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Frost and Shadow [Completed]

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The line between waking and slumber didn't exist for the foreseeable future. He had stormed out of Ul'dah like a man possessed, grabbing only the barest essentials and stuffing them into a satchel for easier carrying. A change of clothes that had been left behind moons ago, as many blankets as he could tear from the beds downstairs, carefully packed rations. The last step before exiting was to tear the map from the wall and smash it out of the frame. Bits of glass crunched into the carpet beneath heavy boots but that didn't garner any attention. There wouldn't be anybody around to cut themselves. It could wait. Everything could wait.


Victory was one of the hardiest birds the stables in Ul'dah had ever produced but even he had his limits. The pair had stopped briefly in Bluefog, chiefly for the chocobo to rest. Warren wouldn't begrudge the animal a chance to recover after the hard run they'd already undertaken but he couldn't put the timetable out of his head.


Bells, at the most. They don't have warm clothes. They're not near camp. They're not going to be found.


The man paced, his tempo insuring that even the most curious Flames on guard wouldn't approach him. He wore a warm cloak on his shoulder, though it did nothing to conceal the bulky armor of a Free Paladin or perhaps more important the massive sword at his hip. Whatever they might have figured his business was, alone, clearly in a hurry, they knew better than to turn that attention on themselves.


He's fast. We're making better time than any other bird could. We'll make it.


Warren tried to ignore the ticking of the clock. He didn't know where he was looking, but he did know where he was NOT looking. Nowhere near camps. Nowhere near towers. Dragonhead and Whitebrim were ruled out by necessity; She was traveling alone and wouldn't want the attention. The Observatorium would be possible, but it was the opposite direction of open fields with running water. A quiet voice told him it wouldn't matter, which he summarily silenced with a growl.


Victory rose on his own accord. Warren rested a heavy hand on the bird's helm. Already the temperature was dipping as they made their way from Thanalan's hotter regions, and the air in the dead of night did little to hold onto what warmth the area did collect. He spared a brief moment of worry for his mount's welfare, but brushed it aside.


They didn't have a choice. Warren tried not to think of how much time had passed since the crunching of the linkpearl and their break. He brought forth the map in his head again, closing his eyes as Victory lumbered into a heavy, determined trot stretching further north past the battle site of Castrum Meridium. His eyes slipped shut as he focused, and he was still going over possible locations when sleep took him.


He dreamt of ice and blackness.

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The sun was once again retreating away from the world, the frosts of Coerthas proving yet again to be too much of a match for a few meager bells of light. Warren stood on one of the roads halfway between the Whitebrim front and Dragonhead. A quiet voice in the back of his head ran the numbers.


They said she came through in the evening. They said he pursued her. Neither was dressed for the cold, they've been gone for an entire day lost in the snow there's no way they could have


He squeezed his eyes shut, ignoring the pressure in them and willing himself to remain upright. Howling winds raced past him, merciless in their assault and slipping under his cloak and into the cracks of his armor. One hand rested on Victory's reins while the other sat atop the hilt of his sword.


You've been up and down these hills all day. You've searched all over. No one has seen anything since they left. There's no reports.


Warren pulled himself wearily into the saddle. He felt another twinge of sympathy for the bird; He had greedily allowed himself to rest while his beast of burden continued their march into a frozen wasteland. The poor bird had been awake longer than he had, and Warren knew he couldn't push the creature to those lengths. Dragonhead would be warm, and he could afford to stable...


Whitebrim was at his back as he steered the animal away from the dying sun. His thoughts grew stronger with the stretching of the shadow before him, his shape distorted into something larger than he and stark contrast to the ever-present white of the snow.


An entire day. In their shape...


Warren gripped the leather reigns so hard he was afraid they would crack due to the cold. His plan was a simple one: Let Victory rest, and invest in torches.


They'll need the heat.

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The second torch suddenly sputtered and died noiselessly, the small halo of light and warmth swallowed by the darkness. Warren's feet trudged to a halt as he reached behind his back to remove another from his makeshift quiver, his hands shivering as he tended to the oil-soaked cloth. The flint stone materialized from a satchel on his belt and he forced his senses to focus on the task in front of him. He'd long since stopped counting the bells in his mind, unable to hear anything over the howling gales anyway. It was night and the world felt so far away.


He raked the flint again and again trying to get the torch to light. Damnable thing; The previous two had given up already and he found himself unreasonably angry. He knew they were merely converting fuel to light and warmth, and that those fuels were so delicately finite, but the only fact that seemed to tromp through his exhausted mind was that they had given up. They had run dry. When he needed them most, his lights had vanished into the night, dying uselessly in the snow. His hands gripped subconsciously and then the flint was gone, slipping from his hands and landing somewhere beneath him in the snow.


Thoughts collided like freight trains.


find it YOU DROPPED IT it's down there somewhere right under you get down and look for it can't see a thing can't feel a thing it's right there look for it


You'll never find it.


His breath hitched and Warren felt what little feeling left in his body give out. He landed on his knees as the torch slipped from under his arm and sank softly into the snow besides his expired brother, almost as if reaching out to touch and comfort it.


Can't feel anything in the gauntlets. Can't take the gauntlets off or I'll lose my hands to the cold. Can't sit here. Need to keep moving, need to get up. They need me.


He tried to will the fire in his belly back to the surface, to bring the fight back to the front and drive himself back to his feet to continue. One foot found purchase, then the second, and he turned about in the night trying to orient himself. Fire off in the distance. Was that Dragonhead? Had he managed to wander that far back? Was it Whitebrim? A pain in his stomach reminded him how badly he had been neglecting himself for more than a day. Victory was stabled, resting and warm. He was a good, dutiful bird. He deserved respite.




Warren closed his eyes, urging himself to retrace his steps. Had he been through this way? Which direction was he even facing? The sky was clouded over with the threat of more snow. He realized he didn't have the answer, forcing his mind silent to stave off the taunts of despair.


Fire. Go towards the fires. Figure it out from there. This is just a delay, this is a minor set-back and we can fix it, we can still find them and we can still


His thoughts were cut short by another, this one reminding him the exposure alone would have killed them both ten times already.

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His mind raced while he waited for the elezen to return to him with his reins. Victory had been allowed to rest for bells and bells while Warren had toiled in the dark outside of Dragonhead, straining his ears against the wind and his eyes against the night, and now the sun was higher in the sky than he'd like. Nervous, shaky hands rapped against his armored arms which had folded over his chest not for duty but for warmth. He'd grown accustomed to the piercing numbness that came and went over his extremities and found he could handle it. If there was any lasting damage he would see a cleric about it but unless his arms and legs fell off and his eyes dropped out of his head he wouldn't allow himself to stop.


The elezen approached, his demeanor obviously not one with glad tidings. Warren considered the short list of reasons his demand would have not been met; His gil was good and plentiful and he had no reason now to hold back on it, and he hadn't violated any laws and there was no good reason why he should waylay him now, as soon as Victory was back on his feet they would resume and he'd go


"Can't let that bird out of my stables in good conscience, master." The elezen's words were soft and lacking strength. His hands were wringing a small kerchief, likely of their own volition. Warren stared back, not sure if his ears worked properly.


"He's... Well, he's sick. If I let you take that chocobo out into Coerthas, he's not going to make it. Cold'll do him in. It gets nasty out there, master." Again the elezen spoke with soft tones, a man trying to gently appeal to someone's better sense.


For a maddening moment, Warren's eyes darted back and forth, searching the air for a sign that didn't exist, his vision blanking out to something in his mind. His mouth opened a moment to object but nothing but cold air came out, a short puff before his features broke. Waves of heartache ran him over as his days of exhaustion added to his lack of conviction. A part of his mind was dimly aware he was hunched over and sobbing but he tried to keep the rest of it thinking, working to solve the problem.


The elezen was beside him now, setting a steadying yet unfelt hand on Warren's shoulder. "It's not your fault, sir. These things happen. It'll be fine after a day or three, I promise. We'll take good care of him here; it's warm and cozy where he's resting and we'll keep him happy until he's over it. Why don't you pack it in, get a warm bite and a hot bath drawn? It'd do you some good, you look like you've been running ragged since the Era changed."


Warren buried his face in his cloak and wiped furiously at his eyes while he beckoned his eyes to stop leaking.


You're going to kill the whole lot of you. It's already your fault they're lost out here, now just throw yourself and your pet onto the pile. Plenty of room out here for nobody to ever find any of you, you know.


"It's not your fault, master." The elezen was still looking at him, unsure of what to do to try and comfort the silent giant.


can't eat they haven't eaten don't deserve to be warm they're freezing can't let this be it have to keep going can't stop


"Whatever your hurry is, sir, it can wait. It's not worth dying for, right?"


Warren turned away, unable to bring himself to speak and blindly finding his way to a stone bench. He collapsed onto it and drew his cloak up around him, pulling it tight to try and shut the world out.


It had been two days. Victory was ill. He had no signs, no clues. The voices skulking in the back of his mind told him it was impossible, there wasn't any way they could have made it. He pulled the hood of the cloak down over his face, ashamed to hear the front of his thoughts starting to agree.

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Warren remained huddled at his seat long enough to lose track of the sun without looking up to it. He couldn't bring himself to gauge the time any longer and despite the constant numb in his fingertips he felt betrayed by seeking out the warmth of the day. It was better than he deserved and he would have given it up in a moment if he could have sent it to them. He resented his own weakness stopping him from being able to make headway, and once that thought crossed his mind its companions-in-misery leaped into the fray.


It was his own fault, he reasoned. He'd let things fall apart so much that she'd left him in the first place, oblivious to his own actions and how they made her feel. His inability to let go and trust her on her own shoved her away, and his inability to come to terms with her decision had given his closest friend all of the wrong ideas. Too many drunken words planted ideas in his head, and that had caused the two of them to intersect on their fatal junction. Again and again he pointed to his own faulty decisions that had led them to the slaughter.


Even his own insistence on trying to right things -as if magically somehow he could sweep into the snows and carry them away, like some fairytale!- had threatened the livelihood of his only remaining confidant. A chocobo, at that. Some valorous hero!


He shivered in the cold, his hood blotting out Dragonhead and muffling the going-ons around him. The voice startled him when it came and dislodged him from his self-flagellation.


"Ser Castille... are you awake?"


He blinked, bolting upright. It wasn't a voice he'd expected to hear and took a moment to bring his focus to bear, clearing his throat and attempting his best to sound normal.


"...Crofte? Twelve above, please tell me there's something you'd have me do."


"Aye, there is. The matter we spoke of before. Ser Melkire means to move this night." Before he could get his image in order, she continued. "Beyond that, are you well, Ser? Nymeia placed you in my dreams last eve.. they were quite troubling."


Warren paused for a moment, blinking hard to clear his vision and try to shake off the exhaustion. "I will be. Just point me in the right direction. I'm... not near the city. Where should I come landing? I'm taking an aetheryte."


Her reply was prompt and her tone as courteous as ever, professional in her countenance. "As you wish. We sail from Vesper Bay on the nineth bell of the eve."


"I'll be there."


Warren roused himself from his seat, groaning as his muscles cried out for mercy. A faint layer of snow fell from him and he looked towards the floating blue crystal set in the center of Dragonhead.


He hated taking the aetheryte. It always made him feel nauseous. He wondered if he'd even come out on the other side conscious. Heavy steps led him up the path towards it and he rested a weary hand on it, concentrating. A moment later and a flash of light later he was dispersed, but even while weightless he felt the crushing burden of Coerthas on his shoulders.

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For the second time in as many days, Warren Castille dragged himself by cover of night into the shelter of a protected encampment. The lack of traffic headed to and from the Goblet at that hour was a small favor from above: He was still covered in gore and his stagger would have likely spread rumor that a member of the Sultansworn had risen as a zombie. He kept his mind cleared by working through the events of the evening over and over, searching them as if they held any relevance to his position as he passed beneath torch and lantern. He knew it would do him no good to be seen sneaking in the shadows as he was, that it would be better to be up front if confronted.


He felt as if someone else had been acting for him. He knew his station as a free paladin was to assist the true Sultansworn and Immortal Flames as required, though he couldn't think of another example where he had so freely deferred to someone else. Melkire was a good man if his reputation was to be trusted. Crofte trusted him, and Warren trusted Crofte. He tried not to consider that these sorts of chains were the sort of thing that had led to the night's excitement in the first place.


He ran the end of the event through his mind again. He'd met with Filangieri and given his side of the evening, same as the other attending Sultansworn. Where Warren's responsibility ended, however, her's only began. She made mention of filing a report with a grim countenance on her face. Warren put the thought out of his mind; She'd done nothing wrong and should not be reprimanded for it. He made a mental note to check up on her, though.


His thoughts hardened as he approached the door to the Duskbreak. Unlit and empty it loomed on the corner of the ward and Warren didn't intend on being there long. His boots crushed broken glass further into the rug but it still held no importance to his thoughts.


No one's ever going to walk these floors again anyway. Let the thieves find it.


He didn't need the lights to find his way around and his boots carried him like a corpse into the downstairs. Ace was right where he always waited for his master to return during the day, perched on the edge of the bed and facing the door. The tiny, worn-out ragdoll had the same dopey smiling expression as always and Warren couldn't help but feel his heart cry out. The poor mutt deserved better than to wait for a loved one that wouldn't be coming back.


Warren steeled himself and forced the emotion back out. No room and no time for it. He scooped the well-loved stuffed toy up and turned on his heels to exit the room before he had the chance to consider sleeping. He knew once he came to a stop he was going to sink into the earth and waste more time recovering. He could sleep later.

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The set of freshly-cleaned and polished armor sat atop the rack specifically designed to hold it, taking up space in a corner and gleaming with all the potential in the world. Opposite it in stark contrast was a man who looked like he had climbed out of a gutter, and perhaps on a level other than the physical one that was true.


Warren had never kept anything for comfort in his room. He'd put it on retainer following her decision to leave him in the first place when he realized he couldn't sleep any longer in the one they'd shared. Too many memories and too many voices that clawed in the dark and quiet. The money was no inconvenience for him; Warren had squared away a princely sum from his job before officially donning the white and his tastes were inexpensive. This was reflected in the well-made but uncomfortable furniture in his room; A single wooden chair that sat at a wooden table, the larger sibling of the smaller one by the door, and a bed that was perhaps a size too small for someone of his stature. He found it proper that there was not room enough for him, and it discouraged him from reaching out in the night and his thoughts panicking before he remembered that there wasn't anyone beside him, nor would there be.


Warren was hunched over the table with his head in his hands, his eyes peering out across the room to the bed. His tools had since been packed away and shoved into the box beneath it, but it was the place of rest itself that so vexed him. Behind him and away from his gaze was the plate of breakfast that had gone untouched despite his stomach threatening mutiny. He had been keeping his gnawing hunger in check with the grim reminder that his friends had likely died starving and freezing.


It had been the longest three days in Warren's life, eclipsing what he thought was the depths of misery following her decision. He'd occupied his time then with his duty, taking to running for sport in the early dawn and keeping watch for hours longer than he would have been allowed were he part of an official commanding force. He exhausted himself until sleep overwhelmed him and forced him to recover, his body taking what energy it could in his brief downtime before his heart forced him to wake and everything fell fresh on his memory. Every day waking for the first moon was agony, though in time that lessened.


He felt worst for Howl. All the man had ever wanted to do was be there for him. He'd been a drinking buddy and then more, his feelings being evident before terribly long. Warren still whipped himself over how brashly he had referred to the others; They didn't know him, couldn't know him, yet they lined up to take their chances, imagined feelings where there could be not. It didn't surprise him when it turned out Menphina was still making jokes with him as the punchline but he felt the poor boy deserved better.


Warren had said before he thought they were both in Hell together, neither ever going to get what they wanted while they tortured themselves by dangling it front of their own noses. He said it in an angry drunken fit and regretted it, because it was those words that gave Howl his mantra of digging them out of it. Despite Warren trying to clarify and point out that he wasn't speaking sense, Howl persisted.


I'll get you out of Hell. I'll do whatever I have to to make you happy.


The words were meant to be encouraging, he knew, but all they did now was sear him. He'd consigned the boy to his death by being unable to move on, being too weak to grasp that he wasn't the solution to someone else's problems. Her downward spiral had been a tragedy that he blamed himself for setting her on, but in Warren's mind Howl's involvement was tantamount to murder. He'd driven the boy to warding over her because that's what he thought Warren wanted. His words caused Howl to follow her to keep her safe despite her having given up. He'd sent them both into the snow from which they wouldn't ever return.


The bed sat across from him, unmoving as it ever was. Exhaustion tugged at his eyes despite Warren forcing them open by imagining what might have been their last moments alive, clutching together and freezing. He didn't deserve rest. He didn't deserve warmth. He didn't deserve food. He let his gaze slip down for a moment, eyeing Ace. He'd covered the poor mutt in a white cloth, delicately sewn with what appeared to be flowers and hearts.


Warren thought he knew what Hell felt like back then. He had so much yet to learn.

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The hunger wasn't an issue, he could handle the hunger. The sleep deprivation was troubling due to his body threatening to give out on him as it had when he was working on his armor, but he assured himself he would be more vigilant. What was causing his willpower to erode, however, was the dehydration. Ul'dah was too hot and his work had been too demanding and he couldn't ignore the dryness of his throat and mouth. He was dimly aware it had been four grueling days on little rest and no food. More than a few times a small voice from the rational part of his mind urged him to reconsider his meaningless stand but the response was always the same: He had failed to protect either of them, so he didn't deserve it.


Warren kept his willpower reinforced by insisting he would allow himself rest when Sei was back safe and Howl was brought home. That pact with himself had been sworn days ago and while the realization that he wouldn't be saving either party had been knocking from the start, it was only now that he had cornered himself in his room that he had to consider it.


It's been days. They didn't turn up at any camp and there were no reports of two miqo'te being found frozen in the snow. They had no supplies, no warm clothing, they had nothing to keep themselves alive. Victory is hurt because you pushed him too far. You are alone, with no ability to change any of these circumstances. You're killing yourself trying to refuse that.


It hurt him to have to stare the facts in the eyes. The darker part of himself reminded him this was nothing new and that he had never been able to protect anyone, so he shouldn't be so surprised.


Concentrate. You can't save them, but you're still here. You're alive. They wouldn't want you to run yourself into the ground like this. Pick yourself up for them. You owe it to them.


Warren was a captive to his own determination, but that resonated. He didn't feel he deserved food or water or shelter but he knew how they would have reacted if they could have known that. She would have been insulted and turned away, his burden apparent. He would have challenged Warren and argued against it, shining a light on his darker thoughts.


Stop inconveniencing her. Stop disappointing him. You know what you have to do. You don't get to give up when no one else can see it through.


He allowed himself the chance to bathe. No tubs, no hot water. He worked out of a bucket like when he was still growing up in the caravan, working with a clean cloth and trying to make as small a mess as possible while indoors. He allowed himself to eat the small meal that had appeared in his room bells and bells ago. He allowed himself to rest. There were people who would need to know what happened, and Warren was the only one who could undertake that task. Someone had to tell the world they were dead.

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Warren had intended on returning from his vigil to the confines of his room and collapsing under the weight of the world. He had to come face to face, eye to eye with the reality of his - no, their - situation. Days had passed. He had made his report for to Jael'li, then to Ashling. He had expected his face to crack under the weight of his words, under the sin of his guilt. He had expected to crawl back into the darkness and mourn there.


They would not allow it.


First was his chance meeting with the Lady Crofte. He had felt unsure in confiding in her his position; Trust was something of a premium currency in Warren's mind but her response let him know it was the correct decision. He shared his fears and worries and she tempered those negative feelings with kindness, offering her support and pledging to assist him if he would only call on her. She spoke of her dream, of The Beast, the creature Warren could not overcome alone.


Jael'li had listened with a calculating eye. Warren hadn't much impression of the man but kindness did not radiate from him. The understanding the miqo'te had offered surprised him, the shock pushing some of the burden off of his shoulders. He, too, had urged Warren not to give into the Beast, to combat despair until there was resolution one way or the other. The world was cruel, but Jael'li, like Crofte before him, bid Warren not to surrender to the darkness. There was always hope.


Mistress Ashling heard his words last. She took his head upon her shoulder - no small task given their enormous size differences - and she heaped maternal care upon him, stroking his head and filling him with kind words and light.


They're in the lands of the Lover and the Fury, and we must offer prayer to them to watch over and guide them. And where They cannot, we must find it in ourselves.


Ashling echoed what the other two had said to him, all three united on the same front without a word spoken between them. They all forbade him from losing to the Beast called Despair. They all had reached out to catch him, their care and support blanketing him when Warren thought for sure he was going to crash on his own.


He intended on returning to his room and collapsing under the weight of the world. He found himself bolstered instead. Warren fed himself, and bathed properly, and found sleep. When he woke in the morning he was thankful for the empty sleep that overtook him, free from dreams or worry. The sun poured through his window and spilled over his face, gently welcoming him back to the world.


Warren stepped into his armor, making sure to give Ace a pet on the head before stepping out.

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He reminded himself that it was permissible for him to rest. There were still strings of guilty threatening to tangle themselves around his neck for attending the Grindstone, but he had gone to represent Howl. He smiled to himself, wondering briefly what his friend would have thought at Warren attempting to wield the clunky cesti. Fat lot of good his gesture had done him; Warren got promptly put out in the first round and to a cute girl, no less. Howl couldn't have done any better himself.


He felt lost. He knew he needed to be out looking, and as the sun crested over the walls of Ul'dah on its way to sleep, he struggled to keep focused. If they had managed to survive that long, if the past days of exposure hadn't done the job it began there was hope. He ran down the list of things he intended to, starting first thing the next morning.


Resupply. You can't keep ignoring your own needs while looking for them. You'll need to be more prepared; That means food and water, and warmer clothes. You're not charging up there to rescue anyone now. You're looking for signs of them. Your armor won't do you any good.


Start in Dragonhead. That's where they began, that could be where they end up. Ishgard won't care what adventurers come and go, but they would have recalled an out-of-place miqo'te carrying a near-frozen nude one.


After Dragonhead, Whitebrim. They could have got turned around and made their way there. Someone might have found them already, but didn't know who to report it to. Check everywhere, ask every caravan. You hold no rank there but anything is possible; People see everything. What they know would be good to know.


He realized he was frowning again and made himself stop. He looked over the map he'd committed to memory and wondered what use it was. He could feel the stirrings of the Beast waking inside of him as the day neared its end.


The plan. Stick to the plan. You'll find him. You'll find them.


Even in the dusk the heat was oppressive. He thought with a sad smile how in a day's time, he would be missing it, wishing he could bottle it and take it with him. Just in case.


Of course, he couldn't have known that by that time he'd be more distracted by the body that awaited him.

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Warren rose before the sun stirred. He put the dreams out of his head the best he could, trying not to lend credence to the possibility of his fool's errand ending with more bodies in the snow. He had a list of things to accomplish before setting out for Coerthas and he couldn't waste the mental energy on battling phantom beasts.


First he squared away with the Quicksand. He left a note for Momodi offering his thanks, as ever, for her allowing him to seek solace there and a generous purse of coin. As remiss as he was to leave his armor on the rack in his room he knew taking it would only exacerbate things. He didn't mention that bit to Momodi.


Second, he sent away a letter to delivery to the Sultansworn command. By the time it would arrive it would be too late to stop him, but he felt better knowing it was off of his chest. He didn't intend on making his allegiances known to Ishgard.


Lastly, he stopped at one of the market stalls just as the sun started to cast rays across the sky. He paid for a sack of faerie apples and set them in the satchel with the rest of his belongings. Victory was a good bird and deserved an apology for being left in the hands of the elezen.


With his tasks completed, Warren gathered himself in front of the Aetheryte. He threw on an extra set of layered clothes before donning his cloak again, working quickly to avoid the stifling heat that was ever-present in the city-state's walls. His trip coming from Dragonhead some days ago (Twelve, had it really only been days? It felt like a lifetime) had been a welcome refreshment; The quick thaw of the sun on his body in Horizon was merciful. He worried about the reverse. In the blink of an eye it was complete, though; Warren's hand touched to the crystal and he focused for an instant, closing his eyes to try and keep his empty stomach from doing tumbles.


Warren arrived in a puff of hot air as the aether dragged him and some of Ul'dah's infamous weather along with him. The cold embraced him like a lover, already attempting to steal inside of his clothes without so much as a kiss first. Drawing his cloak tighter around him, he trudged off to reunite with his chocobo.

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Dragonhead yielded nothing new, instead offering the first of the day's bad news. Victory was on the mend but not enough to join Warren on his efforts. The man hardened his heart to the poor animal's plight, fighting off the roots of guilt that attempted to creep inside of him. He gave his friend an apple from the sack of them, the bird snuffling the fruits out as soon as they were presented. For a moment it appeared as if he hadn't been wounded at all as he gobbled the snack up. Warren hoped the offering helped the 'bo to forgive him for being so neglectful.


Warren's plan was simply to gather information. His demeanor was far different than it would have been when he was here asking last; He had been touched by Soma's hand on top of actually having rested, and he was in unassuming clothing designed to combat weather instead of weapon. He would assume nothing and simply ask if a blue-haired woman or a desert cat had come through, one way or the other.


The results were almost night and day compared to his initial line of inquiry. Where his questions a week past came from a Free Paladin and thereby garnered a small degree of cooperation, none of the guards in Dragonhead felt the need to deign an adventurer with their support. If there was a trail there it had long gone cold.




Warren's eyes skimmed the countryside as he began the trek on foot to Whitefront. He didn't want to borrow a bird that wasn't his own, and he rationalized that the slower pace would give him time to scan for signs of anything. He thought back on the words of those who had given him support when the rumblings of despair crept in.


It's been a week. If there was anything to find, it's buried a fulm in the snow or in the bellies of roving scavengers.


It's been a week. If they made it this long, they can make it another few short bells. They're both resourceful. Don't give up.


When he found his way to the gates of Whitebrim, he was surprised to find his questions regarded much differently than down the road.


"Good day, sirs. I don't mean to be a bother but I'm searching for friends who came through here perhaps some days ago." He ran down the descriptions, making mention to the fact they wouldn't have been together, not exactly, but both passing through and likely keeping to themselves. The men at the gates exchanged a look that Warren didn't like much.


They came through here. Someone had to have noticed. They had to come through. They know something, look at them they're just not sure who's going to speak first they-


"We think we've found the girl, sir. Are you here to identify the body?"


Warren felt the black fist of the Beast close around his heart.

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Coatleque felt the chill against her as soon as the Aetherite had released her. She shook off the momentary dizziness and looked around to get her bearings. Dragonhead, Coerthas. This is where Warren had said he would go. He had several hours on her at this point, so she had no time to lose. She had supplies enough to last at least the trip to Whitebrim, and was outfitted in her standard white armor over the blues of her command, plus a heavy cloak.


She made her way to the courtyard and made preparations to rent a Chocobo porter to carry her. As the stable hand prepared the mount, she turned and spoke through their shared link. "Ser Castille. My apologies for being late. I shall join in Whitebrim by sundown."


Hoisting herself upon the bird, she made an about face and pointed it westward down the road.

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The pair of Ishgardian sentries led Warren to a small medical facility. The air inside was as chilled the outside and had he not been in the throes of shock and terror he might have caught on to why that would have been.


"Found her in the early morning a ways from here." The talkative guard gestured vaguely out into the hills past Whitebrim proper. "Exposure, most likely." The quiet one showed them to a table with a small white bundle on it, perhaps five fulms long. Beside it rested a spear, basic in its creation. He gave Warren a grim look before reaching down with deft hands and removing the top layer of the wrappings from the woman's head.


Warren blinked back tears as the realization of what might have been transpiring weighed fully on his mind. Whatever confidence he'd imagined he had built up had been annihilated by the abruptness with which things had developed. Words of ill intention sat whispering, biding their time in the quiet roar of his hearing.


The guard's work revealed a miqo'te female, young. Warren's eyes frantically searched, taking in her appearance and not understanding at first how this woman could look so differently from how he remembered Sei. Confusion carried over and he looked to the guard with his mouth open, but before he could say anything the guard grimaced and replaced the wrappings.


"You're wasting our time if you don't know who she is," the speaking one said. The attitude in the air changed suddenly, all at once. "Get out." Warren took a step back as his mind raced.


That's not her that isn't Sei she's not here she's alive she's-


"OUT!" Hands moved to spears and Warren stumbled out into the snow, eyes squinting with the abrupt change from darkened room to bright afternoon. He cast a look over his shoulder as the guards stared him down, moving back to their posts but not before securing the door they had led him through.


She died in the same way? She didn't have on armor, she wasn't an adventurer, she looked like a girl.


He tried to get his thoughts in order but didn't appreciate the way he was being watched suddenly. His hand clenched and reached for his sword, absent.


"Ser Castille. My apologies for being late. I shall join in Whitebrim by sundown." The words spoke calmly and collectedly into his ear, jumping again at the sudden sound of words not his own. He pressed a hand to his ear and pulled the hood of the cloak up over his face.


"Cot- Crofte." He corrected himself and took a look around his surroundings. "Good to hear from you. Don't tarry; It gets colder once the sun drops away."

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"Don't tarry; It gets colder once the sun drops away."

The last words she heard till her planned arrival. And tarry she did not. Coatleque pushed the bird as hard as she dared, knowing they both would not survive if caught in the night. The weather favored them early on, however, which allowed for good time to be made.


She stopped first within sight of the Gate of Judgement so both mount and rider could drink and rest. The sun had already began to hang low, and dark clouds were looming behind them. With luck the winds would change and drive the storm back or at least afford her more time.


Luck, it seemed, was not on her side though. The second time they stopped just after crossing into Whitebrim province. Again they drank, but with rations this time. The clouds had long since overtaken the sun and left a dull grey early evening gloom around the countryside. The chill wind had begun to bite now. Steeling herself, she pulled up the hood of her cloak and continued onward just as the first flurries began to fall.


She arrived at the fortress on the front just as the sun would have been slipping past the horizon. The snows were falling steadily now as she rode past the threshold and dismounted before the stable. She handed the reigns to the stable keep with a silent nod and a few gil, then made for the inn. At this time of night it seemed the most logical place to find Warren, lest he had once again gone on without her.


Her hunch had paid off in this case at least. She was glad he hadn't pushed himself too hard once again. After a breif but warm reunion, she made preparations for her room then joined him at a table in the corner. He told her of the progress made that day and how a body was found but not that of his friends. After brief counsel of how they should proceed the following morning, each Paladin retired to their respective rooms for the night.

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Warren was already awake and pacing before daylight and he suspected this was a trend that wouldn't be going anywhere. His nerves were on edge just on account of being back in the northlands and he was again doing his best to shrug away the tendrils of worry his dreams were sending him. The events of the day prior had shaken him and whenever his thoughts strayed to what he would do if he actually had found someone in the snow how utterly it would have decimated him, he sent them away while drawing his arms around himself.


The comforts of the inn were sparse. The heavy snow had driven a fair few to seek what little warm food and drink they could within its walls and Warren was thankful that many of them were still at rest. From what he could gather it was mostly traders and caravan folk, and he was forced to curb the tangent before it could carry him back to his youth.


Here and now, Warren. Focus on what's here and now.


He kept his hands pressed firmly against a mug of mulled cider and hoped the heat would settle deep inside of him. He would miss it once he was outside, but for now he was content to let his thoughts linger.

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She had no trouble sleeping in a strange place, odd as that may seem. With the weight of Ul'dah temporarily lifted from her mind, sleep came quickly and deeply. She rose at first light and made ready for the day. She drew a quick bath before dressing, applied the lavender perfume Tasa had given her, then set to the arduous task of deciding whether to tie her hair up or leave it down.


A full bell later she arrived at the commons in armor and ready to depart. Procuring some bread, cheese, and whatever fruit was available from the innkeeper, she found Warren alone in the corner and joined him.


"Ser Castille.", she said with a light smile. "I pray I have not kept you waiting. Were you able to sleep?"

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Warren looked up with a small shudder, his thoughts momentarily scattered.


"Good morning, Lady Crofte. I've been up a short while, though you haven't kept me. I'm unsure where to begin, you see." His eyes surveyed her but the light behind them was largely absent. When his presence returned behind them, he cast about as if considering their company. Crofte's dedication to her appearance had caused most of the traveling folk to have passed them by already, so the place was largely emptied of wandering eyes and ears.


"I normally wouldn't have thought much of it had they not been so adamant about driving me out without getting a look at the girl. It wasn't in regards to respect or privacy. They were aggressive. Hostile. It's odd..." He was partially thinking to himself and kept his tone quiet, his eyes flickering here and there.


"Why would they ask me to identify a body, then drive me out when I wasn't able?"

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She picked over some of the fruit as he spoke but still listened intently. She spoke with a low voice to avoid attention.


"It may be odd here in their own lands. All I have received from Ishgard in Ul'dah has been hostility. It does occur to me though that they are either hiding something, or believe this body to be someone of no small import. Perhaps they to are searching for someone?"

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Warren's brow furrowed in thought like always. His hands absently reached for a hunk of bread and he turned it over in his grasp.


"She looked barely like she was grown. Too young." Something crossed his mind and he shook it off. "And I can't exactly go about asking them now. And the door is likely locked so I can't try to examine her." He became aware of his bread and tore off a small piece, putting it in his mouth and chewing slowly.

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She watched his expression as he ate in an attempt to gain some bearing of his thoughts.


"You said you did not recognize her. Yet you still seem troubled. Perhaps you did not have enough time to examine the body? So the question remains, was she the girl you sought or not? If you need more time then we shall have to gain entry to their make-shift morgue once more. If not then we should divert our efforts elsewhere. Either way you must needs be sure before we proceed."

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Warren's gaze hardened as her questioning, shaking his head without pause. "It wasn't her. I fully expected it to be, but it wasn't." He sighed gently and turned his gaze across the table. "I'd like to look her over again, just in case anything stands out. She didn't appear to be wearing armor, just clothing, but she had a spear by her side. As if it belonged to her. But she didn't look like a hunter. I could just be guessing, but... Something doesn't sit right. I need to get back in there somehow."

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Warren sat silently, finishing off the bit of bread in his hands before speaking up.


"I can't ask you to be involved with me trying to barge into a secured medical facility belonging to another nation." He eyed her with a small sense of severity, the words weighted heavily as his work-voice crept in. "But if you have to need to ask around as to what sights Coerthas could offer someone who is truly, truly interested in the scenery, and history, and my how much history there is to be heard, I bet the guards would prattle on about it for hours, then... I would be remiss to drag you up here and have it be all work."


A small grin tugged at the corners of his mouth.

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She couldn't help but return his grin.


"Why Ser Castille, you seem to have taken the words from my mouth.", she said as she stood. "Of course the ploy wouldn't do as well with me in full uniform. Allow me to shod my scale, and I shall find you outside when you are ready."

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