Brand is dead.
Jaelnec's right leather gauntlet was in his left hand, and his naked right hand rested at the charred man's throat, positioned to feel for a pulse even though the owner of the hand no longer paid any attention. Olan's robe and the coat Aemoten had let Thaler use were bunched up beside the inanimate former Cleric of Hazzergash. The squire crouched awkwardly by Brand's head, his expression looking almost distant aside from his eyes, which were wide with palpable desperation, staring fixedly at the other's face.
Brand is dead.
He knew this certainly now, the knowledge was clear in his mind, not clouded by doubt for once, yet somehow, even though he knew this, his mind would not accept it. It felt as though his thoughts were stuck in a loop, rewinding themselves each time they reached that particular conclusion again and again, preventing much other thought-processing from taking place.
Brand is dead.
The wind dried his eyeballs, and after several seconds the dryness was enough of a nuisance that Jaelnec was forced to blink, and somehow this action broke his thought-loop and made him finally accept what he knew was true, causing a surge of utter and complete despair and disappointment to fill him, making everything seem pointless all of sudden. Clenching his teeth hard, the young Nightwalker grabbed the robe and coat from beside the half-burned corpse, and stood, still without taking his eyes off Brand's face. He tried to remember how he had felt when he had saved - or thought he had, anyways - the cleric, of how absolutely wonderful and invigorating a sensation that had been. That event had restored much of the faith in himself that Jaelnec had lost, both in his spirit and his abilities. He had genuinely wanted to save Brand for no other reason than to save him, a selfless desire with little to no apparent forthcoming reward that could help him or their quest. And he had been able to save him, despite everything seeming hopeless at the time, to pull the lifeless man back to the shore and to restore the breath to his lungs. For once, he had done what he tried to do - he had not failed. Only...
Brand is dead.
Jaelnec turned away from the charred body and starting walking back to the others, dragging his feet as he walked and leaving furrows in the muddy soil where he went, accumulating a greater and greater mass of dirt on his boots. He was cold, and he hurt inside, though he could no longer seem to keep track of why that was. His task of gathering the horses was forgotten as he went back to the others, still staring downward in front of himself, his eyes wide and desperate, his shoulders sagging while he carried the robe and coat in his bare right hand, and the gauntlet still in his left hand. He did not even consciously acknowledge when he returned to the others, nor did he raise his gaze to look at them. He kept staring into the ground, seeing Brand's face before him, feeling that horrible lack of activity in the man's throat. His voice, when he spoke, was thin and fragile, and slightly coarse, but at the same time strangely expressionless.
"Brand is dead."
"Here," the seventeen-year-old boy said softly, handing a bottle of water to the pale woman before him, offering her a hesitant smile as she accepted it and drank from it greedily, then passed it on to the two children with her, who then returned the bottle - with most of its contents gone - to him. The woman thanked him in an unenthusiastic manner that told him that she had hoped for more help than just a few swigs of water, then her and her dirty children went past him, towards the city gates into Zerul City, where the guards would receive them and point them to the hastily arranged refugee shelter.
He scratched his chin and allowed himself a sigh, feeling somewhat bothered that he could not do more for the Nemhimian refugees than he did - than all of the Ducal Guard left in the vicinity of Zerul City could, with most of them being displaced either to an excavation in Etlon or the imminent wedding in Pelgaid City. So few guards remained, and there were so few officials left to command them, that even he - although he had no power in the city at all - had been forced to step in and help coordinate the efforts to help the steady flow of refugees that had been arriving from Nemhim since late yesterday, and were still making their way one group at the time. Most were exhausted and ragged from the journey from Nemhim City to Zerul City, many were hungry and thirsty, and a disturbingly high percentage even bore gruesome wounds upon them that had the Zerulic healers working non-stop since the arrival of the first refugees to save as many as possible from being confronted by the Wanderer. Wounds the like of which he had never seen before, not even on the soldiers during the civil war. Their injuries looked like nothing that could be inflicted by any weapon nor animal. According to the reports he had received, many of the refugees died on their way to Zerul City, and even though they had already received hundreds here, he had heard that Seclyr City were getting just as many, and people presumed that so did Wenal City and Anaxim City. Refugees were fleeing Nemhim by the thousands, and thousands more had died.
And as if that had not been enough, no one had any idea who was behind the attack. Someone was laying waste to Nemhim, had already vanquished their army and Ducal Guard and conquered the city and was now merrily butchering civilians, but no one would accept responsibility. He did not know whether to be angry or terrified - because unless someone was lying, this thing the refugees described, laying waste to Nemhim, was not working for any of the duchies. And if that was the case... it might not stop at Nemhim. Anaxim could be next. Or Seclyr. Or... even Wenal.
Shuddering at the chill that crawled up his spine, he looked around for a moment, checking for more refugees approaching or maybe even those adventurers Master William told him to look for, who were supposedly on their way and liable to arrive any day now. When he saw no one, he turned around, pulling his brown hooded leather cloak tighter around him to shield him from the cold as he walked back towards the southern city gates. He rubbed his hands together and blew on them in an effort to restore some warmth to them, ill-equipped for the cold autumn of northern Rodoria as he was in his gray cloth pants and jacket and leather shoes. He threw up his hood so that it covered his short hazel hair, his right hand briefly gracing the crystal handle that extruded from beneath the cloak over his right shoulder, the hilt of his rune-sword, the mark of his strength as well as his weakness. Evidence that he was a Rune Mage, a wielder of a powerful rune-sword, but incapable of magic without it. It was his pride, and his shame. To his father, though, it was only a shame.
When he got to the gates, the guards saluted and bowed to him, and he made a noncommittal half-wave at them in return, uncomfortable with the undeserved attention as he was. He was no one of importance, after all - just a student at the Magic Academy who failed the entry examination, but who was enrolled anyways due to his father's insistence that he should study and become a sorcerer.
And that was the root of the issue, was it not? Why everyone treated him differently in Zerul City? Why citizens kept their distance from him, merchants threw discounts at his feet, and the guards treated him as though he was their superior. It was all just because his name was Thomas Remdal, and Dennis Remdal, the Blue Duke's high advisor, was his father. On his own, Thomas was nothing. Everything he was, he was because of his father.
It was then Thomas turned around to scout the area south of Zerul City again, to look for refugees or the questing adventurers he was to receive, and noticed a pair of figures, one human and one penin. For a moment Thomas thought that he had finally spotted the adventurers out looking for a way to end the Withering - a worthy quest, which Thomas had considered taking up himself on occasion, but in the end always stayed where he was - because William Devian had told him that they would be a mismatched bunch that looked remarkable enough to stand out easily. He started walking forward to meet the pair, only to feel his enthusiasm dampen significantly when he realized that these men were not strange travelers, but Zerulics back from wherever they had been. He did not recall the name of the human, but he knew the penin, I'on, quite well. I'on was a friend of the duke, and he and Thomas had met on occasion. Thomas had thought that I'on had left with his father, the duke and the vast majority of the nobility of Zerul to take part in the ducal wedding in Pelgaid, but apparently that was not the case.
Regardless, I'on had been away from Zerul City long enough to not know about the refugees, or what had happened in Nemhim three days ago. Odds were it would not be a pleasant surprise... it rarely was when an entire Rodorian duchy was on the verge of total annihilation.
"I'on!" he hailed the penin, waving his right hand over his head in greeting. He wondered for a moment whether he was being too familiar with the penin - he was considered something of an important figure in Zerul City, after all, and by extension of his friendship with Marcus Zerul, he was a powerful man. Better safe than sorry, he decided, and resolved that unless I'on gave the impression of wanting to act familiar, he had better act properly. He was already enough of a disappointment to his father without invoking the ire of the Blue Duke against their family.