6 months after Unforgiven
“You’re staring, Mr. Greene.”
The words pulled Arkh back into the real world. He shook his head gently as he regained clarity over the moment. It had been a long journey here, and he’d gotten little sleep. Physical comfort was still a difficult thing for him to achieve, despite Albin’s creative measures (he called the device a “wheeled chair”), and a good night’s sleep had long since become a thing of the past for him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just kind of… overwhelmed.”
Near him, reclined on a small bed, with a blanket draped over her, laid Cyleena Dren, a small smile dancing across her lips. “It’s alright, Archie.” She nodded down with her head at the swaddle of blankets in her arm. “Did you want to hold her?”
Arkh felt his heart leap up into his throat, and suddenly had a hard time breathing evenly. “Yeah, I do,” he finally said, after a moment.
She was smaller and lighter than Arkh had expected, the mass of blankets making her seem heftier than she actually was. When he finally got her nestled into the crook of his arm, he peeled back one of the cloth coverings and looked at her face. So tiny, so fragile. “She’s beautiful.”
“Yep, she’s got her father’s trademark good looks, that’s for sure.” Jharva had leaned over Arkh’s shoulder, and was now gently poking at the little baby’s hands while he spoke.
Arkh let out a small laugh that he hoped desperately didn’t convey the hate he felt. Jharva Kelger, handsome orc functionary in the Imperial Court and heir to the Kelger fortune, had fallen for Cyleena shortly after her promotion to Imperial Advisor. Their courtship had been swift, and their whirlwind romance resulted in a quick but lovely marriage ceremony, and a beautiful baby girl—who was unusually healthy, considering how she was nearly a month premature. Jharva had attributed the stroke of luck to his strong genes. Arkh had no medical basis upon which to disagree with the orc.
Cyleena looked knowingly at Arkh, and agreed with her husband. “Yes, Jharva, she does.”
Arkh fought the smile that tugged at the corner of his lips, not wanting to let Cyleena see that he still loved her. “What’s her name?”
Jharva sniffed, and stood up straight as he answered. “Well, I wanted to give her a strong, orcish name, like Valla, or Thess, but, well…”
Cyleena picked up the sentence. “I insisted on using a family name.” She hesitated long enough for Arkh to meet her gaze. “Celeste.”
Three weeks later
“I’m sorry, Mr. Greene.”
The words, despite their source, were sincere. Lieutenant Cressida didn’t know Arkh that well (and, due to the nature of their relationship, likely never would), but she was a kind soul, and a good soldier. For whatever it was worth, Arkh knew that she understood his pain.
“Thank you, lieutenant. May I please get closer? I’d like to read it.”
The Imperial Guardswoman took a moment before giving her response. “You may. Take your time.”
“Thank you, lieutenant.”
Lieutenant Cressida, as well as her three sergeants, had been assigned to Arkh as “security detail,” for his time in Cinderfell. Ostensibly, they were there to act as his bodyguards and guides, as he was now officially an Imperial asset. In reality, they were there to make sure that no Blood Magic was used during his stay—with force, if necessary. Empress Valentine hadn’t wanted to take such strongarmed measures, but her Imperial Council weren’t backing down, and Arkh ultimately subjected to the detail. He figured he’d need someone to strap him into his saddle, anyway.
The hard rain had made reading from a distance difficult, and as his horse plodded forward through the mud, the simple, unadorned words on the headstone finally came into view.
An evil mage destroyed my life. I earned my name by ending his. I am remembered by the company I kept in my quest, who are honored among the Beastmen for their deeds.
Albin Graf, Demon slayer
Archibald Greene, Blood mage
Fritz Karhil, Curious thief
Goldenlocks Kittlebee, Bear warrior
Nameless, Skybound Beastwoman
Vengeance was sweet.
For a long moment, Arkh remained there, him and his horse standing a silent vigil for his lost friend. The hard rain and booming thunder of the North seemed as fitting a eulogy that the warrior could have asked for. Arkh was grateful for the rain, as it removed the need to dry his eyes, once he finally turned away.
Two years later
“Thank you, Mr. Greene.”
Arkh smiled at the young boy across from him. “Don’t fret over it, Shane. I knew what you were trying to say, but your word choice had me worried at a couple parts. I just wanted to make sure you were doing alright.” Shane smiled as he stood up, and pulled his pack over his shoulder. “Now you promise you’ll come talk to me if you start getting angry, okay?”
Shane nodded at his professor. “I promise. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“There’s a good lad. Go get some dinner.”
The boy didn’t have to be told twice, and had disappeared from the room before Arkh could blink. Arkh allowed himself a small smile as found the next blank page in Shane’s journal, and took notes on their session. The boy was doing well, despite being in one of the most problematic age ranges, and had already learned to control his anger and aggression much better than most of his peers. Arkh saw lots of potential in that boy.
The Academy itself was an exercise in finding that kind of potential. The original idea had come from Empress Valentine, who’d handed it over to Arkh and Rathiel, eldest son of Jarl Eagleface, and a powerful Blood mage like Arkh. The two of them saw the good they could do with it, and immediately started erecting a school in the borderlands of Kalahari, just under a mile east of Westwater’s city limits. Jarl’s strong presence in the city during the rebuilding of Westwater was a godsend in that time, and served to dramatically strengthen relations between the Academy and Cinderfell.
The Academy for Constructive Applications, as it was officially known (or the “Sanguine School,” as some liked to call it), was finished in just over a year. Westwater, Tuari, Koth, Cliffport, and even Trada had sent help in the form of supplies, workers, and educational materials, and the final result had been something much better and grander than either Arkh or Rathiel had even hoped for.
The pair quickly realized that there was more to do than they could handle between them, and had to start recruiting others from around Vulcanica to help. Teachers began to fill up the Academy’s faculty for virtually all of the classes that didn’t specifically involve Blood magic, while support staff filled up the logistics positions. Meanwhile, Rathiel took over most of the administrative duties, and Arkh handled a lot of the student counseling, but both of them still taught Blood magic classes on a regular basis. Arkh personally had a hard time staying out of the medical wing, where he was quickly gaining a reputation as an advisor and helpful pair of hands.
In the year since the Academy’s completion, Arkh had found a serenity that he hadn’t realized he was missing. The dark part of him had grown quiet, and he came to embrace the control him and Rathiel saught to empower their students with. For the first time in a while, he’d felt neither pain nor regret.
A knock on his door pulled Arkh from his gentle reflection. “Come in,” he announced, as he closed the journal and returned his quill to its holder. The door creaked open, and an armored woman stepped in. “Captain Cressida,” Arkh nodded as he began tidying up his desk. “Please, sit. How can I help you?”
Jenvive Cressida, loyal soldier of Cinderfell, and captain of the Imperial Guard detail assigned to monitor and aid the Academy, sat across from Arkh. Officially, her job was to make sure that the Academy recieved all the help it could from Cinderfell, and that no one in the Academy entered Cinderfell without express permission and a chaperone. In reality, however, her job was largely quite boring, and mostly involved her going to a lot of meetings with various Cinderfell officials to deliver even more boring status reports.
“Professor Greene,” Cressida began, clearing her throat. “It is my understanding that no classes will be held tomorrow, on account of the holiday?”
Arkh nodded. “That’s right.”
“Well,” she continued. “I was curious if… if you’d like to go into town with me, tonight?”
Arkh tilted his head. “Do you need my help with something?”
Cressida blushed as she shot a dry look at Arkh. “Professor, I’m asking you on a date.”
Arkh smiled as he felt blood rush to his face. “Oh,” he laughed. “I’m sorry, captain.” He paused for a moment. “Yes, I think I’d like that.”