"GALDERA!"

Aelfric, bearing his brilliant lanthorn, calls out to the accursed god. Flames rife with the stench of flesh, searing the souls of wailing humans, run across the land like wild stallions. As the world burned under their feet, the twelve gods faced the thirteenth, who hissed with contempt.

"Why?! Why must we give this world to these measly humans?!"

"It is not thine to keep, Galdera. Orsterra is not a plaything any longer. The inhabitants, they have minds, hearts...," Aelfric slams down his lanthorn staff, making tremors, "The humans can walk their own paths...!"

"Fools!" The dark god of bloody souls brandishes his sword, making a ripple of wails from the poor souls below, "They are helpless ants that must be ruled with an iron fist from above! And it seems I am the only one capable of seeing it so!"

"Because thou art wrong, Galdera!" Dohter snarls, "We decided this! WE said we would create the world, and leave it to those who forge their ways!"

"I deny it! We have seen their behaviors... I will devour all of thee if I must to rule them!" The god's eyes gleam a malicious magenta, "There need only be one god for these hapless creatures!"

Like a wave of blood and darkness, Galdera swells in size and bears down on his peers. Alephan, king of scholars, reads a quick enchantment from memory, and parts the deluge. It splashes like acid, corroding the souls of men who drowned in its murk, rising them as horrific eldritch counterparts of themselves. The land cried in pain as the waves extinguished the flames and the corrupted blood leached upon nature.

"Ha, pitiful Galdera... Thou hast lost thine mind!" Aeber sends his burst of flame at the darkness, momentarily dispelling it.

"Laugh all thou willst, Prince of Fools. Thine flame is but fuel for my wrath!" To prove his point, the monstrous deity swallows the flame and shoots it back out, its power tenfold.

Balogar, with his rune of fire, counters. The two energies collide, and the Prince suffers some burns for his insolence.

"Ah-ow, OW!" Aeber yelps as Balogar rolls his eyes under his mask.

"Aelfric. What will we do..." Steorra murmurs as her heavenly protection rises for the twelve, "Gods... cannot kill another god..."

Aelfric does not answer immediately. Between where his feet stand is where Odin Crossford and his assistant sorcerers are readying the seal of his sacred flame.

"It is true, we cannot vanquish you, Galdera. There are sacred rules binding our actions against each other..." Aelfric mutters the next part, "But unfortunately someone hath not the foresight to outlaw stealing powers."

"All of thou art weak! Too weak to take what is rightfully yours as a GOD!" Galdera spits vehemently at the other gods, hissing.

"Dost thou not see what destruction we wrought as gods. Nay, ruleth we ought not, for destroy it we shall ultimately. And as we hath all our love poured in it to this blood and soil, we will not stand down to thee!"

"Then DIE!"

The colossus of darkness crashes down like a tidal wave. The lanthorn shines bright and a shield of light rises to ward off the incoming abyssal force. The two opposites clash, with a magenta flame pushing against the clear orange-white inferno.

"Now, my brethren!"

The sorcerers underfoot bellow a cry in an arcane language. From their mouths, the singing of their very souls can be heard, the notes rising with Aelfric's holy light. Slowly, surely, the light brightens and pushes back on the darkness, edging it back little by little.

"No-NO!" Galdera screams in alarm as his might is repelled, "THIS CANNOT BE!"

"We cannot vanquish thee now... but it can be so that thou can never again harm another. To that end, thou shalt not only fail by our hands, but by these humans which thou despises..."

"AAARGH! AELFRIC!" Galdera spits and roars in futility as the light envelops him.

"BANISHGA!"

There is a single loud roar of a beast that rings throughout the land as a shaft of light rains down and destroys a portion of the earth in concentration. The dark god is pummeled and consumed as the light pushes him down, shattering the breaches of the Underworld. Mortals quake in fear at the earthquakes and subsequent tremors. They murmur prayers in a low tone that accumulates to a single hymn as it reaches the ears of divinity. When the song fades and the light wanes, there is but a vast crack; a scar upon the earth. It gapes like an open wound and seems to stretch below forever, into darkness never-ending. Belches of miasma issue forth, remnants of the accursed flame as the last of Galdera's power is wiped away from the face of Orsterra.

"It is done..." Aelfric looks moodily outward towards the ruined land, "But at what cost..."

Below, the humans reel still from the mass destruction that had just ravaged the land. Their homes and families have been torn asunder. Yet, Odin and his sorcerers step forward as a calm after the storm. As the sun refuses to rise, Aelfric casts his flame upon the corners of the continent, lighting the world with warmth.

"I make my promise to thee, humans," Aelfric speaks through the sorcerer, "Take my lanthorn, and rekindle its flames every two decades, so that the darkness of Galdera dare approacheth no more. It must be relit at the locations of Flamesgrace, where hearts burn with shining faith; Goldshore, where waters run pure, and Saintsbridge, where lives connect. The god is yet to be no more, and so ye must keep thine vigil against the throes of evil."

"Must we suffer forever with this fear?" The people bemoaned the task placed upon them.

Aelfric said nothing more. He knew what even his fellow gods could not fathom. This is all but a stall, a buffer in time. Galdera's forces remained in this world still. They have been beaten down, but they have not been vanquished. In their dark hearts reigned yet the hope of freeing their foul master.

His demigoddess daughter, Lyblac, is still at large. No doubt she is already seething at her loss and plotting her next move to release her father. Soon, even his lanthorn would be extinguished by her machinations. Orsterra would once again be plunged into dark webs of deceit and destruction as the worst of humans take control upon the innocent. Men will question their boundaries and attempt to be masters of life and death, unknowing of their greed feeding the evil which fuels Galdera's endless hunger.

But there is yet hope, for Aelfric knew the power of humans and their bonds and connections, which forged paths in ways to places the gods knew nothing of. It is his hope, that when Galdera returns, heroes will rise among men, and put an end to the god once and for all.

The day the dark god was sealed, Odin and his sorcerers constructed the Gate of Finis to block off the seepage of Galdera's corruptive powers into the land. People gossip about the world which lies beyond it. The Underworld, the afterworld, a plan of pure darkness able to contain a god... Its conception is from the eternal shadow which contrasts the ever-burning light of the lanthorn, which the humans received from the gods. Heedful of Aelfric's words, the people establish the Kindling ceremony, which is still held today, 1,600 years later.

Aelfric's intuition proves too correct, as the gears of fate have spun slowly, but surely, from that day forth. As a mysterious, ageless individual wanders the land, misfortunes, quietly creeping, grow into catastrophes. Men were unwilling to relinquish their desires for power, glory, and wealth. Such wants seeded and cemented the influence of darkness, even as it lay in waiting slumber.

Darker still, the bindings of life and death come to be undone as small happenings, unnoticed, trickle like grains of sand, amassing into mounds. A royal family squabble, a missing priest, the rise of a legendary monster... these little events weave together into the backdrop of a horrifying path to a world devastated once more. Innocents will know what true fear is.


"The mortals… They can ultimately be such boring creatures. Confined to short life spans, their visions are so … pitifully small," The demigoddess' eyes trail from the window, "I saw the rise and fall of the conquerors by the Ring. Great clods of dirt they were. And for a while, I began to lose hope... But, every once in a while… I do find a gem or two within the endless drivel that is humanity and its triteness. It is not the crown jewel that I seek… Yet it has potential nonetheless."

The dark-haired woman with maroon eyes looks to me. I can feel my excitement resonate with her words, and the promises they hold. How I have not felt that since the death of my father caused that little quarrel for the dynasty crown. It is the exact same exhilaration I felt as I held my blade, poised before my older half-brother's throat, as he had lain on the floor, begging and defenseless. That was a wonderful climax one is hard-pressed to find, built so illustriously that its conclusion itself is a tragedy.

"You are one of them. I see it in your eyes. A hunger for something more," She pushes up to me, her clawed hands caressing my face, "That show at Everhold… have you not wanted to experience that sort of thrill again? That amusement of the acts of humanity and its follies…"

"… It was a very … amusing thing indeed," I find myself chuckling, "Always do I wish to return to it. But now, the dynasty and its doldrums shall be the price I pay for that moment, I suppose. Such a steep ticket price."

"It does not have to be. Abandon it, and I shall give you an eternity. Like with mine, you can do as you wish. As per your heart's desires, you can manipulate the fools of men of this world, and bend them to your whim. Much like a puppet master commandeers a play to their satisfaction," Her hand moves down to my shoulders after grazing my neck with a delicate touch, "Does that not sound most enjoyable?"

"… Yes. I would… very much enjoy that I think," Gods, I can feel the arousal in myself thinking of the possibilities she offers.

"You could be like a god, playing with lives. Imagine it, your own tragicomedy, made for your pleasure," Her eyes flicker with a slight luminescent redness, "All you need do… is pledge your allegiance to me and my cause."

"…So I shall be your puppet whilst I build my own show," Even as I say that I do not feel used, unlike when my mother had bid me fight in her name, out of selfishness for her dignity as the "true queen." She had offered me nothing, as she intended to play me like a dowager behind the scenes if I won the throne.

"It will not be as boring as the trivial human plays if you wish to see it so," She chuckles, "I am not a cruel mistress. I know what you want. And I will give it to you. T' would stand to reason I am rather entering a contract with you, rather than dominating your will."

I want to do that. I want to control my own destiny … as well that of others. I will create a magnificent play, with countless deceitful turns and suspenseful grips that it will be its own epic. Such are the tales I wish for, and it will require lifetimes to accomplish. And this offer of immortality before me, along with the promise of escape from my mundane, arduous life…

"I do pledge myself to you."

She smiles in a sinister way, behind a veneer of kindness. I believe that I saw myself making a similar face mirrored in her eyes, along with all the possibilities whirling in my scheming mind, waiting to be bought to the grand world stage.


"Tis only when men seek for the hills,
that they turn back and see what rot they hath left;
that they see the beauties they abandoned to die in eternal sleep.
Would that I could have stopped that withering,
given it a proper cull,
to find that which was most beautiful of all."

"... And that is 'The Rose Garden.' It's not quite finished yet, I'd say."

Simeon closes his book and looks down at the thirteen-year-old girl. She stares at him with admiration and curiosity typical of children her age. Particularly those with a crush.

"That was amazing, Simeon..." She smiles shyly.

"Really? I thought I was playing a bit too much into the trite forms of writing. There must be five or so tropes in a single stanza..."

"No, it's perfect. The flow and all… I could dance to it!" She gushes a bit.

"That's wonderful. I'm glad you like it, Prim," The young man stands and puts down the volume, moving to walk out of the sunlit room, "I was thinking of you a little when I wrote it, I'll admit."

"R-really?" She nearly squeaks out of joy hearing that.

"Yes, your name, after all, Rose. Why do you think I call you that?" Simeon turns and smiles at the little lady, "Because you will blossom into a lovely flower, like a rose."

Her face is positively on fire with his flattery. Thrown off completely, she can only manage to mutter her question timidly, "...W-will you read me some more next time? Maybe something from Alexandrian Fantasy next time?"

Simeon smiles a bit too formulaic a grin and resumes his departure, "Perhaps, my flower. I have some blossoms to trim."


"My dear little flower..."

Geoffrey rubs the girl's head affectionately. Her soft, brown curls had suppleness that felt like clouds under his big, calloused hands. His daughter giggles slightly at the gesture of appreciation for her little dance routine. It was just the two of them beside the crackling fire in the parlor, under the watchful eyes of her mother's portrait overhead. Soon, it would be time to sleep.

"Come, Prim. To bed now."

"One more dance, m'lord?" The precocious child of 13 curtsies with a slight giggle.

"Now, now, m'lady..." The old man chides, a small smile crinkling his mustache, "A dancer must still have her sleep."

"Such a prude lord!"

The child just giggles a bit as her father hoists her up in his arms.

"My lady must sleep, to develop herself in dancing."

"I suppose so... Good night, mother." The child waves slightly to the silent portrait.

"You will be dancing again tomorrow night for the two of us, I hope?"

"Of course! M'lord and mother are my two best audiences!" She sighs slightly, "The other noble children... say it's unbecoming of a noblewoman to dance like I do..."

"Well, on your shoulders is the future of the entire house of Azelhart. No matter what they believe. If you have faith, nothing they say can hurt you, my love."

"Because faith will be my shield, right?"

"Yes," He lovingly nuzzles her forehead with his shaven face, "Even when the blade is held at your heart, faith shall be your shield. As our family founders said."

"Mm..." The child glances at the fire still flickering, "Ah, are you still going to stay up tonight, father? I was hoping you could read me a story before I slept..."

"I will, my Prim. Arianna shall put out the fire soon anyways."

"Yay! There was a story, er, poem Simeon read to me just yesterday. I truly adored that one...!"

"Well, you do have quite the attachment for him and his writings, my dear..."

"Art thou jealous, m'lord?"

"Not at all! For who teaches you the sword in this house? And your lessons?"

"Heehee," She giggles and snuggles on his chest a bit, "I think I'm getting better with the house dagger, father."

"That is good to hear… But you still have much to practice, on that."

There is a slight sternness in his voice. It never fails to dampen her spirits a bit, when he turned strict. But she knows it as an expression of his love, so she does not show it.

"Of course, father… I think I am slowly figuring out… what the steps are that I am getting wrong."

"That is good on your part, learning from your mistakes, flower."

They leave the parlor, bantering and chuckling some more, and enter the carpeted halls. The sound of incessant rain hitting the glass windows is suddenly interrupted by one big boom of clapping thunder. There is a sound of smashed glass, almost hidden by the sonorous sound before it. But Geoffrey had perceived it. It came from the room next to the parlor, nearer the front of the house. There is the tinkling sound of falling glass shards, and nigh imperceptible swift feet on the wooden floor in the guest study.

Without a second thought, Geoffrey races up the stairs to his study. The steps behind him caught on and follow close behind. He throws the door open and slams it shut within the same second, locking it and propping up a chair against the knob. The steps outside come closer.

He can barely hear his own rushed thoughts over the sound of his pounding heart in his ear. Another thunderous peal sounds, and his daughter makes a noise, like the squeak of a frightened mouse. He is aware again of how hard he is clutching her small body to himself.

"F-father...?"

The child looks up with frightened, uncomprehending eyes, into his own filled with fear. He knew then, what had to be done.

"Father... what is..."

"Shh, shh... Primrose..." He hurries to place her behind one of the obstructive desks, where a secret cabinet opens, large enough to fit a child, "I need you to be quiet..."

"W-why? What..." Her voice shows clear fear, unknowing what was transpiring.

The steps run about the floor outside. They are stealthy still, and nearly blend with the pitter-patter of rain beating on the study windows. A flash of lightning reveals the somber, solemn face of Geoffrey to his daughter. He cups her face in his hands.

"You must be quiet, Prim. Do not let them find you. Hide, and do not make a sound, understand?"

"Father, w-what about you...?" Her hands go to cling to his shirt.

"I will face them, my Prim. I have to."

"No..." She dares not cry out, for fear of the incoming threat.

"Be strong, Primrose," He gives her a tight and brief hug, "Remember, faith shall be your shield."

The handle on the door jiggles. There is a bang as something impacts it. The child flinches in his arms. She clings, unwilling to relinquish that protective embrace. She cannot make a sound, for fear she will burst into cries and doom them both.

Geoffrey moves to enclose her in the cabinet, despite her clinging to him. He gives her a final, kind smile, kissing her forehead gently. Her eyes widen and her bottom lip trembles. Suppressing every fiber of her being, she lets go of his sleeve.

"Father, I love you..."

"I love you, Prim."

He makes a gesture of quiet, pressing a finger to his lips, before he closes the cabinet door in finality.

There is another strike at the entryway. A blade bursts through the wood. From outside, an eye peers in, surveying the room. They see only the man before his desk, standing like a solid statue, facing them with expectation. With a grunt, the door is forced down, torn off its hinges.

The three figures walk in, cockily almost. They are dressed in dark clothing that is actually quite fine in make. Their heads are obscured with drawn hoods that cover most of their distinguishable face. Two of them have one arm exposed, revealing a tattoo in the shape of a crow. The last one has his shirt collar drawn down to show off a similar tattoo, but on his neck. They approach Geoffrey, who grasps at a decorative long sword lying on his table.

"Your time is up, Geoffrey."

Geoffrey narrows his eyes at the voice. "You..."

"Don't take this the wrong way. You've just been sniffing around too much."

"Be glad. We were originally going to take your daughter to make you shut up. But I guess lucky for you, she's out of town, hm?"

They didn't know Prim was here. There is relief Geoffrey felt, but he did not let it show on his face.

"Your business is with me, isn't it?" He readies his blade.

"Yes," There is a wicked grin under the hood, "And frankly, I prefer it this way."

The one with his right arm exposed jumps forward, a wicked knife in hand. Geoffrey swipes at his footing, ducking the arc of the blade. The intruder with the left arm exposed attacks Geoffrey from behind, kicking at the man's legs and sending him careening to the floor.

Gathering some semblance of his old youth, Geoffrey surprises them both with a lash of shadow energy. Dark attribute magic writhes like flames from his hand as he stands and makes another jab with his blade, aimed at the one who fights with his hands, the left crow.

"Tsk!"

His shadow magic hits, but suddenly he feels a shroud come over his vision. He can hear the left wing of the crow hit the floor but cannot see it. Before he can react, he barely dodges a slash to the head from the one with a dagger. The blade gouged slightly into his left eye, now bleeding. But the shrouding blindness is gone for the moment. Yet, he was now exposed with a greater blind spot.

"G-ah…"

"Lights out, Geoffrey…"

"Not …yet…!" He gives a slight snarl as he parries and counters another stab, landing his elbow with a slight crack in the right crow's chest. The man grunts and darts back a few steps. It doesn't take long for him to recover, as he dashes at Geoffrey again.

The one with the marked neck stays back still, mainly watching, it seems. Geoffrey glimpses a slight movement of the lips. If he was a magic user, that would spell trouble. Best take him out first then.

Briskly, he darts past the one with a dagger in a sidestep. He stabs again with his magic, this time straight at the one with the crow on the neck.

The face under the hood smiles at the challenge. With a smooth, upward motion, his hand coats in similar dark magic and slaps the blade away, right out of Geoffrey's hand. Geoffrey can only gape for a second before he feels the tip of a knife enter him from behind, protruding out through the front of his abdomen. The spurt of crimson dribbles down his shirt and blood rises to his lips. When he coughs, some of his blood flecks the exposed neck of the one before him.

"Ugh..."

He grasps at the blade, cutting his hands. He can feel the hilt behind him. The weapon is cruelly wrenched out from behind, send shocks up his body. But his jaw remains as though wired shut. He can't make any noises of weakness, not with Prim overhearing...

Clutching at the grievous wounds, he staggers before dropping to his knees. His breath comes out in ragged pants as he sees the three close in from all sides. There is no escape.

"Funny how it works, isn't it?" The left crow sneers, "Everything that happens in this world falls into one of two neat little categories. Things one's better off knowing, and things one's better off … not."

Geoffrey doesn't look back at that smug grin. He keeps his eyes low and focuses on slowing and calming his breathing as his blood flowed out of him.

"Geoffrey Azelhart, I'm afraid you've been poking into the latter."

"...I have... only done as my convictions bade me do... I have... no regrets..." He rasps as he feels his own blood stain his hands with sickly warmth. What a lie he just told. He was going to die with the biggest regret ever...

"Hehehe... I thought you might say something like that..." The right crow chuckles, fingering a thin black mustache on his upper lip, "You're making this delightfully easy, not even begging for your life."

He looks slightly to the silent one as a signal. The one with the marked neck steps forward wordlessly. Was that a frown Geoffrey saw on that face as he looked up for the last time?

He saw the flash of the blade; dark, purple light. He felt it cut through him with wickedness, a sharpness no ordinary blade could bear. He saw his own red blood fly in flecks before the candlelight in the room. He felt his heavy body go limp, tipping over to fall onto the floor with a heavy thud. Then, he felt no more than his last breath hiss as it issued forth from his lips. His vision, fuzzy and hazy, begins to fall flat and dark, as it all fades into one spot. All he saw at that moment … was a little girl dancing before the fireplace.

Father...!

"... P... ve... yo..u..."

Those last broken words hissed out with his last. And then he was no more.

As the neck crow steps back and sheathes his blade, the right crow speaks again, "Make sure he's dead – and let's leave this place before we're seen."

"Right, right..." The left crow walks over to the bloody body on the stained carpet and kneels. He checks for the usual breathing and pulse. Finding none, he looks up and nods to his companions.

"... It's done."

The two with the tattooed arms look to the silent one, who remains quiet. He merely turns for the door. The three walk out of the study, back the way they had come. Only the tapping of rain keeps silence from the study.

Behind the desk, the young Primrose Azelhart crouches, not even daring to breathe. Huddled into a small ball, she presses her trembling body against the crook of the desk so as to make herself as small as possible. It feels like an eternity before she had to take a breath lest she lose consciousness.

She had seen it all.

Amid the sounds of fighting, she had opened the door of the cabinet and snuck out unnoticed. From the corner of the desk, she had seen them gang up on her father. He had fought so valiantly, and she had believed so desperately he had a chance. Inwardly, she had cheered as he seemed to surprise them with some smooth moves.

How cruel it was, to watch that chance be snuffed out like a weak flame by a cold gale. How she had nearly screamed for her father to get back up as they jeered at his weakened state. She nearly had cried when she saw the blade cut him, snapping his life in two before her eyes. How she wished, and still wishes, that he would rise from where he lay now.

Her breathing rattled, she slowly stands, clutching her hands to her chest. Her legs are heavy. As she walks, they drag. She wills herself to walk up to that body on the carpet before the desk. The carpet is stained around him, as are his fine linen clothes. The stain grows still, slowly, creeping towards her feet.

There is a clap of thunder, but she can no longer hear it. Nor can she perceive herself in this room or in this world anymore. All she can see is herself and that body who was her father, laying there. His strong arms that once protected her now lay cold and lifelessly limp. That kind face that he had smiled with and kissed her with countless times would never do so again.

A flash of lightning makes that face look all the more horrifying and heart wrenching to look at, as the damaged left eye looks like a crack into a hollow abyss of darkness. The blood staining his face, crusted about his mouth and nose, makes him look demonic in his last moments. His right eye, open still, with a glassy look, is trained on her, or so she felt.

"... father..."

She takes only a few more steps after that bare whisper. Her legs give away in strength and she falls to her knees just before him. Trembling, she reaches a hand to his right eye to close it. Sobs, restrained despite their enormity in her small body, wrack her insides and she struggles to breathe through them.

"Father... father..."

His skin is still warm. If she blots out the blood, he would just look asleep! But reality lay before her in a cold and dead form, in such a crushing way that no fantasy can cure it.

"A...ahh..."

She curls on the floor, a hand grasping at her father's. His hand has yet a trace of warmth that is yet to cool. The grief and the sorrow build up in her, but she will not let them out in the torrential scream and fit they desire. She would choke on them first. In her silent cries are just the mutters for her father and the occasional hiccup as stinging tears start to roll, then cascade down her cheeks.

Her hand grasps hard on his, which could reciprocate no longer. He was gone. Forever. Why? Who did this? Who were those men?

All these questions with no answers swirl in her mind. Then two answers surfaced amid the tears and bitterness.

The image of the crows on their bodies burned itself into her mind. One on the left, one on the right, and one at the neck...

Her bitter tears and sorrow slowly give way to a grimace on her face, which soon twists into that of a near scowl. A savage image, that of a grim and angered face, graces her features with a drastic change from the tear-streaked expression she held mere moments ago. Now, she felt a white-hot fury build within and threaten to consume her.

Hate! Hate the ones who took him away! Hate them...

A cold fist came and closed around the hatred burning in her heart. A hand goes to clutch at the family blade hidden in its sheath at her side. At that moment, the final answer was forged into a worthy blade which she would carry at her breast for as long as she lived.

Revenge.

Slowly, the child righted herself from her prostrated position of helplessness. She sits up and wipes her tears, the scowl refining itself on her face into a look of grim determination. On her father's cold corpse, she vows this feeling of humiliation on the Azelhart family will never be forgotten.

Darkness dances around her in infant wisps, lingering on the senses. When they feel her resolve, they materialize in form and darken until an ethereal robe fit for the queen of darkness drapes over her little body, and her eyes glow a bright scarlet.

They took everything from me... and I will never forget.

The child was no more after that night. She was a woman. A woman with a goal to murder those who had taken everything from her.

...

...That was 10 years ago. And I have always remembered it.

I open my eyes with a slight start before my head fully droops from its position. The same dimly lit room, with musty air and worn carpeting, are all I see. I'm still here. The three girls are practicing their routine still, dancing before the candlelight. Their shadows move in hypnotizing patterns about the floor. I must have fallen asleep watching.

"Ah... always the same dream..." I stand from where I had been sitting, feeling a bit stiff. Perhaps it was that grog the customer had me drink last night. He was so damn forceful too.

Lily, the one with short honey-colored hair, seems to notice my awakening first. At her movement, the other two look to me as well, pausing in practice. Their faces are with contempt, as always. They stopped hiding it a long time ago.

"I wish I had your confidence, Primrose," Yvette, the brunette with a ponytail, drawls with insincerity, "I couldn't imagine nodding off minutes before my cue."

"How nice it must be to be the master's favorite!" Lily giggles haughtily and the other two nod in agreement. From the side, they seem to sneer as if their words could elicit some effect.

I don't even look at them and hold my tongue. Instead, I feel my stinging hips a bit, a memento from the rough play last night. The dull stab of that painful memory and dream do not make it any easier to keep calm.

Lily huffs slightly at my lack of reaction, "Fine, go on and keep your airs. Act as though you're better than the rest of us."

"It doesn't change the fact that you're just another dancer in the sands, Primrose," Yvette adds, "Nothing but a kept woman, here to flatter the dignity of men who pay for the privilege."

I think back to last night. He was a high-roller, and he liked how I had moved on stage. After the show, he'd called for me in his room at the tavern. I whispered those typical sweet words into his ears, and he was mine to control. He wasn't the worst part. It was Helgenish, that pig, that came after. Every night since I can remember being in his employ, I have shown up to his chambers no matter how long the day seemed. But I didn't complain. I've never complained.

I put a hand to my hips and sigh in resignation, "...I suppose you're right."

There is a brief bout of silence. The girls didn't like it, not getting a rise out of me. Yusufa, quiet Yusufa, stands still by the wall. She looks on the verge of saying things a lot, yet never quite does.

"Shh!" Maria, the last of the trio, exclaims in a low voice, "Enough chatter! Master Helgenish is coming!"

Sure enough, there is the tapping of well-scuffed shoes, heavily worn. We all assemble in a line before the entryway so he can see us all present. Angry muttering can be heard as a click is heard at the door. The door opens, and the squat, pot-bellied man that is master Helgenish steps in. His fine suit is always ill-suited for his heavyset self, and his ruddy nose indicates he's been drinking. That portends a foul mood.

"Do I keep you women here to chitter in the shadows?! My customers are waiting for their entertainment!" He scowls and walks up to us, pointing to the door and barking, "The opening act should be on that stage already! Now get out there and earn your keep!"

Yusufa and the other three start to file out. I am the main act. Before passing through the door, Yusufa pauses ever so slightly, glancing over at me. I cannot fully discern what that look was. Likely, it was worry. It seems that is often enough the case. I sometimes find myself wondering if she can smile with those oddly beautiful eyes of hers, a color that seems to be a perfect mix of brown and blue… But, how can any of us truly smile here? She leaves with the rest, and I am alone with Helgenish.

"What a bunch of useless strays…" The master huffs, his hands on his pudgy waistline. Then he turns to me, and his demeanor becomes sickeningly sweet. With some cocky stride, he comes over before me, voice low and attempting to be seductive, "But not you, Primrose… you're the only one I can rely on…"

I lower my gaze slightly to appear ingratiated by his slovenly attitude, "You flatter me… Master."

"Oh, hardly!" He grins with glee at my words, like a sycophantic puppy eager for praise, "Why, this tavern's custom has increased tenfold since you stepped onto my stage!"

"But…" His voice takes a firmer tone, "Do not go forgetting yourself. For it was I who groomed you for this role."

"…And for that, I will be forever grateful, Master…"

"Such an ignorant girl you were when I had taken you in! Useless!" He rants on, "I've taught you everything you know."

I do not respond. It has been 10 years. 10 years I've played your fool. I only pretended under you, you vile swine-

There is a sharp pain on my face, forcing me to stumble back slightly and return from my thoughts. I feel a stinging sensation remain and linger on my cheek. He'd slapped me.

"What happened… to your sweet little smile?" He growls slightly in his low tone, "Who puts a roof over your head, and food on your plate? Who adorns your body with the pretty fabrics and jewels you wear, making you the most desired woman in this dusty old town?! It. Was. Me. All me."

He says the last part slowly, haltingly, as he slowly creeps up to me, while I still stand facing away, having stumbled back.

"You owe me, kitten. And I'll see that debt repaid."

My hands still want to clench when he calls me by that pet name. All of us who belong to him are his stray cats, but he only calls me kitten. Swallowing that sickened feeling down, I look back to face him with a small smile.

"Yes… master."

"Good then," He chuckles lowly, eyes hungering, "Purr sweetly and I may give you a treat."

Like a stalking predator, he steps around me slowly, skulking behind me and lowering his head so his stinking breath can be felt at my neck, and his mustache near my face. His satin gloves gingerly touch my shoulder and arm and caress it, running along the length.

"Do not dally when you are done with the show… I shall be waiting in my chamber," He speaks in a low, sultry voice as his hand moves from my arm to my breast, and his other hand runs like a comb through my hair, "I'll have your purr for me some more…"

I have long suppressed my shudders from his contact. The revulsion remains … but it has become so commonplace now. I recall the first time I had displeased him by recoiling from that touch. He had beaten me with the heel of his boot. I know he remains someone of dangerous strength despite his appearance.

The stagehand, Wilk, from the tavern comes through the door, "Primrose. You're up."

"… I'm coming."

I pull away from Helgenish, and he lets me go, probably smiling as I walk.

"Oh, kitten?" He quietly calls out to me, "Put your face back on."

I pause to say "…Yes, master."

As I follow the stagehand to the tavern, I quickly reapply makeup to the bit that smudged where Helgenish had struck me. After all this time, I just carry my cosmetics with me, secured to a strap hidden under the waistband of my dress, alongside my one prized possession: the Azelhart dagger.

"The customers have been waiting," Wilk says as we enter the tavern, "And you're our only hope of getting to eat tonight."

The place is rife with the smell of smoke and alcohol. Traveling merchants, dressed in rich silks, turbans, suits, and all kinds of riches lounge about, frolicking with the dancers who were on customs duty tonight. They order around the wenches cruelly as they drown themselves in their women and alcohol. Helgenish never skimps for them. But on nights where the tips are a bit less, the staff go hungry.

I manage a half-hearted chuckle as we enter the backstage area, "How was the opening act?"

Wilk gives a slight eye roll before answering with a tell-tale sigh, "…Like I said. It's your turn now."

This is a rather common occurrence. I hate to let them down, even the ones who spite me. We are all rather helpless here. I go to step onstage.

"…Let the show begin.

There are cheers, whistles, and even the occasional drunk jeer from the crowd. Many show their familiarity with me by hollering their lecherous comments.

"It's her!"

"Yeeeaaaah, Primrooose!"

"Show us your boobs!"

All these people, drunk with the power they lord over others, have the same hungry look as that of Helgenish. This ilk of humanity, which sees us as objects and property…

I start with a couple of taps first with my feet, smiling quietly to the crowd. They fall silent for a spell as I begin, and then start drowning out the music with their raucous cheers and requests. I can only blot their faces out, as I had learned to do for a long time.

Dear father… please watch over me. I stopped believing anything like a higher power would ever save me, or any poor soul. But I believe... that you are there, at the very least.

For 10 years, I have pursued my quest for revenge against the men who took you from me. It has led me here, where I heard that one with the mark of the crow is an occasional visitor. As I glance over the crowd, not one has that mark which I seek. Yet, I keep dancing, moving my body with the wills and sways of the music… like when I used to dance for my father…

When I finish my last step, there are drunken men standing waving their arms like unseemly simians, giving whoops and whistles while declaring their love and asking for private shows.

I bow and smile with a small wave, "You are all too kind. And handsome, might I add."

As a flourish, I wink and blow a small kiss to the wanting crowd as they shout lewd requests. It lights their fire more and they respond with furor. Such animals.

I turn and go backstage, where Wilk stands. He gives me a weak, congratulatory smile.

"Not bad, Prim. Not bad at all."

"Thank you, Wilk…"

"… The master awaits, right?" His tone is knowing and sympathetic. But even he is probably inured.

"… Good night, Wilk."

I walk past him, off the stage, to the master's quarters within the tavern. It should come as no surprise he has the largest room in the establishment, all the more to stoke his ego. I have been in there many times now. There are indulgent velvets and silken pillows, sheets, and a plump, feather mattress despite the heat of Sunshade. However, beneath the sheets and hidden in the drawers, displayed on the walls even, are whips and wicked knives. I have heard of his secret cache of "souvenirs," though I have never seen it. Supposedly, it is full of disgusting mementos like locks of hair and jewelry from past dancers he fondly remembers… and disposed of.

Priscilla was a nice girl from Atlasdam; very witty and clumsy. She had a nice, pointed face with high arched cheeks and light brown hair. Helgenish liked her looks, despite her atrocious dancing skills. But while serving, she'd spilled wine on a customer's cravat. Right in front of the rest of us, she was beaten within an inch of her life whilst nude only about a week or so ago. And then, the hired bouncers threw her out into the street. Everyone in this town seemed to just stare. The master reminds us daily that we are nobodies in this place. Faceless, nameless… just bodies for pleasure. No one gives a damn if we vanished.

I approach the door to his room, with the ornate lacquered wood and brass handles.

"Master? It's … your kitten."

"Come in, Primrose…" His voice, slimy with lust, invites me in.

I open the door and walk in. There is a lingering smell of his cologne about the entire room, like a noxious fog. The fat man lays on his side in bed, facing me, expecting my entry. He is nude, showing his chest of hair. The bottom half of his body has just the thin sheet draped over his groin. When I get near, within three paces of the bed, he stops me with a gesture of his hand.

"Clothes off, dear…"

I comply with that command, slipping off my adornments and dancing garb. My clothes drop to the floor like a cascade of flowing water as I walk to him with a slight strut in my gait, as he likes. He invites me into his bed with a wave of his hand as he licks his lips. I place one knee on the soft bed and then crawl under the arch of his arm. Like a trap, his hold on me closes and presses me against his fleshy body. He is slightly sweaty, with a strong scent of his cologne and natural odorous musk mixed together. The hand around me curls to fondle one of my naked breasts, teasing the nipple.

"You are doing a fine job masking those bruises from last week…"

He had gripped me too hard at that time. It left red rings on my skin that the bangles were too skimpy to hide.

"… yes, master…"

"No personal visits today? Just as well, since you get this extra time with me…" He cups my chin with a hand as he whispers wet words into my ear.

"Yes, master…"

His eyes trail down my chest and lay upon my collarbone. Right on the center of my chest, above my breasts, is the birthmark that catches his gaze. It looks insignificant at first. If one looks closely, however, it looks less like a birthmark and more like a tattoo of sorts, depicting black swirls. It doesn't please Helgenish in the slightest.

"How unsightly that is. I got you a present... To cover it up with something more pleasing..." His hand lifts and reaches something from behind himself.

I hear the tinkling of metal and jewels as he reveals a multi-layered necklace. It is much too gaudy, really. But it seems like a trinket well-suited for dancing. His hand moves to affix the jewelry onto my neck from behind. I feel his breath as he does this, and the heat off his body. His meaty hands eventually do the clasp and flutter back onto my shoulders, leaving that collar of a necklace on me. The jewelry effectively obscures the mark on my chest.

"You are beautiful, my kitten..." He chuckles in satisfaction at his own work, and his hands return to fondling my chest.

"...Thank you... master."

"You know the reason I hit you is just so you know your place... by my side."

"... Yes... master."

I feel like a doll on repeat sometimes, or a puppet, even; only saying what they want me to say, and doing as they ask. I have one thread left through which I control myself.

"Now, my little soldier is a bit lonely for some pleasure."

He shifts off me slightly and lays down on his back beside me, pulling the sheet off himself and exposing his penis and testicles. They are comically very small and hidden due to his pot belly covering a good amount of his hirsute crotch. I can only ever be sure he is somewhat hygienic, given how he often doesn't prefer the dirty work. But then again, he is a filthy swine.

"Be sure to purr for me, kitten."

I resign myself, sighing inwardly so he can't hear. Establishing eye contact with him as I position myself, I take his length within my mouth and start to pleasure him. He gives a low, barely restrained moan as I begin, his entire body quivering. He does this every time.

Every time… for the last 10 years since I've done this. All of this… for my revenge.

I habitually remember it now, the reason why I have subjected myself to this. The reason why I endure such daily. I have to remember it; carve it into my mind so that I can keep going.

Father… you might be appalled at what I am doing now… fallen so far from the proper lady you may have wanted to succeed the Azelhart house…

But losing my dignity and honor like this and casting off my namesake… is nothing compared to the pain I endured that night when those men took you from me forever. Losing you was... saying goodbye to my whole world. If for that and nothing else, I swear I will stop at nothing to avenge you. There is nothing, no abuse too cruel, that I will not endure to that end.

For that, I will lay with these men… and dance until the day comes that I have slain your killers.

So… father… please watch over me.