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Autumn and Lorant

            Spring had crept back over the mountains, slowly melting away snow and gradually rising
the strength of water courses. Lorant clasped the pommel of his walking cane, elegant in his dark
suit. His heavy coat shielded him from the cold and the breeze from the Danube, the air loaded with
scents of water and green… but a shiver ran down the baron’s spine, nonetheless. Night was about
to fall. Spying the grayish sky in squares of emptiness framed by baroque buildings, he noticed the
moon was already visible. Lorant receded back into the darkness of the cab. The Watertown lazily
passed by his window on the way to Obuda, northern area of what is Budapest today. It was a gray
evening in the Spring of 1854, one day after the Night of Walpurgis, when witches await the Devil
in the cold peaks of Bracken in the Harz Mountains. That Devil he also awaited, in a less bombastic
fashion. Lorant absently toyed with his walking cane.

            Many years ago, he had struck his own deal with this devil, no other than the Necromancer
Himself, Bliol the Archdemon. His soul, something he barely thought of, had been sealed by the dark
powers along with embedded forces for him to use till the day of his death. It had seemed necessary,
to take such measures. Lorant, a bright mind by all means, had a personal battle to fight; one battle
in which, in order to win, he would use all resources available. Lorant arched his elegant shoulders,
sinking into the cushioned backrest of his seat. His enemy was his own mother.
            The carriage bounced on its well-oiled mechanisms, the wheels making a regular yet
smashing sound on paved streets. The dark was creeping across the skies, engulfing the last shreds
of light over the city. Gas lamps were being lit. Lorant found himself biting his lip, rather anxiously.
He barely remembered his father, no more than a passing shadow in his earliest years. He died a
mysterious death and passed onto him a large fortune his mother was to hold in stewardship till
Lorant were of age. He had seen the obliged picture of the former Baron; an image that seized his
own and crept over him till taking new life in Lorant’s features.
            ‘You are your father all over again…’ The sickly loving female voice echoed across his mind
with all its scent of lust and the baron growled between tightly closed teeth to eclipse the words. He
pressed his fist on his lips and a cold touch washed over him. It was a ring; a ring in his hand. It was
a simple band of gold, but the slight object made his tense shoulders pull back to a straight position.
Air came back into his lungs. Lorant turned the ring absently around his finger. He pulled himself
off the seat and opened the slit window to speak to the driver.
            “How much longer?”
            “Ten minutes, roughly, sir”.
            Lorant sank back in his seat. His head leaned on the cushion as his fingers tapped on his
polished hat, laying next to him. It was pitch black darkness in his corner. His mother was a black
widow. Her lovers had been many, but all after the image of the deceased Baron. Lorant still
wondered if they were to be hated or to be pitied. All of them met the same fate. His mother was
powerful in her magic and so had he to become a warlock to earn some freedom with hard labor. She
was both pleased and displeased, but he ceased trying to understand her very long ago.
            The carriage clicked on the pavement onto a different cobblestone; his finely tuned ears
perceived the difference no ordinary human would have. They were deeper into Obuda. Soon they
would hit their destination.

            Too much light to his liking. Strange, for the house of a Shadowlord. Lorant blinked slowly
and closed his fingers on his thumb till the joints made a cracking sound. His hands were neatly
clean and groomed, like the hands of a doctor; their movements were precise and agile, almost
graceful. Those hands seemingly spotless had strength enough to choke a horse and break the bones
of a grown man, despite Lorant’s body was rather slender, lean and flexible. He practiced boxing and
fencing, among other strange disciplines. He seemed to have a strange paranoia of self defense, yet
it was perfectly concealed beneath a typical 19th Century sportsman. He paced across the cabinet,
decorated in baroque airs that were close to gothic. The butler returned to add a bottle of excellent
Oporto and an announcement that was more of a gentle warning.
            “The Master will see you.”
            The baron nodded curtly. He picked up the small box he brought along and his fingers
clasped it so tightly the knuckles went white. He did not drink, but tensely waited till a servant came
to guide him deeper into the house.
            The current residence of the Master was built on roman ruins, dating back to the 1st Century
when the Roman Empire seized the region, calling it Aquincum. Obuda, as known now, held many
unseen things beyond its visible Roman past and ancient stones. The house was built on a Node of
Power, chiseled to fit the caprice of the Master, using both the stones of Hungary and her children
to raise proud facades onto the skies. Lorant was slightly taken aback as he was led to a space
beneath the stars, in a impluvium encircled by a primitive cloister. The night sky reflected on the
central pool and a shadow stood next to it; a shadow far more black than all the others, making the
darkness seem grayish around it. Silver eyes shimmered in the silhouette that was the dark shadow.
The pool did not reflect him; only the deep velvet black and blue filled with a myriad of stars.
            Lorant knelt down. The servants seemingly vanished. The shadow moved and took a human
shape. A dark man stood before Lorant and ordered him to rise.
            “Master”, Lorant muttered.
            “It’s been two years or little less”. The dark man spoke Hungarian with a slight German
accent, a hue of amusement filtering through his cultured voice. “What is this you wear? It might be
a small disturbance, but a disturbance nonetheless. I don’t advice to wear sanctified objects
improperly treated.”
            Lorant bit his lip and looked up at his Master. The Archdemon in human shape seemed not
much older than him, not unearthly either despite his terrible beauty and the scent of hidden horrors
that lingered about him. Silvanus Niemeyer as far as human eyes were concerned, was a beautiful
example of a man, a refined noble blood with a dangerous air. Lorant knew better now. Perhaps not
yet enough.
            “I got married”, he muttered.
            “So I heard”, Silvanus replied with an unpleasant smile. “Your household is growing, if it has
not rooted yet.”
            “Not yet,” Lorant muttered. His eyes flashed briefly and his fingers once again clasped the
box he carried. Silvanus watched him with mild curiosity, as if he wondered what this caged beast
would do if cornered in its cage. Lorant was carefully holding back his violent nature; for business,
it was necessary.
            “Master,” Lorant said. “You own my soul. But I have acquired my wife with grants from my
family inheritance.”
            Silvanus arched an eyebrow. He could sense the turmoil within the man from a mile away
and this case was strangely interesting.
            “Does she agree?,” he asked. “She has a soul of her own. Perhaps she owns a mind willing
to be… developed.”
            “She agrees,” Lorant said, a slight growl in the depths of his voice, yet he was overwhelmed
by his bond to the Archdemon. “Her family has my support now.”
            “All this is… interesting, but you still don’t say why you are here,” Silvanus slowly said, his
unpleasant smile getting slightly more pronounced. “Speak your mind, Lorant Riktophen. My time
is not yours.”
            Lorant impulsively looked up once again to see the eyes of the Archdemon, but he could not
hold his gaze. Lorant averted his eyes and was momentaneously captured by the beauty of the night
sky in the dark pool. As if pulling himself out of a dream, he took a step back and gazed briefly at
Silvanus.
            “I brought you an offering,” Lorant said with a flat voice, almost cautiously. “I have brought
this from Egypt. The man who had it was a descendant from one who took this from a tomb in the
Valley of the Kings. It might interest you…”
            Silvanus’ smile disappeared.
            “So you offer a bargain? You might be fooling yourself, Lorant. You cannot pay ransom for
something that is not yours, nor hasn’t been taken from you.”
            “All I ask,” Lorant said, his face starting to betray his anguish, “is to keep her out of your
shadow. When I die, you will claim my soul and your power allows you to take the next precious
thing that captures your fancy. If this would please you, I would hope you’d find it more precious
than her soul. She’s a simple woman with a simple existence. She craves not higher knowledge.”
            “I highly doubt her existence is simple, now that she shares your dwelling,” Silvanus said,
silver and black fire dancing in his eyes as a dark smirk slid on his lips. “What is this you’ve brought
to me?”
            Lorant fell on one knee and held up the box he so tightly held. “When the Angel of Death
turned the land of Egypt into Darkness, opening mighty wings against the sun,” Lorant said, “the
Soultaker descended on the land and took the lives of the first born of the Egyptians. Stories have
said, the Pharaoh asked the priests of Horus to protect the life of his child by fooling the eye of the
Soultaker, the eye than can see the chain holding the soul to the body. The priests brought in an
alchemist, who forged a precious stone that allowed the son of Pharaoh to take the shape of the
alchemist, so that the Soultaker would not see the son of Pharaoh; by these means they hoped to have
his life spared. But when the Soultaker, the Angel of Death entered the palace, the Soultaker looked
into the stone on the boy’s chest and saw beyond their sorcery. So the boy’s life was taken.”
            Silvanus’s eyes narrowed, still silver moons in his beautiful face. Lorant did not see this. He
lifted the lock, still holding up the box.
            “Legend says, when the Angel looked into the Stone, the gaze of the Angel remained within.
Priests and alchemists have sought it, for some believe it allows its owner to cast plague and disease,
retain souls and free them, exorcize demons and read the names of the angels.”
            Light was only the light of the stars and their reflection in the pool, but if Lorant would have
looked up, he would have seen the archdemon seemed mystified.
            “Have you looked into it?”, he asked with barely veiled sarcasm. Lorant held the box more
tightly, mainly to keep his hands from shaking.
            “I could not keep my eyes on it.”
            Silvanus was interested. Curious, almost annoyed. Lorant could feel it. Silvanus touched the
box and finally lifted the lid. A gemstone, about the size of a pheasant’s egg, in an ancient Egyptian
design, rested on black velvet. No wards, no shields secured it. Pale, graceful fingers picked up the
gemstone. Silvanus slowly rose the gemstone to eye level, a simple cord dangling from his hand. He
peered inside.
            His hand promptly closed round the gemstone, encasing it in his fist. When he spoke, his
voice was glacial.
            “Your wife is as yours as can be,” the Archdemon said. “May she share your life and may her
fate be that your life will give her. If you so need her, may your path and hers meet forever.”
            Lorant felt his hackles rise, yet he did not clearly understand why – but he could see what the
Archdemon perceived in the stone had awoken something within him Lorant did not feel prepared
to meet.
            “I am grateful,” he managed to say.
            “The night is deep. The roads are dangerous. You should be careful,” Silvanus’ eyes
shimmered strangely, silver and black fire dancing within them. “Till some other time.”
            Lorant rose, almost glad to be dismissed. With a ritual salute, he left.

            Silvanus slowly opened his hand and stared at the object glistening in his palm; a myriad stars
danced within.
            “Curse you,” he muttered. It was hard to tell to whom the words were aimed. The gemstone
described a long curve and landed in the pool, sinking immediately. Waves quickly rippled,
distorting the image of the starry skies, breaking barely against the edge; a clear drop of water
touched his polished shoes.
            Even after throwing it into the water, he could feel the weight in his hand.

            Lorant left his Master’s grounds as fast as he could. Once back on the dark streets, he
summoned a Hellbeast in the shape of a horse to ride back home. He had sent his wife and his
mother off to Eger, 80 miles from today’s Budapest. In Eger the Riktophens owned a large property;
a sumptuous mansion and some acres of land – so much for the locals attempts to take the lands from
landowners and the Church. Lorant had sent them there in order to have them away from Obuda and
Pest at the time of his interview with Silvanus Niemeyer – someone he intended them to never meet.
The house at Eger was a sort of retreat, more proper maybe, for Summer, but despite the weather was
still cold, the house was comfortable enough and the town was promising. However, Lorant would
rather move them back to the family castle as soon as possible. The journey from Obuda to Eger
would have taken almost two days by normal transportation; in the morning he had sent his luggage
to Eger; but given present situations, he was likely to arrive earlier than his luggage. Perhaps at
nightfall, the next day. It was almost two days earlier than scheduled, but he did not bother to send
a telegram – his mother and Autumn would not need any notice upon his arrival.

            “I hate leaving the house this late… Are you sure this cannot be done come morning?”
Autumn asked with a dubious expression as she stood in the grand foyer. She was pulling on a thick
coat over a modest cinnamon gown, something that was a vast contrast to the vibrant mess of auburn
hair she had pulled free of her face. It was evident she was displeased by the stiff way she stood,
buttoning the coat with slow shaky movements, but her tone remained placating and gentle as she
spoke to the older woman.

            A snort came from the steps, the wilted form of her mother-in-law leaning over the railing.
Strings of pearls and other beads dangled from her neck and clanked against the mahogany wood,
sending a strange echo through the empty halls.

            “It is dreadfully important! A matter of life and death! You will go at once, or I shall tell that
boy of mine that you are a disobedient harlot!” she shrilly replied, as she pointed an accusing ring
laden finger.

            Autumn narrowed her eyes as she finished with the last button, her voice remaining patience
still. “That will be unnecessary, Stasia. I will return soon, so there is no need to wait up for me.”
Tucking a small letter in to her coat, she couldn’t seem to exit the front door quick enough.

            From the steps the older woman’s mouth stretched in to a wide callous smile. “I do hope
not,” Anastasia purred, as she turned on a heel to return up the stairs. “There is only room for I.”

            Had it been day, Autumn might have walked in to town, savoring a bit of freedom from
Anastasia and the sense of cheerfulness walking in the crisp air and blue sky that it would bring. The
manor home was beautiful, decorated richly with the finest of things, but it was often dark and
uncomfortable. A sense of something foreboding seemed to seep out from the very walls, but could
not be explained. Rumors followed the Riktophen name with suggestions of demons, the occult, or
the very devil. All of which Autumn refused to believe were true… until she was first brought home
by the Baron.

            Autumn sighed as she distractedly leaned over and patted the soft neck of the brown mare
she pulled from the stables. Her marriage had been arranged by her father to the Baron Riktophen
and out of duty to her family, she agreed. For many years he had been scheming to have her engaged,
using what he deemed as good bargaining to secure her a fine catch. They had little money in the way
of a dowry, but she was attractive enough to provide a lovely bride. Most suitors would realize his
designs after their fortunes, much to her relief, and she had remained blissfully unmarried up until
then. More unusual it seemed the Baron had sought out her father, offering readily whatever it was
that he wanted for her betrothal. Lorant Riktophen, though attractive, was intimidating. A sort of
violence always seemed to lurk beneath the surface of his strongly controlled persona, and she
greatly feared what would happen if he directed his focus on her. Anastasia liked to play on that fear
for her own agendas.

            Thoughts of her mother-in-law drew her in to a scowl. Anastasia did not approve of her, to
the point of being vicious when her son’s back was turned. Autumn didn’t doubt the crone was the
cause of her husband’s violence and would even go as far to accuse her of the unnatural nature to
their home. While Lorant was away, Anastasia turned murderous, designing a dozen different scenes
to erase the woman she viewed as a threat to her position in the Baron’s life.

            The first endeavor was only discovered by sheer accident as Autumn stumbled over the
woman creating some potion to drop in to the afternoon tea, though she suspected it might not have
been the first try. Odd unexplainable things would often occur in the household, leaving the young
woman constantly weary of what could be lurking. This late night task could very well be another
of Anastasia’s schemes, giving Autumn that uneasy feeling as she rode her way in to town. To expect
the unexpected was an excellent quote, but it was never so easy.

            In the town of Eger it was painfully quiet, the only sounds being melting snow dripping from
rooftops and the dull clops of the horse’s hoofs as it met with the muddy road. Most of the townsfolk
had already returned to their homes and were preparing for bed, as a few lone stragglers were exiting
pubs or other late opened establishments. Autumn led the mare down the street, avoiding lumbering
figures until she reached the address Anastasia had given her. She thought the home looked normal
enough as she climbed down from the horse, making her way to the door as she brought up her hand
and soundly knocked. Almost instantly a stout male form opened the door and leaned in the frame,
regarding her with a bored disinterest.

            “What did you want?” Tilting forward, he cast a look down the empty street as he brushed
his hand through sandy colored hair.

            “I have a letter from Anastasia Riktophen. She mentioned it was important and should be
read right away,” she replied. Suddenly looking more interested, he grasped her arm firmly and
pulled her through the threshold.

            “Come inside, come inside.” The door was closed quickly behind Autumn as he released her
hand and then bode her to follow him to an awaiting chamber. Holding out a hand, he beckoned for
the letter and she readily produced it, placing it in his hands. He broke the seal and read over it, a
peculiar smile crossed his features. Finally he looked back up to her, folding the letter neatly before
he tossed it in to the flames of an waiting mantel.

            Autumn blinked, finding the action made her uneasy. “Is there a message you wish to send
back to her?” she asked, watching as the man simply gave her a feral grin.

            “It won’t be needed.”

            Her hackles began to rise and giving way to instinct she nodded and immediately made her
way to the door, “I shall take my leave, then.”

            “I am afraid that also is not needed.” Before she could turn the knob a hand shot out, grasping
her arm and turning her to face him once again. “The lady has requested that you remain here.
Permanently.”

            Autumn was momentaneously stunned as she cast a quick look towards the fire. The note had
burned to little more than ashes in the fireplace… no doubt a fate Anastasia similarly wished for her!
She unwittingly walked straight in to one of the witches plots!

            “My husband will-“

            “Your husband will know nothing, as it was planned.” He produced a dagger from
somewhere unseen, drawing her closer by the iron locked grip around her arm. Autumn could feel
herself slipping in to a sort of hysteria, but willed herself to steel her nerves and try to think more
clearly!

            “If you mean to kill me..!” she announced suddenly, “could you spare me the pain of being
cut and use a less painful method!”

            At her request he simply laughed! “My blade is not good enough for you? Do you prefer
poison or a nice spell to steal your breath?” Drawing her away from the door, he pulled her closer
to the giant fireplace, resting his dagger on the mantel. He released her arm and turned his back,
seeming to be unconcerned whether or not she’d try escape as he rifled through a writer’s desk.

            With his back turned, Autumn found her hand wrapping around a piece of iron – a poker for
the fire – as he continued a list of different demises for her. Holding her breath at the sudden idea,
she grasped it and taking a wide swing with as much force as she could muster! The man tumbled
forward in to the desk shouting a curse as the mark hit true, but failing to knock him unconscious
as she had hoped. Stealing the dagger from the mantel she gripped it tightly in one hand, with the
poker in the other as he spun around with a mixed look of both irritation and anger.

            “I hadn’t considered you as a fighter!” he growled, darting forward to clasp a hand around
her throat and capture the wrist with the dagger. Giving a startled cry she stabbed his foot with the
poker, succeeding in making him howl with pain. As soon as he faltered she forced her weight
forward, dagger and all, until she thrust it in to his stomach! The man froze staring at her with wide
eyes, as she blinked back with an equally shocked look! Autumn released the blade as she stumbled
back and he fell to his knees, but she could see no blood!

            Gasping, his face seemed to melt away to reveal a grotesque mask of scales and dark coal
skin as the human facade disappeared leaving only the twisted form of a demon in it’s stead. Autumn
stepped back in horror, her shoulders meeting the wall behind her while the demon’s body seemed
to be drawn in to the blade until all that was left was the dagger lying upon the carpet.

            Sliding to the floor she stared at the dagger for several moments. A creature. A demon.
Autumn had seen many strange things, inexplicable things, but never before had she been face to
face with a real beast from hell. Anastasia had send her to such a thing to be murdered. Never again
could she underestimate the lengths the old woman would go to be rid of her.

            For a brief spiteful moment, Autumn considered taking the dagger back with her and tossing
at the feet of Anastasia in defiance. It would serve her ego well for the treachery, but giving her
another weapon didn’t seem like the best course of action. Quickly rising to her feet and leaving the
dagger behind, Autumn left the house and mounted the horse to return back to the manor, not
wanting to linger another moment in case the demon could revive himself from whence he came.

The mare gave protest as Autumn galloped her way home instead of the easy trot the horse was used
to. She simply didn’t want to lurk around in the dark while Anastasia was feeling particularly
murderous. Safe on the grounds Autumn set the horse back in the stables where she belonged and
way her way back to the house. A faint outline from one of the upper story windows caught her
attention, causing her to squint her eyes to see, just as a low growl was heard behind her. Spinning
around, Autumn found herself facing one of Anastasia’s dogs, though they looked more to her like
over grown wolves!

            “Nice dog… You’re not hungry…” she mumbled, only being replied to with another more
ferocious growl. Unable to turn and run, the dog suddenly pounced knocking the breath from her as
she fell to the ground. She could feel its claws sinking in to her skin as it opened up it’s jaw to bite!

            Eger. Night had fallen before he left the woods; Lorant had stayed off the road, traveling
trails the government officials sure did not know of. The demonic beast exhaled a misty vapor as its
powerful breathing made its ribs move under the Baron’s legs. Lorant’s own breath formed tiny
crystals on his pale face. The demonic beast’s eyes were blazing red, but the Baron’s were clear hazel
with a strange inner light that gave them a metallic shimmer. Almost bronze. The woods were silent,
yet every now and then the sounds of falling, wet snow gave way to strange cries and calls that
would make any human’s hair stand on end, but for him these were signposts, calls from the strange
beings than roamed the woods. Once out of the black forest, whose trees grew close, thin and tall like
an army of spears, Lorant led the horse shaped hellbeast once more into a gallop, yet less unnaturally
fast. He rode hard a whole night and day, then once more into the night. The town lights were
flickering in the darkness as he approached Eger. Eluding lit up streets, he took a detour and
blackened alleys to his own dwellings, to the service gate of the household. The beast seemed wary
as they took the final turn, heading to the manor. Its nostrils dilated as its eyes shone in the darkness;
the Baron peered ahead… He was about to dismount and dismiss the hellbeast when he saw a silvery
flash dash from the bush and a guttural growl. Lorant arched an eyebrow and nudged the beast to go
forward, following the slight sound to the side of the big stone building, to the court were the stables
are. Hinges creaked, causing the Baron’s ear to pulsate slightly…

            The growl again, stronger. The dogs. At least, one of them, had cornered something – or
someone. Lorant prepared to dismount, coolly shrugging the matter off.

            “Nice dog… You’re not hungry…” a female voice mumbled, sending a chill down his spine.
Another more ferocious growl followed; Lorant’s eyes dilated. He made the hellbeast rush into the
court just as Autumn’s body hit the dirt with a hushed sound of heavy clothes; the Baron abruptly
stopped the hellbeast before it could stomp over the dire wolf, for he suddenly realize Autumn would
not be spared; the hellbeast in shape of a horse neighed loudly with a hellish sound, recoiling on two
legs as the Baron dropped himself from it and leapt onto the startled wolf, whose jaws closed with
a metallic sound barely millimeters away from the woman’s flesh. The wolf violently turned around
against the Baron, whose walking cane broke to splinters as he smashed it onto the wolf’s muzzle.
The wolf was but momentarily forced to open and close its jaw and blood trickled from its nose, but
its momentum knocked the man off his feet. Growling, the wolf violently flailed as the Baron seized
it with tremendous force as to smash it against the ground, leaping back on his feet; the wolf
described an arc in the air and teeth flashed as it aimed for the Baron’s throat. Lorant’s fist connected
the beast’s ribs, forcing the air out in a screech and the teeth only ripped his clothes. The man
however got an iron grip on the wolf’s neck and his arms held his prey tightly, his hands locked on
its throat. Lorant’s eyes shimmered savagely as the yellow shimmer in the wolf’s eyes dimmed by the
second till its neck was broken with a blood-curdling crack.

            Lorant dropped the body, panting yet not a sound came out of him. His shoulders moved as
he tried to catch his breath, his raven black hair partially covering his face, pale in the moonlight.
The horse-shaped hellbeast kicked the dirt and shook its powerful head with an unnatural neigh.
Lorant swallowed and crossed the distance to his shocked, fallen wife in long strides. He fell on his
knees next to her.

            “Autumn…”, he muttered, breathlessly.

            Her breath had not yet returned to her, or perhaps she was still so stunned she simply could
not breathe. He had come charging out of the darkness like a sort of black knight; fighting the beast
until he snapped the life from it with his bare hands. It was amazing and frightening all at the same
time, leaving her confused but grateful that the dog hadn’t succeeded in sinking it’s teeth in to her
throat. Managing to sit up, she unconsciously brought her hand to her shoulder where the wolf’s
claws punctured minor scratches in her skin. She spared the fallen beast a brief glance before
averting her gaze quickly to the Baron and the shreds in his clothes.

            ‘Should I tell him what Stasia has done…?’ she wondered. Would he be angry for not telling
him sooner? Or did he believe the tales Anastasia would spin for him?

            “Thank you.” Autumn finally choked out, unable to speak of the older woman’s plots just
yet. Lorant shivered as if the cold would have filtered through his clothes just now, despite he had
rode all day and almost a full night in a deeper cold. The Baron hesitated, then seized her as he rose,
carrying her in his arms. Lorant gazed around, but did not see or perceive more of the creatures. The
horse-shaped hellbeast neighed with disdain as a strange vapor floated about the dead wolf, its corpse
losing heat quickly. Lorant noticed the mare nervously staring from the shadows of the stable, a
single lamp hanging there; the other horses were as well uneasy, sensing the evil he rode too close
for comfort; they were stirring and making scared noises. He did not miss the fact his wife was
returning home after dark, unaccompanied. His fingers clasped the thick fabric of her coat as he
carefully carried her. His eyes shimmered strangely in the dark.

            “…” He seemed about to speak, but refrained and simply headed to the main building with
his cargo, seemingly unconcerned about the hellbeast, the dead wolf and the terrified horses in the
stable.

            Autumn rested limply against him as he carried her in to the house, her legs feeling too weak
to make a protest that she could walk on her own. Inside, Anastasia was there waiting dressed in her
sleeping robes as if she had just then risen from bed. Painted across her face was a look of scorn and
chiding at the woman carried in her son’s arms.

            “I awoke to find the chit had escaped from the house! Off to meet some beau for an affair,
I bet!”

            Gritting her teeth as she squeezed her eyes shut, it was all Autumn could do to keep from
shouting at the woman and mentioning all the excursions that Anastasia had put her through.

            Anastasia took her silence as a confession of guilt, giving a long almost feral grin. “See!
Caught in the act by her own husband! Toss her out for the dogs, where she belongs!”

            “Toss her out for the dogs, indeed”, muttered Lorant. He smiled at his mother – a feral smile
as well but his was mirthless, giving a sickening touch to it. “You would have to let out another, dear
mother. The one outside is… indisposed.”

            Lorant’s fingers were almost sinking through his wife’s coat, his own stained in mud and dirt
from the fight. Bruised skin showed through the shreds at his shoulder, showing the viciousness the
direwolves could display in a single bite. Holding Autumn, he leaned his head forward ever so
slightly; by now he had smelled the scent of a demon about her. Yet Lorant did not discard the hour
and the extremely suspicious arrival of Autumn after dark, he refused to give his mother any
satisfaction. She was his enemy, he could never forgive the things she had done to him. But on the
surface prevailed a tense mockery of a loving mother and son relationship. Autumn was different.
She was his own and he wouldn’t allow his mother to have a share.

            Nor would he play a variety show for her.

            “You’d do well asking me how am I doing,” he continued, putting up a fake saddened
expression. “But you care very little about me lately, mother. I will see about my wife – she will
answer to me.”

            His gripped tightened on her and his reply gave her chills, but Autumn remained silent. It
would be easier to make explanations without Anastasia chiming in with wild accusations and false
pieces of proof to make her look guilty. Yet, Autumn was still unsure what she would or even how
she would say it to free herself from looking guilty but spare a turbulent argument – one she had no
chance of winning once his mind was set. Her shoulder was beginning to throb with a dull ache as
she stared at the faint the bruises on Lorant’s perplexed at how he could fight the beast yet remained
little harmed.

            Anastasia looked slightly disappointed with her son’s reply, but she waved it away with a
flippant movement of her hand. “I am trying to protect my dearest from the vapid girl, but if you
wish to be foolish it is your own doing!” she complained, casting Autumn another disapproving look.
“Best carry a knife to bed or she’ll murder you in your sleep.”

            “The snakes in your hair are showing, Stasia…” Autumn growled barely over a whisper,
finding it increasingly impossible to ignore her ranting.

            The older woman bristled, seeming about to let loose another reply, but calmed herself with
a haughty tilt of her nose. “I will be in bed, dearest. Do call for mommy when you are through with
her!” Not bothering with her usual kisses or sanguine goodnights, she left her son standing in the
hall.

            Do call for your mommy when you are through.

            Lorant had a small shiver, yet he growled under his breath sort of chiding himself for it. How
many times he had heard those words, ever since he was a child? But what for other children was
a happy reminder, for him it only sparked a desire to run. Autumn’s mutter nor pleased or displeased
him. However, any intention he might have had to remind her not to insult his mother disappeared
when Anastasia bid her farewells. Lorant scowled after her and headed for the stairs with Autumn,
giving her as little mind as if she were part of his luggage. The stairs were long and winded, but he
sauntered up the carpeted wooden staircase with ease. After stopping for a second, peering down the
hall in case more beasts roamed free, the Baron headed for the Master bedroom with his wife in his
arms. After maneuvering a little he managed to fling the door open and enter the room. The door
bounced and closed behind him with a dry clang.

            Lorant was biting his lip when he sat his wife down on the luxurious bed cover, fringes
brushing against his muddy boots. The carpet might have suffered some mudding as well, but that
was none of his concern. The elegant bedroom in purple and dark oak somehow framed his dark
persona; Lorant brusquely let go of her and held grip of a bedpost with his hand, leaning his weight
on it. He was watching her, his eyes narrowed; the servants had lit the fire for the lady and now the
embers tossed strange shadows across the big room, making his clear hazel eyes look almost like
flickering flame.

            Fire danced in her auburn hair; Lorant’s lip showed a single droplet of blood. She was
beautiful, a precious possession to him. However she moved and talked, yet her attention was most
of the time elsewhere, away from him. He was convinced if she could follow her mind, she would
not remain with him – this was more than obvious in the Baron’s mind. To take it to practice however
was inadmissible… but the scent of demons he sensed on her lingered in his mind.

            “Where were you?” he asked, his eyes dilating.

            It was impossible to tell whether or not he had believed Anastasia and was angry, or if her
was simply concerned for her well being. He was gentle with her but he seemed to still leash what
he was really thinking. Autumn hesitated before her reply… It would be so simple to speak the truth,
but there was a terrible fear that she would cross some line she never wanted to come near! Still,
somehow she knew if she lied he would know and that would be taken as betrayal. She was his wife,
and though she didn’t love him, she couldn’t betray him.

            “Stasia had me take a letter to town. It wasn’t a pleasant letter, and neither was the recipient.”
she said finally. The demon’s grotesque face still lingered in her mind, giving her a shudder and
causing her to wince at the sudden jolt of pain. If she were to spend the rest of her life tied to this
family, she could not protect Anastasia and herself. The old crone was going to be furious that her
favorite target was no longer keeping her deeds secret, but Autumn was so very tired of dancing
around the truth for a woman who would happily see her dead.

            “Letter?”

            Lorant arched an eyebrow. It didn’t seem beyond his mother to try a little scheme to get rid
of Autumn, but somehow not all clicked. Autumn was not a magic-user. If she had delivered a letter
to a demonic household, how come she came back unscathed? Her sudden wince of pain snapped
him out of his musings. Lorant slid off his heavy coat, letting it fall to the floor; he was a tall, strong
man; despite his rather slender frame, he had a muscled, lean body. He was tense; his shoulders
showed it. The Baron touched the ragged cloth of her dress where she had been wounded, then
suddenly tore the whole piece off the dress, bursting the seams. Given the cut of the dress, the fabric
came off from the collar, the top of her shoulder and ended at the puff of her sleeve. There was little
blood, but the nails of the wolves could be poisonous for all he could tell.

            His sudden movement caused her jump, almost throwing her hands up in defense with a tiny
yelp. Immediately she wished she hadn’t; it made her seem so afraid! Autumn bite her lip and
swallowed. There was a terrible knot at the pit of her stomach and it was impossible to tell what
made her more uneasy; a near death at the hands of a demon or simply being in the presence of her
own husband! Focusing her thought on the buttons of his shirt, she tried to think less of where she
was and more of what she wanted to say.

            “Y-yes… A letter. I asked why it couldn’t be done in the morning, but she wished it sent
tonight. The man was… was unnatural. A demon, I think, though I’ve never seen one before…” Now
that she thought of it again, perhaps she should have taken the knife! It would have proven useful
now, if at least proof that she wasn’t an adulterer. She escaped the demon out of sheer luck; the story
sounded fabricated even to herself as she replayed it in her mind.

            Lorant blinked a fraction of second at her reaction. He clutched the piece he tore from her
dress in his hand as her fear somehow infuriated him. He hadn’t done anything to her and she was
already squealing like a critter! The man watched her with hawk eyes as she blabbed out a sort of
explanation. The letter and even the demon he could believe, but her uneventful escape was an
entirely different matter. Lorant frowned.

            “Demons are not a common sight,” he said with something close to a snarl, “but I believe
you. However what you have not yet come to explain is… how did you escape? Did this man let you
go freely? Why – and why did you go alone?!” Lorant’s eyes flashed as the ever present anger stirred
beneath the surface. What had she been thinking?

            On the other hand, perhaps it had been better she went alone or else an adept to his mother
could have contributed to Anastasia’s success. Because he had no doubt his mother had planned more
than teaching her a lesson.

            “There was no one to go with me.” Could she really say she could not have a chaperone
because she did not trust the staff? It was by sheer miracle they had staff left after the sort of stunts
the woman pulled. Autumn suspect several accidents servants stumbled in to were truly meant for
herself. Those that still remained spent an awful lot of time serving Anastasia; she simply did not
feel comfortable trusting them. He was visibly upset with her now, and she assumed it was because
he did not believe her, despite what she said.

            “I…I killed him.” she took in a shaky breath as her face blanched. It wasn’t the first of the
old crone’s tricks or the first outside person she enlisted, but before they were perfectly human, nor
had she ever harmed someone! She looked as if she might have wanted to faint, but she willed
herself to face it. “I didn’t mean to, it’s just… He was going to kill me and I asked if he could try
another way besides the knife! He turned around and I struck him with something, though I can’t
remember what it was now… We struggled and was pierced with the knife and… he just seemed to
melt away!”

            Lorant’s frown deepened. It still sounded suspicious but the melting away detail was… not
something she could have imagined on her own. He blinked slowly. She was there, relatively
unharmed… The affair notice did not seem probable. His mother was toying with them. The thought
made him scowl. Without another word, he took off his long jacket, tossed it on a chair and pulled
his sleeves back as he moved to the basin near the boudoir to wash his hands. Taking a small towel
with him and some gauze, cotton and a dark bottle, he returned to her side to clean the ugly scratch
she had. It seemingly had stopped bleeding… but the corset had lacy straps.

            “Will you take it off?”, he asked with a frown.

            “Take it off…?” she replied blankly. It was strange; they had been married well over a year
but intimate situations still felt alien. She knew little about what to expect during a marriage as her
mother was of no help in those areas, but she was sure it wasn’t meant to be filled with constant
weariness and a lack of… emotion. Fear just didn’t count. Autumn finally nodded, drawing herself
from her thoughts. Moving off the bed she stood on shaky legs to remove the damaged dress, he
shoulder giving protest to her movements.

            “I will need help,” she admitted, briefly hoping help didn’t involve more shredding of fabric.
But if she was feeling awkward, Lorant was not too far from feeling similarly. His mother’s love had
scarred him seemingly beyond repair and he did not quite know what to do with a woman, asides
physical details. Autumn herself was in his view more wrapped up than an onion…

            Not only in clothes, at that!

            Lorant quickly studied the corset before spotting where the brooches were and how to loosen
the tightly woven and tied laces. He guessed these were strong enough to hang a convict at the
gallows to his death, but he kept the thought to himself. Finally, the intricate piece of feminine armor
loosened up. He felt like just tearing the whole thing apart – how long should undressing take!

            “Done,” he muttered. Her back emerged from the wretched thing she had been wearing. Her
shoulder blades and the deep curve of her back only added grace to the form sinking into her
petticoats. His fingers lingered on the little, neatly tied bows that held the linen petticoats in place,
but he pulled his hand back. “Sit down,” he said, busying himself opening the brown crystal bottle
of tincture of iodine.

            Obediently she sat, folding her arms primly in front of her. The fire warmed the room but she
still felt a chill along her arms and down her spine. Curiously she wondered why he was being so
kind. It suddenly dawned on her that it was the first time he had acknowledged her in a way beyond
polite inquiries and husbandly duties; he often remained as distant as she, something that added to
the dangerous air he always had about him. Guilt was not something she felt often in the house, but
he had saved her life and was now caring for her; she felt the need to try and be more than just civil.
She just couldn’t think of what to say!

            Lorant put all things in order on the bed cover and poured a little tincture of iodine in a ball
of cotton. This was not simple iodine, it had some added things and he had prepared it himself.
Gently, he dabbed around the scratch before applying a new cotton ball with the tincture to the
scratch itself. It was bound to burn, but he did not stop to think if she was going to cringe or not. His
eye wandered for an instant… She was holding the corset to her chest. Despite that, the soft round
shapes were partially visible. Lorant nibbled on his lip as he eyed the corset and wondered how did
she manage to breathe with that on. He quickly resumed his task. Once the bruise was disinfected,
he tried to figure out how to place a bandage. She was… round. He got the impression the bandage
was going to slip off, her forms were so curved. His brow furrowed for an instant, then he decided
to wrap the gauze across her chest. Hopefully, there would be enough gauze.

            Autumn winced yet did not complain as he applied the astringent. Her body felt stiff after the
earlier struggle along with the fall, not to mention how rigid she carried herself in the presence of
her husband. Letting out a deep breath she rolled her shoulders to try and not feel so self conscious.

            “Your business went well..?” she asked, her voice taking on a higher pitch in order to sound
cheerful but out sounding more nervous. “You are home earlier than you had planned.”

            “…” Lorant’s piercing gaze got fixed on her face for an instant. If my business went well, I
have saved your soul
, he could have said. Ridiculous. He could not tell that to her. “It took less time
than planned. Does that displease you?”, he asked with an unpleasant smile. “I shipped my luggage
ahead. I suspect it has not arrived…” Lorant touched her elbow so she’d raise her arm a little. With
almost physician expertise, he winded the gauze around her shoulder and below twice, then rose to
stretch it around her back and across the top of her chest. She managed to keep the corset in place
over her breasts, causing him to smirk. Lorant secured the gauze bandage in place with a couple tiny
silver hooks.

            “My business went well. I will invest some of the gain,” he said, emotionlessly.

            Lorant seemed to have an unholy luck for investments. In society clubs, lords craved his
advice – yet Lorant was not prodigal with such. He was a withdrawn man with a dark air and a
volatile temper, but his fortune was an excellent palliative in the eyes of his peers. The Baron
gathered his tools and replaced them in the cabinet on which the basin was placed. He poured some
water and cleaned his hands. He did not turn as he dried his hands with a towel.

            “I need a bath,” he informed. His back to her, he blinked slowly, rubbing his hands with the
towel almost mechanically. Did he have to go seeing his mother tonight? He could always argue he
was too tired. Say he needed his sleep. Lorant rested his hand next to the basin, leaning his weight
on it as his shoulders sank slightly. I don’t have to, he decided. I am not a child anymore. I can
defend myself
. His heart was beating in his ears.

            I don’t have to go!

            Autumn found herself more curious at her husband’s peculiar mood. He was less focus;
neither intense nor drawing all of the air in the room back in to himself. It was a strange analogy, but
he consumed all the space in any room he walked in to. Tonight, however, he was introverted and
lost in thought. Perhaps her brush with death had left her wanting to tempt the devil; still she was
curious.

            “I’m glad you returned early.” It was an honest confession. Had he not returned early she
would have been meat for the dogs. He was no less intimidating, but he was more approachable. She
wanted to return the gesture by making sure he was comfortable. Grasping a robe from nearby, she
pulled it over her shoulders and happily freed herself from the corset. Typing the sash snugly around
her waist, she turned to him. “I can draw you a bath if you wish. You’ve come a long way and it will
do you well.”

            Lorant swallowed.

            “I’d like that… yes,” he curtly said. The room did not seem stable and he leaned further onto
his hand. Lorant had a small shiver and his lips moved, yet air came but barely out of them as he
muttered an incantation, yet no word was audible. Almost immediately, he was able to breathe more
easily, but he was visibly overwhelmed.

            Never did she think she would actually feel concern for him, but Lorant did not look well.
Briefly she wondered if he were more injured by the dog than he let on… as extraordinarily strong
as he was, he was still human! Autumn crossed the room and laid a tentative hand on his arm.
“Lorant, if you’re not well…” she paused, but continuing, “Were you… hurt? I saw bruises but…”
silencing herself, she bit her lip. There were no traces of blood on him, but that didn’t mean there
was no internal damage.

            Lorant clenched his jaw. “I am alright,” he hissed. “I am simply tired… If you’d draw me a
bath… that would be refreshing.” His words were carefully addressed, but his voice was deepening
to a growl. Lorant muttered another incantation, closing his eyes tightly. He pulled his shoulders
back and straightened his tense body.

            “I am not hurt. Don’t concern yourself over such trivialities.” He looked at her over his
shoulder, his gaze piercing, a spot of dry blood on his lip. “I am fine.”

            A dubious expression crossed her face and she looked as if she might’ve been about to accuse
him of otherwise, but she quickly clamped her mouth shut and nodded. He had no care for her
fussing and likely had little care for her as well. His momentary lapse of kindness must have just
been weariness from traveling; at least that is what she tried to tell herself as she left him to draw his
bath.

            She left him alone, leaving to draw his bath. When she left the bedroom, Lorant once more
rested his weight on his hands on the small cabinet. His forehead was wet, long bluish black strands
of silky hair sticking to his skin. Lorant concentrated and recited a variation of exorcism he had
learned from his Master to banish conjurers. Slowly he recited it all in inaudible voice, growing pale
from the effort as his mother’s spell pulled at his strings as she had all of his life. His body was
shaking. Lorant collapsed against the wall and clasped his fists, not allowing his concentration to
break.

            Suddenly, it was over.

            Lorant found himself breathing heavily, trying to catch his breath. Anastasia seemingly had
desisted… Warily, Lorant brushed his hand past his forehead, blinking dazedly. I must get up, he
commanded himself. I must not… be found like this… First on hands and knees, then pulling himself
up, he rose back to his feet, yet somewhat unsteadily.

            “Love!,” a mentally addressed voice purred into his mind. “I will be in bed, dearest. Do call
for mommy when you are through with her!”

            Lorant swallowed, for a brief instant his face showing he had been sick with fear but was now
coming back to his senses. Back to himself.

            “I will not go…,” he muttered.

            Autumn drew a hot bath in a huge claw footed tub, adding a few relaxing oils to the water
so that she may at least be of some subtle help if he wouldn’t allow her to assist. She couldn’t
understand why she was angry… after all, she didn’t feel safe trusting him, why should she expect
him to trust her? Fetching him a towel and a few other things, she used her spare moments to change
in to a sleeping gown before going to tell Lorant.

            Returning to the room she found him looking somewhat disturbed but mentioned nothing of
it. “Your bath is ready.”

            Lorant closed his eyes tightly. He had finished his bath long ago, but he didn’t seem able to
pull himself out of the water; it was starting to cool down. Immerse in the perfumed liquid, he felt
almost relaxed, out of the harsh reality awaiting out of the bathtub. Out of the door, out of the room,
everywhere. Lorant shook his head. It seemed that maybe he could enjoy some sleep tonight… After
some more minutes of musings, he rose. Water trickled down his slender, muscled body marked by
more than one scar, yet they are so pale and of diverse age they are almost unnoticeable in broad
light. His bluish hair dripped water on his cheeks; Lorant flicked it out of his eyes and picked up a
towel, only to discover she had also placed there night clothes and a number of personal care
commodities. The man hesitated, then refused to think about it as he briskly dried his hair with the
towel. A long howl resounded outside the building. Lorant snorted. He reckoned the hellbeast was
roaming, maybe eating the direwolf – but that at the most. He killed the beast, so for the hellbeast
a master’s leftovers are legitimate right. The horses however, were not going to sleep. Lorant turned
and his image watched him somberly from the mirror. His eyes look tired, darkened to reddish rust.
Suddenly he remembered the portrait of his father in the family gallery. Where did he get the guts
to look so dignified, almost satisfied? Perhaps that had been artist’s license. Lorant shook his head.
He did not quite remember him anyway. Just scattered images and sounds. Pulling himself out of
his distractions, he got dressed and left the bathroom.

            “Why aren’t you dead yet!”

            “Don’t speak to me, Stasia. Don’t even look at me.” Autumn growled as she stepped around
the old woman to the liquors in the kitchen. She was fetching a bottle of her husband’s favorite drink
along with a glass to bring back to the master chambers.

            “You should be dead three fold by now,” Anastasia commented. “That bottle is not yours…
where are you taking it!”

            Autumn stopped giving the women an incredulous look before her expression turned
suspicious. “Why, did you poison the drinks too? Keep in mind I seem to be resilient against your
tricks and this,” she shook the bottle in the air, “is for my husband. Your son. Whom you seem to
lack any real care for seeing as you’re prancing around like a murderous she-devil!” She was angry,
tired, and lacked the patience to do battle with her mother-in-law, especially as her husband was
upstairs unable to decide whether or not she was to be trusted!

            “Watch you tongue or you won’t have it for long! My dearest will snap that pretty neck of
yours if I asked… You will not come between a mother and son!” Anastasia threatened.

            It was no news to her about Anastasia, but her threat lit a small twinge of wonder if Lorant
would really do as his mother asked. “Go to bed, Stasia.” Autumn dismissed her and left kitchen
quickly.

            Back in the room, Autumn closed the door softly and leaned against it with a sigh, unaware
she was not alone.

            Lorant was sitting at the foot of the bed, immerse in dark thoughts. His wet hair hanged
loosely round his face, sticking to his cheek but absorbed into his musings as he was, he did not seem
to mind. He was wearing a dark red brocade robe with a gold pattern, tied round his hip with a
tussled cord. When the door opened and closed, he did not move. When she sighed, he tilted his head
slightly to spy her from the shade of his bluish black hair. The flickering lights from the fireplace
made his eyes appear molten bronze or gold… Unconsciously, Lorant turned his wedding ring round
his finger then turned his face to watch the fire dancing in the fireplace. He tried to essay words, but
did not find anything to say. He had never spoken about his mother to anyone and yet for some
reason the thought crossed his mind, he shunned it aside. She would be further repulsed about him,
find the matter disgusting. Blame him even – who’d accuse his mother of such things? Besides, why
would a man be weaker than a woman? Even as a teenager, he had been taller than his mother.
Lorant nibbled on his lip. Too many explanations, too many shadows and bonds. His wife did not
need to know. She was even afraid of him as it was. Lorant had sometimes trouble to deal with that
and yet he tried to curb his temper, sometimes…

            She almost jumped as she spied him on the foot of the bed, and mentally chided herself for
not paying better attention. Were it not her husband it could have been some hired hand of
Anastasia’s and Autumn had no more energy to fight today. For a second she regretted not bringing
a second glass; if Anastasia did indeed poison the drinks it would be best if she tried it first. He was
a frightening man, but she didn’t want to harm her husband. Walking in silence and grace she
stopped near the bed and held out the glass for him to take.

            “For you. I would have brought something to eat, but you seemed too tired.”

            Lorant seemed somehow startled but he reached out and took the glass. He held it out, a little
too tightly and his hand was trembling a little. He could not retrieve it, however… if asked he could
argue he was simply tired.

            Outside, another howl rang through the night. Lorant furrowed his brow, almost tempted to
go outside and banish the hellbeast for good… He watched her pour the liquor… An acute pain stung
his chest yet he did not know why. She looked just as when he saw her the first time at that one
photographs exhibit, looking at other people’s works, studying them with an air of understanding.
An air of understanding… Lorant swallowed. Why he had married her, he did not know. Like for the
other men of his Time, marriage was both social obligation and another form of business – but what
kind of investment was this? Were his lawyers less skilled, her family would have moved in to the
barony. Why had he married her? She was beautiful, but so were others with plentiful dowry. She
was afraid of him and she did not seem to enjoy his riches either. Had she spent money like his
mother does, he’d have an excuse to protest – to tell her something. He was not in her picture, no
matter how much he had paid.

            Silvanus’ smile disappeared.
            “So you offer a bargain? You might be fooling yourself, Lorant. You cannot pay ransom for
something that is not yours, nor hasn’t been taken from you.”
            The words of the Archdemon lingered curiously on his mind. Was it coincidence or did those
supernatural beings truly had a wider sight? Niemeyer had all the symptoms of a women’s advocate.
Could he be right?

            She might fear me and even hate me. But Autumn is mine. His eyes narrowed, but his gaze
slipped down to the rug.

            “You’re lost in another world…” Autumn said but quickly covered her mouth with her
fingers, cursing herself for thinking out load again. Whether her was contemplating something
serious or simply staring at the carpet blankly, it was none of her concern! At least she didn’t want
it to be. As soon as she began to care things would be dreadfully more complicated; things were
difficult and strange as they were! She stepped away and took the bottle to set it aside.

            Her voice once again snapped him out of his musings. Lorant seemed about to say something,
then just sipped his wine as she moved away to set the bottle somewhere.

            “Just business,” he finally muttered. “Market and trade.”

            Lorant sipped more wine, looked at it and finally gulped it down. His fingers fiddled with
the fragile glass and his loosely wrapped robe uncovered his shoulder when he put the glass down.
The bruises had darkened but looked normal enough. He flicked the glass off to the nearest couch,
where it neatly stuck between the cushions. With the wine flowing inside of him, he felt warmer
faster – partially because his stomach was empty. His fingers absently loosened the knot of the cord
that held his robe in place.

            Autumn frowned at the flicked glass, though thankful it landed somewhere safe as she pulled
off her own robe and gently laid it across a chair. She was wearing a simple but elegant gown of
ivory silk and lace while she pulled the few remaining pins from her hair, allowing it to fall in her
face and across her shoulders. Pulling back the covers, she slipped in to bed, sighing in the
momentary enjoyment of the cool sheets and chance to lay down. The bandages felt a bit awkward
but the pain had ceased to nothing more than a dull twinge here and there.

            The mattress bounced a little as Autumn got into bed behind him but enough to remind
Lorant he also had to lay down and hopefully get some sleep. As the man rose, the red and golden
brocade robe slid easily off his shoulders, then off his body. He grabbed a handful of brocade as it
slid down and gazed around for somewhere to fling it off to. The lights from the fireplace tossed
changing shadows on his lean and muscled body, the muscles marking the skin of his triangular back
yet he had barely moved. Tall and of rather slender frame, it was strange how his body had so much
strength – but it had. His arms and legs showed how devoted he was to fencing and boxing. His broad
shoulders pulled back and Lorant simply dropped the robe on top of the bed covers, where it could
be handy in the morning when the weather was chilling. He went to his side of the bed and slid under
the covers, causing the bed to move again. His hair was still wet yet not damp anymore, not enough
to bother him or make him cold. Lorant was somberly thoughtful and the wine was sinking in…

            She didn’t mean to watch, though she had every right to; it was easier to watch him when he
was unaware. There were no questions or pressure, she could simply watch and wonder. He was
frighteningly attractive; some men were beautiful, some handsome, but none could boast looking so
dark and dangerous. Even when she first saw him his expressions commanded fear and respect. Now,
as he was paying her no mind seemingly lost in thought, he was accessible if she were to only try.
But… she couldn’t forget his volatile temper or the way he could so easily kill. What if Anastasia
were to really ask him to get rid of her? Would he harm her to please his mother? The woman was
horrible, and yet he still seemed to try and please her, nor did he ever seem fed up with her behavior.
Autumn never wanted to find herself on the wrong end of her husband’s anger.

            Lorant blinked slowly as tiredness began to wash over him as the hot bath and the wine took
effect on his conscience. It could be easy to sleep away… Lorant usually was up before dawn, but
tonight he simply did not feel any need to keep up… He’d have to face his mother in the morning and
his wife, and their quarrels as well. His luggage would arrive in the morning but he did not concern
himself over household matters – after all, he has a wife…! His eyelids felt heavy, but at the thought
of her he looked in her general direction and met her gaze. The pain in his chest returned, slight but
painful still. What was she looking at, what was he for her after all? His fingers closed slowly on the
blankets…

            Autumn flushed at being caught staring; she didn’t mean for him to see her, still she didn’t
look away as she had often done before. The fire cast faint shadows, making his eyes glitter a dark
copper. Lorant’s gaze was fixed into hers for a couple seconds more before be noticed she had not
yet looked away. His brow furrowed ever so slightly. Why did I marry her?, he caught himself
wondering. Autumn was beautiful; her auburn hair caught shimmers of fire from the faint lights
tossed from the fireplace. Lorant always had a fascination with fire… it was strange to think about
such just now. Still watching her, the man laid on his side and reached out to touch her hair, loose
on the pillows. The threads of fire curled between his fingers at his touch. Curiously he wondered
if he could replace her hairdo by seeing if her curls would match one another. The hair was soft;
softer than anything he had touched recently. But perhaps… Lorant’s hand slowly moved further and
touched her cheek, sliding his fingers slowly across her lips till meeting her chin.

            She was tired. That had to be why she didn’t cringe or move away. It was late not to exclude
the dreadful day and she just lacked the energy to be fearful. Resting her eyes closed, she mumbled,
“You need rest. To come home from travel only to battle the dogs, you deserve a good sleep…”
Outside there was the occasional howl; once only nominally disturbing, now she didn’t think she
would sleep well for some weeks! By closing her eyes, she once more shielded herself from her
husband. Lorant held the household’s reins, but he did not own her heart as he too well knew.
Niemeyer’s words were distant echoes in his head but yet he did not recall them, he did recall the
impression they etched within himself. Whatever fragile link that had casually fallen into place
slipped and fell without a noise as she closed her eyes. Lorant retrieved his hand in silence. There
had been times he would simply use his husband rights, but the feeling of rejection was strangely
haunting today. For the first time he wondered, had he kept the Egyptian pendant he gave Niemeyer
to himself, could he have put it to a better use? Become more powerful, bring disaster and
destruction upon eventual enemies? Egypt was too far away from Hungary to make a futile trip… but
for some stupid reason he had convinced himself to keep her soul safe from the Archdemon
Niemeyer truly was. What for? Why? Lorant swallowed and turned over, his back to her. Settling
quietly for the night’s sleep, the man gazed over the dancing lights in the fireplace. Tomorrow was
not going to be better. Perhaps he could escape the dreadful house and go hunting or perhaps do
some business…

            Anastasia waited as she paced the chambers of her room. He was coming. Wasn’t he coming?
Why was he not coming! A Ming vase crashed against a far wall as she continued to walk back and
forth across the carpeted floor. How dare he ignore her summons. This would not have happened if
the little harlot had died like she was supposed to! She was stealing her place… she was stealing her
boy! Stopping in front of the window and spying out at the stables, a smile crept across her face as
she spotted the soft glow of a forgotten lamp. If he would not come, he would not sleep well either.

            An unheard whisper called her yet remaining dogs, the beasts lurking ever closer to the
disturbed horses in their stalls. The demon horse stopped his grazing and rose up on hind legs to give
a chilling cry! At these terrible unnatural sounds the stabled horses began to panic; kicking against
doors and walls finally until the forgotten lamp dropped from its hook and a plume of fire ignited!

            Lorant stirred in his sleep. The pillow felt soft under his cheek and the warmth of the bed
drove him into a deeper sleep, yet still a part of his awareness was awake, tied to the wards laid
round the house. Those were neither excessive, nor too subtle, but enough to issue warnings to their
master. A log cracked faintly in the fireplace, sending tiny sparks flying across the room. Lorant did
not yet open his eyes, but in his dense and darkened dreams he saw the sparks of fire dancing in the
black space before him, floating up from a deep chasm. A haunting music came from the deep pit,
but only sharp edges of rock were visible from the dancing sparks that grew to flying flames, barely
larger than one of his fingers. A distant rumor of drums and battle chants touched his ear as he
kneeled down by the edge, but nothing was visible. Lorant still gazed down for a long while, trying
to decipher the voices and the music he could hear; a strangely mesmerizing, melancholic mix of
what seemed to be flutes and chords. Suddenly something crept from the darkness, like a huge spider
stirred out of her hideout. It hopped and climbed quickly over the rocks and leapt, landing neatly a
few yards away from him. Lorant scoot back but a strange spell numbed his mind, making him
unable to quickly think of a protection spell. The creature rose and in the faint, sporadic light from
the flying sparks and flames, he saw it was not an unnaturally large spider, but a woman – she was
barefoot and apparently naked, from the way her body moved freely as she reached him in a second
leap. Her body was lithe and voluptuous, yet her hair was gray… or silverish, a blue phosphorescence
that reminded him of decay trickled down one side of her body. Lorant’s eyes widened in terror as
the woman stretched anxious arms out to him in the flickering darkness. Her eyes were locked on
his face and she was beautiful but hideous at the same time in a way he could not understand. But
right then her face changed and it was Anastasia who locked her arms around him, squeezing so
tightly she cut his breath and his ribs could not move to let air back into his lungs. He struggled, but
there was no avail. Lorant could finally regain enough control to open his mouth to scream, but she
kissed him as if she were trying to inhale his very soul out of his body. The flying flames were
increasing…

            Lorant sat up as if propelled off his pillow by a spring, sweating. He was in his bed,
seemingly nowhere near a fiery chasm, but he still was short from hysteria. If his wife’s sleep was
disrupted or not, he did not notice. He pressed his fists on his mouth as to make sure that horrible
leech was not clung to him, shaking yet not a sound came out of him, only shuddered gasps as he
tried to breathe. As the images cleared up, another alarm rang across his shaken conscience – the
wards round the house were tingling. Lorant shivered and his hackles rose further, if that was
possible.

            “Fire!”, he muttered. As if on cue, a bright red resplendence flashed from behind the thick
window curtains, projecting beams of light on the ceiling and the carpeted floor. Lorant gasped but
reached for his robe, pulling it on as he left the bed, not bothering to see about shoes or anything else.
He went to the windows and pulled the curtains open. Yet the windows overlooked the front yard,
the red lights came from the court on one side of the building, laid diagonally and he quickly realized
the stables were on fire!

            As Lorant bolted up, Autumn was startled out of her sleep by the sudden movement. He
looked very disturbed and she almost reached out to him before he muttered fire and left the bed.
Curious, she slipped from bed herself, sliding in to her slippers and drawing a robe around her
shoulders. She followed him to the window and blinked at the glow of light across the shadows of
the yard as yet another shriek from the horses sounded.

            “The horses…!” Without thinking of much else autumn quickly scurried from the window
on her way to the door. The horses had to be set free or they would be burned alive!

            “Where do you think you are going?!”, demanded Lorant with a sort of growl. He was still
pale and sweating from his nightmare, but his hands were not shaking anymore; the open curtains
allowed the flickering lights from the fire cast a strange dancing aura around him – and he looked
furious. “Stay here!” The man slipped into his pants and boots, leaving the room in pants, boots and
robe without allowing her a single protest; in his boots he carried two long-knives in special straps
and he cared very little if she had noticed the strange devices. Lorant was hissing on his way down
the hall and downstairs, out of the house. A bell rang as the servants were starting to react and
someone was tolling the bell in the court. Yet the loss of horses was of course a financial detail to
be avoided if possible, Lorant was more concerned about the nature of the fire. Was it natural, was
it provoked? An explosion caused him to stop and cover his head with his arm as he turned the
corner, down the small alley into the court – fire and tiles trickled down as a cloud of smoke rose into
the night-sky, tinted in red from the fire. The direwolves were roaming – not a very good sign. As
the trapped horses neighed and made terrified noises, part of the roof collapsed after the explosion –
perhaps a vat of something flammable in the storage of the stable, or any remaining lamps. Lorant
snarled as he tried to figure out a way across the fire to free the horses – if he got the slightest chance,
he would kill any of the stupid dogs that dared to come across his way! There was no way his mother
didn’t have a hand in this!

            He looked like the very devil himself, shrouded in an aura of shadow and flames! She made
no further protest as he threw on a pair of pants and gave little thought to the long-knives; he seemed
to always carry something dangerous with him, despite the fact he was dangerous enough all on his
own! Autumn bit her lip as he left the room, hesitating only a few moments near the archway of the
door. He had said to stay put and would be furious if she moved, but she couldn’t just stand by while
their property was burning! Would he care for the lives of the horses or would he simply want to
prevent the rest of the home from getting engulfed in flames? Deciding she couldn’t just wait and
find out, Autumn moved towards the door again, but paused. The day had ended on a sour note for
the old woman, she couldn’t put it past her mother-in-law to end it with one last explosive gesture
to prove who was really dominant in the household. With that in mind, Autumn dug through one of
bureau drawers and pulled out a small loaded pistol. It was something she bought on a whim in
hopes she would feel safer in the house, but it never seemed to make much difference and she could
not bring herself to constantly carry a weapon. For the moment is was best to err on the side of
precaution! She didn’t see Anastasia lurking as she ran down the hall.

            Though the stables burned, that didn’t seem to please Anastasia enough. The whore would
hopefully run herself right in to the fire and burn herself into tiny cinders, if her unholy prayers were
answered, but irritation was directed at her son for those few moments. He ruined her plans for the
girl and killed one of her favorite pets in one swift moved, then dared to neglect her after she hadn’t
seem him for some days! He was going to have to be punished for being so disobedient. Moving to
a hall window, Anastasia peered in to the illuminated night. A silent call to her lurking pups drew
them out and they began to stalk…

            Autumn stepped outside, clasping the collar of her robe together from the strange mixture
of coolness and the heat emanating from the stables. Servants were skittering around in frantic
motions between trying to fetch water and save precious items from getting too near the flames. She
scanned the grounds for her husband until she finally caught sight of him… as well as a flash of
glittering white fangs. Gasping she ran forward, gun clutched tightly in her hand. Could he not feel
the beast nearby?! Just the thought of it gave her chills! The creature jumped suddenly and she
shouted; pointing and pulling the trigger of her pistol. A loud shot rang out along with a yelp from
the dog, but only a trickle of blood seeped from it’s neck as it gave a guttural growl. Staring blankly
as all the sense rushed from her head, the pistol slipped from her hand as she fell to the ground in
a dead faint! The sound of the shot traveled fast through the flickering darkness and when Lorant
turned, Autumn’s body had not yet met the floor. The beast however hit his body with great force
despite the shot had somewhat modified the trajectory of its body. Lorant’s eyes widened with fury –
she had disobeyed him and not only that: the beasts were attacking! Without even thinking, as the
beast knocked him down he rolled with its body and easily drew out one of the long-knives, cutting
the beast’s soft tummy open from the center and down. The dire wolf took a few seconds to feel the
pain and loss of entrails, so swift the cut has been made; the teeth bit the air next to the Baron’s neck
but a second bite effectively bit into his shoulder! However the life left the beast and it dropped
lifeless next to him. Lorant grabbed the beast by the hind legs and hit a pouncing wolf with it with
such force he could hear both the carcass’s and the attacker’s spines break; the flailing wolf with a
broken back landed into the bonfire, letting out blood-curdling shrieks, unable to rise and run. One
of the beasts dashed on the trail of beating red guts flung out of the carcass when Lorant flung it and
another wolf attacked the Baron with a howl. Lorant pulled out the second long knife and wielded
both as the beast jumped, beheading it in mid air – Lorant’s eyes were flaming like a possessed man’s
and a silverish light shone about his chest, yet somewhat concealed by some majick making it
impossible to identify the source. The wolf eating its fallen comrade recoiled, blood dripping from
its snout, turned and ran into the darkness, but the hellbeast had not left, and it had dropped its horse-like appearance. A terrible cry of agony and cracking bones was heard, then nothing more.

            Lorant clasped more tightly the knives in his hands, ready to kill anything else that drew near,
but a gunshot both startled him and snapped him back to reality. The butler had brought a rifle and
shot to the air to scare off the beasts. Lorant however did not drop the thought that he might shoot
him as well. The Baron’s silhouette was an ominous shadow amidst the fire and the horses were still
neighing like crazy.

            “The horses!,” the Baron commanded. The man hesitated.

            “The fire is too strong, sir!”

            With a snarl, Lorant strode forward, picking up the headless carcass and flung it across the
fire and into the stable’s door, which fell off its hinges with a loud thud and a creaking sound. The
terrified horses that had kicked down their cubicle’s fences ran outside, yet some were unable to
escape on their own. One of the servants dashed in covered in a wet blanket and freed the beasts as
the Baron stood there with a madman’s look in his eyes. “Go!,” he yelled at the cowering butler.
“Earn your damn salary! Or else find a shelter for the night out of my grounds!”

            The butler recoiled, horrified. The Baron yelled some orders and the men promptly used
whatever tools available to demolish what was left of the wall closer to the main building to cut the
advance of the fire as the stables were a mostly a single bonfire.

            Lorant scowled into the dark for more possible assailants as he strode back to his wife.
Autumn was coming to, having sat up rubbing her head with discomfort as her eyes remained closed.
She had heard the barked orders; he was beyond angry and she wouldn’t be surprised if he demanded
she sleep elsewhere as well for being so disobedient! Knowing she would see nothing that would
ease the churning dread in her stomach, she did not open her eyes. The pistol still lay nearby having
fired it’s one and only shot. Lorant picked up the small gun as he stopped next to Autumn – it was
a model made for women, with ivory handle and silver etchings. At least if she had decided to shoot
him, she had chosen to do it with some style.

            “You can’t kill me with one of these,” he observed with barely held back rage. “You will need
at least two shots and this has only one. I’d advise a Colt revolver, yet it is not as ladylike as this
one.”

            Lorant snapped open the compartment and dropped the now harmless weapon on her lap.

            “Go back inside,” he growled. “Now!”

            Autumn had opened her mouth to argue that she had not bought it to use against him, but at
his forced order she jumped quickly to her feet, and ran back towards the house. At the door she
passed Anastasia, not bothering to grace the woman any sort of greeting as she fled to her room.

            Once safe in the master chambers with the door closed firmly behind her, her hand hovered
at the lock ready to turn the key. She could lock him out now, but would that be wise? One couldn’t
bar the their own husband from their rooms. Moving away from the door she replaced the weapon
back in the dresser where it belonged. He thought she meant to kill him! What kind of woman would
do such a thing?

            Immediately thinking of Anastasia her brow furrowed. It must have been natural to suspect
she had meant to kill him. Still… He could have considered the situation! The dogs were out; she
feared for his life! The man didn’t have to be so wretchedly suspicious! Autumn moved to the fire
and pulled a soft quilt from the back of the chair to wrap herself in before she sat down. Eventually
he would return and she would explain to him that he was simply wrong.

            Downstairs Anastasia had waited until her son finally came in from outside. Painted across
her face was an eerily pleasant smile. “Did the little witch try to shoot you? Tut-tut, I warned you
she was a terrible thing… should have wrung her neck while you had the chance! Shall mummy take
care of you now, dearest?”

            Lorant was scowling as he finally made his way back to the house, pulling his robe into place
with dignity. How long had controlling the disaster taken, maybe an hour or less, he did not know
and did not particularly care about; the activity had kept his mind from gnawing constantly on the
fact that his wife had bought a gun and shot it at him.

            Lorant did not keep a tight rein on his wife’s finances; only assigned a top on how much they
both could spend in a month in separate parties. His mother spent far more than Autumn, but he did
not particularly look at each bill sent to his accountants. His mother got the dogs. Autumn got a gun.
It was ironic how they just chose their means and he had to pay for them… Come to think about it,
he was constantly paying the bills for them, not only in money but in a psychological and emotional
level. The Baron shook his head to dismiss the thought, for it came too close to admit to himself how
troubled he really was… but just then he stepped into the house and met his mother in the hallway.
Her eerily pleasant smile gave him a small chill – he had not expected her daring to appear so soon
and yet he was still furious, he was weary after the events and the burden of thoughts. His pants were
spotted in a mix of coal, ashes, blood and mud; his robe was still in place but torn at the shoulder
and he was still bleeding. The man paled slightly but his eyes remained defiant and scowling darkly
with a shimmer of molten bronze, yet his face was calm… except that he was biting into his lip again.

            “My wife has terrible aim,” the Baron coolly observed. “I will have to train her myself, since
I would not burden you trying to find a instructor for her, dear mother. Diversity attains success in
many fields, so excuse her if she doesn’t seem to bond to canines as well as you do.”

            Lorant blinked slowly. “I can take care of myself, dear mother,” he muttered with a chilling
smile. “Don’t be troubled about me.”

            “You are my only son, I can’t help but worry.” Anastasia’s smile was a little less bright as
he subtly defended that wisp of a creature upstairs. She was not blind. He tried hard to believe the
best in his little wife; a pathetic attempt to strike out at his poor loving mother as so many children
do. It was a shame he did not understand how much it pained her to hurt him so! He was her darling
pet, her world! She was his mother – and wasn’t it the task of every mother to protect their sons from
the dangerous place that was the world?

            “Still considering to keep her?” her voice raised a fraction. “Such dangerous hobbies you
have, my love. I suppose she makes a good lay…” Wrapping an arm around her waist she drew up
her other hand to examine long immaculately manicured nails. “A cat and mouse game – are you the
mouse, precious? You could not believe yourself in love, no!” Anastasia laughed harshly as she
dropped her arms. “No one would dare love you, my dear. Only your devoted mommy has open
arms! Must you always try and forget that?”

            Giving another silent click with her tongue she moved away from him down the hall. “That
whore holds nothing but disgust for you, and when she betrays you, please don’t blame your
mummy. I did try and warn you.”

            Lorant was petrified as his mother turned around and left, despite his desperate and conscious
efforts not to pay heed to her poisonous words. A sharp pain pierced his chest as if an unseen hand
were clutching his heart in its fist, trying to stop his heartbeats by sheer force… The question was not
if she were telling the truth – the question was, how not to believe her? No love in the world for him.
You might be fooling yourself, Lorant, Niemeyer had said. Lorant felt like an imbecile for trying to
buy his Master’s benevolence so he’d spare his wife – a wife that just tried to kill him. His mother was
right about something… Autumn held nothing but disgust for him. She feared him, like everyone else
– but yet some held an insane admiration for him, mainly veiled envy, she was disgusted by him. He
could see it everyday, yet he fought back with the power he had over her. She was his wife – she was
subject to him, no matter what. But finally… what was the use of it all? His mother’s harsh laughter
rang again through his ears… “No one would dare love you, my dear. Only your devoted mommy has
open arms! Must you always try and forget that?”
, Anastasia had said.

            But the love his mother had for him was monstrous. Even trapped so close to her in her web
of lies, he could not but perceive how twisted her love was – just the thought of it made him feel sick.
Alone in the hallway, Lorant desperately tried to breathe, his eyes filled. The weight in his chest was
suffocating him. Intact from the mists of his childhood, the urge to flee tensed all the muscles of his
body and the impossibility of escape struck him like a wall of bricks. The man clasped his fists, filled
with the need to squeeze the life out of something, to maim and kill as intensely as he had been hurt.
All the dogs were dead – he had noticed the staff had diminished; what to do? Lorant snorted to
himself at the idea of going upstairs – he did not want to see his wife, nor risk meeting his mother;
his eyes narrowed and he was unaware of the tears that escaped from his eyes. The man took an
abrupt turn into the depths of the house, passing under the balcony at the top of the stairs, heading
to the far side of the ground floor, were he had a sports room equipped for his personal use.

            Autumn paced back and forth in front of the mantel as she rang her wrists with jerky, nervous
movements. The work outside was done, the fire out – yet her husband had not returned. He was
furious with her. She did not have to be near him to know; the house seemed to vibrate with the
emotion! Curse the house and it’s ability to convey such things! No, curse her for such a strange
sense to feel it. It was witchcraft, devil’s work… Autumn could not be sure. She wanted to believe
it was all Anastasia’s doings – the woman was clearly mad in every sense of the word. But was her
husband not the master of the house? Had he not expressed such strange and certainly inhuman traits
that were far beyond natural? His temper was fueled from the bowels of hell and the damage he
could do matched it!

            Yet, he then spared her life. There were times she thought he would kill her and she still
lived. Through Anastasia’s lies, countless moments where even Autumn almost believed the tales,
yet she still lived. Then, a day like today… he saved her life. He saved her, he cared for her, he
protected her… in his own terse way. Compassion was not something she wanted to feel for such
a brutal overbearing man. A few moments of brief kindness couldn’t change a person!

            “There is no peace to be had in this house!” Autumn shouted at the fire, brushing tears from
her face quickly incase Lorant would return at any moment. It was such a sad truth! Perhaps in
another time or another life, even another place she might have been able to have a peaceful moment
with Lorant Riktophen and not worry about the dangers! Even if only away from Anastasia for a few
blessed days. No one to spin webs deceit create unfathomable dangers, or breed discord. She briefly
wondered if her husband ever felt as if the walls of the house were slowly closing in, like a cave
crumbling from above.

            Tears welled again. If she were to escape, to disappear; she could make a new life. But what
of her husband? Compassion she could not give, but empathy… Not a creature on earth deserved
Anastasia.

            Lorant had still not returned as she stopped her pacing and glanced tiredly towards the bed.
She was exhausted, she knew he would be too. Autumn couldn’t retire to bed until she spoke with
him, though. He had to understand she wouldn’t harm him. No matter how much he frightened her,
she would never harm him. It was a matter of loyalty, perhaps even personal honor. Autumn had
allowed Anastasia to tell her stories without repute for far too long.

            Downstairs in the sports room, Lorant was panting in exhaustion, but he still did not stop
punching the punch-bag as if trying to squeeze his remaining strength out of his body. A cloud of
dust surrounded him as he punched furiously, the thick bottom chain that anchored the punch-bag
to the floor clicking with every mighty blow that threatened to burst the links and rip the thick canvas
of the bag. The torn robe remained tossed on the floor behind him, his shoes off the wooden area.
Sweat trickled down his muscled, triangular back; his ebony hair was stuck to his forehead and his
eyes seemed slightly off, as if he were fighting other thing than the punch-bag. Tears still welled
from his eyes, but he did not paid heed to them – he might have not even noticed them. How much
time had passed, he did not know or even care. A faint stream of blood mixed with sweat trickled
from his shoulder leaving yet another dark stain in his pants, and most likely the wound hurt
considerably, but the Baron hadn’t stopped to see about it. He kept on punching furiously, but now
his strength was receding, the speed and force of the blows were diminishing, his feet slowed down.
He was panting deeper, but refused to stop… He connected some more punches and found himself
on his knees. The Baron blinked dazedly. How did he get to the floor…? His hands, that he had
bandaged as ever before practicing, had reddened fingers and the bandages had a couple red stains
here and there. Lorant rested his weight on his hands, tried to stand up…

            Gentle hands clasped at his elbow willing him to not to move. Autumn had not entered
silently; she had even called his name, but he did not seem to notice her presence when she crossed
the room. Her eyes examined him as she looked a strange combination of both angry and frightened.
She had not ever seen him this way – oblivious, broken, completely unlike himself in every
imaginable way since the moment he returned home! On his trip he must have caught some sort of
illness or injured himself in some way she couldn’t see. There was just no explanation for this
stranger she was then kneeling next to. Lorant cringed at her contact and held his breath instinctively.
For a second he had feared it was his mother next to him – but it was not his mother; it was perhaps
worse.

            It was Autumn.

            Lorant somehow gathered enough control to pull his arm free, yet the force made him fall on
his hip on the wooden floor, now stained with both sweat and blood. The Baron bit his trembling lip
and a thick drop of blood trickled down his chin, refusing to focus his eyes on her. Why was she
here? Why just now?! It was bad enough to know she despised him, she wanted him dead and now
she just… she gets to see him just as he guessed she wanted to see him. Torn down. He could not
bear it… The pain of such realization wrung his guts so sharply his chest pulled towards his knees.

            “Why… are you here…?”, he managed to mutter. He coughed, trying to get his voice back.
“Go back to your room!”

            She should have ran back to the room. She wanted to run! But, this man no matter how
disinclined to accept her aid, still needed it. Autumn would no longer leave an injured animal in the
woods than leave her husband fallen in their own home. Gathering the strength to openly defy him
was still harder than it seemed as she moved forward to grip his arm again, paying no mind to the
hem of her robe dragging across the blood on the floor.

            “Please don’t,” she pleaded with a shaky but soft voice. “You did not return to the room, I
was worried.” There was an unhealthy amount of blood covering his clothes and the floor; without
thinking she reached out to brush the blood from his lip. At her contact, Lorant’s pupils widened and
he nearly winced. Should she stay and watch him as if he were a freak in a gruesome freak show…?

            You did not return to the room, I was worried, she said.

            Lorant was stunned. Could she be lying to get something? To make him forget she shot him?
His heart ached with acute pain, for he did want to believe her – he really needed those words from
her. However…

            No one would dare love you, my dear. Only your devoted mommy has open arms! Must you
always try and forget that?

            Lorant did not move, yet he was still shivering.

            “Do as I said…” The man’s voice was back to a mutter. “You need not… to worry.” The arm
he was using for support wobbled slightly as exhaustion attempted to make him crumble down. A
forced smirk crooked the corner of his lip, yet it was merely a poorly executed twitch. “… not… to
worry at all. I have no heirs but you… and of course…” His head hung to the side; he had not yet
made eye contact with her, “my mother…”

            “Heirs..?” she questioned, then suddenly gasped. “You’re dying? I must fetch a doctor…!”
Autumn was nearly to her feet before she gave it a second thought. He couldn’t be left in a pool of
blood on the floor. That was no place for a man! His injuries must have been internal; how dare he
not say something sooner! They were not close; it was true, but he was her husband and it matter!
If he died she would be left alone – alone with Anastasia. There were not enough riches in the world
to make that seem pleasant.

            Autumn grasped his arm firmly meaning to help him to his feet. He was much too large of
a man to even considered taking on his full weight. “You must stand and I will help you to our room.
I’ll send someone to fetch a doctor immediately!”

            Lorant was startled, to say the least; when she tried to help him to his feet his reflex was to
comply but his muscles did not respond quite right. He could not fully stand and when his muscles
failed he fell on his knees. The man gave an unwilling wince. Was he dying? It felt as much, but he
doubted it. He was not that lucky.

            “Doctor…?”, he muttered. “I don’t need one…” His lips were dry and he was pale beneath his
ebony hair stuck over his eyes. He tried to get his hair out of his eyes, only to see his palm red from
leaning on the blood-stained wooden floor. Lorant stared at it as if he were wondering where did the
blood come from. His body was numb, which was probably good; his wounded shoulder was purple
and red after the ordeal and the furious blows he had delivered to the punching bag.

            She would have started sobbing, but it would have been most inappropriate at the time! A
woman was supposed to have strength during extreme moments, and this was certainly one of those.
Instead she focused her mind; she had a mission! Lorant needed to be in bed and a doctored called.
It would simply have to be tackled one step at a time and all obstacles ignored. Including taking the
risk of clashing wills. It was for his own good.

            “I will send for a doctor, but you must get to bed.” she repeated with more conviction. “At
the very least somewhere I can clean you up… I’m not… I’m not sure exactly where you are hurt.”
The entirety of his body and pants were soaked. She could at least see that his shoulder was badly
injured; ironic that Anastasia’s dogs would harm them both in similar ways. Biting her tongue, she
picked up the hem of her robe to press gently against his shoulder to at least clean off a bit of the
blood. “I really must fetch someone… it does you no good to stay like this…”

            Lorant blinked dazedly as she spoke, wondering if he was having some kind of hallucination.
She seemed worried – she really did. Lorant found himself wishing…

            The man willed himself to set one foot on the floor, then the other, wobbling heavily. His
mind was slipping, but again the desire to please her and somehow get her attentions infused his self
with will enough to move. However, his muscles were twitching painfully from the exertion – it
would be just a relief to simply give up and pass out on the floor… What was the use, really? He still
did not believe himself in risk of death. His body was stronger than those of ordinary men – it was
part of his deal with Niemeyer. It was so strange, though… What was she thinking…

            “You don’t need me alive,” he informed her as if he were telling her she did not need to wear
a coat indoors.

            “One could say I do not need my hair, but it wouldn’t quite be the same without it.” she
replied out of reflex. What was he thinking, really? He was delusional from lack of blood and severe
illness to be so fatalistic! Then again, such comments should have been expected. He thought she
was out to kill him, and she had yet to tell him otherwise. If he wanted an argument, she could give
him that if it would give him the energy to move! Keeping a firm grip to his arm to keep him steady
as needed, she regarded him carefully incase he needed more support.

            “Lorant…” she paused, “I didn’t buy the gun to harm you. I bought it because of… because
of Anastasia.” He would probably now assume she was trying to kill his mother instead of him, but
it was still important that she told him the truth! Lorant seemed to take a long time to react. Hair?
His mother? That part made some sense, even for his obnubilating mind. However… his mother’s
words weighed heavily on him. Autumn despised him…

            “You shot me,” he said with flat conviction as they began to move towards the door, yet his
voice was yet again a mutter.

            Shot you?” she repeated with some alarm, almost missing her step, but correcting it before
she sent them both tumbling to the floor. He could not have lost his senses before that moment. He
was wide awake and had seen the entire scene! “Lorant, I shot the dog!” Tears well in her eyes and
she willed herself not to do anything silly like cry simply because he was ill. It must be something
serious for him to loose touch with reality! “I would never, ever, try and harm you. You must believe
me for that.” She wanted to gaze at his face and make sure he understood, but the longer he remained
out of bed without a doctors care, the more ill he would become. Lorant seemed slightly more off
than before but when she said she had shot the dog, a shiver ran down his spine.

            “The dog?,” he muttered, strangely agitated. “The dog…”

            Lorant closed his eyes tightly for a second. The lights, yet faint, were hurting his sensitive
eyes, filled with tears now from both eye strain and confusion. His breath through his nose and
mouth seemed to burn on its way out – it could only mean something: he had fever. Was fever
making him imagine things? He did not say anything for a long while as they fought to make their
way.

            “The dog?,” he asked in a whisper, sounding strangely, almost disturbingly, hopeful.

            “Yes.” Autumn replied. They reached the stairs and she briefly wondered if they make it
without him needing to lean on her. “I shot the dog, but it didn’t phase him. I fainted…” Pausing for
a moment to maneuver his arm around her shoulder and to keep a gentle but firm grasp around his
waist, she allowed him to lean both on her and the stair railing as they took one very slow step at a
time. Lorant blinked several times as he found himself unable to think and will his muscles to move
at the same time but he still tried, mulling her words over in his head. If she shot the dog, he slowly
realized as they painfully climbed the stairs, maybe – maybe she had tried to save him… But again,
killing the dog while it was distracted would prevent it from attacking her as well. Why would she
try to save him? His mother was right; Autumn held nothing but disgust for him. Why to change in
less than a day? Lorant bit his lip again. He was not thinking about the stairs, just lift one foot, then
the other. That task alone was hard enough while he mulled over her words in his mind… his body
was numb so he couldn’t tell properly where the edge of the steps were and the direction of the hard
rail, bumping his feet on the steps and slipping his hand often… but he still couldn’t but notice her
supporting his body…

            She hates me, the Baron thought, bitterly.

            Getting up the stairs was difficult. Autumn could feel the heat from his body – obvious signs
of fever that was quickly approaching. The exertion of being a physical support was more difficult
than she had thought it would be. She was well aware that she was an average woman, not too petite
nor tall and strong, simply average. Finding herself in such a strange situation of near carrying her
husband to bed made her a bit angry. Lorant should have returned inside and took care of himself
immediately! If the wounds were too much or his fever too great, he would die! Certainly the man
had more sense!

            Finally reaching the top of the stairs, she allowed him to lean against the wall to catch his
breath and to as well catch her own. Brushing her hand against his forehead, she frowned at his
temperature. “You should have come inside straightaway. You could be very ill, have infection…”
The thought gave her stomach a lurch, though she wasn’t sure why.

            Lorant shivered, his excessive body warmth making him feel the wall excessively cold. The
floor seemed to wave as if it were flowing rapidly from beneath his feet. What was she saying…?
Lorant closed his eyes tightly as she brushed her hand against his forehead… Was she scolding
him…? He blinked blankly at her. Come inside straight away? He had not been exactly wandering
the night – thanks to his work she did have a house to sleep in tonight! He simply did not count on…
what awaits inside the house everyday of his life. Autumn was frowning. It could be his fever, but
a strange shimmer surrounded her head . . .

            “… Your hair is on fire,” was the man’s only reply.

            Autumn blinked, confused by the comment. She obviously wasn’t on fire he must have been
hallucinating with his fever! “We must get you in to bed…” Pulling his arm back around her shoulder
again, she led him down the hall to the master bedroom, where the door was left waiting open and
the fire was still warm inside. Leading him to bed, she bit her lip as she had him sit down. He needed
to be cleaned up, but fetching a doctor was also important!

            Lorant shook his head slightly. He had been downstairs venting his anger… Now he was
sitting on his bed. He dozed slightly and when he rose his head with a start as his body attempted to
fall onto the mattress, he remembered Autumn and the stairs… and the dog… Lorant blinked
confusedly. Had she not tried to kill him? That did not make any sense… given she hates him… and
his mother had said… He dozed slightly again but again woke up on time to prevent his body from
falling on the bed. What was happening…? The beasts bite could have been poisoned. But Autumn
was just fine! What could be happening…? The Baron shook his head.

            “I am not dying…!,” he muttered. “What a ridiculous idea…!” An attempt of a snarl faintly
curled his lip but despite all, his eyes were unable to focus. Lorant wobbled as his muscles began to
give way, but he still willed himself to prevent his body from falling. “Ridiculous…” But his voice
was little more than a murmur.

            “How can you think of such doomed things…” Autumn was frustrated, she wasn’t watching
her tongue. “A ridiculous idea indeed! You’ll not die tonight or any night soon!” Leaving him at the
bed, she rushed to a basin and filled it with cool water and soaking a cool cloth. “You shouldn’t be
mumbling things about death to your wife.” She returned to him quickly enough to dab the cloth at
his forehead. He was burning with a terrible fever…! So he thought he was so immovable to battle
hellish beasts at will, but he was still just a man!

            Lorant’s lip curled to a smirk as she scolded him, despite the fever and despite he could only
perceive her voice in scattered patches. However the world around him dimmed faster than before
and submerged him in a cold red shadow. He was shivering as he fell on the mattress. His hazel eyes
narrowed and he seemed to struggle, trying to see beyond the red shadow, but it was futile. Lorant
gasped for air. “Don’t call my mother…!,” he muttered. His fingers curled on the bed cover as if
trying to find something to hold on to.

            “Don’t call my mother….!” Slowly, Lorant’s eyes closed.

            His mother was the last person she wanted to speak with… or even trust to leave him with!
It was silly to think she couldn’t trust a man with his own mother, but Autumn had a very strong
dislike for Anastasia. For now, it was one wish of his she’d concede to without objection.

            “You still need a doctor.” she protested. He was burning with fever, and needed fresh
bandages. She brushed the cool cloth against his skin to soothe him and clean the blood but she was
quickly back to the basin to rinse again. A doctor was needed, but it was ample time for the old
woman to swoop in when she was least wanted. Returning to him with a freshened cloth she draped
it over his forehead. “I’m going to fetch someone to send for a doctor! I’ll only be gone for a
moment…”

            Lorant could barely hear her, but he somehow realized she was leaving him. She was
leaving… The man was floating off to unconsciousness and his heart sank… He tried to close his
fingers again, trying to hold a grip on the bed covers or at least on something… “Don’t… call my
mother….!”
He still managed to mutter. With that, he fainted.

            It was frustrating to see him that way, she had never seem him ill or otherwise! She might
never have been overly fond of him, being the brute that he was most of the time… but it was
unnatural for him. Autumn quickly left the room as fast as her feet could take her, and grasps the first
person she saw in the halls. It was one of the older gentleman, a servant that had been in the house
for some time. She explained to him that his Lord was very ill and they needed a doctor straight away
– but, under no circumstances was anything to be mentioned to Anastasia! After making him
promise, she allowed him to go.

            How much was to happen in such a short timespan? How many hours had it been? Or had
it been days? She had hardly any time to catch her breath since her husband had been home, and
now… And now he was desperately ill. His wounds could be infected or worse than she imagined.
The doctor had better arrive soon.

            Autumn turned to walk back to the master bedroom, but Anastasia seemed to appear before
her, like an eery ill omen. She tried to step around the old woman, but she was persistently in the
way.

            “What do you need, Anastasia? I am busy…” Autumn tried not to sound annoyed, but she
really needed to return to Lorant!

            Anastasia eyed her with suspicion. The old hag seemed to know something was going on,
and intended to know. “Where is my son? I want to see my precious boy…”

            Autumn frowned. “He’s resting and doesn’t wish to be disturbed. You should go on to bed,
Stasia.”

            “I am his mother..! I am allowed to see my son when ever I please!” The old woman turned
on her heel and started marching towards the master chambers. Autumn, alarmed, caught her by the
arm before a few steps.

            “Stasia, please. If you love your son, you’ll let him have his privacy. He’s had a dreadful night
and wants his rest!”

            Anastasia howled, ripping her arm from Autumn’s grasp and shaking a bawled fist. “You
whore! Jezebel slut! You have stolen my son from me and want him for your sinful pleasures! You
will not keep him from me!”

            Another temper tantrum was not what Autumn needed, but she waited patiently through the
beratment, the angry insults, the nasty threats until Anastasia has satiated her need to state her
motherly opinion. Finally, the woman quieted to a low growl, muttering obscenities under her breath
as she stomped away down the hall back towards her own personal wing. Autumn waited a few
moments more to make sure the woman was gone before she returned quickly to her husband’s room.

            It was dealthy quiet, so quiet that after she closed the door, Autumn had stiffly strained to
hear her husband’s breath before she continued on to the bed. His breath was ragged and slow, and
he was very pale with few blotches of red across his cheeks from the fever. He looked terrible, and
all she could do was watch him before she shook her head to regain her senses and retrieved the cool
cloth to brush his forehead.

            “Lorant… I sent for a doctor.” She spoke softly, not wanting to wake him if he was asleep,
but still wanting to assure him that someone was coming to help as soon as possible. There was no
answer; his lips trembled but if he actually said something, it was inaudible.

            Suddenly, Lorant blinked and his eyes cleared. He seemed dazed, but aware. He saw he was
in his bed, and his gaze met Autumn’s, his bronze eyes wide open. “Wine,” he muttered. But just then
his eyes clouded again and his head fell to the side as his body shivered.

            It was way late for anyone to be out of bed in the town of Eger. The Riktophen Manor was
deep into its own grounds, but not as isolated from the road for the fire to go unnoticed, yet not a
single soul approached the gates. Now that the fire had been controlled, the servants were still
keeping watch just in case an unnoticed spark could give way to a new disaster. It was dark. Nobody
asked when one of the stable boys rushed outside on a horse to get a doctor, and nobody asked
questions when a carriage approached the big house in the darkness – it was slow, for an emergency.
Two men descended; a sturdy old man in a dark coat and a young, tall man in a black, hooded coat.
The old man carried a leather bag typical of those used by physicians. The younger man carried a
satchel across his shoulder. The pair were rushed to the second floor, almost secretively – not to
disturb the mother of the ill Master. The servants knew the doctor, but not his companion: an
Austrian, he seemed from his features. His hair was fair to the point of being a bright white…
Something unusual.

            The servant discreetly rushed to Autumn’s side and bowed.

            “Milady, Doctor Addler and his assistant,” the servant announced in a whisper.

            It was like she was sitting there waiting for the reaper of death to swoop in through the door
with ebony black wings and a golden scythe. To her mild surprise, at the whispering of her servant
two men crossed over the bedroom threshold. The elder, Doctor Addler, was one she knew well.
Often Autumn had seen him for mild injuries acquired during her time at the house. The other gave
her a brief start. All she could see was his hood, then his illuminous near white hair. For a moment
she believed it was indeed the angel of death there to claim her husband.

            Autumn stood quickly, smoothing her hands over her robes.

            “I’m so glad you came. He’s running a very bad fever. Nothing seems to do him any good,
he’s hardly even conscious or aware at all…”

            The servant laid the visitors’ coats on a chair, since in their rush they had made their way into
the house with their coats on. Dr. Addler sat his medical bag on a small table and opened it, pulling
out a binaural stethoscope; it was fairly similar to the one invented by Arthur Leared in 1851, yet it
did seem more advanced than that. His assistant closed the door and seemingly melted in the
shadows.

            “Such a dark room,” he said and his voice was grave and melodious, like that of a
professional singer… or a professor. The doctor was already at Lorant’s side and gently removed the
lady to the side.

            “When did this start, and how?” He asked. “Keep calm and tell me everything you know.”

            Lorant’s coat was not yet removed or cleaned from dirt and mud, still on the chair where he
dropped it when he arrived to the house, long hours ago. The white-haired man was bent on it, and
if there were more light it would have been apparent he had picked a scent on it. A pale hand slid
on the heavy creases and turned the coat’s sleeve, revealing the torn shoulder of the coat. The man
looked at the rug. Mud stains were already dry on thick rug, barely visible in the dancing light from
the fireplace. He picked up a rag from the floor; a shoulder piece from a woman’s dress, torn and
ragged, stained in dry blood. He cast a sideways look at the lady and noticed a certain stiffness to one
of her arms and shoulder, but said nothing as the doctor talked to her. He saw the Baron’s robe,
covered in blood, dirt and soot. They had already seen the fire aftermath outside, but he did notice
tearing and different blood stains. It was fallen next to the bed, probably having slipped off it when
the Baron was put to bed. He was examining it on the floor without picking it up when the lady took
a step back and nearly tripped on him. The man kept his balance like a rock and looked up at her
startled face. Long, white bangs framed a handsome face, but his eyes momentaneously eclipsed his
features. One of his eyes was blue and the other, orange… and those eyes were smiling strangely.

            “I beg your pardon,” he muttered. “But please, don’t mind me.”

            “This fever, I suspect, is more than just from tonight.” Autumn started, “Than again I am not
a doct-..” she took a step back to avoid being in the doctor’s way as he moved and nearly tripped over
his assistant. Raising an eyebrow at him, she merely nodded. Was he snooping? No, no… he was a
medical assistant after all. If he were a good one, he would be looking for clues to Lorant’s illness.
His eyes were so strange though! “Er…” she turned back to the doctor. What would she tell them
about what happened? It was all completely unnatural! “There was a problem with wolves and a fire,
both of which happened right after the other. He was injured and didn’t let me dress the wounds right
away. He also left bed and I found him nearly passed out downstairs…”

            The doctor didn’t bat an eye at his assistant’s movements and kept his attention trailed on
Autumn. “Wolves?” He asked. “I’ll need to make some tests…”

            Meanwhile, the assistant had rose to his feet and moved away, with Lorant’s robe. He
extended it on a chair next to the coat and examined the rips torn in the brocade.

            “There’s been two occasions, at least,” the assistant said in a low voice that still managed to
be perfectly audible. “When he arrived to the house and later, perhaps past bedtime. The same
shoulder, too – and this,” he waved the piece of Autumn’s dress in the air, “goes with the first one,
if I am not wrong. I didn’t see any dogs when we arrived… Did the wolves kill them? But I seem to
hear the elder lady keeps unusual dogs.” His voice seemed to dance as he spoke; as if he already
knew there were no wolves in the grounds or at least, involved in the attack.

            The doctor was examining the Baron.

            “It’s too soon for rabies symptoms to develop to this scale.”

            “Plus, the lady was also scratched by one of the affectionate beasts,” the assistant softly
added, sifting some powders from a tiny container he pulled out of his pocket on the garments. He
seemed to observe a reaction. “There’s no saliva in this piece of her dress… and she stands tall and
fair, if I may say so.”

            The doctor was checking the Baron’s pupils and breathing, then removing the bandage with
expertise to check the wound. He frowned. Pulling some instruments out of his bag, he took a sample
and made a quick test.

            His assistant wrinkled his nose.

            “Thirty, please.”

            “That may work for you, but not for me,” the doctor said, curtly. “The animal was healthy,
for all it seems, but there is something else.” The doctor shook his head. “The medication on the
wound has dissolved it.”

            His assistant rose the coat to his nose and gave a delicate sniff. He approached the doctor and
muttered a word or two into his ear.

            They looked at the lady.

            “Did his dinner include vinegar or wine?” The doctor asked.

            His assistant swept a look around from the side of the bed and spotted the slight glass Aidan
had flicked to a chair earlier. His orange eye caught the dancing lights from the fireplace as he gazed
over the chair. He went over and picked up the glass. There was only one in sight. Dr. Addler looked
at him briefly and back to Autumn.

            “Milady?”

            “Wine, yes…” she replied slowly, neglecting to answer about the dogs. The beasts were more
like wolves to her than dogs, explaining their nature would be troublesome for everyone. The
situation was increasingly overwhelming. If she could just tell them everything… “It was just a little
wine, he’s not one for heavy drinking.” Autumn pinched the bridge of her nose while she tried to
think. Everything was all kind of jumbled now, she could hardly remember what happened first. “He
wasn’t quite himself even when he first arrived home. I was worried but I didn’t really press to ask
him. Then the whole ordeal outside with the wolves and the fire, it’s just been all the worse.”

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