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Memories of a New Home

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  • #91
    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Gregor ran through the forest. Branches whipped at his face and scratched at any exposed flesh it could land on. Gregor didn’t care. Lynne’s screams had stopped, and another cry had replaced them. Gregor ran towards the sound of a baby making its voice heard in the world for the first time. Behind him the sounds of battle sounded in the distance. The sky above was dark and a new moon shed its silvery, weak light across the landscape, the moonbeams too paltry to penetrate the forest canopy except for in an occasional patch of white light where the branches were too thin.

    So swift was his flight and so frantic that he almost tripped over Lynne’s body when he came upon it. The screaming baby was his only warning for him to stop. He knelt down quickly beside Lynne’s prone form. Her face looked relaxed, calm even. Gregor cradled her head in his hands, forcing himself not to look at the bloody mess that covered her lower half.

    “Lynne!” He cried out, his eyes flickering back and forth over her closed eyes and eventually betraying him as they cast their gaze down at the gaping hole in her stomach. He refused to listen to the child’s screams.

    “Lynne!” He whispered, placing a hand on her cheek. It was still warm and the blood around her was still wet and pooling outwards. The child thrashed about in a pool of crimson, its needy cries piercing the reverie of grief that Gregor sought to wrap around himself. He had pushed her away the last time he’d seen her, the pressure of the chase to capture Aantar, and to stop his enemy mixed with the anxiety placed upon him by the Basileans to produce results and he’d been unsure as to what their future held for them. He thought there would be more time. Part of him refused to acknowledge how her limbs were even now growing stiff, or the imagined warmth in her cheeks was growing steadily colder as her body cooled without warm blood to heat it. Slowly, Gregor became aware of a presence behind him.

    “Where was your prophecy this time?” Gregor spat as he hugged Lynne’s head to his armored chest.

    “This was Lynne’s choice, Gregor. Not yours, or mine” Maurice’s voice was hushed, his head lowered.

    “What does that even mean?” Gregor howled, hot tears forming in his eyes.

    “I mean that no one could have prevented this, Gregor, not even me. Nor would I have were I able, because it was not my place. I would not take that away from her.” Maurice spoke sharply, then his voice softened and he said, “but this was not your fault, Gregor, these things are beyond any one person’s control. This was Lynne’s decision, her fate that she chose, but even she could not control the steps that were taken to bring her to this point.” He placed a hand on Gregor’s shoulder, kneeling down in order to do so.

    “When will it end?” Gregor whispered, the baby continued to cry. Maurice stooped down and picked the child up. He took a portion of his robes and ripped them in order to form a crude blanket which he wrapped around the babe, then he took a finger and with a quick flash of blue fire he severed the cord from the baby’s belly and cauterized the wound in one movement.

    “Have I not lost enough? My home? My men? Nicodemus? My father? Now Lynne, too?!” Gregor’s voice sobbed, his chest heaving against the weight of Lynne’s body. “I have nothing left! There is no more that can be taken from me! Why should I continue to fight!?” Maurice cradled the crying baby in his massive hands, making shushing sounds that sounded like distant rumbling thunder. His eyes and teeth smiling and making a sharp contrast against his dark skin. Gradually the baby began to calm, its cries becoming the mewling sounds of discovery as the child grasped with its newly freed hands and waved its unfamiliar limbs about as it sought to find some semblance of control in its environment.

    “Perhaps,” Maurice spoke softly, “you are focusing too much on what you have lost, and should instead focus on what you have gained. Here is your son, Gregor, come and look upon him.” Gregor recoiled with a sneer.

    “That thing is the reason that Lynne was taken from me,” he snarled. Maurice moved swiftly, his hand lashing out to slap Gregor across the face. Gregor flew back and landed on his back, the world tilted around him. The move was so abrupt and over so quickly that it didn’t even startle the child.

    “You will not blame this child for the anger you are feeling. This child, like all children, is innocent. You disgrace Lynne for the sacrifice that she made and you disgrace yourself by being so petty and small.” Maurice’s voice was thunder, this time threatening instead of comforting. Gregor did not respond, his eyes were closed and for a while the only sounds that filtered through the woods were those of the distant battle that was still raging.

    “My people are tearing themselves apart for you and your quest.” Maurice growled, “Even now they sit fighting brothers and sisters deceived by one of my own! These are prices that I pay willingly because I know what will happen if they are not. But you do not dare to lecture me on loss! I have fought against my brothers in the heaven and cast them into the very pits of hell. I have seen myself and those around me become shells of our former selves while we fall to bickering that is beneath our divine natures! I have watched the cycle of years grind the work of lifetimes into the dust, the works of people whom I have loved has amounted to naught within mere decades of their deaths! Do not speak to me of loss! I am immortal and so my grief is therefore eternal!” The baby started and again began screaming as Maurice’s voice raised in its intensity until he was yelling at the prone form of Gregor.

    “You are so embittered by your own suffering that you cannot see past it. You are allowing it to make you into a shadow of your former self! You think that there is only so much that any one person should be made to suffer, as if there is some universal standard that you have already surpassed and so therefore you are through playing the martyr and feel that the universe should be held accountable for the unfair treatment you have received.” Maurice’s voice cut like ice, even though its volume had lessened. “You still have so much that you refuse to see. You can do so much in this world, Gregor, and you can still fight the darkness that even now grows all around you. Do not make me regret the faith that I have placed in you.”

    “How do you fight it?” Gregor whispered. “How do you fight the darkness when you’ve seen so much of it and been victim to it so much?” Maurice sighed, his eyes raising to the heavens where he sought out the nearly hidden moon.

    “Look at the night sky. In the midst of all this bloodshed it is truly beautiful still. When the moon is dark as it is tonight, the light in the world is harder to see by, and yet the stars glow ever more radiantly in the absence of the moon’s brightness.” Maurice shifted his gaze back to Gregor. “So it is in our world, when the shadow is at its strongest in the world, that is when the light is shared out amongst the stars of the world, the more evil there is then the more men strive to fight against it. When times grow dark, as they are now, and I see those who have so much taken from them by that darkness, I remind myself that it will not last. The one true constant in this universe of ours is that light is always there, sometimes it is not the brightest, but it is always there, it will never cease to exist. Even once this world ends and is no more, those stars will still glimmer out in the darkness, whistling down on other worlds to brighten their nights and give hope to the lost and forlorn there, as well. So it is with suffering. No matter how deep it becomes there will always be those fighting against it, which means that it can be overcome and that is an encouraging thought. At least to me. Given enough time, suffering will fade and hope will be restored. It may take more time than many are willing to give it, but joy is the default emotion of life, not misery and people will remember that if you give them enough time. You are stronger than you know, stronger by far than those of my kin though you might doubt it.”

    Maurice looked at the young knight, he had pushed himself into a sitting position, his eyes staring into nothing. The angel shook his head and turned to walk away.

    “Of course, none of that is a comfort while you are the middle of your misery. For now, your men need you, they are fighting a desperate battle and need you there to help them carry the day. I shall do what I can to help but this is your burden to bear, and your problem to solve. Do not fret for the child, I will watch over him. I suppose you do not have a name for him, yet, do you?” Gregor was quiet for a moment, when he spoke it was in a hushed whisper.

    “His name is Morticus.” Maurice turned his head back to look at Gregor with a raised eyebrow. “In the old tongue of my people it means ‘The Curse of Death’” Maurice frowned, but nodded solemnly.

    “Oddly fitting for this child, I’m afraid.” Maurice walked away, still holding the child until the shadows of the wood engulfed him. Gregor stared after for several long moments before pushing himself to his feet and walking in the opposite direction towards the sounds of battle.
    ​​​​​​​

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    • #92
      I'm realy enjoying your story.
      Thank you, so much for sharing it.

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      • #93
        drmadwolf Thanks! We're getting into some of the meat of the story now, finally. Still have Nicodemus and the Lady Lucas that are trapped within their skulls, too. Lots of stuff to sort out, still, this story still has a ways to go, I think.

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        • #94


          18

          An Echo of Home

          Aantar rode through the mountains, pushing his steed harder and harder, not caring if the beast died underneath him. He pressed on through the night until the first tendrils of a red dawn pushed their way through the craggy peaks, brushing the stony ground with strokes of crimson. Aantar’s mind was troubled, some queasy sensation in his nonexistent stomach warned him of some impending revelation, something just over the horizon, just like the rising sun. Light struggled to fill the deep shadows cast by the mountains that even now threatened to overwhelm him, yet the darkness was receding, even if slowly, and with the morning light it felt as though a fog was lifting from Aantar’s awareness. He had felt this before but always something had happened to push the anxiety and nervous energy away, Kalia had always been there. Or at least, he thought it was Kalia…

          Doubt crept into his vision like the rays of light the sun cast in its climb to the top of the sky. Questions that he had dared not venture began to come unbidden to his mind. How had Kalia come to be in this world? It didn’t seem possible because she had… An image flashed in his mind of himself standing over Kalia’s body with a knife soaked in her blood in his hands, a man he’d once called a friend screaming out his protests. Who was the man again? A name floated out of the abyss that was his memory: Nicodemus. Nicodemus had been his friend’s name. The image burned itself on his mind’s eye. That had to be a nightmare, some fevered dream brought on by fear of losing his beloved, but why were the details so clear? He could smell the sharp, iron scent of her blood on his hands, could remember the feeling of the knife in his grip, the pain of his choice that he had made. Even though he couldn’t remember the choice itself, he knew that it had caused him great sadness, so great that even now he felt impossible tears creeping into his hollow eye sockets. He had forgotten what grief felt like.

          Why did he sometimes see another woman’s face in place of his beloved Kalia’s? Why did sable black hair fill his head and pale skin urge his non existent flesh to warm?The image he now held in his mind, the nightmare scene of his beloved’s death… no, of her murder… that image was pure and concrete, he could see it more clearly now. That image showed her with golden hair and sun-dark skin drawn pale by some foul malady. Blue eyes, not dark ones, were those that he remembered lighting his blood on fire. Such emotions as his memory now fed him were as foreign as the stars were to the stones beneath him, he could not remember the time when his being had been clothed in its natural flesh, and passion had long since fled from his memory. But now something burned inside him and turned his cavernous heart to a choked expanse.

          Something had awoken. Aantar embraced the rising blood sun and spurred his horse to even greater speed. The body of the fallen necromancer gave a macabre dance as it dangled across the saddle before him. Aantar could use this fallen mage’s talents in the coming days, for there was a reckoning coming.

          * * * * * * * * * * * *

          The sounds of metal scraping on metal, the wet cries of anguish as flesh was parted and bone exposed in gory sprays of blood. The rusty tang of blood permeated the air and filled Proste’s nose with the scent of death. It invigorated him. Gleeful bubbles of laughter would burst forth from his frothing lips as his blades would slip between the ribs of yet another victim. He killed indiscriminately. The battle was so chaotic that there was no such thing as battle lines or organized units. This was an overgrown tavern brawl with no bouncers to mediate and killing was encouraged to ensure one’s own survival. Thrust, dodge, parry, cut, it was like a dance, the only dance that Proste had really ever enjoyed. Ducking beneath a blow he felt a satisfying squelch as his blade rammed itself into his attacker’s inner thigh, this was accompanied by an equally satisfying gasp of pain, and the battle nun who had swung at him fell to the ground clutching a gushing wound on the inside of her leg. Proste grinned and moved on to his next victim, this one would bleed out in a few moments and while watching the life drain from her eyes would be fun there was far too much enjoyment to be had around him.

          The world was chaos. Everywhere the dead and dying lay strewn about, some crying, others gurgling their last breaths. Above these sorrowful souls the still living and active strove to remain so, blades and bludgeons mixed with makeshift weapons and strange innovations meant for killing danced back and forth, cutting here and there, chipping against shields, clanging against armor and other weapons. A cacophony of death that mixed together like sweet music in Proste’s ears and he cackled with delight at its melody. This was the only time the voices were silent. Blood seemed to soothe them into quiet reverie and so Proste gladly paid the price for his own rest he gained from their constant whispers. He turned and pressed his dagger into the base of the spine of an armored soldier wearing some foreign livery. The man cried out before going limp and falling to the ground, writhing as he landed, convulsing in his death spasms.

          His master had been right. The seeds of malcontent had been sown so deeply within these two peoples that even now there could be no order given to this battle. Their bitterness towards one another, the prejudices that had developed over the weeks leading up to this confrontation were now so deeply set as to prevent any semblance of order being established on this battle, everyone was drunk on bloodlust and hate. Gregor’s knights he had taken to rescue the Brotherhood still had not yet returned, but when they did they would only add to the bloodshed, Proste was sure of this.

          Eventually his mind grew bored of the killing and so it drifted back, unaccustomed the the quiet that presently pervaded the inside of his mind with the voices soothed or distracted with the violence being enacted by their host. Proste kept seeing visions of the elf as she cried out when his knife finally punctured her swollen belly. It had been a little strange when she had offered herself up willingly to his blade, and the sensation now was more than a little intoxicating. Proste had never been given such trust as the desperate she-elf had proffered him, it was so very strange and the foreign nature of the act excited Proste in ways that he hadn’t thought possible anymore. He was already concocting fantasies about the murders he would commit once his present tasks were accomplished and the voices would once again give him free reign to spread his own type of fear in the name of his master.

          The child on the other hand, Proste had experienced something far different in regards to that child. A baby was repugnant to one such as he, but there had been something different about this infant. It had been touched by his master, he could feel the taint hovering around the newborn from its first splitting screams when it had come into the world, clawing its way through the bloodied flesh of its mother, it’s birthing tears had been a battle cry. It had been born of blood and Proste envied the future that such a child would have. That creature would wade through pools of blood that would make Proste’s most prolific masterpiece of death seem paltry in comparison. He sighed inwardly, partly out of admiration and partly out of envy. He was simply a pawn in his master’s schemes. He had no illusions as to his worth before the master. He knew that he was disposable, that at the end of his life oblivion would claim him along with the fires of torment that would climb up to the eternities, fed by the deeds of his life and their bloody harvest. Proste would never truly attain the eye of his master, that god of death that he adored so much, no matter how much he may wish to do so or how hard he may seek to appease him. He knew that he lacked the mark that this newborn infant, whose very birth was marked with a very violent and painful killing, this child would visit untold amounts of suffering upon the land, regardless of whether or not he wanted to do so.

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          • #95

            Proste regretted that he had not waited to see the man Gregor come upon the scene of his beloved elf’s death. How would he take her offering for Proste’s master? She had given herself up to his blade, she had made herself into an offering for the god of blood and slaughter. Did Gregor know this? Did he realize what she had done to ensure that his son was born? Proste doubted that he did, and so the murderer gleefully hid that little tidbit of knowledge away, intending to use it at a more opportune time should the chance present itself to add torture to Gregor’s already insurmountable pain. Sometimes there was an art to twisting the knife in order to prolong a victim’s suffering. A true artist of death also knew some aspects of healing in order to ensure that an otherwise elegant elegy of violence did not simply become a sunburst of pain before sputtering out but could rather extend out and become a beacon of inspiration towards others. The wholesale butchery that was happening around him was good at times, slaughter in quantity could accomplish a similar task as well. But a true artist would pick their piece apart, extending the pain out for days at a time, never allowing them to descend into delirium but keeping their senses sharp and their hope alive until that bright, perfect moment where the victim would realize that they were going to die. Prolonging that moment was the ultimate quest and required years of perfecting his craft to accomplish. That ecstatic last flicker of defiance being crushed out of their eyes, the moment when the terror envelopes them and tears the last bits of their spirit from their body so that afterwards they are only a husk of themselves before the final cut removes even that. That moment was what Proste lived for. It was something he had been unable to truly indulge in the past several months while in the service of his master, but soon he knew the time was coming that he could once again practice his craft in its purest form. The thought of this caused him to smile as he continued to lash out around him, his knives a flickering series of strokes and stabs.

            Something pulled at his mind. The voices were back, and their insistent tones denied him the ability to suppress them. They tugged his awareness back into the present and dragged his vision to the horizon. The sun was rising, its early crimson rays streaking across the sky like a bloodstain, mirroring the churned mud beneath it and casting everything in a rubied hue that seemed to set the world on fire. Gregor stood at the crest of a hill that lead into the forest beyond, the trees were still dark and untouched by the morning light. The young knight had drawn his sword and stood with his arms dangling at his sides. Slowly the morning light crept up the hill and climbed up his armored limbs, light glinting off the once finely burnished steel. The fighting lulled as if the sun had brought with it a renewal of the sense that had fled them throughout the previous night. The fighting ground to a standstill so quickly that even Proste felt compelled to stillness. Gregor raised his blade high and bellowed a single word.

            “ZARGAZO!” The word rang out across the battlefield and what few skirmishes had not ceased previously immediately paused. A deathly stillness settled on the early morning air. The sense of anticipation was palpable, and slowly, as if compelled to do so, the various warriors on both sides began shifting together and organizing into actual battle lines. Within minutes a gap had grown between the two armies, and it seemed as though the killing had been a fairly even distribution, both sides having lost similar amounts of troops, despite Gregor’s side having been smaller in number to begin with.

            “Zargazo you cowardly curr! Come here and face me! I demand satisfaction in the name of your damnable Shining Ones!” Gregor began descending the hill, his arm still raised and his voice echoing across the stillness, his words causing the Basilean loyalists to shudder in shock at his audacity. In the middle of the Basilean lines there came the sound of wings fluttering and a heavy gust of wind tore through their ranks. In a shining flurry of fire and steel Zargazo flew up into the sky before plummeting down to land directly in front of Gregor. Proste moved closer in order to hear what they said.

            “I am here you pathetic heathen.” Zargazo growled as he stood up from the kneeling position in which he had landed. “And you will pay for your insolence.”

            “You have a lot to answer for.” Gregor responded. “Lynne is dead, you son of a bitch, and what about your priest Gesreau? What about my men who lay dead on the ground because of your treachery!?” Gregor’s voice carried across the armies as if bourne by an unseen wind.

            “You killed Gesreau, and I know nothing of your elven woman.” Zargazo sneered.

            “Have you fallen so far that you will now lie and sully your honor?” Gregor’s voice fell flat, yet still something seemed to waft it across the air, as if his voice were amplified somehow.

            “You have no right to question my honor!” But the angel fidgeted as he responded, some nervous energy causing him to shift back and forth.

            “You can lie to your troops, they may believe you having been blinded by your flaming wings and claim to a connection with their gods, but you and I both know that you are unworthy of those kinds of accolades.” Gregor stepped closer to the angelic warrior, staring up into his face with eyes that mirrored the flames on Zargazo’s sword. Unconsciously, Zargazo took a step backwards. Gregor raised his other hand, something glinted in his palm. Proste struggled to see what it was and recognized Gesreau’s holy symbol that he had used to bless his troops and cast out devils of the Abyss.

            “You have no right…” Zargazo began, but his voice faltered.

            “In the name of Gesreau, the slain servant of the Shining Ones, I denounce you Zargazo of the Burning Sepulchre!” Gregor’s voice rent the sky like thunder, rolling through the air that was devoid of clouds and causing a collective gasp to rise up from the Basilean followers.

            “You are cast out, faithless one! No more shall you bear the flaming sword of your gods!” The flames on Zargazo’s sword swelled and threatened to engulf the angel altogether. Zargazo cried out and threw the sword from himself. It sailed through the air and blazed into a burning point of light that ascended into the air, higher and higher until it was a speck of light that could easily be mistaken for a star in the morning dimness.

            “You are unworthy to bear the wings of their chosen messengers!” Zargazo cried out in pain as the fires on his wings crackled and consumed the feathers and burnt his limbs down to smoking stubs that protruded from his back, soot from the fire dimmed the brightness of his armor.

            “Begone, you miserable creton, foul abomination, and faithless heathen!” Gregor’s voice spat the labels that Zargazo had so many times labelled him before. Venom coated each syllable. “You have slain one of the faithful, against the wishes of your masters, have denied the orders of your commanding Ur-Elohi, and have sought to further your own, selfish desires instead of those wishes urged on you by those who have created you and bestown upon you such grace as they now take away!” A rippling wave of energy cascaded out away from Gesreau’s symbol, it crushed Zargazo into the ground and caused the Basilean faithful to fall to their knees.

            “Repent all those of you who followed this abomination’s orders out of misguided faith in his office! Do not turn away from this limited mercy that will not be extended again towards you. Come back into the fold and be forgiven, or suffer in exile and excommunication from your gods, and your faith.” Gregor looked down at Zargazo who screamed in pain as flames once again rose up, this time licking across the flesh of the former angel. His voice was also carried by the unseen wind across both armies who watched in horror as the fire burned hotter, turning Zargazo’s armor cherry red with heat and sending the stink of cooking meat throughout the assembled hosts. The fire grew higher and higher, the screams increasing in intensity as it rose, until abruptly they cut off and just as suddenly the flames fell away. A strong gust of wind blew the remaining ash into the morning sky.

            Gregor spat at the smoldering remains burnt into the grass before him, then cast the holy symbol into the center and turned to stalk back towards his own troops. Inside Proste’s mind the voices screamed their rage so loudly that his vision wavered and he threatened to topple over onto the ground. A great cry rose up from the collected Basilean loyalists as they began to realize what they had witnessed.

            Gregor, the heathen, walked calmly back to his own lines, which parted to let him pass, and was lost among their ranks. Somewhere far in the back, still enveloped in the shadows of the forest, Maurice stood cradling the newborn in his hands. The dark-skinned angel closed his eyes and allowed a single tear to escape his eye, only allowing that brief moment to be witnessed by the babe Morticus in his arm. The mourning Basileans gradually died down, their grief still incompatible with their unbelief. The child cried out and in the terrified stillness it rolled out to fill the air with deafening cries of sobbing impotence. Maurice whispered to the wind, urging it to a whistling gale that swept through the ranks and finished blowing Zargazo’s ashes away.

            “Stars,” he whispered to himself.

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            • #96


              19

              Confessions of a God

              Gregor walked past the wondrous stares and the wordless questions that they conveyed. His gaze was focused on the line of trees that lead into the forest. He needed to escape those eyes, he couldn’t answer those questions, not now. The world was spinning beneath him, and his head felt like it was on fire. The morning light was too bright as the sun crested the horizon and began its climb into the sky. In the distance someone began to sing. Gregor did not recognize the words or the tune but it sounded like a hymn of some sort, something sung by a grieving parent over a wayward child. Gregor paid it no mind but continued to stagger towards the welcoming shadow of the forest, leaving the eerily quiet battleground behind him. No one tried to follow.

              Once he reached the first of the trees he turned his staggering walk into a faltering run. He ran for as long as he could, heedless of what distance he covered or how long it had taken him. His eyes itched as if covered in sand and his breathing came in ragged sobs, he crashed through the undergrowth, tearing through bushes and fallen tree limbs with complete abandon. Finally a stray branch caught his legs and spent him sprawling onto the forest floor. Dirt flew into his open mouth and finally he broke his stoic silence. His fists beat against the ground and he welcomed the pain of his bruised flesh, it helped eke out the furious anger that burned within his chest. He screamed it through his clenched teeth and let the tears finally escape his red rimmed eyes. His fury formed a single word which he screamed into the dirt, unable to lift his gaze.

              “Why!?”

              The world became a blurry haze and his mind retreated from any sensible perception of the forest around him. If anyone had pursued him with hopes of killing him, then they would have had a perfect opportunity now. Gregor focused on the burning of his lungs, the pain in his fists, anything that would allow him to channel the burning depths that threatened to engulf him within his stomach, the falling sensation in his chest.

              He’d lost friends and loved ones before, and each time it had been different. Some part of Gregor recognized this for what it was, but the furor of it all overwhelmed his senses and drove his behavior to animalistic survival. He could not suppress it any more than he could stop feeling the pain as it pushed its way through him, emptying his being out onto the grassy dirt of the forest floor. The weight of the previous days came crashing down on him and his voice ran ragged from his cries, and when it was all finished he collapsed into the dirt, exhaustion claiming him and forcing him into oblivion.

              How long he slept he did not know, but when he awoke the sun had already set into the west and a shallow half moon illuminated the forest with silver beams of molten light. His head felt swollen and every movement of his body caused him pain. He carefully lifted his head and groaned as the effort caused spots to appear in his vision. Gradually he became aware that the five golden warriors that Maurice had saved so long ago stood around him, each of them kneeling with their heads bowed and facing away from him. They had ensured his safety while he had slept. Something stirred within Gregor at this realization, but his nerves were already so frayed that the emotion could not register completely and so he pushed himself to his knees, using the pain to focus his mind.

              “Take your time, Gregor, there will be plenty of time for hurrying in the coming days. Besides, this camp is not going anywhere anytime soon.” Maurice unfurled his wings from the shadows of the trees, the blue flames that encircled him coming to light once more and filling the dark with an icy light. “There is need of some days to rest, heal, and make decisions before we press on towards our goal. There are a lot of wounds that will never truly heal from this day, and we can spare a bit of respite to try and do what we can with that hurt. You, in particular must rest. You can go no further today.”

              “She is gone.” Gregor croaked, his voice was husky and crackled as he tried to speak.

              “Yes. She is.” Maurice nodded, moving forward to stand before him. The angel knelt down and placed a hand on Gregor’s shoulder.

              “She is gone.” Gregor repeated. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. A wrapped bundle in Maurice’s other hand stirred and a gentle whimper escaped from its folds. Gregor fixed his unfocused gaze on it. Another piece to the puzzle that even now swirled in the murky depths of his mind, refusing to be answered. Maurice sat in silence, he knew that there was nothing he could say at this time that would help. Instead he lifted his head and looked into the sky at the stars still shining brightly above them. Gregor followed his gaze and together the two sat staring into the heavens, illuminated only by the moon above and the azure flames of Maurice’s being. Gregor’s body protested the position, but he ignored it, pushing the pain and soreness he felt into an abandoned corner of his mind. Finally, after several minutes Gregor broke the silence.

              “What happened after I left?” Gregor was tired of trying to make sense of the mess his emotions represented, so he stopped. Maurice nodded, understanding the process.

              “There was a great amount of shock at what transpired. I had not realized that you had picked up Gesreau’s holy symbol.” Maurice stared at the young knight.

              “I hadn’t, I found it in my pocket after we discovered Lynne’s body. I thought of all the things that you had taught me about your Shining Ones and the Elohi and how they are connected, the angels receiving the grace of their gods until such time as they disgrace themselves. I figured if anyone had fallen from that grace, that it would be Zargazo at this point.”

              “Yes, he fell some time ago I’m afraid, but his reckoning did not come until you forced the issue.” Maurice smiled, his eyes turning downward. “Now, his death will be useful in bringing these faithful to the Shining Ones back in line. Even now priests are moving through the ranks and taking confessions and offering absolution to any who will repent. It also helps that you had such a way with words, too. How did you know that it would work? That there wasn’t a specific prayer or incantation that you would need to speak in order to draw the Shining One’s attention?”

              “I didn’t.” Gregor spoke slowly. “But I knew that I would never be able to defeat Zargazo in regular combat, especially not in my current state. I also knew that the only way to end this pointless battle was in something spectacular. I was the epicenter of Zargazo’s rebellion, his reason for starting the battle. Therefore the only way to discredit this was if I were to strike him down in front of his whole army. It was just dumb luck that found the symbol in my pocket, and that was what gave me the idea to throw his own theology back at him. I’m just glad it worked out.” Gregor slid back into a sitting position, groaning at the effort.

              “That was good, because you are right. You would have been no match for him in open battle.” Maurice sighed and shook his head. “So now what will you do?”

              “Like you said, we will give the troops some time to rest. It will take a few days to sort out everything that has happened. I need some time as well. After that mountain pass it is only a few days march to reach the Abyss so that we can free Nicodemus and Lucas from their prisons and hopefully we can catch Aantar. I have no idea what he plans to achieve by reaching the Abyss, but I fear what it could entail. Any that will continue on with me I will take. But I fear my list of friends is growing thin.”

              “Ah, in that I have good news for you. A certain Brotherhood Exemplar by the name of Jeoffroi has arrived with what remains of his troops from the battle for the mountain pass. He says he wants to speak with you as he feels that he owes you a debt that he wishes to repay.”

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              • #97
                “Well, there’s that at least.” Gregor heaved another sigh. “Yes, I believe some rest is in order, and a chance to bury our brothers and sisters in arms. There are far too many graves to be dug for the cost of our foolish pride.” His voice caught in his throat. He closed his eyes and leaned backwards. “I abandoned her, Maurice.” He spoke at last.

                “Yes, you did.” Maurice did not back down from the cruel accusation. Gregor made a choking sound.

                “I was so scared of what was going on. I was so stupid! I played the part of a martyr with her, thought I was doing the right thing!” Gregor sobbed, hot tears once more pouring down his cheeks. Maurice reached forward and laid a hand on his head, enveloping them both in his wingspan.

                “In matters such as these, everyone plays a foolish part. We make mistakes because that is what happens when we listen to our hearts. Passion, fear, love, suspicion, all these things vie for control of our actions and inevitably some of our less admirable emotions will win out in things of this matter.” Maurice smiled sadly. “Especially for one so new to this process as you. Gregor you are so young, and yet you carry the burdens that many will never know. You are a refugee in foreign lands, and your home is gone forever. Beyond that everything that you once loved about this world is dying all around you. Your father and your mentor were lost to the cataclysm of your old life. Your lover is lost in giving birth to a child with a dangerous and dark future ahead of him. It is well that you should suffer, for if you denied it then you would become less than what you should be.” Maurice lifted Gregor’s gaze to look down at him.

                “This world will need all of you, I am afraid, Gregor. You are vitally important and you must become everything you are meant to be. If you do not, then this world will be covered in a shadow that only you can prevent. You and your son are the only ones who can do this, and you must do this together.” Maurice watched Gregor’s response to his words. The young knights stare lowered to the swaddled child that lay sleeping in Maurice’s one armed embrace. The angel’s huge arms dwarfing the small baby. He stared for a long time before nodding slowly.

                “I understand. At least I think I do.” He finally spoke at length. “But where I am going, we cannot take a child into that nightmare. There will need to be a solution found for this.”

                “One will be, I am sure of it. Look to yourself and how you view the child, do not blame him for your loss, nor your poor choices. He is innocent in that regard. His fate is as yet undecided, but perhaps you may influence it and change it from its currently dark path.” Gregor nodded at Maurices words.

                “I will try, that is all I can promise for now.”

                “Then that will have to be enough.” Maurice rose to his feet, folding his wings behind him.

                “I have just one last question, Maurice.” Gregor spoke without raising his head. The angel sighed reluctantly before responding.

                “Ask.”

                “Why did you give me Gesreau’s holy symbol? Surely you knew what it might provoke, at least to some extent?”

                “How do you know that I gave it to you?”

                “Because I know that I did not take it. And I don’t think Gesreau had it with him on the battlefield. I think he’d begun to question his own worthiness in the days leading up to his death and maybe he’d decided to stop wearing it, furious at his lack of faith. In any case, unless Daggon had come into possession of it and slipped it to me sometime before you showed up last night, then there is only one other suspect.” At this Gregor looked up to stare at Maurice, who sighed again.

                “I asked Gesreau for his symbol some days ago. He did not doubt his lack of worthiness, I confirmed it for him. I told him that he needed to consider where he stood and why he had made the decisions that he had. I told him that the doubts that he had about what he was doing were not cracks in his faith, but rather confirmations of his deepest fears. He gave me his symbol easily after that. I am glad to hear that he redeemed himself in the end. I always thought he would as he was a rather pious individual, despite his many flaws he had always remained true to his beliefs until he fell in with Zargazo.”

                “Did you know it would work out the way that it did?” Gregor asked and Maurice laughed.

                “One can never know for certain how things will work out, we’ve had this discussion before, Gregor. You cannot fully predict on a variable that allows for free will to be involved. However, I had a strong belief and a faith in the actions that these events would cause, yes. Also, I knew that if you did evoke the Shining Ones, then at least one would be listening and would enact the necessary punishment for Zargazo’s sins.” Maurice gave a sad smile.

                “How would you know that?” Gregor asked.

                “Because, Gregor,” Maurice took a deep breath. “I am a Shining One.”

                A stillness spread throughout the moonlit forest as Gregor stared up at the angelic figure standing before him.

                “You are a Shining One?” Gregor spoke slowly, disbelief crawling into his voice.

                “Yes Gregor. I told you about my other half that had been cast into the Abyss when we first met, I am the Shining aspect of the Celestian Haephus. I am the reason that your accusations towards Zargazo were met with justice. I am the lesser half of a greater whole, and I am one of the divines of these people.”

                “I should have known…” Gregor shook his head slowly.

                “No, you shouldn’t have,” Maurice responded “,I went to great lengths to ensure that you didn’t, nor did anyone else, for that matter and I would appreciate it if things would stay that way, at least for the time being.”

                “I don’t care that you are one of those damnable Shining Ones.” Gregor growled and rose to his feet. “You could have stopped all this before it started! You could have brought Zargazo to heel with a wave of your hand! All you had to do was speak a commandment and Lynne would not have died! Your gift of prophecy saw all of this coming and yet you did nothing!” Maurice stared into Gregor’s baleful gaze and sighed.

                “I walked among them, I spoke to all of my followers in this camp, and even more than that. I told them the prophecies I had seen regarding them, taught them, preached to them. I spoke with the authority of the Shining Ones as an Ur-Elohi, the highest office that can be seen among their beliefs in this world. I have not sat idly by while the prophecy has come to pass, but I have played my willing part no matter how painful it became.” Maurice closed his eyes and Gregor was surprised to see tears falling down the angel’s cheeks. “Yet for all my efforts, look how many followers turned against me! All I lacked was a title, but I was myself in everything but name to them. I taught as I would have them believe, I asked them to have faith in what I spoke, I told them what I had seen. Yet still they turned against me. Over half of my followers sided with Zargazo, and still more are denying me even now and will be put to death rather than recant their disobediences!” Maurice opened his eyes and stared at Gregor.

                “Do not speak to me of loss as if you are the only one to have suffered it!” Thunder echoed behind Maurice’s words and the world seemed to tilt under his feet. “Lynne was a wonder and a joy to this world. She was terrified and you left her bereft of comfort in her time of need! It was you that shunned your responsibilities regarding your lover and friend. It was your negligence that caused her death to be lonesome and filled with terror! Not mine! Perhaps, had you not tried to shirk your uncomfortable responsibilities and faced the fears you have of loss and potential sorrow she might have been saved! If you had done all you could have, maybe she would have survived, or at least died in the arms of a loved one and not butchered in the dark shadows of an unknown wood!” The words cut through Gregor like ice and he staggered backwards under the weight of them.

                “Lynne knew what was coming and she accepted her fate and rose to meet it!” Maurice continued. “She did not run off and try to pretend as though the great and terrible knowledge that she had would not come to pass if she simply ignored the facts that were laid out plainly before her. She loved your son, even without ever meeting him except in passing from this world to the next they may have briefly touched spirits as they exchanged places. She had faith in you to love and care for this child even after all that had transpired in bringing him into this world.” Maurice’s next words fell on Gregor’s shoulders like a blow. “Do not let her faith have been in vain.”

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                • #98

                  The young knight felt a terrible wrenching in his stomach and he fought back the impulse to vomit as he fell to his knees and stared up at the terrible being before him. Tears once more came unbidden to his eyes and his throat tightened. He could not refute what Maurice was saying and his heart ached at the guilt that now gnawed away at his mind. He had abandoned Lynne, he had left her to face an uncertain future all because he was afraid of what might have happened if he had invested himself. The baby in Maurice’s embrace awoke and began howling as the wind picked up and thunder clouds began to register their sonorous voices in the dark night. Rain began to fall and yet Gregor was numb to the needle-like cold of the droplets as they *****ed at the earth in tiny sprays of dirt that testified of their impact.

                  An empty hole opened up in Gregor’s vision and he fell into it, willing himself into oblivion. But a hand reached through the void and pressed itself against his chest and the sudden shock brought Gregor back to himself. His mind slammed into the present and the painful realization of what had happened was real and so was his loss. The worst part weighed on him the most: this was no one’s fault but his own. He cried out in a wracking sob that mirrored that of his son whom Maurice held with his other hand. The angel pulled the crying father and son into his embrace and held them both tight as the wind began to howl and the rain increased its intensity. Overhead lightning flashed and distant thunder rolled across the sky.

                  When Gregor finally came to his senses, he found himself in a sitting position with his head cradled in his hands and Maurices massive hand resting on his shoulders. Morticus, his son, had fallen asleep once more. The storm was still active, but Gregor noticed that the rain seemed less intense, the wind had dropped to a gentle breeze and the thunder was gentle and distant. Had the storm passed them by already? Or had they weathered it in the dark and their grief had sheltered them from the intensity therein? Gregor shook his head to try and remove the cobwebs that shadowed his vision. He looked up at Maurice, who sat with knitted brows and a concerned look on his face.

                  “What must I do?” Gregor’s voice was husky and his voice crackled from the misuse it had endured over the past several hours. It sounded small and hollow.

                  “First, you must grieve.” Maurice’s voice was soft, like the distant thunder that rolled gently across the sky.

                  “I thought that by now I would have accomplished that.” Gregor groaned and tried to stand, but his legs refused to obey and he only managed a half hearted attempt before falling back into his sitting position and stretching his legs out before him to try and regain feeling in them.

                  “Oh, no.” Maurice laughed softly. “Your grief is something that will never truly go away. It will become a part of you, much like a scar or an ache that you become accustomed to. There will be flare ups that you will learn to predict, and times when memory will betray you. Most of your loss is recent and you have not yet had time to realize its impact upon you. But you must be wary of it.” Maurice sighed deeply, and when he spoke again his gaze was unfocused, his words seemed to be directed as much at himself as they were at Gregor.

                  “So many will allow their grief to define them. They grow weary of holding on to hope, because hope is painful, hope requires sacrifice. Hope requires faith, and faith is also painful. We deal with doubt, and fear of betrayal when we dare to have faith in hope. And very rarely is our hope fully realized in the way that we expect it. We feel let down, abandoned when things do not come to pass as we foresee them, or within a certain time frame. There is a temptation to play the part of the martyr because of our perceived wrongs. But these imaginary limits we place on our expectations are not the fault of the gods, or destiny, or fate. It is no one’s fault but our own when such disappointment creeps in and threatens to overwhelm us. But that is not a sign of evil, at least not unless we abandon our hope because of that bitterness, that perceived sense of betrayal.”

                  “Then what is it?” Gregor asked, feeling his own disappointed bitterness welling up inside him once more. Maurice looked up into the sky that was beginning to lighten once more into a gray dawn filled with gentle rain and a cold wind from the east.

                  “Hope is fruitless without faith, and what is faith if it is not tested?” A cold breeze stirred across Maurice’s face and he closed his eyes to relish in the shock of its contact. Smiling, he stood and hauled Gregor to his feet as well.

                  “Do not abandon your faith in the good of people, Gregor. This trial is a defining moment for you. Will you keep your faith in that hope that there is a world worth saving? That happiness can still be attained? That the broken and brittle pieces inside of you will someday mend and that you will become whole once more?” Maurice’s smile broadened as the golden light of the sun once more penetrated the gloom, filling the sky with gold and silver that contrasted sharply with the gray storm clouds above them and the falling rain around them. The light fell on Gregor’s face and he caught his breath as he felt something he had thought gone from him. He looked out through the dimly lit forest with its tendrils of mist and golden shafts of light illuminating the very air that breathed through the leafy boughs. His face quirked into a broken smile,melancholy and weak but still present. Maurice laughed and clapped him on the back.

                  “I have faith in you, my boy. I always have. Do not let your past mistakes, or those of others, forbid you the progress that you have earned and are working towards even now.” A kindly light shimmered in Maurice’s eyes as he looked down at the young knight.

                  “Come,” he spoke. “Let us go down, there is much that needs to be done and you have been gone for two days now. Your people will have missed you.”

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                  • #99

                    * * * * * * * * * * * *

                    Jeoffroi Du Charn looked around at the gloomy camp where everyone seemed to walk about with downcast eyes. The lightly falling rain had finally begun to lighten up and the sun was breaking through the cloud cover to light the sky in what promised to be a beautiful day. Yet even that would not dispel the weary marches of the inhabitants of this small city of tents. His men had tried to lend their aid when they had arrived, but the burials and executions had proven to sour even their moods and cause their eyes to remain planted on the ground as they wandered around the site. Weeping friends laid their comrades to rest as casualties of a bitter battle that had played out between two parties that now laid their tents beside one another. Executions were carried out regularly for those who refused to acknowledge their folly in joining the losing side of whatever conflict had occurred here and vowed to enact their vengeance should they be allowed free.

                    It was a foolish waste, and Jeoffroi had no stomach for it. He felt the despair in the very mists around him and knew that this army was close to breaking under the strain of its own dismay. He had come to offer his thanks for their rescue at the mountain pass once their relief had shown itself, and possibly to offer aid in return if possible. But now he wondered how much longer this force would remain a living one before disbanding. The pain of betrayal hung heavy in the camp and if something did not happen soon then this force would crumble under its own weight.

                    A melancholy trumpet blast sounded in the morning air. It sounded again, and the members of the camp blinked at one another blearily as if waking from a dream. Slowly they began to shamble towards the source of the sound. Jeoffroi followed them, intrigued at what they might find. As they moved through the sea of tents towards where a rudimentary stables had been constructed the smell of damp, churned earth mixed with manure and the smell of horses to fill Jeoffroi’s nose with a familiar sensation, one that summoned many memories to his mind. Standing on a cart was a young knight who could not be older than some thirty years. His face was haggard and his eyes were rimmed in red yet he held himself with a noble bearing that belied his years. Jeoffroi recognised the face of his savior from the previous day who had lead the charge of nights into a shifting sea of dead to try and break the enemy ranks that threatened to overwhelm him and his men. The soldiers of the camp had named him Ser Gregor the Dour, but even now they whispered among themselves, wondering what the implications of this summoning could mean. After a significant number had gathered, Gregor had the trumpeter blast out another series of clear notes and the crowd fell silent.

                    “The morning greets you in a happier tone than I could ever do, especially in light of recent events.” Gregor’s voice was cracked from misuse, it seemed, but it carried through the still morning air with clarity. The growing crowd was eager to hear what he said and so they clustered together ever tighter. Jeoffroi found himself straining to hear every word as it escaped Gregor’s mouth.

                    “I feel the agony of the past several days’ events as keenly as you all do, I’m sure. The recently receded hours of our contentions are still fresh in our minds and will likely not fade away so swiftly as many of us would like. For some, there will never be a return to our former selves as the wounds are just too deep to heal properly and we will bear them through the remainder of our days, however long those may be. Friendships that have been treasured for lifetimes and through such great trials as we could never believe them to be found wanting have been tested. Some have broken under this pressure, and some now lay buried in the ground with our fallen comrades. I weep with each of you that has had to carry out such an undesirable task as that of burying a friend or a loved one. It is not something that will ever leave you, I’m afraid, and you will find yourself shaping your life around that hurt until it becomes a part of you and you become a new being because of it. Whether that pain will drive you to become a better person in memory of the departed, or bitter and despondent because of your loss is a choice that is entirely up to you. But I weep for you either way, and do not judge you for whatever choice you make in that regard, as I hope you will all do for me as we both go through our grieving in our own way. Hopefully we can do this in a companionship of friends and allies that even today stands on the brink of destruction.” Gregor stopped at this and reached into the folds of his cloak. When he removed his hands they held two skulls and Jeoffroi tilted his head in puzzlement, the rest of the crowd buzzed in shock at the sight.

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                    • “I bring these out to remind us all of why we started on this journey. These skulls are the prison which house the souls of two very dear friends of mine. They gave their lives in a faraway world and for a lost cause. The world they died to try and save was destroyed and now exists as distant starmetal in the skies, a hollow memory of a world once loved.” Gregor sighed, then cleared his throat before continuing.

                      “My friends who followed us through the hellish ordeal of retrieving these skulls and then fighting our way to this world already know of the sacrifices that friendship has required of them. There are so few of us left at this point and I want to reiterate my love for each of you. Men, elves, and even our departed dwarven allies that went through that ordeal, I wish I could offer you the peace that each of us craves, give you the happiness that we have fought to achieve. But our scars run deep, and our task is incomplete. I doubt not the mettle of you who have already followed me thus far, and should any of you wish to depart at this time I will not begrudge you for it and will wish you well on your way. You have already won your release to do with your life what you will. But I also know each of you well enough to know that you have already marched into hell with me once, and I will be surprised should any of you leave us, your brothers, in this our time of need. You, my friends are a company of heroes whose unknown deeds will speak into the eternities of battles fought for the truly most noble of causes: Family. You have already forged bonds that go beyond this world and I know that none of you shall quit now, not when we are so close to fulfilling our task.

                      “Now I speak to those of you who have not come from a lost world. I speak to those of you who have friends and families awaiting them back home, who have come on this march at the behest of those whom you name as your commanding officers or higher powers. The way before us is open. The Abyss stands yawning but a few days march away, where we will be faced with unspeakable horrors and a terrifying battle that will likely claim many, if not all lives. The chances of death are high, and I do not doubt you for questioning our sanity, or our reasons for going forward for the sake of two lost souls that remain in our care. Many of you have died to give us the right to stand here and lecture you on the honors of our host and why you should be falling in line with the new commander. However, I am here to tell you that such is an utter lie.” This proclamation spread ripples of surprise throughout the listeners.

                      “You are right to question our sanity. I will not hold it against any man who wishes to depart our company in the light of recent events. Everyone here has lost a loved one in the past few days. Some of us have killed loved ones in the battle still fresh in our minds. We have slaughtered our friends in cold blood at the command of leaders who selfishly have pursued their own ends and gambled with your lives like a drunken thief in a game of dice. Your lives are worth more than that and if you wish to be relieved of your obligation to follow us into what is coming, I will gladly sign any release that is placed before me, and will urge your commanders to allow the departure of any soldiers who wish to do so. Also, all executions for insubordination are hereby suspended. I cannot see how they will profit us or anyone else simply because an individual has chosen to question his beliefs that have been shaken by the events of a few hours still freshly remembered in the raw wounds of our recent memories. I beg your forgiveness that such an order comes far too late for so many, it is a sin that I shall bear to the end of my days for being to slothful and self centered to have stopped sooner.

                      “The weight of all these past days is a burden that none will bear easily through their days and that trauma will likely haunt us til the end of our time in this world. If any of you would wish to depart home to see your spouses, children, parents, or friends that have stayed behind, I will not begrudge you and wish you well in your journeys. If any of you do not have a home to go to, or are afraid of the ghosts that will follow you from this most unholy battlefield, I offer a different suggestion, some sliver of hope. Join us in the ranks of our brotherhood. I would welcome you into our family without the slightest hesitation. We will help bear you up in your darkness, in your weary battle with memories of a world gone horribly wrong. Come and fight with us, that we may become brothers and friends. There will be no ill will, no punishment for the madness that claimed us all and the grief that each of us wears heavily around our necks.

                      “We will ask you to march into hell with us, should you stay, but that will be no greater a task than the pain you already feel. You have already survived that loss, and you will continue to do so with the help of your brothers. If you wish us to be so we welcome you with open arms. If you wish to depart, do so with our good will upon you. For now, all will rest as we finish putting our friends and loved ones to rest. But soon we march on the Abyss, and when we do there will be no turning back, nor will there be another opportunity to leave. If you stay you will become our brother, but if you stay know that you will not be able to leave again until after our task is complete and our friends are free.

                      I place before you an impossible decision and I implore you to think hard on it, as I know you will. I would beg your aid, but I have already asked so much of you that I feel that is insufficient, and so I simply place the decision before you and offer you my inadequate gratitude should you choose to follow us. Go now and grieve, and we will speak again when the time for choices is upon us.”

                      With that Gregor stepped down from the cart and disappeared into a group of onlookers. Jeoffroi stared after him, trying to follow his movement so that he could speak with him, but he was lost in the sea of people, each one engaged in whispered conversations with their neighbor. The Exemplar finally sighed and gave up the chase, and instead turned to mulling over Gregor’s words in his head. What kind of man was this? What did he hope to achieve? Jeoffroi found himself with more questions than answers. That needed to change, and soon, or he would have no choice but to leave his debt unsettled with Gregor and return to his post where he was already long overdue.
                      ​​​​​​​

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                      • In Chapter 18 - I was surprised with the way Zargazo met his End. I was imaging that the medalion Gregor used would only make him lose his wings and powers (make him human) and Gregor would kill him in a fight of equal footing. I was also left in my mind with the question "What is Maurice’ doing ? Why doesn't he stop Zargazo ?".
                        I didn't post this question for lack of time (I'm between moving to another house).
                        But after reading Chapter 19, I now see why you killed Zargazo that way and why Maurice’ didn't act sonner.
                        The fact that he has great powers but can't used them all whitout the request/fait of mortals, this bond makes him a great character.

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