Our Swords for Freedom
The surviving guild members lie scattered in the large room central in the sewers they’ve escaped to, disoriented and disorganised, still distraught over the loss of Dahngrest even though days have passed since the Empire’s invasion.
The Don observes the melancholy mess of people from his position resting against one mould-ridden wall. “This is stupid,” he mutters to himself, watching as no-one moves to take control, as no-one moves to sort their limited items, as no-one moves to unite those that remain.
If no-one else will do it, he may as well.
“Alright!” He calls into the spacious cavern. His voice bounces off the distant walls, multiplying and echoing around the room. “Listen up!”
He strides forward, pointedly ignoring how few people stir in response. “We need to take action,” he announces as he reaches the room’s centre.
“And how do you suppose we do that?” someone - from the Clouds of Dawn, the Don thinks, but the main distinguishing tells of the Guilds are gone, left behind in their overrun city - someone drawls from somewhere to the Don’s right.
A woman seated in front of him, unbothered by the grime and sewage staining her clothes, slams an axe against the stone floor. The sound reverberates throughout the room. Ruin’s Gate, the Don assumes. “We’ve lost everything.”
“Not everything,” he insists, curling one hand into a fist. “Our city is lost, but that can be regained. The Empire doesn’t know we’re here. That gives us the advantage.”
“And what good is that?” a third voice joins the fray. Streaks of dirt mar his face and clothes, and the Don wouldn’t know where to begin assigning him his guild. “What good does the advantage of surprise do when we’re stuck down here weakened, few in numbers and few in supplies?”
The Don folds his arms and fixes the man with a glare. The man refuses to wilt. “We have weapons,” he says. “We have food. It’s enough to last, as long as we take action quickly.” He shifts his attention to a duo huddling in a far corner, crouched protectively over a couple of travelling bags. “You two. You’re with Fortune’s Market, right?”
Two heads snap up in unison, twin looks of surprise flashing across their faces. “Y-yeah,” one stutters, glancing at her friend for support. “We were just outside the city when the Empire invaded.”
“The President told us to come help in whatever way we could,” the second adds, fiddling with the straps of his bag. “Said she’d do what she could from the outside.”
The Don points at them. “There! That’s a shining example of teamwork right there. What we need to do right now is unite, just like that.”
The woman from Ruin’s Gate strikes with her axe again. “We’re the guilds,” she sneers. “We don’t do unity.”
“If we don’t ‘do unity’, as you put it, then the Empire will find us sooner or later and put an end to us all,” the Don barks in retaliation, turning his glare on her. “If you’re happy to lay down and die then fine, feel free to go back above ground if that’s what you want, but I want to live. I want the guilds to live. I want us all to do what’s necessary to survive, and what’s necessary is unity. A union of the guilds.”
A few people shift, mutters breaking out amongst certain clusters of people. The Don can’t tell for sure whether they’re mainly positive or derogatory in nature.
“Who even are you?” one voice calls above the rest. The Don can’t pinpoint its owner.
He addresses the room at large instead. “Don Whitehorse. I’m with Altosk.”
“Where’s your leader? What gives you the right to stand up there barking orders at us?”
He lets his head tip back, eyes gazing up at the ceiling. “Dead, I presume.” Somewhere above them lie the bodies of those that failed to escape. The Don doesn’t want to join them. He wants as few people as possible to join them. “If you want to take charge then, by all means, do. I’m just doing what no-one else would, but if someone else wants to take over…”
He trails off, the offer clear. The axe strikes once more. No-one replies.
The Don smiles grimly. “That’s what I thought. What’s in those bags of yours?” he directs at the merchant duo. They flinch under the weight of his attention.
“Um, some food, some weapons,” one says.
“A few other basic supplies,” the other continues. “Not much of anything.”
“It’ll do,” the Don replies. “It’ll have to do. Start sorting it all out. Anyone else with any supplies, add it to the pile. We unite, here and now, and we may just survive this ordeal.”
Unity is key. As people start to move, some shuffling to assist the merchants, others approaching to ask how they can help, the Don thinks they just might achieve it.
Our Shields for Friendship
It’s four against one: the Don versus a group of knights. The knights had seemed just as surprised as the Don to stumble into enemies this deep in the sewers. They must be scouts, sent to check out the underground labyrinth that winds its way beneath Dahngrest, not seriously expecting to find anything.
He can take them. They cannot leave alive, not now they’ve found a Guild member stalking the tunnels. The Empire cannot know they’re down here. He’s faced worse odds. His katana is rigidly upright in his hold, ready to strike. The knights stand opposite, their own weapons held at the ready. They stay in that moment, still, apprehension thickening the air between them.
One lunges. The others scramble to follow. The Don widens his stance, setting his sword defensively, but before he can react a single shot rings out. Three more follow in quick succession. The Don ducks instinctively as the bullets sail over his head and implant themselves firmly in the knights' breastplates. He rises warily, hand still clenched tight on the grip of his katana, and turns to face his saviour.
Aifread grins back at him, twirling her gun in one hand and her knife in the other. “Watch your back, mate.” Her eyes narrow, spotting some danger behind him, and before the Don can spin to face it, before Aifread can take aim, Seifer steps out of the shadows behind her and shoots the threat down. The Don turns just in time to see one of the Aifread's felled knights slump back to the ground. Clearly the dent in his armour hadn’t pervaded into his chest as fatally as it had for his friends. There’s no doubt that he’s dead now, given the dripping hole forged in his forehead.
Seifer lowers his weapon and nods in greeting. “Whitehorse.”
“Seifer, Aifread,” the Don says in return. “What brings pirates underground?”
He hadn’t expected Siren’s Fang to lend their aid in this conflict. The Empire’s invasion had not affected them the same; they could continue their pirating unhindered even with Dahngrest occupied.
“We take care of our own,” Aifread hums in response, weapons still spinning in a dizzying dance. “The seas may be our home, but Dahngrest is the closest thing we have on land.”
Seifer reloads his weapon with blinding speed and efficiency. “This affects us all. We’ll fight to the end beside you.”
They make a strange pair: Aifread, smile as bright as a furnace; Seifer, grimness shrouded in shadow. Two halves that form a greater whole. Brilliant leaders. Brilliant allies.
“Well, we’re glad to have you,” the Don says, and means it. “Every man counts.”
“We’re glad to be here.” Aifread’s gun stops in motion just long enough to fire one more bullet. “Seriously though, you need to watch your back.”
When the Don spares a backward glance, a fifth knight has joined his brethren face-down in the muck of the sewers. “It seems I owe you both.” He pivots back, and immediately raises his sword once more at what he spies behind them. “You may want to watch your own backs.”
He points with his weapon and they twist with scary synchronicity, guns raising to blast a bloody blaze through their assailants. In the lull that arises as they reload, the Don dashes between them and cuts the few survivors down.
“And now it seems we’re even,” Seifer chuckles. One knight begins to rise - to achieve what with his wounds, the Don can’t begin to imagine - but a well-placed bullet from Seifer topples him once more.
“We should get back to our men,” Aifread says. She pulls out a handful of what look like playing cards, sifts through them and, apparently satisfied, tucks them away again. “Let’s go. It’s been a pleasure, Whitehorse.”
She offers a hand and the Don takes it. Her grip is firm, assured, rough and calloused from her many years handling a ship. “The pleasure was all mine. Good luck out there.”
Seifer tips his hat in parting as Aifread retreats, linking her arm with her first mate and slinking away with him into the darkness of the sewers. The Don begins his own return to the Guild’s camp - now that there are multiple groups of knights slinking around he needs to get back and warn his allies.
Together they can overcome this threat. Of that, he is certain. Together, united.
Our Lives for the Common Good
“I’m coming with you!” Harry yells from off to the side.
You fool, the Don can’t help but think as Raven knocks some sense into the kid, I’m doing this to spare you that fate.
He knows, intimately, painfully, that Pallestralle want retribution for Belius. He knows that the head of either Whitehorse would do. He knows that he could never let Harry die for this, no matter how much blame lies with him.
This sacrifice is not all for Harry, although the Don won’t deny his bias. A life for a life. A leader for a leader. A future heir wouldn’t be quite as equal a trade, no matter how much guilt said heir may bear.
He has known since Raven dragged the boy before him late last night that his life would end today. He has had an entire night to prepare. Exhaustion tugs at his battered body, his nighttime excursion to the Manor of the Wicked catching up with him. It doesn’t matter. It will all end soon.
“Who will be my second?” he asks, after giving the girl he is sure is an amnesiac, de-aged Aifread guidance to the oath they’d carved into the walls of the sewer together, after tossing the guild-hopping boy some final advice about the value of friends. He wonders if Raven will accept the burden. He is surprised when Yuri takes up the mantle - but also, he thinks he knew all along that the kid would shoulder it. He carries that innate strength that few possess.
A job no one much wants. The Don had accepted such a job when he’d formed the Union all those years ago. He was performing a similar job now. Yuri was taking on a big one here. The Don appreciates his resolve.
He can’t bring himself to meet Harry’s eyes. He hopes the kid won’t be too harsh on himself, although knowing Harry, he surely will. He hopes this won’t traumatise Harry too much, although, again, that hope is faint. He hopes Harry knows how loved he is, how even this does nothing to diminish that love, how nothing could ever lessen that love.
He hopes Harry will be okay, in the end.
He hopes for Raven, too: hopes that the man will work past his own trauma, escape that man in the Empire and live freely, like he wants but doesn’t yet realise. He hopes Raven won’t just abandon the guilds with the Don’s death, hopes he won’t go running back to his other boss, hopes he sees sense.
He hopes Yuri’s little guild will continue doing their good. They have potential, and the Don is sure that one day they could grow to rival Altosk. He’d looked forward to seeing that day. It doesn’t matter now.
The handle of his sword is firm in his hands. He raises it, pointing inward, and refuses to let his hands shake no matter how much they wish to. He doesn’t want this, doesn’t want to die, but for Harry, for Altosk, he would sacrifice anything. He always knew, one day, he would die for his guild. The day just came sooner than he’d hoped.
He calls one final order to his guild - to make their own path without him - and lets his blade fall.