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Ice and Darkness [Closed]

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((A sequel to Warren's Frost and Darkness thread. Please read that! It's good!))


Howl laid sprawled on the narrow red couch, an open book across his chest, his eyes closed and his chest rising and falling rhythmically.


He half-dreamed, but a part of his mind was awake, alarmingly so.


I slogged my way up the slope in the snow, the cold biting at my cheeks, the wind brushing aside my cloak and my clothes as if they didn't exist. It gnawed my skin, my muscles, as if I'd never left. It felt like a former lover welcoming me home - to a place where I'd only known pain.


The books that lay in a messy stack around him read, A Treatise on Ishgardian Methods Against the Dra-- with the rest of the title obscured; Naming Conventions Amongst the Keeper of the Moon Tribes of Centra--; Officers of the Limsa Lominsan Nav--; Drakes of the Southern Deserts and Wher--


The one on his chest read, A Martial Thesis On The Use of the Lance By One Trained In-- with his hand, resting on the cover, obscuring the rest.


Light beckoned from the open cave mouth, yawning. I sensed warmth, welcome. It didn't take an empath to know how little I was welcome in such a place.


He had to tell Xhosa, he was dimly aware. In fact, she was the only one he believed deserved to know. He had originally had no intentions of telling Warren, but he and Warren were so close that he was no longer capable of concealing thoughts or feelings from his best friend. The Lady Crofte, he knew, possessed a close enough place to Warren that he might tell her before they left together. Howl, nevertheless, would've preferred it not so. But Xhosa.. she should know, if for no other reason than that Howl felt she could give him wisdom on his mission.


Warren had not asked; he had insisted. He had demanded. Howl was powerless to say no to Warren. Warren, he knew, had earned the right, paid in blood and pain before, paid in the suffering that only the one left behind could offer. Still, Warren's inclusion on this mission - this death wish, he was only dimly prepared to acknowledge - was a source of constant pain for him, a source of anxiety, a source of terror. He couldn't let Warren die, no matter what. Even if he had to die.


Some lives were worth more than others.


It was not every day that a man - or two friends, in this case - set out to slay a particularly wily and powerful dragon.


I stepped within the cave, loosing the clasp on my cloak once I was within its confines. It stank, as I remembered it; a musky, disgusting smell, like rotting flesh, and sulphur, lingering apace. He was there, too, looking up at me, licking blood away from his lips.


"You always knew this was what was going to happen, didn't you? Violet?"


Howl started awake, his heart beating a rapid, insistent tattoo in his chest, the book on his body sliding down and hitting the carpet with a rustle of pages. He tasted fear, more strongly than he ever had here, in a way that he only had in that place - acrid, intense on his tongue and in the back of his throat, icy fingers stroking his stomach and clutching at his heart as if they'd never ease.


He rubbed his mouth with the back of his wrist, his eyelids closing over one eye the violet of his namesake, one over an eye made of black stone.


"I knew it was going to happen," he murmured, "but this time, it will end differently. This time, I will kill you."

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There is a difference between justice and revenge. The concept had haunted Warren since his final trip to Whitebrim. He'd tried to confess those sins and been rebuked. While the details were still so, so vivid in his mind and his dreams, the reality of the fact seemed to be that no one was interested in what transpired there. It was known there was a death, it was known he was responsible, but by the Twelve's grace it hadn't been looked into. Warren had expected to be yanked aside while on patrol for nights and nights; Even removed from the event he was prepared for the nation's retaliation.


He could never have known the Inspector had sealed his own fate. His associations with dragonkin were far more interesting to Ishgard than the details of his grizzly murder, so Prauvaulient had received his inevitable fate.


Warren was doing his best to put the past behind him. His relationship with Sei had deteriorated moons and moons ago, and she had returned from Coerthas a new person. Sei was gone. Howl had returned intact, for the most part. There were things he knew and could feel were being kept from him, or at the very least were being minimized. Even through everything, Howl was trying to protect Warren.


The truth was, Warren was happier since everything resolved than he'd been in the long period prior to it. Despite his losses or setbacks, there were positive forces in his life keeping him afloat. He knew this, and he thought often on how lucky he was and how blessed he was and how fortunate.


That's why it bothered him so much that his heart was too frequently being seized by an angry and hostile rage.

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This time the inspector would stay dead. Warren didn't know what team of surgeons, what great channeling spirits or what gods descended to put Prauvaulient back together but there he was, laughing and smiling like he was in on some brilliant joke. Warren tackled him screaming over his desk. He reached for the first thing he could get his hands on; an elaborate metal quill. One fist gripped the writing implement like a knife while the other closed around the laughing elezen's throat. That laughter was so impossibly loud but that was okay, because Warren was sure it wouldn't last much longer.


The implement came down in the nearest thing the elezen had to an inkwell and a torrent of gore erupted from the eye socket. Sure enough, the joke was spoiled and those yips and howls of amusement turned to agony. There was a soft sticking sound as the quill fell again and again, then Warren tossed it aside and reached in deep with his fingers. It came free with a snap and now Warren was laughing, his hands covered in gore. He took the elezen's eye in his fist and squeezed, but for some reason there was no warm squelching. Beneath him the screaming turned to sobbing, and when Warren looked to his fist he was bewildered to find a stone there.


He looked down at a whimpering miqo'te, one hand raised to his empty eyesocket with blood streaming from his face.


"Why? Why why why? Why?!" Howl begged.




Warren bolted upright from his sleep in a cold sweat. He wiped his hands off then checked them in a blind panic for blood, panting. The voice echoed in his head.

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The evidence of their coming departure was subtle. They had looked into military-grade survival supplies this time, not just the sort of recreational things sold at a large mark-up on the borders of the wilderness and civilized lands. Small backpacks with only the most necessary of weights added to them had been assembled. Warren had been spending his time mending an old set of scale that he hadn't used in a long time; His work on the Bloodsands had moved away to less bulky equipment to help usher in the spectacle of the event but the highlander was remiss to ever part with something serviceable.


He let his mind drift as the hammer struck the links atop the anvil. Despite his comfort with the scale-and-plate combination his Free Paladin armor he still wanted to get out and give his old equipment a test run. He'd be living in it soon and he couldn't afford to wear himself out on the long trek north, so being certain he would be able to move and fight at efficiency was highest priority. There would be no field repairs and no second chances to adjust things once they were underway.


The steady clang of the hammer worked to help his concentrate on not concentrating. His sleep had been combative lately and he knew his temper was quicker to boil. The question had been knocking on him since Whitebrim and the answer was just out of his grasp.


Is this justice or revenge?


Warren knew that he was going to kill Prauvaulient before setting out. There was no other way for that meeting to end, and he suspected the Inspector had known that as well. The lengths he had gone to for answers, hopelessly futile answers that had changed nothing, still haunted him.


Is there even a difference?

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While Warren's preparations might have been subtle, he hadn't been by Howl's room in the Duskbreak yet, either. It looked as though a tornado had gone off inside. Pieces of armor, lances, warm cloaks, and a camping tent (the kind they called "pup tents" for some reason) lay in a heap up against one wall; papers, maps of Coerthas, and books were strewn liberally elsewhere; and the whole room had the musty smell of carelessly tended clothes and clutter.


Howl had tried to clean the leather armor he'd worn for what felt like forever in Coerthas about five times, but simply touching it, handling the leather, feeling it against his skin again, brought him back to that isolated mountaintop and all of the horrors he had witnessed there. The smell, blood and sweat and filth, ingrained in the armor, did nothing to help. He wasn't sure if he could get back into that armor again. And yet, he couldn't quite bring himself to throw it away.


Something had kept him and Warren from really talking lately. They had retreated into their own minds, passing one another by in the Duskbreak, busying themselves with small logistical issues of the trip rather than really talking about any of the bigger plans. Privately, Howl was well aware this wasn't healthy. He had his suspicions for the reasons behind Warren's distance the past few days, the way he'd buried himself in the preparations for the trip rather than the reasons behind it. He was dimly aware that Warren had killed a man while trying to find him in Coerthas last time - Right's father, he suspected, the father of the man Howl had killed - and something about that death weighed heavily on him. But they had both so carefully avoided talking about each other's ghosts from that horrible time that Howl was hesitant to drag it into the light.


But he knew if he didn't here at some point, Ryuuga would. He knew in a way that Warren didn't understand how Ryuuga would turn any weaknesses in their heart against them.


He glanced, unwillingly, down at the Ishgardian helmet he had set aside. It was his one concession to what Coerthas had made of him, to what he supposed he was now. He traced the iconic shape of the helmet, like a wedged dragon's head, hiding the eyes - to prevent a dragon's influence, Renae had said.


This isn't who I am now. This isn't me


Renae's revelations about the true nature of what Ryuuga had called the "inner dragon" had unsettled him more than he cared to admit - and he knew at some point, Warren was going to demand answers.


And probably rip me a new one for not talking to him about it. Peace! What am I supposed to say? "Oh yeah, Warren, by the way, when I became a dragoon, in addition to losing my eye, I gained this weird inner dragon thing and I'm not sure if it's friendly"? I'm sure that'll go over real well. He already thinks I'm enough of a freak now.


He let his hand slide off of the glossy, dark metal of the helmet.


He promised us, though. That no one would ever want us once he was through with us. Not that anyone really wanted me before, but...


He set the helmet on his head, clenching his jaw. It smelled new and clean, at least, and that made it easier to bear. He resolved to talk to Warren, and soon. If they didn't go into this dragon-hunt with clean hearts, they'd be headed into worse than certain death. That much felt completely certain to him. They had more preparations to make than warm clothes and armor.

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The bitter cold threatened to sap away their strength and their focus. It seemed like too short a time had passed since Warren was back crunching through the snow and he cursed that he was letting it affect him. He thought about how much worse it would be as they moved farther and farther from Dragonhead and later, Whitebrim. The skies were sunny and blue, a strange juxtaposition from the frozen snow and ice on the ground under them, but the knight knew better than to question small favors. He'd pay for them later, he knew.


There had been much deliberation about the trip between himself and Howl. They sat down and hashed things out over several bottles of strong beer, as they tended to when the serious things needed discussing. They'd touched on the nature of the Dragon, of the trip. Warren had mentioned his worries about his temper and Howl had listened, and when Howl spoke about his concerns and fears of what they would face Warren consoled him. They'd made the promise to one another to protect themselves and each other, for themselves and each other. Warren was sure they'd both considered that Ryuuga might be more of a match for them combined, but he couldn't allow that thought to bear fruit. Ryuuga had committed atrocities, and he would pay.


Haven't you, though? Are you any better?


The thought slithered into his mind, visions of strewn body parts and bloodied tools painting the back of his eyelids. They'd talked about that, too; Prauvaulient's son had been working for Ryuuga, and Howl had killed him in cold blood. The Inspector had been consorting with dragons, secreting away adventurers and picking off the lonesome and able-bodied to send fresh meat to his master. That took a lot of the strain off of Warren's mind; His act had been one of desperate necessity and despite him not knowing it, he was preying on a monster. The Inspector had forfeited his claim to humanity long before.


Still, now that the reality of their trip was upon him, Warren thought back on his days back in Thanalan. They were well-spent, days spent with the few people Warren truly got on with. Too short, as all precious moments were, and in the coming darkness of the mountains he expected to be thinking of those warm memories with increasing frequency. Their trip had called for only mandatory items to be taken with them. They were surviving in an inhospitable climate. They were hunting a creature that had been alive longer than the two of them.


He had warned him that she would be coming after them.


They only had space for the necessary items in their bags. Warren's thoughts briefly touched on the contents of his pockets and on his person. He'd need all three of them before they were through.

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Howl leaned back in the chair and stared out through the cracked shutters at the moon peeking over the battlements of the Ishgardian settlement.  He had relented and spent nearly all of his remaining gil on an inn room for them after noticing how Warren was already grim-faced and silent in the cold; this was their last chance for a warm bed in a while, no matter how lumpy the mattress or how cheap the food.  Howl, too, could feel how being back here was changing him, reminding him.  Violet wasn't too far away now.


Warren lay in the only bed, curled on his side as always, not quite snoring but breathing heavily with his arms loosely wrapped around himself.  Howl glanced over at him occasionally, but it was a familiar sight.  Howl hadn't been sleeping too well lately, and sometimes he would listen to Warren's in-and-out breathing in the Duskbreak to try and lull him. 


A stack of lances lay carelessly in the corner.  He'd brought three, and had he not had to carry them all he would've brought more.  From one dangled the special container he'd had made, something like a metal sheath stoppered at the lance shaft with alchemist's rubber.  He would start the application of the Rhalgr's Bile soon, a process he intended to linger over for several days, carefully layering the blade in coat after coat of the precious venom.  The metal container was to protect them after the poison had been applied, for even brushing up against the blade would bring death, much less being cut by it.  He had taken every precaution he could think of in handling the lethal poison, but it still kept him awake at night.


He could feel Ryuuga off in the distance somewhere.  Ryuuga could likely feel him, too.  Snow, as well.  He could occasionally see her, walking calmly through the winter-bare landscape, unphased by the cold or her aloneness.  She wasn't the type to stop and get an inn room.  Traveling alone, without their equipment and special preparations, she would likely beat them there.  Howl rested his head against the shutters with a light creak of dusty wood.


And you know I'm coming too, don't you, Ryuuga?  You can see I'm here too, can't you, Snow?


With a sigh, he got up off of the chair, shuffling over to the bed and gently laying down next to Warren, behind him so the large Highlander's knees and fists wouldn't nudge him off the bed.  Warren had a tendency to take up the majority of the bed even with one more adequate than this, but Howl had no intentions of dozing in the chair all night.  It would hardly be the first time they'd had to bunk up together, and it was still better than the pup tent out there in the snow.  He took Ace up off the bedside table, tucking the timeworn rag doll puppy under his arm, and half-curled himself, his eyes closing, his eyelid sticking a little over his left eye.


Here again.  I was there almost immediately, as if it had been waiting for me - the snowy slope up, the flat training ground, the blood-stained flogging pole.  It was the same time of day as last time, the sky and snow midnight-blue, the mouth of the cave welcoming me.  I stepped inside, just as last time, and he looked up at me, blood all over his face.


I forced myself to look down at what he was eating.  It was the body of a man sprawled there, half-consumed.


"What are you trying to do?" I demanded of him.  "Quit showing me this if you're just trying to scare me off, it won't work."  That sounded good, sounded strong.  I wasn't going to turn back now.  This had to happen.


"Scare you?  No - I'm just giving you what you want."


He bent his head again, and when he raised it, the man's heart was in his teeth.  He grinned around it.  I forced myself to watch, fighting down bile in my throat, my stomach roiling.  He wanted me to look away, to show weakness.  I wasn't going to do it.  But I couldn't help but glance down at the man's face.  I was expecting it to be Warren's.


It was mine.


Howl jerked awake, sweating profusely, clutching at Ace involuntarily.  He sat up, and, his limbs shaking, returned to the chair.  It looked like he would be spending his night here after all.

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The beast was made of shadows and claws and gnashing teeth. It didn't hold the shape of a dragon or any scalekin Warren was familiar with but he could feel the draconic influence of his opponent.


You are fools to come here, son of man.


Warren didn't reply and drove the pommel of his sword down. It was a useless blow against such an intangible opponent but the highlander wasn't about to surrender.


You think I'm going to kill you? Or him? What need would I have of that? You are inconsequential.


The smoke and shadows relented and withdrew leaving Warren alone and on guard in the snow. He blinked against the harsh light of day and seemed confused by the sudden change. What had he just been doing...?


"W-Warren...?!" Howl's voice stammered behind him and Warren turned. His friend was standing in the snow with a spear leaned against his shoulder and something red stained his hands. Around his wrist was the length of leather Xhosa has given to him to hold the vial of poison. The vial had broken and the contents ran free over Howl's hands.


Warren's eyes went wide as Howl began to collapse.


Consciousness slammed back into him as the bed moved. Soft footsteps moved across the room and sat wearily in a chair. For a moment Warren thought he was dreaming still, then he spoke up.


"What're you doing?" His voice was quiet but still split the night. The sounds of Howl settling into his seat suddenly froze.


"Wh-what? I was just sitting. Why are you awake? You should be resting..." Howl's tone was one of compassion and Warren was long used to him deflecting any questions to turn them around to benefit Warren. He wasn't having any part of it tonight.


"Chairs are lousy to sleep in. Trust me." The big man shifted upwards, turning so his legs hung over the side of the bed and his feet rested on the floor. "C'mere. The bed's not much better but we're not getting another chance to feel anything soft."


He wasn't asking. There was a hanging moment between them where nothing moved, then Warren urged him on. "C'mon."


Howl begrudgingly accepted the invitation and Warren promptly kicked off the blankets he'd been using and dumped them on the miqo'te. They'd be warmer than whatever Howl had wrapped himself with and Warren pulled up the covering of the worn mattress and cocooned himself within it.


"We'll both sleep better if we know the other one's sleeping better. You need to get some rest, too. Long trip ahead."


Warren kept his ears open for Howl's breathing to slow down but surrendered back to sleep before confirming whether or not his companion dozed.

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Howl called a stop when they were some malms off the Central Highlands map, in an isolated area northwest of Whitebrim; there was still a few bells' worth of sun left, but he began setting up camp anyway, building a small fire, erecting the pup tent, hardly big enough for the two of them even with excessive sharing, made of oiled peisteskin.  He shrugged when Warren raised an eyebrow at it.  "They didn't have Highlander-sized tents.  Sorry.  At least we'll have something over our heads."


Dinner was field rations, dried beef and hard biscuits out of a compressed packet; Howl had offered to hunt but his attention was on the first application of Rhalgr's Bile, which he undertook while Warren ate.  He had on thick gloves and slid on his Ishgardian helmet for the operation, taken some yalms away from where Warren sat by the fire, downwind from his friend just in case; Howl was sparing no precautions, and as he dabbed poison-dampened apkallu down along the blade of the specially-prepared lance, he took his time, his gloves wrapped in a disposable layer of parchment which he buried under a fulm of snow after he was done.  The down went into the special container for the blade as well.


"Being pretty careful there," Warren commented when Howl finally returned, the safely-closed blade hidden from view and the lance slung up over his shoulder.


Howl grunted, setting the spear carefully aside and peeling off his gloves to eat.  "Can't be too careful with stuff like that.  I'm still not sure even with that kind of poison that a spear will be enough to kill him."  He paused.  "Let's go over what we know."


He diagrammed in the snow, tracing arrows and approaches with the toe of his boot.  "We'll be heading up to the training grounds tomorrow.  I expect Ryuuga's first attacks will come before we can even see him.  He knows we're here, after all, and he knows why.  I'm not sure which one of us he's going to hit - me for sure, but maybe you as well - and I expect that to happen after we're on his mountain.  It's probably going to be mental or psychological attacks."  He looked up at Warren, his expression intense.  "You told me before that everything he says is a lie.  You're going to have to fight him off too.  Don't listen to anything he says, especially about me.  Okay?  He's got ways of getting right into your thoughts - don't give in, no matter what."  His tone was fierce, but soft.  "He's going to try to use me against you.  Don't let him."


He sketched again on the ground, adding a circle for the cave.  "Up here is where I think we'll run into Ryuuga - and probably Snow.  He's likely going to use her to get away if his first attacks fail.  I think we should try to get to him if we can, but it's likely he's going to get away, and if we open our flanks or rear to an attack from Snow, we're going to be in big trouble.  She's ruthless when she wants to be, and I'm still not sure what her agenda is.  We have to assume the worst and protect ourselves accordingly.  So we need to neutralize her one way or the other before we leave the mountain."  He put a careful X through the "S" he'd written to represent Snow.


"After Snow is taken care of... then the real tracking will begin.  If we're lucky, we'll have hurt him before he escapes, but if not, we'll have to hope to take him by surprise, if that's even possible given how familiar he is with me.  But I expect he'll retreat deeper into Dravanian territory like so... into the most remote areas of the mountains.  It's entirely likely we'll have to deal with other dragons, too.  So we'll need to travel very light, and with minimal footprint."  He grinned wryly.  "So you'll not even have the silly tent to worry about.  But if all goes well, we can catch up with him after a few days and put an end to this."


He stifled a yawn as he watched the darkening sky and motioned for Warren to pile into the tent.  He had to do some careful wedging to get himself in without having one side bulge out ridiculously.  They were a bundle of cloaks and light armor, not exactly warm but the fire and the proximity warding off the worst of it, and Howl felt fairly certain it was still more comfortable than the hollows in the ground he'd endured before.  He couldn't exactly pull out Ace here, but he touched the bulge in his pocket where Ace was resting.


"Oh, by the way..." he mumbled sleepily, "thank you for last night.  I've been having nightmare problems.  Bet you have too."  He opened his eyes enough to look at Warren, as much as he could see him in the darkness of the tent.  "I expect that's our friend's fault.  He knows we're coming... and he's getting scared."  He grinned.  "And he should be."

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Fear? What does this child of weak flesh presume to tell me about fear?


They were standing in a charred crater; Blasts of heat had melted the snow and ice and turned the ground to blackened ash and stone. Before them stood a whirling mass of teeth and claws, fire erupting from the shadowy figure like an ancient volcano finally awakened.


"Your tricks aren't going to work, dragon. We're going to find you and kill you and you know it. That's why you hide in the shadows." Warren's voice and his thoughts were one in the same there. He knew on some level that he was dreaming but his heart roared back with defiance that this creature would dare to infringe upon him and his; Howl had spoken the truth before they'd attempted to sleep and that assertion resonated in him.


The inky blackness laughed then, piercing and deep and bellowing from everywhere.


So your solution is to murder me, then? Like the rest of your problems? Something comes along you don't like, so you plot and move with secrecy. Did you bring your tools this time, mortal? Will you try to cut off my limbs, too?


Warren lashed out, aware that it was for nothing in the dreamscape. His thoughts reached outward for warmer locales and he felt nothing but ice. The formless shifting mass before him started to churn and swirl.


Do not worry, son of man. You will come to understand as I have, before you face me. You have a strong heart, the heart of one who will do anything for the ones you love. You will fail them, as you always have, but I will remain. I will teach you.


"I'm not going to play these games, Ryuuga! You have nothing to offer me but lies. I've already made up my mind to destroy you, and I am resolute." Warren tempered himself against the rising urge inside of him and forced his thoughts back towards determination and away from hatred.


You have the heart of a murderer beating inside of you. When she prostrates herself before me and bows to my whims you will understand. The way to me lies through her. Come, then. We shall see how resolute you are.


The shadow lost mass, twisted and shrank and spit out a mangled body. Warren only needed to see the streak of gore-matted blue hair to understand.

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They pressed on together, through calf-deep snow, into areas not tread by foot since the last time aspiring dragoons came to that remote mountainside, some moons ago.


They came to a ravine spanned only by a broken bridge; Howl leapt across with the agility only one dragon-cursed could manage, and a bell or so later had the bridge replaced; he insisted on holding it, as if he didn't trust his ropes, as Warren crossed over, watching Warren with careful eyes and his arms knotted as he held the bridge tightly.


"Not so far now," he said, and they began the ascent of the mountain at mid-morning.


The sky was white with thick, sky-choking cloud, bright with unseen sun; Howl said little as they began to climb the sometimes-steep snow-covered slope toward the training grounds where he once worked under Ryuuga to become a dragoon.  Scraggly trees in scanty copses dotted the landscape, hardly more than clusters under the white sky, nothing like even a child's conception of a wood; bare branches scraped the sky, reaching up like imploring fingers at the unrelieved whiteness of the cloud cover.


"We should be there by mid-morning," Howl said.


They continued to climb.  Warren felt himself lulling into a rhythm at the physical exertion, his mind wandering; he became aware of something like a touch on his mind, an intrusive feeling, like a finger wedged uncomfortably between clothes and skin, or jammed between tongue and cheek.  Slowly, the unrelieved white of all around began to drift away, and Warren became aware of a mind touching his, of a voice.


So that is who you are.  That is the kind of person you are.


Images, seemingly unrelated, seemingly unimagined, impossible, flickered across his mind's eye, some so real as to blur the line between real and image.  Memories of what had happened, and visions of what was yet to come.  Dimly, he was aware that it had begun to snow, thick, cold snow that touched his skin and seemed to freeze it.  Howl seemed to be dragging himself up the endless slope with the assistance of his lance hilts.


You will destroy him you know, when you tell him.  Or were you not even going to do that?  Once you take the girl, he will be destroyed - and it will be entirely your fault.


He was looking into Howl's profile in the Duskbreak, telling him - and Howl looked up, and gave him a smile, one of his healing, forgiving smiles.  "It's alright," he said.  "It doesn't matter."  And that smile again, bright and compassionate, encouraging.  Almost enough to make Warren believe Howl was happy for him.


That's the moment.  That's the moment I will take his heart into my jaws, and I will devour it.  So succulent.  Nothing is tastier than the heart of an innocent.


They were struggling uphill, snow stinging at their faces, at their eyes, burying them up to their knees.  Howl was dragging himself now with his lance, shaking his head, trying to dismiss whatever it was he was seeing.  Warren was only dimly aware of it now.


You've noticed, haven't you, Warren?  He doesn't smile much anymore.  When he does, it's wry humor, or sardonic humor, or self-deprecating humor.  When was the last time you heard him laugh?  When was the last time you saw him cry?  He's already half-mine.  You will finish that.  Because you can't turn way from the one who is more important to you than he is.  Because you will show him just how unimportant he is.  And in that moment, he will become mine and only mine.  He who fought me for so long, who struggled for a lifetime against despair... at last, I will taste his heart.


Snow clogged their nostrils, their lungs; Warren couldn't see now, the snow so thick that even Howl's struggling form was half-hidden from view.  He couldn't be sure how much further they were going, or even if they were advancing at all.  It felt like it was all they could do to keep moving in this blizzard.


Maybe you should just kill him.


The vision was so intense, it felt as if it were the real thing.  Warren simply turned and buried his sword into Howl's back, right there on the mountainside.  It was so quick, and so easy, that even the blood gushing forth from between his shoulderblades and from his chest felt somehow unreal.  Warren's hand twitched as Howl slid off of his sword into the snow.


Wouldn't that be better?  No pain.  No heartache.  It all ended before that.  Before he knew how you intended to betray him.  Because you do intend to betray him.  Because once you do... he will become worse than dead.   Better to just kill him now - before he turns out like Snow.  Better to just kill him now... before he sees what kind of person you REALLY are.


The snow fell so thick that all Warren saw, if he even chose to open his eyes anymore, was thick white.  Somewhere, nearby, he sensed Howl, clutching a spear plunged into the earth and muttering over and over, "It doesn't matter it doesn't matter it doesn't matter..."


And that temptation lingered, like the snow in his nostrils and eyelashes.

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The storm whirled inside of Warren's head. He felt that other mind brush against him, probing and searching and finding what he thought was some weaponized thought, some pressure point with which to break the highlander and by extension, Howl.


"The kind of man I really am..." Warren repeated the words to himself. He'd had a drink to that regard what felt like a lifetime ago, but he was dimly aware that his partner nearby was undergoing far worse. Whatever the lizard had shown him had had the desired effect. He would need Warren, and that fire inside of him roared back.


The thing about touching someone like this, worm, is that it works both ways.


The visions the draconic mind had shown him were vivid, but unreal. Warren retaliated with memories, recalling moments that were powerful and real.


This is he and I drinking after the Grindstone. This is us watching each other fight. This is me rushing to his side after he was hurt. This is me cheering him on in the finals. This is us having a quiet meal together. This is me, murdering your thrall to find out where he was. This is Prauvaulient giving you up and pleading for his life. This is Howl, wearing the mantle of his son, having murdered him to come back to me.


Do you think you know the sort of man I am, dragon? Do you know what happened to the last person who stood in our way?


Warren turned to look at Howl, his eyes no longer having to peer through the snow. He was still huddled over the spear, the shaft pointed into the air above him as he leaned on it for support. Warren moved to him, surprised that the quickly piling snow hadn't accumulated nearly as much as he'd thought. Warren pressed a hand to Howl's shoulder and gave him a little shake, but the miqo'te didn't appear to notice.


You think I don't know this is going to hurt him? You think that showing me visions and pictures of her, of him, is something I haven't thought of? I know you don't know anything, worm. You're feeling through him to reach to me, playing on his fears and worries in hopes to get me to think twice. It will not work. You think I'm going to choose her over him and that proves you don't know, not really. You think I'd just let him go away. You don't know the things I've done to keep him by my side.


You will, though. You're going to see exactly the sort of man I am.


He reached into his cloak and removed a small metal flask. Warren used his teeth to uncap the top of it and smiled, his fingers unfeeling through the armor but his heart knowing the words etched there. He tilted his head back and poured fuel on the fire, a taste of things to come to keep him focused.


His other hand moved to Howl's head and he gently pulled the miqo'te towards him again, pressing his lips to just below the man's ear. An act of platonic love, the sort of anchor that helped keep the ship right. Warren extended the flask to Howl, helping to support him as the miqo'te unlatched from the spear and absently accepted what was given to him.


"Drink, Howl. Taste home. We've got casks of it back in Ul'dah, and we're not going to let some overgrown drake stop us now."


The snow had all but abated. Warren looked up and was surprised to see the sun was starting to dip down on the horizon. There wasn't a sign of clouds in the sky, and Warren noticed that neither himself nor Howl were covered in any. He made a show of blowing the snow off of Howl's head and pulled him in again, this time planting a kiss on his forehead.


"Come back to me, Howl. I can't do this without you. I need you, man. Whatever he's showing you, whatever lies he's filling your head with, you know that. We're a team, and nothing is going to change that. No one."


There was a long moment before the light returned to Howl's eyes. Warren smiled and tipped the flask up again, then planted one last smooch on Howl's face.


Looks like the storm blew over, dragon. We're coming for you.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Howl crouched low in the blowing snow, staring down the slope of the hill that lead to a wide, flat valley where their quarry was currently feeding on something that Howl didn't want to look at too closely.  It was their first, best chance in a sevenday to finally attack - so it looked like the moment was here.


"This is it," Snow murmured from behind him, her tone serene yet filled with a suppressed excitement.  "It's time."


Yes, I suppose it is.


Howl was still in shock that Snow had joined them after they had confronted her at the old training grounds.  He could still remember the look on her face, the strangely gentle smile.


"Hello, Warren.  I'm here to save you."


Warren didn't really trust her, of course.  Howl didn't particularly either.  She wasn't the same person that he had been in training with - nor was she the girl that had thrown away everything to ascend into Coerthas in the first place and become "strong."  She had become something else.  It was like she was free from all attachment, all desire, and therefore little seemed to bother her.  And yet... hadn't attachment brought her here?  Some lingering attachment to Warren that had brought her with them to this place?  And... she, too, had warned them what would happen if they attached Ryuuga with anger and hate in their hearts.  It felt like they had been talking about that for moons now, and yet the dull ache in Howl's chest wouldn't go away.


He wasn't afraid of Ryuuga, per se.  He wasn't even afraid Ryuuga would kill either of them (or Snow, he figured).  He was afraid this was yet another one of Ryuuga's plans.  It didn't seem like killing him would rid them of him.  It didn't feel like this would do anything for anyone other than Warren - and while Howl wanted to give him that peace, he dreaded it as well, dreaded what would happen when they got back to Ul'dah, dreaded what he knew was coming then.  Warren was going to write this episode closed, and move on - but Howl didn't think he would ever really be able to move on.


Snow caught his eye and smiled slightly.  He averted his gaze.  She knew too much about how his mind worked.  She probably knew what he was thinking.  She was probably laughing at him inside - she had laughed that one time, after all.


"Alright," Warren muttered, coming up behind them; he'd gotten into his full gear, heavier armor than what he'd traveled in, a shield.  It wasn't his official armor - he refused to wear that in Coerthas - but he was still imposing, a huge hulk of a man in armor that just increased his bulk, a broadsword in his gauntleted fist nearly the size of Howl's torso.  "As we planned, then."


"As we planned," Howl agreed, carefully stripping away the protective container from his poisoned lance.  "Keep away from me until I get this in him."  He wriggled away from the others, circling around, staring down into the valley.  It was the perfect setup for a fight with a dragon, no trees or underbrush to concern themselves with, nothing to trip their feet except snow.  They had tracked him for days deep into the wilds around Ishgard for this moment, yet Howl still felt like it was somehow a setup.


This isn't going to end it, Warren... it might never be over.  How would you feel about that?  Would that finally get you to get rid of me?


That thought chilled him more than the snow all around, and he unclasped his fur cape, letting it fall to the ground as Warren bellowed his challenge to Ryuuga and surged forward, swinging his broadsword in a massive overhand swipe at Ryuuga's form, claw and steel clashing.  Then there was nothing to think of again, Snow harrying Ryuuga's right flank, trying to disable one of his wings - a similar tactic to what they'd used before to down their first dragon, in and out, light stabs at the wing membrane and tendon to harass the huge form and keep him distracted, his left flank exposed.  Howl charged in as fast as he could go in the snow, then leapt the final yalms, drawing on every bit of dragonic power that he had been given or had taken before, stabbing hard at Ryuuga's ribcage, the spot where he could plunge the poisoned lance between two trunk-sized ribs and perhaps pierce his heart -


But Ryuuga was far smarter and more wily than the young breeding male they'd killed before.  He was an alpha male in his prime, who knew how many summers old, and he had trained them in the arts of the dragoon personally; he whirled at the first touch of the lance, hard, and the lance snapped off in his side as his massive horned head slammed into Howl's body, sending him flying and rolling off into the snow behind him.  With a bellow of triumph, Ryuuga turned, whipping Snow off of him with a sweep of his tail, opening his jaws to send a gout of flame at the stunned Howl.

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Ludicrous insane stupid stupid STUPID


There wasn't any time to think about that but the thoughts roared at him as his feet carried him down the snowy mountainside in a straight line for the feeding beast. He knew he would be spotted in moments, if he hadn't been already, and he was dimly aware of Sei flanking around from the side. Howl would hang back, wait for an opening...


The dragon looked up from his meal and Warren could feel the smile, the accepted challenge. He didn't remember what he had yelled to make his declaration official but it didn't matter, not when they were joined in battle a moment later with a clash of cold steel and bony claw scratching at shield and armor. Ryuuga reeled back in a motion that even Warren could realize was playful; The highlander posed a limited threat despite his size and strength. The dragon had been hunting and killing since before Warren was even born and his weaponry weren't designed for fighting foes of that caliber. Fortunately for Warren, it wasn't he who would be bringing the creature down.


For half a moment he expected to feel Sei's lance plunge into his side and pin him to the snow in front of her master, his last thoughts and sights to be his blood spilled onto the snow before he was devoured or crushed or worse. How could he have believed her words? They were spoken a week ago but felt fresh in his mind


like new snow


and he had gone over them many times since then. Another warning of how to not address things. She said she'd gone to save him, and that she knew their plan because she could see things Howl did. Warren surmised that Howl could do the same, but that was a conversation for another time.


Her lance struck true and Warren was impressed by her agility. She'd been a scrapper back when they were still close but this was trained, practiced harrowing. Ryuuga couldn't ignore the stabbing lance and wheeled his attention on the miqo'te, and then Howl struck. It had been a properly executed pincer maneuver, or as well-executed one could be when only performed by three people.


The dragon expected it somehow; Could he see through Howl and Sei like they could through each other? Dragons held dominion over lesser dragons, perhaps-


They aren't dragons. They are not his.


Warren felt his heart soar as the lance plunged into the side of the dragon. All at once he felt the first step of his plan falling into place; Ryuuga's legacy was going to be erased, unmade and destroyed and he needed to start by pulling up the root. There was already pollution, so much of it, but the source needed to go.


Those feelings were dashed when the dragon whirled and knocked Howl away. There was a sickening crack of splintering wood and the beast roared, turning and lowering his head for what was intended to be a blast of intense fire to eradicate the brown-skinned male. Warren raced alongside the beast, forgotten about while the master tended to his prized pupils.


There was a strange sound as the creature inhaled, an odd finality to the motion. He felt that draconic eye turn in his direction, suddenly remembered. Set in Ryuuga's head his eye must have been the size of a prize-winning pumpkin and Warren was treated to seeing his reflection as he drove the length of the broadsword into that jelly. The blade forcefully redirected suddenly as if striking something hard


like stone


but the weapon slid in deep enough and Warren yanked downward hard enough that the sudden loss of his left eye threw the beast's attack off. Fire scorched the ground and erupted into the air as the turned and shook his head, roaring so loud that Warren felt it inside of him, a roar of hatred and malice.


"If you fight him with those emotions in your heart, you can't win."


The broken-off shaft of the lance was there and Warren unlatched his shield, swinging it sideways as hard as he could. There wouldn't be any more chances after this.

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Howl felt a moment of sheer terror when Ryuuga turned to him, inhaling mightily to obliterate him in a scorch of dragonflame, but he was already scrambling to his feet, already pulling the next lance off of his back - Never let a spear be far from your hand. - determined to strike at Ryuuga once more, even if he was on fire while doing it.


But Warren was there, charging up alongside the rearing beast, and in a smooth yet violent motion, he had buried his broadsword in Ryuuga's left eye.  Howl felt his own left eye twitch in response, the aching that never quite went away, the sense of something alien where once flesh had been.  Had that been on purpose?  But there was no time to think.  Warren was whirling now, slamming his shield into something on Ryuuga's side - the broken-off lance! - but Ryuuga was lunging at him, his jaws opening, trying to take Warren's head off.  Howl would never let that happen.


He darted in with a quickness he never would've had without all of the trials he experienced in this snowy environs, wedging himself between Warren's armored back and Ryuuga's descending maw, stabbing up into that gaping mouth with all of his strength.  His spear sliced upward through Ryuuga's palate into his brainstem; he roared, belching sooty flame that blasted Howl's face and hair with heat, but his legs were faltering under him as the poisoned lancehead reached his heart.  He turned on staggering legs, his wings snapping wide to flee, but Snow was already there on his blind side, taking advantage of his disorientation to neatly sever the tendon connecting his wing to his body.  It snapped down like a sail on a boat, and Ryuuga staggered again, his roars becoming fainter, aware now that the wounds and the poison had brought him low.


He fell to the ground heavily, looking up at Warren with his one remaining eye, glaring baleful hate - and sick amusement.  Howl, drenched in dragon's blood and soot, stood ready with his last lance to deflect any final attack from the dying beast, but it wasn't an attack Ryuuga had in mind - or at least not a physical attack.  Images, thoughts, feelings suddenly flooded into Howl's mind, a last barrage, as Ryuuga unveiled the future for him, day by day, moon by moon, year by year, and its inevitable end.  Howl steadied himself with the lance, blinking hard, trying not to void his stomach.


"It's never over," Ryuuga whispered.  "It's never over for you."


And then, with one last, rattling breath, he died.  Snow stood over his head and nudged it lightly with a foot, her expression serene, but her eyes were on Warren.


"Satisfied now, Warren?" she asked, but somehow she looked concerned.  "You did what you came up here to do.  Right?"


Howl gazed down at Ryuuga's corpse with a growing feeling of numbness, of unreality.  They had finally done it.  But he felt nothing like closure, nothing like finality.  It's never over.  Right?  He wiped shakily at his face with his gloved hand, grimacing as his glove came away slick with blood.


"Well then, I suppose I'll be off.  Give my regards to your Lady, Warren."  Snow bowed to him, then loped off, vanishing off into the mountains, heading back to civilization.

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"It's never over." Warren mumbled the words to himself, dimly aware that Sei had already departed after her comment. He was aware Howl was still with him and that the great dragon was dead at their feet, but nothing else seemed quite real.


Warren scoffed, shaking his head. Ryuuga didn't realize that he was the easy part. The source of the poisons that had been creeping into innocent people of the world. Prauvaulient had paid for his transgressions and now the beast himself had been laid low, but never did Warren expect that to suddenly fix everything.


"Your part is over, monster. For all of your preaching about true power, you were still killed by people choosing to fight for each other over themselves. True strength comes from those we fight for, not from within."


And that's why you're dead.


He couldn't stop himself from thinking the boast, but the words felt hollow somehow. This wasn't something to gloat about. The real work began now, cleaning up the sludge and oil that Ryuuga had dumped into the world.


It wasn't over, not yet. Warren knew that one day it would be, though. He had made up his mind before to save them, and he would see that through.


"Let's get back to society and get you cleaned up." He draped a hand around Howl's shoulder and turned to lead them away. The blood made him uneasy but there would be time to make everything right.

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