Winter had come to Ulfenmoor in full force with snow piled up to the knees and forceful, chill winds that sent families scurrying inside and huddling up by their hearths.
Though the evening had grown late, Dragana Molotova stood over an anvil and hammered a blade by light of the moon and forge. The cold stung her cheeks and nose red and her breath released icy clouds into the air. Yet still, sweat from hard labour ran down her brow.
Between the clang of her hammer she could hear boots crunching in the snow behind her. She didn't bother turning to face the newcomer. "Go away."
"I'm looking for a sword," replied a gruff voice.
"Well come back in the morning. We're closed."
"Alright, but I want your best work. I think it's called, Wulfsever?"
"What?" Dragana said in a low voice. In one, swift motion she pulled the sword off the anvil, deposited it in a quenching barrel and whirled to face the would be stranger. Then, she was stunned in place and her face drained of colour. "Rolf!"
At the edge of her shop stood her apprentice. Her three months dead apprentice. At his side stood Laurelei, bundled up under a thick, hooded fur cloak. Although a young girl in such elegant finery was an odd sight in these parts, she could hardly spare the attention when all of it was firmly monopolized by Rolf's presence.
After a few moments of silently staring at him, she stumbled out a few more words. "W-we all thought you were dead," she said in a breathless voice, her heart thumping loudly in her ears.
"I am," he replied. "But why let that stop me from visiting family?" He forced himself to small.
Dragana stepped closer, carefully examining his features. His colourless skin, the variety of new scars and the foggy hue of his eyes. "You're a necronom?"
The blacksmith watched him quietly for a time, before closing her eyes and taking in a long, slow breath. Then, she punched him hard in the ribs. His torso was already battered and Dragana's blow was mighty, her muscles toned and strong from years of tending the forge.
The boy gasped loudly and buckled over her fist, barely able to keep on his feet.
Promptly taking a step back, Laurelei winced at the sudden assault.
Dragana set on him with a fiery glare, hand trembling to hold back the desire to strike him again. "Where the hell have you been, who the hell is this and why the hell didn't you tell anyone about this!"
Rolf responded with a punch of his own, surprising Dragana with a huge uppercut just under her chest. It landed hard enough that Dragana practically bounced into the air, arms draped around the point of impact.
"Give me a minute to explain myself before you start hitting me, dammit!" Rolf roared back.
"Little bastard!" she growled. Without warning she threw another punch, scoring on his cheek and reeling his head back.
Rolf answered with a left hook but Dragana ducked it and jabbed him twice more on the jaw, hard enough to send him stumbling back against the forge.
Laurelei watched the resultant the brawl with confusion and distaste. "How terribly uncouth. Is this how you raggabrash peasants normally greet one another?" she said as they continued to trade blows.
"Alright, settle down!" said Rolf, throwing his hands up defensively.
Dragana wiped a small bit of blood from her lip and her scowl slowly transitioned into a smile. She moved in fast and put Rolf in a playful headlock. "You hit harder than before! Now start talking!"
He smiled back at her and stood straight up, lifting her off her feet and slipping out of her grasp before tossing her back toward the ground.
She landed with ease and proceeded to quickly brush herself off and wipe the sweat from her brow.
"Yeah, I'll tell you everything, Draga. After we get to Edwin's house. I'd like to talk to all of you together."
She nodded. The swordsmith quietly donned her coat and the group departed from the workshop.
The short trip through the village was mostly quiet. Rolf seemed unusually contemplative and reserved as he examined the familiar sights all around him. The old cathedral, the shops and the rugged wooden bridges that arched over the gentle rivers and streams that ran through the village. As usual, Laurelei was dreadfully averse to crossing the bridge, but with only slight prodding, she scampered over regardless.
Near Eastern edge of town, nestled atop a small hill, was the home of Edwin Bastaff. It was a wide, wooden cabin that stood one floor high and boasted a small garden of herbs out front.
It seemed that any damage since the wolf attacks had long been repaired. In fact, the whole village was oddly peaceful. The night watch of guards was unfathomably small and there were no tense men staring out their windows and nursing crossbows. It resembled Ulfenmoor but it couldn't have been. Once the sun went down, the town never quite so at ease.
"What's going on here? Why's everyone so... calm?" said Rolf.
"It's Viktor," said Dragana.
Rolf was reminded of when he encountered the hermit at the old Ettinkeep. "So he followed through on his promise," he thought to himself.
Dragana continued. "He just showed up one day, alive and well. A lot like you. Ever since he came back, we've had no trouble with wolf attacks. It's sort of a long story. I can explain when we get to Edwin's."
"No need," said Rolf. "I already know. I met him out there, not long after I died. In the end, all it took to stop the wolves was having one of their own around to scare them off."
Before anyone could say another word on the subject, they noticed a familiar figure in the window of Edwin's house. It was still a fair distance away, but there was no mistaking it. Lavinia's masked face peered out at them for a moment, watching curiously. She was still and silent for a short time, her expression inscrutable under her guise. Then, in a flutter of fabric, she disappeared from the window and burst out the door. "Rolf!?"
Without even awaiting a response she took off down the road, the colourful scarves and skirts of the Vega people trailing behind her. She ran faster than Rolf had ever seen her move and leaped straight into Rolf's arms.
He caught hold of her instinctively as she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her head against his chest.
"It is you!" she said in a muffled voice, hugging him as tight as she could. "I-I, knew you'd come back!" Her voice was vibrant and shuddering with joy, blooming with a level of energy Rolf hadn't seen from her in over a year.
Before he knew what was happening, he found his arms around her and his hand gently stroking her hair.
Laurelei had taken a few steps back, giving the two a wide berth as she sized up the excited stranger. It wasn't long before she found herself glaring at the woman from behind her hood. "Rolf," she said in a skeptical voice. "Who is the masked wastrel clinging to you?"
Lavinia loosened her embrace, keeping her fingers laced together behind his neck, and turned to look at Laurelei, noticing her for the first time.
It was then that Rolf noticed the small, joyful tears in Lavinia's eyes.
She tilted her head toward the princess and gave her a strange look. "Wastrel?" she said in a soft tone. She almost sounded hurt by the comment.
"Lavinia!" bellowed a loud voice from atop the hill. In the doorway stood Edwin Bastaff, as broad and surly as Rolf remembered him. He was hastily garbed in a thick fur coat but nonetheless held a sheathed blade in his huge fist. "You!" he roared, jabbing a finger toward Rolf. "Take your hands off my daughter!"
"Relax, old man. It's just me!" Rolf yelled back.
"What!?" Edwin said in a bewildered voice. He stomped out the door and over to the edge of the hill, striving for a closer look. His once grumpy expression shifted into a furious glare. "What the hell is this! Some kind of cruel joke?" he growled, brows furrowed and jaw clenched tight.
Carefully, Rolf took Lavinia's hands and eased her away from him. "This is real, Edwin. Get down here and have a look for yourself."
Edwin did just that, marching down the road and coming eye to eye with Rolf. He did everything he could to maintain a sour expression, but the more he examined Rolf's face, the harder it became. His heart felt as if it would tear itself in two as his emotions struggled between joy and anguish. Finally, he smiled and small tears trickled down his craggy features before disappearing into his beard.
He reached out with one arm, slapped Rolf across the back and pulled him into an embrace. "You stand in front of me but still I was right. You died on me, son."
"Died?" Lavinia whispered to herself, unsure of what her father was saying.
Rolf's face was blank and he fought back any trace of the emotion that had welled up inside of him. "Calm down, old man. It's nothing to get yourself worked up over."
Edwin pushed Rolf away and held him at arm's length. "I've had this nightmare before. Any moment now, I'll blink or look away and you'll be gone again."
"If you need anymore proof that this is real, you could go strap your armour on and I'll kick your fat ass around the fortress for a while. Just like the old days."
"Never thought I'd be happy to hear that disrespectful, impudent mouth of yours."
Rolf smirk back at Edwin and gave him a playful punch to the shoulder. "Good to see you too, ya old bastard."
Both men laughed with mingling sadness and mirth.
Rolf continued. "There's... a lot to talk about. Can we go inside?"
"Do you even need to ask? Go on in," said Edwin.
"Actually, I do. For her," replied Rolf, pointing at Laurelei.
Edwin scratched his beard and and cast a bewildered look at the girl. "I don't understand."
Laurelei was thoroughly wrapped in her cloak and had it pulled snug around her face. Without a word, she pulled her hood down and opened her mouth wide to reveal a pair of gleaming fangs.
"Oh!" Edwin said. He shot Rolf a quick glance and then looked back to Laurelei with a nod. "Yes, of course. If Rolf trusts you, then you are welcome in my home."
"Thank you," she said politely, before immediately donning her hood once again.
Once inside Edwin's home, the group of five sat around the small wooden dining table. The hearth roared with a fresh flame and the smell of fragrant tea brewing filled the chamber.
"I guess I should start by saying you were right," Rolf said, specifically locking eyes with Edwin. "You always said that if I went out there, I'd just get myself killed. And I did." He spoke in a quiet, sombre voice.
Lavinia looked away from Rolf and just stared at her hands.
"This girl, Laurelei, she saved me. Before I could truly die, she bonded my soul to my body."
"I believe now would be a good time to introduce myself," said Laurelei. "I am Princess Laurelei Marie Lockhart of Agares."
Edwin and Lavinia responded with stunned silence and raised brows, but Dragana was a bit more vocal. "You expect us to believe that?"
"I don't care," Laurelei replied. "My title is not dependent upon your belief. I am Princess Laurelei, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not."
Dragana scoffed at the girl. "She's got some sass in her. I like it."
"Thank you," Laurelei said with a smirk.
"But why didn't you come home after she brought you back?" asked Lavinia.
"I didn't want to come back. Not like this. Laurelei and I made an arrangement. If I help her to explore the kingdom, she'll do what she can to try and make me human again..."
"It was my fault," Laurelei said, interrupting Rolf. "Rolf's death was an unfortunate incident and I took advantage of it. I forced him into my service with promises I could scarcely hope to keep and now we are embroiled in something far bigger. War is coming."
"War," said Edwin? "What war? Between who?"
"Myself and my father. While travelling across this land, I found the state of it and the treatment of its people to be abhorrent."
Edwin's face creased and his eyes narrowed as a new revelation dawned on him. "If that's true then that means the situation at Golodomor..."
"We were involved, yes," said Laurelei. "But the situation is somewhat more complicated than it would seem. A proper explanation could prove tedious."
Edwin nodded. "We've got all night. Let's hear it."
And so, Rolf and Laurelei regaled them with the details of their journeys. Everything from their encounters with Viktor, Gutterwink, Yezhev and Doctor Foerster, all the way to the battle at Golodomor and the revelations about Mordica's Spire.
By the end of the tale, Edwin stood at the window and looked out across the garden with a stern gaze. He gulped down the last of his tea and took a long, calming breath. "That is quite a story. And Viktor can corroborate at least parts of it then?"
"It lines up well with current events, too. Everyone in Agares knows by now that Princess Laurelei has gone missing." Edwin looked back over his shoulder and cast a hard gaze on the vampire. "Word was sent out not long ago of your betrayal. I've no reason to doubt any of this but it all seems so absurd."
"Is it really so hard to believe?" said Rolf.
"There was a part where you fought against, and were then accompanied by a dead general from twenty years ago who had been transformed into a pig," said Dragana.
"Well... We did," Rolf replied.
"Enough," said Edwin, waving it off. "You know as well as I do that there are a great many inexplicable things in this world. Demons, monsters, magic, I've seen it all in my time. You've no reason to lie to me, Rolf. It's not in your character. If what you say is true, then it's likely the Wolfsguard is going to be involved at some point. Voluntarily or not."
Laurelei finished her cup, finding it enjoyable but of course no substitute for warm blood, and pushed it aside. "The sentiment is appreciated, but I don't quite see how hunting werewolves would prove a boon to us."
Both Edwin and Dragana laughed aloud at the girl's response.
"Oh really?" said Edwin. "You've seen what one boy who wasn't even good enough to make it in our ranks is capable of, wait until you see what a real wolf hunter can do!" The big man thumped his chest proudly and Dragana did the same. "Bahahah! We don't fight wolves because it's easy, princess! We do it because we're the only damn fools tough enough to manage it!"
Laurelei wondered for a moment, how she could be so blind. Rolf had to learn all that bluster and battle frenzy from somewhere. The Wolfsguard were like an entire force of Rolfs; they were all crazy!
"So, you intend to join our forces?" Laurelei asked, her voice rising and growing hopeful.
"No," Edwin replied. "I intend to consider it. There is much to think about. But as for you two, what do you intend to do now?"
"We need to go to Wolfsrest," said Rolf. "I don't know what it is yet, but there's something there. Something important."
"Before you do, I want you to meet me at the Wolfsguard fortress. I think you know why."
Rolf nodded slowly. "Yeah, I think so." His attention shifted toward Lavinia and he tried to smile at her. It was hard, trying to guess at her emotions behind that mask. He felt like he gotten pretty good at judging just from her eyes, but right now she was harder to read than ever. "Lavinia, can we talk alone for a while?"
"Yes, of course!" she said, almost too cheerfully before withdrawing into herself again. "I mean. Yes, I'd like that."
All the while, Laurelei just rolled her eyes.
Edwin had departed for the fortress and Dragana had returned to her shop. Meanwhile, Laurelei waited in Edwin's home for Rolf to finish his business. She sat by the window, resting her chin on her knuckles and staring at the pair of Rolf and Lavinia as they strolled down the road together. In spite of herself and even without her knowledge, she scowled at them and did her best to try and think about something else. She failed.
Then, there came a hard knock at the door.
Laurelei found herself in the strange position of being the only one in the house at the moment. A home that was not hers. And who would come knocking so late in the evening? As she understood it, Edwin was the captain of the guard and the acting mayor. Perhaps it was an emergency of some kind? "The master of the house is not in," she called to the knocker.
"I don't give a shit, princess!" the knocker called back.
She recognized the voice almost immediately. The foul tongue, the slurred speech and the Western accent, it was unmistakable. "Viktor? I was wondering if you'd make an appearance tonight."
The hermit walked in of his own accord and slammed the door behind him. Almost immediately he pulled a wineskin from his coat and swallowed a big mouthful of its contents, a strong red wine.
"What exactly are you doing here?" she asked, taking her eyes off the window for a moment.
"Came to find you and Rolf, have myself a look at the situation."
Laurelei quirked a brow at the hermit and drummed her fingers against the windowsill. "How could you have known we were here?"
The old man tapped his wide, crooked nose with a stubby finger. "The perfume and scented oils you enjoy so much are hard to miss."
"I shall endeavour to remember that in the future." Laurelei returned her attention to the window, finding Rolf and Lavinia still in view as they reached the bottom of the hill and stopped to watch the snow fall for a time.
"Ever think you might try minding your own business?" said Viktor as he pulled up a chair himself. Lowering himself into his seat, he leaned heavily on his cane.
"Are you implying something?"
"No, I'm outright telling you to stop spying. I imagine they went outside for some privacy."
Laurelei sighed loudly and laid her head against the window. "You are right of course... Rolf is in love with that girl. Isn't he?"
"Why do you care?"
"I do not," Laurelei replied dismissively. "I am merely surprised. In all our time together, Rolf never mentioned a romantic companion. To be honest, I feel sorry for the poor girl. What with Rolf's boorish temperament, I am sure she could attract a far better suitor."
Rolf and Lavinia's stroll through the snow soon took them out of Laurelei's view, and they vanished behind the trees.
The road ahead of them lead away from the village and toward Wolfsguard fort. It was a path they had walked together many times after Rolf had the taste knocked out of his mouth by Edwin. The roadside was piled high with snow and a freshly fallen sheet rested atop the path.
They hadn't spoken much yet, simply walked along and enjoyed each other's company.
"So, that Laurelei girl. She's very pretty," said Lavinia with her eyes locked firmly on her boots.
"Lavi, calm down. It's not like that. Laurelei's... I guess she's like a sister to me now."
The girl let out a long withheld breath and placed a hand over her thudding heart. "I was just worried because when she gets older... Well I don't think a Vega medicine girl can compete with a princess!" She laughed nervously, her voice stuttering and her whole stance awkward.
Rolf tried to say something but he spent far too long stumbling over his tongue before he managed to get something out. "That isn't true at all," he whispered.
The pair watched each other quietly for a moment. Then, she took hold of her mask and pulled it down around her neck where it formed a snug scarf, and for the first time in nearly a year, Rolf saw her smile again. She had a dark complexion with caramel skin from mixed Vega and Dravinian heritage, complimenting her chocolate coloured eyes and fluffy, ebony hair.
Rolf stared at her, stunned. To him, she had always been beautiful. Now, having gone so long without seeing her face, he was completely speechless.
"I think I'm done hiding for a while," she said at last.
Without another word, she hopped on her toes, wrapped her arms around Rolf and kissed him softly. She was warm to the touch but Rolf's undead body was almost like ice. She pulled away after only a moment, her face awash with confusion. "Y-you really are dead, aren't you?"
Rolf didn't say anything at first, still holding onto her but incapable of looking her in the eyes. "Yeah," he said in despondent tone.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she stammered, her voice practically a squeak. "I don't mind, I really dont! I'll get used to it."
Rolf sighed and retreated from her. He ran a hand through his hair and ground his teeth. "You can't just get used to this, Lavi. I'm not even human anymore."
"It's fine," she said again, hugging his arm tight and resting her head against his shoulder. "I'm just so happy that you're not gone."
"I don't know what to say to you. You shouldn't be okay with this, you shouldn't have to compromise for me. You should be happy and... I don't think you can be happy with a corpse like me."
"Why not?" she replied, clinging to his coat. "You're the same as before. You just feel a little different.
"I won't age with you," he said quietly. "I'll look like this forever."
"I don't see what's so bad about a husband that'll stay handsome no matter how old and grey I get," she said, playfully poking him in the ribs.
"We won't be able to do normal things together. I can't eat or sleep anymore."
"I guess I won't have to cook for you or share a bed." The humour had vanished from her voice, though she tried with all her might to force it.
"I can never give you children."
"I don't need children to be happy, Rolf."
Rolf pulled his arm free and stepped away from her. "You'll never have a normal life with me! Don't you understand that!?"
Lavinia stomped forward and pushed him as hard as she could. She caught him by surprise and shoved him so forcefully that he stumbled forward and collapsed face first in the snow bank. "Who said I wanted a normal life! I don't care about any of that, you idiot!"
Sputtering and kicking, Rolf pulled himself free and cleared the snow from his hair with a shake. "W-what was that about, Lavi!?"
"Our fathers were best friends, Rolf. We've known each other since we were babies! You're not just my best friend or the boy I love. You're my only friend and the only boy I've ever even thought about that way!" she yelled. "When all the older kids would pick on me because my mother was a Vega, you'd go and start a fight with them. And after they were done beating you senseless, I was the one who'd fix you up. You were my hero, and you still are. So you don't get to decide that I'd be happier without you!... Why are you smiling at me?" she asked, her verve vanishing all at once.
Rolf was indeed grinning ear to ear. "I just missed you. That's all."
"Stop it! I'm still angry with you. Now get out of that snowbank so I can knock you back into it!"
He pushed himself back to his feet and brushed his coat down, laughing under his breath. "Lavi, you know I can't stay here, right? Even if I were human, we can't be together. Not right now, anyway."
"I-I know, Rolf. You can't just be my hero anymore. You need to go out and be a hero to everyone."
Rolf nodded. "You could spend the rest of your life waiting for me. You deserve more than that."
"Shut up," Lavinia said in a sweet voice, smiling but with tears welling up in her eyes. She tried to wipe them away before they could form, but before she knew it, they streamed down her cheeks and dripped from her chin.
"I'll do everything I can to get my body back. And if I survive this, and I become human again, I'll come back to you."
Lavina looked away, burying her face in her scarves. "But, until then?" she said between muffled sobs.
"Until then, it's over."
Lavinia spent a long, aching moment just staring and breathing heavily . Then, through sheer force of will, she smiled at him, eyes still glistening wet. "You should go see my father. He's waiting for you."
"This is probably the last time you're going to see me for a while."
"I know," she said in a weak voice. Standing up on her toes, she kissed him again and then whirled around and hurried back to the house.
He watched her leave for a long time. Once she had disappeared from view he continued to stare straight ahead, watching the snow fall. "I'm sorry," he whispered to himself.
Inside the training hall of the Wolfsguard Fortress, where Rolf and Edwin had met countless times before, the old captain sat alone in the centre of the sparring ring. He was dressed in his armour, and across his lap lay a long object, just under four and a half feet long, and bound in cloth. It rested atop a large square of folded, slate blue fabric, the same shade as the banners and uniforms of the Wolfsguard.
Heavy footsteps broke the bothersome quiet of the empty chamber and in came Rolf. He bore a grim expression, and appeared far more serious than when he and Edwin had parted ways earlier that evening. "Wulfsever?" Rolf asked.
Getting to his feet, Edwin nodded. "Your father's prized blade. I've kept it polished for you, son. Ready for battle at any time. Should you earn it, that is."
The younger warrior stepped down into the ring and drew his weapon. "One last fight. For old time's sake."
Edwin placed Wulfsever at the edge of the ring and returned to stand in the centre, a few metres across from Rolf. "When you were still with us, I never thought that I'd miss this so much. You kept me on my toes."
"Glad I could keep an old man entertained."
Edwin chuckled quietly as he gave his blade a few practice swings. "I'm eager to see what you've learned out in the world."
"I've picked up a few tricks."
"So what's your plan for tonight, then?"
"Overpower you and beat you into submission."
"I'm not quite sure that constitutes a strategy, but nonetheless I marvel at the simplicity with which you approach life."
After a short stare down, Rolf made the first move. He approached with a quick dash and a sweeping lunge. The great cleaver swung wide and offered Edwin significant opening.
He was out of the blade's substantial range in a single quick step, sword lifted in a defensive stance. A simple thrust later and his blade closed in on Rolf's throat.
Rolf's own weapon rose up and smacked Edwin's away before unleashing a powerful downward stroke.
The slash was avoided with a sidestep and a parry, allowing Edwin to press his attack further. "You're a necronom now! That means I don't need to hold back anymore!" he said. An array of two-handed sweeps followed, Rolf barely able to pull his sword up in time to defend himself.
Each blow sent Rolf's blade rocking left and right until his defence was all but broken. After a quick, overhand feint to the left, Edwin's sword was yet again trained on his opponent's exposed vitals. He fought in a clean cut and defensive style. His motion was never more than what was necessary, never any flourishes, nothing fancy or clever, just precise parries and powerful strokes.
But as the attack neared its target, Rolf bounced back and narrowly avoided its sting. "Hah! You're as good as I remember!" said Rolf.
"And you're far better. A few months ago and you'd be flat on your ass by now!"
Under normal circumstances, Rolf would have just attacked again. In fact, it was moves like that which cost him fight after fight against Edwin. And so, he stopped. His eyes carefully scanned Edwin's pose. He'd seen it over and over again for years now. It was ingrained into his mind. Slowly, he shifted his own stance to mirror Edwin's. He squared his shoulders, spread his feet apart and held his sword parallel to his body.
The two warriors waited and watched one another, searching for openings in the other's stance.
Edwin was first to move this time, charging Rolf with three horizontal strokes, one after another. Rolf parried them, lacking the same ease as Edwin, but still managing to deflect each attack.
Edwin kept up the assault, unleashing a barrage of slashes from varying angles. High, low, vertical, diagonal. Rolf using the same, highly defensive, minimal movement style as his mentor, was able to avoid taking a hit.
"Not attacking any more?" Edwin asked.
"Just waiting for an opening!" Rolf shot back with a smile.
"Just waiting for the old man to tire himself out, are you? Very well, but you're about to learn a lesson in using a man's own moves against him!" Edwin thrust for Rolf's chest but then reversed his motion, switched his sword to his left hand and attempted to strike.
"He wants me to parry! It's an obvious feint, I've seen him do this move a thousand times before!" Rolf wasn't going to take the bait. If he didn't parry he could strike first. This was his opening. He struck for Edwin's chest, swinging his whole body into a powerful stroke. It wouldn't be enough to cut through Edwin's armour, but it was definitely going to knock him down hard.
Edwin however, had other plans. Just as Rolf was leaning into his swing, Edwin was already ducking. It had been an obvious feint. Obvious enough to lure Rolf into an attack that Edwin could predict all too easily. The weapon passed over Edwin's head and he stepped past Rolf's range and caught his wrist. With one hand holding Rolf's attack at bay, he drove the pommel of his sword into Rolf's face with the other.
The blow sent the boy stumbling back where he found Edwin's foot jammed behind his own and artfully tripping him. In but a second he was on his back, disarmed, and with the edge of Edwin's sword pressed against his neck.
"Bahahah! Still can't keep up!"
"You haven't won yet!" Rolf's hand flew toward his sword and Edwin moved his own blade to intercept. Meanwhile, with Edwin's attention elsewhere, Rolf brought his knee to his chest and slammed it into the other man's gut with all his might.
The blow sent the him staggering back with a loud grunt. While Edwin was stunned, the more spry Rolf was up first. He had to capitalize on his opponent's opening now and he had no time to reach for his sword. In an instant he pounced into the air, reeled his arm back and descended on his target.
Edwin regained his senses as Rolf was closing in and on instinct he threw his sword up in a defensive posture. Rolf's fall brought him down on Edwin's steel. It punctured his torso just beneath the ribs and pierced through the whole of his body to protrude from his back. But still, Rolf's punch landed flush on Edwin's jaw.
After a thunderous crack and a hard impact against the floor, the rest was a daze. Edwin's head spun and his vision went black for a few seconds. By the time he came to, Rolf was standing over him with Edwin's own sword pointed in his face.
He groaned loudly and pushed the sword away. "Rolf, did I ever tell you that you punch just like your father?"
Rolf smiled and passed Edwin's sword back to him, before taking him by the hand and hauling him back to his feet. "When you and dad fought, did you ever stab him in the stomach too?"
After recovering his composure, Edwin left Rolf in the centre of the ring while he collected the prize for their battle. "Here, try this on!" Edwin called as he tossed the heavy garment toward Rolf.
It unfolded in mid-air and when Rolf caught hold of it, it had revealed itself as a Wolfsguard coat. It was nearly identical to the one he wore now, though his current garb hung from him in tatters.
"I noticed yours was standing on its last legs. This is one of your father's spares," said Edwin. "When battling wolves, these things don't tend to last long."
Hurriedly, Rolf discarded the shredded remnants of his coat and donned the new one. It fit just as well as the first, as he and his father were of a like size. By the time he'd adjusted it to his liking and gotten comfortable, Edwin had returned with Wulfsever in hand.
He pulled away the cloth to reveal a blade of exceedingly talented craftsmanship. The hilt was bound in black leather and the pommel was a solid silver ball. It bore a stout cross guard, wreathed in the fur of a white werewolf. Even the scabbard and belt were ornate. Crafted of black leather with silver buckles and tracery.
"This is Wulfsever. Your father's blade," said Edwin. He pulled the sword from its sheath and the gleam of its surface was astounding. The blade was more broad than a normal sword of its length, though only slightly. It was a fitting shape, as it was intended to slay werewolves, not men. The silver would ensure the wounds wouldn't regenerate, but a greater heft would still be required to sever and pierce the beast's much thicker hides, muscles and bone.
"It's a bastard sword. It's meant to be wielded with both hands, but it's not too unwieldy to use with one if the situation calls for it. It's made of silver so it's heavier than steel. Nearly three kilograms. Not difficult to fight with but for most men it can be tiring, though I don't see that as a problem for you." Sheathing the blade once more, Edwin pushed it into Rolf's hands and locked eyes with him again. "You deserve it, Rolf."
He held it in his hands, admired its form, and gripped it tightly. "Edwin," he said quietly. "Thank you. Not for the sword; for everything. When my father died, you stepped in and looked after me in any way you could."
"You don't need to thank me, Rolf. You were the son of a man I would call my brother. You were the girlhood love of my daughter. You have always been family to me. You are my son."
Rolf shook his head. "No. You were a father to me for years, even though I didn't deserve it! I never listened to anything you said and look where it's got me!"
"No! Damnit Edwin, you deserved more from me! You, Lavinia, the whole village. I just... I was to focused on my problems, and what I wanted, to care what anyone else said."
Edwin didn't say anything this time. He crossed his arms and gave Rolf a stern glare, waiting for him to finish.
"But I will fix this and make up for my mistakes. You won't need to be ashamed of me anymore, alright?"
"Ashamed?" Edwin repeated with a sigh. "Is that how you think I should feel?" Before Rolf knew what was happening, Edwin placed a hand on his shoulder and looked him hard in the eye. "You were a pain in the ass, Rolf. Biggest one I've ever met. And you made a mistake, just like everyone else who's ever walked the face of Guul'Zaroth. You suffered for it. You're still suffering for it. But when you make a mistake, you can't always correct it. Sometimes, it's not possible to make it go away. You need to accept it, learn from it, and leave better than before. Do you understand?"
He stared at the ceiling and spoke slowly, the gruff edge to his voice fading away. "I don't know," he replied . "But I think there's one more person I should see before I leave."
"Then go. But I want you to know that for all your faults and for all your mistakes, I've never been ashamed of you. And I never will be."
Rolf didn't know what so say anymore. And so, he just nodded and started toward the exit. He looked back over his shoulder more times than he cared to admit, just to see Edwin watching him. Before he knew it, he was outside.
Much to his surprise, he wasn't alone. Standing beside the entrance, was Laurelei. Her cloak was pulled extra tight around her shoulders and the ever growing winds whipped it about as if trying to tear it away from her.
She took one look at Rolf's face before her own expression softened. "Are you alright?"
Rolf just nodded slowly.
"Well... alright," she said with no small degree of skepticism. "Do we depart for the Cemetery now?"
"Not yet. I've got one more stop to make."
"I need to go home."
Even from the street, the change in Silvercoat Hall was instantly visible. The exterior had been restored with fresh finish, the garden was properly tended and all the shattered windows were replaced. Even the fence had been completely restored. The manor was dark, and the freshly fallen snow had piled upon the roof and covered the grounds.
Rolf and Laurelei stood at the front gate, quietly admiring the estate.
The necronom was now armed with two swords. His old slab was strapped to his back and Wulfsever was belted at his left hip.
"This was your home?" Laurelei asked incredulously.
"Why the surprise?" Rolf said with a growl.
"I was expecting some sort of hovel or perhaps a bear's cave."
"Funny," Rolf muttered. From a small pouch on his belt, Rolf pulled a large key. With a heavy clink, he unlocked the gates and pushed them inwards, displacing a large mound of snow in the process. "Key still works, so it's still mine as far as I'm concerned."
"Perhaps I've merely been away from the luxuries of Castle Umbra for too long, but this appears rather pleasant."
Rolf lead the way through the garden and up to the front door. "I lived in this house all my life. Seventeen years. But it hasn't looked like this in a long time."
"It certainly doesn't appear to be abandoned," said Laurelei. "Rolf, with whom did you live?"
"For the last five years, nobody," Rolf's voice lowered as he speak, and he continued in a melancholic whisper. "I lived here alone. Edwin made a few offers to take me in but I always rejected him."
"... I see," Laurelei replied. While they walked along the path, she looked up at him with a curious glance. "In all our time together, why didn't you mention any of this? Until tonight, I knew almost nothing of your family, and your life before we met. All I knew about you, you told in a fit of a madness. Why?"
"I didn't want to talk about it. Why would I want to be reminded of all... This?"
"Do you despise your old life so much?"
"No," Rolf grumbled. "It—it's kind of the opposite."
Before Laurelei could ask any more questions, Rolf pounded on the door. There was no response from inside at first, and so Rolf knocked again, harder this time. Soon, there came a noise of fumbling and baffled murmurs from behind the door. Then, it peeked open a crack, still clasped together buy a chain, and the face of thin man in his late 30s peered back at them.
"Wh-h-ho are you? How ever did you get past the gate? I locked it myself." His voice was posh and polite but bore an ever present sense of panic to it.
"Grigori, it's me."
"Who is me!? I don't know you. The lady and master of the house are not accepting visitors at this time thank you goodbye!" he said without a single pause. With that, he slammed the door shut.
"Dammit Grigori! It's Rolf!"
There was another brief pause and then door opened a small crack once more. "Master Hrodwulf Von Ziegel died three months ago sir I would ask you leave and try not to be quite so insensitive in the future goodbye," and just as before, he slammed the door shut.
"Grigori! If you don't open this damn door, I'm gonna kick it down and rip off the ring finger on your left hand so that they match!"
After several long, quiet seconds, their was a clink and the door came open. Grigori stood in the threshold. He was a lanky and very prim looking man in a house coat. Despite being dressed as if he'd just gotten out of bed, his light brown hair remained neatly combed. And, just as Rolf had stated, he was missing the ring finger on his right hand.
He looked Rolf up and down with a furrowed brow and then slowly, the colour drained from his face. "By Domoi, it is you! I-I-I do not understand! Are you a vengeful spirit perhaps?"
Rolf tried to protest, but as he opened his mouth, Grigori stopped him a raised finger.
"No wait!" he exclaimed. "I know what this is! Oh, it does serve me right for reading those terror stories. Now I've given myself a dreadful nightmare. Well, I will not be caught off guard this evening. Do your worst!"
"Grigori, I don't have time for this. Go get aunt Mathilda."
"And who is this young lady? I understand why a nightmare would send you, but by all the spirits of this house, I cannot imagine what the aim is in conjuring her."
The butler leaped to attention and nervously adjusted his robe. "Very well, very well. I'll play along for now. Please wait here, the madam and master will be right out."
Grigori vanished up the stairs while Rolf and Laurelei waited. After a few minutes, the butler returned with a very confused looking couple. Karl and Mathilda arrived dressed in housecoats and nightwear, both looking simultaneously stunned for a moment. Mathilda adjusted her spectacles to be sure she was actually seeing what she thought she was.
"Here they are, Madam and Master Schnyder. Just as I described," said the butler.
"Y-yes Grigoiri... You are dismissed," Mathilda said, still barely able to believe what she was seeing.
"Oh, spirits thank you," he said in a dry manner before departing.
"I don't understand. What's happening here?" said Karl.
Before either of them could utter another word, Rolf stepped close and wrapped an arm around each of them, hugging them both tightly.
"It's complicated and I don't have much time," he said, before releasing the hug. "I survived that night, thanks to her. Rolf gestured toward Laurelei.
"Her?" Mathilda repeated.
"Laurelei," the princess, said.
"Well then. Deepest thanks to you, miss Laurelei," said Mathilda, sounding no less confused than before.
Laurelei suppressed the urge to correct the woman and tell it was, 'Princess Lockhart.'
"Grigori came in telling us you were here. I didn't know what to think other than our poor butler had lost his mind. But now... I-I'm sorry if I seem out of sorts Rolf. We held a funeral for you, we even set up gravestone on the grounds for you."
"I've said this a lot of times tonight, so I'll do this fast. I'm sorry. I screwed up, you were right."
"I was right?" she said, looking at him over the brim of her spectacles. "About what?"
"About me. About this house," Rolf replied. "I wasn't looking after it. All I cared about was that my parents were gone. I didn't even consider that you were suffering too. You lost a brother. We never got a long, and I think a lot of that was my fault."
They both watched Rolf, still utterly baffled by everything but a level of understanding was started to form on their faces. Karl placed a hand on his wife's shoulder and nodded slowly.
"I need to go somewhere far away, now. I don't know how long I'll be gone, or if I'll ever make it back. But I just... I wanted to make sure you knew that first."
Mathilda let out a long breath as if she'd been holding it in all night. "Rolf I... It's not all your fault. I think that maybe we both could have put forth more effort to like one another. Would you like to come in. Your cousins are asleep, but I can wake them before you go."
"Ugh, this is hard enough as it is," said Rolf. "Silvercoat Hall, it's yours."
Mathilda shook her head. "Rolf, I won't pretend to understand what's going on, but if you really are standing in front of me right now, you're still the head of House Ziegel. This is still your property."
Laurelei listened curiously and her interest piqued at the mention of Rolf as head of the family. How absurd, she thought, that Rolf is the head of a noble family. It seemed impossible that the scraggly, vulgar boy she'd spent the last three months traveling with was actually of some high blood by human standards.
"Sorry, I'm not asking. That's a command, keep the damn house. And Karl," Rolf lifted his old slab of a sword from his back and pushed it into the man's arms. "Leave this by my gravestone. If anybody asks, you found it in the woods, covered in my blood. The last of my remains." Without another word, Rolf turned and made for the gates with Laurelei trailing behind.
Karl and Mathilda stood in the threshold, looking at one another with bewildered gazes until Rolf slammed gate shut behind himself.
Behind Silvercoat Hall was a wide yard, with a stone memorial tucked away in the corner. It stood in the shape of disk with eight points extending in a compass pattern, a traditional symbol in Agares to represent the sun. It was labelled, 'Hrodwulf Von Ziegel,' and from that night forward the infamous scrap sword he carried into battle was laid against the stone.