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*******************

Dammit...calm down...breathe...

Lyle stood hunched over by the trunk of a tree, completely dry, saying this over and over in his head. The fire was gone, he didn't know how or why. But he could still feel the after effects. Everything hurt. His muscles felt torn. Raw. They shivered, making his hands twitchy.

He had to force himself to take deep, even breaths to stop himself from going back.

He thought back to when it began. Melanie touched him. That's when it started. No warning whatsoever. No reason for his body to act up. No voice in his head. It was similar to the time when Azamat influenced him that day.

As soon as she touched him, he felt hot. Heart pounding, his hands wanting to reach out and bring her closer. It wasn't the same, though. Back then his mind was unclear, hazy, he didnt know what he was doing until the last moment.

This time he had felt more clear-headed. But it was almost like he was drugged with something. His body came alive, and he nearly wanted to take her there and then.

But that was only the beginning. The more he resisted the feeling, the worse it got. And the worse it got, the more it hurt. It escalated fast, trying to overpower him. Eventually it just started to eat away at him, making him feel like he would literally burst apart.

It was as if there was an overwhelming power inside him and his body couldn't contain it.

When he jumped into the lake it helped him calm down and fight against it. And after he began talking to Phaedra, the distraction once again lessened his burden.

Yet as soon as she shoved him, it flared up again. The hate and anger he felt at that time seemed to take precedence, but that was all.

Lyle, when the contact was made, wasn't sure if he wanted to slap her or kiss her or both.

Even though he said he was done with her, that didn't stop his body from reacting to her touch. Her hand on his chest had done something to him in the same way Melanie's previous touch did.

He could only conclude that it was because they touched him that this fire started up at all. This is, of course, an obvious conslusion. Anyone could figure that out.

But why? Why did their touch do this to him? Each time one of those three things influenced him--like the time with Melanie, and yesterday when he ran wild in rage--they had always spoken to him.

Maybe it wasn't required. Yet why would it be different this time? And for what reason?

This was all...He just couldn't make heads or tails of it. He could only make guesses.

"If you want to know then you can just ask. I wouldn't give two fucks about telling you. It's not like it's some secret." A rough voice spoke out.

Lyle started, his eyes narrowing as a later-aged man appeared in front of him. His tall, muscled frame and unkempt hair were instantly familiar to him.

"You!" He yelled. "What have you done to me!"

Nakir snorted. "'You', who? Not me. I and Etaine didn't do anything, at least. Blame Azamat. He's the one that's causing this." He cut a glance to the boy, saying, " And don't worry, they're resting to conserve their strength, i'm even doing my best to block them so they won't hear this. But yeah, Azamat's doing this. Your body's changing, little Greyborne. It'll probably keep changing too, so that your body can better handle our unique energies.

Azamat's currrently a fusion between Lust and Pride, something that had never been done before and shouldn't be happening. Well, let's not get into that mess. Anyway, right now, the Lust aspect of his energy is making your body aroused in response to a woman's touch. Which it would do normally, but this is much worse. If I had to say, you're slowly turning into something like an incubus? Ah...I guess my own energies are making everything run even more rampant, though." He admitted, not caring at all. "Actually, i'm also quite interesting in what Etaine's energy would do to you.

Lyle could barely understand what the man--thing--was saying. His head continued to feel like somone was bashing it a large club fron, but from the inside out.

Wait, hold on. Incubus...?

Lyle knew the creatures he talked of. They, like succubi, absorbed life energy through sexual acts. But they were incredibly rare. And from what Lyle could tell, this Azamat character was similar to them. Or perhaps they were similar to him. Whatever the case may be, Lyle thought that Azamat was like them for some time now given that he seemed to need to drain energy through the act of sex.

Either way...this explanation wasn't unbelievable. As he calmed down more and thought about what was spoken, he realized that it was all fairly straightfoward. He had no idea what unique energies he talked of, not really, but it was apparent that they were doing things to his body that was causing all this.

And the part of a woman's touch being the trigger for his body acting this way was alligned with his own theory on it. He didn't understand exactly the why or how of it, but the result was clear.

Great, he thought, I'm becoming a damn man-whore. Another thing to add to my list of problems. Will the changes--whatever they may be--be permanent, or will they be gone once I get rid of "them"? As a man it's normal to have desires, but I have no wish to become a sex-crazed maniac who tries to mount any pretty woman he come across. I'd rather die than become that sort of scum.

Perhaps he would, too.

That aside, the three within him didn't look to be in full control of what happened to him. Just being in him caused changes, if what this one said was to be believed. And if this Azamat's energies was changing his body into someing akin to an incubus, what were the other two doing to him? How would these mysterious energies mutate?

Nakir, this man, just said that his own energies made Azamat's run rampant within Lyle's body, which is likely what led to such a extreme result. If that Etaine's energy were added into the mix, could his body live?

No, well, Lyle knew they could heal him. They wouldn't let him die, they for some reason needed him alive. Needed to bind themselves to his soul. So maybe he would be fine, but these changes in his body might make his life a living hell in the worst case.

If these changes were permanent, then...

Wait, before being concerned about his own self...What about Iris? What changes would be happening to her?

Lyle felt a sudden burst of anxiety, but forced it down. Freaking out would do no good. They were both needed alive. Right?

Yet as he thought more, the more he grew worried. The three in his own body coveted him for his innate gifts, but Iris was weak. She was just a frail young girl, what value would she have to one of those creatures?

There had to be a reason the one inside her kept clinging to her instead of moving to another host. Whether because it took a liking to her, couldnt move to another or found some hidden potential in her, the fact of the matter was that so far she was left alone. At least it wasn't hurting her.

He would take that as a good sign, though one that rang a touch bitter.

"And why have you graced me with your presence? Are you and your little friends done pouting?" Lyle asked.

Something had to be up. They had not taken the initiative to talk to him, and yet now this one seemed so chatty. Why?

"That tongue of yours is a sharp one, lad. Not that I really care. But there isn't any particular reason, I was just curious why I sensed a powerful Lich around here. It's strange that I'm only now sensing the bastard, and I know he's long gone by now. Must be blocking himself from detection somehow, which is amazing since he's able to distort even my keen senses. Ugh, being this weak is really a damn hassle!" He sighed. " And it doesn't help that i'm appearing to you with a body like this. Though I can afford to after your little killing spree."

"Lich?" Lyle's eyes went wide.

Son of a bitch, he cursed, A Lich! Here? How? And one that even this person says is strong? Impossible, the Council should have purged any Necromancer of that level ages ago, and there's no way one could have reached the power needed to become a Lich in recent years!

Not all Necromancers were hunted down, and not all Necromancers were hated, but Lichs definitely would never be allowed to live! Not a single one was good, and the abilities they possessed could threaten the fate of an entire nation if left unchecked!

This level of power was ridiculous to the extreme. Lichs reigned as kings when it came to death. They turned enemies into allies, ones that couldn't be put back down by normal means. The only mages that rivaled them, as far as Lyle knew, were ones who reached a certain level of mastery over one of the aspects of the Sin Series in curse magic.

No other type of mage, from his knowledge, could compete with a Lich in terms of threat level. They may not have the strongest destructive abilities, but curse magic and Necromancy trained to the higher levels could potentially affect thousands, millions, of people. And this made them dangerous.

Lyle thought back to Bane, that old man. Ridiculous. It couldn't be him! Although Lyle knew something was strange about the man since no one remembered him, he couldn't a Lich!

...Could he?

No way, a figure like that shouldn't be in a place like this at all! However, if Nakir said so, if he wasn't lying--which he had no reason to do--then Lyle could only wonder why a person like that would be here.

What should he do? Tell someone? No, no one would believe him anyway. He discarded the idea. Dammit, it was giving him an even worse headache. He learned that a dangerous individual like that was running around, but what was he supposed to do about it?

He couldn't really do anything. He had no evidence. Nothing to back up his claim. Maybe...maybe it was fine to just let it go? If the Lich caused trouble then the Council would surely know and act accordingly. Perhaps they were already monitoring him...

Thinking this, Lyle decided to not be concerned about it for now. He felt more uneasy knowing a person like that was out there, but he alone wouldn't be able to convinve anyone the threat was real. He could only trust that the Council would take care of it should something happen.

It was, afterall, their job.

"Ah, but there are quite a few strange ones around you, aren't there boy? A person of Avrora's bloodline, a powerful Lich, that peculiar-smelling Blood Elf girl. Not one of them are able to be considered normal. Avora's kin shouldn't have survived, though I do know it's possible. A Lich as old as that also shouldn't be moving around parts like this which are controlled by that crazed bitch Aine. And a half-Blood Elf with that particular scent should not even have made it passed childhood if my hunch is correct."

Lyle narrowed his eyes at him. "Who, Phaedra? What do mean, shouldn't have made it passed childhood?"

"That's just if I'm right, but it doesn't matter."

" Hey, old man, I asked you a question." Though maybe he shouldn't have asked. It wasn't his business, really. Still, the things that this guy was saying worried him. What did he mean, "peculiar-smelling"? Her being a Blood Elf was known, but was there something else too?

...Actually, Lyle didn't care much about her personally. He was just thinking that maybe it was something he should know since it was mentioned.

"So? If you want to know, ask her. I'm not even sure about it. Though if i'm right, those arguments of yours are probably her feeding off you."

That did not sound good to Lyle.

"Wait, wait, wait, hold up. Feeding?" Again, Lyle did not like the sound of that. At all. "What--"

" I'm not your personal information center, I have no obligation to tell you." He waved off the question before it began. Moving on, he said, " But boy, all this aside, tell me. Did it feel good? Letting loose like that? You can feel it, can't you? That anger inside you. You have a lot of it."

" I don't know what you're talking about." He smiled. If that guy was being difficult, so could he. "Anger? Who, me? Please. Perish the thought. It's a universally known fact that I'm more kind and accepting than a saint. Even the Goddess of Mercy and Forgiveness would pale in comparison to me in terms of magnaminity."

Nakir was momentarily stunned into silence. "...Your words are perhaps the most arrogant I have ever encountered in any being, boy. Even Azamat could learn a thing or two from you, I believe." Nakir laughed with fervor. When was the last time he felt so amused? He couldnt't even remember.

He sobered quickly.

"But don't lie to me. I know you. You have a vindictive heart deep down inside. This is why I and Azamat are starting to affect you so soon. You're truly compatible with us. You have pride deeply rooted into your bone, and if you were pushed hard enough you would burn the entire world to the ground in order to save the few you care for.

Why is that, do you think? Because you're selfish. Hateful. You can save others, and will, because it's what you think right. But when push comes to shove, you would let countless die to rescue your loved ones. And if one hurt those people you consider so important, you would rage and ravage all in your path in the name of vengeance.

That is who you are. That Is why we want you more as time goes on. You're perfect. Everything they were, you can be better. Because you're "stronger" than them. They lost themselves to madness. They didn't want to do the things they did. But given proper motivation, you would. And believe yourself right in it.

I wonder, what will it take for you to snap? I think we'll find out soon. Unless you ask for our help, you'll suffer. We told you that, didn't we? Just us being with you will make everyone turn against you eventually. And then you'll kill them. Because you're no hero, or even a truly good person. You can't save yourself. And you won't be able to save anyone else in the future. It's better for you to just give in now and spare yourself some trouble."

All throughout the long speech, Lyle was busy dousing the remaining flames inside himself. He took in a deep breath, then let it out.

"...Damn." He shook his head. "That was probably the most long-winded and annoying rant I've ever heard in my life." He marveled for a bit. "...Hm. But I've never claimed to be either of those things, you know? And yeah, i'm selfish. I would save those I could, but i'm not going to choose strangers over my own friends or family. Why should I anyway? I'm not heartless, but i'm only human. Go to hell. Bastard. Trying to act as if you know me more than I know myself. You can say anything you want, we both know that all that was just some tactic to make me doubt myself.

But the thing is, I ain't buying what you're selling. You're seriously pissing me off right now, so shoo. Acting as if you know everything about me, you really have no shame at all. Forget it. I wanted to ask you a few things, but I don't want to deal with you anymore. You probably wouldn't answer anyway. Best if you just kindly fuck off."

Really, what did that thing think he was, judging him like that?

Nakir didn't look mad at all.

"Oh well. Had to try." He gave a careless shrug of his shoulders. " I suppose I have no real reason to stay and chat. But before I go, boy...Have you started hearing it too?"

Lyle frowned. "Hear what?"

Nakir hesitated. "...No. It's probably nothing."

But as he fade away, his face looked troubled.

**********

When Lyle came back, Cecelia was waiting for him. " Melanie and Iris told me you just ran off. What's wrong?" Her eyes, sincere and full of worry, stared at him.

"Nothing, I just suddenly wanted to go for a walk."

That didn't satisfy Cecelia at all. "You're lying. Lyle, come on, talk to me." She insisted. "What's up with you? You've been very strange lately. Not like yourself."

He smiled, trying to put her at ease. " You, Iris and Melanie worry too much. I'm not a kid that needs looking after."

"No, you're not. You're my--friend." She frowned. Shaking her head, she went on. "So I have every right to worry when you suddenly look troubled."

" Troubled? Nonsense. I--"

"Don't." She said flatly. " Something's bothering you. I know it. Why can't you just tell me?"

He was completely calm and immovable as he replied. "It's none of your business, that's why."

Cecelia felt as if she had been slapped. He had always told her when something was weighing on him before. He never once said those kinds of words to her, or at least for as long as she could remember.

It was always her who listened to anything he had to say. Who he talked when he was thinking about something.

No matter what had caused him inner turmoil, he would let her know. Not because he had to, or that he couldn't solve it himself, but because she knew when something was wrong with him and cared enough to ask.

She may not be able to help, or offer advice, but she could listen. She knew how much stress he felt from his fom his father and mother to be the best he could be. Knew how much pressure being their son, the heir to an illustrious line like that, had on him.

These things that he wouldn't admit to anyone else, he told her.

That's the amount of trust she had earned from him. That's the level of importance he placed on her, to share the things he would refuse to share with others bcause he believed having such thoughts made him weak.

Yet now, for perhaps the first time in a long time...he was keeping things from her.

And it was that face he made towards her, that smiling, comforting face, which made it worse. Because it wasn't his face. It wasn't the face her used when talking to her. It was one of those he used to hide things.

That mask all Nobles were taught to hide behind.

It felt, to her, like he was shutting her out. Like he was closing a door on her.

Everyone was allowed their secrets. But something was obviously bothering him these days, and he refused to let her in and try to help.

"What do you mean, none of my business?" She asked quietly. "If you have a problem...if you need me, then--"

"I don't need you. And my problems are my own. You would really only be getting in the way."

"...You don't mean that."

What, did he consider her a nuisance now?

" No, it's true. Like I said, you worry too much over nothing. I'm alright. I don't need you to hold my hand every time something inconvenient comes my way. Have a little faith in my ability to do things myself, will you?" He smirked.

"You've always been capable of solving your own problems." She said stiffly. "And I hate that about you, because most times you never let me help you at all. You would tell me when something was on your mind, but now you're not even doing that much. Is it really so hard for you to accept my help? I thought I was your friend. Or am I wrong? Because if you don't trust me enough to even tell me when something is bothering you anymore, then what are we?"

Lyle laughed, waving off her words. "Don't be so melodramatic, Cece. Of course we're still friends. Always. But this and that are two different things. I get that you're concerned about me, and I glad you care so much, but I don't want you meddling in this. By all rights, you shouldn't even be coming with us. Even though we're friends, I realize that it was wrong of me to bring you along. Because it's...dangerous.

And you shouldn't have to be risking youself at all for my sake anymore. We might have been family if things worked out differently, but now, when you get down to it...Other than being a friend, i'm nothing to you."

Which was true. To Lyle, he would always be her friend. At least for as long as she would have him. But he felt bad. He didn't know exaclty how dangerous this trip could be. Those things were wildcards. Who knew what might happen? Plus, the changes in his body were setting him on edge. He had really lost control yesterday, and nearly today too in a different way.

What if he attacked her? What if he did the same thing to her that he did to Melanie? Lyle had no idea what he might do. Although he forced himself to calm down this time, could he do so the next time?

This was not something that he thought of when he allowed her to come with them. And it should have been. He should have thought about it better. Should have opposed her.

Lyle was her friend before, but the difference between now and then was that he was no longer in any relationship with her sister. He had a strange position back then. He could have been her brother-in-law, and she treated him as one.

Her helping him out, saving him all those times, it began with her not wanting him to die and cause her sister to be sad. So she watched over him. She also knew that someday he may become family, which was another reaoson to help him. They only become friends a bit later.

It was fine to risk yourself for a person who could have almost been considered family...but to do so for a friend who you had not known for even a full three years was a bit much. In fact, considering the sour note he and Sophia ended their relationship on, by all rights Cecelia should have cut all ties with him.

He was touched she didn't, but even so. Her coming was, now that he thought of it, something that should not have been allowed to happen.

"What, because you're not with my sister anymore you think I should just stop caring? You say that you're nothing to me? Fine. What about you? Am I nothing to you, then?"

"...I never said that. You know I didn't."

"Yeah, well, right now that's what it feels like you're saying. Don't believe for a second that I don't know what your thoughts are on this. I understand full well. But don't think that I would treat my life so carelessly, don't think that I would come here for just anyone. It's my life. I'll do with it what I want, whether you like it or not.

I'm here because it's something I decided to do. I don't know what's bothering you. I don't know why you're acting so strange lately. And I realize that you think I wouldn't be able to help with it, that i'll be useless.

That's fine, since even so I still won't leave you to face alone whatever it is that's troubling you. I just wish you wouldn't keep things from me. Because you never did before, and I feel like you're just starting to push me away when you don't have to." Her voice was riddled with frustration. "But I'm here for you regardless. Always, for anything, until you no longer want me to be." She declared, her tone firm.

At her words, Lyle couldn't help being moved.

He felt that he really was lucky just then. Cecelia truly was, more than Jaime, Murphy, Nyk or Gideon, the closest friend he had. Probably the closest he ever will have. Her being able to say that meant a lot to him. More than she knew.

Lyle didn't have many real friends. He had some, like Jaime, Nyk, and Murphy, but not many others. And even they were not "his" friends. They were "Bellamy Greyson's" friends. They weren't like Cecelia, they didn't know the real him. This was an undeniable fact. Even if they were the same person, one was fake.

Cecelia was different since she knew both versions of him, not just the fake. This was how she was different. She was special in that regard. The others would probably never be friends with Lyle Greyborne. They lived in two different worlds.

So Cecelia was of course much closer to him than they were. He just hadn't known how much until now. She pretty much said that she had his back, any time, anywhere, whenever he needed her. She would always be by his side, whether he wanted her to be or not, so long as he would let her. So long as she was able.

It wasn't just about when he was in a fight. No, she meant for other things too, he knew. If he needed to talk about something, let something out, she would listen. Like she always had up to now.

Him ending things with Sophia didn't matter at all to her. It should have. But it didn't. She was with him despite that, was here with him even though she had no obligation to anymore.

Lyle's heart wasn't able to entirely accept this, hoever. He didn't feel he deserved it at all. And he also made a choice just then: No matter what, he wouldn't tell her anything about his current circumstances. If things went to the worst-case scenario, the Council may hold her responsible as well should they discover she had any knowledge of this.

He couldn't do that to her. Wouldn't. Ever.

Still, hearing her say these things really did have an affect on him....

They said nothing more as they walked back, a harmonious silence springing up around them. Neither had any more than needed to be said.

"Big brother, is it time to go?" Iris walked up to him and asked.

"Seems about so, yeah."

"Big brother, when we're driving, can I sit on your lap?"

"No."

"Oh. Alright, that's fine. Maybe next time then...Big brother, right, where's my good-morning kiss?"

"We've never done that."

"Oh. I see. We should start then."

"If you were about ten years younger, maybe. it'll be weird at your age, though. No."

" You don't love me anymore, big brother."

"Alright, I guess I don't then."

"Big brother, I was just kidding!"

"I wasn't."

"You're being mean, big brother."

"Am I?"

"Yes. And you're being a liar. Big brother loves me most of all, and you always will."

"What if I marry and have kids?"

"So what? Your kids would only have half your blood, and your wife would not be real family like me...."

"Oh? You seem to be a bit less confident there, dear sister."

"Are you mocking me, big brother? How hateful. I don't like you anymore, big brother."

" I see. That makes me a bit sad, but If that's how you feel then there's no helping it. Don't worry, I won't bug you too much. I know that you must be repulsed at having an unworthy brother like me..."

Lyle shook his head, sighing.

"Big brother, I was joking. Big brother? Big brother?"

Iris called out to him, but he had already walked away.

Iris wanted to cry

*********

Big brother didn't let her sit next to him.

Instead Melanie took her spot.

Iris hated her for it.

She felt depressed.

She messed up, ah. Big brother, it felt like he cut her out. It hurt. Even if he was acting, how could he be so cruel....

That was her spot. Her's.

"You mean ours, dear. Don't forget, he belongs to both of us. Doesn't he?"

"What are you talking about? Big brother doesn't belong to anyone. And even if he did, it would only be me."

She didn't speak the words, but thought them. She was getting better at it.

"And yet he's all but ignoring you. We know it's all an act, but you still hate it, am I right? It feels like he's starting to shut you out, doesn't it? He's never done this before. It's almost as if, little by little, he's pulling away from you. And it's been happening for some time now. You know that. Tell me, how do you like it? Knowing that someone else is taking your place. That young woman, a mere servant, is getting closer to him. And you're here, sitting with an unfilial girl who you don't like, both her and the other one aiming for what should be yours.

He and that dreadful woman have already given each other's bodies to one another, how long till he really leaves us? This is your fault. You're driving him away. He doesnn't love you. Not as much anymore. But if it were us, together, he would...."

"Shut up!" Iris screamed at her. "You don't know anything. Why do you only ever say hurtful things?"

"I'm only speaking the truth. You know it, and I know it. Why bother trying to deny it? Well, no matter. When he is already walking out of the door with one of them by his side, forgetting about you, then you'll see how kind I'm being. At that time, though, it'll be too late. Even if I bring him back, he would still have left you. And you'll know what that feels like. Always. Forever."

"I hate you! I hate you!"

Livia laughed, as if she found it all very funny. Her warm, motherly smile hurt more than anything else, made her next words sting all the more.

"Maybe. But if you keep rejecting this, someday, he'll do something to you that's worse than hate. He simply stop caring about you at all..."

.**********

An entire three hours passed by since the time they left, and everyone felt something was immensely wrong.

Bell and Phaedra, two people who usually at each other necks--and not in a good way--had not even spoken a word to each other in some time.

Something had changed, they knew. But didn't know what it was.

It had to be said, for Val, Jaime, Nyk, Muphy and Boris, the two arguing with one another was something that was an indication that all was right with the world.

Right now that wasn't the case. The two of them were always the focus of the small group of theirs. Their incessant bickering was just to be expected from them.

Yet now there was a shift between them. Something that brought everyone's mood down. It made everything seem more quiet. The silence more palpable. It made them uneasy, because this was not how things were supposed to be.

And no one was sure what to do about it. Jaime saw that Phaedra had, at the start, tried to get him worked up like always.

But the young man seemed to just brush her aside, ignoring her. As if he didn't even want to look at her, much less talk to her.

She stared at him for a second, then left.

Jaime felt regretful. It appeared that Bell had just gotten tired of her. And he didn't know if that was a good thing or not.

Because despite the fact that they wanted to kill each other on a daily basis, he felt like deep down--really, really deep down--they had formed a sort of mutual respect for each other. A respect for a worthy enemy if nothing else.

If one asked him which people Jaime thought would make the best duo, it would probably be those two. Not because they got along well at all, but because they knew each other to a great extent due to all the times they fought one another.

Even their combat skills complemented each other's. Bell and Cecelia were good, true comrades in arms. They made excellent partners. But Cecelia wasn't as strong as Fey, battle-wise.

Jaime had always hoped they, Bell and Phaedra, would be able to get along better. If they could, if they were able to work together, how amazing could they be?

But...whatever happened between them, it seemed like it made Bell just reach a point where he didn't hate Phaedra anymore. And you think that would be a good thing.

No. It was worse than it sounded. Because now it looked like he didn't care about her at all.

What's the opposite of love? It's not hate.

It's apathy. And considering they already disliked each other it was even more rerrible.

What was it that could have changed them like this? I don't think they ever even talked to each other this morning.

Jaime had no clue as to why Bell's attitude became so distant and cold towards her. She must have done or said something really bad to make him like this. And he didn't think it was something that could be easily fixed.

And so, while the group was dealing with the gloomy silence that had inexplicably taken root among them, they arrived at their first town.

*********

" Young Master, these, why do these have a hole right there...?" Melanie, in wonder, asked him. No one else was around, and she whispered to him softly, showing him a piece of fabric with a curious expression on her face.

She didn't even think about what it was she held.

"Easier access." Lyle said.

"Huh?" Melanie looked at him in puzzlement.

But as soon as she saw that amused, wicked--almost evil-- smirk on his face, she blushed. With such a look, how could she not understand?

"Oh...s-so that's what it's for..." Her voice seemed a little squeaky? Ah...so embarrassing...

"What, do you want a pair?" Again, that smile. He seemed to enjoy it, seeing her squirm.

"No!" She hurried to say. " Why would I even want one...."

He cocked a brow at her, laughing.

"Young Master, thinking about such things..."

"Oh? Thinking what things? What sort of "things" do you mean?"

"Things...like that...You know, l-lewd things...."

He tsked at her. "What a dirty mind you have, Melanie. I wasn't thinking about such things at all, you know?"

"T-that...! I'm not...! I wasn't...!" But she gave up, muttering. " My mind isn't dirty. At all. It's not. You just...this is your fault. Making that face, like some rogue..."

Chuckling, Lyle asked, "So, what, you like them then? If so, I can get them for you. I'm sure they'll be nice and comfortable. Airy."

"No, I'm fine!" She replied quickly, putting the piece of clothing back where she found them. Really, who would be so bold as to wear something like them! Melanie nearly died just thinking about it having them on...

"Well then, see any that you do like?"

"Not really..."

They were shopping for her clothes, obviously.

" I see. Hey, why not these?" He held up a pair of lacy black underwear. "They seem stylish. Nicely made. Soft material. Good?"

"Ah...they do look pretty okay.... I actually had my eye on them, but the price is a bit...No, it's fine. Wasting money on something like that, I can't."

Lyle made a face. "Melanie, I'm paying for everything. I already told you that. Repeatedly."

"I know, but having the Young Master do such a thing for me is...."

"No buts. Alright. So we're getting a few pairs of these then. Pick out the colors you like and we can leave. This is the last of it, right? We got everything else?"

"Um...yeah. We got everything I would need...." In fact, they got more than she would need. He practically bought her a whole new wardrobe. All of it cost at least 15 gold. An amazig price for just some clothes. Most clothes wouldn't cost more than a few silver.

They were all very well-made, with quality materials and vivid colors. The dyes used in the clothes being expensive just by themselves....

Still, they were not too excessive. They were not lavish, just made with some skill. Melanie was not used to wearing something that cost so much. And looked so pretty. She picked her own clothes before, but only ever got more conservative things to wear.

Affordable things. Or in other, less kind words, cheap things.

But with the Young Master here, he wouldn't allow her to get something that was sub-par. And couldn't understand why she tried to stop him from buying them for her. Wouldn't women like to wear things like that? He would think

But he didn't know that it wasn't this which made her hesitate. It was a combination of things. The price was only one aspect.

The other is how it made her look.

In fact, she had overheard some talk the other day. It was harmless, but it seemed like some of the mercenaries wondered why she was here. With him and his sister. Going on a trip. Together.

It turns out, a few of them thought that she was a...a mistress. Or something like that. They didn't know if "Bell" was cheating on his girlfriend, or if she(Sophia) allowed it or what was going on.

But they all agreed that there was definitely something between she and him.

Melanie was treated well, that wasn't a problem, but it just made her look bad...

If someone were to see them, and only had to work with the same information the mercenaries had, them seeing Lyle buy her such things would obviously make them believe her a mistress. No matter how you cut it, that was what most would think.

"Don't worry about it." Lyle felt he knew why she was so down today. And he would be right. "It's our business, they know that. They won't mind one way or the other. And if I had to say, at least in some ways, their assumptions aren't entirely wrong...Kind of."

Although not a mistress, Melanie and he did indeed have something going on between them. As for what, he wasn't sure at the moment. Neither was she.

"Melanie, have you thought about it at all?"

She knew to what he was referring.

"I..."

Melanie stayed quiet for a moment.

She bagan to geow uneasy. "...Young Master, you know I can't punish you. I can't. So I can either ignore it, or choose...choose..." She coughed lightly. "That. You know. But even if I say yes, and even if you agree to it, you would only be doing it out of guilt. And y-your mother made it clear that she while she won't get in the way, she won't support us if we ever..." She stopped. "...It's just, I don't think I want things to change anyway, and I don't want you to force yourself... Plus, even if your mother is neutral, your father definitely wouldn't be..."

Lyle sighed, growing irritated. "Melanie, don't worry about those things. Leave it all to me. The only thing you should care about is your own feelings on the matter. I do feel guilty, but I wouldn't suggest this if I thought I would have had to forced myself to go through with it. That aside, if you want to just ignore it and let things be, then I will as well.

If not, if you choose the other thing, then you can stop being concerned about all this. And if you want me to properly court you, I can do that too."

Lyle wanted to make it clear to her that she could follow her own feelings and not be weighed down by anything else.

It wasn't that he was pushing for a relationship. No, he even felt awkward at the start of another one so soon after his break-up with Sophia. After all, she was a large part of his life.

And he still hadn't completely gotten over her. He was even willing to propose to her, how could he not still care for her? Yes, she had little faith in him. But even so, she was imporant to him.

Something broken could never return to what it once was. Lyle firmly believed in that.

So he couldn't be at ease around her anymore, he probably wouldn't even be able to look at her the same way. But that didn't stop him from missing what they had. Perhaps it was his fault, maybe he didn't do enough to reinforce a sense of trust for him in her.

He didn't know.

But what's done is done, he couldn't change that. It would have been nice if he had that power, but he doesn't, and he never will.

It was simply that Lyle wanted to assure Melanie. Besides. Maybe his mother was right. Maybe not Cecelia, but someday...perhaps he would have grown to love Melanie all on his own, eventually.

She truly was one of the few close women to him, it wouldn't be unthinkable....

This ambiguous situation they were in, it really was....annoying...

Melanie still wasn't convinced. "Even if you say that, how could you not be forcing yourself? You want to make things right. But I'm no Lady. You don't have to take any resposibility. And even if you did, I...I don't think I want you to. A relationship started out of guilt and a sense of obligation would be destined for ruin."

She went on quietly. "Besides...I'm not fit for you anyway. Young Master, you have to know that too, right? Look at me." She gestured towards herself. "What part of me could you ever find desirable?"

...Melanie didn't think she had an especially low self-esteem. But it was just that the other person was someone that was, bluntly speaking, too amazing. He was a Noble. One from a powerful family.

A person that had talent, looks, enormous social status... everything that could make anyone envious. He was too high for someone like her to ever hope to reach. He was inherently better than her. That was a fact.

She admired him. Respected him. In fact, ever since he helped her and her mother, it could even be said that her life revolved around his. But wanting to ask more than what she deserves or, is worthy of, was too much.

Yet even as she said this...he was still the first man to ever do those things to her.

This point was rather important to her, because Melanie always imagined that the only one who would touch her like that, who would make her feel the way he did, would be her future husband and no one else.

She believed that she would eventually find a decent man, fall in love, marry him, have children...At least, this is what she always wanted for herself, expected for herself.

But to the contrary, it wasn't like that at all. Instead it was him who did those...those kind of things to her. Because of that, she found that the more time she spent around him, the more conscious of him she became.

Images of what happened that time kept appearing in her head. She couldn't sleep too easy at nights either, because dreams of them holding onto each other, kissing each other...of him whispering sweet nothings into her ear... always made their way into her mind.

Having such thoughts and dreams towards him, her employer and benefactor...was that okay?

She didn't know what to do about it.

Melanie wished her mother were here. She would be able to tell her what she should do.

Lyle, on his side of things, got even more irritated.

He raised a hand and lightly flicked her on the head, saying, "That really is a bad habit of yours, i'm guessing. Melanie, you're beautiful. Don't worry about that, because you are. There's no part of you that's undesirable. Those things I did were wrong, and I was not exaclty myself...but don't believe for a second that you're unattractive. If you were any prettier, I think that I probably would have had a hard time keeping my hands off of you in the future anyhow."

Lyle really did think this, he wasn't simply flattering her. Melanie was always pretty, though in recent times she seemed to have...he wasn't sure if bloomed was the right word or not, but Melanie is definitely getting even lovelier as time went on.

So he didn't quite know where this seeming lack of confidence came from. Though he supposed it was cute, in a way. It wasn't something he thought he should encourage, however. People have to grow up and mature, don't they?

Melanie rubbed the spot he flicked her at, feeling as if she was just treated like a child. But his words, her heart couldn't help beating faster at them. He was really too straightforward, aying those type of things so easily...

"So" Lyle went on. "Don't bother thinking about it too much. Good?"

"Yes...I'll try..." Melanie sighed. Really, how could she not worry? She hated this. It felt really awkward around him now. At least for her. It never used to be like this...

But, 'Court you', he said. Melanie didn't quite understand what that would entail. If...If it was anything like that, though, then....she really would be in trouble, wouldn't she?

No, he couldn't have meant "that" . Probably...

She couldn't help coughing, trying to get those weird thoughts out of her head.

"Alright, let's pay for these and meet up with the others."

**********

"Big brother, you're back..."

Iris, having been left in the care of Cecelia back at the Inn the company was staying at, walked up to him and said such a thing. As if she expected otherwise.

"Of course I'm back." He looked at her oddly. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"No, forget it. Big brother, I love you."

"...Right." Hearing her say something like that so suddenly made him pause. The past few day she was acting...off. Maybe more like down? Or something. It was just weird, and he was starting to worry.

It seemed like that wasn't the reaction she was hoping for, because her face fell. But she didn't say anything more.

"Cecelia, is Jaime ready to go?"

The girl nodded. "Just about. Phaedra's been itching to leave. You had best be careful too. She's also been very irritable today. I think she's coming down with something."

"When isn't she irritable?" Lyle looked genuinly curious.

Could it be that there was a time when that girl was relatively normal?

Just as the thought entered his head, a sharp point could be felt from the back of his neck.

"You were saying?" A cold voice intoned.

"Oh, I was just wondering whether there were ever any days when you didn't act like a wild animals. Apparently there aren't any." The words were devoid of any real edge, it was simply an instintive reaction.

"Today, you die."

"Feel free to do what you want."

Melanie and Iris stepped in.

"M-Miss Phaedra, your weapon, please lower it! T-this is a bit..." The older girl tried to stop her. Pulling a weapon to his neck, not matter what she couldn't just be calm when seeing something like that!

"Evil woman, it looks like you're causing trouble for my brother again, huh!"

"Phaedra."Jaime walked in, and seeing the scene play out in front of him, he raised his voice in warning.

"He started it." Phaedra snapped at him.

Lyle chimed in. "Actually, I was planning to end it. Sadly I don't think I'll get the chance now."

But even as he said the words, he couldn't feel them. They were empty to his ears, and he thought maybe the other's noticed it too. He said them, but it was as if he was just putting on a show. Lyle couldn't form any real emotion with which to say them.

"Knock it off, both of you. Honestly." Val, Murphy, Nyk and Boris, with several of their comrades, walked down the stairs.

It was Val whose fed-up voice said the previous words. Though inwardly she was quite pleased. Did this mean that those two were going back to their usual selves? She hoped so.

"I'm sorry, are you the one with a knife to your throat?" This was Lyle.

"That's just how she shows her love."

"Well if she shows her 'love' anymore than this, I'll be dead."

Phaedra put down her blade. "Whatever. I'm too tired to deal with you anyway."

Without a word more, she walked away. She turned her head and looked back only once, her eyes flicking towards Lyle's face for an instant before continuing on her way.

Val laughed. "See? She adores you, my boy. She would never actually kill you."

Of course. Who would she argue with if that happened? ...No, forget it. I won't waste my time on her anymore.

Pretty much everyone was thinking that. Except Lyle, who felt that the girl would, if she could, happily dance on his grave. She may even keep his head for a trophy.

Maybe make his skull into a cup and drink from it.

Probably even put something like, "See this cup? This is the last person who pissed me off." on it.

Lyle shook his head.

No, forget it. I shouldn't even waste my time responding to her like I just did.

Melanie and Iris were probably the only ones disturbed by what just happened, both visibly shaking. Melanie with relief, Iris with fury.

Melanie had grown fearful every time the two even made eye contact, because she expected them to have a full-blown deathmatch at any moment. She had no idea why the two were so against each other, but she disliked seeing them fighting.

She especially disliked how the girl pulled weapons out and threatened him with them.

Although recently that enmity looked to have died down, at least on his part.

Iris was the opposite, growing angry each time the girl pulled something like this. Really, mistrating her brother like this, the nerve of that woman....

Jaime, watching Phaedra leave, looked at Lyle.

"Hey...is something wrong?" He asked hesitantly. He wasn't sure he wanted to broach the subject, but he had to know what was up with them. This strangeness between them was worrying. "You two seemed different lately. More specifically, you."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that your words didn't seem to have the usual bite in them. And Fey let it go pretty easily too. " Jamie stopped, then continued. "No, look. Something is obviously wrong with you two. Everyone can tell. What's going on? You've never acted like this with each other. You two used to blow up every time you met, but now everything just seems so...muted." He frowned.

Lyle sighed. "I don't know. I'm just tired of it."

"Of what?"

"Her. I've had enough of her."

Lyle didn't care that she hated him. His mentality wasn't that weak. She herself said that she simply didn't like him. She rejected him. To her, he was an eyesore. A nuisance.

That was fine. He didn't need or care if she liked him.

He simply felt like he should not have to put up with her anymore. Like she said, what she hated was "everything about him."

That was unreasonable, wasn't it? Why should he want to talk or look at someone who hated him for seemingly no real reason at all?

Jaime ran a hand through his hair, looking distressed. "Bell, whatever she did or said, don't take it to heart. Phaedra...she's got her own circumstances."

" Yeah, well, so does everyone. But it doesn't matter. I won't bother with her anymore, I've already decided that. I can't live with her, and I have no problems living without her. A sentiment that she returns with fervor. So this is for the best.

I and your sister are just two people that never should have met in the first place."

"...Okay. Fine. But just o you know, I don't think she actually hates you, exactly. Keep that in mind."

Lyle shrugged, saying nothing. After another twenty minutes, the small group of theirs left the town behind.

**********

It was two days later, evening.

There was a large, quiet building. The sounds of fighting had long since died out. Only corpses lay scattered in the dark halls, now.

Gideon held a sword pointed to a skinny man with thinning hair and a hook-like nose, a man dressed like a Noble.

" Tell me, were you working alone?" His voice was deceptively calm. He knew, he knew, what these people wanted to do. And it pissed him off. Made him hate them. Made him want to tear off their limbs and beat them with it, just to begin.

But he held it in. All of it. And simply tried to get as much out of the man as he could before killing him.

The hook-nosed man spat at him. " No. We weren't. But what can you do, against them? What they want, they will get, and even if you take it back, it'll already be a broken piece!"

They all knew full well what "it" was.

The man laughed, a dry, sickening laugh that made your hair stand on end. "I won't tell you anything you can use, just kill me! You don't know what we gave for our families, we've already sold our souls! As long as our lines continue, what do we care if we die! So go ahead, cut me down, in the end it's you and yours who'll be shedding tears! Yes. Tears. So much tears....All of you...all of you..all of...you..."

Gideon couldn't be bothered to listen anymore, to stop himself anymore. His mind was broken, a last failsafe. Now, he was useless to them. Even Lady Greyborne cannot piece together the fractured mind of a man already lost to insanity. Not when his mind has been Spellplagued....

He understood that it would be pointless to drag it out. And so, the man's head rolled.

His blade was not stained with any blood at all. It had already been eaten.

"Sir, we've already finished sweeping all the rooms. Every document that seems of import is in our hands. What do you want to do now?"

"You can take any valuables you can find as a bonus, then torch the place. I don't want any sign we were here, make it look like an acccident. Have Mavis burn the bodies with magic, tell him I don't want to leave even have a single piece of bone intact. Everything has to be turned to ash, you hear me?"

"Yessir!"

Gideon hesitated. He looked at the piece of paper in his hand, his eyes stopping as he saw what was stamped at the top of the page.

"And send this to Hannah..."

He gave the man the paper after folding it carefully.

"But sir, Agent Hannah is no longer..."

"I know. Don't worry. Just tell her who it is we're doing this for. "

"But, sir, perhaps Gaius or Mavis can..."

"They're no Hannah, they can't. Go. Tell her. She won't refuse." She can't refuse anyway. Not when it concerns that person. None of them can.

But he didn't say this.

"I understand, sir. I'll be off at once."

With that, one of the shadowy figures of the room vanished, almost like a ghost, off to carry out his orders.

Gideon couldn't read the piece of paper. Not one of them would be able to break the spell placed on it.

Even the Bathory clan, if they were willing to help, would not be able to find someone who could decipher it on such short notice.

But if it was Hannah, then...

That person, she could definitely do it.

Although she no longer did field work, if she knew who it was that needed her, she couldn't sit back and do nothing.

None of their kind would be able to. It was their meaning in life to serve them, after all.

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