Their disgusting forms rose quickly from the cobblestones, bloodied and burned, twisted in death and given second life. Charred flesh and stained armor, vacant stares and grasping hands, hands that looked like claws. Claws covered in matted fur and someone else's sinew, their faces all turned on him hungrily, eyes like the burning hot coals of the Woman who'd marked him:
"Hypocrite! Who's the real monster—"
Caius hissed, startling himself awake from yet another nightmare. All of Zi'da had been full of them, twisted by the first mage execution and made more vivid by Syroa's strange blessing’s abilities. As if the northern noble didn't have enough trouble sleeping after well over a decade of insomnia, he'd been haunted, hounded, and pursued by ashes and bodies since the end of Vhalar. His heart hammered in his scarred chest, desperate to pound its way past the ice-like mark that traced across it, and the lingering faces hovered just outside of his vision in the Cylus darkness that filled his upstairs bedroom like a tangible creature all its own.
He wasn't going back to sleep now, that was for sarding sure.
Glancing over at the pale, slumbering woman next to him, the young Gawyne sighed with envy, watching Darcyanna breathe calmly and feeling the comforting warmth of her proximity. Blinking heavily, Caius guessed he'd only been asleep for less than three breaks, probably closer to two if the still-bright embers in the fire were any indication, and the wear of his restlessness was already thinning his sanity. He laid still for a few bits, attempting to push away the gore that blighted his dreams, only to give up and slide from the covers, disturbing Smudge with the motion of his bare feet.
The little grey dog opened one eye and wheezed, watching his master fumble in the dark for his pants, tugging them on begrudgingly while he attempted to tame his wild, terrified dream remnants that clung like dried blood to the back of his mind. For a moment, Smudge's nub of a tail wagged as if perhaps the break was upon them that he could go out, but the northern noble only patted him on the head before shuffling away, moving to glance out the curtains of the window that brought moonlight into their upstairs bedroom.
He saw it then, a flicker of a shadow—movement on the rooftops just a stone's throw from his home.
For a moment, his breath caught in his throat—was he still dreaming or was he awake? Looking again, ink-stained fingers parting the curtains just a little bit more even as the halls of his veins burned with fear, he saw one last figure, hooded and armed, drop from a rooftop and down into an alley. Unmistakably real and human-shaped, Caius was no longer dreaming. The rush of hot fear set the tempo of his pulse racing, and he slipped quickly away from the window to the bed, snatching his shirt from its inelegant place the floor as he did so,
he whispered furtively as he dressed, worried he'd seen their last sight flicker by like spirits of his ancestors, thoughts of Pythera or vengeful mages or worse filling his already nightmare-fueled mind, "Darcyanna, wake up. I saw things. Something's happening—"
It was then that the alarm bells started ringing through the city, loud and clear in the frigid late Cylus air, especially at the quiet break in Mid-Town just a handful more before dawn. Smudge panicked, awake, barking and whining, before disappearing under the bed,
"—Seven help us."
At least whatever was happening wasn't just aimed at them, and for some reason that knowledge filled him with a tiny sliver of selfish relief that was quickly drowned by waves of pure, mind-altering terror: what else could be happening? Had the Seekers returned? Was there a hungry peasant uprising? The Sessfiend Nolan? More rebellion? Bogs.
Caius waited for his delicate pianist to rouse from slumber at the noise, gathering her clothes as well and setting them on the foot of the bed. He flitted about the room like the terrified animal the alarm bells had made him, pausing in front of Darcy once she sat up to take her hands in his,
"I'd tell you to stay here, but there's no way this side of the Eternal Kingdom you'll listen to that this trill, I'm sure. Besides, we're better off together—we've learned that much. Let's get to the Crown. We'll be safe in the Mantis barracks. I can protect us better there."
That was that, really, and the young Gawyne finished slipping on his boots hastily before he tightened the fastenings of his brigandine, the leather and cloth padded armored tunic something he’d taken to wearing more often for protection when working for the Crown. He fastened his ash-colored cloak that was his uniform of sorts before opening the door to peer cautiously, silently into the stairwell, making sure no one was waiting for them if only because he couldn't shake the lingering fear of the threats of the Butcher of Warrick, let alone the haunting visions of his own past experiences. Sharp blue eyes saw nothing, no sign of movement, and so once he’d locked their door, he drew his saber with one hand and tangled his ink-stained fingers with Darcy’s with the other,
“Normally, we’d take the back way, but the main roads seem best. I saw hooded figures on the rooftops and in the alley.”
Caius whispered, leading them down their stairs and out into the quiet, rather quaint street their rented home shared with several other stone and plaster homes just like theirs. A few homes down, the sounds of crying could be heard above the bells, the sound of alarm having woken children and parents alike. A few people milled in confusion in the street in various states of dress, some still in their nightclothes. The northern noble met their worried gazes, aware that a few of them knew who he was,
“Stay in your homes.”
The Lord Arbiter spoke with a nervous, unpracticed authority, not wanting to see anyone get hurt if there was violence in the streets, “I’m sure the Iron Hand will soon have things under control.”
Whatever those things
With that, he made their way through the maze-like side streets, eager for the flickering street lights of a main thoroughfare instead of the heavy darkness of their neighborhood in Cylus, the young Gawyne’s silvery gaze sweeping the black of any sign of danger, desperately discarding his fear and panic in order to stay focused on protecting them both. It was just as the ruddy glow of one of the main roads toward the Crown came into view from their shadowed side street that he heard the noise of swift feet, grip tightening on his saber as he pressed them both against the uneven stones of a quiet home, their backs against the building as he squinted in the darkness, furtive whispers following another pair of heavier footfalls. There were people coming, but he couldn’t yet make out their conversation. Not hearing the sound of armor, Caius knew they weren’t knights or the Hand, which caused a molten heat to fill the cavity of his chest, body tensing in preparation to leap out at whoever came in combat, ready to leap out and stop them from the darkness, and Darcy could feel him slowly release her hand after one last reassuring squeeze.
As the footsteps got louder, something strange happened. Something in the darkness flickered and moved, small and glowing an orange-red. A flash of teeth from a twisted maw, the shapeless creature scampered down the alley ahead of the voices and the footsteps. Caius knew the color, knew the glow, and his breath burned in his lungs as it got caught in them, panic and fear filling his every thought before the glow disappeared and calloused, quiet laughter rang out in the alley,
“Shut yer head. Yer gonna get us found.”
Growled the first voice, barely a whisper.
“Who fekkin’ cares? I can take another guard ‘r two t’night if they want s’more.”
Bragged the second, barely a hiss.
Forcing himself back into focus, the two hooded men that rushed through the side street were obviously too absorbed with each other to notice the two nobles right away, and the young Gawyne was eager to take advantage of that, tossing himself into the middle of the street and raising his weapon,
“Stop in the name of the Crown!”
Caius shouted above the rush of his pulse in his ears, only to see the pair of figures stop, both of them laughing wickedly, unafraid. In a surprise move, just as the northern noble shifted his stance and leveled his blade at the chest of the closer hooded figure, the other one turned and took off running back down the narrow, dark street the way they came, probably for reinforcements, quick and agile over the icy cobblestones. The one that remained, however, drew a blade of his own and snickered,
“Fuck th’ Crown. We’re th’ real power in Rynmere.”