A/N: Well, this would be the final chapter, month twelve! I've realised that technically Page and Kalin should still be with Lucille at this point, but they aren't. It makes more sense this way. I'm not sure how well I've managed the action parts (they're tricky to write!). Anyway, thank you so, so much to everyone who read, reviewed, favourited or whatever else. It's marvellous. Anyway, on with the show! :)
Month Twelve: The Weight of Inevitability
Lucille gripped the balustrade apprehensively. She seemed to feel nervous subconsciously these days, even on those rare occasions when she forgot the impending invasion.
She stood in the castle gardens, looking out at the city – where currently soldiers were being garrisoned at the walls, reports were coming in from the watchtowers, and civilians were being informed that when the alarm was given, they were to lock themselves inside their homes or the nearest safe-house and ensure that a fire was kept burning at all times. The soldiers were as ready as they were going to be and well equipped. The civilians could hopefully be kept out of harm's way with the help of safe-houses in poorest areas. Millfields – an indefensible place – had been evacuated, as had Driftwood and Silverpines. She even had a Will-user assigned to the districts that she couldn't protect herself. They were as ready as they could be, yet every time Lucille thought of the Crawler's coming, her skin prickled and her throat dried.
Lucille felt for Sir's warm fur for reassurance. He tilted his head, licking his fingers. It gave her a small sense of comfort.
"You're sure it'll be here before the end of the week?" Ben asked, his voice serious for a change.
"Certain of it," she replied, meeting his gaze. The four of them had gathered in the garden, for no real reason other than that they couldn't really prepare any more than they already had. "Theresa appeared to me again after I became Queen and told me that I had no more than a year."
He didn't look convinced. She knew he wasn't likely to trust some mysterious woman who had only appeared to the children of the old Queen since she'd guided her all those years ago. Other than Reaver, there probably wasn't anyone still alive who'd recognise her.
"She was our mother's guide," Logan reminded him. "Theresa has no reason to lead us astray. If she truly wanted to harm us, then she wouldn't have warned us of its arrival at all. The Crawler will use doubt against you – you must trust in the Queen."
"I do," Ben said firmly. "I just think that if Theresa really wanted to help us, she'd use some of that fancy Spire magic and save us the trouble. She has to be powerful – why isn't she here with us?"
Lucille frowned. She hadn't thought of that. Walter had never mentioned Theresa actually fighting alongside the Queen in any of his stories – she was always the guide, helping the four Heroes to unlock their power and destroy Lucien. At first, Lucille had assumed it was because the woman was blind, but she got the impression that Theresa was a formidable woman regardless of that.
"It doesn't matter either way," Walter spoke up, gruff and uncomfortable. He'd seemed out of sorts for a while now."I can feel it, looming over us. I can tell it will be here soon. Can't you?"
Lucille exchanged a glance with her brother. They both recognised the Crawler's touch, and it had been inching along their skin for days. It could just be the effect of a powerful memory, but she had the feeling it was more of a force they could sense because of their previous encounters. Ben was the only one who didn't feel the same sense of trepidation.
"It's been getting stronger lately," Lucille told them. "I don't even like being in a dark room these days."
"Or a small room, for that matter," Walter added. He shook himself. "Honestly, look at us. What kind of soldiers tremble at shadows, eh?"
"Time for an inspirational speech?" Ben asked with a grin. Walter cuffed him on the shoulder, smiling back with renewed vigour. Sir barked his approval at the change in tone, leaping around the soldiers.
Lucille glanced at her brother, who seemed pensive despite her friends' attempts to lighten the mood. She beckoned him to follow her further down the garden so that they could talk alone. Walter gave her an encouraging nod, and left with Ben.
Logan seemed suspicious. Even now, he still seemed to think she would take some pointless revenge on him for his past actions. If they were to charge into battle soon, she wanted to do it knowing that the people she cared about realised her feelings for them. It was time to tell her brother the conclusion she had reached a good few months ago.
"Do you remember before I ran away," she began, "when you made me kill those people, and I said I would never forgive you for it?"
"Of course," he replied solemnly.
Lucille took his hand in hers. He looked so tired from carrying all that weight for all these years. She probably looked little better. A right pair, they were.
"I forgive you, brother."
She kissed him on the cheek, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze before wandering back up the garden in the direction her friends had taken. Logan remained where he was, touching his hand to his cheek and wondering if he had just imagined it, or whether his sister truly loved him again.
The roaring of the battle seemed distant and hazy; the world seemed shrouded in a dark cloak. Logan remembered this feeling from several years ago. He had been on an expedition to Aurora, reaching out to the oft-forgotten colony there. The city had broken communications and he made it his personal aim to discover why – a sign of his devotion to the kingly role – instead, he had been attacked in the dark, his men slaughtered. If it hadn't been for the Aurorans, he too would have died. And now he was back in the same situation.
Fear clawed its way up his throat and he tried to choke it down. He could hear his men yelling as they attempted to cut a path to the largest safe-house in the Old Quarter. Most of the civilians in this district were holed up in there, and the Crawler's minions knew it.
Logan pressed forward, working his way up the street from the Market. He had parted ways with Lucille there, and hadn't heard from her since. She was to battle the Crawler's Children there with Walter, whilst Ben Finn lead men to assist Page's rebel army in the Industrial district.
As a Hero, Lucille required the least protection of everyone, but that didn't make him worry any less. Finn and Walter would receive the gravest retribution if harm came to his sister.
"I keep seeing things – stuff that isn't real, Your Highness," yelled Saunders, the loyal general of Logan's troops. "And it's so bloody dark! How is it doing this?"
"It's using your fear against you," Logan replied, trying to keep his voice commanding. "Remember your training. Concentrate!"
Logan swept his sword, cutting down several of the Children at once. One good thing about the wretches was that they died easily – but what they lacked in strength, they made up for in numbers and perseverance.
As his soldiers defeated a horde of shadows, the fog obscuring Logan's sight eased a little. Colour seemed to seem back into his surroundings, sharpening the imagery. He could see his men more clearly – hindered by the darkness, but holding their ground. His troops had been training for this for years, and Lucille's for months. Although the circumstances were different in reality to practice, he knew they could hold out. For now.
Gazing up the road that led towards the safe-house, Logan spotted a woman stood alone amidst the shadows. They faded around her, and he sprinted up to check that she was unharmed.
As he drew closer, Logan realised he recognised the woman – shaven head, tattooed, flowing Auroran garments.
"Kalin? Why are you–"
"You abandoned us to the darkness," she replied, quiet and grave. The sounds of his soldiers fighting further down the street seemed only an echo. Kalin reached her hands out towards him. "We saved you, protected you from the Crawler, and this is how you repay us? Do you know what the Crawler did to us – in those years when we were left abandoned?"
Her impassive face twisted into a cruel smile. "We should show you..."
Logan staggered backwards, out of the way as her hands mutated into claws, black eyes consumed her entire face. The thing that had been wearing Kalin's image revealed its true form – a corrupted creation of the Crawler.
It swung an axe at him, and Logan rolled out of the way. The creature was stronger than the Children, and it glimmered in some perverse combination of light and dark. He struck at the lumpy joint of its shoulder, and the thing groaned. It whirled round to attack him again, and Logan was forced to fall back a little.
Saunders dispatched a couple of Children, leading several soldiers to back up their leader. With the added numbers, the creature seemed unsure of who to attack. Much to Logan's delight, it decided to stick with him.
He grabbed a twisted scrap of metal from some nearby wreckage, using it to deflect the heavy strike of the monster's axe while he struck with his sword. Saunders attacked it from behind, trying to deal a fatal blow to the creature. Logan wasn't even sure if the thing would die from the same wounds as mortal beings – it seemed to almost be made of metal. There was only one way to find out.
As the creature swung round to deal with Saunders' attacks, and the soldiers that were assisting him, Logan sprang onto its back, driving his sword through its neck. It was like pushing through stone, but his efforts were rewarded as its neck came apart, head severed and body collapsing uselessly.
Logan indicated for his men to continue as he caught his breath. He had spent too much time cooped up indoors, it was making him soft.
After a moment, he joined his men, who were fighting to secure the square in front of the safe-house. There were a few machine abominations here, and he swept off to fight one. Now they knew that the creatures could be defeated through decapitation, his soldiers were cutting through them more effectively.
If they could hold this area, the civilians would remain safe.
Logan stared at the image of his sister several metres away, waving at him. Behind her their parents stood proudly. He wasn't about to be fooled a second time, not with such an obvious illusion. Pointing the tip of his blade towards the apparitions, he braced himself as Lucille approached, her hand extended in the same gesture that Kalin had offered before she changed.
Their mother drew a pistol from her hip, levelling it at his sister's undefended back. She smirked, pulling the trigger whilst their father watched indifferently. Lucille's smile froze on her face as she pitched forwards. As she hit the ground, her body dissipated into shadows.
Logan – confused and unnerved – looked up from the spot where his fake-sister had vanished. He looked over at where his parents stood. They had been replaced by Ben Finn and Walter Beck. Walter lowered the gun and smiled at Logan, before both of them disappeared.
It had just been a hallucination, he knew that. The attack from the fake-Kalin had been proof enough that he would be foolish to believe anything he saw. The Crawler would twist his fears and regrets until it drove him mad. He had seen it happen to his soldiers in Aurora.
"Your Highness," said Saunders, still addressing him as a member of the royal family despite his being disinherited. "We've managed to secure this area. The Children seem to be falling back to the Market quarter."
"The Market?" Logan repeated. He looked around at the Old Quarter square. The soldiers were weary and suspicious, but most were still standing and the safe-house hadn't been breached. They would be able to hold off any shadows if he left them here. Logan frowned. He had an obligation to remain with his men, but he also had a duty to protect his sister and queen. The hallucination hadn't been real, but it had disturbed him – the Crawler knew her as a threat, and it would face her directly. It had been whispering in his head since it arrived, baiting him with threats against his sister's life, promises that her efforts to save the people would be in vain.
"Make sure none of the Crawler's minions come near the safe-house, and trust nothing you see or hear," Logan instructed his general. "I'm going to the Market district to see what the situation is there. If the Crawler is concentrating its attack on the queen then she may need reinforcements."
"I understand, we'll give no quarter to those bastards," Saunders replied with a knowing look. He snapped off a quick salute. "Be careful, Your Highness."
Logan nodded, and set off to find his sister.
The soldiers in Bowerstone Market were holding off their adversaries almost as well as Logan's forces had. At least, there didn't appear to be any civilian casualties. He noticed that the soldiers also seemed to be trying to keep the Children from nearing Bow Street. Following his instincts, Logan set off down the street, meeting little opposition.
The sound of Ben Finn's frustrated shouts guided him and the sense of trepidation grew.
Logan spotted the soldier pounding on what appeared to be a translucent wall, yelling through it. As he drew nearer, Finn abruptly fell silent. The shimmering shield collapsed and the soldier passed through the archway to a small courtyard.
As Logan reached the scene, he slowed down, taking in what he was seeing. Walter was lying in Lucille's arms, battered and blood-soaked as he murmured something to her. Lucille was sobbing brokenly, looking almost as battle-stained as her old mentor. Logan hadn't seen her this distraught for a long time. She seemed to have hardened lately, and emotional torrents were a thing of the past, but this tragedy had broken through her defences. He wanted to comfort her, but Ben Finn was already there, kneeling by her side, squeezing her shoulder gently as she wept over the loss of her father-figure.
Logan still wasn't sure what had happened, but he noticed that the sounds of battle had faded. It wasn't as before, when the darkness was dampening his senses. This peace seemed genuine. Had Lucille and Walter faced the Crawler? Why hadn't Finn been alongside them? Perhaps it sensed some of its taint within the survivors and had singled them out. He wondered if Walter had died heroically. He imagined so; the old soldier had been almost as much a Hero as their mother had been.
Walter had been the friend and guardian to Lucille that Logan hadn't been for years. He had once loved Walter as a surrogate father, but they had been distant for some time. His sister's bond had only grown stronger.
"Lucille," Logan said gently. "The battle is over – you need to inform the people that they are safe. You can't grieve for Walter just yet."
She stared at him.
"He's right," Ben said unexpectedly. He wrapped an arm round the devastated queen, lifting her to her feet. "Wally wouldn't want us to leave the job half-finished, would he? First we sort out the city, then we give Walter the send off he deserves."
"A Hero's send off," Logan finished.
Lucille nodded wearily, wiping her eyes. She left her weapons discarded on the paving slabs, and readied herself to direct her people. If there was a lesson she had learned over the past several months, it was that the people came first, no matter how hard the decision involved.
The statue didn't have half as much presence as Walter had in life, but it was the best likeness. It managed to convey the respect and humour that had been embodied in the old soldier. Lucille thought he would like his statue to overlook the city he had loved.
Several members of the Swift Brigade were lined up, firing shots into the sky as Lucille observed a minute's silence with Logan, Ben, Jasper and Sir. Only Lucille and Ben knew the specifics of how Walter had died, and they had decided to keep silent about it. They wouldn't have the Crawler trying to smear his good name through people learning that it had taken possession of his body. Walter had died bravely in defence of his country – it was the truth, and it was all anyone needed to know. She would've held a week-long celebration in honour of Walter, given the choice, but she knew the treasury's wealth would be better spent on repairing the damage done to the city.
She was finally going to be able to rule as she had wanted to; with no threat of death looming over them, she could tax her people normal rates and make sure they weren't oppressed by people like Reaver – who had conveniently disappeared since the Crawler's attack. Walter had said he was proud of her, but she intended to prove his words true. She would be the greatest ruler Albion had seen – enough to rival her mother.
Lucille noticed that Jasper's shoulders were trembling slightly as he stared at the statue of his old friend. The butler and the soldier had been like her parents for years, assuming the role that her deceased parents couldn't fill and her brother didn't want to fill. She dropped a hand around his shoulders, squeezing them gently. Lucille had never known him express much emotion, and he seemed to be struggling to bottle it up.
As the firing ceased, Ben gave a hearty salute to the statue. Lucille smiled – Walter would appreciate the humour.
The soldiers filed away, leaving the small group in the presence of the statue. Lucille looked over at Ben, still comforting Jasper as she spoke. "What do you think you're going to do now?"
Ben scratched his chin, giving her one of his usual grins. "I think I want to travel a bit – being a general really isn't for me, and there's a lot of the world I've yet to see."
"And naive noblewomen to sweep off their feet," Lucille added.
"Ah, no, my heart's already taken," he replied. Ben gave a thoughtful glance towards the Industrial district. "I'll probably see if Page needs any help too, so long as she doesn't skin me alive when I turn up."
"I'm sure she'll be delighted to have your help. Just try to make sure she doesn't start a rebellion against me," Lucille gave him a wry smile, "at least not until I've had a good shot at this leadership business."
Ben shrugged. "Hey, you saved almost all of Albion – no one can argue with those results. Well... except maybe Page... you have a point. I'll tell her all about your noble qualities when I see her."
Lucille maintained a smile, even if it was slightly forced now. She was still a little sore about her broken promises to her allies – Page in particular. The two of them had really warmed to one another despite their differences, and it seemed impossible to fix the damage. Perhaps Page would understand when she saw the kingdom Lucille intended to build... but she hadn't been any less frosty at Walter's funeral, and that had been after Lucille's measures ensured the survival of almost everyone in Albion. What more could she possibly do?
She shook her head. There was no point dwelling on broken friendships. Ben would be disappearing from her life for a while, though she knew he would return if she needed him. Jasper would of course be her friend and ally until the day he was so old that she picked out his outfits and made his bed for him. Her faithful dog would also be at her side. That left her brother. Lucille felt optimistic that now the weight of the Crawler had passed, they would truly be able to catch up on all those years they had lost to apathy and misunderstanding.
"What about you then?" Ben asked, addressing Logan civilly for a change. It was a true mark in the change of the times. "Planning to put any puppies into sacks and throw them in a river?" Or perhaps not.
Logan gave the other man a raised eyebrow, but otherwise ignored him and addressed Lucille instead. "Actually, I think I too should leave. You have done what I thought impossible, by saving Albion. You are the leader I wasn't able to be, and it would be better if I wasn't here to taint your rule. You deserve a fresh start, sister."
He was gazing at her in what seemed to be proud. She had rarely seen her brother look upon her with open love and respect, but she felt mostly anger. After losing her best friend and father-figure, Logan was just going to leave?
Lucille released Jasper to the care of her dog's soft fur, and marched up to Logan furiously. She shoved his shoulder, and Logan's expression changed to confusion.
"You're abandoning me?" she demanded.
He gave her a sympathetic look. "This is what's best for Albion."
"It's not what's best for me." Lucille knew she sounded like a child, but she didn't care. Everyone she cared about was being taken from her, and she wouldn't let her brother just run off. "We've put Albion's people first for years – it's about time we considered ourselves."
"That isn't what a monarch's role is," he replied carefully, seeming mildly amused by her frustration. This only annoyed her more. "From the moment a monarch assumes the throne, the needs of the country take precedence over their own."
"Logan, you're my brother," Lucille reminded him sternly, folding her arms. "And it's time you started acting like it."
Logan's face softened into a smile and reached out, enfolding Lucille in an embrace in one smooth move. She unfolded her arms, hugging him back tightly. After losing so much of her family, she wasn't about to lose the one person she was supposed to be closest to, and yet had been alienated from for so long.
"If you truly want me to stay, then I will," he said quietly. "But remember that the people won't be any more forgiving of me now than they were before the Crawler's attack. My presence will only earn you their animosity."
Lucille laughed. "Maybe you've already forgotten, but they've just spent a year hating me. I think I can handle it – especially if it means I can have my brother back."
Logan kissed her on the forehead, and they pulled apart, smiling. They weren't two adults with the weight of the world sitting on their shoulders, having just weathered an invasion and the hatred of the entire populace; they were a young brother and sister, happy and ready to face it all together.