That night Sting dreams once again of warmth and steady breaths wafting over his touch-starved skin and for once the shivers coursing through his body don't stem from the unforgiving cold, but from a strong sensation of completion, affection and trust.
The reminiscence of soft lips trailing over his benumbed face with abandon is still etched into his flesh, while the mere imagination of someone actually reaching out for him, someone willing to caress a filthy piece of cast-away motley such as himself feels alien and wasteful.
And yet he clings to the fading illusion, holds on to the waning dream, until even the last little threads have slipped through his fingers and he is once again left with nothing more but the cold isolation made up from salt-heavy winds and never resting waves.
But tonight the sensation of closeness doesn't wane once that he's woken...
Tonight the feeling of an all-encompassing completion and safety is accompanied by soft puffs of air that ghost over his chilled skin; and the distant heartbeat that had been thrumming against his chest is still there; a steady thud-thump counterbalancing the ceaseless stomping of the sea outside.
For a second he's certain, that finally one of the far-away gods that had turned their backs on the island - forgotten at the edge of this cursed world - has listened to his mirthless, cruel prayers and made his heart stop its fruitless endeavours in his sleep...
And thus he desperately hopes for the the dark womb of intimate, overwhelming gentleness to be, indeed, the afterlife.
That is, before something akin to a raven-feather tickles his cheek and his flickering gaze finds a mop of pitch-back hair nestled against his shoulder.
The stranger – no, he stops himself- no stranger... Rogue...
Someone dear and familiar, someone who had actually ventured out to search for him, someone who had given him back his name and a purpose to draw breath...
Rogue lies curled up against his chest; must have moved closer at some point during the night; maybe in an unconscious pursuit of warmth or maybe because his body remembers something Sting's mind and flesh have long forgotten.
The dark haired man is still unconscious, hasn't woken for hours and his exhausted, hypothermic figure shivers miserably in the draughty cave that Sting calls his sanctuary.
And even though Rogue's laboured breathing had eased and the bleeding cuts littering his flesh had knitted back together, the moment Devara's divine water had trickled past his cracked lips; he is still more dead than alive.
All the while the merciless, icy winds and wraiths of the island keep reaching for the dim, stuttering flame with cold, relentless fingers...
Pressed up against him as he sleeps, Rogue's features seem unstrung, peaceful and so very vulnerable, that something nameless stirs deep down Sting's heart.
Without even thinking, he wraps his arms around the shivering form, and when he almost wants to marvel at how neatly the other's body fit against his chest, a violent flashback races throughout his being, leaving him with tingling lips and the bone-deep sensation of finally coming home etched into his very core.
He presses a small, gentle, probing kiss to the pitch black strands, fastening his hold, while he starts rubbing Rogue's arms fiercely.
But then, however, a small, choked whisper tumbles over the parchment-dry, cracked lips:
“Cold...” and suddenly the shaking body in his arms goes limp; too exhausted to keep on shivering, too weak to stay warm; all the while the pale forehead pressed up against Sting's neck seems to burn up with fever.
Realisation hits him like a rock...
If he didn't find means to keep the broken, lifeless figure warm, he would lose him, as quickly and volatile, as fate had flung him back into his life.
And even without really knowing what exactly this thrumming, albeit invisible, alluring and intimidatingly powerful bond was, that unmistakably tied them together, he jumps to his feet in sudden urgency; despair heavy in his veins and concern grinding deep down in his guts.
He stokes the fire using the last logs he has left - results of tedious, demanding work, where he'd haul every wooden piece of flotsam he could lay his hands on back up the steep, slippery shore, to have it dry in a world of constant mist and rain – and carefully drapes the only thin blanket he calls his own, around Rogue's limp body.
Then he grabs a pouch stuffed to the brim with a random assortment of supplies and what meagre amount of currency he'd managed to loot, before attaching a razor-sharp dagger and a couple of bright red vials, to his waist.
Thusly prepared he heads out into the darkness, urged on by the unbearable need to safe the shivering, flickering life-light back in the sanctuary and with it the last remaining embers of his humanity.
The night curls around him, greedy and eager like a lover, and he melts into its embrace, as he moves with swift, soundless steps, almost a shadow himself, and even though the thought seems oddly wrong to him, he can't shake the feeling of familiarity, as if he'd been shielded by blackness before; once – at a time beyond the veil of oblivion.
There's no moon to lighten his path and in the salt-heavy air hangs a foul stench of moulder and decay, while the steep slope leading away from the shore, towards the withering ruins of a once proud fort seems to be crawling with hollows.
In the pitch black nothingness they're little more than slow, staggering shades, but almost all of them still cling to the blades their hands had wielded, once upon a time, when their flesh had still been warm and thrumming with life.
Now the only thing that courses through their veins is a mindless hunger for hot, salty blood and the urge to protect something that had never even been theirs to begin with.
The creatures usually don't bother with the few living inhabitants of the island; maybe because their beating hearts are almost as dead and tired as the cold, still lumps of rotting flesh hanging in their own ragged rib-cages; but right now Sting isn't only an impassive onlooker, a silent form awaiting the day his body would finally give up struggling and turn to salt.
Tonight, Sting is an intruder in their territory, a predator, driven by a solid purpose and a strong will to live, so his stubbornly thundering pulse seems to lure them in like moths drawn to a flame.
And even though they're many, some heavily armoured, some logging great-swords and battle-axes around, they all fall prey to the small, silvery dagger – its deadly glitter the last thing broken eyes would ever see in their accursed, hollow, not-quite-life, before eternity finally claimed their soulless flesh and death could reap whatever paltry remains had wandered the god-forsaken grounds at the end of the world.
Sting moves through the darkness determined and swift, mindful not to lose his path, for the thick mists could be deceiving;
could lead a careless wanderer to a cliff shrouded in fog or into the fangs of a creature much more dangerous and vile than the pathetic, stumbling undead flotsam loitering the beach.
But he's got to find her.
Of course he's not the only living thing stuck and forgotten in the realm of whispering salt
- there are other's strewn randomly all over the island – each of them crooked and distorted by their fate and the odd powers ruling this lands, and even though most of them aren't specifically hostile against one another, for some reason all of them rather keep to themselves, only help one another out, when something is to gain from the deal.
The withered hag he is currently looking for is one of the oldest prisoners of the isle, and even though her mouth is toothless save for one black stump, her skin wrinkled and discoloured and her hair thinned out, she adamantly claims to be a princess, who had once been sent off by her father to marry a foreign emperor to form an alliance and finally bring peace to their war-ridden lands.
But a storm had seized the ship and she woke between corpses on a beach shrouded in mist.
Sting doesn't know if the story is true, but what does it matter, anyway?
For her this is the life she'd been ripped away from, the memories still left, and he couldn't care less about royalty, origin and birth...
The only thing that matters right now, is that the crazy old witch keeps a flock of sheep, and therefore has woollen blankets and clothing for sale.
It would cost him dearly, he's well aware of that, for not only does Granny demand to be addressed and treated as royalty, she also has the hang of throwing people out of her shag quite volatile and violently, thus he is already prepared to sweet-talk and flatter her as much as he's still capable of.
She really takes an arm and a leg... And all the cajoling doesn't help shit, for the damn hag is a cunning, clever thing and she can smell fear and despair from a mile.
One look at Sting's face is all that it takes for her to know, that she could name just about any price for the thick, sufficiently soft blankets and he'd pay up, for he's impatient and concerned and more agitated than any other visitor in her poor hut has ever been.
Even though she's taken a hefty bite out of his supplies, has gone for the direly concocted health potions, wound dressings and remedies he'd scraped together or crafted himself from scrap, he couldn't be more thankful for the warm fabric now weighing comfortingly heavy on his shoulders.
He'd headed back into the night without a single word of good-bye, and by the time he'd set foot outside of her door, the crone had already turned back to gobbling down her bland, tasteless dinner.
So he wanders the night again, but this time his haste makes him reckless.
This time the scurrying in the darkness doesn't stem from one of the mindless shells wandering the lands, this time the sound of footsteps is accompanied by the ominous clanging of heavy armour and a humongous weapon scraping over the ground.
Sting only recognizes the approaching threat for what it is, when it is almost too late; namely when a ray of starlight suddenly sparks angry red in the blackness beyond, as it meets a polished copper breast plate and the deadly blade of a pike-axe that comes crushing down.
It's only his quick reflexes, that save him in the very last moment from a fatal blow, but the tip still grazes his shoulder and salty, hot blood starts trickling down his arm.
The silhouette slowly emerging from the shadows is humongous, to say the least, and the meagre light from the wide, impassive heavens paints sharp, unforgiving contours onto heavy, brazen plates covering the stomping form from head to toe.
Sting's luck seems to have run out...
He should have known, that whatever sadistic, cruel entity was to rule over this godforsaken rock of unholiness and undeath, wouldn't allow him to intrude into his tainted darkness unpunished, let alone for vain reasons such as compassion and love.
Sting would never remember that in this second he'd called the desperation rising in his chest, the ache, the longing, the unfamiliar, almost eradicated warmth just that; but it is nothing but the truth. Right at this very moment, it is nothing but raging, unrivalled love, that drives him... and this is a feeling the disembodied Master of the island just would not permit.
Thus it had send one of the countless champions at its disposal...
The mindless remains of a once proud knight, now forever trapped inside of his ever walking, ever killing suit of brazen armour...
An armour that had probably dragged him to his watery grave, only to rise from the floods again when wicked, warped magic breathed second life into the cold, impassive metal, to have it at its utter will and command; while the decaying flesh of a once virtuous man was forever entombed within the mindless cage of soulless steel.
Sting had only crossed paths and blades with one of those Bronze Knights once and the encounter had left him with a rough, purplish scar running all across his chest and the almost too realistic sensation of his heartbeat stilling and his body crumbling to dust.
He'd woken in the sanctuary with his wounds dressed and almost healed up, but without a recollection of how, exactly, he'd gotten there.
While - unbeknownst and unnoticed - another part of the memories of his previous life had been snuffed out...
So, knowing fully well, that his puny dagger was no match against an almost impenetrable suit of walking plate armour, he immediately tries to make use of the one advantage he has in this unfair fight...
He darts past the creature with unpredictable agility and speed, a quick roll manoeuvring him out of the reach of the deadly pike, and he's already breathing an inaudible sigh of relief, when suddenly something crushes his shin with a never-known force.
The blonde crashes into the ground hard, black dots dancing in front of his eyes, and the white-hot pain that sears through his leg is sheer unbearable.
The only thing that he manages, is to hoist himself up to stand on unstable, shaking limbs, as he leans heavily against a crumbling wall and watches his oncoming doom with wide, darting eyes.
In this very moment of seemingly endless, mind-robbing fear, a burning, consuming will and need to survive ignites in his blood, surges through his veins and sings in his ears, while a veil of deep, intriguing red descended onto his vision.
And after that everything happens if a flash...
Sting's fumbling fingers find the rough earthen pot fastened to his belt in the same second the heavily stomping figure emerges from the shadows and when he pours the thick, oily liquid onto his dagger, flames erupt around the blade in an all-encompassing, passionate halo of righteous, burning anger.
It's the only chance he has left.
He is well aware, that he can't run any more, what with the splinters of his shin-bone breaking through his skin in cascades of heart-blood and pain, but he also knows, that a weak, flickering candle back at the sanctuary needs him to return, needs him to survive.
He wouldn't have cared, had it not been this very special soul; but feeling Rogue's heart beat against his chest had awakened something, he'd long since deemed dead and buried.
And now, that his own heart had become so much more than a simple muscle pumping blood through his veins, he realizes, that this man must have been the most precious, most beloved thing he had ever called his own in this mist-covered, stolen life beyond the shores of salt.
So, when he can already see the nauseatingly beautiful glistering of the halberd's blade as it rushes towards his head, he flings the vessel with the remaining oil right at his pursuer's head, allowing a small film to build around the hollow, empty slivers it has for eyes, before he pushes himself off the wall with every ounce of strength he has left in his not-injured leg, and drives the flaring blade right into the opening.
The knight shakes him off easily, and when he gets flung against a massive tree, he almost feels his mind fleeing into the black abyss of unconsciousness from the raging, red searing pain that runs through his leg, but then he feels the vibration of something heavy hitting the ground hard traversing throughout his body.
In the next moment, the heavy knight had sunken down to his knee; hands clutching the crown-adorned helmet, as keen, greedy flames wrap around it, and it screeches in agony.
Still down on the cold, uncaring floor, Sting realizes, that this was going to be the only opening, Devara would grant him, so despite the sickening crunch and the bone-deep agony shooting throughout his whole being, he still launches himself forward and buries his dagger once again in the armour's first crack he could get to, only to be thrown off once again.
And this time his head connects forcefully with a crude wall, leaving him with ringing ears and darkness descending upon his broken form.
At least I got to see him once more...
That's the last conscious thought running through his head like the dying spark of a bonfire.
Then there's nothing and Sting lets go.