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Hi, I'm Dread. I'm going to give a detailed breakdown of this prologue and tell you how I think it can be improved. So first I'll start...

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Surrounded by umberwood trees, an old path cut through the drowned forest, although path might be a rather gracious assessment of the uneven stretch of dirt, intermingled with roots and overzealous bushes. The gushing rivers near the edges of the forest had quickly given way to the swampland that dotted the landscape in every direction.

The night was still early and this late in the year, the sky would remain a deep blue black for quite some time. Not that it mattered all that much, the canopy overhead was so thick that divining the position of the moon would devolve to naught but wild guessing.

"I don't like this one bit," said Karina, her hands planted defiantly on her hips.

"Of course you don't. You dislike everything I do," replied Laurelei.

"Well, so far your contributions to my life have been forcing me to abandon my home and fouling up months worth of spying. Am I to remain hopeful that you're due for a success?"

Laurelei stopped in place and angrily stamped her foot, only for her heel to sink into the mushy earth below. "I am offering you a significant opportunity here. How dreadfully ungrateful can you be!?"

The whole group came to a halt, Laurelei and Karina matching heated stares while the three men in the party deigned to observe for the time being.

"Ughhh..." Nigel groaned, burying his eyes behind his hand "All this yelling is terrible on my hangover."

"You really think this is going to work? That Orlov is just going to listen to you? That he'll just put an end to all the suffering he's spread across Dravina and hand over vampire secrets to a justiciar while he's at it? You must be awfully slow if you think that for even a moment, any of that is going to happen."

"Of course I don't think that!" she screamed back, her frustration bubbling over. "I am not so dull! I know full well that Orlov cannot be trusted. I encountered his personal assassin, attempting to kidnap me only a short time ago. I'm giving you a way in. If and when diplomacy fails, you have a very convenient distraction with which to spring your own little plan. If you thought you could succeed with two, you should have little trouble now with five."

"And why should I trust you?"

"What?" Laurelei replied, her eyes slowly widening.

"Why should I believe anything you've told me. All I know about you is that you're a vampire and that by your own admission, you killed that boy," she said, pointing to Rolf. "Now I'm supposed to put my life and my husband's in your hands?"

Laurelei went quiet, hands balled into fists and fangs clenched furiously. No words were exchanged between the two for several long moments and Laurelei merely stared at Karina with an expression that implied that she was currently trying to mentally will the woman to burst into flames.

"Hey, look!" said Miles. "Over by the bank, some rare herbs. Come along Laurelei and I'll teach a bit about alchemy."

"What? No, Miles, I was having a-," started Laurelei before being promptly interrupted.

"Now please," he said. Putting a hand on her shoulder, he gently guided her away and over to the edge of a nearby pond. The alchemist crouched down and began sifting through some nearby reeds. "So, I sense that you're not getting along well with Karina?"

"Mr. Haydn, that is the very definition of understatement. I have no idea what to even say to her. Every time I speak it's as if I've just kicked dirt in her face." Laurelei sighed deeply and stared at the still surface of the pond, examining Miles' reflection next to the empty space where hers would have been, if not for the vampirism.

Among the entire group, Miles was the only one who might've been able to pass as just an ordinary man. No curses or Justiciar uniforms to be found, just a man reaching his middle years and carrying a rather large bag of alchemical supplies. Of course, there was the addition of a crossbow. It was slung to his back by a leather strap and bore heavy wooden frame. It was different than its common brethren however, as it had a more mechanical aspect, bearing a metal case on its underside and a lever fastened on the weapon's right flank.

"I just don't understand what I've done to make her hate me so much."

"She doesn't hate you," said Miles, eyes still focused on his work. "In fact, I think she'd rather like you if circumstances were different. But my wife and I, we've had some encounters with your people. Things that go beyond the normal justiciar-vampire stuff. She's had a harder time letting go of it."

Her eyes shifted toward Miles and she lifted her brow, only slightly. "What do you mean? What kind of encounters?"

The alchemist pulled his hands from the water and rested them on his knees, meeting Laurelei's gaze. "I can't tell you. Certain things have to stay private until she's ready to talk about it. But you need to understand, she's a sweet woman. A loving woman. She just... doesn't know how to look past certain things."

"Apologies Mr. Haydn but I thought you wanted to discuss alchemy. What kind of herbs are you gathering?"

"Oh yes, the herbs. I believe they were of the imaginary variety."

"I beg your pardon but are you saying there's nothing here?"

"Nothing whatsoever, I just wanted to have a little chat with you, Lady Lockhart. Don't let yourself get too upset by Karina's words. They come from a place of pain and it's really not about you." He pushed himself to his feet, adjusted his pack and gestured for Laurelei to follow. "Come on, let's head back. I'll have a talk with Karina soon and we'll straighten everything out once we can make camp somewhere." He turned to leave but promptly stopped in place when he realized she wasn't following. "Laurelei?"

"Mr. Haydn, not to gloss over our conversation but I believe there's a somewhat more pressing issue. What is that?" she asked as she pointed into the swamp.

Miles stepped closer and pushed his glasses up on his nose, focusing hard on the scene ahead. At first, it appeared only as a large swath of blackness but within a few moments he could make out a shape with a pair of gleaming yellow eyes. It appeared to be the upper part of something's head. Dark green and slick with slime, bearing thick, scaled skin. It glided through the water, drawing closer by the second and it wasn't alone More eyes sprang from the darkness and four more pairs emerged.

"Gill-men," he muttered under his breath. "Let's head back, now. We need to keep moving before they get any closer."

Laurelei nodded in agreement. She'd read of the creatures in her studies, only minimally. They wouldn't hunt people too far beyond their territory but were fierce and aggressive with anything that got too close. Though it was peculiar to see so many grouped together at one time.

The pair hurried away from the water's edge and returned to their companions. Karina opened her mouth to say something but Miles was already speaking before she could manage. "No time, we need to hurry. There's a cluster of around half a dozen gill-men coming this way. I'd rather not engage them at the moment."

"Impossible," said Karina with a shake of her head. "Gill-men are solitary hunters and they never come this far out. They make their homes near the middle of the forest."

"Darling, the scientist in my heart agrees with you but the realist in there just saw them coming this way."

In that moment, Rolf finally broke his silence and stepped into the conversation. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword, ready to draw the blade at a moment's notice. "Hold on a minute, what the hell is a gill-man?"

"Well," said Miles in a deliberate manner. "It is a man... with gills. And scales and claws and fins and some very pointy teeth. If that has sufficiently answered your question, let's hurry this along."

Rolf nodded and the group turned to head further down the path. They only took a few short steps before spotting the array of bright yellow eyes just up ahead. Four of the creatures stood on the path, over six and a half feet tall with broad bodies and long limps. Their fishy forms loped forward, hitting the ground with loud slaps of their long webbed feet.

Everyone drew their weapons and Laurelei was already sifting through her book and scribbling out fresh sigils.

Miles peered back toward their flanks, spotting two more groups of similar size coming from the left and right. “This isn’t right, Gill-men are ambush hunters. They pounce and drown their prey,” he said in an exasperated voice. “They’re circling us but why? They don’t move in groups and they certainly don’t attack people. Chase them away, kill if threatened, definitely not this.”

“No choice but to fight?” asked Rolf with his cleaver at the ready.

“At this rate, running is out of the question but dying is still an option,” replied the alchemist.

The decision came about quietly and simultaneously as the group leaped into action.

The first group to charge was the four blocking the road. Miles instinctively moved to left and Karina took the right. He braced and readied his crossbow, centering it on the nearer of the two creatures on his side. At only twenty metres, a simple shot. With a squeeze of the trigger, his bowgun let out a satisfying twang and loosed a heavy bolt. It lodged itself squarely between the eyes of his target. The creature gurgled and tumbled out of its wild charge, flopping wetly to the ground.

Weapon held at the ready, he pulled back on the lever. The device let out a light, mechanical thunk and in only a moment a new bolt had been readied. However, the second gill-man had closed the distance frighteningly fast and was already within striking distance. It reached out with both arms and hissed ferociously. Miles tried to move back as he released his next bolt but didn't quite get out of range. His attack landed solidly in the chest but the newly limp body of the charging creature slammed into Miles and knocked him off his feet. He let out a groan, the wind knocked from his body and before he knew it, he was on his back with the three hundred some pound body of a gill-man bearing down on him.

Karina took up a fencer's pose, one hand on her blade and the other held aloft. The charge came and was swiftly neutralized as the justiciar ducked and extended her leg, twirling with the agility and grace of a skilled dancer. The first attacker stumbled past her and the second found its legs taken over from under it by Karina's sweep. Just as the first was righting itself, it met with a flurry of steel. Her hand was a blur as her sword flicked left and right, biting out chasms of flesh from the creature's body. In a few moments it stood with long gashes up and down its frame from its feet to its face, black ooze dripping from each of its dozen or so new orifices.

The surviving beast was pushing its way back to its feet and preparing to lunge at its target's back, only to receive and forceful smash in the temple from the pommel of Karina's sword, landed with precision and power despite the fact that she'd not even turned to face her target. Flat on its back, it could only watch as the woman whirled around and struck a lethal slash across its throat.

Laurelei and Rolf took up the right flank and Nigel covered the left. Two of the monsters were making a line for the vampire princess but that number was swiftly reduced to one when she let loosed a page from her book. The torn slip of paper ignited in mid-air and burst into a blinding flash as it connected with a gill-man’s chest. What remained was a smoky black husk.

The force of the spell sent the accompanying attacker into a headlong stumble where it met Rolf’s steel. He swung the blade in a horizontal arc, sweeping it over Laurelei’s head and smashing it right through the creature’s shoulder, splitting the clavicle and collarbone in half, lodging itself in the chest cavity.

“Three more coming, Rolf. I’ll need time for another spell. Hold them.”

“On it!” he growled as he pulled on his blade, only to find it wouldn’t budge. He looked frantically toward the three gill-men incoming and tried again. “I said, on it!” he braced his foot against his first target’s chest and pulled back. The blade moved a bit but it was still jammed in too deep and the enemies were too close. “Dammit!” he said with resignation. "No choice then. Rrrraaaaggghhhh!" he roared as he charged in bare-handed.

Three Gil-Men stood before Nigel and he scoffed. With one overhead smash he crushed the right-most creature into a motionless, broken mass in a black pool of ooze. The nearest attempted to attack but received a swift hoof to the chest and was sent arcing backwards and crashing into the lake from where it came. The third managed to get a swing in, stroking its ilk-covered claws across Nigel’s belly. It left four, long cuts along the pig’s barrel shaped torso, not that he noticed. Effortlessly he snatched up the creature and hurled it straight up into the air. It hissed and howled and then fell quiet when it was swatted from the air by Nigel’s mace, driven back into the ground with a multitude of snaps and crunches.

“Hmph, weaklings,” he snorted. With his first three targets down, he slumped against the nearest tree and dropped to his backside.

“Nigel!” Laurelei yelled while frantically drawing up her next spell. “What are you doing!?”

“Trying to sleep this off. Miles’ generosity has left me with a throbbing headache.”

“Sleeping! You will do no such thing, get up this instant. There are more coming!”

“I handled my side. You can take care of yours and we'll be done with this.”

“Rrrggh! Damnit Nigel!”  With a final stroke she finished the sigil and ripped it from the book. “Rolf, stand aside!”

The necronom held his ground as best he could, trading blows with a trio of gill-men. He was hard pressed to avoid three sets of claws at a time but he’d done a decent job of keeping them staggered with hard elbows, kicks and jabs. At Laurelei’s command, he dived left and cleared a path between her and the gill-men.

She held the page out and in a flash of light a torrent of wind burst forth. It cut through the air with a sharp whistle and hit with the force of a hurricane, sweeping the three targets up into the air as their bodies twisted and flailed for purchase. In a single blast they sailed past the canopy and disappeared among the branches.


“More on the way!” Rolf said, getting back to his feet.

Approaching from the right flank was no less than another eight gill-men, with who knows how many more behind them.

“Curses!” said Laurelei. She kicked at the dirt in frustration and evaluated her options. A quick peak over her shoulder informed her that more had gathered on the road and the numbers were growing increasingly difficult for Karina to contend with. Meanwhile she could hear Nigel bellowing from the opposite flank.

A horde of fourteen gill-men had pounced upon him, their combined strength and mass pinning him despite a violent struggle and loud, squealing protests.

“I can do something,” said Laurelei more trying to reassure herself than anything else. “A sigil or a spell of some kind. Just give me a little more time.”

Rolf was at her side now, wrenching his sword free from gill-man’s chest. “Nobody’s getting through me. Count on it.” With that, he rushed toward the swelling mass of fish monsters, flailing his blade and howling like a madman.

With enough struggling, Miles forced the dead gill-man off  and took a deep breath of relief. That breath transformed itself into a scream of fear as the dead creature was almost immediately supplanted by a live one. Its hands clutched his shoulders tightly and he cringed at seeing those needle-like drawing ever-closer. With a flick of his wrist he produced a dagger from his sleeve and jammed it between the thing’s ribs. The attack accomplished little aside from angering the beast. With a spittle spewing roar it slammed its forehead into Miles’ nose, cracking his spectacles in the process and sending a rapid stream of hot blood pouring over his lips and down his chin.

“Karina!” he cried.

The beast lifted him into the air and hurled him further up the road where he smacked into the dirt path and was almost immediately surrounded by more of the creatures.

Just as Miles left its grasp, the point of a sword pierced through its back and out of its chest. Karina ripped her blood slaked blade from the wound and turned her attention toward the ever expanding crowd of monsters.

A horde of gill-men stood between Karina and her husband, all hissing and advancing with just enough care not to march straight into the sting of the justiciar’s sword. There were seven of the things encroaching on her, spreading out and attempting to encircle her.

“Damn!” she cursed, wanting desperately to rush through their line and get to Miles but such an act would be little more than suicide. “Miles!” she cried over the ever present seething exhalations of the monsters around her. To her left she saw Nigel being dragged toward the swamps by an increasing large cluster of gill-men and to her right she saw Rolf's wild struggling and relentless attacks giving way to the sheer mass of the beasts. His sword was ripped his hands and his body was pinned as he too was pulled into the swamps.

Meanwhile Laurelei stood only a few metres away, frantically scribbling in her tome while sparing short, fretting glances toward her companions. “No, no, no!” she yelled, grip tightening so hard around her brush that Karina thought it might snap in half at any moment.

Gritting her teeth, Karina let out a long, low breath. Her lips parted and moved in silence, then grew to a whisper. Left hand raised, she slowly gestured side to side, her fingers performing an intricate sequence of movements as if tapping on the keys of an invisible piano. Little beads of light formed around her hand and traced her motions, creating streaks of white illumination with every motion. “Myetch…”

“Don’t!” cried Miles, his voice cutting her off and growing distant.

She caught a short glimpse of him, his cry drawing her gaze. It looked as if he was being dragged away by a pair of creatures, still conscious and alive as he was pulled up the road and behind a wall of trees. “It’s too risky! Karina please, don’t do it!” His voice faded further and grew muffled, his words from the point forward too difficult to make out.

Karina fell silent, frustration washing over her hand trembling. “Urgh!” she grunted, clenching her hand into a fist and dispersing the magical energies. “With steel alone then!” Sword raised, she took note of the force she stood against, mind searching desperately for an advantage to exploit but there was none to be found. Her knees bent and she readied her blade in a thrusting position, poised to lunge through the wall of gill-men if need be.  Then she felt a small hand clutch hers and she looked down to spot Laurelei at her side, staring up at her.

“Wait!” said Laurelei.

“What, why!?”

Without another moment’s hesitation, Laurelei raised her left hand. Between her fingers was a torn page bearing an illuminated sigil. With a swift, downward stroke she planted the page against the earth and a rumbling quake ensued. Before Karina knew what was happening, huge roots burst forth from the earth in a ring around herself and Laurelei, roughly three metres across. They stretched upwards and circled around one another and within seconds they sprouted leaves and delicate white flowers. The thick roots criss-crossed over one another and formed a lattice around the two before sprouting branches and a thick canopy at the top.

“What is this!?” said Karina, back to Laurelei’s as the gill-men beset the forested fortress on all sides.

Their flailing arms reached through gaps between the roots and swung at the air. Their teeth gnawed uselessly at the defenses and they pounded against it with their fists.

“A sigil, one of the more complicated I’ve crafted. It will keep them out for as long as we require.”

Deciding it was best to multi-task in a situation like this, Karina took to thrusting her blade between the roots and skewering the build-up of gill-men through the hearts and eyes, one at a time. “We’re trapped in here! You’re just going to let them take my husband, your men?”

“Of course not!” Laurelei shot back. “I would never-!” Before she could finish the though, a wet, powerful hand clutched her by the shoulder and she let out a gasp.

Its claws shredded through the fabric of her dress and dug into her flesh, piercing the skin and sending little trails of blood streaming down her arm. It yanked back with all its might and slammed her into the wall of roots, swiftly knocking the wind from her body.

Laurelei winced deeply and tried to scream but it came out as nothing more than a forceful heave. She watched as Karina spun around and lunged forward, thrusting her blade with near surgical precision just above and to the left of Laurelei’s head. She plunged the point of her weapon straight through the monster’s heart. Its grip released immediately and it slumped against the wall.

Laurelei dropped to her knees and coughed hard. She took in a long breath, regaining a small measure of composure, and pushed herself to her feet. Her shoulder felt hot and wet as she dabbed it with her fingertips and drew her hand back to find the white gloves stained red. The sight of her own blood made her feel sick to her stomach and so she refocused her attention toward Karina. “Th-thank you.”

She didn’t answer. With her back to Laurelei, she continued to eliminate any gill-men still clinging to the edges of their fortress. Within a few minutes the creatures seemed to be giving up and those that didn’t received a quick stab through a vital organ or two. Most of them seemed to know what was going to happen if they kept it up and abandoned their efforts.

“You let them get away with my husband,” said Karina as she reached into her coat, drew out a small cloth and carefully wiped the blood from her sword before sheathing it.

“You’re not the only one concerned. They took my friends,” replied Laurelei.

“That is not the same!” The woman yelled and shot Laurelei a hard glare over her shoulder. “Stop pretending you care about that boy! You killed him and turned him into a corpse puppet to serve your interests. They took away your tool, not your love! I gave up the Shepherds, my whole family for Miles! Don’t try and compare your situation to mine!”

“Shut up!” Laurelei screamed back. “You shut your mouth, you don’t know anything! Everyone keeps reminding me, telling me that I killed him but they don’t know! They don’t know what happened that night and they don’t know how I feel!”

“You said it yourself, you killed him!”

“Because I was scared!”

Things suddenly grew very quiet and very still. Both ladies stared at one another, neither one moving or saying a word for close to half a minute.

Laurelei broke eye contact and took to staring at her shoes as she continued. “I… I was afraid of him. I woke up in the woods, alone, surrounded by bodies and I’d… never been outside the castle before. Then a bloody man, wielding a sword staggered toward me and I panicked.”

Karina furrowed her brow and leaned back against the inner wall of the fortress.

“I spent hours, crying over his body, trying to draw every last bit of knowledge about necromancy I’d ever learned in a desperate attempt to undo what I’d done to him. So don’t you dare tell me how I should feel about Rolf. He’s my friend and I will not let anything happen to him, not tonight or ever!”

Instinctively she reached up and pulled the brim of her hat down over her eyes. “…Does he know about this?” she asked in a voice so different from only moments ago. What was once harsh and angry was now soft and gentle.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “He can’t know... If he did, he'd keave me.”

"Why? I don't understand?"

"Because I can end the spell on his heart at any time and turn him back into a lifeless corpse. If he knows what really happened and that I wouldn't actually do it. Well, he wouldn't follow me if he didn't have to."

“You’re wrong,” said Karina, actually flashing a smile toward Laurelei. “I’ve seen the way he looks out for you. The way he throws himself headlong into danger to keep you safe. He wants to protect you.”

Laurelei stared at Karina, her mouth agape as if she were about to speak but no words came.

“And you want to protect him too, right? You had a plan when you put us in here so tell me, what do we do?”

“W-well,” she started, stammering a little. "The gill-men weren't trying to kill us. They had Miles, Rolf and Nigel pinned and they dragged them off alive. It would have been easier to just tear their throats and kill them first, correct?"

Karina nodded, cringing slightly at the newly conjured mental image of her husband's death.

Laurelei move a hand toward her tome, hanging to her shoulder with a leather strap and adorned with a variety of pouches and loops. From iside a small pocket she produced a folded square of paper and held it up to Karina. "So long as Rolf's alive, I can track him with this."

Karina took the square of paper and carefully unfolded it to reveal Laurelei's compass sigil, the ornate eight-way pattern written in the necronom's blood. The Western facing arrow was illuminated in red.

"With any luck, Rolf and the others will all be together."

Karina nodded slowly, placing her chin on her knuckles. "If we're careful, we'll have the element of surprise this time."

"Karina," Laurelei asked, her voice lowering slightly. "Could I ask you a question now?"

She nodded.

"You were about to cast a spell. I heard the incantations, I felt the energy. Then you stopped. Is magic not an integral part of what makes a justiciar? Why stop?"

Karina pulled her hat down over her eyes and her lips straightened into a firm line. "That... is private," she said in a cool voice. "I'll be holding onto my secrets for just a little longer."
The South of Agares was never easy to traverse considering the vast, mountainous terrain, weekly storms and ill trodden paths. It was only made worse so late in the year, the latter days of the month of Murmux waning and the cold weather intensifying. The snow had yet to fall in any earnest and the early morning sun warmed the high pass as much as could be hoped and so the lone carriage hurried along.

The dirt road winded left and right around boulders and thick tree walls as they sprang up. For the sake of the horses, the driver sighed with relief when he spotted the plateau up ahead. A leathery, grey skinned necronom garbed in a black cloak held the reins of the fine carriage. It was a solidly built vehicle with the royal insignia of the Lockhart family emblazoned on the door.

Cresting the hill, the driver's brow furrowed at the sight ahead and he pulled back on the straps, bringing the horses full stop. There was a small chasm in the path, which was to be expected, however the normally solid if not a touch aged bridge had seemingly collapsed. Not more than a few metres in, the whole thing was smashed and splintered to pieces. "Now when the hell did this happen!"  he grumbled as he threw down the reins in exasperation and climbed out of his seat. His old, long deceased bones creaked as he climb down to the ground and hobbled over to the little disaster.

"Nobody could post a damn sign at some point," he said, muttering curses under his breath. Standing at the edge of the bridge, he looked upon the wreckage with curiosity. He'd assumed inclement weather but he'd not heard any particular storms in the area. The wood showed no scorch marks, ruling out a stray bolt of lightning. No stray trees appeared to have crashed through the middle either. While harumphing and gathering his robes he turned back to the carriage with suddenly he felt a solid thunk in the centre of his chest. His eyes flashed down to spot a crossbow bolt planeted just to the right of his heart, a fact he was all too greatful for. He didn't have long to express that gratitude as the force of the bolt sent him stumbling backward and before he knew it, he'd lost his feet and was dropping like a stone into the gap below, his pained cries echoing off the walls and disappearing into the darkness.

At the side of the road a man perched upon a boulder, crossbow braced against his shoulder. He was a middle aged dressed in mostly simple peasants clothes and simple leather armour with a sword on his belt. "Now!" he bellowed, discarding his crossbow and leaping to the road with sword in hand.

At his call, just over a dozen armed men and women surged out from the surrounding trees. Several held freshly lit torches, in spite of the clear sunlight, leather skins sloshing with oil hitched to their hips.

"Burn the carriage, force them into the sun!" screamed their leader. His words were accompanied by the sudden crack of thunder and all at once the sky darkened. It was as if the sun had been doused like a lamp as the black clouds swirled above the mountain and blotted out the light. Rain came down in thick sheets, some phantom flood gates in sky had been released and within moments the clear morning had become a dreadful storm.

The assailants were drenched, stalling for briefly as they were buffeted by sudden winds and fond their boots filling up with rainwater.

"Ignore the strorm!" cried the commander. The next to leave his mouth however was a gout of his own blood and a gurgling scream. The arrow had been arced perfectly, ignoring wind and rain it sailed through the air and landed square in the unlucky man's trachea. All eyes shot to the source, Orso Khan standing next to the carriage after rolling out the window and loosing the arrow in question before his feet touched the ground. Another shaft was already notched and the lumpy, malformed face of the vampire was a sombre mask.

While his face was ugly in every sense of the word, the weapon in his hand was a thing of beauty. A finely curved composite bow of elegant craftsmanship and carved with foreign symbols, patterns and characters from a language not one person Orso had met in this country could speak. "Run away and live. Please." He spoke as if he had a mouthful of pebbles, slurring and lisping through broken teeth and half paralytic lips. Of course his accent didn't help the matter much. Half Vatrussian and the other half was something implacably foreign.

Only seconds later did a volley of crossbow fire fly toward the vampire but he was gone before they could make contact. He slipped out of their path and atop the carriage, each bolt piercing the side of the vehicle with a rhythmic punch. Orso returned fire with much greater success, landing three arrows in three hearts in just a few short seconds before vanishing on the otherside of the carriage where yet more attackers awaited him.

Three men, all charging him with swords. He dropped his bow, deftly avoided their thrusts and moved around to their left flank. He proceeded dispatch the first with a precise palm strike to the jaw, the resutling snap and scream giving the other two pause. In an instant, Orso spun around delivered a downward strike with his heel, fracturing his second opponent's fingers and sending his sword to the ground.

The third attacker shoved his companion out of the way and swung wildly but in that insant the vampire was gone. Orso leaped and kicked off the side of the of the carriage, passing over his opponent's near shoulder, wrapping an arm around the throat and locking him in a tight headlock. The man struggling against Orso's strength but it was useless. Despite his seemingly smaller build, the vampire was startlingly powerful and his lock was perfect. He turned his body and dropped to one knee, forcing the man off his feet and spine first across a raised knee. Yet another nauseating snap erupted and the man was unconscious before he could even scream.

On the other side of the carriage, a torchbearer rushed the door as he tore the cap from his oil-skin. He held it aloft, ready to smother the vehicle in its contents when the door flew open and smacked him chest, throwing his back nearly two meteres and dropping him on his back. Out stepped Baron Gregor, still dressed in his finest court coat and ruffles. In his left hand he held a wide headed battleaxe, crowned with the head of a bat and its blades spread out in the shape of wings in flight.

He sneered at the dazed figure on the ground before him oncoming attackers while ceaselessly marching forward. One woman carelessly charged in from the side, only for the baron to stroke the blade of his axe across her ribs with enough force to drop her on the road side in a rapidly expanding pool of red.

The crossbowmen on the edge had reloaded their weapons and trained them on the target. Grimm seeed ill-concerned with the attacks as he regarded them with a callous glare. He adust his footing and seemed to grind the heel of his shoe into the dirt. At that moment, violent tremors shook the earth beneath their feet. They all attempted to fire on the baron but the shaking forced their aims wide, the ground around him and the carriage at his back were promptly being peppered with yet more bolts.

He strode forward once more and the shaking stopped. On his way by he reached down, grabbed the still prone torchbearer by the throat and lifted him into the air with such ease that you'd think the grown man in his grip were but an infant. Barely sparing him a though he hurled the body toward the nearby chasm. His body smacked into the surface of what remained of the bridge and limply rolled the rest of the way into the pit.

"Swords out men! He can't stop us all at once!" cried one of the remaining warriors.

Gregor stood his ground, smirking and tightening his grip on the haft of his axe. "And you actually believe that, don't you?" he said in a gravelly voice.

The heavy thud of another figure touched down at Gregor's side as Orso lept from the top of the cart and joined his ally, bow held at the ready.

"You leave any alive?" asked the bigger vampire, calmly cracking his knuckles in preparation.

Orso nodded.

"Good. Now we won't need to hold back on this batch."

Inside the coach, Atticus leaned back in the cushy seats and slowly sipped blood from a wineglass while listening to the chorus of screams and clashes from outside. He smiled and crossed a leg over his knee and relaxed as if the clamour of battle beyond his carriage was a sweet symphony of some sort.

Seated across from the prince was Count Orlov, fingers steepled and elbows resting against his knees as he frowned deeply.

"An untimely interruption," said Atticus, feigning concern. "I believe we'll need to continue this conversation at a later time."

"Indeed we will," replied the count, before vanishing in a small flicker of pale blue light.

Once the cacophony had died down to a few sobs and whimpers, Atticus set his glass aside and leaned toward the ajar door. "Bring me a survivor. No preferences, just so long as it can still speak."

A few seconds later and Grimm stomped toward the door, dragging a man by the collar. He forced the human to his knees at the edge of the carriage's threshold and slammed him face first into the floor.

"You have a lot to answer for," said Atticus, barely sparing the man a glace. "Look what you did to me carriage!" He gestured toward the numerous bolts that punctured the exterior and poked into the inside of coach. "Not to mention my bridge. Honestly, you humans just go about destroying the infrastucture that I so generously comission and then call me a monster. Ungrateful is what it is, damned ungrateful."

The prisoner seethed through broken teeth and struggled to look Atticus in the eye from his position. "Are you planning on talking me to death? Because if I get the choice I'd prefer a more traditional form of execution."

"Mm, you're a smart mouthed one. And of course, you had to open that clever mouth of yours, didn't you? A Dravich accent, you're just handing me this interrogation," said the prince.

"I've lived in Riega for years now. My accent won't tell you anything."

"Is that so?" asked Atticus. "Grimm, what are his injuries?"

"A few missing teeth, some bruises and a broken a hand. Orso was gentle with this one."

"Show me the hand."

Gregor obeyed, gripping the man's arm and laying it across the floor. The hand in question was black and bent, several fingers twisted at unnatural angles and two knuckles violently impacted in the rest of hand.

"Now, I've gotten tired of watching his bleed in my carriage so I'm going to speed this along by showing what happens when you lie to me." Slowly he uncrossed his leg and placed the heel of his shoe against man's hand, then ground it deep into the injured appendage.

The screaming was instant and terrible. He emptied his lungs as he howled in pain and struggling vainly against Gregor's vastly superior strength. "AAAAAAAAGGGGHHH!"

"Now!" Atticus growled, lifting his foot. "There is a notably large group of organized, well armed and violent dissidents Dravinia right now and today I am attacked by a very clearly Dravinian assailant who's group is large, organized and well armed. Tell me again how that is supposed to be a simple coincidence and I will force feed you every bone in that hand, one by one."

In between deep breaths and wincing groans, the man managed to utter out another sentence. "Do whatever you want, I won't tell you anything."

"You're probably right. However, the fact that you feel the need to hide anything at all, only validates my point. Gregor, I want you to take those crossbows they attack us with and nail him to the side of the carriage. He'll make a fine deterrent for any future assailants who might consider themselves brave. Use as many bolts as you can find, I don't want him falling off on the trip home."

The man's eyes were wide with shock as Gregor bowed and yanked him from the coach. Within a few minutes, the sound of yet more screams filled the air and Atticus smiled at the bloody boltheads that punched through the wall and into the interior, one after another while busily refilling his glass. "It appears I'll be visiting Orlov a little sooner than I anticipated."
Inside an exquisite black coffin, Atticus Lockheart awoke to the sounds hundreds of stomping feet and mixed voices. Immediately his expression turned sour at the disturbance.

"My prince," cried a man from outside. "Dusk has come and we've broken for camp. We are awaiting orders."

With a light push, the prince swung open the door to his coffin and stepped into the moonlight. His resting place stood vertically, mounted upright and fasted in place to an extravagant chariot. Four wheeled and crafted of smooth, ornate oak, draped with silks and bearing the banner of his house, the chariot was drawn by two massive, black war horses. The coffin was set into the back of the vehicle where a small path lead to a high-backed, cushioned throne. It had only just pulled to a stop where it was surrounded by bustling soldiers and a small army of necronoms with coffins mounted on their backs. A collection of horses were halted nearby and a saddlebags full of blood rations was promptly unloaded and passed between gathering sodliers.

The prince donned a very slight frown as he regarded the man who'd woke him. His dark eyes were narrowed to cold slits and his skin was near white as milk, reflecting the moonlight above. He was dressed in ruffles and a fine, navy blue frock coat. "Report," he said coolly as he brushed a lock of white-gold hair from his forehead and swept the quickly gathering snowflakes from atop his shoulders. "I detest being so far North."

The soldier lifted his head from a low bow and spoke loudly to raise his voice above the din of the camp. "We are only an hour outside of the mercenary village of Fulzhev. In addition, Madam Yana has returned from Proelli. She awaits in your private tent."

"Prepare the men to move on Fulzhev on my order and ready my armour. The King's orders are to swiftly and bloodily deal with any sign of rebellion." With a dismissive wave he shooed the man away, never even bothering to make eye contact. "It's bad enough I have to come all the way out here to keep an eye on things but now father has me playing tax collector. What nonsense."

Dismounting his carriage, Atticus made his way through the camp and toward the sole tent therein, prepared for his private meetings. Two guards stood outside the entrance but Atticus dismissed them immediately. Inside the tent stood two of his retainers, the vampire Orso Kahn and the dark haired woman, Madam Yana. Orso had a recurve bow and quiver strapped to his back and Yana wore no visible weapons as usual. She looked at her lord as he entered but then quickly averted her gaze.

"Orso, keep guard outside the tent," said Atticus in a gravely serious voice.

With his head bowed deeply and deliberately avoiding eye contact, Orso slipped past Atticus and took up his post just outside the tent.

The instant that Orso left the tent, Atticus titlted his head back and looked down his nose at Yana. His eyes were an icy glare, alight with a fury completely absent from the rest of his face. "We have a problem," he said in a seething breath.

From inside the tent came three resonating slaps. Each blow sent a fearful wince through Orso's body as he listened from outside. There were no screams of pain or cries for mercy. Not a sound save for the loud, open hand strikes.

Atticus flexed his fingers gently, his back turned on the woman. She bore a large red mark on the side of her face and blood trickled from her lip but her experession was steely as ever and gave no indication of pain or even discomfort. She looked at Atticus just as she did before, with nothing but admiration for her prince.

"Tell me darlling, what were your orders?"

Yana took a knee and stared at her feet, bare soles and toes, ankles and shins wrapped in purple cloth. "I was to rally the tribes of the Wolfwood into an attack on Ulfenmoor. Amidst the chaos I would kill Princess Laurelei and the world would ascribe her death to an unfortunate accident, my prince."

"Correct. Yet I've heard word over the preceding months that the Princess is still alive. Of course I dismissed it as wishful nonsense because my darling Yana would never be so careless. Yet as the days go by, word gets louder that she yet lives and so here we are. I come all the way out to Ossium to keep an eye on this situation, all under the guise of monitoring rebel activity in the area and now I've recieved word from Count Orlov that his own personal assassin has reported my sister is without a doubt still alive."

"I had assumed her death was assured when her carriage was ransacked."

Atticus strode around the edge of the tent in a circle until he came to stand at Yana's side and placed a hand on her bare shoulder. "Why retreat? You were not to relent until my sister had been torn to pieces."

"Dragana Molotova and the Wolfsguard sir."

Atticus appeared unfazed by the name.

"As far as my people are concerned, she is Death itself. We were forced into an early retreat as any sway I possessed over them was gone once our numbers had been reduced by more than half."

The prince shook his head but nonetheless offered his hand to Yana. "I expect failure from others. Never from you, never again. Understand?"

Yana nodded solemnly and took his hand, slowly rising to her feet.

When Yana and Atticus exited the tent, Orso flashed a few hand signals to a group of necronoms nearby. Immediately they closed around Atticus and he separated himself from the others. Within moments they had removed his coat and started clasping his obsidian plate armour to his body, locking everything into place and ensuring it would stay there. A crimson cloak was wrapped over his shoulders and if not for the near constant look of smug contemptment for everything around him, Atticus would've appeared every bit the image of handsome knight readying for battle as seen in a painting. Indeed, an artist would be hard pressed to find ways to embelish on his elegant and graceful features. At last an attendant placed a black spear in the prince's hand and he was free to return to his chariot.

"Ready to move on Yezhev in three minutes!" Yana declared, stirring the camp to action.

Atop his throne the prine lounged and lead the small battallion. His chin rested on his knuckles and his spear was lain against the arm of his chair. At his side, stood Madam Yana and Orso marched alongside his master's chariot.

"Yana, what news do you have from Proelli?" said Atticus.

"Baron Grimm is managing things effectively while you are away, my prince, but are you sure it's wise to leave him in control for so long?"

"Of course. He is a competent administrator and his loyalty will never be in question. After all, when he betrayed my brother he had an excellent reason." Atticus ran his tongue over his fangs abd grinned to himself, savouring the statement before finishing it off,  "...and that reason is still within my grasp."

Suddenly Orso's hand shot up and his misshapen lips parted to utter a single word. "Spy." He pointed into the trees at the roadside where a young woman was perched between the branches. She had concealed herself relatively well, going unnoticed until only a few dozen metres separated her from the others but now Atticus had set his sights upon her.

With wide eyes she stared back, knowing she'd been spotted but having no sense of what to do about it. Her ochre hair was pulled under a dark green kerchief and she was dressed in simple leather armour with a light plate over her breast. A shield rested on her back and a longsword at her hip.

"Kill her," said Atticus.

The girl let out a gasp of fear and by the time she'd finished there was an arrow betwixt her ribs and Orso's bowstring sang. The blow elicited a sharp howl and the girl dropped from the trees and into the brush and snowdrifts at the roadside. She hit with a solid thunk and disappeared into the bushes. Her boots stuck out onto the roadside and twitched in pain, accompanied by groans through clenched teeth.

A curved, utterly pleased smile stretched over Atticus's face. "Orso, finish it."

He said nothing but nodded and split from the marching group. Into the trees he stepped and after a brief, muted moment, the twang of his bow filled the air again and the body fell still. He emerged from beyongd the trees after a brief moment, his bow strapped to his back and his quiver full again.

The march continued unhindered and the group closed in further on the town of Fulzhev. It more closely resembled a military base than a town, filled with broad, muscular people and bare bones housing. Still, the usual signs of a village were in place. Children, taverns and smithees filled the village like any other. There were small forts and armories everywhere, vastly outnumbering the tradehouses, schools, churches and bakeries that might've been in their place.

The villagers had gathered to meet the incoming force, all armed, armoured and angry looking, though Atticus was unsure if this was a special case for his arrival or not. By the time his cart pulled to a stop at the edge of town and his men began to take a wide crescent formation around it, the villager's leader had stepped to the front of the crowd. Fulzhev was called the mercenary village for good reason. The entire town was settled by surviving warriors from the rebellion just over two decades ago. Men and women who knew nothing but fighting and so continued to ply their trade in their meagre fashion.

"Greetings," said the village leader, a big, moustached man with greying hair and a pair of hand axes in his belt. He dressed in heavy hide and thick plate in strategic locations, his arms covered in more scars than most people had years of life to brag about. "I know why you're here and you can turn around now. You're not getting anything from us anymore."

Atticus slowly rose to his feet, spear in hand he stepp toward the edge of his chariot. "You do not deny then that you have refused your due taxes to the Royal Kingdom of Agares?"

"No, there will be no more taxes in Fulzhev. I'll tell you exactly what I told the last tax collector before we threw him out of town. We fought and watched our brothers die to be free of your ilk. I'll join them in the afterlife before I bow to you again."

Atticus rolled his eyes at the man before dropping to the ground and toward him. "Tell me your name sir?"

"Captain Valdemars Ozolins."

"Well then Captain Valdemars Ozolins, I have advice for you." Atticus leaned in close and locked his gaze with Valdemars'. All emotion, all his charm and frivolity vanished, just leaving a blank but somehow intensely venemous face. "Next time you open your filthy peasant mouth you should know who the hell you're speaking to," he whispered.

Before Valdemars could even blink, even think about reaching for his weapon, Atticus had jammed his steel plated palm into the captain's throat. The force was so great that the huge man reeled back and spat up a mouthful of blood. Atticus whirled his spear in a rapid circle and thrust forward with absolute precision. The head of his spear punched straight through Valdemars chest plate and skewered him through the heart. With a swift boot he knocked the man from the end of his spear and sent his limp body straight into the ground, gasping its final, desperate breaths.

The villagers stood strong, weapons drawn and at the ready. Their numbers were slightly greater than that of the vampires own but they didn't make a direct move, only standing their ground.

"Now," said Atticus, smiling again and strutting forward with a flourish of his spear. "Who's in charge after him?"

The crowd was quiet for a time, hushed whispers traded between them but after nearly a minute another man stepped forward. His head was sheered bald and his chin covered in grey stubble. "The Captain's daughter, Eda. She's out scouting right now."

"In all likelihood I already killed her on my way up. Unless you have multiple young ladies spying on me."

The man winced deeply and clenched his fist. "Then that would put me in charge for the time."

"Good, then listen carefully and more closely than your predecessor. We are willing to put this ugliness behind us under the following conditions. In 24 hours I will return and at that time you will provide double the normal taxes in blood and lox. If any among you oppose this tax, I will kill you and double the taxes again everytime I need to bloody my spear." The prince didn't even bother to await a response. Instead he turned with a flourish of his cloak and began a slow saunter back to his men. "Farewell and enjoy your new position. Serve in it well and you'll live to see your precious sun again."
So, after some delicate thought, I'll be doing some revisions on Guul'Zaroth. Largely, I'm changing some names. To sum up, Guul'Zaroth is based a lot of Germanic and Eastern European folklore and many of the names and places reflect this. Many do not. A lot of the names are mythological references and there is some Latin in there which I excuse as being drawn from the secret vampire language, Zarothi. For instance, Methuselah's name is Latin for 'He who brings death.' However, I find myself running into some inconsistencies. Many characters have names of Celtic and even Hebrew origins.

When I first started planning the story I just gave characters names that I thought suited them but all the characters I created later in the writing process have distinctly Eastern European and Germanic names. This inconsistency made me uncomfortable, so I'm changing them. Don't be surprised when, going forward certain names are changed. 
The old mansion on the hill, over-looking the town of Vaulkin, had seemingly grown decades more dilapidated in a single evening. Furniture was turned on its side, most of the books had been rattled off the shelves and everything else was in a state of disarray. The dozen or so of Foerster's experiments that remained had taken to shuffling about aimlessly, unsure of what to do with themselves. The marginally more intelligent servants had already been cut down as they attempted to impede passage of the royal soldiers who now scoured the interior.

A squad of men searched the rooms one by one, searching every possible corner for traces of their quarry. Their investigation would not go uninterrupted however as an eminent guest slipped in the front door. Count Gotz Von Orlov appeared with eight of his own soldiers at his back, cloaked in dark green jackets and silver armour, the colours of Orlov's own banner. They bore his crest proudly on their breasts with an impression of the cunning rat pictured in the centre. Their helms were sleek and tapered down to a pointed nose guard with wide slits for the eyes. Their arms consisted of long stilettos tucked into their jackets and light crossbows worn in full view.

At Orlov's side was his personal assassin, a slightly more burned than usual Gutterwink, wearing no such regalia as his master's soldiers. The normally grey, descicated skin of his tall, sleek body had been scorched to a dark charcoal along large swaths. His face remained largely untouched and his left half seemed to suffer most of the damage.

The Count walked with his back perfectly straight and his long clawed hands tucked into the arch of his spine. He marched into the lobby of the manor and sneered at the first of Methuselah's soldiers he encountered.

The red cloaked officer removed the winged helmet from his head and bowed to Orlov as he approached. "Count Orlov," he said respectfully.

"Captain, I do hope there is a good reason that you've devoted so much of your search team to this single manor."

The officer nodded. "Yes my lord. Early inquiries have revealed that a girl matching Princess Laurelei's description was thought to have been in the vicinity of this building. Other reports state she was accompanied by a young necronom male and what has been described as a large, man-shaped boar of some kind, both armed. We cannot yet verify if Princess Laurelei was here at any time. But our men have found something of interest."

One of Orlov's brows lifted ever so slightly and he donned a thin frown. "Man-shaped boar?" he thought to himself before returning his attention to the soldier. "Go on."

"In the basement, we found the manor's owner. Injured and babbling but still alive. There are signs of conflict and what looks like some kind of ritual."

"Show me," said the count.

Through the halls of the dusty manor and past the scattered bodies of once again dead abominations, the soldier lead Orlov and his men to the stone laboratory in the basement. There, four more soldiers in obsidian plate and red cloaks surrounded a motionless man. He lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling through cracked spectacles. His clothes were stained with the spatters of blood and streamed down from his lips and nose. Yet still he smiled from ear to ear and spoke in mixed nonsense, mumbles and the occasional coherent but contextless phrase.

"...It was here, it spoke, it lived. So close, close, close, close," said the man.

Orlov's eyes trailed toward the soldier who appeared to be in charge. "Who is this madman?"

"Dr.Samuel Foerster. Called the Stitcher by the townspeople and mostly considered a harmless local eccentric."

Orlov's lip turned up, revealing his curved fangs. "This is what we're devoting our workforce to? Why are we wasting time with this wretch? Put him out of his misery and let us move on."

"We have orders to bring anyone who might know something back to castle Umbra for questioning."

"You've just received new orders. Kill him now and divert your search elsewhere. My men have come to relieve you and take over investigation of this manor."

"With respect, Count Orlov, we don't take orders from you. Our command comes directly from King Methuselah himself."

Orlov remained silent for a long moment, emotionless and completely still until his eyes settled on the broken figure in the middle of the room. He locked eyes with the Stitcher and smiled broadly. "Very well, but you won't learn anything about the Princess from this man." Orlov's eyes flickered for a brief instant and Foerster went quiet. "That should mitigate any threat this lunatic may represent." Then, he turned on his heel and gestured for his men to follow. "The manor is yours, search it well."

Once Orlov and his men were outside and several paces from the door, he peered at them over his shoulder. "It has become abundantly clear that the princess isn't here any longer. The only way she could have slipped away without any of our patrols noticing is through the Drowned Forest. With that in mind, I want the quickest of you to send word to Baron Yezhov. He is to capture her if at all possible."

One of Orlov's men separated from the group, bowed deeply and then vanished in a swirl of his green cloak. What remained was a single bat, beating its wings and taking to the sky.

"I must return to Castle Golodomor immediately. I'll be expecting a visit from Count Lockheart any day now. In the meantime, I have orders for the lot of you. Gutterwink, circle around the forest and to the North side. I want the rest of you to scout overhead and keep Gutterink abreast of our target's location and likely exit point. If she slips past Yezhov, I want to know how and where. Presuming you all perform you duties appropriately, she will be in our grasp the moment she steps into the open."

His men dispersed quickly, all save one, halted by Orlov's hand on his shoulder. "I want you to go to Castle Golodomor and ready a messenger to the Jester's Keep. I must contact Count Vader about the fate of a certain General."
So, after some delicate thought, I'll be doing some revisions on Guul'Zaroth. Largely, I'm changing some names. To sum up, Guul'Zaroth is based a lot of Germanic and Eastern European folklore and many of the names and places reflect this. Many do not. A lot of the names are mythological references and there is some Latin in there which I excuse as being drawn from the secret vampire language, Zarothi. For instance, Methuselah's name is Latin for 'He who brings death.' However, I find myself running into some inconsistencies. Many characters have names of Celtic and even Hebrew origins.

When I first started planning the story I just gave characters names that I thought suited them but all the characters I created later in the writing process have distinctly Eastern European and Germanic names. This inconsistency made me uncomfortable, so I'm changing them. Don't be surprised when, going forward certain names are changed. 

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Jaykob Storey
Artist | Professional | Literature
Canada
I'm an aspiring writer and lover of storytelling and fiction in all its forms. My first novel, 'Grimoire,' comes out in 2016. I look forward to producing more content and developing as a writer.

I primarily consider myself a fantasy writer and humorist.
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:iconlifeisarazorblade:
LifeIsARazorBlade Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014
Your critique was the  best feedback I have received for my writing, since I joined DA over 12 years ago on my old account.

I sincerely appreciate the time you took to assess and respond. You have no idea. That made my day. Sincerely, you rule.

- mids
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Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014  Professional Writer
You're doing right by me with all this. Too many people just don't appreciate the hard work that goes into a detailed critique, and just get grumpy because I didn't give them a better review. Knowing that you appreciate it is encouraging and makes me want to do more critiques.
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:iconlifeisarazorblade:
LifeIsARazorBlade Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014
Accepting criticism is the only way, as artists, that people grow and learn. I am tired of 'oooh neato'. I want someone to rip me a new orifice, so I can see my work outside my own egocentric view, and learn a bit.

You represent a trend that is sorely lacking on here, and it is nice to know it exists.
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Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014  Professional Writer
Good to hear and good luck.
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jennystokes Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2013  Professional General Artist
Happy Birthday Jaykob.
Big hugs
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Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Dec 20, 2013  Professional Writer
Thank you, I appreciate it.
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jennystokes Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2013  Professional General Artist
:)
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Metarex12 Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2013  Student General Artist
Happy Birthday!
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Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2013  Professional Writer
Thanks
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TheLibertasLeague Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks for joining EpicMuse!
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