One by one, the clues and the traces

All puzzle pieces will fall in their places

The Hunt, endless. The Hunter, persistent.

And the prey becomes less...nonexistent.

No matter how tight the ties of emotion grow,

they may never shield one from life's cruel blow


A Varcolac head.

A damn Varcolac head was sitting on his workbench, staring back at him with empty sockets. Mocking him silently for failing to read the signs from the start. For ignoring them even after they had been thrust in his face, a multitude of times too! And the worst of it all; It was the human-sized fleabags who had been aware of them from the beginning! It was them who had acknowledged the danger first!

Heisenberg sighed and took off his glasses to rub at his eyes in frustration.

This was bad. He hadn't thought much of it at first, but now it would be foolish to turn a blind eye to the severity glaring at him in the form of a crystalized skull he had picked from that dirt path. While Urias' recent introduction to the concept of chokehold was, objectively, the most concerning sign on the list, Heisenberg hadn't been prompted to take any immediate action despite how interested he was in the matter. It was ironic, in a way, that what finally made him see how bad the situation really was, had been two very recent discoveries;

The first was, obviously, the skull he had to carry all the way to the factory before it was dumped on the workbench. He couldn't tell how many days it had laid there in the snow, though it didn't really matter. It was dead. Killed by the same thing that had attacked Urias, no doubt. And although the Alpha Lycan was the worst out of all the monsters in the village, a Varcolac wasn't that far behind on the list. They were a huge pain in the ass to kill and far more bloodthirsty than any Lycan. Worst of all; they were uncontrollable and lacked any intellect. That's what made them so dangerous, hell, even the Lycans treated them like dogs more than equals. Whatever had managed to bring down a Varcolac and dispose of its body, since there was not even a bone other than the skull, was most certainly big and lethal.

Now, the second was more tricky to comprehend but in the end, it also proved to be the most intriguing. After assessing the damage the pack had taken, what stood out between the, either dismembered or severely bitten, Lycans was the yellowish substance sprayed on some of them. The beasts were so restless because of it that he had to chain one of those Lycans in his basement to get his hands on the thing. The mongrel still wouldn't shut up about it. Thankfully, though, the test results were worth the trouble. The substance turned out to be some kind of poison and a very lethal one at that. Even though it hadn't been injected into the Lycans, the skin it had come in contact with had stopped functioning. At first, he had assumed the poison deadened the skin cells and other organs beneath them, a logical explanation for the Lycans that had been blinded after having the thing sprayed on their eyes. But when their vision gradually came back, many long hours after the attack, it occurred to him that the poison worked as some kind of abnormally strong sedative, a means to incapacitate the opponent long enough for the perpetrator to escape.

Still, this was the result of a superficial attack. He hadn't tested what the poison could do when used as it was meant to; injected into a body.

Heisenberg turned away from the Varcolac skull and opened a single drawer on another workbench. Fishing out of it a closed cup containing whatever poison he had managed to collect and one of the very few syringes he possessed, he made his way to the elevator and from there, down to the basement.

The Lycan wasn't happy to see him. Not that Heisenberg really cared. Though maybe, in this case, the Lycan's feelings mattered because the damn thing wouldn't sit still for a second!

"Goddammit, hold still!" he yelled, making the chains around its limbs pull in opposite directions so hard they were almost torn cleanly off the torso. The Lycan howled in pain this time, feeling the chain attached to the iron collar practically choking him as it held him up. Heisenberg forced the chains to keep the beast as motionless as possible and then some before he approached. Unclasping the cap with his thumb, he dipped the needle in the poison and slowly pulled back the plunger.

The smell of the poison had the Lycan thrashing about in alarm. Or, at least, he tried to. He didn't want that thing anywhere near him, not after he had just regained his sight. The Lycan snarled and growled with frenzy, his wild eyes locked on the syringe slowly being filled with the liquified nightmare. The chains didn't even rattle from his efforts to escape, the Lord's power holding them steady as if frozen in time. The beast could do nothing, yet it tried harder when the needle hovered a bulging muscle on its arm. The Lycan's claws scratched desperately at the metal wall, leaving haphazard marks as the tip of the needle found a vein.

An alarm blasted throughout the factory, stopping the needle before it broke the skin. Heisenberg's head snapped up with a curse and a sneer. Reaching out with his powers, several tools were lifted from their place to make way for an old alarm clock that rushed to him. The familiar hour reflected off his lenses, taunting and scolding him at the same time. If it wasn't for the frustrating obligation the clock reminded him of, he would have acknowledged that he'd spent all night working on something other than his Soldats for once.

But he was too angry to think of anything other than shoving the clock out of his face and proceeding to force the open cup of venom inside the still struggling Lycan's mouth.

Miranda was waiting...

The syringe floated out of his hand so he could grab the beast's jaw and push the cup further down the choking mouth. It shook violently, thrashing as best it could while the venom slowly slid over the tongue and down the throat.

Another insufferable, utterly useless meeting...a dinner for the freak show to put up another 'pretend family' bullshit.

In a desperate last effort to save itself, the monster tilted its head to the side and snapped its jaws at Heisenberg's hand. The cup fell on the floor as the Lord jerked away at the last second, the deadly fangs barely grazing the leather of his glove. "Fucking mongrel!" he hissed, his already fueled anger spiking from the audacity of the Lycan's actions. The beast began to snarl and convulse in pain, the venom it had been forced to consume taking immediate effect.

However, Heisenberg wasn't one to let someone go without punishment, especially when he was pissed. Regardless of who he was pissed with.

Searing through the air, the needle embedded into the Lycan's iris all the way to the end of the syringe. And as the beast screamed in agony at the added pain, the alarm clock came to press against the plunger and push the poison out in one go. The body went completely still all at once as if someone had pressed the 'pause' button on a remote. Two seconds later, the skin filled with bumps, muscles bending out to tear their way out of the body. A burst of foam and body fluids came out of the hanging open mouth and dripped down the neck like a waterfall. The one remaining eye rolled back inside the head, revealing tiny red veins turning yellow.

And then, the Lycan went limp.

Heisenberg barely felt satisfied. Understandable, considering what he was being forced to go through. Still, he sought whatever emotional release he could find in little things, like the extra forceful turn of the alarm switch several floors up. Or the unwrap of the chains holding the lifeless Lycan up so its carcass could drop on the floor. They weren't much, but they were at least something.

Glancing down at the cup, the remaining venom spilled, he regarded it with a frown. What a waste of newfound resources, all because of a disobedient dog. At least he had learned what he needed; whether consumed or injected, this thing was lethal. And its producer was far more dangerous and attention-worthy than he'd thought.

As he made his way out of the room, making a chain wrap around the Lycan's torso and using its body to mop the venom before it was tossed out of his factory, he made a mental note to document his findings and further theories in one of his spare tapes. And build up a cage.

Once he was back in the upper levels, he made his way to the small apartment area tucked in an isolated corner of his factory for a change of shirt and a swing of whiskey. He entertained the idea of downing the whole bottle - he would need it if he was going to spend a good portion of the evening with the pity party - but decided against it for the sake of having something pleasant to come back to when this was over.

Slipping the trenchcoat and hat on, he went to his surveillance room for a last-minute task and pressed the mic button for the stronghold's speakers. "Wakey wakey, sleeping grisly freak!"

Inside the third TV screen to the left, Urias's sleeping form stirred. "I got a job for you, scruffy-beard." When the Alpha's head snapped up, with the rest of his massive body following, Heisenberg continued. "Remember your wrestling pal from a while ago? Your living choker?"

The vicious snarl he received in response brought a smirk to his lips. "You keep the others at the ready and next time you sniff the thing out, ambush it. But-" he interjected, cutting Urias's erratic huffing off. "-I need it breathing."

He switched the mic off before Urias's disappointed growl had time to travel to his ears. No matter his feelings on the matter, Heisenberg knew that Urias wouldn't dare disobey him. Maybe he and the pack would rough it up a bit for the sake of getting even, but since their master wished it, they would keep the thing alive for him to retrieve. He only hoped no other Lord became aware of the mysterious creature before he got to it first; If it proved to be as useful as he imagined, he'd like to keep its existence a secret of House Heisenberg.

Calling his hammer from the level below him and swinging it over his shoulder, he started for the elevator without a rush, unbothered about keeping Mommy Hen waiting. A frown settled on his brows when something other than the humming of the factory machines echoed around the halls.

"In t-...hol-...would se-...I could le-...someday he...time these chains...me down, would set me free..."

"Ah, greetings, Lord Heisenberg!" The metal Lord hadn't expected the onslaught of music when the elevator doors opened, nor the sight of the smiling merchant twisting a knob on a well-kept radio by his feet. "Forgive the volume, I was just turning it down."

Blinking behind his lenses, Heisenberg finally took the step inside the elevator and stared suspiciously at the jolly man. The button to the ground floor was pressed without his free hand ever stretching to it and the doors closed swiftly, trapping the eerie melody inside. A melody that normally wouldn't interest him in the slightest if it wasn't for the fact that he had never heard anything like this before.

"Elaborate what it, exactly, is." Normally, he wouldn't even bother to acknowledge the man who had a habit of popping up in his elevator whenever he pleased, or he'd just stick to the usual purchase of cigars and supplies and that would be all. But blasting foreign music through his factory was a first for the merchant. It also wasn't a common occurrence to inject strange substances in Lycans locked in his basement.

So, seeing as it was this kind of day, might as well go with it.

"Why, it's my newly acquired product!" Duke declared with an excited smile, keeping his hands busy with polishing trinkets and jewels. "Music tapes, freshly made and delivered from the outside."

It was obvious that the fat man knew which word would pick the Lord's interest and despite how frustrating it was, he didn't fight it. Instead, he looked at the radio. "I wasn't aware you, of all people, needed to expand your services."

The elevator visibly rattled at the big man's guffaw. "I would say it is more of a grasp on a rare opportunity." Raising the ring he'd been polishing to the light of the elevator, he inspected his work before placing it in a box behind him and grabbing another object to clean. "One I'm confident will prove to be very fruitful in the future."

Heisenberg scoffed. The metallic skeleton of the volume knob slowly turned on its own, raising the song from faint background noise to a soft murmur of lyrics.

"No more bound and no more doubt. You've fallen into the wishing well. You're frozen into someone's spell that keeps you running in and out of love."

"It speaks of a person trapped, wishing to be freed." Duke lamented.

Heisenberg threw a quick glare at him. "I understand English without a damn translator."

"If I could let, these thoughts drown, and someday she might lose her crown."

His grip shifted on the hammer's handle, his head turning fully towards the little device.

"In time these chains that hold me down would set me free...would set me free..."

The song came to a close just as the elevator doors opened to the destined floor. However, the Lord's eyes moved instead of his feet. "How much for the tape?"

"Why, Lord Heisenberg, you had me oblivious to your music tastes." Duke remarked, as usual without an ounce of surprise.

The hammer-yielding man sent him a hostile sneer while he fished a hefty pouch from an inside coat pocket. "Since when anything that comes out of your gargantuan mouth gives your customers second thoughts about buying from you?"

"I assure you-" Duke let the rag and whatever he had been polishing with it on his lap before accepting the pouch. "-not even once has that been my intention."

The sound of the jiggling coins being counted filled the small space. Heisenberg's gaze surveyed the stock all around the merchant to pass the time while he waited, noting all the gears and metal parts professionally laid out among other things in hopes of catching his interest. He eyed a thoroughly cleaned cog on the right before he moved further on to a pallet jack. He had pulled apart...17 of those.

He was pondering how useful it would be to make that 18 when a glint pulled his attention to the object sitting on the merchant's lap.

He was no expert in jewelry but he had seen a fair amount of gemstones, thanks to the 50 feet tall bitch, to know that what he was looking at was a very unusually shaped sapphire. Not to mention that this kind of gemstone was a rare thing to possess, even for the Duke.

"I see you're eyeing this one." Duke pocketed the money and reached for the purchased tape. "Though before you make up your mind about it, I must say this object is not what it appears to be."

Heisenberg's eyes shifted to the merchant behind his lenses, intrigued yet not particularly interested. "Wouldn't be the first around here."

"Indeed. One could say it reflects its owner." The obese man raised the false sapphire to the light, its deep blue color glinting. "They are valuable like a gemstone, yet appear a telltale of threat to most, like the trace of a reptile."

"What are you trying to get at?" bit out his client, growing tired of his neverending riddles. The man spoke with them so often that Heisenberg had stopped attempting to make sense of them decades ago.

This time it was Duke's eyes that glinted as he casually resumed the polishing, the tape forgotten near his seat. "Quite an eventful winter we had, wouldn't you say?"

Heisenberg didn't answer.

For a long moment, it seemed that the only sound in the elevator was coming from the radio as the second song began to play lowly. Even the sounds of the factory seemed to have been silenced.

"Here's to being human. All the pain and suffering."

The elevator trembled when the hammer's head was left to fall loudly on the floor, having slipped from purposefully loose fingers. In the next moment, one of those fingers pointed accusingly at the now offensive object. "Where did you get this?"

Completely unfazed by the barely restrained growl in the man's demand, the merchant bowed his head in a display of respect that was nothing but that; a display. "I'm afraid my supplier's identity is not information I can disclose."

"There's beauty in the bleeding, at least you feel something."

His teeth ground so hard against each other that Duke actually heard it. "Stop fucking around! No one could have given this to you, it's a damn piece of the thing!"

"There is truth in your statement, though also fault." One side of the elevator dented inwards. "This, indeed, once belonged to the subject of your interest. Things, however, get lost and found all the time. Rarely by the same person, too."

"I wish I-"

The radio suddenly turned off as Heisenberg took a menacing step forward and had to tilt his head to look at the giant man's face. "Where was it found?"

"Your guess is as good as mine on this one." Duke replied, shrugging so nonchalantly that the metal parts of his stock began to vibrate violently. "The forest holds many secrets and this is not the exception."

"Damn, you couldn't be more helpful if you tried!" snarled the Lord.

"It is a fact, sad but true, that some things slip away from us. Even from me." Heisenberg grunted out a curse, causing a knowing smile to curl Duke's lips as he reached for the radio again. "Some things, like serpents, are more slippery than others."

Just like the soft click of the 'play' button, the Lord's mind connected everything at once.

Once again, the silence that stretched over them was filled with the lyrics of the new song that demanded the Lord's attention.

"I wish I knew what it was like, to find a place where I belong."

"Your purchase is ready, Lord Heisenberg." Duke cheerfully announced, offering the tape.

"No." The metal Lord snatched the tape and motioned to the sapphire scale. "There's no fucking way I'm leaving this in your inflated hands."

"But, I am machine, I never sleep. I keep my eyes wide open."

The merchant spread his arms in an almost welcoming gesture. "If your desires aren't stalled by high prices, then I certainly won't either."

Heisenberg didn't even bother to ask the price, just redirected his attention to the radio. A buzzing noise sounded somewhere deep in the factory and it wasn't long before a metal hook, sharp and severely rusted, came flying through the open elevator doors. Flicking in mid-air, it threw the pouch it was carrying on the bench closest to the merchant, the coins spilling all over the surface while the hook embedded itself onto the wood.

"I am machine, a part of me wishes I could just feel something."

"Ah, yes. That should cover it just fine." Duke chuckled, pushing the coins neatly back into the pouch. "One tape and a sapphire scale, that should be..."

"Two tapes." The Lord interrupted, picking up his hammer and using it to point at the source of the music. "That one too."

The merchant smiled merrily. "Certainly."

The song was swiftly cut off and its tape joined the other two products making up the purchase. The buyer stuffed them in his pockets and swang his hammer over the shoulder as he finally exited the elevator.

"Have a pleasant evening, Lord Heisenberg!" Duke called out, to which the man in question responded by slamming the doors shut behind him and fixing the dent on the side so that the elevator began descending immediately.

Heisenberg quickened his pace as he neared the garage, more so because he wanted to get away from the merchant faster than he was worried he might be late. The little chat he had with the man had lasted longer than he'd like, but at least he didn't come out of it empty-handed. He pressed the button to open the garage doors and while he waited, he fished the scale from his pocket, looking at it over the rim of his lenses and turning it this way and that.

So, that was a snake scale... That tied up the attacks on the Lycans, the even bruises on Urias' neck, and the poison. The size of the scale, nearly covering his entire palm, was indisputable proof of his original estimation about the size of that thing. He wasn't sure how to feel about that, though. If the thing, that snake, proved to be controllable, then this was a truly delightful turn of events. With it under his command, he wouldn't simply have another attack force; he would also have an endless source of weaponry. All the damage a venom-coated bullet would do...

But, if the snake turned out to be just another mindless beast, then this would be nothing more than an annoyance. Or a great threat, in the hands of his siblings or worse, Miranda. Either way, he had to find and keep the thing away from his family. Besides, there was no way it wouldn't benefit him somehow. In the event that he couldn't use it as an addition to his army, he still had the venom. And, judging by the glinting scale in his hand, he could always rip the scales from its body and sell them as sapphire ersatz to the Duke in exchange for scrap metal. Getting rich while being entertained didn't sound half bad in his book.

Tucking the scale safely in his pocket once again, he made to walk out to the factory yard when his boot made contact with something that clanked loudly. Looking down, he frowned in confusion at the unfamiliar bag filled to the brim with various valuables. He struggled to remember where he had seen this bag before when a flash of blue came to mind. Then a sunset and snow-covered ruins...

"Are you kidding?! This is beautiful! Come and see for yourself, it's fucking amazing!"

Ah, the girl from the ruins. It was a wonder he remembered her two months later. He usually couldn't remember the girl he'd slept with the very day before. Though that one had made a strange impression, admittedly. No matter, she was dead. Why he had kept her bag after finding it among a pool of blood was beyond him. It wasn't as if he had a need for expensive crap or money that he could sell them f-

...Not like someone else he knew...

...

The evening was still young when the underground elevator brought him up to the Ceremony Site. His boots clanked against the cold stones, sounding just as lazy as their owner. He was going to be late, he knew. But then again, when was he ever not late for any of his sister's gatherings? Seeing her oh-so-perfect face twist into a sneer of disapproval, that always brought out wrinkles made to ruin her flawless features, was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The butter of his bread, so to speak.

But until he reached the castle, he found another way to entertain himself.

He began whistling.

Specifically that unfamiliar tune he couldn't get out of his head since yesterday. He didn't mind, per se, but it was frustrating to not be able to forget it when he wanted to. It wasn't even to his preferences, whatever meager ones he had. The tune was a confusing one; steady to upbeat but then melancholic on the chorus. What had she been humming, anyway?

A multitude of howls broke his thoughts. Whipping his head behind, he stared at the flock of scared birds flying away from the forest. However, Heisenberg didn't reciprocate their alarm. It was annoyingly common for Lycans to howl out a calling when one of them spotted a potential prey. They did hunt in groups, after all. Having spent so much time with them under his control, he knew that more cries meant bigger prey. A human, most likely.

As the howls and screams multiplied by the second, growing louder instead of ceasing, the man began to question his original assumption. His body turned fully towards the direction of the sounds, grip tightening on his hammer as he realized this was not a call for hunt. It was a coordinated attack, a call for backup. The agitation and urgency in their howling were clear; They were sounding the alarm.

He hurried to the forest without further thought, his hammer swaying by his side ready for a swing. There weren't many things that would draw these kinds of sounds from the Lycans, so for them to be like that...

They must have spotted the snake-thing.

The more he approached, the louder the growls became. The soil was covered in footprints, leading him where the sounds became loud enough to echo all around him. When he climbed up a patch of rocks and looked down at the pack surrounding its target, he was left speechless.

"You have to be fucking kidding me..."

More Lycans ran past him towards the rest of the pack, forming a circle around their prey and slowly closing in. Snarling, growling, and swinging their weapons threateningly, they appeared downright ridiculous in their efforts to intimidate the subject of their interest. Heisenberg was actively fuming at the sight, fists clenching so tightly the leather of his gloves creaked. His shades had fallen down the bridge of his nose in his hurry to get there, so even if he wanted to he couldn't rationalize to himself that he was misseeing things.

All of that ruckus, the collective ambush, they most likely were going to bring the horses as well... And all of that for...

His eyes shifted around the crowd of monsters. Though bewildered, he was ever watchful of their movements, ready to interfere if any one of them decided to attack instead of simply scaring and cornering the target. He could understand why they weren't making a move. It was obvious they were waiting for the heavy artillery. But, what he couldn't understand was...

WHAT THE FUCK FOR?

"How fucking many are you, guys?!" the woman, Zelma, looked wildly around at the predators, pressing her back against the boulder. He felt like tearing through them with his hammer as if it were a baseball bat. Had the snake monster beaten them up so hard that they felt they should go all out on a mere villager? He had been distracted by that ridicule?! This was just too stupid for him to handle.

He groaned out loud.

He so didn't want to deal with this crap...

The uproaring sound of galloping hooves reached his ears among the snarling and he saw Zelma turning her head to the side where, as he had predicted, Lycans came riding on a dozen of horses. Even from a distance, the Lord could see how her eyes bulged, more so in surprise than fear.

"What, the cavalry too?!" He nearly shook his head. He had to agree with her on this one, the horses were a bit too much to be taken seriously. As far as he was concerned it was a ridiculous attempt to showcase their intelligence on their part.

His boot shifted to the side, itching to leave and just go bear the rest of the evening in the presence of his dear family. He was so frustrated with his monsters' incompetence that he'd rather sit beside the tower-sized chalk at dinner. His gaze, however, was kept on the scene unfolding before him.

One Lycan broke away from the circle and snarled right in Zelma's face. Her expression changed from scared surprise to a disgusted wince and she pressed further into the boulder in an attempt to get away from the undoubtedly stinky breath of the beast. The beginnings of a smirk were forced back instantly.

This was not his problem, nor his concern. One villager less was a common occurrence either way.

Familiar, thunderous steps caused the surrounding monsters to back away a few feet and look up towards Heisenberg's general direction. However, the man knew they weren't looking at him but at the enormous figure emerging from the treeline above him. The one that made Zelma's mouth drop in a wide 'o' and her eyebrows frown over her wide eyes.

Under different circumstances, he would have laughed his ass off at it.

"Errr...what is that?!" She spoke so loud she might as well have screamed it. Reasonably so, especially when Urias landed harshly on a spot in front of her, shaking the ground and effectively drawing fear-filled sounds from the horses and her. Tilting her head back as far as it could go, she seemed to make eye contact with the monster and her reaction reminded Heisenberg of their first meeting in the graveyard.

"The Head Lycan, I presume...?" Urias growled loudly and, with a swift move, thrust his face inches away from her own to take in every little detail of her. Zelma's eyes locked with the black abyss that was the Alpha's gaze and she visibly cringed. "So, you're the boss?"

As if he understood her, for which Heisenberg was 90% sure he did, Urias stood to his full height, tilted his head up towards the sky, and let out a monstrous, prolonged roar. The moment the sound emerged from his mouth, Zelma made a sort of 'oh fuck no' grimace and sidestepped around the Alpha while he was preoccupied with his display of intimidation. "Excuse me, I'm passing by here!"

Of course, she didn't get to take more than five steps before the circle of Lycans snarled openly at her to keep her within reach. Heisenberg watched her look around for a way out wildly, eyeing the Lycans and their leader without knowing where she should be backing up to. His body was unsure of what to do, half of it pulled him towards the castle he was supposed to be walking to, while the other half felt rooted to the spot.

They would tear her apart, that was for sure. Wouldn't be the first time a villager had suffered this fate, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. And a villager less meant a devoted Miranda follower less. It was a win, in his book.

But why did it have to be the only remotely entertaining villager he'd met in decades?

Urias raised his hammer high above his head and brought it violently down. Zelma barely managed to jump out of the way and roll on the ground but even before she had time to raise her head, she heard the Lycans' growls become more agitated. She had no time to push herself up when a Lycan broke away from the crowd and leaped towards her.

She didn't know exactly what to expect, but she was certain it was going to be painful.

She didn't expect to hear rather than feel the bones cracking upon impact, though. And she definitely didn't expect to see the Lycan fly several feet to the right. And when she averted her eyes from the beast, she was utterly caught off guard when the tip of her nose brushed against an all-too-familiar hammer.

No, it wasn't the Alpha's one.

"Back off!" Nausica's eyes shot up the length of the hammer's handle, up the leather-gloved hand holding it, and to the back of the old trench coat and black hat, she wished she didn't know who it belonged to. Her eyes widened more than she thought possible at the sight of him standing between her and the line of beasts wanting to tear into her. And despite the fact that instead of backing down they held their ground and kept snarling, the only thing she could wonder was where had he come from.

The Lycans on the part of the circle that wasn't pinned down by Heisenberg's gaze made to advance on her but stopped in their tracks with complaining growls when one of the Lord's boots shifted their way. Without even realizing it, Nausica found herself trapped between the man's open legs and staring up at him while he looked at the monsters surrounding them. His move to shield her from everyone around her seemed to infuriate the Lycans to the point where several of them began closing in, now openly snarling at the man. Even the gigantic, evil Santa Claus looked about ready to deliver a blow at the Lord just to get him out of the way.

Although he seemed tense, Heisenberg didn't appear to be worried in the least. Not from the angle she was laying.

Completely ignoring the Alpha, he turned his attention to the nearest bunch of them, who had been crawling their way forward almost daringly. Hearing the leather of his gloves squeak at the tightening of his grip on the hammer made her think he might swing at them. So, she watched as he leaned forward, close to the face of the Lycan nearest to him, and stared him dead in the eye while the beast snarled with its sharp teeth glinting from saliva. The man's shoulders hunched slightly, arms curling inwards and Nausica knew this was it. He was going to hammer them down, possibly grind them to paste and then all hell would break loose, and there was no telling what the Alpha would do, no matter his loyalty to the Lord, after witnessing someone attacking his pack-

Nausica almost jumped out of her skin when Heisenberg actually growled in the Lycan's face. It was the weirdest sound she'd ever heard from the man, not even remotely resembling an actual, animalistic growl.

And it fucking worked. The Lycan on the receiving end, along with the others behind him shrank back with a pitiful whimper and winced at what must have been the most ridiculous and highly effective bullying in history. They looked at the man like puppies getting lectured for making a mess. Even the Lycans in the circle had fallen completely silent.

Nausica's mind was completely blank as she watched Heisenberg, from the questionably compromising position beneath his legs, stand straight and survey the line of monsters. She could feel the anger radiating off of him without even being addressed, so all the wincing and shrinking of the Lycans suddenly made sense.

"Piss off!" It was her turn to wince along with the monsters, thankfully for that since the man swung the hammer around completely uncaring about how close it was to her face. "Back to your rabbit hole, the lot of you!"

The way they scattered reminded her of mice running away from a cat. Mice and a fat, huffing rat, in Urias' case.

Few seconds after they were left alone, Heisenberg turned his gaze down on her, smirked widely and - HOLY FUCK - he squatted over her. "You got a knack for getting into trouble, you know that?"

Nausica didn't know when she had raised her forearm to shield her face but she found herself lowering it. Her wide eyes didn't take in the way his hammer was casually laying on his shoulder, his peculiar necklaces dangling over her collarbone, or how he could quite literally sit on her stomach if his legs gave under. No, her attention was on his uncomfortably close, smirking face. More specifically, her eyes were glued to her reflection in those shades.

Her lips moved without her knowledge. "Yeah..."

"Well, do yourself a favor, and next time you decide to take a stroll..." Apparently, it was possible to get even closer to her face without losing balance because that's exactly what he did. "Fucking don't."

Nausica blinked a couple of times, just to give her mind time to wrap around what he had just said. "So...that means there is no chance you'd restrict them to a single part of the woods?"

His face suddenly got out of hers, head tilting slightly to the side in bafflement. Frankly, she was struggling to comprehend why she said that herself. "Now, why would I do that?"

His gaze felt so heavy that she averted her own to look around where the Lycans had been before she had to face him again. "They listen to you, don't they?"

Her stomach churned. Why was he grinning so widely all of a sudden? "And why should I bother?"

"To make the woods a safer place for the villagers?" she had been aiming for a rhetorical, snarky question but it came out as a genuine one laced with uncertainty. Besides, wasn't that his job as alleged Lord of the village?

"The villagers know not to prance about on these grounds. And is that any way of thanking me for saving your stupid ass, again?"

"Right..." Had he sounded annoyed, she would have been sarcastic. But neither happened, so she was left with nothing to say, lying on the cold snow between his boots and staring awkwardly at him. She looked him up and down and once she realized he wasn't going to move, she made a bad decision.

She rose up on her elbows, bringing her bosom questionably close to an area of his she chose to ignore completely.

Judging by the eyebrows that peeked from the rim of his shades, he didn't make the same choice.

"Could you let me get up now?"

The smile, that had momentarily fallen from his face, was replaced by a subtle smirk before he moved away from her. No hand was offered to help her up, but rather than feel annoyed, she was relieved. However, the feeling didn't last long when the skin of her back froze with how wet her dress had become. Apparently, melting snow was easier to seep through clothes compared to the freshly fallen one, because she was certain she hadn't laid on the ground for more than a minute.

The silence between them was stretching awkwardly. She had a feeling he was purposefully keeping it that way for some reason, however, she was unable to break it. She pretended to dust off her skirts to avoid looking at him, her mind struggling to come up with something to say. From the short time she had spent with the man, he was the one more likely to speak, a feat she had found annoying until then.

When she had been dusting off her dress for a moment too long, there was no avoiding straightening up. "I must be very lucky, that you happened to be around..." she let the rest of it die in her throat. She didn't want to say 'when I needed it' to him.

"Insanely so, I say. Lycans are especially messy with their food when agitated, digging in before killing, and so on." He moved his hand around absentmindedly and tilted his head sideways to rest on the handle of his hammer. "And from what I saw, you're not their favorite."

Her lips crooked into a grimace. "I had a feeling about that."

"So, what did you do to them?"

She glanced over her shoulder at the trees they had disappeared in. "Nothing... Unless, without knowing, I stepped on someone's tail."

"They have no tails."

"My point, exactly." He snorted handily, all traces of smugness leaving along with his breath, and Nausica found herself forcibly keeping her lips from curling upward.

A cold breeze rushed past them, making her hiss at the freezing pain that spread over her whole back. The cardigan she instinctively tightened around her only made things worse. Her voice was laced with a tremble when she muttered "I must get back to my house, get into something dryer."

"Hm." With his nod, she passed by him -maintaining a safe distance away, mind you- and set for the nearest path to the village.

"Oh, before I forget!" She halted, tightened her grip on the cardigan, and turned halfway towards him.

Heisenberg pulled something from inside his coat and tossed it her way, causing her to let go of her cardigan to catch it. Looking down at it, she felt the blood leave her face. If it wasn't for the variety of valuables inside, she wouldn't have recognized her two-months missing bag. "I was going to drop by the village later, but since you're here..."

Slowly, her gaze rose to him. "...what?"

"Take it." he shrugged, a feat that shouldn't be possible with the weight of that hammer on his shoulders. "I don't need whatever junk is inside."

Her muscles began to relax one by one as confusion took over. The Lord didn't appear menacing, threatening, or even taunting. On the contrary, he seemed...nonchalant... Was it possible he hadn't recognized her?

"Then..." she awkwardly cleared her throat, speaking in a guarded manner. "Then, how come you had this?"

Heisenberg didn't notice her tone because he was busy looking impatiently up at the orange sun. "Found it from a goner. They won't be needing it."

He didn't know.

"So..." Funnily enough, now she was even more confused. At first, she had thought he had stopped her to say something insulting or patronizing. Then, after he had thrown her the bag, she had expected him to threaten her, interrogate her, something. But, she had never anticipated him giving her...well, anything. Why would he? "Why are you giving me this?"

He shifted to the side as if he wanted to leave. "You collect stuff, right? Well, there's enough in that bag to fill an empty pouch, or whatever you're going to do with them."

She blinked, dumbfounded.

Did he just...had he really thought of...had he remembered...

"Listen, buttercup, playing 20 questions in the middle of the freezing woods is good and all, but I have to be somewhere right now. And you better hurry your ass back to the village before nightfall, if you want to make it there in one piece."

Another breeze brought a wave of goosebumps over her back and rustled his coat. Not waiting for a goodbye, neither offering one of his own, he turned to walk away. She was still holding the bag, albeit tighter than before. The confusion and the questions remained.

"Lord Heisenberg!" she called out. He turned his head.

But there was also the faintest hint of warmth somewhere under her ribcage.

"Thank you..."

It wasn't only about the bag. And she didn't smile.

But he did. Tipped his hat too, before he left.

The small warmth remained but, still, she did not smile. Only grinned, softly.

Just a little.

Maybe, he wasn't as bad as she'd thought.


"Y-you can't come with me!"

Felicite stopped right at the doorstep of the barred door and gave the hunchbacked Lord a surprised look.

"I-It's too dangerous! If a-any of my...siblings sees you, you're done!" Moreau fumbled nervously with the edges of his cloak, his uneasiness catching his companion aback for the first time since she came to know him because, unlike all the other times, now it wasn't directed at her and how she would react to the news. He was too preoccupied being all fidgety about the prospect of someone finding out about her existence, to feel anxious about upsetting her for trying to keep her away. It was the underlying determination of the Lord to keep her safe, that overpowered his usual worry about the possible negative effect anything he said or did would have on the snake.

It was this very determination that had Felicite lowering her head, folding her hood in, and looking up at him pleadingly through half-lidded eyes.

"F-Felicite, I...you...must stay h-hidden." It wasn't the first time Moreau had to look down at her instead of up. Felicite had learned pretty soon that if she wanted to encourage him in any way, she'd have to appear less intimidating, even try to look more vulnerable than him. And she adopted that technique without question. It was a first, however, that the fish-man seemed keen on not giving into her.

A low moan rumbled in the back of her throat.

"Felicite...p-please..." he said, expression cracking from the effort.

She stared at him for a couple more seconds before she exhaled deeply from her nostrils and rose back up. But even though she decided not to push him more, she still regarded the dark, underground hallway stretching ahead of them with suspicion. That whole situation made her a nervous wreck. Everything seemed off about this; Moreau's anxious demeanor after that phone call, his clearly misplaced excitement as he waited for the right time to leave the reservoir for the meeting, the confusing mix of happiness and dread he emanated from that morning till now, the fact that, from her understanding, he had to enter castle Dimitrescu from a back entrance, not even the servants used...

Not to mention the aura and smells coming out of those dark halls, that reminded Felicite more of a dungeon than a castle entrance.

Apparently, Moreau noticed how her colorful eyes darted around the room because he closed the space between them and boldly reached a hand out to stroke her long neck. "Th-there is nothing to...worry about. Mother wants us to...have a family dinner a-and after that I will...come back to the-"

The Lord didn't get to finish his sentence as Felicite's hood shot open and her tongue flicked out of her mouth a second time to confirm what had set her on edge.

"Moreau?!"

Both their heads snapped towards the small path and Moreau couldn't help but gurgle at the sight of a familiar hammer peaking out from between the trees.

"Felicite, go-" the Lord's words died in his throat when he turned to see an empty space beside him and the snake nowhere to be found. Somehow, that relieved and unnerved him at the same time. He had no time to dwell on it, though, as the tall figure of the fourth Lord approached.

"Thought I heard someone retching around here." drawled Heisenberg, coming to stand a solid three feet away from the less-than-pleasant smelling Lord. Taking the cigar from his lips, he blew a heavy could of smoke towards his brother. "Who anosmic fella were you talking to?"

"N-N-No one!" Moreau rushed to say, panicking in his effort to find a good excuse. "I-I was just..."

"Ha! I knew you were the type to be talking to yourself. Still, I didn't think I'd witness it firsthand..." laughed the metal Lord, smirking toothily.

Moreau lowered his head. "P-Please don't laugh at me... It's n-not..."

From the darkness of the underground hallway, two large, bright eyes stared right at him. His words died in his throat, his mouth became dry.

"You're certainly running late, fish pimp. Why aren't you in the castle already, waiting to welcome Mother dearest?"

The glint of sharp, long teeth forming into a snarl shone behind the taller man's back at his mocking tone.

Moreau's anxiety came out along with the contents of his stomach.

"HEY!" Heisenberg jumped away with a mixture of alarm and disgust. "Watch where you dump this shit!"

"S-S-Sorry sorry..." the poor Lord mumbled, futilely trying to wipe his mouth on his sleeve.

"Ugh, I don't have time for this crap..." complained the metal Lord, turning his back on the other man and making his way inside the dark hallway. Seeing that, Moreau's anxiety increased tenfold, however, his urgency proved to be greater as he hurried to catch up to his brother, repressing the need to vomit a second time.

"W-W-Wait! The entrance is...not that way!"

"No shit." he deadpanned, flicking his cigar on the floor, under the first of many lined-up torches, and stomping on it as he passed.

"B-but why-"

"So long as you stay ten feet behind, I couldn't care less about going all the way to the front door." In truth, he had been drawn away from his destination by the other Lord's mumbling and now he didn't want to risk being even later just to go back the usual way. Best not have a displeased Miranda on him. "And anyway, why would I pass up the opportunity to get mud all over Treetop's carpets?" he chuckled, making sure to walk through a shallow puddle as he went.

Normally, Moreau would have made a comment about that, but he was too busy following the faint light of Felicite's eyes in the dark, his webbed fingers twitching with every silent movement she made as she kept up with them. The Lord could only hope that they would make it to the stairs leading up to the ground floor before his brother noticed anything. He had already started to get his hopes up when his blurry eyes spotted the harsh light of the stone staircase illuminating the end of the hallway in the distance.

"You're awfully quiet."

"Huh?"

Moreau nearly stumbled over his feet in his attempt to stop. Heisenberg had turned around too fast and the way he was glaring at him only amplified the dread that spread inside him.

"You're being weirder than usual." he stated, narrowing his eyes in suspicion. "What are you hiding?"

"N-Nothing!"

"Stupid answer, as expected." The evenness in Heisenberg's tone did the opposite of calming down Moreau. Despite what his siblings believed, he wasn't mentally incapable enough to not understand a masked threat.

A low snarl echoed from the surrounding darkness.

Apparently, he wasn't the only one that understood.

Both men whipped their heads in the direction of the snarl with varying reactions painted on their faces. One was alert and baffled. The other was terrified and visibly sweating.

Slowly, agonizingly so, Heisenberg began approaching the darkness. The hammer slipped from his shoulders to his side, at the ready.

Moreau made to reach out in a panic. "Brother-!"

A second shrill snarl sounded before a chain from behind the Lords soared over their heads and into the dark. There was a metallic thump and a growl of pain. From the depths of the underground hallway, two cloaked zombies fell on the illuminated floor, growling and snarling in protest. Around their skeletal limbs was the chain Heisenberg had sent, tightly wrapped to the point of suffocation.

"Strange." the Metal Lord huffed, nudging one of the monsters with his boot for the fun of it. "The Moroaice have never looked for a fight before."

Moreau forced his mouth to form words. "M-Maybe we stayed for...too long?" He flinched under his brother's penetrating gaze until he was released of it a moment later. He took in a deep, much-needed breath as he watched Heisenberg's back move further and further away.

"Yeah, maybe the overgrown albino got tired of waiting and sent her brain-dead maids to fetch us." he laughed, not waiting for the other Lord to follow him as he finally got to the stairs. Moreau glanced uncertainly from the struggling Moroaice up to the darkness and barely concealed a gurgled gasp when he found Felicite's bright eyes staring at him. She looked annoyed and based on the faint outlines in the dark, was keeping a Moroaic between her jaws that got a firm squeeze from her whenever it moved.

Moreau breathed a sigh of relief and rushed to follow his brother up the stairs, already left behind. He gave one last glance at his friend before he disappeared, which Felicite reciprocated with a concerned expression. Her tail swiftly wrapped around a Moroaic behind her before it had time to swing at her with its sword, squeezed and released abruptly so when the thing fell on the floor, it was a mess of twisted, broken bones.

Spitting the last Moroaic, she slithered out of that place.

With some work of her tongue and the vibrations raking her body, she managed to find the room for the meeting right when the two male Lords entered.

"Heisenberg. Good to see you've decided to grace us with your presence, at last." the woman seated on a velvet duvet commented with a strong voice that carried enough poison Felicite could taste it. Ducking enough to be out of view from the people in the luxurious living room, she watched through the tall window as the two Lords took their seats. Moreau, in particular, sat in a golden-trimmed chair that lacked the red velvet cushions every other chair in the room had. Though he wasn't very far from the others, his seat was placed right beyond the edge of the thick carpet, where the light of the fireplace barely reached his legs.

The snake couldn't hold back a small whimper at his elated expression, happy just to be there.

"You know me, dear sister." Heisenberg replied pointedly, falling on the luscious couch closest to the fireplace and staring smugly at the tall woman seated close to the very top of the carpet. "Gotta keep the best for last."

"Ha! Hardly." she mocked. Taking a draw from her cigarette holder, she cast a look at the other end of the carpet to the left. "It would be for the best, however, to correct this habit of yours as soon as possible. Apparently, your tendency to be rudely late is contagious."

Moreau shrank under her disapproval, attempting to mumble an apology that fell on deaf ears as she turned back to the bigger nuisance in the room. "At the very least, we can be relieved that you only seem to affect the ones of inferior intelligence."

Heisenberg placed the head of his hammer purposefully on the expensive carpet, making the Lady of the castle draw her crimson lips into a snarl before he even began to form words. "Better keep your distance then. Would be a shame if you caught something of mine."

"Ooohohohoho! You've done it now!" a shrill voice interjected from the lap of the black-veiled woman sitting on the other side of the couch. Even Moreau had started chuckling at his siblings' spectacle.

"You insolent, good for nothing-!"

"That is enough." The whole room went silent and everyone's attention moved to the dark-feathered woman sitting at the center of the carpet's top. Felicite instinctively bared her teeth. "Now that all of my children are gathered, it is time to discuss the upcoming festival. I trust plans for the preparations have been made?"

"Of course, Mother Miranda." replied the tall woman, squaring her shoulders with pride. "The necessary chores and guidelines will be announced to the village first thing in the morning."

"As per usual, you are expected to discuss the matter thoroughly with Heisenberg so as to avoid any last-minute setups. "Mother Miranda turned to address the Metal Lord. "I want you to keep a watchful eye out for anything out of the ordinary while overseeing the preparations, my son. Outsiders tend to explore the mountains this time of year."

The man nodded with a smirk below his dark shades. "They won't be exploring around here."

"Donna, how was the clothing demand this year?"

The doll dressed in a bridal dress bounced excitedly on the veiled woman's lap. "Very demanding! So many dresses, so much sewing! We still haven't finished the last order for the fatty merchant!"

"How many orders for minors?" Miranda asked without skipping a beat. The veil moved so slightly, it was almost unnoticeable.

"Oh, there were so many of them! Lots and lots of playmates!" the doll responded, clapping her wooden hands with joy that felt misplaced in the room.

Miranda hummed in approval. "Very good."

"Mother Miranda?"

Felicite could feel his cringe in her bones as every pair of eyes in the living room fell on him. And though he struggled under the gazes at first, he managed to focus his attention on Miranda and overcome his nervousness.

"I-I brought something special for...this year's festival." As he spoke, he reached inside his cloak and brought out a simple carton box, wrinkled and bent at one edge, held together by a piece of cord tied carefully into a neat, little bow. He didn't register the mocking snort from the other man in the room. "I thought D-Donna could use it to... make a dress for Alcina."

"No no, she's too busy!" the doll hurried to say, not bothering to be polite about it.

"I have already given my order to Donna." added the tall lady, Alcina, throwing him a demeaning look. "Besides, what could you possibly possess that I would desire?"

"W-Well..." Moreau turned his eyes downcast, more so to avoid facing Alcina than to pay attention to how he was opening the box. Carefully grasping his gift, he raised it high for everyone to see. The doll's wooden jaw fell slack.

"I know blue is not one of...your preferable colors, b-but I assumed you'd like something sparkly."

Among the widened eyes in the room, a gloved hand reached to push down the shades concealing the Lord's view.

Felicite was filled with uncertainty, even with the relatively positive reactions in the room. She had doubts about this from the beginning, from the moment Moreau had touched the length of her shed skin that morning. Now, watching her friend display the transparent, sparkling blue skin to his family with pride on his face, her hood folded in on her head in regret of not refusing him. Regret for going along with his plan just to please him.

Lady Dimitrescu breathed her next words. "What is..."

"Where did you find such a pretty thing, Stinky?" again the doll interrupted, only this time she jumped off the couch and rushed to grab the skin that was pooling around Moreau's chair. "I want one too! Where did you get this? The Duke?"

The Lord stayed silent for a few moments before he answered. "There are... rare fish in the reservoir, with shiny scales-"

The doll leaped back as if she had been close to a fire. "This is from fish skin?! EW! Ew ew ew ew!" Running back to her owner, she climbed on the woman's lap once again and proceeded to furiously wipe her wooden palms on her white skirts.

"Hah." Heisenberg pushed his shades up again and laid back on the couch once more. "And here I thought the only gift you would consider to give would be caviar you shitted after some cheese-gone-bad incident."

"Keep your filthy inside your big mouth, Heisenberg!" snarled Dimitrescu in disgust.

Felicite pushed herself away from the window when the Lady's eyes momentarily flickered to it. With the sorrow and worry washing over her, the snake wanted nothing more than to crash through the glass and take her friend away from those cruel people, the family that cared not about hurting his feelings. He had been so excited, so sure of his plan to present her skin as a gift to one of his siblings. A little something which, even if not his, would still be a form of contribution to his family. After many years of one failure replacing the other, constantly trying futilely to make Mother Miranda proud of him and his siblings respect him, this seemingly plain act would have been his chance to participate in something everyone but him did. An opportunity for him to finally be included. Not by the sidelines, or in the background like a speck of dust on a portrait, but as a true part of the picture.

She knew, he had told her so. It had been his reasoning for wishing to use her shed skin.

And though she had her doubts even now, he had convinced her that there had been a chance. Maybe there still was. Despite the bad feeling that was growing in her stomach, she had witnessed the impression, the awe on their faces. And that awe remained, even after the hurtful comments were thrown at him. He had been hopeful about it and she had silently promised to support him.

So, she left the castle, still supporting him without needing to eavesdrop anymore. There was a chance for him, truly.

When she returned to the mines deep into the night, slipping through the window of his waterlogged shack, she saw him sitting in front of his TV and she knew.

There was no chance. There had never been.

"They laughed." he murmured as she approached him, fumbling with the dirty, tear-sporting skin.

Felicite moaned softly. Apologetically.

"Alcina took it but... when I was leaving, I saw it among a pile of waste." She whined now, her clawed hand wrapping gently around his arm. "Mother didn't think of s-something I could do to... help with the preparations."

She lowered her face right by his hands but he still wouldn't look at her.

"I requested that I-I don't attend." Finally, he turned his eyes to her. If possible, they were sadder than his voice. "I figured I could...at least spend the day with you."

A questioning sound left her mouth as he turned away once more. Was he afraid to show sadness? Disappointment?

She wasn't sure. She doubted it.

"Mother Miranda refused it. She said all of the Lords should attend... But I know the others didn't like it, I know they don't agree... Angie kept complaining about it. Heisenberg said I was better off here than there."

Felicite wrapped her long arms around his frame and placed her chin atop his head, wanting to will back the tremble that had entered his speech.

"I know they were being cruel...b-but this time, I agreed. I am better off here t-than there. But, I'm not allowed to stay behind." His smaller arms wrapped around her humanoid waist and she wrapped her coils around the both of them for reassurance and comfort. And she held onto him for the remainder of the night, silently agreeing with him.

"I-It's... not fair."


I cannot believe how long it's been... Got nothing much to say, really, except for thanking Auburn4000, Aviantei, Dumi Pear and Fan-Natic for reviewing and keeping me motivated, even after so long!