And Then There Was Silence: Part Seven
VII: Calm, Yet Peculiarly Cold
The sun is only just beginning to set, but the rocky cliffs that surround the town of Cogham like silent sentinels cast shadows so fierce upon the land they shelter that, within their ring of protection, it is dark enough to look like dusk. A few Vullards circle the mountains from overhead, as if anticipating a catastrophe to happen in the valley below. If everything goes correctly, they may not be wrong…
"Alright, does everyone remember the plan?"
Kamen, Apsy, and Simeon all nod excitedly to Ember's words. Though they're fearful that her plan may not work — there's a lot that could go wrong — they couldn't be more excited to give it a shot. They just hope this works and this whole mess can finally come to an end.
The odd group of allies has been hiding under the sheltering shadow of a cliff that Simeon is certain the Scorchio has landed on top of; but, even though their target rests miles above them, high up out of their reach — for now — the four still whisper to each other softly as if he could hear them at any moment. Apsy sits alert on her haunches, holding tightly to a strong rope that's practically long enough to encircle the entire castle of Meridell. Simeon has "borrowed" one of the villagers' bedsheets which they had hung out to dry in the setting sunlight and holds it under his arm, folded loosely. Kamen is standing, his eyes sparkling with eagerness, looking up and down the cliff, searching for the easiest and quickest way to ascend its vertical façade. Lastly, Ember sits at the head of the group, prepared to do what she does best: nothing.
"Alright," Ember says, clapping her hands together lightly, a sickly eager grin spreading its way across her lips, "if everyone knows what they're doing, then let's get started already. If we do this right, we'll have this guy, and it'll barely take ten seconds. Everyone ready?"
"How exciting!" Apsy says with a little bounce while the others nod again.
"Sweet, we got this, team," Ember says, then they all stand and take their places scattered around the base of the cliff. "Kamen? Simeon? Y'all are up first — and, Simeon, please refrain from killing him… it'll be more fun if we take care of him my way…"*
"I don't know how many more run-ins like that I can take…" Finneus says to himself as he lands on one of the rocky ledges of the Steppe Plateau, beneath which the town of Cogham sits peacefully and quietly. The miserable Scorchio's stress has caused him to start acting a bit loony — he's been talking to himself for the past hour or so, having a full conversation with nobody about where to go, where to land, what he sees, what to do next… and he doesn't even realise he's been doing it.
His poor, aching wings droop and drag on the ground, kicking up a trail of red dust that delicately evanesces into the wind. He feels like he'll never be able to fly again, his muscles are so sore, but he's so high up on the mountain now that those dumb Werelupes and that pouty assassin shouldn't be able to find him, and even if they do, they couldn't possibly reach him up at this height… right?
Left, right, left — spin around — left, right, left again — turn back — and he's sure he's alone. Positive. No assassins, no Werelupes, no teeny tiny humans, not even any Crokabeks. Just, pure, peaceful, absolute, loneliness.
He pulls the beaten-up Negg and that stupid necklace that's caused him so much trouble out of his pocket, then sighs theatrically. "How am I supposed to sell this stuff? It's all ruined…" And it honestly is. The Negg is in such poor condition that its once-happy face almost appears to be frowning at its own condition, and, well, the necklace was always junk. This was a worthless endeavour. But, he guesses, at least it was fun while it lasted… right?
He throws himself to the ground melodramatically, then lies on his back sprawled out under the taunting sun whose light is finally beginning to fade. This day has lasted an eternity and a half, but it's finally coming to a close. Maybe, with the dawn, his pursuers will become discouraged and discontinue their chase? Probably not, but he's hopeful for a miracle. He feels like he's going insane. He doesn't ever want to see another Werelupe again. Every gently trembling shadow feels like it's that dumb assassin. He doesn't know what to do. All he knows is he is very, very tired, and that he will no doubt feel much better — and less crazy — after a much needed rest… right?
So, for now, while he's totally alone, while there's nobody to threaten him, while the sun still shines warm on his aching muscles, he lies down, and he sleeps.*
Finneus awakens to what sounds like an echo caused by claws scratching loudly on stone. "Oh no…"
He sits bolt upright — left, right, left, right, left — but he can't see anything. Still, he can hear the scritch-scratching clear as day. He can hear panting breath. He can feel someone approaching. "Oh no, oh no…" He stands up, spinning around, already completely panicking even though there's still nobody to be found.
The sound seems to be coming from everywhere all at once. He looks around frantically, running in small circles to check behind every stone and inside every shadow, but he still can't find anything there. What once was a calming loneliness is now only heightening his distress. His wings ache too much for him to just take off, so he continues to search for the source of the sound. If he can find where his stalker is, he can figure out where to jump and glide out to safety; that way, he can save whatever bursts of energy his wings still harbour in case he needs to actually fly again, and also, hopefully, be able to keep his loot safely in his pocket.
Nervously, he approaches the ledge of the cliff. The sound seems to be getting louder the closer he gets to the edge. That has to be where it's coming from, and its echo through the many mountains of the Steppe Plateau was what gave the illusion of its ubiquitousness. A clever strategy by his pursuers, but he thinks he's got it figured out now. "Oh no, no, no…" He tiptoes closer and closer and closer, fearing what he may see when he peeks over the edge. When he finally does…
The sound then stops. Also odd. But, at least he's safe. He was probably just imagining it. He has been seeing people in shadows and hearing voices in the wind for a while now, after all. This stress is killer. He has a major headache. He breathes a sigh of relief, then turns around to lie back down on the warm rocks… only to be met with a pair of glistening ivory fangs in his face.
He shrieks, as usual, in the face of the snarling Werelupe prince that has just appeared behind him, then stumbles backwards, having no choice but to flap his exhausted wings as fast as he possibly can to get himself up into the air. Strangely enough, though, the Werelupe doesn't lunge towards him like the last time — instead, he leaps off the ledge, grabbing hold of the soft rock with his razor-sharp claws and using them to slide down the side of the cliff with ease, leaving deep gashes in the rocks and a trail of dust that hazes the sky over. Also also odd. But, whatever, now Finneus knows that at least one of the Werelupes is here, so it's safe to assume the others aren't far behind. He's so sick of flying, but he has to take off again or he may become Werelupe fodder. He's unsure of where exactly to go, feeling like he's exhausted all of his options for places to hide in this realm. He may just need to leave Meridell and Brightvale entirely… but he can figure that out later. Right now, he just needs to get the heck off of this mountain.
Before Finneus can completely take off into the asylum of the setting sun's light, a shadow falls over him, and he finds himself tangled under a delicate but completely disorienting blanket of some sort. Simeon has just appeared behind him and has tossed the unlucky villager's bedsheet over the tiny, frantic Scorchio. Finneus tries to free himself, kicking and punching at nothing in particular, but his arms and legs and, worst of all, his wings are tangled and useless under the blanket. He's then shoved off the edge of the cliff by the assassin. He hears the Gelert's cruel laughter coming from behind him as he plummets towards the canyon below. The whole ordeal is so embarrassing…
Finneus finally manages to throw the sheet off of him before hitting the ground, then lifts his wings to catch the air, his arms flailing, and his eyes full of fear. Though his muscles are tired and he finds it hard to keep his wings outstretched, he is able to slow his descent enough that he lands on the ground softly — or, at least, he would have landed on the ground softly, but he finds himself being slammed from the side again, this time by the Werelupe prince. He and his attacker are sent tumbling and tussling into a nearby stream with a splash. Before he has time to realise exactly what is happening and try to break free, Apsy appears in front of him, holding the rugged rope tightly in her hands and jaws. While Kamen holds the screaming, struggling Scorchio still, Apsy runs around and around him with the rope, binding and tangling the squirming thief. Simeon then appears next to them in a cloud of smoke and grabs the other end of the rope and starts to bind the thief's arms and legs, just to be extra certain he can't escape. When Kamen finally lets go of Finneus, Apsy and Simeon pull back on their ends of the rope aggressively, and it tightens all around him. He's completely bound. Not even his wings are free. He struggles futilely as the assassin and the two Werelupes laugh. Then, from in front of him, he sees the tiny human approaching with an intense evil in her eyes. "Finally," she says, then pulls a rag from her back pocket and begins to tie it around the Scorchio's head, gagging his mouth, suppressing his very uncool screaming. "We've finally got you this time…"
The four's echoing laughter fills the canyon once more.
Finneus writhes and screams as he is carried shamefully into the swamp witch's hut, but there's just no escaping the strong grips of his captors. Kamen holds his legs and tail firmly while Simeon and Apsy each hold one shoulder, keeping him nice and steady — when he isn't squirming around, at least. He's still gagged and wrapped tightly in the strong rope — bound enough times to make him look like a mummy. They didn't take any chances with his capture. They didn't want him escaping. How incredibly uncool he must look…
Ember sits at the edge of Sophie's bed, her legs crossed casually, calmly petting the witch's purring Meowclops. She's got a smile spread across her face that's so cruel it would make Dr. Sloth positively green — well, green-er — with envy, and Sophie's grin, too, has never been more excitedly malevolent.
With a loud thud! and a few careless snickers, Simeon and the Werelupes drop Finneus onto the floor at the witch's feet. He's too tightly bound to escape — or even really to move at all — though he wriggles and writhes and tries to crawl away. Sophie laughs. "You look like a nasty little worm when you do that," she says, and already Finneus can tell that her words hint at his fate. "Too bad you're not as good at crawling as nasty little worms are… but that can easily be changed…" She cackles evilly as her hands begin to glow with an intense, bright, burning magic. Its powerful green glow is nearly blinding. Finneus shrieks his always uncool shriek as his body is engulfed by the flash of light, then, when his eyes adjust to the dimness of the witch's hut once more, he finds that the world seems a hundred times bigger, and he feels a hundred times slimier…
Kanrik was right… he shouldn't have tried to get away with such heists…*
The tiny Skidget wriggles around on the floor from within the pile of clothes that the normal-sized Finneus was wearing only moments ago. With a snicker, Sophie walks over to the pile and plucks the little petpetpet off of the ground. It squeals in her hands as she glares at it.
"Yeesh," Apsy says, cringing and stepping away from Sophie and the nasty petpetpet, "he makes that annoying sound even in bug form."
Sophie cackles evilly, examining the squirming Skidget with smiling eyes. "He is a very pretty bug, though," she says, then walks over to the windowsill, dropping the Skidget into a planter box outside that's full of compost and wartroots. "He will be very nice in my garden. That is, until the Slorgs get to him," then she cackles again.
The Meowclops that was sitting on Ember's lap mews loudly, jumps down onto the floor, the runs to the window, batting a paw at the Skidget. "No, no, Kitty," Sophie says, pushing the petpet away from the foul-smelling flowers, "that is not a toy for you… yet…"
Ember hops off of the bed and walks to the pile of crumpled clothing that lies in the middle of the floor, the fabric still glowing faintly with the witch's shapeshifting spell. She digs around in the cloth until she finds the pocket where the thief was keeping his loot. She pulls out the Negg first. "Uh… Sophie…"
Sophie spins around at the sound of her name, only to see Ember presenting her with a very damaged, very squashed, very useless Fish Negg. She lets out an awful cry. "Ugh! He ruined it!" She storms over to Ember and snatches the Negg out of her hands angrily, turning it over and over to examine its every obvious flaw, nostrils flaring, eyes narrowing.
Ember looks to Kamen and Apsy. They all cringe as Sophie mumbles and cusses under her breath, pacing back and forth through the centre of the tiny hut. Simeon, indifferent, still watches the Skidget squirming in the trash in the planter box, Sophie's Meowclops now winding lovingly around his legs.
Sophie finally sighs — no, it's more of an accepting grunt. "Whatever, it'll still work," she says, then walks over to the disgusting brew that's been slowly bubbling over the firepit for who-knows-how-long. She plucks exactly four scales off of the Negg and drops them into the pot with a little poouhff of smoke, then tosses the rest of the Negg over her shoulder, where her eager Meowclops leaps for it and eats it excitedly.
The Werelupes both look to Sophie, mouths agape, as she stirs her brew, humming quietly, smiling peacefully. "…All you needed were four of its stupid scales?" Apsy asks, completely unable to hide her frustration.
Sophie turns to face Apsy, glaring daggers, and snorts at her. "What? They were four very important scales."
"For Fyora's sake…"
"Listen, Missy, I don’t tell you how to do your job."
"I didn't say anything like that!"
The two of them begin to bicker aggressively, Kamen watching intensely — albeit with the ghost of an amused grin across his freckled cheeks — in case any more serious conflict stirs up. Ember watches and listens for a few seconds, shaking her head, then kneels down and digs around through the thief's coat again. Eventually, she manages to find the golden necklace, tangled and tarnished, in one of the pockets. She pulls it out carefully and holds it in the palm of her hand, pooling its delicate chain around the pendant, examining its intricately-carved exterior with a questioning feeling in her gut. She walks over to Simeon and holds it out to him. "Is this, uh… yours?"
He doesn't turn to look at her at first — just glances over slightly, looking disinterested in whatever she has to say — but then he does a double-take — whips his head around violently at the sight of the necklace she cradles gently in her palm. He blushes slightly, embarrassed, then snatches it out of her hand. She laughs at his awkwardness, but he doesn’t seem to care about her mocking. The second his fingertips brush over the surface of the necklace and he holds it tightly to his chest, it looks as if a huge wave of relief washes over his entire being, making him appear completely at ease. He closes his eyes and sighs, and what looks like a hint of a truly peaceful smile curls the edges of his mouth.
Ember wants to poke fun at him, but she's too busy smiling stupidly over how happy he looks and how happy she is for him. Also, it sounds like Apsy is getting herself into more trouble than she can handle, and she should probably step in before her daughter gets turned into a Blechy…
Ember spins around with a clap of her hands. "Apsy, come on, leave Sophie alon—"
"Yeah, leave me alone, you smelly Werelupe!" Sophie yells, interrupting Ember.
Apsy stomps her foot and snorts at Sophie again, but Kamen grabs her shoulders and turns her towards him before she can say anything more, staring into her jade eyes with that prince-like authority he always seems to have. "Enough," he says, his voice firm and magisterial, but he's smiling and snickering at the silliness of the heated argument the girls have been having.
"We still have to get this staff back to Illusen," Ember says, walking over to Apsy and grabbing her by a fistful of her hair, tugging her towards the door while she goes ow! Ow! Ow! "Simeon, are you coming?" Ember asks, pausing in the threshold that leads to the swamp outside.
The human's words seem to knock the assassin out of a vivid daydream. He looks to her surprised, as if he had completely forgotten he was with other people. "Oh, uh…"
His voice trails off as he looks to Ember and the Werelupes. Their gazes are welcoming and encouraging — their gentle smiles loving and forgiving. He hasn't felt this sort of acceptance in a very, very long time. He looks down embarrassed, then at the necklace in his hand again. He nods. "Sure, of course," he says, walking slowly to the three's side.
"Yeah, and stay out," Sophie says with a flip of her hand as the four of them leave her still-messy hut. The swamp witch goes back to stirring her brew while the Skidget in the planter box just squirms, squirms, squirms away…
"I really hate this place," Kamen whispers, ears pressed back nervously, as the four of them walk through the bright green forest of Illusen's glade, gently winding around trees and shrubs.
Ember rolls her eyes over-exaggeratedly. "She's not gonna turn you into a Doglefox or whatever if you just leave her be," she says. "In fact, if she wakes up and sees you returning her staff, maybe she'll like you guys more, or something."
Kamen shakes his head, cringing at the thought of what would happen if the forest faerie found him sneaking around in her bedroom in the dead of night… "I highly doubt that."
"Well, I don't want to have to climb that giant tree and put this stupid stick back in the room of a faerie who may or may not immediately hate me," Apsy says sassily, crossing her arms and pouting as usual, then looking to her mother for some sort of answer to the implied question of how the heck they're supposed to put the staff back.
Ember makes a face and throws her arms in the air. "Don't look at me!" she yells, probably a little too loudly. "I couldn't even make it up that tree if I tried. I don't have y'all's fancy claws and such." She wiggles her fingers as she says this.
Then, all attention then turns to Simeon.
He lifts his honeycomb gaze to meet the three pairs of expectant eyes that are now completely focused on him, but he isn't thrilled about the implied request swimming in their irises. He clenches his eyes shut and sighs, then extends an unenthusiastic arm out to Kamen, who is holding Illusen's staff. "Why do I have to do your dirty work?" he says as Kamen hands him the fragrant weapon.
" 'Cause you were a jerk so you owe us one," Apsy says prissily, her hands on her hips.
Simeon snickers and shrugs. "Fair enough, I suppose," he says, then continues walking, crunching every dead leaf and fruit and twig he sees, if for no other reason than it's just fun. Eventually, he squishes a rotting Chokato… then stops dead in his tracks, eyes wide, and looks to the village that's to their left.
The three all stop when they realise he isn't beside them anymore, then follow his gaze over to the quiet town that slumbers as peacefully under the shade of the trees as the residents who live there. "Uh… what's up?" Ember asks, looking back to him, puzzled.
"I completely forgot, I have a contract I needed to finish here…" he says, his eyes narrowing. His tone is turning hostile again. It's a horrible sound to hear after so long of him being actually pleasant. He reaches for his sword's hilt and begins to pull the blade from its scabbard. "It'll only take a second…"
He looks over to the three others, who are now all staring at him with scornful eyes. Ember taps her foot against the ground condescendingly. Kamen looks incredibly disappointed. Apsy looks… well, she usually looks this angry with him. Nothing new there.
Simeon looks to the staff in his left hand, then back to the kids. He sighs and looks high up into the clear skies, in complete disbelief that he's about to postpone a contract for these children, then puts his sword back in its sheath. "Er, on second thought… I'll deal with that later," he says, scratching the back of his neck embarrassedly.
"That’s what I thought," Ember says with a cheeky little grin.
He rolls his eyes again, then pauses to think for a few seconds. He has a plan… but the three others can't know about it. "I'll put the staff back in its proper place and the faerie will be none the wiser," he says. "You three don't have anything more to worry about."
"Thank goodness," Kamen sighs, looking up to the trees with a relieved glint in his eyes. "I can't stand being here…"
Simeon nods his head, seemingly for no reason, but he's really just nodding in agreeance with a private decision he's just made in his mind. "You three can leave. I'll finish this up and be on my way."
"Will we ever see you again?" Apsy asks, for once sounding legitimately curious, and not at all disdainful like she has been up until that point.
Again, Simeon is caught off guard by the affection coming from the trio, but he forces the flattered feelings to the back of his mind, not wanting the gratefulness to be seen on his face. "With any luck, no," he says with a snide grin.
Ember giggles while Apsy groans in frustration. "Whatever," the Werelupe says, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "So… see you around?"
Simeon gives the three a respectful bow, then pulls his hood up over his eyes again. "Perhaps someday," he says, then he disappears.
Kamen doesn't skip a beat in addressing his nervousness. The second the smoke clears, he nudges Ember's arm and begs, "Let's hurry up and leave."
Ember meets his midnight gaze and gives a firm nod and a peaceful smile. "After you."
Just when he thought his night couldn't get any worse, the candles on Kanrik's desk dance in an invisible breeze again. He groans loudly, then slams his head against his desk, letting his quill fall from his hand, splattering ink messily across the table and the papers that are strewn about it. The overworked blue Gelert has just gotten finished bandaging up a newbie thief who somehow managed to get attacked by the Juppie Plant Monster down in Shadowglen Woods, and now this guy is back… He just wants to finish all his paperwork…
Kanrik stands with one reluctant hand on his sword's hilt, then turns around. "Please, I beg of you, I am so busy… what do you want this time?"
Simeon laughs from within the blackness across the room, and Kanrik is incredibly surprised when his voice actually sounds… calm. "Don't worry, I'm not here to stay, Kani," the assassin says, stepping out of the shadows. He doesn't look the least bit aggressive. His fingers are laced calmly behind his back. His steps are lithe and full of ease. "I just thought I'd bring you a little gift."
Kanrik's eyes light up as Simeon steps towards him and presents the thief with Illusen's powerful staff. Kanrik's jaw drops. "You… I can't… you just…" He is blabbering nonsense. He can't think of what to say. He's shocked.
"You're welcome," Simeon says with a sly grin and Kanrik takes the weapon from his hands.
"You… did you get this off of Finneus?" Kanrik finally manages to ask, though his voice quavers with excitement.
"If that was the Scorchio's name, then yes," Simeon says, lacing his fingers behind his back again.
Kanrik examines every detail of the powerful staff. It's beautiful, and looks completely unscathed, save for a few petals seeming out of place. Simeon continues his explanation as a greedy smile crawls across Kanrik's scarred cheeks. "It was the only item the thief had taken that resulted in no pursuers, so I figured no harm done in giving it away. Think of it as a little thank you gift, from me to you." His smile then turns from sly to genuinely appreciative. "After all, I couldn't have gotten it back without your help."
"You're too kind, my friend," Kanrik says, but he still doesn't raise his gaze. He's too distracted by his beautiful new possession.
"I know I am."
The two exchange delicate laughs, then Kanrik finally manages to tear his attention away from his stunning treasure to meet the assassin's gaze. Both of their eyes are smiling just as brightly and snarkily as their mouths. "Well, I'd best be going," Simeon then says, taking a few steps back into the shadows. "I know how much of a plague my presence is upon your beautiful guild, right?"
Kanrik laughs heartily. "If you keep bringing me little gifts like this, you could move right on in and I wouldn't care."
Again, they laugh. And, again, Simeon backs farther into the shadows. "You're alright, Kanrik," he says. "But… I have somewhere to be, so this is goodbye… for now."
Kanrik turns away, places the staff delicately on his desk, then begins to shuffle quickly through his stack of inventory papers for the one with a list of magical items written on it. "Have fun with whatever it is you do, my friend," he says, picking up his quill, and scribbling something down quickly on the paper he's just pulled out of the stack. The other forms topple over, but he doesn't seem to care.
"I'm sure I will," Simeon says. But, before he casts his spell to leave, he looks up to the ceiling, as if trying to peer up into the sky straight through the building above him. He churns an idea over and over in his for a while, then decides, eh, why not? "By the way, Kanrik," Simeon begins, still looking up, not wanting to lower his gaze for fear of meeting the thief's.
Kanrik's ears perk up at the sound and he pauses in his writing. He thought Simeon had left already. He worries what the assassin will say next — oh Fyora, please don't let there be a catch to this gift… — but he listens, patiently and unmoving.
"I've given some thought to what you said yesterday," Simeon continues, twirling the gold chain of his necklace around his index finger, "and, I've come to realise… you're wrong. I don't need to get over anything. So mind your childish nosiness."
Kanrik smiles to himself, out of pure nervousness, if not with a hint of embarrassment. "You do you, my friend," he says.
And with that, Simeon disappears, leaving Kanrik alone once more to do his work.
The thief shakes his head as the flames of the candles steady, then looks once more to the staff on his desk. He smiles wide. "Sometimes, I really do love that guy…" he mumbles, then returns once again to his never-ending task of stocktaking.
The moon overhead is full, and the sky is clear as crystal. The woods are dark and sombre, filled with the echoing sound of the Werelupe King's rich bass voice, the trees lit only by a bonfire atop a pile of ancient stones and whatever light spills its way to the earth through the branches of the trees. Apsy and Ember wait nervously in the back of a small crowd of Werelupes while the king gives an, unfortunately, rather long-winded speech. They can't hear him over the crowd's din, but that doesn't really bother them right now. They're so excited that they worry any words they do hear him speak would only make their giddiness spiral out of control.
Apsy's teeth are chattering nervously — a trait she inherited from her mum. Kamen sees this, and places a calming and reassuring hand on her shoulder. "You'll do fine," he says with a wink.
She blushes slightly, embarrassed that she's so obviously nervous, and turns away from the prince. Ember giggles at the sight, about to make a snarky comment, but then, they hear their names called loudly over the crowd. They all take deep breaths and begin to move forward, the many rows of Werelupes parting to let the three pass by.
Kamen escorts Apsy and Ember up to where the king is standing, the three of them all holding themselves tall and proud. The king nods to his son respectfully, and Kamen bows in response, his mind filled with a sense of calm that he only feels when he knows he's made his father proud. He then joins the crowd, leaving Apsy and Ember alone, standing in the middle of the ring of onlookers.
"Approach," the king says, his rich voice again echoing through the hollow trees.
The two walk towards him, slowly but calmly. Apsy is warring desperately with the butterflies that are dancing frantically around in her stomach — she's just so excited — and Ember couldn't be more proud.
Apsy and Ember do as he commands, lowering their heads with respect. He removes two of the Werelupe claw necklaces from around his neck and holds them tightly in his strong hands. "Do you swear, so long as you both shall live, to uphold the honour of the Werelupes' realm, and fight only for the good of our kingdom?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Apsy and Ember say in unison.
"And, do you swear, so long as you both shall live, to never back down in the face of consistant onslaught, no matter what ills may come with serving this realm?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
The king smiles, for once completely genuinely — almost proud. "Then, for your help in aiding to return a very sacred relic to our kingdom, retrieve treasures for those who dwell in our woods, and for your admirably stubborn refusal to give up in the face of adversity, on behalf of myself and the entire Werelupe kingdom, we welcome you, Apsy and Ember, into our community." He places the necklaces over their heads slowly as he says this. They look up to him excitedly when he begins to back away. "Good luck — you'll need it," he mumbles with a glint of malevolence in his red eyes, then he takes a few steps back, inhales deep, and howls up into the night sky.
Following the king's lead, Kamen and the rest of the Werelupes in the ring all fill the cold midnight air with the shimmering sounds of their voices, the chorus of howls illuminating the woods and clouds with music. Apsy and Ember stand and give each other more than excited glances, smiling and giggling brightly with their triumph. Every voice in the crowd rings clear… except for one.
In the shadows of the trees, Simeon looks on smiling. He isn't necessarily feeling happy, but he's… okay. Seeing the girls' pride helps to ease his ever-churning mind. Their bright smiles and bubbling laughter lighten the burden on his heavy heart. The respect they have received from the Werelupe King makes him proud to have been able to help. But, still, despite all that, he isn't happy — no, not happy. But, for the first time in many, many years, he is… okay.
As the sound of the howling dies down and everyone begins to talk amongst themselves once more, Simeon meets eyes with Ember through the bustling crowd. She's surprised to see him, but thankful and excited. She gives him a knowing smile, then continues to talk to the other Werelupes who are congratulating her and Apsy on their initiation. Still, despite seeing Ember smile when she sees him, he isn't happy — but he's… okay.
As the crowd begins to disperse, Simeon turns into the shadows of the forest and follows the glittering path of moonlight deep into the woods, until the only sounds that can be heard are those of his steady heartbeat and the clouds overhead stirring in the breeze. He looks up into the night sky — at the myriad of stars and constellations twinkling there — then reaches for the necklace that is now safely back in its proper place around his neck. He pulls it out from his shirt collar, cups the pendant in the palm of one hand and strokes its decorated surface with the other. A cool breeze blows through the trees, lifting and lowering his cloak lazily as he stands, motionless, one with the mist and chill. He breathes slow and steady, then unclasps a hidden lock on the side of the pendant, opening up the heart-shaped gold to reveal an ages-old photo of a love that was lost, yet is still always there. He feels a warmth rise up into his eyes, but he won't let the waters spill. This isn't a sad occasion, after all, but it's not a happy one, either. It is just, simply… okay.
He closes the locket tightly again, then presses it to his lips.
He smiles, not happy, but…
"I miss you."