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New Fiction: The Lost Heir Saga. Book One: The Heir Exiled Chapter 8 - Show us your world through the view of your word.

namfleMay. 20th, 2013 12:01 pm New Fiction: The Lost Heir Saga. Book One: The Heir Exiled Chapter 8

Alright, drama finale fans, here is the eigth and final chapter of "The Heir Exiled Part I", rough draft. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.

To repeat, this is a work of fiction, taking place in a fantasy setting of my own creation. What you see here is a rough draft after only slight editing for punctuation and spelling issues. The final, finished product may look very different.

Chapter one is here, chapter two is here, chapter three is here, chapter four is here, chapter five is here, chapter six is here, and chapter seven is here, in case you missed something.
And now, I bring you...




THE LOST HEIR SAGA
BOOK ONE: THE HEIR EXILED
by V Peter Collins

PART I: Havencliff Keep

CHAPTER 8: End Run


Captain Liendra stared in total shock in the amber wavering gloom that descended before her. Just a moment ago, there had been two promising new additions to her General’s army proceeding down the stairs ahead of her; the thoughtful and meticulous Oglaf, born in the Keep, and the patient Iren, a woman with wisdom that belied her youth. Liendra could not have known the way would be guarded by traps. In fact, she had not at all been privy to the knowledge of the passage’s very existence. Oglaf had been taking point down the stairs one moment, then simply disappeared with a most frightening slam the next, leaving Liendra with a very shaken subordinate who had never faced real danger before.

The Captain tried to administer a calming word but found her throat hoarse from her yell of fright. Instead, she placed a hand on Iren’s shoulder to reassure the younger woman, then took the lead, nimbly traversing the fallen block, candle in hand. The stairs below were splattered with gore and bits of metal.

“Hold your stomach, girl,” she warned, “and take care of your footing.”



Liendra set a slow, careful pace, with a sharp eye out for other traps. She came to an abrupt halt when her dim candle light returned to her as a broken, sparkling reflection. Just below her was sea water, according to her nose. Iren joined her a moment later.

“It is as if The First Son comes for us,” she said.

“Superstitions do not become you,” Liendra replied.

“Neither does treason, yet here I am.”

The elder studied her junior but could not read whether the woman was using ill-timed dark humor or was deadly serious.

“Let us return. There is no reason to delay bad news.” With one last glance at the lapping water, Liendra lead the way back up.

***



With a candle in one hand and a sword in the other, and shield abandoned, Garunth hurried down the stairs, eventually meeting Liendra and Iren just above the fallen trap-bricks lay.

“Sir,” began Liendra’s report, “The stairs lead to the ocean below the keep. I could find no signs of the children.”

“I know where the stairs lead,” grumbled the General.

“And we lost Oglaf,” she concluded, unable to keep her voice from quaking. Garunth saw the full ramifications of that statement and became even further displeased. Liendra flinched away from him them; in the candlelight, his face appeared monstrous.

“Gather a squad, full gear.” He spun and stamped back up the steps as he talked. “Take to the forest. Search every tree and bush from here to the villages. Take a day’s provisions with you.”

The captain could barely keep pace with her commander as she chased his ascent. Her face went pale even in the warm, flickering light.

“But sir… there are pantherines in the forest,” she reminded, the tremble in her voice heavier than before. Garunth stopped and peered over his shoulder.

“That is why you are taking a full, armored compliment with you.” He continued upwards. Liendra and Iren exchanged fearful glances as they climbed.
***



Despite the rain, which had increased to a nearly torturous downpour, the night was still alive with noise. Callan and Tilly tried to hurry through crickets and night birds calling into the wet darkness, but the slick foliage and mud underfoot made the going agonizingly slow. Even in the dark, the Keep seemed to cast an ominous shadow.

They traveled blindly, plunging through bushes and cobwebs, slipping on ground that offered little purchase and stumbling over bushes and roots that offered too much purchase. Tilly had attempted to light their path but fear and the difficulty of the forced trek kept her from concentrating properly on the required spell. They could not see the ground slope away from them. Callan went down first, his rump splashing into the mud. He could not release his sister quickly enough, unfortunately.

The slide was quite short and came to an abrupt ending on packed, dry soil. Brother and sister landed in a tangled heap. At any other time, the circumstances would have driven both to laughter. They immediately went to work untangling themselves, but halted before they could finished, suddenly caught in the grip of fear. Cutting through the new distant sounds of the rain and the nocturnal forest concert were the mewling of a collection of young animals.

“Gods!” Tilly exclaimed breathlessly.

“This is a pantherine den, isn’t it?” guessed Callan.

“What do we do, brother? What do we do?” Tilly was on the verge of panic. Callan, for better or worse, had long since acquired a numbness that let his fear wash away.

“We could die by a sword, or be eaten by a pantherine family,” he offered. The mewling continued. Thankfully, it did not seem to be moving any closer.

“I would much rather face the pantherines, thank you,” the girl replied.

“It’s not like you can reason with a wild, hunting beast of the woods,” said Callan.

“More so than a monster with a sword.”

“You surprise me, sister, making jests in such a predicament.”

“I do not jest!” Quickly, she explained a lesson she leaned in her magic class; certain types of animals, for which pantherines qualified, have antennae upon their heads that allow them to communicate thoughts and emotions when touched to another animal. They may also use them on their prey, startling and stunning their victims. However, there were tales of mages and forest dwellers who learned to communicate with these sorts of creatures.


“You must clear your mind, and focus upon one singular thought that you wish to convey,” she finished.


“I wish you could see the look upon my face, Till,” replied Callan quietly. He tried to stand but struck more soft packed soil with his head when he was still doubled over.

“Beware the low ceiling,” he cautioned, spitting out loosened soil that had fallen into his mouth. He crouched near his sister, only to discover her absent. He followed the sound of her scrambling. The mewling from the back of the cave changed tone. He heard her giggle and immediately became alarmed.

“Tilly!” He managed to yell and whisper at the same time. He crawled to the back of the den, relieved to be off his throbbing feet. He was soon accosted by tongues and wet noses. In a moment, at least three kittens had pounced on him at once. Callan was initially terrified that they would claw and bite him to an early death, but he soon realized that they, as all children, were merely being playful.

The first touch of his mind came as a shock. He was struck almost percussively with the image of a tumbling pantherine kitten and a strong desire to do the same. Reflexively, he tried to shake off the kitten that had glommed onto the back of his head and touched its antennae to the boy’s face. Simultaneously, he shouted in his surprise.

“What? What is it?” this from a newly frightened Tilly.

“I think one of the kittens has made contact.” He sat up and began to tussle with the small, energetic mounds of fur on his lap.

“See? Focus your thoughts into one. They can understand you when they touch your mind. Now hush, I’m having a conversation.”

For an instant, Callan was overwhelmed by the absurdity of the situation. He giggled, almost exactly as his sister had. This became a hearty laugh, but rapidly melted into a fully sobbing cry. He thought of his father, of his mother, of Samjin and Glory, and how he would certainly never see his parents again, an dhow uncertain the fates of his friends were. As he came out of the strongest part of the wave of grief, he discovered the kittens had begun licking his head and face, and when they touched him with their antennae, they would share a childish sort of sympathy and comfort.

Callan was amazed. He had doubted his sister’s story, believing it to be the magic lore equivalent of an old wives tale.. he tried then to consciously communicate with the young animals. It took quite a bit of practice but he eventually learned to pare his thoughts down to a single concept. The kittens themselves responded with emotionally charged moving imagery. For a time, Callan forgot about the tragedy he had escaped with his sister, the pain in his body and heart, and the danger they were in.



A hint of sunlight made the cave mouth visible. The sounds of the rain had ceased. Callan found his sister curled up in the middle of the throng of snoring kittens. He realized that he had also dozed off There was a temptation to lean back, close his eyes, and return to sleep. Even as he succumbed to his fatigue, he remembered why it was a poor idea. He made an attempt to call out to Tilly, and found his throat dry from disuse. As he pondered the length of time for which he had slept, a shadow moved into the cave mouth. Callan seized. It was as large as a man, and sounded as if it was dragging something inside.

Callan choked on his next attempt to call out to his sister; fear had squeezed his throat closed. The adult pantherine dropped its prey and grunted loudly. The kittens responded immediately, mewling sleepily as they roused themselves. The adult ambled deeper into its den. Overriding his desire to remain perfectly still, Callan quickly scampered backwards until he pressed himself against the curved rear wall of the artificial cave.

The adult pantherine came to the spot he had just vacated and let fly a terrible, frightening roar. Tilly awoke screaming loudly. Callan hard the pantherine leap toward his sister and the mewling of the kittens took on a frenzied quality.

“No!” the boy shouted in an attempt to draw attention away from his sister. Ignoring his pain, he brought his feet beneath him and his broken arm before him, anticipating an attack. None came, although the wild animal continued to vocalize it’s displeasure as the kittens excitement grew aurally.

“Focus your mind,” Tilly said as a reminder. Barely a breath later, Callan felt what had to be the adult in his mind. He was flooded with outrage and a prejudiced, unwelcome feeling. Thanks to his sister’s warning, he was able to withstand the mental and emotional barrage and tender a response. Loosely translated, it would mean: hide us, please. He followed this with images of himself and his sister being chased by an angry Garunth wielding a bloody sword.

The boy felt desperate, and did not really believe the ploy would work, so he was pleasantly surprised when he was pounced on by the kittens once more. Tilly found him a few moments later, and crashed into him in an emotionally embrace. She was trembling, and as Callan returned her hug, he realized he was shaking as well.

“I thought we were surely to die,” she confessed in a barely audible voice.

“We live, thanks to you,” Callan returned. A sense of relief, small in comparison to everything else he had felt that night, came over him.


Callan awoke again with a start. Tilly, having fallen asleep laying atop her brother, was jostled awake. Daylight had trickled in through the mouth of the den, and for the first time in hours, they could see. They were both filthy almost to the point of being unrecognizable. Worse, even in the poor lighting, his feet looked dangerously atrocious; their soles were swollen and lumpy, and he could not tell where the wounds ended and the muck he had acquired began. He was quite apprehensive about walking. He wasn’t sure, between his feet and his arm, which hurt him more.

Yelling from outside the den attracted his attention; he could discern the sounds of excited people carrying on, and the pained wails of large forest creatures. The boy quickly realized it was this commotion that had forced him from his slumber.

He searched the den with his eyes and became alarmed when she saw no signs of the pantherine family. Even the carcass of the hunter’s pry had been removed.

“Outside,” he said to his sister. She crawled ahead of him quickly. Groaning and moaning through his pain, Callan shifted to his hands and knees and followed her out.


Beyond the canopy of the forest, broken clouds could be seen, allowing hints of the blue sky to pass through. Callan and Tilly squinted and shielded their eyes from the overcast sky as they peered around. The commotion was all around them. They could see wild deer and birds careening about in panic.
Callan spied a number of pantherines bounding gracefully through the trees, black shadows slipping through the forest. Tilly saw something that made her gasp. Her brother turned to match her line of sight.

A stone’s throw away, they could see a soldier from the Keep, in full armor and wielding a pike, using his weapon to pin an attacking pantherine to a tree. A second soldier leaped into view, armed with a standard issue sword and large shield to finish the animal.

“By the gods,” breathed Callan, “they are searching the pantherine dens for us.”

“What do we do, brother?” Tilly clung to Callan, forgetting his painful arm injury again.

At first, the boy was honestly unsure, overwhelmed by the situation. The soldiers were using a strategy devised by King Durst to rid the surrounding forest of hidden enemies. A pike man and a fully armored swordsman could dispatch many insurgents quickly. There was a counter-strategy, but it involved archery and fore planning, two resources Callan had none of.

He spied a pantherine slipping through the trees toward their direction, followed by five kittens. Not only was he and his sister in gander, but they had placed their gracious host family at risk as well. That was unacceptable to him. A plan of action struck him then.

The pantherine slid to a halt at the den mouth. She was easily the size of a lean, grown man, her muscles rippling beneath glossy black fur. Her head seemed to be made of triangles; her face, nose, and ears were all pointed. Sprouting from her forehead above her frightened golden eyes were a pair of antennae, also covered in fur, each one a finger-width around and doubling in size at the tip to form small bulbs. Her kittens were a fifth her size, their long tails spinning like mills as they ran, claws extended and digging into the ground for traction.

Mother pantherine bade her children inside with a touch of her antennae to each of their heads in turn. Callan ordered his sister to follow. She gave him a strange look; in that moment he sounded exactly as their father would. Callan was anticipating rebuttal and was surprised when she ducked back into the den without a word.

The pantherine followed Tilly, turning at the last moment to exchange fearful glances with Callan. The boy focused his thoughts into the idea of making the soldiers chase him, then stretched his hand to her, two fingers extended. The mother pantherine lightly touched her antennae to his fingers, and seemed to understand. Quickly, she disappeared inside.

Callan ducked behind a tall bush and skittered around a tree. His feet hurt tremendously, but he cast his mind from the pain when he saw two soldiers nearby, searching for something to kill. Callan slipped behind them, using the noise of the surrounding ruckus to mask his own approached, and charged the female soldier with the pike, knocking her into a wild stumble.

“Ho!” cried the boy. He bolted through the woods then, the Keep at his back.

“The Prince!” he heard behind him.

“North! He flees north!” came another voice. He smiled, but his good feeling quickly vanished when he thought he heard the entire forest after him.

His backpack was catching on foliage and low tree braches, so he ditched it with regret. This allowed him to increase his speed. A quick glance backward showed a half-score soldiers in pursuit, and the trail of blood he was leaving to ensure the chase. Random branches and sudden changes in direction jostled his bound arm, sometimes enough to bring tears to his eyes. He thought about the soldiers piking and slaughtering the pantherine family. He thought about his sister, and he found the strength to forge ahead.

***


Captain Liendra brought up the rear of the chase, keeping an eye on the troops and out for any surprises. She did not run very far.

“Halt,” she called out, bringing herself to a stop. Five soldiers near enough to hear her obliged. She spent a moment catching her breath and watching her squadron disappear noisily into the woods ahead.

“Come with me,” she said presently. She came about smartly and jogged back, stowing her sword and tucking her shield in close. She returned shortly to the place where the chase had originated. The five soldiers with her gathered around.

“What is it?” the youngest asked.

“Only the boy was seen,” she replied, eyes squinting, piercing through the green and brown. She could see slaughtered pantherines strewn about, many near their dens. A pattern emerged. She identified a sizeable area devoid of carnage not terribly far from where the boy had been seen initially. “Search that area,” she pointed. Her subordinates eagerly dashed forward, three bearing pikes. Alert but calm, she casually drew her sword and followed at a measured pace.

The den was discovered in short order. The pikers prepared to thrust their weapons forward.

“Stay your blades!” Liendra hissed. The two men and the woman armed with the lengthy weapons looked to their captain in surprise. “Was I not clear that I wanted the girl alive and unharmed?”

“Well, yes,” stuttered the eldest of the pikers, “but if she were in a pantherine den, she must surely be already dead.”

“Of that, you are certain,” the Captain noted, anger and disappointment writ upon her face. She stepped to the mouth of the den and crouched. “Princess Tilly. We have your brother.” The other soldiers exchanged nervous, puzzled glances. “Surrender peacefully, and no harm will come to you. If you choose to continue to your resistance, we will be forced to destroy you and everything in there with you.” Now the soldiers thought their commander mad, or so read the expressions upon their faces.

There was noise and motion near the den mouth, then nothing. Hearts began to race as the eerie silence of the forest grew heavy and oppressive. Pikers shifted the grips on their weapons, swordsmen bounced on the balls of their feet.

A heavy, black shadow surged outward, assaulting Liendra. Her shield was up and she was ready. The angry pantherine tried to claw and bite, but the Captain’s shield and armor were impenetrable. The pikers moved swiftly, and the animal was dispatched. Liendra shoved the dead thing off and rolled swiftly to her feet.

“You leave me little choice, Tilly,” she said loudly.

“Wait!” came a small, pleading voice. Liendra took a step back. A small, brown head emerged. Tilly was filthy, with her hair done up as a miniature forest. In her arms was one of the kittens, shivering with fear. Four others tucked in close behind her, triangular ears flattened upon their scalps.

Tilly herself was also trembling, her brown eyes wide. She stumbled as she climbed from the den, but she did not release her charge. Her eyes darted around, taking everything in, then flashed with anger.

“Where is Callan?” she demanded, her voice shaking.

“He is already to the Keep,” replied Liendra. She reached for the girl. The kittens mewled and Tilly took a step back, nearly to fall back into the den.

“You mustn’t kill them,” she ordered. One of the soldiers laughed, but quickly stifled himself when Liendra shot him a glare. The Captain returned her attention to Tilly and stowed her weapon with deliberate slowness. The girl seemed to take that as a sign of capitulation, but Liendra’s motives were quite different; should the young mage begin to cast a spell, the Captain did not trust her soldiers would react in either a quick or appropriate fashion.

“The beasts will be spared. We have what we want, and now we shall depart the forest.” She beckoned with her free hand.

Tilly looked into eyes of each soldier. Her bottom lip quivered, and tears formed in her eyes. She gave the mewling kittens at her a stroke to each of their heads and faces, then lifted her head high, the last of the pantherine children tucked firmly in her arms. Liendra briefly considered having the animal stripped from the girl but reconsidered; Tilly would not be bale to cast a spell properly if her hands were occupied.
She extended an inviting hand Keep-ward, indicating for the girl to begin marching. The child did so without protest. Liendra quickly pulled the nearest swordsman to her and spoke softly and rapidly into his ear.

“Join the others. Report to the sub-commander. By my order, he is to return as soon as they have completed their mission.”

He saluted, a hand placed briefly over his heart, then turned and jogged northward. Liendra nodded to the female piker, indicating she follow the departed swordsman. The piker saluted and obeyed without hesitation. The Captain moved to Tilly, then, and gave the elder piker a dark glare of disapproval. He dropped his head in shame, satisfying Liendra.

With a hand sternly placed on Tilly’s shoulder, Captain Liendra marched the girl back to her abandoned home with a piker and two swordsmen serving as guards. Tilly held her new furry companion, and tears, all the way there.

***


Moving north through Durst’s Dark Woods, away from the southern sea, the ground sloped downward gently even as the trees thickened and grew in size. Callan was thankful for this, for it allowed his light, unencumbered body to slip between the trees and set a rapid pace with minimal effort. The noise of his pursuers slowly faded behind him, and when he discovered an animal trail, he soon put his pursuers out of earshot. He was intent on creating enough of a lead to gain time for a change in direction and attempt to lose himself completely.

The trees suddenly gave way to tall grass, and he realized too late that he had reached the Hooking River. Two steps were not enough for him to slow himself or change direction, and he plunged wildly into the cool water.

No self-respecting denizen of the Havencliff Kingdom, with its shoreline that carried on for days, was without adequate swimming ability. The heavy rains had given the mountain-born river a strong current, however, and the boy’s broken arm made a proper recovery from the unexpected dive even more difficult. He tried to stretch out with it reflexively and had to suppress a scream of pain lest he drown in the river water deeper than usual. The water stung his raw feet savagely. He struggled to claw his way to the surface, fighting the current as it carried him swiftly toward the bend that churned the water to foam and coaxed the river into a north-easterly direction. It was a quarter day’s march for the soldiers to the Lake, however he suspected he would drown long before he could travel that far, if the burning in his lungs was any sort of indication.

Every stretch of his body hurt. He felt a tremendous urge to open his mouth and breath in his death to find final relief.

An image of his father’s face came to him, smiling and warm. It twisted in anguish, and repeated his final command, the words echoing unceasingly even as the face faded into darkness.

Tilly’s gleeful grin appeared before his mind’s eye. Her smile became a concerned frown, then contorted into a silent scream of pain.

Callan suddenly found he could not simply allow himself to die. With redoubled effort, he kicked and pulled himself through the water, toward the broken light of day that beckoned above him. He fought the burning in his lungs and prayed to the Earthsea father that he could find the strength he needed.

***


An unsteady amber gloom blanketed the throne room. The sweet smell of heated candle-wax intermixed with the rusty smell of drying blood. Pensive yet still, Garunth sat upon the ornate wooden throne. He was leaning forward, elbows propped upon his knees, fingers steepled across the black and grey stubble of his chin. He saw not the surrounding flicker nor smelled the carnage he had created. The General was alone, having dismissed his soldiers after dispatching the untrustworthy Keep staff. Their quieted bodies had been removed, along with that of the deceased King, but the weight of their deaths pressed heavily on Garunth. Exile would have sufficed for removing them and whatever trouble they could have caused to impede his plans, but if either of the children had escaped, their small numbers running about the kingdom unchecked could have conceivably spread word of the beloved King’s death and raised an uprising before he could secure the strength of his army.

But did they really need to die?



The soft cry of an animal shook Garunth from his thoughts. He was startled to find himself no longer alone. Standing just at the threshold of the room, perhaps two dozen paces before him, were Captain Liendra, behind a small, human-shaped creature, her hands possessively resting upon its shoulders. The creature blinked its large dark eyes, and a part of its torso shifted. Garunth shook the fog from his mind; the creature was, in fact, Tilly, now hardly recognizable for the amount of dirt and forest that covered her. The shifting thing, however, was an actual creature. He sneered upon recognition of the pantherine kitten. The adults had been imported from beyond the mountains into Durst’s Dark Woods to protect the Keep from enemies that would encamp in the forest to lay siege. The cost of the endeavor was an extraordinarily high number of filled graves, a count that continued to escalate thanks to the unexpected rapid increase of the pantherine population after the wars had ended. Garunth himself had his share of encounters with the loathsome beasts. Being reminded of those trying experiences by seeing one – even a young one – was upsetting to his already unbalanced state of mind.

“There had better be an exemplary reason for this visage before me, Captain,” spat the General. He stood slowly.

“Aye, sir. I present Tilly, the young lady of the Keep, and her new companion.” Liendra then made an expression to indicate an innuendo present in her next statement. “The pantherine youngling seemed the easiest way to keep the situation from getting out of hand.”

Garunth studied the girl and noticed the way she clutched the animal. He nodded his understanding and, with slow, long strides, crossed the distance until he was within arm’s length of the girl and her charge. Both trembled at his approach. Good.

“Young Mistress Tilly,” he said slowly. He paused to let the full meaning of his address sink in.

“Master-at-Arms,” she returned unhappily.

“No more. I am to be addressed as General, henceforth.” He leaned forward, bringing his large face, scarred by time, closer to hers. She tried to back away, but Liendra gave her no route of escape. “The rules of this Kingdom, set forth by your grandfather, and signed into existence by myself, state that no one may occupy the throne of this Kingdom lest they be of royal blood, or are the parent of royalty. This makes you very important to me, Mistress. When you come of age, we shall wed, and you shall supply me with a royal heir.”

Tilly’s large eyes opened wider in surprise. Shock became disgust, which became fear.

“I wish to see my brother,” she whispered in a quivering voice. Garunth’s eyes shot to his Captain. Liendra shook her head subtly.

“Your desires are no longer relevant,” answered the General. Tears brimmed in Tilly’s eyes, but she maintained her composure. Garunth thought that remarkable. “You shall see your brother when I allow it.” He stood straight suddenly, and took a step back, crossing his arms at his barreled and plated chest. “You are hereby a prisoner, Tilly of Havenkeep, and shall remain so until you have taken an honest oath of fealty to me and my rule.” The girl blinked away her tears. As they rolled down her cheeks, her face set into a fierce expression of defiance. “And, should you take even a slight, single action against me, or cast the simplest of spells, I shall destroy all that you hold dear, including that wretched beast and your beloved brother.”

Garunth was pleased when her defiance virtually shattered before his eyes. Her trembling returned, and her tears flowed freely now, although she still somehow managed to refrain from weeping fully. He addressed his Captain with his next words.

“She is to be locked in her room. Place guards at her door through constantly.”

“Aye, sir.” Liendra turned Tilly about and marched her back down the hall. Garunth followed. A few unsure steps into the hall, however he stopped and looked back.

“And have this room sealed,” he ordered, speaking softly. Liendra also paused to look back, first into the somber aged eyes of her new sovereign, then into the defiled room behind him.

“Aye, sir.”

***


Grey daylight brought the colors of the decorative silks and lace that hung from the walls all about the small dormitory to dull life. Tilly stood, trembling, in the center of her bedroom, her nearly ruined slippers crushing the pile of the pictorial carpet. Behind her, she listened as Liendra threw the bolt of the hardly used door lock. The jangle of keys faded slowly, indicating the army Captain had departed, leaving two soldiers she had picked up along the way to the room to guard the door. Tilly bowed her head and squeezed the kitten in her arms for comfort that could not be had. The young creature mewed and licked her face, to no effect. She allowed herself to succumb to the weight of a horrible night and a terrible morning and wept at last. Great sobs convulsed her small body. Her legs lost their strength and she slowly crumpled into the carpet, enveloping the crooning companion in her arms.


That's the end of Part I. Any comments will be treated as from a beta reader, and will be sincerely appreciated.

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