Jaelnec barely even sensed the immediate reaction to his only half-conscious announcement of Brand's passing through the haze that had shrouded his mind, his eyes still fixed at some indistinct point off in the distance, still seeing Brand's face before him. He hardly registered Thaler's disturbing question or following statement, nor that she made a move to try and stumble her way towards him. He was only faintly aware of Aemoten once again taking charge and arranging for a makeshift burial of the body, all while trying to comfort Thaler.
The part of him that did notice all of this, however, buried beneath more desperate and destructive thought processes as it was, started to wonder why it was that even though he felt like this at Brand's death - and that this buried part of his mind still felt a deep pain of the soul at witnessing Thaler and was grateful that Aemoten yet had the energy to try to help her, even when the squire was on the verge of breaking down... That even though he felt this, he did not feel any particularly strong reaction to the southerner assuring him that Brand could not have been saved, and that he would be shown a last honor. Sure, he felt a sort of gentle appeasement that was connected to seeing any dead body being served its last rites as was proper, but it did not lessen the burden of what actually bothered him, as he would have expected. It felt as though Brand and his pain were somehow unrelated issues, different problems being treated by different parts of brain that had nothing to do with one another. It was like what he felt for Brand was nothing but mild sadness - the generic grief one might feel for any person one knows nothing about and has just met, a person one feels nothing for. And this other issue - the one that seemed to be weighing him down and threatening to crush him - was a debilitating mourning at the loss of something deeply precious.
My one success, he thought gloomily, suddenly struck by the disturbing idea that he was crumbling and disappearing, destroyed by the crashing waves of desolation. The one thing I did not fail in... I am alone, and I am a failure. I am a lonely failure. A... disappointment.
What finally did jolt the Nightwalker from his fit of self-pity was when he, in his state of subconsciously keeping up with what was happening around him without paying special attention to anything in particular, heard Jillian's somewhat delayed reaction to the news of Brand's passing. "Just drop him in a ditch somewhere and be done with it, then." At this, Jaelnec finally tore his gaze from whatever he had been staring at, and he blinked, the image of the burned and drowned man's face finally fading from view. He looked dumbly at the witch, his expression being as could not quite comprehend what she had just said, even as he felt the turmoil of his emotions start to churn even more furiously as anger was added to the mix.
It doesn't matter who a person is, he thought, though he was not quite ready to speak the words out loud. The body of king and beggar, of hero and bandit alike, deserve respect. A last respect. Desecrating the dead is unacceptable.
Coincidentally it seemed that Thaler was of the same opinion and felt as strongly as he about it, because she saw fit to speak the protest aloud that Jaelnec had kept to himself. The haze broken, he turned his attention to the Daywalker, and was suddenly struck by how vulnerable she looked. Never mind that she was practically in Aemoten's arms and that she had threatened to leave mere moments ago, which had been what had first broken the last remnants of his mental stability. Right then none of that seemed to matter before her sheer fragility, ill and burdened as she was to the point where she could hardly even stand without aid. It was like she was this little ephemeral thing, a candle flame flickering in the gale, beautiful yet liable to vanish any moment. I... decided something, did I not? That I...
But the feeble trail of orderly thought in the maelstrom of emotion was short-lived, for soon Thaler spoke again, causing Jaelnec's expression to gradually turn surprised - not as though he was shocked, but more as if he was having an epiphany. Thaler is like that, yet she is still this strong? Her resolve is still this firm? Her words were as though chosen specifically to play the chords of the squire's soul, and it felt as if each sentence she uttered was a beacon by which to rearrange the chaos within him, things to hold on to and draw strength from to help himself out of the marsh of despair.
The Code of the Will states clearly... he repeated her words mentally, feeling a surge of something he could not immediately identify from deep within himself, something lending him strength, something conjured forth by those words... something that, when he thought some more about it, he realized was his pride. His honor. The Code of the Will is death before dishonor, dishonor before disloyalty, disloyalty before evil... He furrowed his brow. Disloyalty before evil... Dishonor before... evil. Death before evil. Yes... that is the Code. That is the purpose of the Knighthood of the Will. To fight evil, to destroy what threatens this world, to protect the innocent. That is its - my - purpose is.
He blinked, his expression growing harder now, his brow knotting as though in deep thought. Yes... that is it. I decided that I was going to protect Thaler, to protect her purity and her innocence. And now she is threatening to kill someone in cold blood... because I am too good and too kind to do it? Somehow, as much as he would have appreciated those words several days ago and taken them as praise, he not felt as though they were insults. That traits he had once thought of as admirable and noble were now nothing more than a weakness. It was my goodness and kindness that allowed the she-devil to live among us as long as she did! My weakness! Everything that happened that day - the Pennyworthy-brothers, Aemoten, Olan, Thaler... and others before that. There was so much suffering because of her. Because of me. Because of my... goodness!
Slowly, broodingly, Jaelnec's gaze returned to Jillian. But even though he was looking at her - and somewhere within himself dared her to try to make even the slightest move against them - his thoughts kept moving on, working rapidly now that they had been set in motion, trying to rebuilt the dams that had broken under the barrage of destructive emotion. Yes... I see now. That is how I truly failed. Of course I am alone, Knights of the Will have always been alone. Freagon was alone on the road, too, until he found me, and just as he was my only constant, I was his. That what we are: we do what needs to be done, we help the helpless and fight what needs to be fought, not for appreciation or company, but because it needs to be done. And we are protectors, not saviors. Fighters, not healers. We cannot restore the dying or the dead, nor is that our purpose. Even Freagon, who was far stronger than me, lost many innocents. We cannot save everyone... but we can protect those who are left. We protect, fight, and destroy. Death before dishonor, dishonor before disloyalty, disloyalty before evil. Death before evil!
"I gathered the mounts, you know," Olan abruptly announced, momentarily startling Jaelnec as the older Nightwalker dance-walked towards them, true to his words with the horses and donkey in tow. He seemed cheerful and energetic once again, and oblivious to the general atmosphere as ever, and had that gentle smile of his still plastered onto his face. "How goes things here? Are we leaving soon?"
Despite the unused burden of responsibility Thomas had carried upon himself the past day or so, he could not help but smile as he accepted I'on's enthusiastic greeting. Nobility and high-class citizens were usually somewhat reserved towards him, even the ones he knew and had known for his entire life - as a matter of fact he found that he could find more warmth in the presence of a working-class citizen he had just met than he could in the company of his own family on his father's side - so I'on's behavior was a break from the usual. Of course, I'on had never quite been like the rest of the crowd that usually flocked to the duke's side, so it should not have surprised him.
He almost laughed out loud when he realized that he had just done to I'on what the populace of Zerul City usually did to him: judged him by the status of someone else. Just as Thomas got his status from his father, I'on's was drawn mainly from his friendship with the duke - both of them were perceived the way they were because of someone else, which was probably why I'on - like Thomas - was here, and not with the rest of nobility in Pelgaid City to be at the ducal wedding.
But jolly as he allowed himself to feel at meeting the penin magus, Thomas' smile faded the moment the other inquired about what was going on. Habitually reaching back to scratch his neck, accidentally knocking back his hood as he did so, the Rune Mage sighed.
"If only I knew, myself," he said, placing his hands on his hips as he turned toward the gates, looking at the slow flow of refugees with sadness in his eyes. "They're refugees from Nemhim, all of them... Apparently the duchy is under attack by some kind of, uh, creature, if one is to believe the witnesses. Just a single creature that apparently goes around ea-..." His voice failed for a moment, and he grimaced at the very thought of it. "Eating people's... everyone's... hearts. What kind of monster does that? None that I ever heard of..." He shook his head in resignation before continuing: "It has already destroyed the entirety of Nemhim City, and is apparently on a rampage through the rest of the duchy now. Tens of thousands have been killed... no one knows where Lady Annette Nemhim is, but..." He sighed again. "Nemhim is finished. And apparently, no one knows what in the Planes is going on."