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'South, father than Southcliff and the Mistpeak mountains lies what was once a beautiful forest, inhabited by dragonflies and the sounds of laughing children; now a humid swamp, blanketed in a perpetual fog where beasts from centuries past roam freely.' -Tales of Albion
Ten years. It had been ten years that Sparrow had been in the Spire and she had remembered almost none of it. It had been a whirlwind of emotions after her return. She looked like a different woman when she looked in the mirror. Where she looked young before, now she looked tired and drained and creases on her forehead and cheeks began to sink in. She found herself tired more often and it all happened in a blink of an eye. Ten years gone.
Some nights she laid awake at night, haunted by dreams of the collar prodding at her neck, sending a blinding shock up into her brain anytime she misbehaved. Some nights she found herself back at the commandant's chambers where she feared that even the slightest bit of hesitation would reveal her intentions or identity as the Hero that Lucien thought he had killed, come back for vengeance. Every dream would end the same; where he would find out and would raise his blade above her, and in her dreams, she didn't have the physical power to fight back. She swung her cleavers at him but they were slow and heavy and he would fly in, piercing a sword through her belly and she would wake with a start, confused and unsure of where she was. She heard the loud sounds of crickets chirping and saw the moonlight through the circular window. She stood, walking quickly across the creaky floors and leaned out the window. She gasped for air in the humid autumn night, wiping the sweat from her forehead and clutching at her chest. It felt like her heart was being crushed. She felt helpless and alone. For what seemed like hours, she stood there gasping and on the verge of tears until a hand fell upon her shoulder. She gasped and turned, but found only a tall man there. It was Rodrick.
On the way back to Bower Lake from Westcliff, Sparrow had collapsed from exhaustion and while she couldn't remember her time as Lucien's guard, she couldn't imagine they gave her much time to rest. It seemed that the ten years that had passed finally caved in on her. Garth helped her to the small colony of Silverpines, which incidentally, was also watched over by Rodrick who had inherited his father's farm after he passed not more than two years prior. It had hurt him deeply and Sparrow could see the creases in his face growing deeper than her own and his eyes seemed to droop more. Not all was unwell for him however. Rupert had returned home, with a husband no less, and they had turned Giles's Farm into a close knit community that was like a family to him, and he, a patriarch to them. In the ten years that had passed, Brightwood seemed to have lost any understanding of its own name as the trees grew denser and the forest even darker, leaving it almost as dimly lit as dusk.
"Bad dream again?" He asked, peering down at her, sleep still fogging his mind. She nodded and he led her back to her bed. "Try to get more rest." She laid down, still sweating, and rolled over onto her side. Brightwood— or Silverpines now, was not the only place that had changed. Westcliff was not the thug town she recognized from when she entered the Crucible. Where there were shabby planks acting as bridges over small ponds with overgrown weeds, there were brick paths. The thugs were gone, replaced by more common Albion folk, likely from Bowerstone who were still more rough around the edges than others but definitely more approachable. Finally, it became more of a tourist destination for Crucible events. The town would host festivals where they celebrated new seasons with new combatants. Rodrick never participated in the fights again after Sparrow left.
The week before, Rodrick had taken her to Oakfield where she met with Hammer again. Hammer had since become the head abbot of the Temple of Light and had reformed the religion drastically. She had gone to the monastery that she had mentioned, up north on a strip of land north of Columbia called The Sting. It was there that she had trained with the warrior monks and brought their teachings back to Oakfield. She imagined that some monks objected to the idea, but it was her temple now and the people were taught that protecting the innocent served the lords of light more than praying and mourning the victims of balverine attacks or slavers ever could. She had even begun to form her own small army called the Dawnbringers, who would scour Albion in search of balverine or hobbe nests and eradicate them. In addition to the change of religion, the entire Temple of Light was changed. What was once a dirt path that led to a small dome of a temple on a hill was now a cathedral with a white stone walkway encrusted with leaf and vine etchings that stretched from the temple to the town near the Sandgoose Inn. Hammer was delighted to see Sparrow again, almost crushing the woman in a tight bear hug. Hammer looked more like a Hero as well, abandoning the monk outfit and equipping herself with an iron and leather cuirass though Sparrow noted that she still carried the bottle with the golden leaf inside. It dangled around her neck. Most surprising to Sparrow, as she met with Hammer at the Rookridge Inn she and Elena has battled in years ago, was the presence of a tyke bearing the same blood red hair and misty blue eyes. Sparrow had thought that maybe she had been Hammer's long lost younger sister, however, she quickly learned that she was her daughter. "After my leave from the faith, I let myself indulge in vices I had previously sworn off," Hammer said, patting the quiet girl on the shoulder, "though I admit that I'm ashamed of it. Not because of the act, but because I did it out of hatred for my old self. When I found out I was pregnant, I hated myself. Thought that the lords of light must surely be punishing me. It was when I held her in my hands and saw her little blue eyes looking up at me that I knew I was being stupid. She's been a blessing ever since. Never cries, never gets angry. Can barely get her to talk most of the time, if I'm being honest." The child looked up at Sparrow, silently and with a face of neutrality or disinterest. "The monks don't seem to mind at all. She mostly just sleeps on the ramparts."
Sparrow reached out a hand and waited for the child to shake it. "My name is Sparrow. What's yours?"
After a brief moment where the child hid behind her mother's leg, she grabbed Sparrow's outreached hand, little fingers curling around her's and said quietly, "Renée."
Sparrow asked who the father was and Hammer smiled sheepishly. "Couldn't tell you."
"And you called me a slag?" Sparrow said, earning herself a strong punch in the arm that left her nursing a bruise for the next week.
It was during that journey to Rookridge and Oakfield that Sparrow saw 'Millfields', the newly named Bower Lake that had changed little save for a few mansions built near the shore and fields of sunflowers near where Bowerstone was. Bowerstone itself was more beautiful than Sparrow remembered. There were rose gardens now and lily ponds. Pots of flowers hung from street posts and the sides of buildings and the entire marketplace smelled sweet. She had learned that these changes, from Westcliff, Silverpines, Millfields to Bowerstone and to some extent, Oakfield, were almost completely Elena's doing. Elena's career as a landlady had been meteoric and she landed herself as the mayor of Bowerstone and even lived inside Castle Fairfax. Sparrow had visited her once since her return and that, out of all that had happened, left her feeling the most drained. As Sparrow laid in bed, she began to drift into her sleep, the threshold between reality and dreams made her memory of the meeting almost real.
She knocked three times at the door. It was surreal, standing at the door that decades ago, she and her sister were at. They walked through those doors together, thankful to Lord Lucien for spiriting them away from the frozen streets of Old Town and excited for their new lives. Sparrow remembered the feeling of joy that rose in the pit of her stomach when Lucien humoured the idea of the girls living there with him. Sparrow opened the door and saw much of the same as before though there was a desk over the hero's symbol they stood on before. As Sparrow crossed the room, she saw miscoloured stained glass from where she was forced through the window to the icy streets below. She stood and waited at Elena's desk and it seemed as though Elena had not heard her, or, after her conversation with Hammer, had pretended not to notice. Sparrow cleared her throat and Elena gently set down the papers she was fondling and muttered a curt and quiet greeting, failing to make eye contact with her.
"Can you just look at me?" Sparrow asked, dryly after a few moments of silence. She saw a vein bulge in Elena's hand and the quill threatened to snap between her fingers. There were a tense few moments before Elena set the pen down with as much delicacy, one might think that she was afraid of waking a sleeping dragon.
A second followed the quietness and Sparrow thought she would have to ask again but Elena shifted. The light behind her made her look darker like a silhouette but Sparrow could still see her eyes. They were glossy, likely from the alcohol Sparrow could smell, and reflecting the light of the room, concealing her pupils behind a layer of glowing grey light and when she looked up at Sparrow, it was like staring into the eyes of a spider.
"It's been ten years," Sparrow offered.
"It has," Elena said flatly, turning her head back down and writing again.
"You didn't write me once while I was in there and Rodrick," Sparrow started, noticing the flex in Elena's hand at the mention of his name, "said that you were being a recluse."
"Yes, that makes sense. I've been busy."
"Clearly it doesn't take too much effort to ink something down seeing as you've taken maybe four seconds from the time that I've arrived to stop writing."
"I imagine you were busy in their as well."
A shot of rage that Sparrow had not felt before pulsed through her veins as she snatched the papers from under Elena and with a flick of her wrist, sent the papers flying over her shoulder, crackling sheets of parchment dancing around the room. For a moment Sparrow expected Elena to explode, but the room fell almost completely silent again. The only sounds came from the papers, still flittering around in the air. Moments passed and the papers settled upon the ground and Elena said nothing. Sparrow thought that maybe she had scared her former best friend into silence but in a second, Elena grabbed another paper and began to write on that one. Another shot of rage jumped through her body and she slammed her hands onto the table and finally, Elena reacted. Snapping her pen and standing, sending the chair she once sat upon clattering backward, the woman glared into Sparrow's eyes and Sparrow grimaced back. "Elena, would you tell me just what the fuck happened to you?" Elena said nothing, instead staring her down, face turning scarlet. "Was it because Rodrick and I laid together? Is that it? Is it because we had drinks and you held it against me for a decade like a child?" Those shots of rage that Sparrow felt earlier encompassed her entire body until every drop of blood insider her was boiling, threatening to blow her head off her shoulders and in the back of her mind she was afraid that she wasn't able to stop. "Or is it because I'm a Hero and you were clinging to a day job while I and the other Heroes did something that mattered, that was actually deserving of recognition? Don't think I haven't noticed. I've known you for twenty years now and I know that you always wished for the expectations and recognition given to me." Sparrow opened her mouth again, ready to throw whatever else her racing mind could string together when a sharp blunt pain struck her face. She felt her upper lip skid across her teeth forcefully and reeled back, angry aching pain growing within her skull and the feeling of liquid coming free of her nose. That was not a slap. That was a punch delivered directly to center of her face. She coughed, choking on spare streams of blood that had run down her throat. She opened her eyes, tears welling at the corners and she saw Elena standing there at the desk. Sparrow could not have imagined anyone being brave enough to strike her and she surely never imagined Elena being the one to be the first to try.
"My children die because of you."
There was silence between the women and Sparrow had to wonder if she heard her right.
"That bolt that hit me when we fought Dash. It damaged my body in ways I was unaware of at the time," she said, an eerie calmness in her voice. She went on, "I have been pregnant with Walter four times now. Every time my pregnancy comes close to delivery, the scar begins to burn and I birth a little blue baby. Because of you and Theresa, I came along. Theresa said I was to protect your life and even without her telling me that, I would have. I would have done anything for you, forget just trying to make sure you don't die. I dragged you out of the ocean in Rookridge, I took a poisoned bolt for you there too. I joined you and Hammer and Lionheart on your way to Westcliff at the risk of my own life and you treated me like I was just another tool. As if we had never known each other and like I was just expected to be there for you because of destiny or some other bullshit Theresa spewed that day. I am not a Hero. I cannot survive the things you can but every day, I put my life on the line for you and your friends and your quest and I've lost everything." Tears began to stream from Elena's eyes and her voice began to shake. "I thought it was just a tragedy the first time in happened. I prayed it wouldn't happen a second time but when I went into labour and that burning came back I just knew it would happen again and when I held my baby girl, all I could think about was how much I have had to sacrifice for a movement that I can't even participate in. I've wanted to throw myself from this tower like you were thrown from it, except I know that I would die, and if not for Walter," she gasped, wiping the tears from her eyes, "If not for Walter I would have done it."
The sound of Elena slamming the door exploded in her mind. She woke with a start. It was morning. Sparrow's heart ached at the loss of ten years from her life and her loss of her best friend but what hurt most was Brave Knight. Under Rodrick's care, Brave would often leave Silverpines and head to Westcliff where he would sit at the dock and wait for her to come back from the Spire. As age set in as well as Brave's deteriorating ability to walk on three legs, the man would carry him to Westcliff when he had a day free of working on the farm, and sit with him. One day, Rodrick awoke to the mutt gone from his house, and when he arrived at the Westcliff docks, Brave Knight was nowhere to be found. He was gone.
"Right, I think this bloke is a pirate called Reaver."
"You heard this from some drunk?"
"Not one. I did a proper tour."
Sparrow, Lionheart, Hammer, Garth and Theresa were all back in the Chamber of Fate underneath Bower Lake. Since Sparrow's return, Hammer had been talking nonstop about her training with the northern monks or the battles she had. She was very excited to hear about the Spire as well but her enthusiasm was cut short by her meeting with Garth. They quickly became unfriendly towards each other though Sparrow had to wonder if they just felt the need to bicker or if they actually disliked each other. They would start and Sparrow and Lionheart would sit back and watch them, wondering who would start throwing punches first.
"You okay?" Rodrick whispered to Sparrow, noticing her absentmindedly rubbing her temples. "I can tell them to quiet down if you want."
"No, it's not that. This room has a lot of Will from ages past and my family has always been sensitive to it apparently. Compared to the Spire, this is nothing. I'm really not looking forward to going back— for multiple reasons," she added, shaking her head.
Hammer spoke again, "He runs the port of Bloodstone, to the southwest. The man who told me sailed with Reaver for years. Said they captured hundreds of ships."
"Doesn't mean he's a Hero. Lots of pirates capture ships."
Hammer leaned over the table, eyeing Garth, "Reaver takes down galleons with one bullet. High winds, rough seas, a mile away, it doesn't matter: he picks off the captain. The more impossible the shot, the quicker the crew surrenders."
Garth blinked, "Impressive, but we aren't trying to make Lucien surrender."
"No," Hammer said, leaning back into her chair, "No, we're not."
There was a brief moment of silence before Garth spoke up again. "When I first met you, I only saw a brute. I didn't anticipate your staggering wit and patience."
"Yeah? And did you anticipate that I like to take my hammer and whack smug little spell fingers?"
"This is not what we are here for," a cool voice said beside them. They turned to see Theresa looking out into the abyss of the dilapidated chamber. "Bloodstone is surrounded by Wraithmarsh on three sides— and ocean on the fourth. Darkwood, a thin strip of forest that crept between Blackridge and the Mistpeak mountains that served as our means to travel there has been lost to us. An earthquake blocked it off centuries ago."
"Couldn't we just save ourselves the trouble and take a ship there?" Lionheart asked.
"Lucien's men will be looking for all of us, and if he gets his hands on any of us, it's all over. I can't go back to the Spire now. That was only a one-time opportunity," Sparrow breathed, tapping the table with a fidgety finger. Doesn't help that the Spire isn't far from any Albion port."
"Yes," Theresa said. "Lord Lucien has sent guards to patrol the docks of Bowerstone, Westcliff and even Oakfield. There will be no other way than cullis gate. There exists a cullis gate in Wraithmarsh in what used to be Barrow Fields. It can be reached using the cullis gate on Hero Hill."
"I can use my will to activate it," said Garth.
"Do we know anything about the Hero of Determination yet?" Hammer asked.
"No," Sparrow said, "I've used the tarot cards and every time I ask for the other Hero, it only gives me a blank card."
"No time to waste then," Lionheart said, "Let's use the cullis gate."
They all stood, finishing whatever drink they had and began to head up. Sparrow found a cold hand grasp her forearm and she looked to see Theresa staring deeply at her. "You must take caution when you pass through the gate. There is no place more dangerous in Albion than Wraithmarsh."
"What exactly is Wraithmarsh? I've heard about it before."
"It was a place not unlike anywhere else in this land. It was beautiful and its people happy," Theresa said. For the first time in her life, Sparrow saw her constant grin falter. It was a slight pull at the side of her lips, barely noticeable. Theresa paused, possibly aware that Sparrow had seen that slight quiver. "It was my home. Once I was a daughter, a sister. Before the visions, I had glimmers of the future in my dreams. I knew of nothing but the joy of hiding and chasing with my brother in the fields of Oakvale. Then one day, our home was attacked, leaving my father dead and my mother imprisoned. The bandits were led by an abomination— Jack of Blades. It was he who your forebear fought and eliminated five centuries ago."
"I remember reading that once. I'm related to him, correct?"
"Then that must mean I'm related to you as well. Rodrick showed me the Fable of Paladin Black and it mentioned his sister named Theresa. You both defeated Jack of Blades and destroyed the Sword of Aeons."
The cold hand tightened on her forearm for half a second and Theresa's mouth formed a thin line. "You surprise me Sparrow. Yes, we are of the same blood and we did battle Jack of Blades." She paused, an unreadable look drawn across her face. "Oakvale was rebuilt many years after the attack and its people returned to their old life before Oakvale was destroyed again for the second and final time."
"What destroyed it the second time?"
"The Shadow Court. The same court that Jack of Blades called his own. It was a trinity of otherworldly beings that seek to claim Albion for their own. Jack of Blades was only the harbinger for the Knight and the Queen of Blades."
"I've never heard of them," Sparrow said dumbly. She had already forgotten about the cullis gate and everyone waiting for her on Hero Hill. Theresa suggested that she make her way to the other heroes— that it was a story for another time. Theresa promised to tell Sparrow everything. When she arrived at the top, she asked "What are we looking at here?"
Garth had been casting a lightning spell into the cullis gate and it began turning bright shades of red and green. "I'm just about done. The gate is old but it should be able to get us all through."
"Should?" Hammer asked, taking a step back from the gate. She looked a bit unnerved at the thought. From what Sparrow had been told, Hammer never did handle teleportation well, be it from Theresa's hand or cullis gate.
"Magic is unstable as a rule. Only a fool would think otherwise." He pulled back and shook his hands. The gate hummed and sputtered loudly. Small pebbles from the ground around it began to float like dandelion puffs in the wind. They all looked to Sparrow. She was to be first it seemed. She cursed under her breath, knowing that they likely made that decision while she was talking with Theresa. She looked back, a nasty glare pulling at her face and marched forward. The moment she touched the light, a horrid screeching noise burst from the gate and she was pulled in. The gate turned a bloody bright red and a wave of heat exploded forth, knocking the other heroes off their feet. A brilliant light shot into the sky from all three pillars on Hero Hill.
Sparrow's stomach lurched as she fell through what felt like a void completely empty of all noise and touch. A flash of light blinded her and she found herself somewhere new. She remembered an immediate feeling of disgusting mugginess of humidity clinging to her skin and clothes. She opened her eyes and saw herself landbound, falling from the sky. She saw a blackened region covered with patches of cotton-like fog, pierced by skeletal trees. She then saw stone and she saw it approaching her fast. She braced herself and everything went dark once again.
"Holy hell," Hammer said, pulling herself up. "What the hell was that?"
"The cullis gate broke," Garth wheezed. "It was too old. We won't be able to use it again."
"Is Sparrow okay?" Lionheart asked.
"The cullis gate didn't kill her, but she's stranded in Wraithmarsh now. She will be in grave danger without us."
"Then we need to find another way to get to her!"
"If you have an idea, I'm listening, Hammer."
"You're the will user! Can't you just repair this cullis gate?"
"It's not impossible, but it would take too long."
"So now we just have a broken gate and no way to get to our friend. Docks are closed off to us, Darkwood is buried. I hope you're ready scale Mistpeak Mountain because we have no other way, do we?" Hammer slumped in defeat. After a moment she gasped "The cullis gate is broken!"
Lionheart cocked his head at her. "Yes? We've established this already, haven't we?"
"The gate is broken and the crypt in the lake has been removed!" She trailed off, wide eyes and staring at the ground. "Bloody hell we've buried Theresa under the lake."
"She can teleport, Hammer," Garth said flatly. After a few seconds, Hammer stuttered out an almost inaudible little "oh" and bowed her head.
There was a weird whistling sound echoing through the lakeland and Lionheart's ear twitched. "I think someone may have seen that light from the cullis gate," he said staring up at the sky. "We need to leave."
"Right mountaineering it is. Come on Garth, I'll carry you."
"I'll burn your hand off if you touch me."
"No," Lionheart said. "No, Sparrow once told me she traveled to Knothole Island in an underwater machine that appeared in the Bowerstone Market. Let's see if we can find it first."
A rolling bead of sweat ran down the back of Sparrow's neck and she awoke with a heavy feeling in her skull like alcohol. She felt her clothes, wet and warm, clinging to her skin in an uncomfortable way. She waited for her eyes to adjust and when they did, she found herself inside another box, very similar to the one that she had been placed in on her way to Westcliff. A sense of confusion overwhelmed her and her mind raced to remember how she ended up there. She remembered falling through the cullis gate but she had not known why she ended up in a slaver's box. Had there been Lucien's men scouring Wraithmarsh for her? Had they known about the Hero of Skill too?
Her rumination was cut short as she heard steps upon dried, crackly grass approach her. And indeed, she saw the box in all its splintered glory the moment the man's torch was close enough to illuminate her newfound prison. "Yer from Bloodstone aren't ya?" Said a voice. She looked up and saw a hideous and unwashed man sticking his face between the bars, peering down at her. She tried to speak but her words were garbled and lazed. "No, no you ain't got the stink about you. If there was any justice in the world, Bloodstone would be burned to the ground... so what do I do with you?" He asked, "Yer a witch. I saw you fly down from the sky. Suppose I'll burn you too."
There was a sobering coldness creeping inside her and though it would have perhaps made sense given the circumstances, she couldn't help but feel like it was something unnatural, almost alien, causing it. Through bits of cracked wood, her eye caught something moving towards the man. Sparrow, in her still semi conscious state, might have thought it was a coffin floating towards the man based on the shape and the stiffness it seemed to have, but as it got closer, and Sparrow began to wake up, it was clear that it was a woman draped in a large, grey ballgown with puffed shoulders, a large collar and a scarlet ribbon sewn into the skirt. She was floating stiffly, hands covering her face where hair from her deflated powdered wig fell. As she drew closer, Sparrow felt the coldness within her deepen as she saw the hands that covered the face had holes drilled into them— one in each palm where blood streamed from them like tears and in both, she saw widened human eyes with unnaturally small, furious pupils staring unblinkingly, unmovingly at the back of the man she was quickly gaining on.
The man, who had been talking to himself about what to do with her, seemingly noticed the feeling to, rounding on the woman and staring for what seemed to be a few seconds before he cried out. The woman's hands fell from her face and Sparrow jammed her eyes shut and grimaced as the woman screeched deafeningly. It had been the most painful and gut wrenching terrifying thing Sparrow had ever heard. It was as if knives were being driven into her skull and her heart felt as if it had struggled to keep beating. As quickly as it started, the screech stopped and Sparrow was left physically drained and frightened. She knew that whatever that was would find her. She buried her face into the side of the cart and shivered in fear. She thought of using magic but she found herself too terrified to move. There was a gentle sway of wind that carried around the cart and she knew that it was staring at her through the bars on the other side. She felt it's lidless eyes burning holes in her skin and she prayed for a quick death.
Moments passed as slowly as years and after what felt like a century, Sparrow dared to let go of a breath slowly. It passed through her esophagus like a burning fire as she suppressed it, and when it was out, she let herself take another breath in. She continued to breathe albeit slowly, as if breathing too hard would mean a painful end for her. She wondered where everybody else was. Theresa, Hammer, Lionheart and Garth; she found herself wishing to see Elena and, hell, she'd even prefer to see Lucien there. Instead, she was left with what she imagined could only have been a banshee she had heard about in legends. Mystical and horrid creatures that would suck the soul out of any fool to encounter it, leaving them hollowed out like a skeleton that kept its skin.
Perhaps it had left her, completely oblivious to her being only a few paces away, its next prey already bound and ready to die. She didn't hear the man anymore and imagined that he was dead, left grotesque by the banshee. As she let her eyelids soften, she could distinctly tell that his torch had gone out and that the only light left was from the moon which was almost completely obscured by the hot and humid clouds. Finally steeling herself, she crept an eye open, almost expecting to see the banshee staring at her through the cracks in the wood. All she saw, however, was drowned weeds and mud. She opened her other eye and while the overwhelming fear she had did not leave her, she began to feel more capable of rational thought. She peeked through the cracks and saw nothing. She rolled over and met eyes with the banshee staring at her through the bars on the other side of the cart. It made no sound, no movement. It simply stared at Sparrow through the holes in its hands. There was a strange tranquility inside Sparrow. Almost as if she had already died. Her heart stopped beating, her mind stopped thinking. It was a few seconds where they stared at each other when Sparrow's fear came crashing back into her, immense terror spiking through her veins and stomach and limbs and mind. She backed into the wall as far as she was able to knowing fully that if the banshee screamed, she was dead. She knew this was the end, and yet the banshee did not scream. The ghoul merely stared at her for a while longer before turning away and drifting off into the fog.
She sat there in silence, unsure of what had just happened or what she would need to do next. She then remembered her guild seal and she pulled it from her breast strap and gasped as it fell in two. The guild seal, an object she had with her the entire journey, the sole object that connected her to the leader and decision maker of the group— that very seal. Was broken in her hand. She was alone. Or so she thought. During the discovery of the seal's destruction, Sparrow failed to see a little brown bipedal creature stumbling around the cart outside. A small jingling came from the door of the cart and Sparrow jumped and then screamed in horror as she saw the ring of keys that surely must have been pried off the man's corpse, swishing from side to side in the hands of a children's toy— a teddy bear with a blue patch on his back. It did not react, simply shook the ring of keys in its hands as if goading Sparrow into taking them faster. The bear shook them a third time and with a shaking hand, Sparrow grabbed hold of the ring and pulled back. The teddy bear jumped from the stairstep of the cart and waited for her. When she had given up hope of it going away, she stood, peering over her shoulder to see if the banshee had come back and sliding the door open with a loud click. She stepped out and gave the bear a wide berth, neither taking their eyes off the other. The bear simply hopped away and waved at Sparrow to follow. She did, and it led her to a hill where she found her pack and weapons. She put her equipment on as Rosie simply waited, swinging its arms around and swinging on the spot like a child, incapable of standing still. When she had her things in order, it led her down the same path, stopping by the corpse of the old man and hanging its head in sadness. The man was indeed brutalized like she had expected. His skin was sunken to his bones as if he had no organs and it was etched, as if by scalpel, the word "PERVERT" on every inch of his body. There were spare other words like "NONCE" and "DEFILER" but the first seemed to run a monopoly of skin space. She had not seen these carvings while he was alive, and while it felt like a century, she had not woken up more than twenty minutes before so she wondered how he could look so hollow and carved upon though she quickly dropped the thought as Rosie charged forward into the small town that was becoming visible through the fog. Sparrow followed and soon found a very familiar sign. "Oakvale" was carved into a smoothed and eaten piece of wood that stood above a fence gate. She had seen it before, very long ago. She remembered the dream she had after she bought the snowglobe. A grey town on fire, under attack from some strange enemy. She then remembered what Theresa had said about Wraithmarsh being the most dangerous place in all of Albion and pushed those thoughts to the side.
She took Rosie by the hand, as if holding a child's hand and they walked through the destroyed town. Every now and then, Rosie would break away and tear off into a building, coming back with an ancient toy or blanket which would be offered to Sparrow and strongly denied. The bear would cross its arms and after a moment of stomping its feet, would drop the toys and continue onward, skipping as if nothing had happened at all. There were moments when Sparrow felt as if she was being watched, she turned once and saw a familiar beast peering down at her through a window of a run down building. She recognized it as one of the monsters that invaded the town in the dream she had. They came to a vista where a wooden bridge connected two sides of the valley they were in. Off in the distance, she saw Oakvale sunken halfway into the sea, and as she squinted, she thought she could see a towering creature, not unlike a human wading through the waters. It seemed like a tall human with a skull for a head with an almost transparent, armoured body. Rosie pointed excitedly towards the bridge and as Sparrow had no interest in meeting whatever that was, she led them up the incline.
They stopped just short of the covered bridge, Sparrow seemingly uneasy about trying the old structure. Rosie ran forward and jumped up and down, testing the strength and waved to Sparrow to follow again once it seemed it safe. She wasn't convinced that a small teddy bear would be a great indicator of its health, but seeing no other way, she pushed onward. Shortly after the rickety bridge was behind them, they came upon an open crypt and she looked down at the bear for confirmation that she would have to traverse through a tomb to safety and found herself unsurprised but not at all excited by the answer. She scooped up Rosie and they walked in.
To say that the crypt smelled bad would be an understatement. It smelled of dead meat, mold, feces and something else that Sparrow couldn't quite describe, though she had smelled it before in the guild cave. She walked past aisles and corridors of stone, where slots had been carved into the walls and sleeping and rotting corpses lay. Sparrow, more than once, saw some move from the corner of her eye. There were times where she caught a finger of a skeleton twitch, or an eye follow her as she passed; there was even an instance where she passed by a skeleton that seemed to be snoring softly. She had heard of hollow men, bodies and bones of the deceased who remain in some form, bound to the world of the living. She had heard that while they tended to be docile, they were unpredictable and easy to irritate. Lionheart had told her that a pair of twins in Bowerstone had unleashed the living dead upon Old Town and he was the one who had to save them.
She crept through the catacombs, waiting for Rosie to point out the direction to take, each devouring what little light she had left. There was a nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach that seemed to tell her that perhaps it was a bad idea to have been taking directions from an animated teddy bear, but, as she had no direction or Theresa whispering in her ear, she figured it was her only real solution.
Sparrow rounded a corner and froze. She heard something almost inaudible. It was a very light tapping sound. She think she heard some clicking as well. She was unsure, of what could have been making the noise but as she stopped and listened, she knew without a doubt that the noise was getting closer and at an uncomfortably quick speed. Rosie started shaking and squirming in her arms, seemingly aware of the noise as well and just as terrified. The bear broke off from her and ran down the hall, leaving Sparrow alone in a tight corridor with nothing to hide behind. Heart racing, dread filling her entire body, she dove into a vacant space in the wall and stiffened up. She waited an agonizing few minutes before whatever ghoul passed by her. She heard the sound of skin making contact with stone, an almost sticking sound with each step. Her heart froze as the sound stopped beside her. She felt a slimy hand graze her face, fingers around her eyes. They pulled and she was forced to see what was once a man's head, skin burned away and features uneven and lazy. It's nose was gone, mouth gaped open and eyes widened and white as if terrified. It peered down at her and she fought every urge to twitch or squirm. She was dead. She needed to be dead. After moments it pulled away, seemingly satisfied with what it had found. It turned and continued down the hall. Sparrow snuck a look at it leaving and saw the creature had a very sinewy body, inhumanely long limbs and a small body. It used all limbs to walk, feet meeting the ground and hands upon the ceiling. It reminded her of a spider.
She slowly stood when the bear came running back and motioned at her to follow it, quickly. They raced down the hallways until darkness completely enveloped the both of them. It was then that she once again took Rosie's hand and trusted the bear to guide her in the dark. When it seemed as if they would never leave the tomb, she saw a dim red light glowing from down the hall. They passed a doorway that led to an antechamber with a barred door where the light bled from. Sparrow turned into the hallway but felt a tug at her hand. She turned and saw the teddy bear pulling at her hand with both of its own. It's head shook as if to say "no" frantically. Sparrow shook off the bear's grasp and slowly crept towards the portcullis. Rosie then spring and latched onto her leg, shaking fearfully. She saw a large chamber with walls made of crypts. In the center were three thrones, one of which was shattered. A woman shrouded in darkness sat upon the middle and highest throne, a man in armor below her.
With a strong tug, Sparrow was pulled back from the portcullis. The bear was frantic. She followed it and as they rounded the corner, she summoned a fierce blue light to her hand. Electricity danced between her fingers and she looked up at the newly lit hallway. She began to walk when she heard a roar, a shambling, quaking screech that rang out behind her. She turned and the blue light showed the creature from earlier twitching and careening down the hallway towards her, face furious. She turned and ran as Rosie shook in her arms. The bear would point the direction and she would run. She was unsure of how long it was but soon enough, she began to see beautiful sunlight creeping closer. One final turn and she saw the outside, clear of fog, a brilliant golden sun beckoning her to return to the real world. She ran, faster than she had ever run before, all the while, the strange creature surely gaining on her, angrily huffing and growling. She felt sunlight hit her skin and Rosie sprung from her hands and ran back inside the crypt. Sparrow turned and saw the bear at the door of the crypt staring at her. It waved and slammed the door.
She walked through the cemetery and up the hill that overlooked the southern ocean of Albion. The smell of salt burned her nostrils and she turned and saw the port town of Bloodstone built into the cliff.
She was alone.