The Devil You Know
There was an old saying among the old timers. Better the devil you know, than the devil you don't. But after everything that he'd witnessed or even played some part in, Creed Ruloffsen had become convinced that the reverse, in this case, might just be the truer of two options. Now, during this winter of 1943, well within the occupied, newly expanded territory of Sirothelle, the high ranking Ember officer was rolling the dice, and putting that theory to test.
To turn back now meant certain death by firing squad. That's how the Embers dealt with their traitors. A public execution carried out in a crowded square was the most likely option, in order to make a public example out of him. That was the extent of his betrayal. Everything they needed to convict him; though a trial was just a formality for public consumption; he was carrying with him in the form of documents, missives, ciphers and photographs.
But if turning back was suicide, the path forward, towards those forces beyond the border with their eye on invasion, assassination or sabotage, was just as deadly a gambit. No question they'd be waiting for him, for better or worse. But then they could as easily shoot or hang him for war crimes as Valtharn would. What Creed carried with him was a temporary life insurance policy, a reason for them not to shoot first and ask questions later. No matter what deals had been made, the policy would expire the second he handed over all that he'd promised them.
The run for the border, mostly under the cover of darkness and begun a handful of trials earlier, was in itself a recent betrayal of Sirothelle, and of Valtharn herself. But the real betrayal had begun the moment he'd signed his name on the dotted line, had sworn the oath and had slipped on the uniform. And now, he only had to stay alive long enough to make the betrayal complete.
The Birth of a Traitor
For as long as Creed Ruloffsen could remember, he'd been different. Different wasn't a good thing to be, in or near Sirothelle. His parents and older siblings had done all they could to discourage his active imagination, lust for adventure and his curiosity about the world outside of Sirothelle, which most in those parts did not consider to be useful or even desirable. The distaste for the outside world had almost certainly been forged by the aftermath of the First Great War; that came with shortages, severe rationing and a wounded economy.
The boy learned quickly to keep his contrary inclinations to himself. His fascination with ancient history and obsolete religious beliefs and practices that Creed couldn't help but feel strangely connected to. Almost as if he'd lived through those things and interacted with those beings face to face.
Then there were the dreams. Vivid, immersive, beyond the ordinary. For as long as he could remember, in his dreams, Creed walked in places that when he woke, he was sure he had walked in before. No matter how impossible it seemed. But he was never a boy in his dreams. Always a man. An older version of himself, if somewhat unkempt and without discipline. Lifting swords against foes and beasts that he'd only read about in books that his parents said were nothing but made up nonsense. Sailing the vast oceans, dropping anchor in harbors, beside great cities that he could find on a map, but only dreamed about visiting.
There were other more modern seeming dreams. One that particularly plagued him was of an explosion during what must have been the First Great War. One trill he was that scruffy grown man setting a timer while perched high upon a bridge rail somewhere near Sirothelle. The next, a woman's voice called out for him to get down and take care, and then....Boom!
He always woke with a start, in a sweat when it happened, bright, white flashes of light before his eyes and then...nothing.
But as soon as he drifted back to sleep, a being larger than life was there to greet him. Tall and muscled, wild and adventurous looking with tokens strung round his neck and woven into his braids. "Well then,"
the man would say to him. "That went badly didn't it? I think we'll give you another go. See how it turns out next time, son."
The Immortal Cassion. Somehow, Creed knew it and even stranger, he felt a connection much more complete than he did with his own earthly father. Not that he'd ever dared to say it. Some things were better kept to oneself.
But the single constant was a woman. A beautiful woman with a fair complexion, freckles across the bridge of her nose, curious eyes that shifted in color and a crown of wild, glorious red hair. She was a presence that that would invade each and every dream as he grew into a man, for good or bad, and her image was one that both fascinated and haunted him.
An unusual boy, and one more likely to battle the tide than not. Those who'd known Creed Roluffsen from his childhood onward, would never be able to say they were shocked by what he'd ultimately done. In fact, some of them might swear that in retrospect, they'd seen it coming all along.
Rising in the Ranks
From the moment the Embers appeared on the scene and began their rise to power, the Roluffsen family, all of them save one, became true believers. Truth, hope and patriotism, for them, dripped like honey from Valtharn's lips. Naturally, being human, they were among the chosen ones. So why not? Only Creed, the youngest of three sons, looked on with a dark sense of dread as his fellow citizens became trapped in a trance-like state.
Not that he dared allow his parents, or anyone
for that matter, to know how it all repelled him. It was as if there was a ticklingl deep in his subconscious: We've been here before, tyrants and monsters have been and will always be a silver a dozen. It was a dark foreboding he couldn't quite shake, even when his older brothers rushed to join up and his parents looked on proudly. They were the chosen ones. But Creed understood that for every chosen one, there were those who were not
He'd considered leaving home. He'd even thought of joining those who were already coming together in opposition. But something compelled him to stay, and to do
something. Something Creed couldn't begin to fathom back then. But more and more frequently, the wild Immortal who'd called him son
would appear in his dreams each night. "This is your chance,"
he'd say. "What a grand adventure it will be."
And so a plan began to take shape. One so dangerous that it boggled the mind. But then Creed had begun to sense that somehow, he'd been in the world before, and had never gone at anything in half measures. It might even have been the death of him once, and might be again. As soon as he came of age, he made his mother and father proud by joining the Embers and starting his rise through the ranks.
Creed was a exemplary soldier, and an excellent marksman. He was liked by his fellow enlisted men, and later, by his fellow officers. Whatever his assignment, he applied himself so diligently that he was sure to gain the notice and approval of those higher up. It was a dangerous game he was playing; a long
game. But once started, there was no going back.
A Plum Assignment
The trial that he'd finally reached the rank and position he'd been working to achieve all of those arcs, was the only time that Creed had ever paused to reconsider his plan of action. Maybe it wasn't too late. He hadn't done anything yet, mostly, that could be called treason. He'd been careful, only reproducing or altering documents and missives that wouldn't be missed or traced back to him.
He could become a model officer in earnest, perform his duties without question, and retire a peaceful life without the specter of certain death looming over him. But by then, Creed had seen too much. Too many crimes, too many atrocities. He'd even taken part in a few, though he'd done his best to minimize his involvement. But to remove himself from those things absolutely, would be to attract suspicion and a quick end to his plans. The only way he could live with himself now was to carry on as planned, so that the good he did in the long run might overshadow the bad.
So when offered a position at Valtharn's side, as head of her personal security detail, outwardly he was proud and humbled by the promotion. Privately, it disgusted him. But he also knew that finally, he'd be able to play a small part in ending it all.
He'd worked hard to keep his record a spotless one and as a result, Valtharn was inclined to trust him. He accompanied her everywhere, along with the men he commanded. His family had never been prouder. Private gatherings and public dinners, speeches for the masses, journeys in lines of cars and trucks along the roads of Sirothelle from one place to another. He was always there. Where mass rallies were organized and televised, he was there at her side. By then, the opposition would have become familiar with his face as someone in Valtharn's tight circle, for better or worse.
He was, in fact, close enough to have killed Valtharn himself. He might get away with it. But Creed understood something important. Valtharn inspired others to follow and to believe. She was good at it. But so were others. It wasn't the woman so much as what she represented. In a sense, Valtharn was a figurehead. Cut her down, another would spring up to take her place. To bring down the Embers for good, Sirothelle itself had to fall.
As Valtharn's head of security, Creed was in the position of viewing every document that passed to her or her staff from elsewhere. It meant that every letter, every map, photograph, every note about every moment and gathering, movements of troops, passed through his hands.
The game had become even more dangerous. But Creed had connections of his own. There were precious few that he could trust, those of like sentiment. And they were invaluable to him. He'd managed to get hold of a small camera. So small that it fit neatly in the palm of his hand. With that camera, he recorded every scrap of paper, every map and every photograph that crossed his desk. Later, he'd pass the film off to one of his contacts, and there, the journey into the hands of Sirothelle's enemies would begin.
He didn't know at first whether his efforts were successful or not. Not until one trial on the road, when an official caravan was ambushed from the treeline. At just that bend in the road that he'd made note of in one of his missives. It was a failed attempt on Valtharn's life, since at the last minute she'd chosen to travel in a different car than her usual. But there'd been a lot of damage and a number of officers killed. The enemy had seemed to go out of their way to avoid killing him. Though he'd been wounded, a flesh wound to the shoulder. He'd wondered if it had been deliberate. A way to avoid him coming under suspicion, should he be the only one to emerge without a scratch.
After that, he doubled his efforts as the war itself seemed to rage more furiously than ever before. It was necessary, but on the other hand, it made it all the more likely that sooner rather than later, his position would be compromised. It was inevitable and he knew he'd be forced to flee towards the border, and straight into what Sirothelle considered to be enemy territory. He had to be careful, to avoid waiting too long. Should others become suspicious enough to arrest him, it would be too late. And yet he needed an insurance policy for himself. Something so valuable to the allies that they'd rather him alive than dead.
It was a tricky balance and the timing was so critical and fragile that he came too close for comfort to losing his opportunity. But he'd gathered what he could, sent off a message and a request through one of his contacts, and prayed that it got there in time. Otherwise, he'd arrive at a location of his own choosing, only to discover he was on his own. He'd be at the mercy of the Embers and Valtharn's fury at being betrayed by one of those closest to her.
Creed left his home in the middle of the night. He'd rolled his officer's uniform into a tight bundle and stored it at the bottom of his leather sack, and opted for clothing more usually worn by common laborers. He slipped out onto a dark abandoned street, under a moonless sky, and began the long walk, through narrow alleyways and abandoned, ruined courtyards, towards the outskirts of Sirothelle City. In four trials, it would be Ziellmas Eve. Just four short trials to reach his destination in time.
He'd chosen Ziellmas Eve, having decided that if there was ever a night to go undetected at such a critical point in the journey, that one was it. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement among all combatants, that on that night, the killing would cease and all men would be of good cheer. As if it somehow redeemed all the killing and murderous mayhem of previous trials and arcs, and all that which came after.
But in the meantime, he'd be a man hunted with soldiers, guns and dogs. His fate at the hands of Sirothelle's enemies was just as unsure. But Creed could do nothing else but hope, and put his faith in the promises of others who might or might not have any interest in his long term survival.
The Ziellmas Miracles
The distance that Creed needed to travel in just four trials was troublesome. He'd had no choice. His departure from Sirothelle City had been delayed by a full trial. He'd already managed to attract the attention of the authorities, and their suspicion. They'd been watching him more closely than ever. It was only by chance that between one streetside observer and the next, there'd been a gap of ten bits or so. It was the only chance he'd get, and he'd taken it.
It was a journey that would have been difficult on foot under ordinary circumstances, even had Sirothelle not been at war. The terrain was marked by thick forests, deep rises and falls and fast moving rivers. And it was the dead of winter. The landscape was one miserable, endless sheet of windblown ice. It would take a miracle to get him to his destination on time, and another one to stop them shooting him on sight.
He stuck to wildlife trails through the wooded areas, or sometimes the narrow, back country roads. Creed avoided the main roads at all costs, even the smallest of villages or places where people tended to gather. By slipping out of the city undetected, he might have bought himself eight breaks or so before they'd have noticed he was gone. At best. But by first light, they'd have sounded the alarm. They'd have searched the city first, but eventually there'd be soldiers patrolling the roads and the countryside. They'd know by now as well, the extent of what he was carrying with him.
It was mid-morning when he realized, deep in the woods, that he was being followed. Much of what he'd been, Creed had left behind. But he wasn't stupid, and had brought his firearm with him. When he'd stopped in his tracks and turned on his heel, it was with his handgun at the ready. But what he saw there wasn't a man at all. It was a dog. A large one, the likes of which had been used to keep order on the streets, on the railway platforms and in the camps. The animal looked as if he too had been traveling for some time. Creed shook his head and put the weapon away. "You shouldn't be sneaking around like that. I've shot lesser than you without a thought. Deserting?"
he asked. "Can't blame you. Get out while the getting is good."
It was only then, when the dog tilted its head and its tongue lolled out, almost as if it was smiling, that Creed noticed the homespun collar the animal wore. Woven leather, strung with beads and polished stones, their centers worn through on a riverbed. And it struck him. Images of the Immortal Cassion in his dreams, the man who'd called him 'son'. Those were the things woven into his braids. Creed was still staring in confused wonder when the dog rose up off it's haunches again and sauntered past him. As if to say, follow me
. And when Creed turned, he spied an old beaver felt hat that had been snagged and left behind on a branch, at some point or another. It made no sense. Not the dog, not the collar, and not the hat, which fit as if he'd worn it for all or most of his life. And yet, all three things sparked something that was just out of reach. Some memory that wasn't his, and yet felt completely familiar.
At any rate, it was good to have company, and the dog seemed somehow to know where he'd been going all along.
Few people were as familiar with Sirothelle's train schedules as Creed Ruloffsen was. He'd rather not the reasons why, but in this case that knowledge was critical to his escape. There was a time, before joining Valtharn's security detail, that he'd been assigned to overseeing the boarding of the trains that carried the undesirables to their final destinations. Not that they knew it in the beginning, and he'd been part of the lie that convinced them there was nothing to fear. At first, he was as ignorant as them. But once he'd learned the truth...It was the nightmares that kept him awake at night. He might have fled Sirothelle then. But instead, he'd resolved to work harder than ever to help end it, no matter how small his part.
By mid-afternoon, he was nearing the location where he knew a train would pass through. The trains were always on time. At the beginning of a steep rise, the conductor would be forced to slow the train down and by Creed's calculations, it would be just slow enough if he timed things correctly. "Sorry pal,"
he said to the dog as he crouched down behind a row of hedges and waited while the train began rumbling through. "I'm going it alone from here."
Strangely, instead of waiting by his side, or later, trying to run and keep up, the dog simply let out a single woof
, wagged it's tail and trotted off through the trees without him.
There was no time to reason why the dog had left him so easily. It was now or never and as the train's last car, a cattle car filled with humanity began to pass by, Creed leaped to his feet and made a run for it. What a sight he must have been. Someone trying to get onto
a train headed for a camp near the border, rather than running away. Dozens of sunken and miserable eyes observed him in wonder as he ran to catch up and jumped on, clinging tightly and pressed against the back panel. Desperate hands reached through, grasping onto his clothing, both trying to keep him in place, and pleading for help.
He'd only planned to jump on, then make his way along the sides in search of an open cargo container to hide himself in. After all, the train was heading in just that direction he needed to go. What Creed did next, however, had never been planned. It was impulsive, and possibly foolish. But he knew their fate as well as they did, so before he left them, he pulled the pin loose on the back panel lock. Without it, the gate could easily be pushed open. "When you reach the top of the rise, the train will slow down. Now or never. It's the only chance you'll get,"
he told those who were standing closest to him, and then he left them to it. By his calculations, as long as he wasn't discovered or forced to bail early, he could remain hidden on the train through the night. All the more ground covered that way, and finally he'd be able to rest.
It wasn't a comfortable way to travel. Creed couldn't risk sliding the cargo door shut. Someone would notice and sound the alarm. It was cold, windy, miserable even as the frozen countryside raced by. But it was better than walking the whole night through, out in the elements, and he'd managed to sleep for a break here, another one there. By mid-morning into the second trial, he'd traveled a great deal further than he ever would have on foot.
Up on his feet, he'd leaned out to have a look. He'd have to jump at just the right moment, and hope for the best. The train was approaching the edge of a rise and if he went there, he could quickly roll down the hill and out of sight before he was seen. His timing was impeccable, but unfortunately his form left something to be desired.
As soon as he hit the ground, he landed hard on his feet and never mind the sturdiness of his boots, Creed felt his ankle jar and twist. He hissed through his teeth to stop himself shouting any number of curses aloud, but as if it add insult to injury, the mishap caused a clumsy head over heels tumble downhill, rather than a gracefully controlled roll. At the bottom, a good sized stone was waiting to give him a knock on the head.
It was dawn on the third trial when Creed opened his eyes again. Not in a crumpled heap in the woodlands, as he'd have expected to be. But instead, he was laying in a soft, warm bed, a cozy fire was roaring in a nearby hearth, and the scent of mediocre cooking had invaded his senses. His clothing had been removed and was folded neatly on a chair, and several of his recently acquired wounds had been tended and dressed.
"It's about time you woke up,"
said a woman, who'd been tending something on the stove. She turned round, her eyes fixed on him curiously and wiped her hands on her apron. "It appears you'll live after all."
There was something about that voice. The sound of it instantly struck a chord deep inside of Creed. Mother. But that was impossible. His mother, not this woman, was back in Sirothelle the last that he'd heard. He struggled to sit up, and she scurried to his side.
"Not so fast. You've had a good knock on the head."
It took a few trills for the room to stop spinning, for his vision to clear. Once her face came into focus, Creed's eyes widened in surprise. That face, like the voice, the imitation pearls that she wore round her neck..."I know you,"
he said quietly. She only smiled and tutted, "Don't be silly. You've been out cold for a good trial."
A trial? All that time gone. Temporarily, the sense of odd familiarity gave way to more urgent matters and he began to swing his feet off the edge of the bed. "I have to go. Now,"
he said. As was, he knew he'd never make it in time. Were those who'd be there to meet him, wait? He Creed couldn't take that chance. "You won't get far in that state. You'll get back in that bed while I get something warm in you,"
the woman said and returned to the stove to ladle up a bowl of thin chicken broth. "It's not much, but it will do you good."
Creed was more concerned with getting out on the road again, than about whether he could trust her or not. If she'd wanted to alert the authorities, she'd have done it already. But glancing towards the table nearby, he saw his opened sack. The documents that he'd brought with him were scattered across the table's surface. She knew. Or thought she did.
The woman pushed the bowl into his hands. "If I was going to turn you in, you'd be on trial already."
Creed didn't say anything. Much better not to. "That's risky business there. From what I can tell, you were heading for the border. You're lucky it was that found you. Anyone else, and they wouldn't be wishing you good luck. I'd drive you there myself if my husband's old car wasn't left useless in the shed."
It was midnight when Creed left the little house in the woods, and waved his thanks to and farewell to the woman. She'd insisted he stay for the rest of the trial, to rest, and then leave under the cover of darkness. At first, he'd said that it hardly mattered anymore. He was a dead man either way. There was too little time left to reach his destination on schedule. To make things worse, he'd sprained his ankle after his tumble from the train, and it would slow him down more.
But the impossibly familiar woman, had insisted that he take her old mare from the barn. Peg
, she called the sorrel mare with the shocking blue eyes. Yet again, Creed felt as if he knew the animal and even more strangely, she knew him
. There was no time to reason why, on either account. He'd thanked the woman before saddling up and riding off into the woodlands.
It wasn't long before Creed realized that that the ground he was covering, wasn't on any of his maps. He'd planned so carefully, but hadn't counted on being dragged off the beaten path. More time lost. But as soon as he thought of reining Peg around and doubling back, there was that dog again on the path just in front of him. "How did you..."
he said, but found himself at a loss. It was impossible that the dog could have traveled so far across difficult ground, then found him again just a trial and half later. Yet there he was, barking out a greeting and trotting off down the trail.
By now, Creed had decided that there were some things he'd be better off taking on faith. Too many questions, and no ready answers in sight. So where the dog went, he followed into more familiar surroundings. It would still require a miracle, was he to reach the rendesvous point on time. He'd never believed in things like otherworldy intervention. But with each bit that passed, it was becoming more difficult to maintain a reliable state of non-belief.
If Not for Bad Luck
By Creed's calculations, so long as he could keep Peg on pace, it would take another break and a half, maybe two, to reach the rendezvou point. Not enough time, but it was all he had. But then, for no reason or rhyme, the old mare stopped dead in her tracks. No matter how he nudged and conjoled her, Peg refused to move. His temper had grown short and he dug his heels in and cursed, "Move dammit!"
Peg's retribution was swift and merciless. The mare's eyes rolled back in her head, she pinned her ears and reared up before launching herself into a full bucking fit. Twisting, turning in every direction. Creed Ruloffsen was a seasoned soldier forged in battle. An exemplary officer and an expert marksman. What he was not
was a horseman. In spite of his best efforts, he was unceremoniously tossed from the saddle and dumped onto the thin layer of ice on top of a slow moving stream. As Peg turned tail and bolted for home, the ice cracked, and Creed found himself neck deep in an ice cold drink.
Climbing out required little effort. But he was left soaked to the skin. He knew if he didn't act quick, he'd succumb to the freezing night air in no time at all. There was no other choice. He'd dug into his sack and pulled out the uniform and the boots that he'd sworn he'd never put on again. The risk of being spotted in uniform and easily identified was almost worse than the thought of freezing to death. On top of it, the minutes continued to tick away, along with his chances.
In order to cut what he could off of the rest of the hike, he was forced to take to a dirt road along the rise. His only hope was that it was close to midnight on Ziellmas Eve. Surely the roads would be completely deserted. The world was white all over. He could barely see three feet beyond his nose. But then, the faint sound of an idling engine came from behind, and suddenly, twin headlights came on just as he turned round, and he threw up an arm to stop the glare.
Before he could bolt into the trees, yet another maddeningly familiar voice called out. "Not a fit night for man nor beast. You look like you could use a lift. Climb in the back. The dog too."
From Creed's perspective, he'd just met his savior, or the man who'd drive him to his execution. He could shoot the man and take the truck. But something unexplainable compelled him not to. "It's just a few miles up the road,"
he said while climbing into the back. "I know the way, and you'll get there on time,"
the man with the pipe clenched between his teeth said while slipping the truck back into gear. How could he know? It was impossible and yet something told Creed that it wasn't.
And just as promised, the truck came to a stop at the top of another rise, and the man leaned out the window as Creede and the dog jumped down. That face. He knew that face. Just like the woman, the mare. But "I know you,"
Creed said. "But how?"
The man only chuckled and shrugged. "Maybe it'll come back to you. Name's Jon. Meantime, get going or lose your chance...And son?"
he added just before Creed disappeared into the trees. "I'm proud of you."
Dreams, meet Reality
Just a quarter mile into the hike, the dog that had become a welcome companion over the past few trials, suddenly stopped just behind him. Curious about why now
Creed turned round, only to find that the animal had been transformed. The Immortal from his boyhood dreams, Cassion, stood there in it's place. Oddly, under the circumstances, smiling at him. Creed shook his head in wonder. "You. All this time, I thought you were a figment of my imagination."
The Immortal grinned and let out a laugh from deep in his chest. "I'd have liked that better, had it come from the sweet lips of a pretty girl. But fair enough. I'll take it."
Everything that had happened during his flight from the Embers, the odd and the impossible, came rushing back to him. "Was it you? All of it? How?"
"All you need to know right now,"
the Immortal told him, "is that everything that's happened, every bit of your life, all that you've done has brought you to this moment. But from here, you'll need to go it alone."
The Immortal talked of destiny, but in riddles. "I don't understand."
Cassion said, and then he vanished into the air.
The Devil You Know vs. The Devil You Don't
The time had passed for asking the reasons why, and it was running out fast. Creed sped his pace so much as he dared, and he figured his destination was just a head. A quarter mile, maybe more. He didn't dare give over to relief over caution however, and kept as keen an eye as possible on his surroundings. Winter landscapes in winter however were tricky things, and could hide a multitude of sins. In this case, roughly two dozen of them, half each on opposite sides of the clearing.
The faint, muffled sound of a firearm being primed and readied got his attention quick, and thinking he'd been hunted, caught up with and spotted, the traitor in Ember officer's uniform reached for his pistol, swung it into the direction of interest and crouched low to the ground. And then everything went to ruin and chaos in an instant, while men shouted and bullets flew through the clearing in each direction.
In spite of his first impulse, he hadn't
walked into an ambush created just for him. Instead, he'd strolled right into the middle of a would be skirmish between those he'd betrayed, and those he'd been looking to join. He was wearing his uniform. One side saw an Ember officer. The other saw a traitor. He wouldn't be doing himself a favor by calling out to either of them, Don't shoot! I'm on your side!
So was this
his destiny, the culmination of all of his actions, for most of his life? To reach the end, only to die and be filled with bullet holes courtesy would be friends and foes? The Immortal Cassion seemed to have a fine sense of humor. But surely even for him, this was too much.
He'd rolled out of the way of the worst of it, and found a low hanging shrub to partially conceal himself. Neither side must have expected what he did next. But Creede was the most surprised of all. He'd recognized voices, he was familiar with some of those Embers, the ones that shouted Traitor!
in the thick of it. He'd served side by side with them once. And now, he turned his weapon on them
, and started picking them off, one by one.
And when most of the shooting was over, it was those who'd come from Desnind that won victory that night. What Embers hadn't been killed, had retreated into the forest. And there he was on the ground, shot in the shoulder but alive, and dressed in full Ember regalia right down to the medals pinned to his coat. "Drop your weapon, Ember scum!"
a soldier shouted, the man's rifle focused on Creed's own forehead. He complied. And did the same when getting up on his knees as instructed. Similar, when told to place his hands behind his head. "Don't shoot. My name is Creed Ruloffsen,"
he said. "Ask. They'll tell you I'm meant to be here."
To several of them, the name meant nothing. And hardly a thing more, to know that when he'd fired his own weapon, it had only been Embers he'd shot. "What do we do with him Captain?"
one man asked. "Shoot him,"
the captain replied.
Redemption, or Reckoning
From the moment that he'd put on the uniform and began putting his plans into action, Creed had always known that this moment of truth would come. He would live to witness the fruits of his labor in action. Or he'd die at the end of a rope or the business end of a revolver. Right there in the snowy wilderness of Sirothelle. He'd told himself that whichever the case, there was value, and good, in what he had done. His own survival, or demise, wouldn't change it. And so he'd been prepared for this moment as best he could be. He'd resolved that should it all end this way, then he'd be damned if he begged for his life.
He didn't. When the order to shoot was called, Creed was halfway to expecting that this how it would all end. And just when the muffled click of a firearm's slide reached his ears, a sure sign that he had seconds, if that to get right with his maker, another voice in the mix brought everyone up short. A woman's voice, which at that moment seemed both vaguely familiar, but then, not. At any rate, for the moment, the woman who pulled rank seemed to be the only thing standing between him and a bullet to the head. If temporarily.
The exchange was a fascinating one, which he'd have felt more engaged in, had his own life not been dangling there on the outcome. In the shadows, it was difficult to see her clearly, but she didn't lack spine. The voice alone, or rather more unfamiliar tone of it, told him that she wasn't one to be trifled with. That she was a woman and not a man, didn't give Creed a trill's pause. Not even when she fired a bullet past the nose of his would be assassin. He'd fought beside women on the battlefield a number of times. They were as capable of ruthlessness as well as any man. Under certain conditions, even more so.
But then she shifted in the dim light that reflected off the snow, and from beneath the front of his uniform hat, he could see her more clearly. The eyes....Those eyes. And the braid over her shoulder that was the same as...Something happened then. Something that had seemed inevitable and was only waiting for just the right moment. And apparently, this was that moment, with him still on his knees in the snow, hands raised and clasped behind his head. Memories, emotions, sensations rushed over and filled him. All the things he'd dreamed from the time he was a boy, becoming reality in an instant and overwhelming him. So much so that they dizzied him and he rocked unsteadily on his knees while trying to get to his feet.
It was all too much, and almost as if in a trance, he staggered to his feet, grabbed the leather sack that he'd tossed aside during the skirmish, and stumbled after her, past the men who'd just been robbed of their opportunity to kill him. He followed her at first, just as ordered, but silently as his mind reeled. Faces, names. Nella, mother. Jonas, his earthly father. Cassion, his Immortal father. Even Peg. And the face that had haunted his dreams for as long as he could remember. Was this what the Immortal Cassion had meant? That everything he'd done, and been in spite of all else, was for this moment? They hadn't even made it to transportation yet when he uttered quietly, "Vega?"
She stopped, but didn't turn to look at him. Creed knew that her mind was reeling, trying to sort it all out. He was still caught up in the process as well. She was Vega. And him? He knew now. His name was Arlo. Or at least it had
been, once upon a time.
There they were, standing in the middle of a forest path, still within the dangerous territories of Sirothelle. But those thoughts were miles away at that moment. "You died,"
she said quietly. Died, and she'd had to go on without him, and it changed her. For all intents and purposes, the Vega she'd been once had died with him. Except that Creed realized that just as he'd been reborn, she herself had been forged anew. They were the same, and yet different. Both of them.
Creed said. "I died, and though I didn't know it till now, I was remade. Even now, we're more alike than different."
When she spun round to look at him, he could see the mixed emotions in her swirling eyes. And they arced off of her in reddish gold sparks. She hadn't changed as much as she thought she had. At least if memory served him. "I should have died a dozen times more on the way here. But the fates stepped in at every turn to make sure that I reached you."
Though he hadn't known it, until just a few seconds ago.
"We're different. Both of us. Something tells me that maybe we can resolve those differences together?"
It was a very large ask. She'd either melt into his arms, or she'd punch him for being presumptuous. And just as it always had been, Vega did both. There was a wollop behind the fist, but he caught her soundly and wrapped her up in his arms.
And it was only then that Creed understood. No matter his accomplishments, no matter where life had led him or how he'd gotten here, there'd always been something missing. A hole in his heart or his soul, it's jagged edges worn and dulled by time, distance and an inability to see. Until now when he wrapped his arms around her on this white Ziellmas Eve in enemy territory. Suddenly Creed was whole again, in a way he'd never once been during this lifetime. There were cracks and narrow gaps where the pieces came awkwardly back together again. But Immortals willing, in time, they'd smooth out those edges together.