(OOC-thread can be found here.
If you've read my character introduction already, you can skip to the ---)
The world just seemed to spring into creation from one second to the next, at first blurred and colorless and seemingly filled with overwhelming light, but then slowly coming together until the light faded to more manageable levels, faint contours because tangible objects and the monotonous white darkened, gradually filtering through his thoughts and being divided into the colors of reality. His eyes hurt and his head throbbed from his eyes opening too soon and too quickly, but it had been a natural reaction - like someone gasping for breath as they surface after having been underwater for a prolonged duration, his senses had seemed to grasp for anything within reach when he had woken in an effort to prove to him that he was no longer dreaming, and that this was reality.
Jaelnec sat up in the bed, groaning to himself as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His conscious self had already confirmed that he was awake, but his subconsciousness desperately kept scanning and verifying that everything was as it should be. He was still lying on a slightly too hard bed with sheets that had once been white, but had grayed with years of use. He was still in a small square inn-room with wooden walls, a single door on one side and a single window on the opposite, covered by midnight-blue curtains. The furniture was as he remembered it from when he had gone to sleep - a small wobbly nightstand by the bed with an unused candle in a pewter-holder on it, a small desk by the window, accompanied by a single wooden chair, a small, cracked mirror on the wall and a stool where Jaelnec had tossed his clothes when he went to bed. The smell was the same stagnant arid one, although another musky one had been added, though that probably came from himself. From beyond the door, the sounds of the inn just starting up for the morning's business could be heard, and past the window, the murmur of many voices jumbled together in a single, incomprehensive noise as merchants and buyers were going to the town's square to set up stalls and browse merchandise at the annual black market gathering. Everything was as it should be.
Jaelnec practically had to peel off the sheets from his pale skin as he stood out of bed, drenched with sweat. He realized that he was still trembling slightly from the nightmare, though the details of what it had been were already faded from his memory - not that it was even necessary to remember, since Jaelnec knew quite well what he had dreamt. It was always the same nightmare, each and every time: the clouds dyed red and black with flames and smoke, the dead littering the street, his parents and baby sister's corpses, and... the sword. Always that blood-dripping sword, and the twisted, wicked grin.
He did not remember if he had gotten far enough in the nightmare for Freagon to arrive and save him, but he figured that he had most likely not, or else his heart would not have galloped so when he had spontaneously awoken, and the sense of petrifying terror would not have lingered in his mind. Not that it mattered - whether Freagon saved him in the nightmare or not was inconsequential to his current situation. Freagon had been there in reality, he had killed the man that had been standing over the ten-year-old Jaelnec and his murdered family and saved Jaelnec's life. The real Freagon had not been absent or late, but arrived at the exact right time, and had rescued Jaelnec and taken him away from the burning ruins of his birthplace, lead him far from the smoldering corpses of his childhood friends, and had patiently spent the following months nursing Jaelnec away from the edge of madness and back upon the safer shores of sanity.
At the thought, Jaelnec could not help but to let out a short snort of laughter, despite everything still both amused and distressed by the irony of it all. Both from his parents and Freagon, after he became Jaelnec's guardian and master, Jaelnec had spent his entire life listening to myths and legends of great heroes of the past, and he remembered thinking several times how cliché it was for the hero of these tales to be motivated by having their family killed and homes burnt down, only to swear revenge. How truly cruel it was that the very same fate had overcome himself at the hand of the accursed Crusader's Guild. Even if Jaelnec had perchance survived that night ten years ago without Freagon's help, he would probably have ended up charging straight at the Guild soon after, blinded with rage, only to be killed himself - so in a way, Freagon's arrival saved his life twice at the same time by having his one-eyed patch-wearing rescuer prevent him from seeking vengeance against the Guild. Of course Freagon had saved Jaelnec numerous times since then, but Jaelnec felt more grateful for that first time than any other.
Standing up with his full 5' 11", Jaelnec went to the stool and grabbed the black trousers there, quickly pulling them on and moving on to the white shirt. As he buttoned the front, he could not help but to notice how the fabric tightened over his chest and his arms, hard and appealingly muscular as they were from the long, strenuous years Jaelnec had spent as Freagon's apprentice. Following Freagon about Rodoria and southern Wegam Fermos had been challenging enough, but at times Jaelnec had had the feeling that undergoing the old man's merciless training had nearly killed him more often than monsters, bandits and other villains. Freagon could correct him all that he wanted, remind Jaelnec of his true title and its significance, but to Jaelnec, none of that mattered - no matter how his master demanded to be called Sir Freagon, Knight of the Will, he remained Freagon Nightmaregaze in Jaelnec's thoughts, and those of most people he met.
Ten years... for ten long, exhausting and frequently downright dangerous years, Jaelnec had been Freagon's apprentice and undergone the training Freagon felt was necessary to ensure his survival and - one day - improve Jaelnec's skill enough so that he might one day become a Knight of the Will as well. Jaelnec's body had been pushed to the point where he cried out in agony at times, and he had practiced swordplay with the cheapest, heaviest and most poorly balanced iron longsword ever made, and fighting until his hands and feet were blistered and his arms bruised all over from repeatedly being hit by the far superior master. Freagon had even taken Jaelnec to a deo'iel base in southern Wegam Fermos, where he had made Jaelnec study the nature of various creatures to the point where his head felt like a hornet's nest.
Yet somehow Jaelnec could not imagine what his life would have been like if he had not met Freagon, if the Guild's raid had never happened and Jaelnec had remained with his parents, living a happy and peaceful life. Would he have become a common peasant? Followed in his mother, Sabina's footsteps and devoted himself to Laon? Would he have studied with his father, Kurt, and become a sorcerer? None of that seemed like it could ever have been reality to him, and Jaelnec could not imagine being anything but the apprentice of a Knight of the Will, and sometimes he had difficulty comprehending that his life could have been very different, normal... mundane. And inwardly, Jaelnec was ashamed to admit that he would have ended up bored to death, his thirst for adventure and glory inevitably having drawn him from his home regardless.
Shaking his head, not even wanting to follow that trail of thought any further down the road of paradoxes, he fetched the brown leather boots from below the stool and put them on, their heavy material feeling warm and soft to his feet. With a sigh, he picked up what could seem a shapeless pile of metal, but as it straightened, it revealed itself to be a cuirass of numerous overlapping metal-scales, shimmering in hues of purple and gold. It was more difficult to put on the ghiril-cuirass than he had thought, but after a couple of attempts he finally managed, wearing the feather-light and extremely valuable armor over his torso.
He took the leather belt and the leather shoulder strap, securing one around his waist and the other diagonally over his torso, from left shoulder to the right hip. The strap contained eight little throwing knives of alchemical silver, fitted to be drawn and thrown in an instant. The belt had a small sheath by the right hip, containing a dagger of fine steel, but common design.
He nearly forgot to take the leather scabbard from next to the stool, covering the thirty-five inch blade of the longsword sheathed in it, but not the golden hilt. Jaelnec took a moment to admire the design of the hilt - the guard artfully formed as extended dragon-wings, the dragon's tail wrapped around the handle, and the blade seemingly spawning from flames spewed from the tiny golden dragon's jaws. This single sword - Roct, it was called - was most likely worth more than an entire duchy, and now it was Jaelnec's. He fastened it to the belt by his left hip, where he could get to it quickly.
Boots, armor, knives, dagger and sword - all of it had been Freagon's, and all of it was the equipment of a Knight of the Will. It had been three days since Freagon's burial, and Jaelnec still found it strange to think that he was no longer his apprentice. That Freagon, in the end, had not been killed by one of the countless beasts he fought, but by the single enemy that not even one of the best fighters in all of Reniam could defeat: the Withering.
Jaelnec felt a lump in his throat, and although he tried he could not seem to swallow it. The Priest of Reina Jaelnec had found told him that Freagon had kept his condition secret from Jaelnec from at least four days after having contracted the plague, and had most likely been in horrid agony during this time. But Jaelnec could have sworn that Freagon seemed no different at all! He had simply endured the torments inflicted by the Withering while he kept training Jaelnec and hunting evil, right to the point when he could no longer stand and barely even remained conscious. Just before he had lost consciousness, and soon after perished, he had promoted Jaelnec to Squire of the Will and told Jaelnec that he would inherit all of Freagon's equipment... and all of his duties.
Jaelnec, trying to come to terms with being a squire without a master, took the largest bolt of cloth on the stool and folded it out, revealing it to be a long black coat, and as he put it on its lower hem reached him to his ankles. The coat had been Freagon's as well, and oddly, Jaelnec could not remember Freagon ever having taken it off other than for a rare bath or in the last moments, when the priests had removed it and revealed the spreading gray, blotched areas caused by the Withering. It had no pockets and offered no protection, and was designed just to keep him warm and to make him more intimidating to behold.
Grabbing the thick leather gauntlets - also Freagon's - which were all that remained on the stool, Jaelnec ponderously went to the mirror to see how it all suited him. Although Freagon had been dead for three days and these items had technically been Jaelnec's since then, this was his first time wearing them.
Jaelnec was shocked at his own reflection and appalled at how he looked like Freagon, only with a different head. His features were obviously more youthful than Freagon's, with Freagon being Spirits-know how old and Jaelnec only being twenty years old - but it was more than that. As the eyes looking back from the mirror revealed, black as Stupor as they were, Jaelnec was a Nightwalker, the same as Freagon, and as such he matured more slowly than humans. He was a twenty-year-old, but had the appearance of a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old. No facial hair marred his shapely chin or broad jaw, nor his thin red lips. His nose was perhaps a little too long, but it was narrow and generally appealing. His hair, a luminous shade of golden-blond, fell smoothly on his shoulders.
The overall impression was pretty good, Jaelnec thought nervously, though he was nowhere near as fearsome to behold as Freagon had been with all of his scars and the constant cold in his remaining left eye - that eye, from which a single glare could cause grown men to stutter and quiver in fear. Jaelnec's eyes were in stark contrast, being warm and, despite their color, calming and friendly. Jaelnec's only facial scar was the quite deep one that started at the right corner of his mouth and ran towards his right ear, and unlike Freagon's many scars, this one had not been inflicted during a breathtakingly exciting adventure or in battle against wicked beings. Rather, Freagon had not been too understanding about Jaelnec's teenage-tendencies to rebel against authority, and had reacted to Jaelnec's rebelliousness by taking the very dagger Jaelnec now carried by his hip and cutting open Jaelnec's cheek, all the way to the cheekbone. It had taken several stitches to hold the wound together long enough for a Cleric of Reina to heal it, but Jaelnec had never even questioned Freagon's orders since.
Putting on the gauntlets, Jaelnec went to the desk, where he found his hat - wide-brimmed to shield his sensitive Nightwalker eyes from the sun, and colored a dusty gray from long years of use. This hat, Jaelnec thought profoundly, was basically the only visible piece of equipment that was different from what Freagon had worn, aside from Jaelnec's trousers, but even these looked a lot like Freagon's pants. It was as if Jaelnec had more than taken up Freagon's duties - he had filled the void in Reniam left by him when he died, replacing a champion with a man, a knight with a squire. Jaelnec knew that he was far from as good as Freagon had been, but he also knew that he was talented nonetheless, and ten years of practice had made him a capable swordsman. He was far from Freagon's equal... but only time would tell if he would grow to face the challenge, becoming Freagon's successor, or fail miserably trying.
And his first step down this new road would be to attend to the black market gathering outside.
It was still relatively early in the morning - the sun had only just passed above the confines of the surrounding rooftops, bathing the cobbled street in a red-hued golden luminance that promised a warm day, one which rose out of the many and defied the cold, wet grasp of the autumn and reminded all mortals that the summer had been there, and would come again. But this remained a promise only for the time being, as the chill of the night had not yet yielded to the warmth of the sunlight. Jaelnec found himself pulling Freagon's old coat closer around himself against the cold, though it remained open in the front. He drew his hat a little farther about his ears and pulled the brim a bit further in front of his eyes, which were already watering with the brightness of the day that approached from the east. It would get better as the sun moved its course further up on the sky, where the brim could easily shield him - and then worse again in the evening, as the sun lowered in the west. It was hard to be a Squire of the Will in Rodoria - he was a Nightwalker, and as such he was a nocturnal creature by nature, meant to prowl the night rather than walk in daylight. Yet his duties required him to interact with other races, which were only awake at day. His eyes were constantly sore, and every window-reflection and flash of metal stung them like needles.
He could not help it but to sigh as he looked around at the street leading up to the town square, which was already bustling with activity as several dozen people had already gathered and were busily trying to negotiate better deals and appraise the actual value of various merchandise held by shady characters. He stood apart from the rest, not dealing, walking or talking, but simply watching. A number of wooden stalls and a single elevated wooden platform had been set up for the occasion, and although only five of the stalls were occupied at the moment, Jaelnec had no doubt that within a couple of hours, it would be so crowded that people would be forced to sell their goods off the ground. These black market gatherings were popular - which was probably the reason that Nemhim allowed them. Jaelnec could think of no other duchy in Rodoria that would let all the worst criminals in Rodoria gather in one place and do nothing about it. As for this particular town allowing the gathering... well, there was not a single place in Rodoria where people would not welcome something that could take their minds off the black, charred pyres looming outside every settlement, where the bodies of those claimed by the Withering were burned in a desperate attempt at keeping the plague from spreading.
He tried to keep track of threatening presences and unusual characters - the problem was that everyone here was a threatening presence, and no one was usual. Humans, deigan and penin walking about, accompanied by Melenian slaves or tarken bodyguards, and the ones not openly armed were certain to have weapons concealed on them - even the slaves. A fair deal of people were moving about carefully, like thieves, dressed in cloaks with hoods pulled over their heads - and Jaelnec could only feel amused that these were almost certainly the law-abiding citizens amongst the crowd. No criminal would care if it was seen at the gathering, where smugglers and fences became merchants, and brigands and assassins became esteemed customers equal to warlocks and nobles.
And somewhere, hidden beneath the surface of all of this commotion, was the person who had announced the sale of a cure for the Withering. It had not taken many seconds after Jaelnec learned of this announcement until he had decided that he would not just wander about at random and stop any evil he happened upon, as Freagon had, but actually set a quest for himself and do something great. The Withering was the greatest catastrophe to come upon Reniam since the Age of Darkness, and the squire could think of no cause more worthy than to end the plague.
Of course he had seen far too much during his time with his master to naïvely believe that some shady character had just stumbled upon a cure by accident - especially considering how ducal soldiers and agents, as well as hundreds, if not thousands of independent people had sought actively and intently for that cure for the past twelve years. Jaelnec strongly suspected the promise of a cure to be a lie, likely just another rumor to lure in more customers for the gathering. But the possibility of a cure... even a tiny possibility such as this, he could not ignore. If there really was a cure, it needed to be made public as soon as possible. Every passing day meant more innocents contracted with the plague, and more diseased people dying.
His left hand subconsciously found its own way to the hilt of Roct, compulsively caressing the pommel of the hilt with his thumb: a nervous habit of his. Mages were buying gruesome, rare and outlawed spell-components, assassins and corrupt nobles were stockpiling poison, thugs and peasants were trying to find enough Rodlin to get the weapons with the illegal blades - purely for self-defense, of course. Collectors were buying foreign items and stolen art, merchants getting goods at black market-price to avoid paying taxes, craftsmen were filling carts with extraordinary materials, addicts and distributers were purchasing piaan in barrel-loads... and four out of five of all of them were getting scammed. More people kept arriving now that the big day had begun, either with purses jingling with currency or carts full of goods, and Jaelnec soon felt dizzy and exhausted from trying to keep an eye on all of it. His attention was spread out too wide, and he knew it - but any one of these people could be the one with the supposed cure for the Withering, or someone malevolent drawn there to prevent the cure from being brought to light.
And even so, he thought with a quiet sigh, this is just the start. This is going to be a long day...