It Rings for Thee

Part One

by Doctor D

Tags: #noncon #f/f #fantasy #bondage #corruption #D/s #eldrich #erotic_horror #fantasy_politics #nobles #pov:bottom
See spoiler tags : #conditioning #magic #multiple_partners #transformation

A hunter does not forget the sound of a fired clockwork rifle.

They don’t disregard the sharp yet muffled click and tick beyond the locket-clock, nor the sharp grind of flint-fired gears when the trigger is pulled. The idle seconds that are counted, while the ashburned scent of powder filters from the muzzle, are done so with mechanical ease. Then, when the trigger is pulled again, and the body of the gun rocks back with that brief yet powerful flash of near-bottled lightning, the hunter can’t help but hear the deafening roar of it over their hot and humming blood.

No, they don’t forget it, even when the sound of that carefully leveled shot has faded, leaving behind only the haunted echo of fallen game and the metal aftertaste of caution and excitement. That brief heady unmentionable spike, when the heart thumps wildly and the mind goes blank filled with little else other than the euphoria of victory. It was all achievable, out there in the Wodd, where recollections lingered in sounds of tearing flesh and the scent of something copper. Fresh forevermore, a kaleidoscope of blinked past images that persisted from season to season. Even during Notos, when the second moon hung as high as the first casting slivers of green through thick and swaying canopy, the sounds of a boisterous Zephyr echoed history between the trees. Casting shades of red and gold among fallen brown leaves, they whispered of glory, of prey-life stolen, the heavy thunder of hooves, and the baying of hounds. There was more than memory there, more than murmurs of changing weather, greater hunts, and the cajoling yowl of whooping men. It was vibrancy and passion and so much beauty.

Theodora knew that, could feel it in the depths of her being, could see it in flickering shapes and the screech of something other whenever she closed her eyes. She could smell it still, a potent mixture of musk and wood, carefully combined with the taste of sweat-salt and the thrilled flutter of her pulse. Notos had been kind to her despite the southern winds and skittish prey. Much kinder than Zephyr, or the Flora before that. The Board of the Wodd had said as much, congratulatory and far too eager when they saw her conquered pelts. But they didn’t see the gleam of onyx skin in their dreams or the acute intensity of slit-eyed gold. Their backs didn’t burn from raised clawed flesh, jagged puckered red across her spine in a division of once flawless rich bronze. Nor had they heard the cry of the beast—

The cry… the cry of it, horrendous and chillingly childlike, calling and calling and calling, half singing like a babe—

But they smiled and nodded nonetheless, stuffed like hens in their long frock coats, while the buckskin of their boots squeaked with each prideful shift of body. As if they had been out there in their own hunting leathers conquering the Wodd! And furthermore, did the lot of them even keep such clothes, the garments of those truly immersed in the sport? Now that the Lord Duke preferred a showier sort of chase?

Pity that.

“So, what did they say?” A voice cut through her musing, all rasp with a mischievous sort of breathiness. A reminder of sly grins in the dark and stolen cider in pewter flasks.

“The Deaconess?” Theodora drawled, husky with the accent of her distinction and muffled against the back of folded hands while elbows kept her slouched over her hunting room table. “To sleep on my stomach, like a disciplined child.”

“No.” The voice chirped. “The Board. At the regaling?”

Theodora released a long exhale, blowing a black shoulder-length strand of stray hair—normally kept pushed back behind her ear but ultimately left untamed—away from her face while eyes of moon-green opened and focused, steady upon the form of her company. “They couldn’t identify it, the beast.”

Alphonse lifted one shoulder in a lazy listless shrug, while one hand shifted through cornflower hair in undercut style, the darker blacks on the sides of her head shaved low and undisturbed. Her other hand was curled around a porcelain teacup, far too full and already spilling its lukewarm contents over tawny fingers. Only her expression remained the same as her body shifted, lips half-cocked in knowing smile reflected off a gaze of murky blue. “So, you’ve discovered something new then?”

She returned her shrug. “And killed it just as well, if I have. Though, I’ve never known the men of the Board to be knowledgeable in all manner of existing beast.” And if she were honest, she couldn’t blame them for the slip. For, she knew nothing of the pelt upon her wall, with its obsidian flesh and short soft fur with a texture she could only describe as slick, even now, five moons later. It was like oil that was warm and alive with a sweet yet distinctively musky smell. It was no bear, though once it had stood on two legs, nor a cat from the mountain, for it’d been far too large. It was something else, unnamed, that plagued her memory. “I try not to think about it.”

“And why is that?” Alphonse whispered, poking a pink tongue out to wet her lower lip as she stepped around her, toward the wall at her back—host to many a slain head. “It’s unlike you to seem so apathetic, so listless. Where is the joy in the brag?”

Why indeed.

Was it the rattling in her chest when she closed her eyes, or her newfound fear of flickering shadows? Was it in the shallow sandpaper rasp of her breathing at night, as her body hummed with phantom agony and adrenaline? Or was it the illuminated glow in her recollection, the beady piercing light of her hound’s own gaze as it tore and bit into the creature’s flesh? She could hear her own voice in her reoccurring visions, reedy and choked, suffused with the shrill tint of madness as the rifle in her grip rocked her tense half-dragged frame, lighting up the night with the power of harnessed flame—and then came the count, the methodical one… two… three... as she peered into the wicked saliva slick teeth that would spell her demise and prayed to the Olde Ones that she’d have enough time for one more shot!

Alphonse calloused hands settled upon her shoulders, tight and high, and squeezed to break her reflections, but the echo of that night still lingered, a tightness that never left her throat.

“I’m in need of sleep,” The half-truth came easy, poured past her lips with practiced finesse, “but our most glorious Lord Duke has me playing at caretaker of the Wodd, for his upcoming revelry. Those beyond the gentry aren’t pleased by the call to labor, especially the merchants with their smooth unworked hands.”

She figured the dark visions would cease eventually, so long as she ignored them.

Alphonse’s response was the quirk of her brow and the press of her lips before she whispered. “I see.” But her friend had always been far too cunning and too introspective to fool. She was a master weaver of words who often toyed at the idea of bardhood but remained her spoilt vassal, a servant meant to attend to her needs and yet...

It was difficult being a Lord of the willful, despite her inheritance of the once dead Word of Power, reclaimed and repurposed within the manifesto of dominant compliance. Tradition dictated absolute obedience from those beneath elevated nobility, but the Longwar and the time that came thereafter had eroded much of the olde in terms of adhered to ways—and many words with their true meaning just as well. Even though Alphonse was hers through estate and blood, as was her mater before her—owned by her pater, both now dead and rotting—but her vassal had more things in common with a red-coated fox, than a faithful collared dog. Theodora found it tedious trying to order about another who had been taught to worship dying traditions right alongside her at the Academy and title alone could not leash her sly and mindful servant.

Then again, the blade of control had never been an aspect of existence that excited Theodora, despite being born with the knowledge of wielding it. Control came through wealth, stability through position. The hoarding of land and the constant reminding of unchanging hierarchy cemented those things. It all felt like a mask to her, something worn when the loudest self-proclaimed noble screamed in the Square with the intention of making the soft-spoken listen—but only because there was little else to do but listen. Boasting about her coffers or the authenticity of her crest, like the rest of the gentry wearing the mantle of their worth in dyed silks, wouldn’t make the populous obey any more than they begrudgingly did. It wasn’t true obedience in the end, just the illusion of it fueled by a constant practicing presence. They worshipped the bread they earned and the koin from servitude, not the blood that maintained it.

They weren’t all highborne children, no matter how many stolen records said otherwise.

Beyond the Board, the greed of the Kourts, the hoarded koins, and the mundanities of repetitive action, there were only two things of worth in Saltpotter for her. The subtle war of dominance with her most trusted, and the call of the hunt.

And one of those things had been tainted.

“Well,” Alphonse gave her shoulder a hearty pat and had the audacity to ignore the flinch Theodora made after the action. “Let’s see it.”

She felt her heart pause for an endless beat, before the idle pound of it became a racket against her ribs. She made a ghastly croak in response, then cleared her throat. “See it?” Though she managed speak without a tinny tone she could not control the slight tremble of her hand as it pulled through the black of her oiled and pulled back hair, still wild despite her attempts to tame it. “The pelt? You want to see the pelt?”

“Yes.”

She didn’t have an immediate response, her gaze on the abandoned teacup beading sweat upon her polished table.

“Is something wrong with it?” Alphonse asked, and the careful slow way the question had been said pulled Theodora from the abrupt lull in conversation she’d created.

Still, she didn’t answer it, her reply instead the harsh teeth-grinding scrape of wooden legs as she stood from her wingback chair. How could she ask her such a thing? Was something wrong with it? Yes and no. She hated it, the thing in her home, the skin that she swore whispered. The skin that left her feeling rattled. But she loved it too, for all that it represented—for all the fear it had caused her, for the rush that had mingled so deliciously well, for the cutting realization that she had survived it and thus, in some primal awakened part of her, that meant she was better—

It was dizzying and wicked all at once, the intensity of emotion and the churn of her thoughts. No hunt, and no pelt claimed thereafter, had ever left her so…

Wet.

And wasn’t that the major issue?

“Here,” Theodora croaked. “It’s in here.”

In the room she kept locked, with the leather covered accounting books, tea-stained almanacs, and passed down treasures from family members ancient and dead. All her secrets in one little place. From the churchwarden pipes of her pater hung on raised hooks with silver chains to the faded painted portraits perfectly aligned among them. Her in-house shed hidden from all but one.

Alphonse stalked past her, buzzing with a visible sense of eagerness past towering stacks of bound parchment and toward the back of the converted room space. There, the pinned onyx colored skin hung, far too long to be contained on its singular wall. Theodora saw a pause in Alphonse’s motion. Muscles grew tense along vest concealed shoulders right as she stood before the excess of the pelt, which pooled around her booted feet like puddled shadows.

That tension only eased once Theodora slipped inside behind her, cutting off the slivers of lighting from the hallway with the bulk of her body.

Alphonse took a shuddering breath with open mouth, tasting the strange sweet scent of smoky musk that was now suffused through the room against the back of her tongue, then rasped, “Light the lamp.”

A golden hue flooded their shared space, and Theodora’s fingertips tingled with heat as she drew them down from the glass of the oil-lamp to fiddle with the reflective buttons of her waistcoat. A nervous habit, but she had never known Alphonse to be so quiet, infused with an intensity upon the very thing that seemed to haunt her. Could she feel it to, then? The strange warmth? The near suffocating pressure? Even behind her Theodora could imagine her expression, one of dilated pupils and parted lips.

Or maybe it was nothing, maybe she remained trapped within the spell of her conquered beast and no one else. The idea that she could be swayed so easily did little to ease the tension in her own back, but she didn’t dare look at the skin itself, no matter how strong she wanted to disprove her inner cowardice. Her gaze remained focused along the back of Alphonse flexing neck, incapable of doing otherwise.

She couldn’t. It made her feel…

No, it was more than that, she often lost time…

No, best not to think of any of it.

“You killed this?”

Theodora had to strain to hear Alphonse soft utterance. She slowly leaned forward, helplessly pulled to her side by the subconscious need for clarification.

Now, she really did see her expression, a mixture of strained impress and flared nostrils. Something other swam within that dilated gaze, a peculiar twisting curiosity mixed with the unnamed. When it turned upon her, Theodora couldn’t help but feel her belly clench. She’d never seen such… heat and shades among murky blue—all-consuming and so very severe. And yet, some portion of her recognized it, something beyond her mind and in the thud of her heart but—

Alphonse blinked, a motion done long and slow, and her gaze turned away, back to the pelt with its massive skull and abnormally large paws.

Theodora swallowed then, and finally answered the question that lingered. “I did.”

“Impressive.” Alphonse reflected with lifted hand. There was a moment of hesitation as it hovered over the pelt, but all to soon she gave into the urge, using the tips of her fingers to stroke along the spine. “It’s… wet.”

Theodora licked her lips, “It hasn’t dried. I’m not sure why, there isn’t any… blood.” The flame of the lamp flickered across it, giving the impression of something slick. She knew what it felt like beneath her own hands, could still feel the glossiness of it on her skin. Even now she swore she could hear a thunderous heartbeat as it breathed with a growing sense of haunted life. “It’s why I keep it here. The sun filters in often and...”

“It gets rather warm,” Alphonse mumbled, distracted, tickling it along the center.

“B-because it gets warm, yes.”

Silence reigned thereafter, heavy on the tail of her words as it devoured everything Theodora wanted to express but found difficult to say. Does it frighten you? The look of it? Does it stir within you… something indescribable? But the words tasted wrong on her tongue, spoiled by the magnetic draw that brought her vision from the wood floor between her feet to the pelt proper. She couldn’t help it. It was difficult to talk about it unless she… acknowledged it. But how much time could she risk losing to it? How long would she hold before her mind twisted through visions of gleaming teeth and heated weight?

“There’s a hole here.”

Thoughtlessly her gaze slotted in place, drawn to the space Alphonse referenced. She knows it’s there, she knows every inch of the skin on the wall. “Basil.”

With a sardonic quirk of lips Alphonse said, “You allowed your hound to get to your pelt?”

Somehow speaking of Basil, her own collared beast of black as large and rotund as a wild mountain cat, was grounding. “She tore into... it.”

She could hear Alphonse’s long exhale as she turned from the pelt, as if the simple act of turning away was exhausting. She knew what that felt like and was somewhat proud of herself when she was able to direct her gaze back to the door with little difficulty. It was hauntingly alluring, damaged or otherwise, and some portion of her felt wickedly satisfied when Alphonse slipped out the door rubbing her eyes and inhaling deeply.

And yet, it was still with reluctance that she extinguished the lamp and closed the door, trapping the mesmerizing skin and the oddly dizzying scent that it carried behind its massive frame.

Conversation continued, though they both stood before the door, hesitant or perhaps in awe of the thing behind it. “Tore into it?”

“After it died,” Theodora began, “Basil approached it, started chewing at the meat and widening one of the shell holes. I’ve never seen her do anything quite like that, and I was a bit busy at the time.”

Writhing in agony from her injuries or… had it been something else?

She could scarcely remember when she’d been trying so desperately to forget.

“It wasn’t substantial.” She knocked the heel of her shoe against the bottom of the door, “The Board was far too impressed by its size and the weirdness of shape to notice, so I hardly lost points.” A look was given to Alphonse then, from the corner of half-lidded eyes. “What say you?”

“I say I’m not so sure what it is and that, for the sake of Saltpotter, I hope there aren’t any more nearby.”

They were both silent after that, Theodora plagued by Alphonse uncertainty, and Alphonse plagued by… who knew what.

She took a shaky breath, “To Kourt, then?”

“To Kourt.”

* * *

Against the backdrop of babble, gossip, and other sounds of gentry squabbling, Alphonse leaned over and whispered—

“There’s war in the west.”

Theodora tilted her head, lips pressed thin in acknowledgement before she uttered back, just as soft beneath the undertone of general drivel, “Across the sea?”

There was pause then, interrupted by the warmth of a body pressed tight against her side. She felt soft breath against her ear expressed with enough heat that it drew a shiver down the length her spine, “The Divided Sea, they call it now.”

“You cannot divide the sea,” Theodora snapped in sharp hiss as she disregarded the elevation of a nameless body of water. “Stop distracting me.”

Alphonse’s hand grabbed her bicep and squeezed with enough force to wrinkle the cloth there, “The sea is divided! My coz said so. The witch-king—”

Here, Theodora jerked, a reaction to the utterance of a long dead word, forbidden and taboo for good reason, “Silence, silence—”

“—listen! They claim the witch-king—oh don’t flinch—divided the sea, then went to war in the west—”

“There is no war in the west,” Theodora interrupted, her gaze set to comb the space beyond their taken seats of wealth in hope that no other could overhear. “The Lord Duke said as much.”

“Duluth is a fool,” Alphonse scoffed into her ear, “I’ve been to Springhammer and their Lord Duke has more awareness in her foot than Duluth in his arse—”

Theodora swallowed a laughed.

“—and they say there is war in the west.”

“And I say I should have never let you go to Springhammer. You were meant to be educated in the affairs of your house and the skill of the seneschal.”

“I’ve learned much about the House of Moryet and attending your needs.”

“Yet you sit here babbling on about wild tales told in the dark. There is no war. There is no divided sea.”

And while Theodora refused to turn her gaze upon her vassal, she could tell her chosen was pouting. She decided to humor her with a pat to the hand that still gripped her, somewhat tightly.

Alphonse tried again, “Remember the ship that crashed in the north?”

Up in the treacherous waters of the snow-covered mountains, far beyond Saltpotter and farther still beyond Springhammer. Yes, she remembered. More than that, she remembered the Lord Duke red faced and screeching as he squashed the rumors of its validity and ejected the Hammerian messenger from Kourt. He’d proclaimed them both—words and messenger—a failed attempt at destroying their emotional solidity and that had been that. The ship, and whatever mystery had come with it, had faded from the front of her mind.

But it hadn’t been forgotten. She nodded.

“It was from the west!” Now a peculiar niggling excitement colored the speech of her companion, and though her voice was low Theodora feared her shifting body language would be enough to draw the attention of the mingling nobility alone. “Not a lost wares ship from the south of our side, but an attempt at communication from the west! A warning was found. The Church of Elysia has fallen, it’s treasure—and people—are gone.”

She parted her lips, sound trapped in her throat. That couldn’t be true. She remembered the works of art her pater had kept. Beautifully painted visuals of landscapes and buildings from the west, from before the continental split and the madness of lost languages. But one of them had always stood out to her, the hung canvas depicting a massive structure of vibrant stained-glass, grass too green to be real, and imposing stone walls. They all knew about the Church, and the strength it represented, even though there was but a rare few from the east who had ever seen it. The stories had been enough to cement its power, legends of absolute authority on the wind.

Surely, they would have heard of that, even in Saltpotter—flourishing in its seclusion on the edge of the eastern continent. Pigeon missives were incredibly slow, but not unheard of. Alphonse had to be wrong because there was no war.

She swallowed, cleared her throat, and was proud when her words didn’t waver. “The sea cannot be tamed nor crossed. And the Church is fortified, with Elysia as its Lord Duke. It’s nigh impossible to conquer.”

“Not for the witch-king—”

“—Al!”

“I apologize, Theo. Not for the witch.”

“And I suspect you’ll try to convince me magick, true magick, is a possibility, next?”

For a moment there was silence, a vacuum of noise despite their current placement. She’d thought Alphonse well and silenced, but all too soon, in a whisper she barely heard, she hissed—

“It was real, you know. Once upon a time, in the daughters of the highborne, when the continent of Grindwall was one before the wild sea and the Lord Duke.”

During the time of kings.

But that was no more, not after the Longwar, not after the eradication of bloodlines and words. There was no proper power in them, no force or effortless authority that didn’t feel perverted and dark. They’d had to burry it then, to prevent the coming of what-couldn’t-be… but in doing so they’d lost so much. They were lucky that the word ‘lord’ held the weight that it did, untwisted and pure. That it had survived when ancient heads had not.

“And the Lord Duke knows little of it. Of anything beyond this cramped choking state. We sit in a freeDom but it’s run by a false-king.”

Theodora’s throat felt tight, “That’s enough, Alphonse.”

Slowly, Alphonse released her, her soft mumble of, “Apologies, my Lord.” Still far too close to her ear, but at least she’d stopped her talk of war with words too olde to properly understand. If only Pater were here, with his wisdom and endless faith in the strength of their traditions.

Which even Lord Duluth seemed to often forget.

But, the Olde Ways weren’t a topic of discussion, not in polite company. Neither was the fantasy and fallacy of magick, war, or history to boot.

“Perhaps, you should skip the visit with your coz next season. Focus on things within Saltpotter, instead of the wild tales beyond it,” Theodora mumbled bitterly.

She received a pinch for her comment.

* * *

The ringing of the Bells woke her, a jarring song so strong it shook the walls of the manor. She jerked in her bedding, sweat-slick and disorientated from the violent strike of noise where they’d been none. No… no it was more than that. Though she couldn’t grasp the fleeting wisps of her dream-visions she could tell the thudding rush of heat beneath her skin and the flush that infused her was being driven by more than just her fear—

A fear that had been there before the Bells, a fear that had mixed far too sweetly with a pounding warmth, images she could not recall, and a darkness so thick—

Well, it invited an entirely new layer of worries upon the ones that would have come with the ringing of the Bells.

But there was another sound underneath the thundering ringing. The sound of something blunt and heavy knocking into—

Oh.

“My Lord?!” Alphonse voice came muffled from behind her door, and she was surprised she could hear it, considering the strength of the noise rattling the bronze tall-case clock against the wall. Or, maybe that was the force of Alphonse bumping into things in a no doubt still dark hallway, “My Lord! The Bells, the—ouch!—fucking Bells!”

For a moment, Theodora considered remaining in bed, still, silent, and staring at the shadowed designs barely conceivable across the coffered ceiling. But, if she valued whatever object rattling out there whenever Alphonse stomped heavily past her door, she best get moving.

“I’m in the bedroom,” Theodora croaked, mouth dry.

“I know very well you’re in the bloody—where is the door handle? Have you moved it?”

Theodora blamed the panic for Alphonse’s current lapse of sense, “No, I have not moved it, Al. Did you bring a lantern with you?”

“Did I bring a—just open the door? We need to—they’re calling in the Square!”

Fine.

She swung smooth bare legs over the edge of her mattress and right into well placed slippers. Alphonse couldn’t be blamed for her manic behavior. It was true that the Bells did not ring—had never rung, in Theodora’s lifetime in fact—unless there was something wrong. Still, she figured if the Cryer had time to move the Bells, and thus create this fanfare, then people weren’t being slaughtered in the streets. At least, not yet.

She’d barely opened the door before Alphonse, with one hand trying to keep up her trousers, tossed her a clean pair to wear over her nude lower torso. A quick glance over revealed that Alphonse had kept on her nightshirt and had apparently decided that Theodora’s would also make do for an appropriate top. No time for vest and blouse. Or a sense of refinement.

“Coats?” She asked her, hopping into unbuckled pants.

“No. Yes! Ah, sure.”

Alphonse looked… wild. Drenched in a thickening fear. There was no other way to explain the film that gleamed in her wide gaze, reflected easily in the green sliver of moonlight from the nearby window. With flared nostrils she chewed on her bottom lip, only pausing in that gnawing act to cast beady pupils at her progress. It briefly reminded her of the room and her earlier reaction to the… pelt. All that… bubbling intensity.

She pushed it from her mind.

But Theodora’s initial assessment had been wrong. There was no denying the frantic frenzy that swaddled her companion, palpable in its intensity but wasn’t fear of the Bells or the unknown that had Alphonse pulling her clumsily from the manor. It was excitement.

But why?

There wasn’t enough time to ponder that. Without the protection of the manor walls the thudding drowning beat of the Bells was all consuming. Almost as one they both took toward the Square, past the opened gothic gates in linked step until they spilled out onto the cobblestone street among neighbors and peasants crafting a rapidly growing crowd.

Many of which looked agitated, especially this close to the source of the sound that had yanked them all from the embrace of sleep and into the chill of the Notos air. The massive brass bells, a wonder of metals as big as a man and a clear showcase of Saltpotter’s wealth, only stopped when Lord Duluth appeared, face twisted in grimace and gaze narrowed upon the youthful cryer who had done the action. In the wake of the sound there was absolute silence, tense and thick… but they had all been conditioned to pause at the sight of their Lord Duke and to heed the call of their symbol when it cried for their attention.

Silence was natural. Comfortable. And taught to them in their youth. Only Alphonse looked uneasy beside her, lips pressed thin and brows furrowed.

“Thank you, Cryer Mason.” Duluth crowed, giving the impress of a strutting peacock eagerly displaying the weight of their wealth and station. There were too many sharp angles and arrogant glares tonight, especially toward his people, only softened by the upturned twist of his thin lips—as if he’d known the Bells would ring and wasn’t even a little sorry about the disturbance of it.

For even now, while the bulk of them stood in various stages of undress and disorientation he seemed impeccable, with pressed trousers, and jewels adorned. Even the polish glistened, still slick on the skin of his boots.

She heard Alphonse give a guttural grunt as he crossed into the lantern light, a thespian preparing for a show.

Theodora gave no response, focused on the tension that tightened her shoulders.

“Commander,” His voice spread over them, those present in the Square, loud and clear enough that even those who hung from their windows—far too stubborn to leave the comfort of their Square placed homes—could hear him with little issue. “You’ve called?”

A wave of faces turned forward, staring at the lightly armored collective near the gear-and-chain gate, the northern entrance facing their circular square. From the group split a woman of terracotta tones—interrupted by patches of porcelain that swept across the left side of her face and collarbone, until it dipped below her clothing. Tall and hard-faced with surcoat unbuttoned over armor craft from leather. It was beaten, old, and sun-stained, an obvious sign that she was seasoned—having dealt with what little skirmishes Saltpotter had—and the blade focused crest upon her shoulder was a clear symbol of not only her heritage but her obedience to the Pride of Duluth.

The watchguard that protected the town proper.

The Commander stood before him, barely a head shorter and yet she carried herself with such casual confidence that she seemed to overshadow the now cringing Duluth. She stared at him in a manner most eerie, unblinking past the sharp glare of a diagonal scar from the bridge of her nose until the end of her cheek—intense in her severity. “They’re here.” Came her initial response, a guttural croak like rolling gravel underfoot. “You told us to—”

“Yes, they are here, of course.” He cut her off, a rude gesture to someone of her station but she barely flinched, only cast a peculiar look toward the hovering collective at her back from a veil of fire kissed hair. Theodora admired that sort of patience, that sort of control. Though the Lord Duke claimed to care for them, his boisterous often obnoxious attitude had done none of the gentry any favors. Not unless you were among the back-pocket.

“Well,” He stepped to the side and moved beyond the Commander, to instead turn to the people and the sweat-slick cryer Mason who now appeared from beneath the massive bell. “Let them in!”

Let who in, exactly?

Saltpotter, while not the largest of freeDoms, and barely the size of Springhammer, was a testament to the power of innovation. They made their wealth on the back of the general citizenry through the market of metals nearby mined and the furs of the Wodd. Duluth hoarded his taxed pounds of koin from the families that owned land and business, but also funneled it back into the Dom proper, through the purchase of jewels and other rich-born cloths. Likewise, even Theodora tended to seek the latest in clockwork weapons—rare as they were—and she paid her estate workers rather well. Their economy was self-functional, a wonder in their current world, and due to that they tended to be…

Insular.

Incredibly so, as told by the strict in-town guard and the inventive nature of their brick and steel wall—physically imposing as it stretched around them all. Meant to keep them safe. Meant to keep them in.

It was difficult to envision a visitor. Even the envoys from Springhammer barely travelled. So, why now, why the alert, why the ringing of the Bells?

The people were restless, blurred faces in the dark and bodies that shifted from foot to foot. She could hear the idle movement of cloth over the heavy thud of her heart, and while discontent wasn’t unusual among the individual persons, there was still a different sort of collective unease at the idea of just opening the gate to reveal the unknown.

But they opened it anyway, turning the massive crank before a silent and worried audience to reveal the night-fog and the whistling of the wind through the trees.

And the unnatural gleam of beady red eyes beyond it.

* * *

Trepidation swept through the Square and those of lesser constitution—and, in turn, lesser control—stepped closer to the darkness and safety provided by the buildings at their back. Having stood with the bulk of the gentry, this left Theodora and her companion at the front, closest to Duluth, and thus, closer to the gleaming gaze of the visiting force.

The flickering lantern light caught them briefly, giving insight to five shapes that flowed into feminine forms dressed for travel. Cloaks of vibrant hue, reminiscent of thick plum wine, adorned their hooded figures and they sat upon creatures Theodora struggled to comprehend as horses. They were… horses, weren’t they? What else could they be? But she’d never seen anything so colossal in terms of riding beast nor so black—and she tried not to think about the pelt in her room, the one that was even darker than that.

The heavy and persistent clop of their horses’ metal grey hooves upon the cobblestone were the only sounds that occupied the Square as they advanced. They, the populous, were all frozen by the sight of them. Even the mighty Duluth paused at the casually displayed might and size of their animals, which left Theodora wondering what they, the strangers, might be to have tamed them.

The group stopped in the Square, one horse of what Theodora estimated to be twenty-one palms set to tower over a grimacing Duluth as it and rider split from the collective. There was little time wasted after that, and with a grace Theodora had seen very few riders possess one leg was lifted and swung over the beast in dismount. Now, fully free from the shadows beyond them, the first to break away from the visiting group was clearly seen. Gloved hands pulled back a gilded edged hood and the first thing to greet her vision was the full marvel of pearl colored hair, long in asymmetrical bob—with one side nearly touching her shoulder while the other ended just above her chin. But more startling than that was the traveler’s gaze, a somewhat chilling stare of gold that accentuated soft cheekbones and full but pale cherry lips. There’s a strange beauty to her, an odd newness in the size of her pupils in a color that should not exist, that Theodora can only place as otherworldly. She was not the only one to think so, for even Duluth parted his lips at the full sight of her.

The others behind her dismounted from their horses, and the beasts remained calm and eerily still despite a growing tension. They move as one unit, the remaining three, and stood behind their first with arms crossed at their back and hoods still up. Though the Square was surrounded by the Pride and all the might their presence carried, there was something intimidating in the posture of those beyond them, something far too confident and authoritative to describe.

It’s enough for Theodora to draw a sharp breath. To clutch her stomach with a twitching hand as something twisted and fluttered through her in a cocktail of sensation she had no word for. She’s adrift in it, for a time, a nerve-wracking anxiousness crafted by the wild pervasive thought of invasion and the echo of Alphonse words—

But war? There was no war. And they are not being invaded. A silly thought, that.

Still, silly thought or otherwise, she does not reject the comfort provided by the warmth of Alphonse suddenly available hand. Only the Commander seemed unimpressed, a stoic and leery figure on Duluth’s left with hand idle on the hilt of her still holstered blade.

The stranger was not impacted, not by Duluth’s soft utterance coupled with the open and closing of his hands nor their Commander’s aloft expression—and in turn, the numerous ready Pride. A motion was made toward them, a hand lifted then clenched into a fist before three fingers are raised. The pointer. The middle. And the ring.

Duluth gave no immediate reaction, his expression pinched, and his brow furrowed but the Commander stiffened at the sight of it.

Then, with a sharp intake of breath, she returned the gesture.

Which was enough for the stranger to speak without spoken invitation, with a voice of calm, of a softness that seemed impossibly loud amongst the strained silence. Yet, Theodora can’t help but lean forward slightly, as if in doing so she might hear the stranger with better clarity, even over the rapid thudding of her own heartbeat.

“We are travelers from Ashwyn.” Her was voice different, accented and so strong. Filled with a poise that cannot be falsified. In that one statement, that declaration of her freedom and origin, is so much pride. It was only enhanced by the woman’s careful action, by how she motioned to the gleaming crest that buttoned her cloak—a lion’s head the color of slate and smoke with open maw and mane of red.

There’s a voice from the back, a soft whisper. “Ashwyn? Is that to the North?”

The woman caught that whisper on the wind, “It is not to the North, or the East, or the West of this continent.”

But that answer was not enough and the people murmured about them, a brewing storm of confusion that was only halted when Alphonse tugged at her hand for attention, if only to mouth—‘it’s in the sea.’

Ashwyn? Ashwyn is in the sea?

“It is at the center.” The woman continued, vague and patient, and still her voice is heard over the ambience of muttered questions. “Ashwyn divides the sea.”

Now Duluth has found his arrogance, his mettle, his voice, and Theodora can practically see him wrap those familiar aspects of himself about his form like well-fitting armor, “Preposterous. There is no division in the uncrossable sea!”

This was his element, absolute denial, and from the corner of her gaze Theodora could see those among the gentry nod, unshaken in their belief of his words. Only Alphonse, at her side, seemed disgruntled—though that was not unusual, for she held no care for Duluth and his immediate denials. But even she found it difficult to believe that strangers could manifest from the turbulent sea, where ships did not cross and the likes of man could not live.

Still, even in the face of this denial and the conviction of their Lord Duke, the stranger did not stumble, did not stutter. Instead, she smiled, something that only lifted one side of her lips. “And there is no war in Grindwall.”

The crowd drew a collective breath and the Commander’s grip upon her blade tightened, but she neither drew nor attempted to close the space, no matter how pronounced Duluth’s neck became as he swallowed. He opened his mouth to speak, but the stranger raised her hand again, palm forward in the motion to halt.

“I apologize,” She said, hand now lowered and extended, “I am Artorius, Artorius Elwyn. I’ve no want for trouble and wish to cause no need for worry.”

And Theodora saw Alphonse bob her head from the corner of her gaze, as if to agree with their visitor, while Duluth reached out and gripped that offered hand with a flexing arm. If he were trying to squeeze it to cause discomfort or dominate, the stranger gave no indication.

She didn’t even flinch.

“I am Richard Duluth, Lord Duke of Saltpotter, and we welcome you.” Duluth croaked, “But we do not talk of war or twist tales about the sea. There’s no need for that or… trouble.”

The woman’s answering chuckle rung in Theodora’s ears, something that resonated with heat and bite. “No trouble, then.”

Duluth swallowed thickly, “I received your missive and answered accordingly. What would visitors from the sea,” and he said the word with all the callous disbelief he could muster, something cruel with the disdain of the aristocratic that managed to lure a few nervous laughs from the crowd, “need in Saltpotter?”

The fact that Duluth knew of the stranger, and thus had purposely rung the Bells for no reason other than to gain an audience did not sit well with her. It certainly didn’t sit well with Alphonse, who sucked in her bottom lip and gnawed on it in clear contempt. But the others, those who were more focused on the mystery around them than the offense that had woken them, seemed dismissive of the words.

So, Theodora tucked them away for later.

“We’ve experienced tragedy.” She said, drawing that gaze of gold along the crowd in a manner most unsettling. “We were five and are now four.”

“Oh?” Duluth asked.

She elaborated, “Our small procession had business with Springhammer.”

Alphonse made an odd sound beside her.

“During our journey south, we sent one of our party ahead with something important, toward the outskirts of your Wodd at sunset.”

“That’s private estate—”

“—which is why we’ve made no effort to enter. Initially.”

Duluth furrowed his brow, “Initially?”

“Our member did not return. So, we followed her trail into the Wodd.”

Duluth did not appear happy to hear that, “And what did you find in my Wodd?”

“Blood but no corpse.”

The atmosphere began to morph, tension now mingled with the sound of uneasy shuffling. Someone to her left—Lord Shire—blurted, “We hunt in the Wodd, those of the Board. Blood is no indication of theft or tragedy.”

But another voice, from the shadows of the back shouted, “How long ago was this?”

“It has been, at most, a fortnight since our companion went missing. We sent missive two dawns before now.”

Something cold and heavy knotted in her stomach with enough strength to rattle her breathing. From one rasp to the next she felt it move, a suffocating blanket of chilling clarity that clawed up her spine and tightened her throat. A fortnight ago she had been in the Wodd, alone, with little else but a clockwork rifle, a hound, and a beast. The stranger could be lying, misled and mistaken, but what if the very thing that had sought to destroy her had already ruined this missing companion?

“Saltpotter is safe,” Duluth made sure to put great emphasis on that final word. “I’ve no reason to think something untoward would happen here or in our Wodd. So, if you are trying to even imply—”

But something odd had roamed the Wodd, something monstrous and just shy of grotesque. She wanted to speak, to interrupt and add weight to the strangers claim that maybe, just maybe—

But the stranger interrupted, shattering thought and speech with but an idle wave of hand and a softly sighed, “Humor me.”

Then, while Duluth reared back like a disgruntled bird, the woman shifted cloak aside to reveal a plump and near straining cloth bound pouch. From within she pulled a thin and circular object and held between her fingers it caught the lantern light and seemed to glow. She recognized the shape of it, koin like in structure, but it was not a solid color and it held a strange thickness and size, as if the weight of it could lower her palm.

But the stranger held it steady, flipped it up to display the blackness of its center and the rim of gold that lined it. “Ashwyn is a freeDom of wealth. This is the symbol of our power.”

Theodora had never seen that sort of koin before, had never seen such dark metals nestled perfectly in gold. The ebony gleam at the center was only accentuated by the near glowing rim as it caught her gaze with the same sort of power the pelt did so very often. It was difficult (wrong) to tear her gaze away, when so many of them seemed interested (captured) by the liquid pull of it. Even Duluth, whose lips were parted while words danced on the edge of his tongue incapable of released.

He took a soft breath, then another, before he spoke again, “What is that?”

The black at the center, the glistening metal.

Tenebraurea,” She answered, tongue curled around a word meant to be spoken in the husk of her accent. “We mine it at the isle, a gift from the Divided Sea.”

Tension threaded the Lord Duke’s shoulders and there dwelled within him an urge to deny—the sea, claimed divided and named, could give no gifts—but his voice was lost, taken by the pull of the koin the stranger expertly flipped over fingers and onto the center her palm. She held her fist open for a time, and Duluth’s gaze, much like her own, remained fixated at the center. Even the Commander appeared split, her attention focused on the figures still statuesque behind their lead though her gaze often flickered back to the black rimmed gold.

Tenebraurea. Perhaps that word resonated as strongly within their skulls as it did her own, nestling itself in some quiet corner to be pulled upon later. The word, like the image of the koin, felt like a part of her being, a memory wrapped in craving. She wondered, with a sudden intensity, how it would feel in her grasp, if the black was as slick and smooth as the pelt in her manor. Her palms itched as she thought of its weight, of how it might pull down her arm if she were to extend it and pluck that gift right out of the stranger’s grasp.

She swallowed a sound, strangled it in her chest, as the bodies around her shifted with anxious intent. Lord Shire had taken a step forward, and only her tight sweat-slick grip upon Alphonse hand had managed to keep them both rooted to their own places. Everyone had moved forward, just a little closer, to get a better peek—even those in their homes now hung out from open windows.

But the gift was not for her or for the fidgeting Shire. The woman had closed her fist back over her koin and extended it to Duluth. “Springhammer has been awakened to the wonders of our Tenebraurea, to the strength of it, the feel of it, and it’s noble look.” Softly uttered words were no longer tingled with the sign of apathetic patience. Now she seemed serpent like in nature, with the shadows of something more twisting through golden eyes, eyes as gold as the rim around her treasure. Theodora felt something in her stomach twist, and though the look was not directed toward her, her heart thudded all the same. “This is not our only treasure, but it is our first offer. We wish to explore Saltpotter. Let us freely survey your Wodd for clues of our companion and in return we will share our Tenebraurea.”

There’s amusement in her tone and a certain undeniable sureness in her action. She didn’t wait for Duluth to respond, instead she took hold of one of his wrists—to which both he and the Commander inhaled sharply, one from the nerve of it, and the other from something else—extended his arm to meet her own, then dropped the koin into a now open palm, before she pulled away.

“Think on it,” She purred, a sound that whispered the promise of more and pulled at something deep within Theodora’s belly. She twisted on the heel of her boots then and with only a motion to the group at her back they began to mount their horses.

But Duluth…

Duluth did not need to think on it. Theodora could tell by how he hunched over the koin in his trembling grip. How he licked his lips and stared with eyes far too wide at his now clenched fist. He wanted, almost as badly as she wanted, but what she couldn’t be sure of.

But he at least knew. “Return with your bounty and let us talk! I’ve an open contract… the Board, the Board will add the name of your group!” His voice was almost frantic, swaddled with an unnamed energy and emphasized by the smile that split his face so wide it must have hurt. “Artorius, is it? Let Saltpotter be your dearest friend.”

And the stranger, Artorius, smiled back, mounted atop her horse with the regality of the long-dead and highborne. And uttered, simply—

“Alright.”

* * *

They were called to Kourt the next day, early and hurried with a simple order: bring your crest. It wasn’t an unusual request, the Lord Duke enjoyed his boasting and often told those on the continent that Saltpotter had the highest concentration of the true. With the blood of the highborne scattered throughout Grindwall, that was a powerful hand to play. But it was difficult to take much stock in it. The Longwar had eradicated many a true born line to now dead kings and it wasn’t difficult to claim highborne status in the vacuum left behind. A crest was a sign of authentication but easily pilfered. Though rare they may be, it only took a handful of koin to bring a family a lost symbol of high nobility if they knew where to look and which records to burn.

So, something must have happened between the night the Ashwynborn left to collect their promised bounty and the morning they returned for Duluth to want to display his claim of such.

Their walk was brisk and mostly silent, and despite the urgency in which they’d been commanded, she did find time to ask Alphonse if she had seen the Ashwynborn, in passing or otherwise, during her stay in Springhammer.

“Oh?” Alphonse said, though her eyelids fluttered as if to dislodge a thought, “No… No, I didn’t see them.”

But she seemed unsure. “Are you certain?”

“Am I certain?” Alphonse snorted, “I’d know if I’d seen the likes of those women. Too unique to be missed, in my opinion.”

And that had been that.

She might have asked more had they the extra time but upon entering the Kourt proper she found the circular space overwhelmingly full and far too noisy to attempt sensitive discussion.

Only Duluth could be heard over the gathering gentry, his lionlike guffaws somewhat forced as he fiddled with a silver chain about his neck.

To draw attention to the glimmer of the gold rimmed koin he’d gained last night, now worn like a polished crown.

“Look at him,” Alphonse said with heat in a narrowed gaze, “a braggart in every way.”

And she did, for a time, watch him. She observed the way his fingers carefully felt along the ridged edges of his taken prize, how he opened and closed his hand about it as if to feel the weight. How his thumb ran over the black at the center and—goodness, some portion of her coveted it. Not his filthy touch but the koin and it’s beauty

“Lord Havelock!” His voice cut through the fog of her thoughts with knifelike accuracy. She took a startled breath, pulling in the comfort of Kourt—the smell of cedar wood and wax—as she straightened, fiddling with an open pocket and the handkerchief within to hide the shaking of her hands.

“Lord Duke,” She said with careful control, a standard acknowledgement. “You summoned?”

He reached out without permission, koin now settled against his chest while his hands gripped not only Theodora’s shoulder but Alphonse’s as well, who grew tense beneath unwanted touch. “For our good friends from Ashwyn, of course! They’re curious about our highborne!”

Our good friends, were they? Interested in the pretty collection Duluth often scrutinized?

His face was flushed, and his gaze seemed glassy, perhaps from the indulgence of morning drink. “Oh?” Theodora spared a glance over his shoulder, to the steadily moving line of well-dressed folk holding carefully onto the pins of their wealth. On the other side of the table, with one leg crossed over the other, sat Artorius Elwyn, dressed in leather pants and corset. All of it, including the tunic beneath, as black as the koin against Duluth chest. Her plum cloak, now halved, pinned, and worn over just one shoulder, was the only fabric of color to grace her, highlighting a toned physique.

Theodora drunk her in, unable to pull her gaze elsewhere, shameless in her staring. It was then, while she ignored the odd flutter in her belly, that she caught a mark against the flesh of her neck in the light of the Notos morning. She could see a… an elongated circle, thick and inked on slightly raised skin, with a single diagonal strike across the center—

And in seeing it, in comprehending its existence, she felt an odd curling hunger. A whip-like sharp tug against her navel, like claws of heat in flesh, and a yearning to drag her tongue across it

Then she blinked, left with only the passing want to remove herself from Duluth’s grip and a slight breathiness. She needed to… to do something, anything other than stand there with the odd taste of salt between her lips.

So, she twisted her gaze elsewhere, to those who scrambled to show their crests, eyes aglow and seeking approval. For all intents and purposes, Artorius appeared unmoved by their designs. Yet, the woman standing at her side, still fully cloaked with hood up, held onto a massive book with frayed binding and dark tinted edges. Theodora could only see her lips moving, pale against the deep color of the cloak.

And while Theodora pondered the why behind the hood within the safety of Kourt, Duluth had already begun to maneuver them toward the table. “Come come! You must meet them up close. Beautiful, aren’t they? Not in the way of our own, but it’s something different.”

“Yes,” Theodora whispered, distracted by the dismissive way Artorius summoned the next noble and their crest, “They are.”

Alphonse, on the other hand, seemed focused on the way Duluth gripped her shoulder and was eager to be from beneath his touch once they were brought to the front of the table.

“Elwyn,” Duluth greeted her, without title, which made Theodora wrinkle her nose at the oddity of it, at the presumptuous assumption of equality. “This is Lord Havelock.”

Artorius glanced up from the crest before her on the table and turned gaze from the flustered interrupted noble to instead catch her own. Those eyes… they seemed impossibly wide, struck through with odd slivers of color she couldn’t quite comprehend. Beyond her she heard someone take a sharp breath, and her hands opened and closed as if to hold onto something as her vision sharpened, too vibrant, too focused, on something endless, on threads that created more threads

But then the woman blinked, and the writhing colors interlaced among gold remained no-more, just a phantom vision among the landscape of her mind. She lifted her hand thereafter, to reveal the same three-fingered gesture she’d made the night before. “Good Sunrise, Lord Havelock.”

Theodora remembered to breath and blinked imagined spirals from her vision. “I… yes. Good Sunrise, Elwyn.”

For a moment they were both silent, Alphonse just slightly behind her and eerily quiet while Duluth said something of little consequence that she failed to catch. She felt off, vulnerable beneath inquisitive eyes that combed over her face and swept down the length of her covered body. She fought to keep from shifting from foot to foot stirred by the strange tingle that swept over her back and settled deep among the raised flesh there. What was this? Why did warmth prick along her skin and her face feel so flushed?

“Lord Duke.” Artorius said, but she didn’t look his way. Her gaze was still focused, intensely, upon Theodora. “Thank you for escorting your young Lord.”

Duluth puffed out his chest in a selfish sense of pride and she had to resist echoing the motion. Young? She was not yet in her thirty-seventh season, but long past were the days she’d have been considered young. The designation filled her with… something, something that made her want to showcase that youth in the idle flex of her muscle or the wealth of her hunts. It was a dizzying sensation, swift, fleeting, and a bit potent.

Startling, if she were honest. For she’d never been zealous in any attempt to show her worth, not even for those who had sought her hand for political union.

But here, and now, she…

She cleared her throat, but Duluth spoke for her—“Oh yes, Lord Havelock and her family have been a part of Saltpotter for as long as my own. I’d even reason their bloodline is nearly as old, a strong survivor of the Longwar when so many weren’t. Very loyal, this one, and our best hunter to boot! Tis why Havelock House has always been the designated caretaker of our Wodd!”

“As if you need a bigger ego,” Came Alphonse’s guttural groan, but Theodora didn’t bother to verbally respond.

Instead, she took a calculated step back right onto Alphonse’s foot and secretly enjoyed the soft gasp of pain it gained her.

Artorius sat a bit straighter, interest now at home among quiet amusement in her posture. “Really?”

“Oh yes,” Duluth was set to continue, but another approached, a stack of string bound books in hand. Immediately his smug expression faltered, melting into blank indifference. He twisted on the heel of his polished shows to greet the other across the Kourt hall without so much as backwards glance or an attempt to finish his sentence.

That was… concerning, and not at all like the Duke.

“My Lord Duke?” Theodora called after him, but his pace never slowed, and soon he was swept up in another conversation, separated from them by the general mingling crowd of nobility.

“Don’t mind him,” Artorius said and Theodora turned back to the other, Duluth forgotten.

She cleared her throat and motioned to her side, “This is my vassal, Alphonse Moryet.”

Alphonse made a quick motion with her fist, that same three finger gesture the Commander had returned, before she placed it across her chest, “Third daughter of Moryet, heir apparent now Lord to Moryet.”

She hadn’t expected Alphonse use of the gesture. But she executed it with a smoothness and sincerity that made it more than just a standard action. Seeing her perform it tickled something at the back of her mind, grainy memories of her pater greeting another in the same manner. A traditionalist greeting then, a lost way, coveted by those who claimed to be of thicker blood and wistful of a past that she could only imagine—something recreated through faded paintings and dust-covered grimoires.

When was the last time Theodora had taken the ideals of her history seriously? When had Saltpotter, a claimed practitioner? She had never seen Duluth find cause to greet them like such, preferring titles of power over quiet acknowledgement. She wondered how far… how deeply, did Duluth believed in the very ideals that had built his wealth. The thought of that was enough to make Theodora look at her own hand in idle practice of the motion—would her pater have liked that, her awareness of their history? In the concept of unyielding loyalty to the idealism of before-ago, even in the future the Lord Duke proclaimed was so much brighter, riff with kingless innovation?

It seemed that Artorius liked it, if her softened smile were any indication. “How long has vassal Moryet been a part of your estate?”

Theodora jerked her head up and away from her hands, “We were assigned playmates… companions at birth. We grew together, through primary tutelage then further instruction.”

“When it was time for structured discipline, we attended Academy together, in Athril.” Alphonse added.

The hooded woman at their shared table looked over, an action that prompted Theodora’s fleeting gaze. With that hood still raised it was difficult to see any facial features. There were lips as pale as Artorius own visible, but when she strained to see more, it became difficult… to comprehend the sight. Were her eyes a glowing turquoise or a sickly yellow? Was her nose too small or merely sloped? And she swore, the longer she stared, the more she thought she saw the faint outline of squirming ink over hollowed cheeks. Symbols that writhed like worms.

She turned back to Artorius, bottom lip held between her teeth, mind already shifting elsewhere with dizzying speed, back and back and back to the pelt in its room.

Before the hooded woman, who had been silent until then, finally spoke with breathy tone, “The Academy further south?”

“Aye,” Alphonse replied as she adjusted the cuff of her sleeve with downcast eyes, to hide the passion of pride under the cover of shy humility. “The very same.”

Artorius leaned back, one arm tossed with careless dismissal over the back of her taken chair. “Admission there is rigorous. They don’t tend to take just anyone.”

Alphonse sneered, shredding her timorous mask, “We are not just anyone.”

It was true that the Academy was exclusive. She could not blame Artorius for the sharpness of her gaze or the press of her lips. One had to trace their bloodline back to before the Longwar. Back to wealth and prestige and rotting kings. Back to authority and the presence of power in simple command. She remembered in her youth that her pater had brought books to Athril. Books of deep forest green with pages that smelled of musk and stillness, written in words that no longer existed. The Matron had combed them briefly with lifted brows, but no questions had been asked. She’d started her journey through academia that very Flora.

But they’d not come to talk about the Academy, and there were easier ways to prove their worth. Slowly, Theodora removed two crests, lacquered and distinct in their own different ways. She placed them on the table, the pins for House Havelock, and the one beneath her authority: House Moryet.

She could feel the attention in the space shift after that, less on the prestigious right of their dual education and more on the authenticity and design of the crests of their bloodline. She could see it in the way they looked, how two gazes moved as one toward their proper focal point.

Then, with fingers host to pointed nails, Artorius drew her touch across the surface of the first one, tracing the grooves and textured ridges of the eyeless serpent beast that coiled tightly around the shape of a steel blade.

“What is this?” There’s a peek of pink tongue from between Artorius lips coupled with the squint of her gaze. Theodora would have called her contemplative.

It took her a moment to answer, her sight was drawn to the way her crest was being handled, with how Artorius traced the spine of the coiled beast. And, while trapped in that moment, she swore she could feel it, nails scratching down the length of her own spine, pressing just so. She can’t suppress her shiver, or the slight hitch of her breath when she feels a flick of something sharp right at the base

Then her curious fingers were elsewhere, now upon Alphonse crest, tracing around a spider sculpt and the centerpiece shape of a cloth wrapped war-meant hammer.

Alphonse stiffened beside her, she heard a sharp intake of breath, but her mind was only focused on one thing thereafter, the heat of the scars at her back, and the question she’d been asked. A question she must answer.

“It’s… my pater called it the Anguis ex Ferro.” The words seem strange upon her tongue, foreign and unpracticed and yet still apart of her, twisted about her pride. “The words are from… before.”

Before the Longwar took them and left them without true power.

The other at Artorius’ side returned to her open book, quill scratching across the surface though she used no visible pot to replenish the ink. It tugged at Theodora’s curiosity, but not like the tug at her back. Not like the upturned lips of the woman with their crests, who spied upon them with half-lidded eyes with long lashes.

Anguis ex Ferro,” Artorius repeated. The words sounded so right upon her lips, emphasized by the curl of her accent as if she were born to wield them, to take them. “I’ll keep that in mind, Lord Havelock.”

And then she pushed them back, an indication that Theodora could retrieve them. However, when she reached across the table to grasp the pins, something stopped her—the pale hand of the hooded one at their table.

“Here,” Her tone was a strike against the building heat within her mind, “take this.”

That hand, that entirely too warm hand, turned over her own, exposing palm to the weight of something glossy and—

“It’s—”

“A bell from Ashwyn,” Artorius interrupted, picking up the pins to deposit them alongside the small palm-sized creation. “A Gift for your patience.”

And a portion of her was screaming, knocking at the walls of her mind as she put away their pins with automatic motion. Her hand is free now, free to coil about her… gift, the black and smooth design of the tenebraurea crafted bell. The feel of it against her skin sings to something deep within and despite how tightly she holds it, to make sure it makes no sound, she can still imagine the ring of it across her mentality, scattering the objection on the tip of her tongue. She cannot accept this gift which Artorius speaks of with such reverence, cannot give in to the temptation that thrums through her blood, cannot allow it to strengthen. But oh, how she wants it, how she’d wished for something so like the koin against Duluth chest. It’s astounding, the staggering heave of that want, and some portion of her is aware that Alphonse is being given one too.

One that she would also like to possess.

But she does not reach for it, barely thinks of it when she tightens her grip. She has her own babble, one she’d like to see glisten in the sunlight beyond the walls of the Kourt. One she’d like to hang above her bedroom door—to see the lantern fire lick across it once that sun had set. And isn’t that odd? Such powerful need with hammering clarity?

Give it back. Give it back.

But her arm does not move, does not obey. The bell must be taken, it must be, and she loses time to that singular thought.

And around those thoughts is a voice, words of the gift giver, the holder of bibelots. “You’ve been a good girl, theodora—”

And some portion of her feels small to hear her name said in such a way. As if the power of her title could be stripped by a subtle flick of tongue, or an all-consuming way of thought. She was not Theodora, when the hooded one addressed her. She was Theodora, the blinking woman with the bell.

And theodora was a good girl.

“—and so, you have been given a Gift.” Those whispers are meant for her, this odd pleasure of address is her own to hoard. Beside her, she can hear Alphonse whine, and that licks at her—right between her legs, where sweet fear and warmth mingled so well, waking her to the thump of a slow building ache. “You will take that Gift and place it somewhere close tonight, and there it will stay, a reminder of our generosity.”

theodora nodded, mouth parted, words clawing at her throat. Something wasn’t right

But the heat was growing, pulling at her focus just as surely as the bell in her trembling hand did. She was getting so hot, and everything seemed focused on something hotter in her hand…

“You will remember that I, the Lanius, and she—” Here the gift bearer, the hooded Lanius paused, if only to carefully motion to Artorius, who was otherwise occupied with speaking to a head bobbing Alphonse, “the Dominae are friends to all at Saltpotter. We wish only to help you and yours obtain elevation before all of Grindwall.”

If her companion received her own hushed words, she wasn’t aware. The Kourt and the babbling beyond her had long ago slurred into a faded buzz of ambiance. All that mattered now was the beat of her heart and the ring of the bell in her mind. So much more compelling than that of the Bells in the Square. And yet, somehow, exactly the same…

“And so,” The Lanius continued, “you will tell me about your relation to the Wodd.”

She pressed her lips together, inhaled deeply, but the bell that could not ring… rung throughout her mind, and with a gasp she released the words she’d tried to trap as the feverish heat twisting through her stomach burrowed deep and low—“It’s… I…”

“theodora.”

She made a soft sound at the back of her throat, a mewl of sudden vulnerability as the fever within her grew and something hot pushed across in her mind, devolving something… important within her. “i am caretaker. i manage the Wodd.”

The Lanius nodded, her lips moving in the beginning of a smile, though little in it seemed kind. “And have you known things to go missing? In the Wodd?”

“No,” she gasped.

The quill scratched along pages within the book and theodora swayed at the sound of it, so impossibly loud while she struggled to think around the heated ache between her thighs. Why did she feel so…

“Are you often in the Wodd, little theodora?”

She sucked in her bottom lip and tried, tried, not to speak. She should not… could not, but the heat within her only coiled tightly, prickled with agonizing precision beneath her now flushed skin. She felt sweat pool between her breasts, breasts that felt heavy and constricted within the tight binding of her tunic and vest. Her nipples hardened under the stare of the Lanius, and though she could still not see beyond the darkness of her hood she knew that the woman was combing her flesh with that hidden gaze.

Oh no...

“Yes, yes…” she hissed, as if she could expel the growing heat in her body through her lungs. Anything to cool the searing burn pushing at her sex and binding her around the ring in her mind. Something cold and hard within began to melt, and she felt it leave her, slick and dripping from her pussy.

“What do you do there?” The interrogation continued, and theodora continued to burn.

“i… i hunt.”

“You hunt?” Though theodora could not see it, she felt a sudden intensity from the Lanius, “Hunt what?”

And suddenly she could see it, hear it, feel it against her skin—the beast that had almost slayed her, the creature with the cry that seemed less horrendous now and more alluring, drawing her forward, telling her to join it over and over and over—

She whined, felt her back blossom in wicked agony, so sharp and sudden that her legs trembled. It did nothing to curl the heat, only sharpened it, gave it an edge in which to carve away at her weakening resistance. For a moment she thought she’d fall, collapse and faint away in the middle of Kourt with all her strength dedicated to holding onto her gift and nothing more. But the scratch of the quill in the book kept her upright, as if some portion of her knew she could not, would not, give into the drowsy mind-numbing warmth now crawling along the back of her neck… slipping into her head.

“Animal. Beast.”

“Would you hunt a man?”

theodora licked her lips, heard someone panting—it’s me, i’m… i’m panting. “Yes. Oh! Yes…”

Her clit throbbed in agreement, her vision swam, and her pussy clenched with brutal need. Answering, obeying, the unspoken command to be truthful, felt so good. As good as admitting such a dark dark thing. Would she hunt a man? Could she? No… no she… she wouldn’t have and yet—

“Good girl.”

She sighed and heard a moan beside her, soft and dreamy.

And somehow, that only made the heat more inclined to whip at the twitching clit between her legs. A clit she would not touch, even though her body cried so sweetly. She hadn’t been… she was in Kourt and the Lanius had yet to command her to…

But her mind was slipping further, casting once clear words across her mentality as cotton-laced echoes, and while the Lanius continued to talk she could no longer respond, tongue as heavy and thick as the pressure knocking on her skull. Beside her she felt Alphonse stiffen again before she turned to face the crowd, her gifted bell in hand. Without question theodora… no, Theodora found herself doing the same. Then, as one, they walked from the Kourt, back out the door into the sunlight.

In silence they made way back to the Manor, back to business, as the arousal churning in her belly began to lessen—but did not fade. It stayed there, simmering, a gentle reminder as she stroked fingers across her bell and thought of all the perfect ways to mount it—

Like how she’d mount that pelt, when it was done.

* * *

Theodora dreamed.

She dreamed about the weight of her clockwork rifle, so heavy and impossibly loud. She could hear the ticktock of it against her skull, slowing her thoughts in time to each precise sound. Her body moved automatically, drawn in by the cry of the beast—by the song in the air that stirred something primitive within her being. There was too much fog, and the scent of the Wodd was overwhelmed by the scent of otherness the black creature carried.

She inhaled deeply, drew the fog and the smell deep into her lungs, felt her skin prickle in the open air of the landscape… So thick it was, so… distracting. It made her teeth ache strangely, and her neck feel warm.

That warmth did not stay in one spot. It curled downward, across her tense shoulders like liquid, to settle in her chest right beside her slow beating heart. Its presence was vivid, so… real when nothing but the rifle in her grip felt tangible. It pulsed outward in time with her heart, filling her chest, making her nipples swell and ache, tender against the dream-shift she wore and hardly questioned.

But still she moved, hunting down the sound of the cry, feeling an odd sense of elation the closer she came to the haunting sound. She wanted to hide and logically, she should… but the thought, the effort it would take to find a proper spot seemed… like so much. The haze within her mind, the blanketed fog beyond it… it was dizzying trying to figure out how much of that heavy abnormal weather pressed against her skin remained outside it. It was much easier to stalk and breathe deeply than to think and be tactical, to listen to the crying and allow the warmth in her chest to curl lower, past her heavy and full chest and toward her stirring core…

The scenery shifted, and while her rifle was no longer in her grasp it’s constant ticking remained in her mind. She was back in her bed, tangled in nothing but the covers, sweat-slick and breathing deeply and… and so hot, so wet between her thighs. She wanted to… to…

The thought slipped away, banished by another impulse, and despite her blurry vision she sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, ready to… to what?

It didn’t matter. And the thought that it didn’t matter slipped easily from her mind just as the idea itself had. She moaned softly instead as she felt the chill of the floor beneath her bare feet and after wiggling her toes, left her room. Above the threshold hung the bell...

But she didn’t look at it. Didn’t need to. It was so perfectly clear and vivid in her mind that she merely passed under it with a soft sigh and fluttered eyes. That wasn’t her purpose anyway, the dream did not want her to stand and stare, not there. It wanted her to follow the soft moans coming from beyond the manor rest wing, to step down the winding staircase and quietly approach the open doorway to… to the room.

The room with the pelt with the oddly open door. The room where currently Alphonse knelt, head back with vulnerable neck exposed and eyes closed. She was completely naked, tawny skin glistening in the swinging lantern light, arms resting lightly against her thighs palms down… and before her hung the pelt, still so… glossy and black, as black as the bell, as black as Duluth’s koin…

They were all one in the same.

Theodora bit her bottom lip, allowed her gaze to rake across Alphonse uncovered back, and the warmth of the fog that had invaded her beat a rhythmic pulse beneath her skin. She took one step, then another, and from one blink to the next she found herself knelt beside her vassal so close their arms and sides were touching, among the vision of her stacked knickknacks and awash in the strong musk of the skin before them. It was the same scent as her earlier vision, still so… sweet in a manner that reminded her of… oils and dusk.

She shook her head then, tried to think, but her body only ached…

“Al…” She croaked, trying to stir the woman who squirmed beside her. “Ally…”

She got a moan in response, but the woman turned a glazed daze in her direction.

She licked her lips, found her gaze drawn to Alphonse own and… never before had she noticed how soft they appeared…

“Al,” She whispered again, unable yet to grasp an idea.

“Theo,” Alphonse finally rasped, brow furrowed… but then her hand moved…

…and was placed upon her thigh. Theodora groaned from the sudden intentional touch, which seemed to only stir Alphonse to movement. She gave her thigh a squeeze, testing the strength of flexing fingers against the softness of her flesh. She clenched in response, an instinctual reaction to Alphonse sudden tracing exploration as that hand began to move. Yet the act itself only called to the fire within, building up cruel anticipation for the heat of those fingers. “No… nooo…”

Alphonse kept her hand upon her thigh, gently pressed her fingers inward… but didn’t proceed further, didn’t try to touch her there, right in the place where the ache grew and swelled.

She bit her lip to keep from moaning. From begging.

And while Alphonse kept her hand there, heavy, warm, and tempting, she did not press further, did not apply pressure or try to spread her legs. Instead, she gave a wistful sigh, something full of longing and turned back to stare at the pelt. The motion, despite Theodora’s need, was enough to draw her own gaze from the hand that touched her so brazenly and toward the pelt, the pelt she suddenly wanted to take down from the wall and wrap herself in, even if it was still wet with something

She squirmed in place, felt Alphonse do the same beside her, tingling skin against skin.

“Touch it…” Alphonse whispered, breath against a sensitive ear.

“No…” Theodora whispered back, feeling the heady thud of her fear only heighten her sense of lightheaded desire.

Alphonse curled her fingers, applied commanding pressure to her thigh, brushed the very tip of her pinkie against the swollen hood of her throbbing clit and… gods she wanted to… to obey, to…

She tried to turn to her, to plead with her gaze—don’t make me touch it—because she was so very afraid, despite not knowing why the longer Alphonse kneaded her inner thigh, but when she saw her…

Alphonse eyes were changed, one a deep consuming blue and the other... the other was—

Inhuman. One pupil had become two. Both sat at home in the whites of her eye, both rimmed by black iris, while within the pupil swirled an abnormal shade of red—a red that twisted to gold then spiraled into green before distorting into so many other colors she could scarcely comprehend. She couldn’t pull her gaze away, couldn’t think beyond wondering and trying to follow those colors, follow them until she… until she was falling, falling into the corruption of Alphonse two pupiled eye. She wanted to scream, had opened her mouth and taken a breath to do so—

—before she woke on her stomach panting, wet between her thighs, and incredibly disorientated.

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