A forest stood here once, before men crossed the sea and burned it to the ground. For five long years these men lived in the shadow of the horror they had created, all of them clutched by terror at the thought of walking among the stakes that remained of the trees. For five years, the settlers lived on the edge of the withered forest. Tents were replaced with cabins as time went on. And always the shadow of the forest prevented any from entering. Life could have continued in this way, possibly forever. High towers and citadels would have replaced cabins. Walls would have been erected that hid the woods from sight.

But one day, without warning, the sky burst open over the forest, and rain fell upon the land for days. The water cleansed the trees and washed away the soot. This dark mud flowed downhill, into the makeshift town. The sludge blanketed everything, and no matter how hard the women of the town scrubbed and swept, they cold not wipe it from the earth.

The men realized that they could wait no longer. With their heavy hearts guarded against all fear, they gathered on the very edge of the forest, and, together, they began to chop the trees. Though the trees were no longer black with ash, they were sickly and dead, and they rose high above the men’s heads, pricking the sky with their tips.

The ruined wood was carted away, and those first five years stricken from history, the forest blotted from all their original maps. Few care to look for the books that tell the true story, and just as few care to wonder about the city’s name. For their shining city of white, the crown-jewel of the kingdom of men, was named Dedwood, and proved that all things, no matter how good, have their roots in evil.

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“You cannot touch the dying,” Pia told her curtly as the two of them crossed the courtyard later, arms laden with books. When she had divided them into stacks of two, Pia had handed Vetessa the smaller pile and hefted the larger on her own. Her arms trembled, just as they had earlier, and Vetessa wondered at such a delicate creature. Still, she did not seem afraid.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” she asked, as Pia strode up the steps to the sick ward ahead of her. She turned, her hair a glimmering spot of splendor against the bright white walls.

She honestly seemed to consider the question, but in the end she shook her head. “No,” she said, staring down her nose at Vetessa. “Not so much anymore.”

The sick were lined in rows, tucked in blankets on the stiff stone floor. They lay interspersed with the dead, whose blankets had been drawn up over their faces. As the two women walked the narrow aisle between them, a few turned over, moaning pitifully. Pia stared straight ahead, face suddenly as white as the walls rising up around them. Vetessa wondered if she had lied.

“We try to bring them prayer books every day,” she said. Even her voice quavered. “But it’s hard to have them printed fast enough. There are so many new ones every day, and so many—” She choked on her words. “We like to bury them with the books,” she finished quietly, and Vetessa understood her meaning well enough.

“Here,” Pia directed her, and set her own stack down on a small table in the back. Vetessa followed suit. As the walked back down the aisle, she noticed that Pia lifted her skirts so that they would not drag against the ground. Her white ankles peeked out beneath the fabric, and her tiny feet in their pearly slippers. Vetessa glanced away, and the soles of her boots made less than dainty slapping noises as she tread across the ground.

Restlessness was an affliction, and there was a single cure for it. “Partner up,” Gavin called out, and the yard rang with the sound of a hundred men shifting apart.

Lately, morning training had lost its purpose. Once an act of diligence, the clash of swords and eager grappling had been reduced to desperation. Fight each other, prove your strength, and do your best to forget that the only foe you’ve ever met is one that a blade cannot destroy. Words to live by, in their brave new world, which crumbled under its own cruel weight with every gasping, infected breath.

Where Gavin would have once corrected form, advised parry, suggested a wider stance, he let his men have their wildness. He wove between the clashing groups of two as they feel into their own ferocity. There was nothing else to it, as far as he was concerned; all people prayed in different ways.

Swords clanged. Make me stronger. Sand flew. Give me guidance. Men roared. Help me find my better self. A hundred men rustling and slashing in the fresh heat of morning, and all Gavin could hear were all their silent prays, and, as if in answer, the church bells— not the death bells but the ones that announced morning —began to ring.

A woman emerged from the single shadowed corner of the room, to the left of the open doorway where the light from the windows did not reach. Her tunic was wrinkled, but on its breast beamed the same crimson star as on Gavin’s, the four-cornered star of the Guard. All about the room, heads turned so that the people could stare at her as she stepped into the light. Her eyes blinked furiously, adjusting to the sun.

“You do know,” she said, voice dripping with contempt, “Captain Venglory, that the plague cannot be defeated by the thrashings of your sword?”

The congregation erupted, and louder voices from various parts of the room cried out in outrage. “Did you know that she was here?” someone asked. “What does she want?” a woman hissed. And a child, overeager for excitement, climbed to his feet and stood on the seat of the wooden pew. “Is that the witch, Papa?” he squeaked, before his father pulled him down again.

The woman ignored the mutterings and settled her her eyes on Gavin’s face. He seemed speechless, and the sun rushed into fill the empty spaces in the air that his voice had left behind.

“Your concern, Knight, while duly noted, is hardly appropriate for this venue.” Mendis’s voice doused the muttering, but its weakness did not drive away the sun. The room fell silent, and the woman stepped back into the shadows, though th epale outlines of her face could still be seen whenever someone thought to glance back at her. Mendis droned on, with Captain Venglory standing at his side, and though the sermon went on for hours after this, few were listening. The people glanced over their shoulders more often than not.

When the Kingsuffragan finally hushed, and cast the people back out into the street, the sun had nearly set. Only the faintest rays of sunlight crept over the wall that surrounded the city, turning the white walls pink, and then barely inky blue. The suffocating heat had not eased. As people filed out into the church, the woman who had lingered at the back stood in the center of the courtyard at the foot of the stairs. The crowd split and passed around her, ignoring her completely as men and woman hurried their children back home.

She still stood there when Gavin exited the church, and the great door slammed shut behind him at last. Somewhere behind them the bell clanged, and the sun slipped away, and the bright white buildings were cast into darkness. Gavin paused at the top of the stairs.

“Congratulations, Captain,” said the woman. Her words held a smile, though not quite a kind one, and Gavin found his legs, taking the steps two at a time and stalking past her into the night.

“Did you have to make a scene, Vetessa?” he muttered as she fell into step beside him, matching each of his strides with two smaller ones of her own. Her smirk was not pretty, but Gavin did not look. He walked purposefully, putting the church and the bells and the moon behind them as quickly as he could. From afar, they might have looked like comrades.

A man leaned over the ramparts, his back to the city, so swathed in a cloak of midnight blue that he might have been a piece of starless sky. The wind made his cloak flutter aimlessly, and for a moment Vetessa thought that he might fall. His hands reached out, away from her, toward the forest and its inky leaves.

“Michael,” Vetessa called, and he withdrew.

“Tessa,” he said blankly, but he did not turn around. The trees swayed dizzily as she climbed the steps to meet him, stone after stone sinking out of sight below her as the leaves reared up and into view. Twenty feet was a greater distance going down than it was going up, and when she stepped out onto the edge, Vetessa did not look down.

“What do you see?” she asked, and followed Michael’s line of sight out into the wood. What were you reaching for? she really meant.

Michael shrugged. “It’s dark,” he said. “And I’ve got a long, lonely stretch of wall and a long, lonely stretch of time until daybreak. So it looks exactly the same as usual.”

“Then you won’t mind if I’m bitter?” Vetessa sighed. She sunk down against the raised edge of the wall behind her, so that the lights on in the city twinkled at her back. When the wind filled the trees and had them dance like puppets, she closed her eyes. The white stone was cool against the back of her head, though it did not serve to ease her headache. When she breathed in, she could still see the orange light from the pub and the little boy from the church climbing up onto the pew.

“Dare I ask why?” muttered Michael, and he turned his back on her again.

Is that the witch, Papa? Vetessa shook her head. “You know exactly why.”

This time Michael did not respond. Vetessa cracked open and eye to look at him, but all there was to see was the back of his cloak, and the way that the wind never seemed to touch it except at the places where its hem brushed the ground. She sighed and tried to remember when her brother turned so cold. He’s just like me, she thought. And I suppose he has to be. But still she could remember clutching his hand while he cried, the last time that it truly rained, several years ago when the city put their mother in the ground.

Gavin woke because the death bells were late to ring. In the thin piece of night just before the dawn, he lay awake in his bed, staring at the ceiling as the crack of moonlight from his window changed from cool to warm. For the longest time he could not tell what had woken him, since the night was as still and silent, but when the morning light had nearly turned his curtains clear, the bells tolled, and Gavin knew why he was awake.

The bells had tolled every morning for the past three months, just as the night began to slip away. Dedwood had not gone a day without a death since the first few had fallen sick. Don’t touch the dying, he could hear himself saying, and he knew that he would say it just as many times today, as ailing widows clutched their dying children and husbands kiss away their wives. Do not touch the dying, he would urge them, and they would grab and claw and scratch their way toward sickness, and tomorrow morning the death bells would toll again.

But this morning they were late, and their absence from the crisp, cool morning before the sweltering heat of day had been enough to wake him. Gavin had become so used to their sound that silence was disturbing. Life was a state of abnormality. As his feet marked the cold stone floor, Gavin wondered what he would do if people just stopped dying.

“I’m sure that you will let me see her,” she chattered. “You do know that I found her— I’m sure Vetessa told you —and the girl was such a pathetic little thing, screaming and thrashing…” She trailed off, clearly aware of the pitch her voice had taken. The silence in the room was suddenly all the more profound. Mickey wondered what else Gavin had said to her; if he had mentioned how quiet the girl had grown, and how guarded her emotions had become, and even the similarities to Vetessa that still upset him so.

He thought then of what Vetessa had said, about the people’s desperation for a miracle, and their frantic efforts to believe. Pia stared up at him, not wide-eyed but grimly determined. For a fraction of a second, her face changed, beautiful and doe-eyed once again, so that it did not matter that her flaming hair was so constrained. Her countenance shuddered, however, soon after, and her face was once more that of a woman who seemed inclined to rip his heart out and throw it down onto the table if that could get her what she wanted.

“Why are you here?” he asked quietly, trying to choke the discomfort out of his voice.

She seemed puzzled. “I told you,” she said. “And you know that I found her there. I got the sheet, and wrapped her in it. You carried her up the stairs, but I stayed with her, when first she slept. I scrubbed the blood from her face— and erased the tear tracks drawn there.” Her voice rose again, not in pitch this time but in volume. “I was going to tell her what had happened to her mother. It was supposed to be me, not the wi— not your sister.”

Her face grew bitter. It was rare, Mickey knew, to see such loss of control in her, as slight as it was.

“But you weren’t there,” he said. “Vetessa was.”

Derek sighed. “It’s not a sin, you know,” he said.

“What isn’t?

"Hoping for something in better times, and getting it in worse.”

Gavin turned. “No,” he said. “That’s not a sin. But wasting prayers on things you want is.”

“If you believe that,” Derek returned, “then you’ll pay for it.” But his voice was full of doubt. Gavin averted his eyes. I already am.

Derek continued when Gavin did not speak. “My point is that we all grew up wanting something, most of us to serve. But none of us even pretended that we wanted to serve in a time of war, or strife, or uncertainty. We were born into simplicity, and expected things to stay that way. And maybe that was greedy, or selfish— we know it was —but you can believe that we’re paying for it now, or that we’re going to fix what we started.”

“You’re a better man than I am,” Gavin said after a long moment.

Derek smiled. “And not a single man would follow me the way they follow you.”

“It’s a crying shame.”

“I don’t think so,” Derek said, and laid a gentle hand on Gavin’s back.

On his way home, at the height of noon through the empty streets, Gavin passed the church. Through the open door, he could see scattered people bent in prayer. He kept his head low as he passed by, and did not dare to mount the steps.

Mickey knew it when he heard it, that was certain.

It came over the treetops, or from them, a wild, caustic roar, that at first was indeed nothing, and then everything. It was the sound of his own tears, and Vetessa telling him that it would be alright, and their father’s heavy breathing every day between their mother’s death and his. It was Derek’s heavy footsteps in the sand pit, and the smell of smoke on Vetessa’s skin when she emerged from the Test. It was hatred, and love, and salt, and it tore Mickey apart before he even realized that he was listening.

He thought again of his bed as he had that morning, that it might be easier to just curl up in a ball at sleep, and let the waves of fearsome, unwanted sound pull him under, and drown him. Perhaps, like his father before him, there was only so much death that he could stand. Perhaps he was born to die, and nothing more.

But if Gavin could run, then so could he, and he remembered the fire, and the bittersweet triumph that had followed. No men had died that night, and none would die this night, Mickey swore it, as he raced beneath the whispering clouds, and laughing trees, and the sound that tore past the shining citadels to fill his streets.

The horizon disappeared behind a wall of ash, and Mickey thought of something that Vetessa had told him once. They had been standing outside the church, him in his blue novice cloak, and her in her training clothes. There was a slash on her upper arm where Derek had cut her deep, that day, Mickey remembered. Vetessa had worn her sleeve rolled up with pride.

Together she and Mickey had stood on the steps, her required to attend and him not, the differences between an aspiring knight and a member of the Guard already making themselves apparent.

Mickey did not remember what he had said that so annoyed her but he had always remembered her response, so easily had it defined everything she stood for.

“There are only two ways to see things, Mickey. The right way and the wrong,” she had snapped at him, tapping the first step with her toe as though it might explode beneath her weight.

“Aren’t there a lot of ways to see things wrong?’ he had asked.

"No,” she’d said. “Only one. Among men of god, there is only one.” And she had left him there, sweating in the afternoon sun in a cloak that made his skin itch terribly.

Now, as the night rippled and trembled, Mickey couldn’t think of any right way to take this. No, even now, his fear made him weak, and he trembled on the edge of praying, his mouth stumbling over words he had not said in the longest time. Please, god, he thought desperately, and knew that a hundred of the other men said it with him all at once. He looked forward, into haunting ambiguity, and felt fear, which in turn drove him to god, and it was in this moment that he understood Vetessa’s distrust.

He did not believe, but how he wished he did.

And that’s when he told the others to start running.

(sho writes high fantasy for emily’s benefit)

When the footsteps stopped, there was silence for a long time, and Gil finally peeked her eyes open. It was dark enough that the woman did not notice, though she was seated just beside the bed. Her eyes were closed, and Gil realized that she was sleeping— not pretending, but honestly fast asleep. Gil opened her eyes wider, and quietly rolled onto her side. Even in the dark, she could make out the woman’s straw colored hair, which was pulled up messily on top of her head. A red star shone on the front of her wrinkled tunic.

Gil realized that she knew her— not her name, but, then again, she didn’t know anybody who knew the witch’s name. Vaguely, she thought that she was supposed to be afraid, and that her mother had always told her never to speak to the witch, but then Gil remembered that her mother was probably dead, and that the witch wasn’t actually talking. She was sleeping, and it looked a lot like she was doing it in exactly the same way as everybody else.

The longer Gil looked, the more she thought that the witch looked like Mickey. He had been nice to her, though, and Gil wondered if that all had been pretend. Or maybe her mother had been wrong.

As Gil watched, the witch stirred, and tossed in turned in her chair. Gil shut her eyes, just in case, but after a few moments the room quieted, and she opened them again. She mimicked the witch’s expression, but when she touched her own face with trembling fingers, none of the angry lines were there. Gil wondered how a person ended up with lines like that when they were otherwise so young. She wondered if it had anything to do with having parents, or seeing people die, or having blood spewed all over you in the middle of the public square.

a forest stood here once | an original character dreamcast
     ∟ ed harris as Mendis Clarke (the Kingsuffragan)

The Kingsuffragan bowed his head toward his clasped hands once again. The room rustled as the people followed suit, clasping their own hands and staring down. Adults prayed silently and children wiped distractedly at sweaty noses. A few women began to cry behind their black veils, and their husbands’ arms wound around their necks. Moments ticked by, marked by one uneasy breath after another, until he at last unclasped his hands and gripped the edges of the podium. His voice was clear and cool as a bell, rending the muggy air for only a second. “Have heart, my friends. Your faith is strong, and there is alight at the end of the tunnel.”

This proclamation was familiar. The people heard it every week, when they’d taken their seats in the overcrowded church, which was always either too hot or too cold. They did not used to come dressed in black, though of late, they wore it often. This same proclamation came, when all had fallen silent, when all had exchanged their greetings and words that should have been soft but had become too rough for proper use. “Amen,” the congregation boomed, pulling the strength from some part deep inside of them that was not yet past pretending. Faith settled over them like a blanket, not to warm, but to smother in the endless heat of summer.

‘Don’t. Ward,’ he growled in her ear as she thrashed against him. She had been waiting for this. It felt like a thousand years that she had been waiting for him to acknowledge her, to push her first, to initiate a fight. She had trained, it seemed, for this; never mind the roaring in her ears or the ash or the screaming. This moment was hers.

Her elbow connected with his stomach, and then her heel with his knee. She heard something crunch, and he released her. Vetessa rounded on him, but he was still standing. He was doubled over with his arms wrapped around his stomach, and she could have knocked him down.

But she didn’t. She took one last look toward the walls, where the winds were rising, and the tree tops were swaying, and the ash had grown too thick for her to see a thing.

‘You’re going to die,’ Gavin gasped. ‘Sooner or later.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘You’re not made right,’ he said. ‘Something broke you, and now you have hardly any working parts left in you. The world is going to drown you, just like the rest of us, and you alone will have nothing to float on.’

The sky cracked. Lightning flashed. ‘You can’t float on something that’s full of holes, Gavin,’ she said quietly. She took a step forward and gripped him by the chin. There was a hole in the index finger of her glove and the small pad of skin rubbed against the stubble on his face.

‘I hate you,’ she said. ‘Captain.’

(sho writes high fantasy for emily’s benefit)

He ran with the fear of god in him, and a mind searching not for protection but for explanation, and this alone he thought damned him then, since explanation was not his place. But in that moment, he feared, and knew, though he willed himself not to think it outright, that faith could save him now as little as his sword.

His feet clattered against the cobblestones beneath the wind, a death rattle in his own throat. Gavin looked back because he could not help it, and disorientation made him trip, and the stones rushed up to grate against his arms. He stared upward, floundering hopelessly in the street, held down by the moon, trapped by the stars. He tried to scramble up, with the monstrous thing racing ever closer now, screaming still, and this time the shriek sounded like his own voice, dying, and the death bells ringing for him, and widows crying, and Vetessa at peace at last.

Gavin did not close his eyes, because if he was to die then he would watch for it. He took one deep breath, and willed his heart to still, and then the twisting apparition of ash and wind was on him.

a forest stood here once | an original character dreamcast
     ∟ john barrowman as gavin venglory

“What do you think you’re doing?” she hisses, standing on tip-toes in an attempt to force him to meet her eyes.

“I believe,” Gavin says finally, “that I am preparing my army.” It’s an obvious and frustrating thing to say, as knights bustle all around them, arranging and ordering and clunking across the courtyard with their heavy armored steps.

“You have to be joking,” Vetessa breathes. She can barely muster anger through her disbelief. “You must be mad if you think that you can take all of our men in force away from the city. You can’t. I will not go!”

Gavin smirks. “I can take my men wherever I please,” he says, and clearly relishes the fury in her eyes. “And I would never dream of taking you along. You are going to stay and tend the sick. In fact, I am leaving you in charge.”

“In charge of what?” she roars, and shoves him violently in the chest. “In charge of a defenseless city? I am not a healer, Gavin, and you can’t tell people that you believe me to be a witch for years and then expect them to fancy the fact that you’re leaving me in charge!” She folds her arms across her chest. “I won’t stay.”

Gavin is no longer smiling. “You won’t stay, you won’t go, I don’t particularly care which it is, Vetessa. I am your Captain and you will do as I say.”

u n d e r   t h e   c h u r c h   l i g h t - i came for you - (a gavin x vetessa fanmix)

o1. measuring cups; andrew bird; you don’t want to start over/put your backpack on your shoulder/be the good little soldier

o2. head rolls off; frightened rabbit; it’s pointless to anybody/who doesn’t have faith/give me a cloth and i’ll wipe my face

o3. wicked blood; sea wolf; these lines were here/long before we came around/these lines were here/and there’s an ember in the rafters/and it’s gonna bring this whole thing down

o4. unknown soldier; breaking benjamin; curious/venomous/you’ll find me climbing to heaven

o5. i don’t do crowds; camera obscura; please come to save me from myself again/to shield me/to disguise that my heart has a secret/and this will make you sigh and me cry

o6. ancient lands; ronan hardiman; instrumental

o7. escape the nest; editors; there are eyes in the sky tonight/watching us lose the fight/we really are ants now/escape the nest somehow

o8. queen-sized tomb; shivaree; and i am not afraid of you/i am only delayed by you

o9. blacksheep; sneaker pimps; when the water seems too deep/the shadows always wait beneath/but laughing loud we brave the role of black sheep

based on an original concept

a forest stood here once | an original character dreamcast
     ∟ jodelle ferland as gil brooker

“My mother is dead,” she says. Mine too, Vetessa wants to reply, but this girl cannot be more than eleven. I’m sorry for your loss, sounds stupid, so she just doesn’t say anything. Not for a very long time.

Gil doesn’t cry, and so they sit like that, side by side by the door to the sick ward. Vetessa remembers Mickey crying at their mother’s funeral, and her standing beside him, stock still. People called her heartless, even back then, though the truth was that she had her own way of grieving. But Gil won’t see her mother’s funeral; she’ll see the diseased body burn.

“Do you know why people are getting sick?” she asks, and Vetessa wishes that she had an answer. Gil is swinging her feet now, seemingly unconcerned that she just watched her mother die. Vetessa can picture her, just an hour before, being dragged in with her mother, crying and screaming and clinging to her hand.

There is a simple answer and a hard one. Because when their loved ones fall ill, none of them have the strength to leave them. But she says, “Because they touch the sick ones,” and keeps the pitfalls of attachment and faith to herself.

She came in clinging to her mother.

“Then why aren’t I sick?” Gil asks, just as Vetessa thinks it. And when Vetessa turns back to her, she has absolutely no idea.

A woman emerged from the single shadowed corner of the room, to the left of the open doorway where the light from the windows did not reach. Her tunic was wrinkled, but on its breast beamed the same crimson star as on Gavin’s, the four-cornered star of the Knighthood. All about the room, heads turned so that the people could stare at her as she stepped into the light. Her eyes blinked furiously, adjusting to the sun.


She stood. ‘Your men aren’t on the walls tonight.’

‘I told them to stay inside. Last night, the lives we sacrificed made no difference. My missing men were all accounted for, and burned, but no civilians were made safer for their deaths. It’s best for all of us to stay inside. The winds are rising.’

It was true; outside, the wind had begun to lash the stone side of the house, whispering through the city streets beyond. Mickey tried to tune it out. Vetessa moved toward the empty fireplace, away from the thin shaft of light that the lamp cast across the floor.

‘You shouldn’t have burned the bodies,’ she said after a moment. ‘That was stupid. Ash upon ash.’

His stomach sank further. Of course the burnt bodies were nothing more than another vehicle for the waifs when they returned. ‘Oh,’ he said uselessly.

‘Oh,’ Vetessa mimicked. ‘You’ll float the rest out to sea. The same with those who die of disease.’

He closed his eyes to keep the tears from coming, and, embarrassed, he tried to turn his had so that Vetessa could not see. Her fingers brushed against his cheek though, and came away wet, and though she had always looked at him curiously when he cried, as though emotions were truly that foreign to her, when he glanced up at her now, her face was obscured enough by the darkness that she might have been pitying him. This broke something, and he was crying freely then, and her arms came up and around him before he could protest. Her skin was warm, and she smelled like sand.

‘You’re doing your best,’ she said quietly. ‘That’s what we do, us Wards, when things get tough.’ And she held him like that through the entire night.

(sho writes high fantasy for emily’s benefit)