This isn't technically a new chapter--just a complete revision of the original. After attempting to write the next chapter for this fic a million and one times... I decided I hated everything about how it began. So, I've gone back and started the story over. While it probably won't seem very different, I've tried to eliminate a whole bunch of useless scenes and keep the characters on a tighter leash. Of course, this might make the beginning feel rushed or lacking--so please send some feedback my way if you find something that needs improvement. :)
Also, I'm leaving the old chapters up until I rewrite them. They do not match up with the rewritten chapters and won't make any sense. Sorry, I'll try to get the rewritten chapters as soon as possible. ;
Years had passed swiftly for the Hero, Gladiator. He defeated Jack of Blades and took possession of the Sword of Aeons. The cursed sword that blinded him and persuaded his hand to strike Theresa down; the blood of his last family member now stained his gloves. While the people loved their Hero, they could not let him forget his most vile of crimes, and Gladiator suffered for it. His face seemed to age overnight and he fervently tried to atone for his greed.
Gladiator built his own Guild in Hook Coast, on top of the ruined abbey. Unlike the original Guild, Gladiator vowed his would only train those that would follow the virtuous path. He hoped that the good Heroes he produced would be enough to destroy the evil ones the other Guild occasionally put out. Besides that, the Hero could not bear to go back to the original Guild. Theresa's calm face would flood his vision and Gladiator's massive frame would crumble to the ground. So, he created the Hook Coast Guild, a Guild that he could bear to visit. It was more isolated, and Gladiator carefully screened new initiates. The Guild Master he installed was more of a puppet, and he did as Gladiator commanded.
While Gladiator could keep tight reins on the new Guild, he could not keep a hold on his wives. They left, one by one. Each had the same reason: the man they had married was a strong Hero, afraid of nothing and eternally devoted to his lost family… the man they ended up with was an empty shell of that great Hero. With each wife lost, Gladiator retreated farther into Guild work, devoting his time to training the new generation of heroes. There was only one woman who stood beside Gladiator: the mayor of Bowerstone.
Lady Grey hadn't suddenly fallen deeply in love with Gladiator--she had a more physical reason for staying married. The cold Lady Grey became pregnant. The pregnancy was surprising--the Lady and Hero rarely saw each other. More rare were the times they actually shared a bed. Nevertheless, Lady Grey ended up pregnant, and she wasn't too thrilled. After all, pregnancy meant growing wide and the eventual, horrifying, pain of childbirth.
However, once the babe was born, Lady Grey was quite happy with the whole ordeal--she had an heir to the Grey family. As for Gladiator, the emptiness in his heart was filled with thoughts of his newborn son.
"Sir, the Lady has given birth to a boy! Would you like to see him?" The midwife carefully offered the squirming infant to Gladiator without waiting for an answer.
The Hero gently took his son, gazing at the wisps of dark blonde hair and the nearly translucent skin.
"He's a beautiful baby, sir. And so quiet." The midwife smiled happily.
"Yes… He…" Gladiator suddenly felt a flood of emotion, "He's perfect."
How is it that I am granted such a precious gift after all that I've done wrong? Have the gods finally given me permission to be happy?
In the years to come, Gladiator would cease to think so fondly of his son.
Dim sunlight struggled to pass through the thick layer of grime covering the windows of the tavern in Bowerstone South. The customers inside thought nothing of the gloominess of the establishment, they just wanted a hard drink and a good laugh. The beefy man behind the counter was forever cleaning glasses with an edge of his filthy apron. He only ceased his 'cleaning' when a big spender came up to the bar. This afternoon, the bartender had his eye out for one of his regular customers--a wealthy one, to boot. There, the tavern door opened and the barkeeper set aside the glass.
"Good afternoon, what'll you have today?"
"Let's start with some roasted meat for my darling friends," the customer pressed the girls on either side of him closer, "and a crate of beer for me."
The barkeep smiled, "Of course. I'll send it over in a minute. Sit down in the meantime."
The customer, swathed in dark robes, led his curvy companions to an empty table. He pulled one onto his lap while he whispered some perverse comment into the other's ear.
"He's always bringing his whores around with him. Can't he leave 'em in the Brothel?" A man across the room was glowering at the dark robed customer over a flask of beer. His drinking companion sighed heavily before responding.
"Oh, can't you ignore the boy, Hersch? He's just looking for attention. And you're giving it to him."
"How can I ignore that prissy boy? I swear he must powder that baby skin of his to make it so white. And with those damn dark robes… He's a complete mockery of everything his father worked so hard for. Damn stupid, girly, immoral, little-"
The man stiffened as the 'prissy boy' turned and glared right at him. Smoothly, the boy slid the girl off his lap and weaved through the tavern, headed towards the man's table. Hersch's companion rolled his eyes, "You should've just ignored him."
"Excuse me. I noticed you eyeing my friends. They-"
"I wasn't looking at your girls." Hersch muttered, keeping his eyes averted.
The boy smirked, "Ah, I see. Well, I'm flattered."
Hersch chanced a look up, "Why?"
"No need to be coy. I understand why even a hardened man like yourself would find a stunning man like me attractive." One gloved finger ran down Hersch's face.
"Y-you!" Hersch had stood up abruptly, his chair crashing to the floor behind him. His face was mottled an angry red as he tried to sputter out a sentence.
"Ah, forgive me. I shouldn't have brought it up so publicly. You probably didn't want all these people to know of your preferences."
Hersch gave up on words and threw a punch at his adversary. The boy dodged it easily and stepped closer to Hersch, "Do you really want to mar this lovely face, friend?"
"Hey! No fighting in my tavern. Get out before I call the guards!" The barkeep held the door open, ready to call for the Bowerstone guards.
"It's okay, it's okay. I'll get him out," Hersch's companion stood and grabbed Hersch's arms. "Come on, give it up. He's just messing with you. Come on, Hersch. Easy, easy."
Hersch gritted his teeth but let his friend guide him out the door. The barkeep crossed his massive forearms and supervised the two men as they left. The boy sauntered over to the door after Hersch had left and placed a hand on the barkeep's shoulder.
"Quite a temper, eh?"
The barkeep sighed, "You know I don't like you riling up the customers, Evange."
"And you know I don't like you calling me that."
"You want me to call you by your title, you leave the other customers alone."
Evange frowned a moment before shrugging his shoulders. "Alright, I'll leave them alone. But they're the ones who can't keep their eyes to themselves."
With a roll of the eyes, the bartender ushered Evange back to his table. "Just concentrate on your friends, Reaper."
The title didn't slide off the tongue as well as 'Evange' did, but the barkeep didn't want to offend one of his best customers. A customer who always brought a bag full of gold and drank till it was empty. A boy whose looks belied his ability to hold down alcohol.
If only he didn't bring trouble along with gold. The bartender had walked away, grabbing a glass and resuming his cleaning. He watched Evange from the corner of his eye, wondering how his upstanding parents could allow their only son to fall from grace.
Night fell swiftly in Bowerstone, and all sorts of undesirable sorts crawled out of the woodworks and into the streets. Faint grunts could be heard from the Quay where fist fights still took place, while ballads were sung in the tavern by passing bards. Once the moon took it's place in the sky, families shut their doors and blew out the lights. Children crawled onto dirty piles of straw and tried to ignore the growls of their stomachs.
In North Bowerstone, however, night was a time for lavish parties and rich feasts. Lady Grey often hosted balls in her home, despite her dislike of people in general. She hosted the balls so that the wealthy wouldn't forget she was their superior in all ways. While the other wealthy families could throw as many dinners as they liked, they would never measure up to Lady Grey's parties.
The Lady's parties were always large affairs, with renowned people coming from all over Albion. North Bowerstone would fairly glow with the light that shone from the Mayor's house. The music and voices that drifted into the night could be heard by waifs in the Quay. Guests would dress in their finest, but Lady Grey would outshine them every time. Her gowns were made of rare materials and brand new designs, and they always complimented the Lady.
In earlier years, Evange had been forced to come to the balls. He had been little more than something to admire and start conversations with. The boy had quietly sat in a chair, concentrating on hiding his boredom and appearing "sweet." He had been given several lessons about proper behavior at these events; mainly to speak only when spoken to and act gracefully.
When Evange reached his rebellious years, his mother decided it was necessary to bar her son from attending the parties. When asked about her son's absence, she would explain that her son was very busy with Guild work. That was true. However, his mother failed to mention that Evange had been dragged from his Guild work to attend the parties many times in the past.
Recently, Evange had begun coming to the parties, regardless of whether he was invited or not. Fortunately, he didn't cause as much havoc as his mother feared he might. He brought no obvious whores or low class drunkards; he didn't swear every other word or talk about his perverse escapades. In fact, Evange wouldn't be noticed if he hadn't inherited his mother's looks.
That is not to say that Evange behaved himself, he just kept his deviousness subtle. When dirty looks were thrown for no reason, a certain boy had probably spread a false rumor. When a man tried to flirt with a married woman, unaware that her husband stood next to her, Evange had probably persuaded the man of the woman's interest and availability.
"Ah, Lady Grey, your home is nearly as beautiful as you."
Pretending she hadn't heard that comment hundreds of times just this night, Lady Grey graciously nodded in thanks to her guest before turning to the next person trying to catch her attention.
"Ah, Lady Grey, your home is nearly as cold and forbidding as yourself."
"Evange… I was not aware that you would be coming tonight."
The boy grinned, the expression making him seem more innocent than he had been for a long time. "I could not bear to be away from you for a moment longer. Surely you will forgive me if I cannot help but be drawn to you. You welcome it from everyone else, after all."
"Gladiator is here tonight. Avoid him or be civil. I do not want this night to be disrupted." Making a graceful about-face, Lady Grey effectively ended the conversation. Evange's grin dissolved at the news of Gladiator's presence.
The two had had a rough relationship since Evange could remember. Gladiator was usually stern but fair with his Guild apprentices. Not so with Evange. The Hero was almost cruel to the boy, for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, Evange took the treatment badly. Since he grew up in the Guild, he had a long time to cultivate a fierce bitterness towards Gladiator.
Despite his dislike for these fancy parties, Evange had no wish to disrupt this one with a conflict between him and Gladiator. He had just come from Hook Coast and had no desire to receive another cold lesson about how one should act towards others. So, Evange smoothly blended into the background, wanting to leave immediately.
"Oh, Gladiator, isn't this your son?"
Evange stiffened automatically, he had failed to get away in time. He tried to loosen himself before turning around with a slick smile.
"Good evening, Father."
Gladiator, dressed in full armor, looked down at his son imposingly. "Yes, Ariel, this is my son." A son that Gladiator had treated callously for as long as Evange could recall. A son that the Hero no longer thought of as a godsend. "Evange, this is the renowned performer, Ariel."
"Lovely to meet you, Sir Evange." Ariel curtsied deeply, looking up through her dark bangs.
Evange quickly took the performer's hand, "It is my pleasure to meet such a stunning performer. I have heard of you even in Hook Coast." With a flirtatious smile, he bent his head and kissed Ariel's hand.
"Oh my, your son is such a charmer, Hero." The performer fanned herself and shot an approving smile at Gladiator.
The Hero was less than pleased with his son, and his face was a clear display of that. Evange noticed the look and was quick to suggest a dance, eager to escape his father.
Evange, if only I could believe that Elvira had spawned you by herself. The way you use people for your enjoyment sickens me. Gladiator glared at Evange's retreating back, hating that he was the father of "such a charmer."
Mornings in Knothole Glade differed from mornings in other parts of Albion. Sunrise was just a guess, for it was nearly impossible to tell exactly when the sun rose through the dense cloud cover. The trees surrounding the hamlet only helped block the faint sunlight. While elsewhere birds were the first to be heard, in Knothole Glade bird song was muted by the constant pound of rain. Some mornings, balverine howls joined the rain in drowning out the birds. Fortunately, this particular morning, the rain wasn't joined by those chilling calls.
People had taken to the streets, ignoring the rain that quickly soaked through their clothes. There was work that could not wait. Outside one house, a large group of men had gathered. Many of the men had rolled up their sleeves, revealing the massive arms of loggers. There were also a few scrawny youths--persons who delivered wood to those who paid for it. Counted among those delivery people was a scrap of a girl.
She shifted her weight, one barely-whole boot sinking further into the thick mud. Despite the mess of dirty blonde hair plastered to her face, the girl did not seem to have any problems seeing the front of her employer's home; she didn't miss his entrance.
"Alright, today it's important to get as much done as possible." The loggers' employer shot a stern look at the group. "We've gotten a large order from Hook Coast, and they want it fast. So you got to work fast."
A grumble rose from the workers but it quickly died down as their boss raised his hands. "Stop your whining. You didn't take this work because it's easy. If you wanted easy, you would have joined the Guild." That elicited some chuckles. "So, everyone step up and take a look at where you're going, I've marked it on the map inside. Delivery boys, step over here so I can assign you some work."
While the loggers filed into the house, the boss herded his other workers to the side. "I need most of you carrying wood from the site to the south docks. You'll be on your own in the woods, and I can't promise that there'll be no balverines around. But there'll be more gold in your pocket if you go for it. Who's up to it?"
No one immediately stepped forward--balverines were a strong deterrent. A bit of gold was hardly enough compensation for the risk of violent death or transformation into one of the cursed creatures. The boss looked through the group, heavy disappointment clear on his face.
"Some of you need the gold, I know. Rolfe, you have a sick mother. Don't you want her to get better? What about getting your sweetheart a wedding ring, Cliffe? Leah, don't you want to clean yourself up a bit?"
Leah, the scrap of a girl, glanced up from the hole she had been making with her boot. She made the mistake of making eye contact with her boss.
"These extra pieces of gold may not seem like much, but they can really help out in both the short and long run. Every bit helps save up for that one thing you want. And maybe those extra pieces mean that you can afford some new clothes, Leah. And with those new clothes, you'd have better luck attracting a man and getting married. Wouldn't you love to be taken care of? Having someone else out there, working, while you sleep in late, would feel so good, right?"
"Actually, I like working and feeling independent, sir."
The boss blinked, "Well, there must be something you're saving your gold for?"
"No, sir. Nothing."
The boss didn't believe that; what kind of girl would walk around in rags when she could afford better? The kind of girl that was saving every gold piece possible for something big. What Leah was saving for, however, was something the boss would never guess.
While a person would mark Leah as average, or perhaps below average due to her attire, there was something rather strange about her. Early in her life, the girl was abandoned deep in Witchwood. With the woods crawling with balverines, one might think it strange that Leah simply survived her childhood. But the reason she survived Witchwood was stranger.
"Well… Rolfe, you're really going to let your mother suffer longer than she has to?"
"N-no… I'll go." Rolfe's voice shook but his face was determined.
Seeing Rolfe--the youngest of the workers--volunteer, several other boys also volunteered. After a few more minutes of persuasion, the boss was satisfied with the number of volunteers. Somehow, Leah had found herself being one of them.
"Alright! Well, everyone carrying wood to the docks should check the map and get out to the site by noon. There'll be wood to carry by then. In the meantime, do what you want."
Leah turned away, intending to visit a friend before leaving for the site. Her pace quickened in pleasant anticipation.
"Boss is hard to say no to, eh?"
Leah glanced behind her, saw Cliffe, and reluctantly slowed her pace. "Yeah. And he knows everything about everyone."
"Except you. He's completely in the dark when it comes to your motives." Cliffe raised his eyebrows, "You do have a good reason for doing this worthless work, don't you? Besides that crap about liking work and being independent."
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Shooting a smirk over her shoulder, Leah sped up her pace.
Cliffe shook his head and headed for his lover's house, eager to get a couple of kisses in before heading out to the logging site. The citizens of Knothole Glade treated each visit into Witchwood as their last--for one never knew when balverines or worse would attack.
As Cliffe approached the tavern, he noticed a pair of out-of-towners. Their plain white robes stood out from the dark attire of the Knothole Glade citizens. The two stood to the side of the tavern door, attempting to question those who entered. Cliffe tilted his head to the side, wondering what these foreigners wanted. One of the foreigners caught sight of Cliffe staring at them and immediately stepped towards him.
"Citizen, may we have a moment of your time?"
Cliffe smiled, "Sure. What do you need? Directions to the ships or the Temple?"
"No, no. We're doing a bit of research and require some live balverines. Where do the creatures usually roam?"
"Well… there's usually quite a few near the path that goes through Witchwood. But you can also wander the woods Northwest of here… I hope you've got some amazing balverine hunting abilities. They're tough, you know."
The foreigner who had been speaking just smiled, "Thank you for the concern, citizen. One more question… you haven't noticed any unusual creatures about, have you?"
"Unusual? Like what?"
"Wasps, hobbes, scorpions… perhaps a dragon or two." The man's mouth curved up in a smile, but his eyes were dead serious.
"No, guess I haven't."
"Be sure to let us know if you do. We offer substantial rewards to our friends."
"Sure thing. Hey, maybe I'll stumble on a dragon today." Cliffe barked out a laugh and proceeded past the tavern.
"Perhaps you will." An identical sneer spread itself over the foreigners' faces.
Better? Worse? :)