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Introduction:

Lupin meets his nemesis.
Blood Splatter

Prince Lupin was facing the biggest challenge of his military and political career. It felt like a thousand years ago, he had begun his siege on Welindar, facing those impenetrable gates, and now, living within the palace, his authority as ruler was about to be truly tested. The challenge before him? The insurmountable mountain? Welindar’s fall festival.

The citizens had been hard at work in the fields surrounding the city, harvesting their crops and planting wheat, and now, they wanted to celebrate and praise the spirits. When the citizen delegates approached him regarding the festival, he could not refuse. To do so would make him appear weak in the eyes of his enemies and anger those he sought to govern, fanning the flames of rebellion. This would be the ultimate test of his leadership skills, to organize such a celebration and keep it safe and orderly. It was when his authority would be most vulnerable to sabotage.

That said, this situation was not completely hopeless. Lupin had learned from his father, who made every Knight’s Day a rousing success, and the Pack was all but defeated. Noah was absent, off liberating a prison camp, but his anti-host poison remained the foundation of countless victories. He wished Noah was present to assist, but if there was ever a time for him to demonstrate his rule, it was now.

For days, Lupin worked with his city delegates and advisors, preparing for the festival. Most of the former king’s adjutants disappeared from the public eye when Welindar fell, many joining the Pack, but a handful of public figures remained and were willing to help. There was a lot of work and many arrangements to make. Food and drinks had to be prepared to feed and intoxicate an entire city, entertainment had to be organized, streets had to be cleared and prepped for traffic, and troops had to be ready to put down any trouble.

Too many soldiers patrolling would spoil the festival and lead to potential conflict, but too few would leave gaps in security and give rabble-rousers room to enact their misdeeds. The plan was for the knights to remain armored as a show of force, and for the soldiers to move about undercover, disguised as citizens. There would be no room for error.

The day finally arrived, and fate blessed the city with good weather. The sun was shining, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The citizens of Welindar filled the streets, drinking, singing, and enjoying themselves. Almost one year ago, Welindar fell to Uther, after which the fighting moved from outside the city to inside, with soldiers battling the Pack, so this merriment was greatly needed. The people drank away their troubles, hoping that soon, everything would gain a sense of normalcy.

Prince Lupin walked the streets in his formal wear, carrying his whip and a ceremonial sword. He was guarded by his knights and accompanied by his ever-present healer, Nell. He smiled and waved to the people, but it was a while before his guards stopped grabbing their swords when they saw someone raise their arm.

“Such a wonderful day!” Nell sighed blissfully.

“Indeed,” said Lupin. “This has been my hope for the city since our victory. In time, I dream for the line between beastmen and mages to disappear, when everyone in Welindar can accept and take pride in being citizens of Uther.”

“That is a beautiful dream, Your Highness,” she replied, looking away so he wouldn’t see her blush. Her dream was much simpler, for the two of them to enjoy the holiday with their fingers interlaced, to be on his arm and rest her head on his shoulder.

“I prefer my dream, a tankard of ale that never goes empty,” said Paulman. “Why is it that magic can make men soar with the clouds, but can’t satiate my thirst?”

“An empty mug is the gods’ way of saying it’s time to stagger home,” replied Reynolds.

“That’s because the gods haven’t met my wife. Why do you think I refuse every opportunity to return home?”

“Now, now, Paulman, you should be glad you have someone to return to,” said Lupin.

“With all due respect, Your Highness, you haven’t met her either,” Paulman grumbled.

“Your Highness, I understand you are betrothed to the Vandheim princess, correct? Are you looking forward to married life?” Reynolds asked.

“I suppose so. I’ve only met her a couple of times, so I don’t know her very well. I can only hope my life with her will be long and happy.”

“Take it from me, it will either be one or the other,” said Paulman.

The prince and his attendants did their rounds, ensuring everything in the city went smoothly. For Lupin, it was important that the public see him out and about, socializing with his citizens. He returned to the castle at midday to prepare for the next phase. Along with the harvest festival, he had scheduled a rally. He wished to address the people and give a speech of a hopeful future. Most festivities occurred in the town square before the palace, helping bolster attendance, even if the citizens didn’t know it. Prince Lupin stepped out onto a balcony overlooking the square with Nell and Reynolds by his side. Several soldiers began to blow trumpets at his signal, drawing the crowd’s attention.

“Presenting His Royal Highness, Lupin Oxam Vilard Albion!”

The announcement was met with scattered cheering and applause from his sparse supporters. Lupin took a deep breath, once more going over the speech he had been up late planning.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Children of Welindar! I, Prince Lupin, am proud to celebrate this harvest festival with you! This has been a challenging year, with many adjustments having to be made by all, but whatever burdens you carry, I carry with you, for you are my people, my citizens, and my family! At one time, we were enemies, fighting over land, but now, under the flag of Uther, we are united! I came here not to rule, but to lead! To join the north and the south, the east and the west, into one tribe!

Each morning, I wake up hoping that the fighting stops, that the violence ends, and that we can put down our weapons and embrace each other as a family. There are those who wish the bloodshed would continue, who wish to resume the war, to which I say—”

“What say you, Prince?!” a voice challenged.

Lupin looked down to the town square as the crowd parted, revealing a figure. “I am Kaisen the Liger, here to return this city to its natural order!”

That name sent ripples through the crowd, the name of a legendary warrior, but Lupin did not give in to intimidation. “The war is over. The fighting has finished. Now is the time for us all to come together under one banner, to become one tribe.”

Kaisen turned to the crowd and raised his hands. “Comrades! Sons and daughters of the spirits! How long are you going to let this outsider rule over you?! We are the free people of Handent, the blood of the wild flows through our veins! In Uther’s eyes, we are merely rabid animals to be hunted for our pelts! Remove the collars he has put on your throats! Do not let yourself become pets, showing your bellies! Do not let your children become beasts of burden for Uther’s nobles! You are either my allies or his slaves!” Several people began to cheer and chant, raising their fists and stomping their feet. Kaisen was winning the crowd.

“Enough!” Lupin boomed. He gave a flick of his wrist, and dozens of bows were immediately aimed at Kaisen, and countless swords were drawn, ready to cut down the intruder. “You are a terrorist, taking what was supposed to be a day of celebration and cheer and making it all about you and your lust for power! You can either join us in the future or have your body lost in the rubbish pile of history!”

“Foolish boy, you don’t have a future! You claim to defend this city and its people, but how can you protect them when you can’t even protect yourself, your stolen castle, or your men?!”

Kaisen pointed up as darting shadows began crisscrossing the city. All eyes were drawn up to the sky, filled with hundreds of black wings blocking the sun. Beastmen of the raven tribe were swarming above Welindar, and they didn’t come alone. Clutched in their talons were Lupin’s soldiers, their limbs bound, flailing like worms on hooks. The insurgents released their payloads, dropping the men to their doom.

In the city streets, the soldiers were dropped with careful aim, being impaled on statues, lampposts, and flag poles. Their bodies were displayed for everyone to see without harming the citizens. They fell like rain at the palace, screaming in terror before their lives were snuffed in the resulting splatter. Everywhere Lupin looked, he could see his men falling, hear their desperate cries, and feel the thump of each impact in his chest as if he had been dropped.

“What say you, Prince?!” Kaisen once more boomed, standing with his arms outstretched. “You demand peace after bringing war to our gates and filling our streets with blood! Allow me to return the favor!” Kaisen then crouched down and launched himself forward, not towards Lupin on his balcony, but towards the row of soldiers underneath. He moved with frightening speed, and his fingers, already tipped with flesh-ripping claws, exuded fields of mana that took the form of scythe-like blades. “Flesh Carver!”

He easily cut down the troops, his claws ripping through steel, bone, and muscle like wet paper. The soldiers nearest him closed in from all directions with their swords, but he dodged all their attacks and countered with monstrous slashes. The archers’ arrows were similarly useless. Kaisen could dodge them, bat them out of the air, or block them using soldiers as human shields.

Lupin drew his whip, but Nell stopped him. “Sire, we have to get you out of here!”

“The leader of the Pack stands before me! I will not let this opportunity slip by!”

“If something happens to you, then not just Welindar, but all of Uther will be in jeopardy!”

Lupin struggled to calm himself, but put away his emotions and his weapon. “Soldiers, evacuate everyone from the town square! All knights, kill the intruder! Do not let him leave the grounds alive!”

His troops rushed to fulfill the order. The soldiers, clearly outmatched by the ferocious warrior, retreated and went to work, herding the citizens out of the area. At the same time, knights circled Kaisen with their weapons and magic ready.

“Puny weaklings, hiding behind your steel and gods! None of you has what it takes to bring me down!”

He rushed towards Paulman, charging his axe with mana and swinging towards the beastman’s neck. Kaisen dodged the swing and reached out with his claws, about to end Paulman’s life before being struck by a blast of fire from another knight. He flipped through the air, wreathed in flames but avoiding severe burns, and as soon as he landed, a spearman tried to skewer him. Kaisen grabbed the spear before it could reach him, then roared as his head transformed, becoming like that of a tiger. He opened his jaws wide and crushed the knight’s skull, helmet and all, then threw him aside.

A water bolt from Reynolds’s crossbow struck him in the back and then exploded in a flameless burst, ripping out a chunk of flesh and making him stagger, but it was only for a moment. He turned to the balcony and opened his mouth, with a sphere of mana forming between his beastly jaws. “Lion’s Roar!” He launched the sphere like a cannonball, aiming at Lupin. The prince leaped back with Nell and Reynolds as the mana bomb obliterated the balcony, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the palace.

“His wound isn’t healing. He doesn’t have a parasite!” Reynolds cursed.

“Then how is he still standing?”

Three knights attacked Kaisen, swinging at him with their swords. Kaisen dodged the first slash, spinning around and gouging the knight’s face using his rotational momentum. His claws, alight with mana, tore the man’s head open. The next knight attempted a cleaving strike, but Kaisen sidestepped and then countered with an uppercut slash, ripping him open from crotch to throat and spilling his guts into the street. The third managed to scratch Kaisen, but the beastman turned around and kicked him square in the chest, knocking him through the air while spitting blood.

Kaisen then got down on all fours, his legs transforming to a quadriplegic form and mana radiating from his limbs. “Beast Mantle.” The mana condensed around him, taking the form of an enormous lion that he wore like a costume. He then took off, zooming around the town square at high speed, dodging magic attacks and cutting down knights one after another. What few arrows and spells managed to land were stopped by the mana shroud, protecting him like armor. He wasn’t stopped until Lupin’s chain intercepted and slashed him on the cheek, succeeding in cutting through his shroud. Kaisen turned and faced the scowling prince.

“Well, well, look who came down from his balcony. Don’t worry, Prince. You’ll get your turn soon enough. For now, I’ll leave you to bury your men, the men that you let die. Wallow in your failure and dread my return.”

“Don’t think I’ll let you leave so easily.”

“As if you could even stop me in the first place.”

Kaisen then rocketed towards Lupin, who attempted to intercept him with his whip. However, he was not fast enough and saw the beastman’s claws approaching his face. Lupin’s life flashed before his eyes, and he felt a sting of pain and a splash of blood as Kaisen shot past him. Rather than his throat slit, he had received a cut on his cheek to match the one he gave Kaisen. If the beastman had wanted, he could have obliterated Lupin’s skull easily, and Lupin would have been powerless to stop him. The bitterness of that fact hurt worse than the wound itself.

“You’re too weak to rule this city or even be a challenge for me. I know it, you know it, and the people know it. Cling to the delusion of power while you can, for it is all you have. I’m going to bring your whole world down upon you. Until next time, Your Highness.”

Then, with a running start, Kaisen leaped onto the roof of a nearby building and fled, leaving countless bodies behind. The ravenmen above, having delivered their cargo, likewise cleared the skies. Reynolds and Nell ran over to Lupin.

“My Lord! You’re hurt!” Nell fearfully exclaimed.

She tried healing the wound, but he stopped her. “It’s just a scratch, save your strength for those who need it. Paulman, you and Nell take care of the scene here. Scour the castle, remove the dead and heal the injured. Reynolds, come with me. We need to collect the bodies and make sure order is maintained in the city.”

He walked away quickly, not wanting to hear any arguments, and Reynolds hurried after him. “Sir, please, you’re bleeding. We need to tend to it.”

“Don’t ask me to stop. After everything that just happened, I don’t have the luxury of sitting around and being pampered.”

A squad of soldiers and knights was assigned to guarding the prince, all that could be diverted from the castle effort. He and Reynolds rode through the city as a show of force, searching for any Pack members striking while the iron was hot. Several trouble-makers were trying to get the people worked up, shouting that now was the time for revolution while standing atop the corpses of the dropped soldiers. Fortunately, none of the citizens had been injured in the attack, but that meant Kaisen retained the public’s support. In their eyes, he was the hero trying to overthrow the Utheric tyrant.

Lupin and Reynolds were quick to arrest anyone causing a scene while they worked to gather the dead troops. Each one left a bloody mess, a monument to Lupin’s weakness. There were a few survivors among the dead, soldiers struggling to breathe as blood streamed from their wounds and their shattered bones ground together. Young men begged for help from Lupin and his soldiers, their faces streaked with tears as they deliriously cried for their mothers, while the older men on the precipice between life and death murmured the names of their wives and children that they would probably never see again. The people voiced their frustration as Lupin and his troops worked to save the few they could.

“Get out of our city!”

“Death to Uther!”

“Free Welindar!”

Those who spent the festival intoxicated were the most vocal, but weren’t alone in their opinions. All of Lupin’s attempts to unite Welindar with Uther were falling flat. He ignored their angry shouts, not wanting to escalate things. While removing a body impaled atop a statue, the crowds turned violent.

“Sir, orders?” Reynolds asked as stones and debris began raining on the soldiers’ shields.

“Ignore them. We’ve got the body, we’re moving on,” said Lupin. Riding on horseback, they moved to the next location.

“Sir, don’t you think we should stop the festival?”

Lupin sighed and rubbed his temples. If he stopped the festival, it could lead to a riot, and he wasn’t sure he had the manpower to stop it. However, such violence was already a distinct possibility after everything that happened. Between the dropped bodies and Kaisen, everyone would question his strength and ability to rule. Today's events would be gossiped and argued in every tavern in the city, with devious minds now seeing an opportunity to strike.

“The festival will continue, but any and all planned events are cancelled and with a sunset curfew. I want the patrols tripled with full armor.”

Per Lupin’s orders, the celebration was allowed to resume, but after everything that happened at the castle, the people had lost much of their spirit. No speeches were permitted, no performances or plays, nothing that might give the Pack another audience. The festival was halted at dusk, with everyone ordered to return to their homes, going to bed wondering what kind of city they’d wake up in.

There was no rest for Lupin or his troops. Not only had numerous soldiers been killed and wounded in the attack, but the body bombardment had damaged the castle. There was a mountain of things to be done, and those laboring were shocked to see the prince working beside them. Unable to remain still, unable to wait, he forced himself into every problem and project, trying to help wherever he could.

The feelings of weakness inside him made him feel sick, his failures and uselessness weighing heavy on his shoulders. He worked his fingers to the bone to distract himself, performing any menial and laborious task that would make him feel like he was accomplishing something, that he still had agency in the situation.

Even when night fell, he could not relax. He spent the evening pacing back and forth in his chambers, pondering his next move. Not only did he have to worry about the Profane, but now he had to deal with Kaisen, a seemingly unstoppable warrior who had just humiliated him in front of the entire city. The public was turning against him, not that he ever had their support to begin with. He was the ruler of a city that hated his guts. Down below him, the castle infirmary was filled with wounded soldiers, with few healers and potions to go around. Each man lying in those beds, wracked with pain and fighting off Death’s cold fingers, was someone he failed.

He groaned in frustration and sat down on a couch by the window, rubbing his temples to try and ease his building headache. A single candle burned in the room to not make the pain behind his eyes worse. His thoughts were then interrupted by a gentle knock on the door.

“Your Highness? It’s Nell.”

“Enter.”

The door opened, and she stepped inside, smiling nervously and carrying a bucket of water. “I still need to heal your cheek. How is it?”

Lupin touched the cloth stuck to his face to cover the wound. With everything going on, he had forgotten to properly treat it. “It’s fine, it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“Good, then you won’t mind me pulling off that rag and giving it the care it needs.”

“That’s not necessary, it’s just a scratch.”

“Please, Your Highness, you really expect me not to fulfill my duties? I am your healer, after all.”

“And you’ve been busy healing everyone wounded today. A little scratch on my face is nothing compared to the damage you’ve had to fix. You should rest, you surely need it.”

“If it really is so little, then it will be easy for me to mend. Despite my truly debilitating fatigue, I’m sure I can scrounge up enough strength to mend your cut.”

Lupin chuckled. “Very well, I’m in your care. Please proceed.”

Nell approached and sat on the couch beside him, placing the bucket on the floor at their feet. “Let me just gently peel this back.” She gingerly pinched a corner of the makeshift covering and slowly pulled it down, with Lupin trying hard not to wince from the cloth sticking to the wound like it had been glued. “Ooh, that is grisly. I definitely need to clean that.” She reached into the bucket, pulled out a wet cloth, and gently wiped away the dried blood. “For shame, Your Highness, walking around with such a mess on your face. You’re lucky it hasn’t gotten infected.”

“It’s fine, nothing to worry about.”

“You just don’t want me to fix it because you think a scar will make you look tougher to everyone.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You can’t hide it from me. There is no one who looks at you more than I do.” After cleaning the wound, she placed her hand on his cheek, and a gold aura began to radiate from her palm, mending the damaged flesh. “How does that feel?”

“Better.”

“If something hurts, you’re supposed to tell me. It’s my job to ease your pain, whatever form it comes in. Please, what is troubling you?”

Lupin sighed. “I’m just wondering if I have what it takes to make this city a part of Uther, if it’s possible to win the hearts of the people. I knew when I came here that I would not be loved, but I thought that if I worked hard, made their needs my priority, I could earn their respect. Now I’m wondering if the best I can hope for is to be feared, and what kind of man I’d have to be to make that happen. It’s not the kind of man that I want to be.”

“I know you don’t, and that’s why I respect you, why your men respect you. You didn’t come here to rule, but to lead, you said it yourself, and there is not one person who has served under you that doesn’t believe it.”

“Yet I can’t make the people believe it. No matter what I do, in their eyes, I’ll just be an invader who stole their city. And Kaisen, he doesn’t just want me gone, he wants my head on a pike. He wants to build a throne atop a mountain of skulls, and I don’t have the strength to stop him. I’m afraid there are problems not even your magic can solve.”

She cupped both his cheeks. “But I’ll always try.”

Neither Lupin nor Nell knew how it happened, whether he leaned forward or she pulled him in, but their lips met. All was still and serene until, finally, they separated.

Nell touched her fingers to her lips and blushed, turning away. “Forgive me, Your Highness, I didn’t mean to….”

“N-no, it’s my fault.”

“I should go.”

She got to her feet, and for a brief second, she wished he would grasp her hand, just as she had wished it when they were enjoying the festival. She didn’t know how badly he wanted to. Still, the moment passed, slipping between their fingers like every moment before it, and Nell likewise departed from the prince’s chambers. Little rest came to Lupin that night, but it was not thoughts of his enemies that kept him awake.

He woke up the next day with little strength, but weakness was a luxury he could not afford. Though his attendants greeted him, Nell couldn’t meet his gaze. He still wasn’t sure what to say to her. At the moment, however, his most pressing matter was Kaisen. As long as he was free, the Pack would endure. Even if he could find him, subduing him was another matter. Yesterday he had shown just how powerful he was. Even without a parasite, his strength and killing ability dwarfed that of the fiends. Noah and Valia were his best bet, but there was no telling when or even if they would return.

He spent the morning organizing search parties, putting out a bounty, and questioning prisoners. Unfortunately, no one knew his whereabouts; if they did, they weren’t talking. The prisoners addicted to Elutrin threw out some leads, but none panned out. In the afternoon, Lupin had a meeting with his representatives. They were the top merchants, craftsmen, farmers, and religious figures in the city, and without them, the only way Lupin could hold Welindar was with his hands drenched in blood. He didn’t trust them, and vice versa, but that’s why he kept them around, so that he could keep a close eye on them.

“If any of you know anything about Kaisen the Liger, I need to know now.”

“Once again, you accuse us conspiracy because you have nowhere else to turn,” a dog-headed nobleman grumbled.

“Conflict only brings profit if you are in the right business, which we are not,” said a man with feathers instead of hair. “Most of us lost a great deal of money due to yesterday’s interruption. The harvest festival is supposed to be one our biggest days of the year, and Kaisen’s outburst ruined it.”

“He’s not doing this without help,” said Lupin. “Someone is supporting him and I need to know who. I need to know his strengths and weaknesses. Who is he?”

“Kaisen is a berserker, nothing more,” Welindar’s top banker, a man with gills, said. “His mother was from the lion tribe, his father from the tiger tribe, but as for lineage, he’s a nobody. He has as much claim to the throne of Welindar as I do. He earned his reputation on the battlefield with his tremendous power, but that is all he has.”

“Frankly, someone like him taking control would be a disaster. He has strength and charisma, but it takes far more to run a city,” a scaled beastman said.

“If you truly believe that, then it would be in all of your best interests to help me find him. Regardless of his posturing, he is a tool of the Profane, and his ascent would bring only death and horror. If you value your lives, let alone your positions, use every asset at your disposal to bring him to justice.”

Before the next person could speak, a great tremor shook the castle, and thunder echoed through its halls. With his heart dropping into his stomach, Lupin rushed to the window, where he could see a pillar of smoke rising from the side of the castle. He knew where it was coming from.

“All of you stay here! Do not leave this room until it’s been deemed safe!”

Lupin ignored all objections and rushed outside, with Paulman and Nell chasing after him. They met Reynolds at the scene, who had a grim expression and looked pale. “It’s bad, sir.”

They stepped through the door to Noah’s lab, utterly destroyed and now exposed to the elements. All the tools and equipment had been blown to smithereens, bricks were shattered and crushed, and corpses lay strewn about. The ground beneath their feet was more than just scorched; it was saturated with dark energy, and standing on it felt like they were standing on their own graves. The air had similarly been turned into a toxic miasma. More than simple smoke, every time Lupin breathed it in, he felt like his body and soul were being poisoned by a malicious will. This was cursed earth, unsuitable for any life to grow.

“Damn it, it’s all gone. This room was our greatest weapon against the Profane!” Reynolds swore.

“They knew exactly where to hit us,” said Lupin, talking with a handkerchief over his mouth to try and filter out the noxious air.

“Your Highness, look at these bodies. It’s the researchers and assistants!” said Nell.

The corpses lay strewn about belonged to the men working under Noah, though they were hard to recognize. Not only had the explosion charred their flesh, but it corrupted their bodies as well. They were lying about in gnarled, twisted forms, with mutated skeletal structures and deformed tissue. Even their faces were contorted, showing monstrous features growing like tumors.

“Their limbs were bound. This wasn’t done in an instant. Whoever’s behind this took the time to make sure everyone was gathered here to kill them all,” said Paulman.

“That’s not all we lost,” said Lupin, examining the shattered remains of glass tanks. “Some of the fiends Noah was experimenting on have disappeared. This wasn’t just an attack, this was a rescue.”

“Noah’s gone, the lab, the assistants! How are we supposed to fight now? The Profane could march right through the city gates and we can’t stop them!” Reynolds exclaimed.

“We have enough poison to last until Noah returns,” said Nell.

“If he’s even still alive,” Paulman countered.

“We can only hope. Either they planned to do this when he was gone because they’re afraid of him, or he managed to slip through their fingers. For now, we need to find out who destroyed the lab. This magic wasn’t done by any fiend. This is the work of a ghoul-type host, one who could circumvent the raised palace security and knew about the lab, its contents, and the people working here.”

“You think there is a traitor in the ranks?”

“I do. I imagine that there are at least a few beastman spies among the castle servants who have leaked info to the Profane since the beginning, but that’s not what I’m truly worried about. What’s to stop the Profane from recruiting from our side? Once given a parasite, hosts will sell their souls to keep them. Reynolds, get me a list of every man and woman stationed within the palace grounds and make sure they’re accounted for. Paulman, lock down the palace. No one gets in or out and everyone stays where they are until I give the all-clear.”

As Reynolds and Paulman departed to fulfill his orders, Lupin continued examining the scene while deep in thought. The fiends Noah kept in his lab were all heavily drugged and dismembered to prevent their escape, so even if they were rescued, they couldn’t walk out on their own. It would have taken a group of insurgents to carry them out. As for the culprit behind the explosion, it was clearly the work of a ghoul, but what if the spy who snuck the insurgents in and the ghoul who destroyed the lab weren’t the same person? If the spy was a regular human, it would be difficult to pin them for it.

“Your Highness, there’s a survivor!” Nell’s voice shook him from his thoughts, and he rushed to her, kneeling beside a young man whose entire left side was burned. He was barely breathing, unable to open his eyes, and his only movements were pained muscle spasms. Nell was doing everything she could, but her magic had little effect on the burns. “His wounds aren’t healing fast enough! I don’t think I can save him!”

“Just try and get him talking!”

She focused on his face, neck, and chest, trying to help him breathe. “H-h-highness…” he whispered. Lupin grasped his unburned hand.

“I’m here. Tell me what happened.”

“Black… b-burned… fire.”

He spoke the words with his dying breath, then fell silent.

“Black, burned, fire,” Lupin muttered. “It must have been some kind of fire spell, corrupted by Profane magic to produce black flames, flames that destroy and poison whatever they touch. At the very least, that gives us a hint. As for the lab, we’ll have to haul away every corrupted brick, otherwise it’s like letting a dead animal rot in our drinking water.”

“Drinking water…. Wait, that gives me an idea!” Nell exclaimed.

Following her instructions, Lupin ordered soldiers to bring buckets of water and throw them on the cursed earth. Everything was thoroughly splashed and left dripping, though the ashes weren’t so easily washed away. Once finished, Nell touched her staff to a puddle of water and began channeling her mana into it. A gold radiance began to spread through the water, purging the evil. She did the same to the walls and everything else that had been burned and then doused, slowly cleansing the cursed earth.

“That’s amazing,” said Lupin. “Well done.”

“Thank you. Ever since we found out light magic works on the Profane, I’ve been routinely purifying the wells in the palace grounds, as well as all the food. The energy doesn’t last long enough to work as a weapon, but it makes me feel safe, and it seems to have other uses as well. A clean house is a happy house, after all.”

Lupin picked up a loose brick, cleansed of contamination, but badly deteriorated. The entire floor had a depression left behind from the cursed flames eating away at the stone. The wall was also pocked with charred craters and vertical gouges burned into the rock.

“Imagine the force that could do this,” he muttered.

Everything that survived the blast was decontaminated and salvaged, but very little had been spared from the destruction. While Lupin’s attendants fulfilled his orders, he returned to his meeting to inform the city leaders of the situation. The rest of the day was spent questioning everyone on the palace grounds and even performing strip searches to look for parasites, but it was in the castle infirmary that the prince received troubling news.

“Around half-a-dozen of the surviving soldiers dropped yesterday have suddenly gone missing,” said Reynolds, handing Lupin a list of names.

“Goddamn Kaisen, he dumped these insurgents right on our heads. Who would think to doubt someone impaled on a gate? They must have used hidden parasites to ensure they survived the fall.”

“Among them was a fire user. If he was using a parasite, then he could have been the one to destroy Noah’s lab.”

“Then he’s our top suspect. Question everyone in the infirmary. If anyone spoke to these men, recognized them, saw them leave, I want to know.”

“Yes, sire.”

That evening brought Lupin no rest. Unlike the previous night, which he spent pacing back and forth, this night found him at his desk, looking through paperwork. Though his regional military commanders oversaw the surrounding areas, Lupin still had to manage them on top of everything going on in Welindar. It amazed Lupin how his father managed to handle the responsibilities of being the king without losing his hair from stress.

“Your Highness?”

The gentle voice and the knock on his door drew his dry eyes from his work. “Come in.”

Nell entered his chamber, holding a steaming mug of tea. “I brought you something to help, freshly sanctified. You were exposed to that dark energy today, so this should help cleanse any impurities.”

“Ah, thank you, Nell.” He accepted the tea and drank gratefully, then sighed in relief and leaned back in his chair. “I didn’t realize how dry my throat was. It feels like washing ashes out of my mouth.”

“You should be more careful. These past two days have enacted a heavy toll. You should rest and recuperate whenever you can.”

“Tell the world that. It barely gives me a moment to myself.”

“Can I try something? Noah suggested it to me. He said it would help you when you were feeling stressed.”

“I’m not really in the mood to turn down a stress-reliever. Very well, let’s give it a try. What do I have to do?”

She sat down on the couch. “You just have to sit here and— Actually, I think it would be better if you were lying down. Please, join me.”

Lupin moved to the couch to lie down, and as he lowered his head, Nell scooched over so it was rested in her lap. “Nell?”

“Trust me, Your Highness, this way makes it easier,” she said, hoping he would not see her cheeks reddening.

The warmth and softness of Nell’s lap erased any doubts Lupin had. “I trust you.”

“Good, now let’s see how this goes.”

She placed her hand over his forehead and began to channel holy energy, sending it to a specific spot in Lupin’s brain. Stimulated by her mana, his brain started producing endorphins and serotonin, and Lupin groaned blissfully. “Oh, this is wonderful.”

“I’m so glad! I didn’t quite understand when Noah explained it, but he assured me of the benefits.”

His words loosened by relief, Lupin chuckled. “Considering the stories about him coming out of Colbrand, I’m surprised he didn’t suggest something lewder.”

Nell bit her lip. “Well, if Your Highness insists, I would be happy to partake in any… nighttime activities you have in mind.”

Lupin sighed, not in bliss as before, and fear gripped Nell, thinking she had angered him. “I remember when we first met. You had spent all your time working in the infirmary, healing soldiers and knights. I had been wounded in battle against a fiend, and you were so nervous when you were working on me, acting like I was made of glass.”

His soft laugh eased her worries, and she, too, giggled. “I was so scared, even before we met. I had heard all these horror stories about monsters in the streets, and then you appear, bleeding like there was no tomorrow. If I had made even the smallest mistake, there wouldn’t have been a tomorrow for you. The prince of Uther, his life in my hands, I’m surprised I didn’t faint.”

“But you put me back together, and I decided it would be good to have a healer on retainer should I suffer more injuries. From then on, you were always there, sunny and hopeful, always supporting me whenever I needed it. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with you.”

Nell was taken back, left breathless, and then smiled. “It only took me one day.”

Lupin, however, wasn’t smiling. “Even though I tried to resist. I tried so hard to bury my feelings for you, because what I wanted just couldn’t happen. I’m already engaged to Princess Cynatas, and the dwarves don’t look kindly on infidelity and mistresses. I knew that the closer I got to you, the harder it would be when I’d inevitably have to leave you.”

“Couldn’t we just… forget the future? We have this moment now, so why not just throw everything else aside and finally let ourselves be happy?”

Lupin sat up and spoke without looking at her. “Because that’s not the man I want to be. No, that’s not right, that is the man I want to be. I want so desperately to do just that, to enjoy one night where I don’t have to be the prince, but everything I do, I must do for my people. My union with the princess will bridge Uther and Vandheim and bring safety and prosperity, something I, as the future leader of our nation, cannot refuse, no matter how much I wish to. A man who breaks his oaths and shirks his responsibility, a man without honor, does not deserve a woman like you.”

Nell leaned against his back. “I don’t love you because you are the prince, that has never mattered to me. I love you because you are kind, compassionate, dedicated, respectful, and you work just as hard as those who serve under you. You want to help and protect the people who hate you, because you know they deserve to live peaceful, happy lives.”

“And if I choose you, then I would be forsaking them. My people must come before myself and what I want, even if what I want is you.”

Nell held him tight for a moment and then let go. “I understand. I won’t bother you again.”

She got up and left without another word, not even looking at Lupin. Lupin stood by his desk, his breathing rough and agitated, and then threw everything aside with a roar of frustration. He leaned against his desk for several moments, trying to suppress his escaped anguish. He could have called in a maid to clean up the mess, but he decided to take care of it himself, not wanting anyone to see him in an unbalanced state. He returned the paperwork to his desk and began picking up the shards of the tea cup Nell brought.

“What a waste,” he muttered.

He was about to grab a rag to clean up the spilled tea, but stopped, staring at the pool on the floor and the splash the tea cup left on the wall. The damage to the lab flashed through his mind, the way the enemy spell had melted stone, and the pattern of destruction. It wasn’t like a fiery explosion; it looked more like a large splatter.

“Black, burned, fire… He wasn’t talking about black fire, he was talking about something burning LIKE fire!”

Gripped by fear, Lupin donned his armor and grabbed his weapons. He rushed out of his chambers to where his guards were stationed.

“You, raise the alarm. Every soldier in the palace grounds has to be ready for battle, but do so quietly. Don’t alert a single knight unless I say so. You, get Sir Paulman. The rest of you, come with me.”

Guards were roused from their sleep throughout the palace and rushed to adorn their armor and retrieve their weapons. Whatever was going on, if this was to be a repeat of the festival, then everyone had to be ready to fight and die.

As Lupin walked down the corridors, Paulman joined him in a half-asleep state, still adjusting his belt and armor. “Your Highness, what’s going on?”

“I know what happened in the lab. Remember when we fought the armored ghoul? Remember the weapons Noah used? They were glass orbs filled with a liquid that could burn solid material like flames eating away at wood. If a similar dissolving liquid had been used in the lab, it would explain the destruction. If that were so, then the culprit wasn’t using corrupted fire magic, but corrupted water magic.”

“So?”

“So, who do we know that uses exploding water? Who was there at the scene before you and I arrived?”

“Oh gods….”

Lupin, Paulman, and a dozen soldiers arrived at Reynolds’s quarters. Lupin nodded to a soldier, who stepped forward and banged his fist on the door. “Sir Reynolds! The prince has summoned you!” There was no answer. “Sir Reynolds, are you in there?” Silence.

Lupin nodded once more, and the soldier opened the door. At that moment, a wave of black fluid splashed the man as if thrown from a bucket. He staggered back, screaming in agony as his armor and flesh dissolved and the muscles underneath mutated. Reynolds leaped out into the corridor with black blood streaming from his palms. He grabbed the face of the nearest soldier and slammed him into the wall with enough strength to crumple his helmet and crush his skull, then seized the slain man’s sword and used it to stab a third soldier in the throat and slice the arm off a fourth.

“Reynolds, stop!” Lupin shouted, but Reynolds turned and ran off. Lupin turned to a soldier. “Alert the knights! Let everyone know that Sir Reynolds has betrayed us and is using a parasite! Do not let him escape the palace!”

Lupin, Paulman, and the rest of the soldiers chased after him, sprinting down the palace corridors. He left behind pools of blood as traps, ready to melt the feet of whoever stepped into them and fill the air with toxic smoke. However, he found countless soldiers waiting for him everywhere he tried to go. Though they were unaware of the situation, the look on his face was all they needed to realize what was happening.

Facing one such group of soldiers, he sighed and raised his hand to them with a wry smile. “Sorry, boys, it’s nothing personal.” He released a jet of blood, cutting through them like a laser and turning them into puddles of dissolving flesh.

Reynolds then staggered, nearly brought down by overwhelming anemia. His parasite both weaponized and replenished his blood, but after every significant attack, there were moments when he was utterly drained, and only the venom was keeping him alive and conscious. His speed, strength, and magical power had been multiplied, but it was a deal with the devil.

“Reynolds!” Lupin shouted upon turning the corner, only to duck back and narrowly dodge a blood blast.

“Don’t follow me, sire! I’d prefer not to kill you!”

Lupin, however, could not let it go and continued chasing Reynolds to the great hall. Reynolds bolted for an exit, but it was blocked by a knight and several soldiers. “There he is!” the knight shouted before hurling a lightning bolt.

Reynolds was hit in the shoulder and burned as if with a branding iron, but the wound immediately healed. Laughing with a maniacal grin, Reynolds sprayed the knight and dissolved him, then turned around to run for another exit, only for more knights to show up, launching spells and arrows. Reynolds spun around, looking for a way out, but every door had troops streaming out, forming a perimeter around him.

“Reynolds, that’s enough!” Lupin boomed. “You need to surrender. If you give yourself up, no harm will come to you.”

“You mean until Noah comes back, then I become one of his experiments!”

“We can remove it! Noah will find a cure and we can fix you. I swear, I won’t let him hurt you.”

Reynolds gave a deranged cackle. “There’s no coming back from what I’ve done! No way out! I see the end now, every time I close my eyes. I see where the shadows lead us. I see what awaits our world in the darkness; the most wonderful, horrible things. The will of the Profane will never be stopped, for it cannot stop.”

“Just tell me why! You were one of my best and bravest, so why did you join the Profane?”

“You said it yourself: once you get a parasite, you’ll sell your soul to keep it, even if you didn’t want one in the first place! I fought against them when I was taken, tried to go down swinging, and when they strapped me to that table, I promised myself that my life would break before my dignity. They put the parasite on me, and as soon as it latched and the venom began to flow, everything changed, everything fell away, but one glorious purpose: spread the darkness and devour the light. Once I understood, they released me and sent me back here to do their good work and destroy the lab.”

“Your Highness, it’s no use,” Paulman said bitterly. “The man is a lost cause. He’s beyond saving. The only way to free him from the Profane is to end him.”

“You really think you can kill me? Give it your best shot! But you should know that my blood is special and can do more than just destroy! Let me show you!”

“Take cover!” Lupin instinctively shouted before Paulman pushed him down out of harm’s way.

Reynolds held out his arms and spun around, spraying blood on the soldiers and knights. Those with quick instincts ducked under tables and behind pillars, while those exposed began to change. Their eyes turned red, their teeth sharpened, and a bloodthirsty snarl erupted from the depths of their throats. Possessed by the demons of madness, the infected troops turned on the untouched, attacking with relentless fury. They pounced on the stunned knights and soldiers, ripping off their armor and tearing into their flesh with fangs and claws, screaming in eternal bloodlust.

Among the infected was Paulman, staggering to his feet as the wicked Profane blood coursed through his veins. Lupin looked at him, the man who had given his life to save his own, his humanity fading as the whites of his eyes turned red. Lupin looked past him at all the other soldiers and knights, either corrupted by Profane blood or fighting off those who were. Had he killed Reynolds immediately rather than offering leniency, none of this would be happening. These men and women were dying because of his weakness, his failure.

“Forgive me, all of you,” he whispered.

Paulman snarled in response and charged, but Lupin pounced first, striking Paulman in the chest with his knees and knocking the man to his back. Gripping both ends of his whip, he stabbed Paulman in the eyes, his former friend thrashing as the steel spikes drilled into his brain before finally falling silent. Though his mind was gripped by the Profane, he seemed not to have inherited any unnatural strength or endurance.

Lupin got to his feet as another of the infected charged towards him. He couldn’t use his whip at full length in this cramped space, but that didn’t mean it was useless. Still holding both handles, he spun the chain to build a mana charge and swung the middle at the mad soldier, augmenting the weight and impact and striking him in the temple, caving in his skull. As the man fell, he moved on to the next infected soldier. He kept swinging the chain to gather energy and then struck the man down, each blow hitting with the kinetic force of a sledgehammer.

A female knight attacked him from behind, acting more like a rabid beast than a trained warrior. Lupin sidestepped to avoid and wrapped his chain around her neck, knocked her off balance, and pulled on the whip to smash her face to the floor, then finished by stabbing her in the back of the neck with one of the handles. A soldier ran towards Lupin, still having enough sense to swing his sword. Lupin used his chain to catch the man’s blade and bind his movements, then impaled him on his own sword.

Lupin continued killing the infected knights and soldiers, swallowing his guilt every time he swung his whip. Their deaths would forever weigh on him, but he didn’t have time to mourn or regret them. At the moment, his job, his duty, was to end the madness, and that meant killing Reynolds. Reynolds was in the center of the mob, down on one knee, weakened after all the blood he had just used. Seeing Lupin approach, Reynolds gathered his strength and jumped into the air, latching on to one of the pillars, and then jumped again, escaping out the window. Lupin chased after him, using his whip to swing up to the window and follow Reynolds up onto the roof of the hall. Out in the night air, the two faced each other.

“I failed you, Reynolds. For that, I am sorry, but I can’t let you leave here alive.”

“I am not your failure. Your only mistake is fighting against the Profane. You should join us before it’s too late. I still respect you, sire, just as I always have. I was honored to fight by your side, both inside and outside the city, and at the gala, when you clasped my shoulder and sang my praises, that was the greatest moment of my life. But now, I’ve become part of something bigger and better, and you should too! You’ll understand when you get your parasite! Every time I use my powers, every spell I cast, it’s euphoric! I never knew something could feel so good! Join me in the Profane! I will follow just as I do now! Please, I’m begging you, don’t make me kill you!”

“The time for words is over,” said Lupin solemnly. He stretched the chain across his back, holding it with both hands like two separate whips. “This only ends with one of us dead. Farewell, my friend.”

“So be it, then. Come and get me, Your Highness!”

Lupin sprinted across the roof towards Reynolds, who raised his palm and released a jet of blood. Anticipating the attack, Lupin cracked the whip on his left side, but rather than sending it towards Reynolds, who was out of his reach, he buried it in the roof like a nail. He bolted to the side and jumped without slowing down, using the chain to swing around and dodge the blast. Upon getting in range, he swung the right end and whipped Reynolds across the chest. The sharp spike at the end slashed him like a sword, leaving a deep cut and exposing the parasite latched to his chest.

Reynolds stepped back, the wound already healing, and countered with his own swing, hurling a splash of black blood at Lupin like a wave of birdshot. Still swinging around, Lupin dodged most of the drops, but those that landed burned straight through his clothes and armor. As he felt the contamination reach his skin, he hissed in pain, but didn’t let it slow him down. He released the buried end of the chain from the roof and charged towards Reynolds. Spinning and twisting his body, he hurled a barrage of attacks at Reynolds. He swung both ends of the chain as fast as he could, but though each lash gouged open the roof beneath their feet, Reynolds easily dodged each attempt with his ghoul senses and reflexes.

“You really think you can hit me with such wide, obvious attacks?” he laughed. “After all the times I’ve seen you fight, I know each and every way that chain is going to move!”

Undeterred, Lupin kept the onslaught going, all while dodging Reynolds’s counters. However, his evasion was far from an equal match, and each time Reynolds’s blood hit him, he felt his flesh burning and his blood turning toxic. Through his dissolving clothes, he could see his flesh turning black as if gangrenous, and his strength was fading as he was gripped by poison.

He endured the pain and pushed his sick body to its limit, and soon enough, his struggles paid off. All of Reynolds’s attacks had weakened him. He was teetering back and forth, barely able to maintain his balance or even see straight. Granted this opportunity, Lupin switched his styles and patterns, finally landing blows with his chain slashing Reynolds repeatedly.

Each attack gouged him open, shredding flesh and muscle and spilling what little blood Reynolds had to lose. Lupin stepped forward, about to deliver what he hoped would be the finishing blow, but staggered, coughing up blood. He dropped to his knees, coughing and vomiting, with the veins in his face turning black.

Likewise struggling to remain upright, Reynolds approached with his numerous injuries healing slower than before. He kicked Lupin onto his back and leaned over him, grabbing the prince by the collar. “The darkness is coming no matter how hard you fight against it. You could’ve had power and authority in our new world; you could’ve ruled Uther forever, but your pride wouldn’t let you. Now here you are, the Crown Prince, fallen.”

With a roar of determination, Lupin reached up and wrapped the end of his chain around Reynolds’s neck. “Prince or commoner, we all fall.”

He then kicked Reynolds in the chest and knocked him down. Landing on his back, his weight was the final straw, and the roof, burned by ghoul blood and lashed to pieces by Lupin’s whip strikes, gave way beneath him. He dropped through the ceiling like a thin layer of ice. Then, with a snap, the chain around his neck became taut.

Down below, the knights and soldiers, having narrowly put down their infected comrades, gazed at Reynolds, swinging from the chain like a criminal at the gallows. Then, to their horror, he began to move. His neck had broken, but his parasite refused to let him die. It guided his movements like he was a puppet on strings, each thread feeling like it was tipped with a hook buried in his flesh and pulling him against his will.

He grabbed at the chain, trying to lift himself up while snarling in desperation and fury, only to once more enter freefall. In that moment, he saw Lupin up above, falling just as he was, holding the other end of the chain like a dagger. In midair, the two men, prince and knight, brothers in arms, made eye contact, each silently begging the other for forgiveness. Reynolds hit the ground, and Lupin landed on top of him, driving the metal spike into the parasite. The black worm writhed and screamed in its death throes, finally becoming still.

“Your Highness!” Nell tearfully screamed as she rushed over.

Lupin, his bones broken by the landing and his body riddled with poison, collapsed next to Reynolds, the two men staring at the hole in the ceiling above them. With the parasite dead, Reynolds was not far behind. Already, his wounds had stopped healing, and his flesh was turning gray as the remaining venom in his system destroyed him.

Nell began healing Lupin with everything she had, but it would be an uphill battle. Not only did she have to mend the damage he’d sustained, but she also had to nullify the corruption. All the surviving knights and soldiers stood back and watched, unsure of what to do.

“I always knew… I’d die at your side,” said Reynolds, struggling to breathe and coughing up blood, “but not like this. Forgive me, sire. It’s been an honor.”

“No,” said Lupin, his face wet with Nell’s tears. “The honor was mine.”
1 comments

oldFReport 

2024-03-22 13:43:14
An other great installment, i really like the plot twist of the traitor and his demise. The fight scenes are great. I hope you post the next episodes soon. keep up the good work!

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