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Trudging through the dark woods just outside the grounds of Askr’s barracks was not Sigurd’s idea of a good night. It wasn’t particularly cold, but the sounds of a cool mid-autumn breeze whistling through the trees sent a shiver down his spine. The meager light of his lantern barely illuminated the ground in front of him, never mind the massive expanse of overgrowth stretching far back into the impenetrable blackness. 

The further he went, the more grateful he was that he had never been afraid of the dark. 

That was why he was here in the first place, after all. The summoner had originally made their request for this mission to Hinoka, who had put on a brave face until their leader was gone. She hadn’t outright admitted to being averse to night travel, but Sigurd could see the trepidation in her eyes as he took the lantern from her hands. Her quiet thanks and steadfast promise of ‘owing him one’ flickered in his mind now as he made his way around a particularly large boulder, boots sliding slightly over the gravel beneath. 

The summoner’s instructions had been… unclear in their simplicity. He was to find Berkut, who was in these woods for a reason unknown to both himself and Hinoka. When Sigurd had approached them for more information, the summoner had waved him off, simply asking him again to find the errant young paladin. Why he had to do this at night specifically? Sigurd had no idea, and was almost afraid to ask. 

Something rustled to his left, and he jolted, grasping the iron handle of his lantern tightly as it slipped in his sweaty grip. He turned to the noise, raising the light higher so that he might break the blackness in between the trees, but the feeble candle inside could only burn so bright. The rustling continued, fading further away until it disappeared. He was wandering through the woods like a fool in the middle of the night; of course there were animals about. And if he did encounter something dangerous, Tyrfing was calm and ready in his grip. 

No, he certainly wasn’t afraid of the dark, but measured caution was never a bad idea. 

For the love of all that Naga held holy, why was Berkut here at this hour? Perhaps he had been tricked into a bet, unwilling to let go of his pride? Or maybe he was meeting someone out here. Sigurd certainly hoped he wouldn’t come across the young man and his fiancee doing anything unscrupulous… he was a patient man, but wrangling teenagers and their feelings was certainly not his job. Perhaps the boy had simply gotten lost somewhere. The forest, while not massive, was definitely big enough to get turned around in. And that would explain why the summoner didn’t seem to know his exact location, asking Sigurd to check the whole thing.

The wind in the trees sounded almost like whispers, and Sigurd tightened his grip on his blade. 

Sigurd stopped, squinting. He covered his eyes with a hand, and then uncovered them again. No, it was no trick by the lantern in his hand; there was a light, faint and orange, up ahead. Berkut’s own light, he hoped. The lord picked up his pace, hurrying to catch up with the light before it disappeared back into the trees. 

“Hey!” he yelled, hoping to catch the other man’s attention. 

The light up ahead stopped, and the dim speck began to grow larger as Sigurd drew closer, small animals skittering across his path in order to get away from the stomping of his feet. In his excitement, he fumbled through the underbrush, sloppily cutting any branches that got in his way with his sword. Baldr was certainly looking down on him with disdain for using a holy weapon to abuse the local plant life, but there was a warm bed waiting for him at home, so some corners had to be (literally) cut. 

However, Sigurd had been paying so much attention to the light that he had almost completely disregarded the rough terrain beneath him. His breath hitched as the toe of his boot caught on a rough chunk of earth, his ankle twisting and crumpling under him as he fell forward. He hit the ground with a heavy thud, white clothes staining as he scrambled in the dirt, attempting to right himself. Tyrfing had fallen from his grip, landing somewhere close by. The lantern was gone, the sound of shattering glass telling Sigurd that it had broken when he fell, probably dashed up against a rock up ahead. The light inside flickered and died shortly after, leaving Sigurd alone with only the sound of his own breathing for comfort. He paused, taking stock of his condition. The pain in his leg throbbed again, reminding him that laying splayed on the ground was probably not the best way to finish out the night. 

The journey to standing upright was a long and painful one, and by the time he had untangled himself from the roots at his feet and felt his way over to a sturdy looking tree, Berkut’s light was almost upon him. Sigurd leaned up against his support and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and endlessly wishing that he could have brought his horse with him. Walking home like this was nearly unthinkable, especially in the dark. A soft orange glow shone through his eyelids. Perhaps Berkut would be willing and able to carry him at least part of the way. Though they might have to wait until morning…

“Why are you out here… I was sent to find you, but I’ve gotten myself in a bit of a state…” He mumbled, rubbing his closed eyes with two dirt-streaked fingers. 

Berkut made no response, but the glow shifted, planting itself firmly in front of his face. Opening his eyes a sliver, he grimaced and turned away from the near light, blinking away dust as he went. His reeling mind, still shaken from his fall, calmed in a moment of almost comical understanding as he sat, squinting away from the brightness at the edges of his vision. Far too bright to be coming from a mere candle. 

She hung there in front of him, a foot off the forest floor, dangling like a hanged corpse. Her hair, a blazing liquid, swirled around her face, reaching out to caress his cheeks as he shook against the tree, the skin on his hands tearing as he gripped the rough bark for support. Her face mirrored his own, gaping in horror with eyes blown wide and mouth open in a silent scream. She reached out, her infernal hand touching his cheek tenderly, meeting no resistance as Sigurd’s body began to lock down, still as a statue. 

The flare of pain where her fingers met his skin did nothing to break his paralyzed state, but the smell, oh the smell , one so familiar in it’s viscerality that he yelled, caused him to dodge to the side. His ankle twisted once again, bones grinding up against each other, nearly audible over the crackle of fire and the wind that wouldn’t stop singing. He began to crawl across the dead leaves, disregarding how the sticks and stones on the ground dug into his body as he went. Anything to get away from the girl, the fire, the smell

The warmth returned, a hand far too hot closing around his ruined ankle. He kicked out with his good leg, boot passing through the woman’s body before coming out the other side, the smell of melting leather the only indication he had connected with anything at all. He was crying now, he was sure of it, because he could hear the sound of someone sobbing nearby, and while the burning face before him looked distressed, he could see no tears dissolving upon it. He could hear himself blubbering, and the half of him that was deep, buried, and calm offhandedly thought about how pathetic he must look right now, begging for his life to a monster that he had approached willingly in his ignorance. 

The heat on his leg became too much to bear, the hand finally burning through his boot and brushing up against his injury. His consciousness swooped back as if pulled underwater, and when he drifted to alertness once more, he was on his side, gasping for air through the smoke coming off his body.

At least the first time had been rather quick.

The edges of the world began to spin and darken, spots of blue peeling across his vision as his head lolled, tears and snot and sweat turning the dirt beneath his face into specks of mud. In the blackness of the woods, he almost thought he saw a dark haired man, surrounded by billowing clouds of purple smoke. Sigurd reached out to him, almost recognizing him through the haze, shouting an incoherent name before the pain flared for a final time, and the black waters of incapacitation finally pulled him under. 

A sudden feeling of falling from a very high place made the knight jolt, twisting away from the danger, only to find the sticks and stones of the ground replaced by something much softer. The light was gone, as was the burning sensation, and he whipped his head around, eyes wide in the darkness as his voice caught in his throat. He swiped at his face with his sleeve, wiping away the tears, snot, and sweat that were quite real. He was in his bedroom in the castle. Beside him, a hand was gently grasping at his shirt, another on his back. He couldn’t understand what Dierdre was saying in his panicked haze, but he turned to her, gripping her tightly and burying his face in her mane of lilac hair. 

She shushed him as he sobbed openly, only releasing him after he’d stopped shaking with such a force that the bed frame rattled beneath him. She said something about getting a cup of water, leaving him to grasp at the bed sheets and take deep breaths. It had been a dream. A terrible dream, wrapped in a memory, dipped in fear. He looked around the room, grounding himself. Yes, there was Tyrfing, leaning up against the wall in its sheath. And there, on the table, his lantern sat, unbroken and unshattered where he had left it yesterday afternoon. It had been a nightmare. A terrifyingly real one, but nothing more than a dream. 

What was it that the clerics said calmed the nerves after stress? Water splashed on the face? He looked hazily around the room, towards the bathroom door, mentally charting a path to the sink. One foot off the bed, then the other. He gasped as he stood, knee buckling as Dierdre, on her way back to the bed, caught him before he could fall to the ground. She grunted as she hauled him back onto the bed with difficulty, cup of water clattering to the floor and soaking the carpet and stone below. Horrible sensation overwhelmed him for a moment as he lay back on the bed, pain overtaking his senses.

Pain from an ankle, twisted.