|Ascend into Darkness
Author: Ulquiorra9000 PM
Leo is a young upstart Cathar who leads a team of holy fighters in the war against Innistrad's horrors, but when he makes a pact with a demon in a moment of desperation, Leo and his allies find out that evil always gets its way.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Romance - Chapters: 22 - Words: 72,274 - Reviews: 50 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 9 - Updated: 09-27-12 - Published: 05-18-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8127771
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
ASCEND INTO DARKNESS
By the time the sun was once again sinking low on the horizon, Leo's carriage had reached the outskirts of Havengul, the largest port town in Nephalia. Not for the first time, Leo's tourist excitement was kindled by the sight of Havengul's majestic bell towers, commerce guild headquarters, and the impressive outer wall. When Leo leaned out the carriage's window for a better look, he also saw a handful of huge wooden ships gently bobbing in the waters of the docks, the ships' sails unfurled and hundreds of people milling around on the docks.
The bad news was that Leo was running very late.
"Hurry," Abigail urged the horse driver. "I recognize that largest ship, the Dawnsail. It's the only ship headed for Zeewier Port in Stensia. If we miss it, we will have to wait three days for its next departure!"
The driver was clearly stressed as he urged the horses to go faster. "Yes, ma'am!"
"So we won't have time to hang around Havengul at all?" Rick complained. "What a bummer! This place looks great."
Abigail made an exasperated noise. "If you want to goof off in Nephalia, do it on your own time! We have a mission to complete."
Rick folded his arms and made a face. "Pleasant as always. You catch more flies with honey, just so you know!"
"Hush, Friedrich," Abigail smirked.
"Well, it sure seems to work," Abigail shrugged. "Calm down. Just focus on the mission."
The carriage driver rushed the horses down a stone-cobbled street through Havengul's outer edge, stopping only at the docks' customs house to prove that he carried Church members on a mission. The ticket master handed the driver four slips of paper enchanted to prevent forgery or duplication, and then the horses trotted through the shipyards, past workers who carried luggage and cargo crates back and forth. From here, even the smallest ships appeared vast to Leo, who had never dealt with large ships back in Gavony.
But even the huge mid-range ships couldn't compare to the Dawnsail. The mammoth ship loomed overhead, blocking out the sun. Two wide boarding ramps, one on either side, allowed hundreds of passengers and crew members to walk right into the ship's interior. By now, only a few stragglers were hurrying up the ramps, and the ship's sails were fully unfolded. Dock crews untied the thick ropes binding the ship to the port.
"Stop here," Abigail told the carriage driver, and the man tugged on the horses' reins, causing them to skid to a halt on the slick, salty wood of the docks. Leo swung open his carriage door and hopped down to the dock, then Jorge, Rick, and Abigail followed suit. Once they picked up their suitcases from the carriage's rear compartment, Abigail took the lead, guiding the others toward the ramp. Once she showed the four tickets to a uniformed man who stood guard, the man nodded and motioned toward the boarding ramp.
"You had best hurry. The Dawnsail shoves off any minute," the man warned.
Leo and the others practically had the ramp to themselves as they walked briskly up the wooden slope and into the Dawnsail's main deck. In here, Leo had to squeeze his way past hundreds of crowded, chattering passengers. Just as Leo stepped foot on the main deck, the boarding ramp retracted into the ship's massive hull, and Leo felt a lurch as the ship started to drift out of its port. "Looks like we're on our way to Stensia," Leo grinned to his companions.
"I noticed," Jorge mumbled, sauntering off into the crowds. "I'll be in my cabin. Get me if something important comes up."
"We should retire to our cabins too," Abigail told Leo and Rick, holding up the tickets. "My father gave the carriage driver enough money for us to each get private rooms on deck five."
"Neat," Rick glowed, rubbing his hands together. "Does that include room service and free massages?"
Abigail made a face. "No, it doesn't. Anyway, we should settle down for the evening and make a plan for our Stensia mission. We'll arrive there around mid-day, I imagine."
Leo chuckled. "I'll get my stuff put away in my room, but I'm not nearly done for the night."
"What do you mean?" Abigail asked, suspicious.
"This is a big ship," Leo told her. "Come on, let's enjoy ourselves a little. We can't do much of anything until we get to Stensia. I'm sure that there's a few parties to find on board, and that's our chance to mingle with some folks."
Abigail sighed, slumping her shoulders. "Leo..."
"Come on, man," Leo clapped Rick on the shoulder, leading his friend toward a staircase to reach deck five. "Let's see what fun awaits..."
"I think this ship is rocking too hard, Rick!" Leo shouted to his friend a few hours later, his head fuzzy and his body feeling light. Loud banjo and fiddle music filled his ears as a hired band played another fast dance tune in the corner, and all sorts of everyday Nephalia folk got together for another alcohol-hazed session of the Havengul four-step dance. Enchanted lights glowed cheery colors on the huge party room's ceiling, the snack bar never seemed to run out of edibles, and the card tables always had a crowd of gullible players with coins to spare.
"No, man, it's the beer!" Rick called back with a hiccup, waving from the dance floor where he had a young Havengul lady in his arms. "Or wait, maybe it's both..."
"Doesn't matter anyway," Leo called back. "This party rocks the boat! Take that however you want!"
"Or maybe I want to take my new friend back to my cabin!" Rick howled with laughter, earning him a playful swat from his dance partner.
"At least learn my name, you big silly," she chided him with a smile.
"All right, what's your name?"
"Okay, done. Care to join me on deck five, my little Valery?"
Valery giggled. "Just shut up and do your dance moves better, hon. Then you might impress me."
Chuckling, Leo picked up a few spicy cheese crackers from the snack bar and bugged his eyes out at the fiery tingling in his mouth. Luckily, a nearby barrel of Gavony ale offered relief, so Leo scooped up a flagon full of the good stuff and downed it in one go. Wiping his chin, Leo wandered over to the card tables and joined a game in progress.
"Let's see some coins, kid," offered the dealer, a man with a lean face and short beard.
Leo fished out his silver coins from his pocket and slapped them onto the table. "This'll cover a few rounds, won't it?" I'll leave my gold coins out of this since I might need them in Stensia. I think.
The man passed out cards with a smirk. "Prepare to lose it all, boy!"
Leo checked his face-down card, the seven of spades. Added to the five of clubs he had showing, he motioned for another card and received the four of hearts. He called for another card and groaned as the eight of hearts was passed to him.
"Oh, too bad," the bearded man joked as he won with a clean 21 and scooped up all the coins. "Maybe next time!"
Grinding his teeth, Leo scooted forth another few coins. I don't have Rick's card-counting abilities but I should be able to do this. I'll be rich! He received the jack of hearts and a four of spades. Then he motioned for another card and with a stroke of luck, received the six of hearts. "I'll stay."
The dealer only chuckled and gave himself another card, but scowled when he busted with a total of 24. Another man busted with 26, leaving Leo with the highest total among those still in the game. "Thank you very much," Leo said with a wide grin, scooting the pile of coins toward him. "Care for another round?"
"Make that your last round," demanded a familiar voice, and Leo looked up to see Abigail towering over him, her arms folded and her expression like a thundercloud.
"Oh. Hi," Leo blurted.
Abigail tugged on Leo's shirt collar. "Get up," she hissed. "You're making a fool of yourself. Again."
"Nothing wrong with that," Leo defended himself, dumping his winnings into his pocket as he got to his feet. He still felt a little wobbly, but he offered Abigail a smile. "Just having a little fun. Didn't I say earlier that I'd be here in case you needed to find me?"
"Yes, you did," Abigail told him sternly, starting to drag him toward the exit. "Now let's get out of here. I can't believe you..."
"Wait!" Leo interrupted her, tugging on her arm. "Come on, relax. This is a great place to blow off some steam. I think you could use it. Care to dance, dear fiancee of mine?"
Abigail sputtered indignantly. "Leo, if you want to impress me than get back to your cabin to sober up! And I don't even like the Nephalia four-step. The three-step is more refined."
"No, no. This is a great chance for me to get to know you better," Leo offered kindly. "Rick's having a good time here and so can we. Besides, I'd like to see if you can dance."
"Yes, but not the four-step," Abigail insisted, tugging her arm out of Leo's grip. She huffed and put her hands on her hips, her eyes boring into Leo's. "What's the matter with you? Do you not even care?"
"About what?" Leo suddenly felt rather self-conscious.
"About our mission! About what this means!" Abigail snapped. "My father and Wulfgar didn't send us on a party cruise. You're a fighter for the Church and I expect better from you!"
"You saw me back at Nuvark! When we saved and recruited Jorge!" Leo shot back, feeling stung. "You know what I can do!"
"Then don't do this foolish party crap!" Abigail retorted, fire in her eyes. She jabbed a finger into Leo's gut. "You don't take anything seriously enough. Not our engagement, not our mission, not even me! If I knew what I was getting myself into with this arranged marriage..."
"Then what? You'd run away from home?" Leo taunted her. "Yeah, that's disciplined of you."
"How dare you -"
"What I don't get," Leo said loudly, "is why you feel the need to interfere with me! I'm just enjoying myself the way I know how. So what if I like beer and cards and mingling with dance crowds? What's it to you?"
Abigail was breathing hard in anger, tightening her hands into fists. "What is it to me? You want to know, you little weasel?"
"Actually," Leo shook his head, "no. Forget it. You'd throw something else at me like 'you don't act your age, Leo! Be more disciplined, Leo! Get down and give me twenty, Leo!' Well, I don't want it. I'll see you at Stensia. In the meantime..." He pointed back at the card tables.
"I give up. Do whatever pea-brained partying you want," Abigail shot back, tears in her eyes. "Not like I care, just how you don't care about me. At all."
"Now just a minute!" Leo opened his mouth to make a counter-argument, but Abigail was already stalking out of the room, slipping through the open doorway and out of sight. The last thing Leo saw of her was the swish of her light brown hair before she vanished into the ship's hallways.
Leo stood there dumbly, replaying the argument in his head. But... but Abigail has no business interfering with me! It's not like I force her to play cards with me or anything. What's she so bothered about?
Rick had finally managed to break himself off his dance partner, and he wandered up to Leo with his eyes fixed on the party room's exit. "What was that all about?"
"Nothing. Just Abigail being annoying," Leo said impatiently, then he turned and stalked toward the card tables. "I need a distraction. You in?"
Rick looked slightly apprehensive, but he nodded. "Sure thing. Maybe I can start to teach you my card-counting trick."
By the next morning, when Leo rolled out of the wood-frame bed in his cabin, he groaned from not only a throbbing hangover but from guilt too. Rising slowly to his feet and clapping a hand to his warm forehead, he blinked a few times and fought to reassemble his memories of last night. Oh yeah, the party down in the lower deck, and Abigail... did I really say all those things to her? I suppose I was being honest, but she... ugh. He shook his head, his stomach feeling queasy. I need to set a few things straight, then go see her.
Trying to ignore the gentle but constant rocking motion of the Dawnsail, Leo first splashed his face with cool water in his room's washbasin, then made his way to the mess halls for a quick breakfast of biscuits, sausage links, fruits, and hot tea. He didn't see Rick or Jorge at the table and figured that the former was still passed out in his cabin and the latter was brooding alone in his cabin. Refocusing on what he needed to do, Leo went back to the guests deck and knocked a few times on Abigail's cabin door, but there was no response. "Abigail? I need to talk to you! Can I come in?" he called out, but there was still no answer.
Hoping that Abigail wasn't just ignoring him, Leo sighed and climbed the stairs to the topmost deck, enjoying the fresh air at the ship's surface. A few scattered, puffy clouds floated in the bright blue morning sky, and a flock of birds flitted past overhead, cawing loudly. Up ahead to the west, jagged, towering mountains stood on the misty, forested landmass of the Stensia province. Already, Leo felt a a chill of foreboding just from looking at the place, but he shook his head to clear it. Several shipmates were at work up here, and some of the passengers had come up to admire the view and get fresh air.
One of them was Abigail.
Feeling a thrill of anxiety, Leo cleared his throat and slowly walked over to Abigail, who was leaning on the rail to admire the view. Leo joined Abigail at her left side, also leaning on the rail and letting the warm ocean air brush past his face.
"Nice view, isn't it?" Abigail asked after a moment. Her eyes were fixed on the Stensia mountains.
"It is," Leo agreed. "Stensia looks creepy as hell even from here."
A small smile tugged at Abigail's lips. "I can see why that province has earned its reputation. Only narrow, treacherous mountain passes allow people to navigate that place."
"Charming." Leo heaved a sigh. "Listen, about last night..."
"Yes, I remember," Abigail told him, standing up straight and turning to look Leo in the eye. "I, um... I am sorry."
Leo stood up straight as well, unable to hide the shock on his face. "What? I was going to say sorry to you! In fact... I'm very sorry for how I acted. It was immature and ridiculous."
Abigail's eyes softened. "Thank you, Leo. But I feel at fault too."
"I wouldn't say that. You weren't the one gambling while drunk."
Abigail chuckled. "I leave that part to you. Look, I thought about what you said -"
"You seriously considered the words of a drunk guy?"
"Stop interrupting," Abigail snapped, then softened again. "I suppose I have been a little... um, a little too nosy and bossy toward you. I'm sure you've been thinking the same thing."
"Kind of..." Leo mumbled, looking away. He suddenly felt awkward. "I mean, uh..."
"It's just the way I was raised," Abigail explained. "Discipline, manners, dedication to the Church. I've always been afraid to let my family and the Church down, so I work very hard to avoid that and impress everyone. I figure that as long as I push myself as hard as I can, nothing can go wrong."
"Well," Leo smiled, "you can make a hell of a holy barrier, I can say that much."
"I appreciate that," Abigail smiled back. Then her face fell. "I have to admit, I have treated you this way because... well, because deep down, I fear that your behavior will destabilize the discipline I've worked so hard to build up. And please don't be offended, but a small part of me cringes to see a dedicated priestess living and fighting alongside a drunken party animal."
Abigail looked sheepish, but Leo burst out laughing. "I kind of figured that was part of it," Leo said gently. "And you know what, I'm the one who should be feeling ashamed. It's just... when I met you, being all serious and bossy, I felt like you were trying to lord yourself over me and prove yourself superior."
"Well... I was trying to act as an example," Abigail said slowly, "but I didn't want to make you feel bad about yourself."
"No no, it's fine," Leo assured her, folding his arms. "I think we're on pretty even footing so far, at least on the battlefield. I just like to party more, that's all!"
"You don't have to tell me twice," Abigail laughed, feeling more at ease. "I've never met anyone who has as much R&R as you."
"It's because of a lesson I was taught when I was fourteen," Leo told her. "I got a new trainer who worked me like a dog, keeping my nose in the grindstone for a whole week without rest. He tried to teach me some advanced techniques but they weren't sinking in. So, he gave me a full day to go out in town and have fun. The next day, I drilled the techniques again... and mastered them."
Abigail's eyes widened. "Sounds like a classic example of sharpening the saw."
"That instructor told me 'work hard, play harder'," Leo added. "And that became my motto. And my partying is a good example of it. Call it my downside, but that's been my way ever since that lesson." He unfolded his arms, running a hand through his hair. "I'll say it again: I apologize if my fun-loving lifestyle is upsetting you. I mean, I haven't once taken your feelings into account. As you said, you don't want to be seen with a party animal, and I should take keep that in mind. I could –"
"All right, I get it," Abigail smiled again, motioning with her hands. "It would definitely be best if we could both be more conscious to the other's desires and moods. Anyway, I think we need to find a little common ground here."
Leo tilted his head slightly. "Oh yeah?"
"How about this... you cut back on the beer and gambling, and I'll try to have a little fun streak of my own," Abigail offered warmly. "Ever since we met, we've done nothing but argue and criticize each other. What do you say?"
"Okay," Leo nodded. "I'll ease up on the night life business, and in exchange, I can take you on some fun outings we can enjoy together. Carnivals, comedy plays, or simply sharing jokes to laugh at... it can be fun."
Looking happier, Abigail brushed a lock of her light brown hair from her face. "When we return from our Stensia mission, we can try all this out. I'm glad that we could talk this over, Leo. I think we -"
Abigail paused when Leo embraced her in a tight hug, and Leo enjoyed the feeling of holding his fiancee tightly in his arms. He could even feel her heartbeat, steady and strong. "My mind's still a little fuzzy," Leo said quietly into her ear. "I think we've said enough for me to keep track of for now. How about a little hug to seal the deal..."
Trying hard not to blush, Abigail hesitated, then wrapped her own arms around Leo, savoring the warm, solid feeling of his body. "I suppose so. You know, I think I'm really starting to like you as my fiancee. Maybe we'll enjoy this whole affair after all."
"Here's to hoping," Leo added.
"And by the way..." Abigail muttered into Leo's ear, "Whatever I might have said before, I never stopped respecting you."
"And I promise to never think of living with you as a drag," Leo grinned.
"Well isn't this touching," commented a new voice, and both Leo and Abigail jumped at the sound. They both turned to see Jorge walking toward them, and the well-dressed healer raised a lit cigarette to his mouth, taking a long drag from it. With a faint grin, Jorge lowered his cigarette again, his eyes still narrowed in their perpetual scowl. "Looks like you kids get along after all."
Feeling awkward, Leo broke away from Abigail, clearing his throat again and putting his hands into his pockets. "And good morning to you too."
Smoothing a wrinkle on his dark gray suit, Jorge walked past Leo and Abigail, his stern eyes fixed on the distant Stensia shore. "Looks like we'll be there in a few hours," the healer commented. He turned back to face the Cathars. "You both feel ready for this? We're all headed right into the mouth of vampire land, you know."
"It'll be tough, but we're no cowards," Leo said confidently, clapping a hand to Abigail's shoulder. "Darlin', you don't feel afraid, do you?"
"Of course not. I fear no evil," Abigail said proudly. She gave Leo a sidelong glance. "Enough with the nickname already. Can't you at least call me 'my dear lady'?"
"And sound like a butler? Not a chance, darlin'," Leo laughed. "Can't you take a little teasing now and then?"
Abigail folded her arms with a defiant smile. "I don't think so."