch of light and something else does?"
Kamen shakes his head. "I'm not worried so much about the waters, or the thief escaping," he says, taking a few more steps back, lowering his voice to a complete, snarling murmur. "What I'm worried about is… I get the feeling that the Gelert Assassin is probably just as close to him as we are, and I don't want to risk bumping in to him under… undesirable circumstances again. I fear the next time we do, he won't be as merciful as he was the last time…"
"Ah…" Apsy says, now, too, crouching beside Kamen in the shade of the trees. "Good thinking."
The surface of the water beside Ember suddenly stirs, but the others don't seem to notice. They're too fixated on watching the Scorchio's every move and searching the distant shadows for the assassin. She turns her head, abruptly and frantically, and looks toward where the swampwater now ripples. She watches as what looks like a giant monster's flaring nostrils break the surface in the search for air. She gasps and tugs at Kamen's arm, trying not to raise her voice as she says, "Dude, dude, look, did you see that?"
Kamen looks over worriedly, his growl finally breaking free through his clenched teeth, but the creature has disappeared under the waters. All that's left is a cloud of green smoke and a few delicate waves shaking the swamp's filmy top.
Kamen makes a puzzled face. "Odd," he says, "that the waters are disturbed… But I think the swamp gas might just be getting to your head. I see nothing."
Ember sighs, staring at the spot where she could have sworn she just saw some giant, purple thing, but then, she rubs her eyes, as if to clear the strange vision away. Hopefully… "Yeah, you're prolly right," she mumbles.*
That patch of sunlight looks so wonderful right now, Finneus thinks as he tiptoes anxiously across the broken-down bridge that leads into what he assumes is the centre of the swamp. He's been walking for what feels like miles — how has he not reached the village yet? It's gotta be around here somewhere… But, now, he's getting distracted. The pool of pristine water looks like a blessing from Fyora herself — a sparkling oasis among a Lost Desert of filth. Maybe there's something hidden under the waters there… something worth a lot of money… something he could steal without worrying about monsters and villains chasing after him to get it back…
Without a second thought, he hops clumsily towards the light, unaware of all the dangers surrounding him.*
That patch of sunlight looks incredibly ominous, the assassin thinks as he slowly but determinedly flanks the Scorchio, getting closer and closer with each step. I should try to grab him before he makes it any farther. It's definitely a trap… but set by whom?
The problem is, he's running out of time. The Scorchio is quickening pace in his quest to reach the seeming sanctuary which is resting, pure and untouched, from within the dismal swamp. The assassin is being forced to make his move faster or else lose the thoef — and his necklace — to who- or whatever has set the trap.
He doesn't have time to come up with a detailed plan, so he decides to improvise, keeping his fingers crossed. He slides nimbly down the moss covered ledge he's been following, then creeps his way out of the trees and towards the water's edge, deathly silent but still moving with haste. The thief is still too far away for his spells to work correctly — there's no way he would be able to appear directly behind him — so, instead, he searches for a place to teleport to that's far enough away so the Scorchio won't hear him, but close enough that he should have no trouble attacking.
The surface of the waters beside him quake suddenly, and he pauses in his casting of the spell. He whips his entire body around to see the swamp better, his hand eager to draw his sword, and his heart climbing into his dry throat. He stares at the trembling surface of the bog for signs of danger… but nothing is amiss. Outwardly, at least. He dreads whatever is lurking in the depths of the swamp, but he doesn't return to the safety of the shadows. He can't return. There's no time. He teleports to an island a few feet behind the Scorchio and, upon reappearance, remains, thankfully, unheard. Now it's just a game of patience… patience… patience…*
"Good call, Kay," Ember says as the assassin appears in a cloud of smoke behind the clueless Scorchio. It's a good thing Kamen had told them to stay back, because the Gelert looks somehow more demented than usual — there's no mercy left in his golden glare. They watch with bated breath as he draws his veteran blade, quietly, but seemingly not quiet enough. Finneus pauses, as if he hears the sound of metal against metal behind him, and the assassin crouches, holding himself completely still. Oddly enough, though, the thief doesn't even bother to look behind him, despite having definitely heard the sound. He shrugs to himself, then continues walking towards the light.
With a snort and a shake of his head, Kamen suddenly and drastically changes his plan. He begins to creep out of the shadows and across the waters, his ears again standing alert, and his growl becoming more audible. Apsy and Ember look to each other with wildly confused stares, then follow quickly, trying to keep up with his hurried pace. "Why are we leaving the trees?" Apsy whispers.
"Something doesn't seem right," Kamen says, pausing to let the girls catch up. "I think we should get closer and prepare for the worst, or that assassin might not make it out of this swamp alive."
"Wait, you want to save the jerk who has been threatening to kill us this whole time?" Apsy asks, raising her voice, completely unable to hide her irritation.
"A life is a life," Kamen says solemnly, looking up to meet her rageful jade gaze.
Apsy opens her mouth to retort, but she doesn't actually have a response. Kamen is right. Every life matters, even that awful Gelert's. She forces herself to swallow her frustration, nods her head once, strongly and affirmatively, then waits for the prince's command. "Ember," Kamen begins, turning to look the human in the face, "you need to stay out of harm's way and keep the bagguss fruits out of this poisonous water. We are probably going to need them in a few minutes. Okay?"
"Can do, sir," Ember says with a smirk. "Being lazy and ignoring problems is what I'm best at."
Apsy then gasps loudly, making the others jump. She's no longer able to keep her voice to a whisper. "Look, look!" she shouts, terrified, and Kamen spins around quickly to see the plague serpent Kastraliss begin to rear its ugly head, gently and silently lifting its enormous body out of the waters just as the assassin is raising his blade to strike. The Gelert is too focused on his target to notice the shadow that's beginning to creep up behind him — too distracted to hear the slow drip-droping of slime falling from the serpent's jaws and into the swamp.
At the sight of the monster, Kamen, again, acts before he thinks, dashing quickly across the waters with Apsy following close behind. Ember panics, frightened for their safety, and starts to follow, but forces herself to stop at the water's edge. She watches, mortified, as the Werelupes charge towards the serpent, but she needs to convince herself to stay away. She needs to calm down. She needs to stay still. No, I can't follow them, she thinks, though her conscience's voice is yelling at her just as frantically as her heart is beating. Kamen is right. What's most important now is I keep these bagguss plants out of the swamp, or else, if Kastraliss doesn't kill them, the waters might…
Finneus and the assassin hear the Werelupes loudly splashing their way across the debris that dots the swamp's surface. They both turn to look towards the sound, wide-eyed and frozen in place, but it's too late for either of them to react. Out of the corner of his eye, the assassin sees the Plague Serpent rearing high above him, and takes a few horror-struck steps back. Before he can do anything, though, Kamen slams into the petrified Gelert from the side, sending them both headfirst into the disgusting waters of the swamp. The serpent's jaws descend upon the spot where the assassin stood only milliseconds before, letting out a horrifying screech when all it gets is a mouthful of rock and mud. Finneus screams at the scene that's begun to unfurl behind him. Typical.
Now that Kamen has gotten the assassin out of harm's way, the duty of catching the thief falls on Apsy. She charges straight towards Finneus, ruthless and with no hesitation. With a mighty roar, she leaps at the Scorchio and tackles him into the sparklingly pure waters in the centre of the marsh, making the petpets that were peacefully swimming there all try to scatter. They become trapped when the clear water starts turning to poison, so they flail and squirm aimlessly in terror while Apsy and Finneus wrestle around them. Everything is a mess. Nothing is going right.
Turns out, the bog is much more shallow than it looks — at least in the spot where Kamen and the assassin now sit. They both begin to choke out the swamp's noxious waters, covered in slime and muck. Their lungs and stomachs immediately begin contorting painfully as the poison settles there and starts to take hold, but the pain and nausea is still better than being eaten alive.
Apsy and Finneus struggle, somehow managing to stay in the clean ring of sunlight, splashing and screaming and snarling. The sparkling waters send a cleansing shower over the four of them, but then the serpent rears its head again, hissing loudly, furious that its dinner got knocked right out of its maw. Its eyes dart away from its initial target to the commotion in the fresh waters where Apsy and Finneus now duel. It screeches, lunges forward for a bite, but Apsy looks up in time to leap out of the way of its fangs — Finneus, too, dodges its slimy mouth, but this time, he's too terrified to scream. Apsy, though initially apprehensive in continuing the struggle, still tries to subdue the thief while Kamen just tries not to let the poison sicken him to the point where he can't move. Apsy leaps on Finneus again, able to grab his tail before he begins to fly away, but the water has made the Scorchio's scales too slippery. She tries to dig her claws into him, but all she gets is a fistful of black cloth as he takes to the sheltering arc of the afternoon sky, and the serpent begins to crash through the surface of the waters once more, now angrier than ever.
Apsy can't find her footing. The stones are too slippery. The petpets in the water are squirming too frantically underneath and around her. Finneus has already disappeared over the trees, so her only concern now is trying to escape the Plague Serpent's territory. She worries this might be the end as the serpent begins to lean closer to her flailing body, but just before its teeth clamp shut around her, someone grabs her arm and pulls her aggressively out of the way, once again leaving the serpent with nothing more in its mouth than water and stones. Apsy finds herself being pulled and thrown into the waters of the toxic swamp by the assassin, who used the last bit of energy the poison had left him with for the rescue. She coughs and chokes, suddenly sick in her stomach, but she's still thankful that she didn't just get chomped in two.
The serpent ceases its infernal hissing, if only for a second, as something hits it hard in the back of its head, and it spins around furiously. Ember has joined the fray despite Kamen's warning, now standing atop one of the centuries-old stone pillars, carrying two heavy stones in her hands. She throws one more rock at the serpent's ugly face, hitting it square between the eyes, then tries to get out of its line of sight as fast as she can. She tosses the other stone into the waters and quickly leaps to one of the other pillars as the serpent frantically lurches at her shadow. She manages to stay out of the noxious waters, keeping the life-saving fruits in her pockets safe, and maintaining enough energy to continue to dodge the serpent's snapping jaws.
Though his entire body is quaking with the poison's firm grasp on his lungs and veins, Kamen finally has the chance to strike. The serpent slithers quickly through the waters, following the human closely, but before it can move itself into a position where it will be able to attack, Kamen leaps on it, digging his claws and fangs into its slime-covered neck.
The serpent screeches and writhes, tossing the Werelupe off of its back and into the swamp, but Kamen wastes no time in retaliating — leaps to his feet quickly, ignoring the sickness in his stomach and his complete lack of breath, then lunges again. His fangs sink deep into the serpent's scales once more, and it lets out another bloodcurdling shriek. The monster gives up with the pain of the second bite. It tosses the Werelupe off, then, hissing in pain and fear, crashes through the waters and slithers away, back into the sheltering blackness of the muck.
Ember realises she's been holding her breath once the serpent completely disappears and the waters its dived into begin to settle once more. She finally exhales a loud sigh of relief while the other three cough and choke and pant. "That's my cue," she mumbles to herself, then lightly but hurriedly jumps off of the pillar she stands atop, still, somehow, managing to keep the soles of her shoes dry. She hands Kamen one of the bagguss fruits first, him being in the worst condition of the three following his fierce battle, and he eagerly shoves the whole thing into his mouth. Its foul taste and rancid gasses make him choke even more, but only for a few more seconds. The taste suddenly becomes more delicious than Everlasting Apple cider when he begins to feel the poison's hold lessening on his body, and his lungs fill with clean air again. Next, Ember hands one of the rotten-smelling fruits to Apsy, who also shoves the whole thing in her mouth. Finally, Ember hands one to the assassin who is sitting, defeated and deflated, on one of the concrete stones that protrude from the muck. "Please don't die on us," Ember mumbles with concern as he takes the fruit from her hands, confused as to why the three of them are continuing to save his life even though he's been doing nothing but threaten theirs. But he doesn't let those thoughts sit in his head for too long. He doesn't want to start feeling sympathy for someone — ew. He takes small bites of the bagguss, chewing them slowly and inhaling its vapours until he can think clear again. He is the only one who doesn't cough at the fruit's foul taste. Its clear he knows how to eat it properly — unlike the young Werelupes — most likely from having to use them before.
Ember's eyes dart between the three others, trying to make sure they've all gotten enough of the antidote into their bodies to give them back their vigour, then her eyes eventually settle on the quiet Gelert. Her face falls when she sees his obvious hopelessness. She can see in his dead, golden eyes that he's afraid to say anything. He's afraid to feel anything. He's just trying to focus on the poison leaving his body. It's heartbreaking.
The four spend an excruciatingly long time sitting in a silent circle, focusing on anything and everything but each other. They're not talking to each other. They're not looking to each other. They're just, simply, existing uncomfortably together. Apsy hugs her knees to her chest tightly, shivering at the phantom feeling of sickness the poison has left in her stomach. Kamen stares into the clear blue sky above, pondering absolute nothingness. The assassin stares into his hands, humbled by the three's kindness and generosity, but he doesn’t like the fact he's feeling that way in the slightest. Ember is the only one standing, her eyes darting between the three others, but mostly focusing on the hushed assassin. The whole situation is really, really awkward.
Ember, of course, is the first one to break the palpable tension with her snarky words. She can't stand silence in company, after all. She crosses her arms and drums her fingers on her shoulder. "Sooo, what's your name, pal?" she says, sarcastic as ever, addressing the assassin.
With her words, all attention turns to the grey Gelert, and he loathes it. He turns his head to glare at Ember, only to see she's already staring him down, her black eyes boring into the honeycomb of his own. He doesn't respond — just looks back down and takes another bite of the bagguss.
Ember never gives up easily, though. "I mean, you're kinda snaggletoothed; can I call you Snaggs?"
Kamen exhales loudly and shakes his head, not necessarily embarrassed by Ember's audacity, but definitely two steps away. "Ember, leave him be," he says, sounding exhausted despite the fact that the bagguss has returned to him almost all of his stamina.
The assassin still doesn't speak.
Ember ignores Kamen's words. "We can't just keep calling you 'the assassin,' you know." She cocks one hip and places her hands on her waist. "Especially since we keep running in to each other."
"Dude, seriously, for your own sake, you better say something, or I can get really annoying."
"Stop," the assassin finally says, almost inaudibly, but still with intense force. He finishes eating the bagguss, then begins to stand up.
Ember, to everyone's surprise, doesn't continue prodding. She frowns halfheartedly, shifts her weight to her other hip, then watches as the solemn assassin stands and walks to the other side of the bog where he had dropped his sword in the struggle, once again growing deathly silent. He looks defeated. He looks miserable. He looks… lovelorn?
Apsy huffs as the assassin pulls his blade from the water and slides it back into its scabbard. She decides to pick up the conversation where her mother had left off, frustrated by the Gelert's unending silence. She stands and begins to interrogate him, a touch more politely than her mother. Well, not so much more politely as less sarcastic. "Look, sir, we have bumped into you enough times that it only makes sense we try to catch this guy together. We get that you 'work alone' and all, but this is a little different, don't you think?"
He begins to wring the water out of his cloak, but still doesn't respond.
Kamen is the only one still sitting down, but he's got that icy twinkle in his eyes again, as if trying to keep the situation from becoming too heated just by staring at whoever is talking.
Ember is being surprisingly quiet. The fact that she's actually shutting up for the firs time in her life, and doing so for this guy, is only making Apsy become more irritated. She hates selfish people, and the Gelert is being incredibly ungrateful. She stomps her foot down in the water, sending a mist into the air and making the petpets scatter again. "Say something!"
"Thank you," is all the assassin says, still sounding cold, but at least more genuine than the last time. He then turns to walk away without another word, back into the thick fog of the swamp. Ember rolls her eyes. Apsy is beginning to growl. Kamen can tell the situation is about to get nasty, so he stands and prepares for the worst.
"Okay, you know what?" Apsy takes a few steps closer to the assassin, catching him before he manages to fade into the shadows. "You have been nothing but rude this whole time. I get that you're all brooding and evil or whatever, but this is the second time we have saved your life, and you haven't shown a single hint of gratitude." Ember is starting to cringe at the harshness of Apsy's tone. Yikes… she's really upset… "Just because you have some weird problem with acting like a normal person doesn't give you the right to be such a jerk!"
"I saved your life too, little girl," the assassin hisses, spinning around and drawing his blade with the motion, holding his sword against Apsy's chest. "But here you are, talking to me about not showing gratitude."
Apsy leans away from the blade, still furious, but… he's right. She was too distracted by his not thanking them that she forgot to thank him. But now she's too ashamed to respond.
"That's what I thought," the assassin says when Apsy blushes with embarrassment and crosses her arms, looking away. He's finally starting to return to his normal, abrasive self, moving away from the cloud of sorrow that had settled above him only moments ago. He doesn’t lower his blade when Apsy backs off, though, which makes Kamen concerned. He starts to growl again, unable to restrain his nervousness' rumbling manifestation in his throat. This only makes the assassin more irritated. "I am… thankful… for your kindness," — it sounds like it physically hurts him to say this — "but I still refuse to lower myself to working alongside children."
"Uh, these children have been putting in just as much, if not more, effort in tracking this stupid thief down as you have, mister," Ember interjects, again shifting her weight to her other hip, her expression turning irritated, but still snarky. "Maybe you should put your pride aside for a tick and instead think about the importance of what you're trying to get back from that Scorchio."
A blush of shocked sorrow suddenly appears across the assassin's cheeks, and his heart sinks the same way it did when he last spoke to Kanrik about the subject… and that infuriates him. Kanrik knows his story, and the worth of the necklace, but this human…
"We are just trying to help," Apsy says, beginning to snarl again, "so stop acting like an idiot and—!"
"You watch your tongue!"
The assassin begins to quickly approach Apsy, his steps determined and heavy, showing no signs of stopping. She stumbles back, overwhelmingly frightened — she wasn't expecting him to actually try to strike her. Her confidence completely disappears. Kamen steps protectively in front of her, still unspeaking and stern, but it looks like this time his midnight gaze won't be enough to stop the assassin. He doesn't want to fight the Gelert, but he might have to…
"Oh, so working with children is below you, but threatening to kill them is just fine?" Ember questions aggressively, trying to distract the enraged Gelert from attacking her daughter.
The assassin turns to face her, but still holds his sword pointed towards the Werelupes — he knows Ember is just trying to distract him, so he refuses to lower his blade, but he's too annoyed to not respond to the human's taunting. "It wouldn't be the first time I've targeted children," he hisses.
"Oh, really now?"
"You sound surprised."
"I'm legitimately, one hundred percent not."
"Then mind your mouth."
"See, I know more about you than you think I do."
His eyes narrow. "You don't know anything about me."
"Are you sure?"
"And are you also positive you're not at all scared about trying to kill children?"
"Not in the slightest."
"Really now? Because, if I remember correctly, the last time you tried, back in the Darkest Faerie's era not too long ago, you failed miserably and left completely humiliated!"
Kamen's royal baritone cutting loudly over the two's argument comes as a shock to everyone. Ember jumps and turns to look at the prince, her furious black eyes softening until she looks positively sheepish. Apsy holds her breath as Kamen takes a few steps between the two, hackles raised, no longer trying to restrain his snarl. The assassin doesn't lower his blade, but his arm looks like it's beginning to go limp with shock, and his hands have begun to shake slightly. He's completely stunned. He doesn't know what to do. He's wholly, completely paralysed.
Kamen glares directly into Ember's eyes, looking legitimately threatening for the first time since they've met. "You really should mind your mouth," he says, his voice now mirroring his father's. "Those were difficult times for… many of us."
Ember quickly turns away from Kamen's cold cobalt stare, afraid of the authority and foreboding swimming in his eyes. She looks once again to the assassin, who still stands frozen in place. "I was just sayin'," she mumbles, then turns back to Kamen. Her tone turns gravely serious. "I sincerely apologise, Prince Kamen," she says, now speaking to him with the same fearful respect she has when she speaks to the Werelupe King. Seeing the terror in her expression makes Kamen's stomach churn — he hates when he catches himself behaving like his father — but he doesn't show it. Ember sighs and continues: "I wasn't thinking about the impact those events had on your fathe—"
Then, from completely out of nowhere, the assassin laughs. Genuinely. Not nervously, not angrily, not to hide sorrow — just, pure, joyous laughter. "You have got some nerve, human," he says, finally letting his weak arms drop to his sides, lowing the blade from Apsy's throat. "That mouth of yours will get you killed one day."
Ember is somewhat relieved, albeit incredibly confused, by the assassin's sudden change of heart. Kamen might still be angry with her, but at least the assassin's mood is lightening. "Man, if I had a dubloon for every time someone told me that," she says, trying to feed the now playful atmosphere.
The assassin laughs again as he sheathes his sword. "I have never met someone so overwhelmingly, fearlessly impudent before in my life," he says, smirking, scratching his chin as he examines her in a new light. "I suppose I can respect that," he finally concludes.
"Ooh, does that mean you'll finally work with us instead of, like, slightly ahead of us?" Ember asks, her enthusiasm being forced to its maximum.
"Hmm… no." The snarky warmth in his smile would be comforting if it wasn't, well, him. He and Ember exchange irritatingly genuine snickers again before, seemingly mirroring each other, both shaking their heads and looking away with loud, humming sighs.
...What the heck is happening? Apsy's mouth is agape with the shock of the turn of events. Kamen takes a moment to try to grasp what's now happening, but he gives up and just closes his eyes, looking exhausted. He runs a hand down his face, then turns away from the two with a snort. He and Apsy exchange more than confused stares, then Kamen rolls his eyes and shakes his head, looking to the sky as if asking Fyora herself, "why?"
The assassin's expression begins to sober as he turns towards Apsy and Kamen, who are now standing next to each other looking equal parts confused and irritated. Apsy refuses to look at him, and Kamen, too, for the first time any of them have ever seen, turns away, not wanting to look into the Gelert's smiling eyes. The assassin snorts. "I'll tell you what," he begins to say, pulling his hood back slightly so his sunken eyes are completely visible and unshadowed. "I truly can't stand any of you, but I'm starting to become accustomed to these little run-ins. Now, fortunately for myself, I know spells strong enough to track the thief down, but, unfortunately for you three, all you have is, well…" — he looks into Kamen's blue eyes, though the glare still remains unreciprocated — "you have an over-aggrandised scenthound."
Kamen's treating the assassin's insults the same way he treats his father's — with absolutely no reaction.
The assassin shrugs when Kamen doesn't respond. "Either way, I'm heading to Market Town, where the thief is also heading, and you delightful children are more than welcome to follow — just, well, not with me." He turns to Ember. "After all, I don't know how much longer this sass of yours will continue to be amusing. And, well, if I were you, I wouldn't want to be around me when the charm fades and your attitude becomes annoying again." He laughs to himself before finishing his original thought. "Either way, I suppose I'll see you all in Market Town soon enough, won't I?" He bows to them, finally with a hint of genuine respect in the motion, then disappears with a snap of his fingers.
Ember's never looked more sickeningly smug.
Nobody moves for a painfully long time, still trying to figure out exactly what just happened. Finally, Apsy groans loudly and pouts at her mother, stomping her foot and crossing her arms. "You are such a piece of work," she says furiously, but her words only make Ember laugh.
"How did you know that would work?" Kamen asks, still looking annoyed with the haughty human, but his usual tiredness has returned and is masking the anger. "Or was it just dumb luck?"
Ember giggles. "Do you really think I'm capable of thinking out something so intricate and conniving? Of course it was just luck!"
Apsy groans again as Kamen shakes his head. "You really are a piece of work," the prince mumbles bitterly, but his soothing smile is finally returning, chasing the negativity away from his freckled cheeks.
"Are we really gonna follow that creep to Market Town?" Apsy asks, addressing Kamen, not wanting to deal with her mother's pompous attitude. "How do we know he isn't trying to mislead us?"
Kamen takes a deep breath. "I don't think he is," he says. "He seemed completely genuine. It was… curious…" Kamen shakes his head again, this time trying to clear away his confusion with the motion. "Well, at least we will be able to get some clean clothes in Market Town, right?" he says, then turns to Ember. The anger has left his expression. All that remains is a hopeful smile and a hint of his usual playfulness. "Well, you can get us clean clothes," he says with a wink.
Ember nods, glad that Kamen no longer seems mad at her. "And then we'll go from there."
"Yeah," Kamen says, looking up to the bright morning sky. "We'll go from there."
To be continued…